Tuesday, November 08, 2005


A Glimpse of Sistani

No other person in my memory was held in so much regard by so many ordinary Iraqis or had so much non-coercive influence on them since the late President Nassir of Egypt. What is amazing is that, while Nassir had a way with words that inflamed the nationalistic feelings of people, this soft-spoken old man has said so little in public….

Over the past two years, he has had more influence over Iraqi politics than any other figure in Iraq. For a man who rarely left his own house, or said a single word to the mass media, this is quite phenomenal!

Who is Sistani?

His full name is Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini Sistani.

Grand Ayatollah is his religious title, the highest in the Shiite clergy hierarchy; Ayatollah roughly means: “A Sign of God”. Ali is his personal birth name. Husseini indicates that he is a Sayyed whose lineage goes back to Hussein, one of Imam Ali’s two sons. Sistani derives from the town in Iran, Sistan, where his family comes from.

I did not pay much attention to Ayatollah Ali Sistani during the Saddam years but I knew was that he had good standing among devout Shiite laymen and clerics. He certainly kept a low profile and rarely left his home/office. I'm told he never left his house for more than 8 years!

When Saddam started targeting the senior Shiite clergy, most notably the defiant and outspoken Sadr (Moqtada’s father) he spared Sistani. The rumor in vogue at the time was that the government was eliminating troublesome competition to the moderate Sistani, whom they probably felt that they could do business with. However, Sistani himself was reported to have been ‘detained’ for a while later.

During the early hazy months following the invasion, almost suddenly, everybody started talking about Sistani. In those early days, he made a very good impression of being a moderate. I must say that many of his declared positions after the invasion of Iraq were admirable: an unequivocal stand against looting and chaos, a clear stand against Sunni-Shiite sectarianism strife and a firm stand for democracy. What surprised me was that he managed to say very little, but what he said made sense.

Unlike the late Khomeini of Iran, Sistani almost never communicates with people in public and does most of his business through small meetings, through ‘representatives’ making announcements on his behalf or through ‘Fatwas’. [A fatwa is a ‘considered’, usually written, religious opinion.]

Some people sometimes wonder why Sistani did not make any of his announcements himself. The reason is obvious. The reaction to his heavy Iranian accent would be negative in both ‘Sunni’ and most ‘Shiite’ quarters alike.

Report of a visit to Ayatollah Ali Sistani

This is the most authentic first hand account of an audience with the Ayatollah that I know of. It gives a good glimpse of Sistani [From a private communication, in 2004]:


It was a small delegation representing [… a few ‘Sunni’ Arab and Kurdish tribes]. A few other “Shiite” friends came along for the honour of seeing His Holiness.

We were an hour and a half late for the appointment (the traffic jams were something I have never seen the like of). Nevertheless, his staff, his son (and later, he himself) went out of their way to make us feel welcome.

We sat on the floor of a sparsely furnished room (very much like the reception room of a not-very-poor peasant), were served tea, had a pleasant chat with his son, a very bright (and obviously very ambitious), courteous young man of around 30.

He came in a few minutes later, didn’t shake hands and squatted in that way only clergymen know how. We were introduced one by one, his eyes were alive and alert and very much like an earthly man, examining each closely!

Nazar K. spoke first saying that his eminence was talking for all Iraqis when he wanted elections. As sunnis we were fully with him on that. Then he responded.

He had a heavy (and I mean really heavy) Persian accent which he didn’t (and couldn’t) hide. He used classical Arabic, but the structure of his sentences was not perfect.

He talked a lot…a lot! His response for 30 seconds of courteous pleasantries was a 10 minute monologue! That was when I was shocked!

The man was a secular! I have never heard a clergyman saying the things that we lot take to represent our secularism!

In response to Nazar’s statement, he went on and on about sunni’s and shia saying that these were doctrines differing on how to interpret Islam and they were all decent and good-intentioned. They were definitely no reason for bloody strife. He talked about the ancient pillars of the sunni doctrine and praised them all in detail and said how he respected them as men of faith and as scholars. The difference between the shia and sunna, he believed, was far less significant than the danger facing the Iraqi nation at present.

Well, personally that put him on my right side!

Then Omar S. sounded his fear that through democracy the shia would dominate Iraq, and consequently the Kurds.

He said that he didn’t believe there was much danger of that happening. The shia were not a single political entity. Some are atheists, some are secular; even religious shia did not all follow the same leader.

He said that he firmly believed that the clergy should not interfere with the running of people’s lives, with government or with administration (Now how on earth could you be more secular!). He had forbidden his followers from putting their noses into the state’s affairs. He said that clearly and categorically (several times to stress the point!)

It was my turn and I said something like “As an Iraqi I am grateful for Your Eminence’s honourable stand on democracy and I think that the country is fortunate to have you in this position in this particular instant of history.” (Yes I did!! And I meant it!!!!!!!)

I then asked him why he had requested the UN to examine the possibility of conducting elections. (I was partly moved by some fear I still have that the panel of UN experts may “conclude” that it is too soon or too unstable to have elections at present. Then we really would have a major problem in our hands!)

He denied that flatly and said that he never did and that my information was probably based on media reports (which was true!). He said he did not feel obliged to accept the UN ruling on elections. He thought the Americans wanted the UN involved because they were having difficulties! He was set on calling for elections as the only possible way for Iraq to regain its sovereignty.

Some of the other things he said (This is a rather loose translation!):

“The most important thing at this time is unity. Division of the people is treason! Even silence, in these turbulent times, is evil!

“Give my regards to your tribes and to the sunna clergy and tell them that Sistani “kisses their hands” and begs them to unite with all Iraqis, Shia, Kurds, Christian, Turkmen. You just unite, and count on me to stand up to the Americans! The worst that could happen is that I die! That doesn’t worry me!”

He mentioned the late de Milo of the UN and said he was “a good man”

He mentioned “the one who was killed in Najaf” and said that he had “talked to him”, meaning “advised him”. I took that to refer to Al-Hakeem. This was the only disguised statement he made in more than an hour of talking.

He mentioned the “Arab Nation” so many times! He evidently viewed himself as an Arab. Being born Persian did not affect the fact that he was a Sayyed. He made that perfectly clear.

He does not believe in “Wilayat al Faqeeh” as the clergy in Iran do (as you know, this is the cornerstone of Khomeini’s doctrine). He repeatedly stressed that religion has to be separated from government!

He was extremely humble in his talk, his attire and his mannerisms.

He was much younger than I had thought; looked like early seventies but quite agile and healthy-looking.

He talked so softly, almost in whispers, that I had to really stress myself to hear what he was saying. (Being the insolent person that I am, at one time during the meeting I said I wasn’t hearing him well !!!!! There were only three people between us! There was some space on either side of him which people left out of respect…and he invited me to sit next to him which I did!)

He didn’t use any of the rhetoric clergymen usually wrap everything they say with. He was quite plain and direct. I found that really odd for a person in his position!

We were late for our appointment. We stayed there for about an hour and a half. Apparently someone else was waiting to see him. So, his son (who was apparently managing the old man’s schedule) was obviously beginning to sweat, but was too polite to say anything. We finally took the hint!

There you are! I felt that I should share this experience with you and I have tried to reflect as much as I could of it in its true spirit…wil Abbas (non-Iraqis, this is a shiite oath)!

I now believe that the American Administration could not have wished for a better person at the head of the shia clergy hierarchy. Let’s wait and see how they handle him!

Those words were written nearly two years ago. Since then, he has had so much influence on the political process in Iraq. Personally, I did have more than a change of mind concerning him… based on his major political positions. The gentleman bewilders me!

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