Sistani was already known to Shia Muslims worldwide as the somewhat reticent leader of the religious establishment in Najaf. The fall of the Ba’ath regime thrust him on to the national and international stage, writes Hayder al-Khoei, an Associate Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Despite his strong influence on Iraqi politics, Sistani, now 84, gets involved only in exceptional circumstances on strategic issues – such as the need to hold a general election during the early stages of the Iraq occupation and the need for an elected assembly to draft Iraq’s first permanent constitution.
More recently, he has called for Iraqis to mobilize and join the armed forces in their fight against the jihadists of Islamic State and he has moved to block former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki from clinging to power for a third term. Sistani’s influence in Iraq is the result of a decades-long process that saw him rise up the ranks of the religious hierarchy in Najaf, which alongside Qum in Iran constitute two of the most important centres of Shia scholarship.
The school of thought that prevails in Iraq is often referred to as the ‘quietist’ school in Shia Islam. Scholars debate whether Sistani is actually quietist given his powerful interventions in politics. There is no consensus on what quietism actually means, but it is radically different to the Iranian model of theocracy. In Iraq, Sistani has explicitly called for a civil state and not a religious state……