Al-Sadr’s dilemma as cleric urges his followers to turn to Iran

Al-Sadr’s dilemma as cleric urges his followers to turn to Iran

Al-Sadr’s dilemma as cleric urges his followers to turn to Iran
Muqtada Al-Sadr on a billboard in Baghdad’s Sadr City district, a stronghold of his movement, June 21, 2021. (Reuters)
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In Iraq, the Sadrist movement led by Muqtada Al-Sadr has long followed the religious edicts of cleric Kazem Al-Haeri, doing so upon the instructions of the leader’s late father, Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr, who before his death told his loyalists to follow Al-Haeri or another cleric named Mohammed Al-Fayadh.

Al-Haeri was the first cleric to designate Muqtada Al-Sadr as a Hujjat Al-Islam, a title given to mid-ranking Shiite clerics who have not reached the level of performing ijtihad, an Islamic legal term referring to the independent issuing of rulings. He was also one of the clerics who blessed Al-Sadr’s formation of the Mahdi Army following the US invasion of Iraq.

He is of Iraqi descent but holds Iranian citizenship. He lives in Qom and is a staunch supporter of the Iranian regime’s fundamentalist Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) doctrine. He has a track record of issuing fatwas that have stoked extremism and violence. His book “Dalil Al-Mujahid” is widely viewed as being among the most dangerous and incendiary works of recent years, given its support for violence, terrorism, robbing banks and killing civilians.

Al-Haeri last week announced he would be stepping down as a marja (religious authority), citing poor health. His resignation statement contained several highly significant points. Primary among these was his point that he had studied at the feet of Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr, a cousin of Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr and father-in-law of Muqtada. This was a reference designed to underline his unique qualifications and was a clear move to delegitimize any efforts by others to claim the right to speak in the name of the Al-Sadr family.

In the same statement, Al-Haeri urged his followers to transfer their loyalties to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and submit completely to his absolute religious authority. This call implied that the Sadrist movement, led by Muqtada Al-Sadr, should fall under the religious authority of Iran’s supreme leader.

As if this was not enough, Al-Haeri also took careful aim at the Hawza Najaf religious seminary and at Al-Sadr himself. He argued that Al-Sadr simply being related to his father and father-in-law was not enough to confer leadership, especially as he lacked the qualification to perform ijtihad. This was an obvious jab at Al-Sadr, who quickly addressed the accusation and announced his own retirement from politics. “I have never claimed to be infallible, a mujtahid, or a leader,” he said. Al-Sadr even suggested that Al-Haeri was not stepping down as a marja voluntarily, implying that Iran had exerted pressure on him.

Al-Sadr then went on to try to downplay Al-Haeri’s abandonment of his role as a marja, saying: “Najaf is the largest center of marjaia.” This suggested that Al-Haeri’s resignation would not be particularly significant for Shiite or Sadrist communities. Through this comment, Al-Sadr was trying to fortify his own position by turning to Najaf for legitimacy and protection from what he views as an attempt to religiously delegitimize him. It was also a message to the Sadrists that Khamenei should not be accepted as the alternative to Al-Haeri and that Najaf is the only genuine, legitimate alternative.

Al-Haeri’s statement was an expression of the Iranian regime’s willingness to put pressure on Al-Sadr to help its allies in the Coordination Framework. This is an umbrella bloc of Tehran-affiliated Iraqi Shiite parties in the Iraqi Parliament, which are united mostly by their opposition to the Sadrist movement. They are attempting to cut him out of the political equation, particularly after a recent meeting — reportedly “cool and unfriendly” — with Esmail Ghaani, chief of the Iranian Quds Force, in Najaf.

The Iranian regime seems to have decided to escalate its disagreement with Al-Sadr, giving it a more religious and sectarian dimension, through calling into question his legitimacy and stripping him of one of the most important religious tools on which he depends. Having decided on this course of action, Iran has, therefore, forced Al-Haeri to distance himself from Al-Sadr and to disavow his actions.

Some observers have argued that Al-Haeri’s statement serves as a fatwa sanctioning the assassination of Al-Sadr. It could be that Al-Sadr obliquely alluded to this possibility in his statement about his political retirement, when he said: “If I die or get killed, I call upon you to recite The Opening and pray for me.”

While Al-Haeri’s resignation has implications other than the dilemma it has caused for the Sadrist movement, it will ultimately trigger a crisis regarding the marjaia leadership succession arrangements in Najaf, explaining why a reference to the Iraqi city was included in the statement.

Al-Haeri’s hibernation is expected to continue, unlike Al-Sadr’s. The latter appears to have absorbed the shock of this latest upheaval and is now reshuffling his cards, reconsidering his calculations and seeking a new foundation of religious legitimacy on which to base his political project. Perhaps Najaf itself is this marjaia, represented by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani or Al-Fayadh, especially since Al-Sadr stated that Najaf is the mother and largest marjaia in the Shiite world. Any such scenario would result in a Sadrist-Najaf alliance opposite an alliance of Iranian militias, with Al-Sadr eventually abandoning his loyalty to a pro-Tehran marja. Al-Sadr’s spokesman has already hinted at this possibility, indicating that he had remained committed to his father’s will until Al-Haeri’s resignation.

A question remains, however, about whether Najaf will be able to bear the consequences of the Sadrist movement uniting under its religious legitimacy, especially given the long-standing disagreements between the Sadrists and Al-Sistani’s Najaf. Perhaps they could seek mutual support to resist Iran’s influence. It is possible that the issue might require the intervention of mediators with a similar wariness toward Tehran to bring the two sides’ viewpoints closer together and strengthen their alliance.

In a nutshell, there are several potential scenarios. One of these could see Al-Sadr turning to Najaf to follow the cleric Al-Fayadh, thereby ridding himself of the Iranian burden, as well as his commitment to his father’s will. He could also take a hiatus and return to political life after reshuffling his cards. Al-Sadr could return quickly as he did before, or possibly even announce plans to perform ijtihad and become a religious authority in the future, hence ridding himself of the need for affiliation with a religious authority, given the possible consequences of such affiliations.

Al-Haeri’s statement was an expression of the Iranian regime’s willingness to put pressure on Al-Sadr to help its Iraqi allies.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

There is another possibility that sees Iran getting rid of Al-Sadr, thereby depriving the Sadrist movement of its firebrand and charismatic leader. There is no genuine alternative within the Sadrist movement due to the long-held tradition of Shiite leaderships being mainly established on the grounds of familial, communal and religious credentials.

Finally, Najaf could reinstate the Friday sermon in order to salvage the small remaining amount of Iraqi unity or, at the very least, embarrass the violent pro-Velayat-e Faqih factions. However, influential Hawza figures are wary of becoming embroiled in this dispute. Abdul Mahdi Al-Karbalai stated weeks ago that the suspension of Friday sermons was due to “no-one obeying the marjaia’s orders.”

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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