Iraqi Shiites Question In Op Ed In Nyt

Iraqi Shiites


>In an op-ed in NYT today Frank Smyth says the great majority of Iraqi

>Shi’is are Akhbaris, and hence do not follow the clerical leadership

>characteristic of the rival school, dominant in Iran, the Usulis.

>(Akhbaris believe in the ability of all believers to interpret the

>Traditions, akhbar, of the Imams, while Usulis say all believers must

>follow the rulings of a top mojtahed, now known as grand ayatollahs). Is

>this really true re Iraqi Shi’a?–I would like Juan Cole and others who

>know Iraqi Shi’ism to comment. In the op-ed it is used as an argument of

>why we should not be afraid that Iraqi Shi’is would be pro-Iranian.

[Cole replies:]

The major Shiite clerics of Iraq have been Usulis, adhering to the

jurisprudential school that says that ordinary Shiites should implicitly

obey their clerics and that clerics have wide lattitude in using reason to

derive the law. This is the same school as predominates in Iran.

My Shiite Iraqi contacts are all Usulis.

A few Akhbari works get published time to time in Iraq. This is the

school that is more literalist, gives a somewhat less exalted position to

the clerics, and adopts a “strict constructionist” approach to the law.

These publications make me think that some small Akhbari communities

survive. I think they are almost certainly a minority.

It has been alleged to me by Shaykhis of the Ihqaqi school in Kuwait that

large numbers of Iraqi Shiites have embraced the Shaykhi school in the

past two decades. (There has also been a strong Shaykhi movement in

Pakistan). Shaykhis are esotericists and are considered heretical by the

Khomeinists. It is impossible for me to gauge whether these claims about

a Shaykhi revival in Iraq are true.

So, I believe the allegation that Iraqi Shiites are largely or even

significantly Akhbari is simply a gross error.

What is true is that Iraqi Shiites are more rural and less clerically

oriented than Iranian ones, and clearly value their identity as Arab

nationalists. It is these considerations, rather than abstract school,

that are relevant to their attitude to Iran.

I suspect the writer has mixed up Iraq with Bahrain. A majority of

Bahraini Shiites are Akhbaris, and that sectarian difference did make them

less enthusiastic about Khomeini. My Bahraini friends, including clerics,

were flabbergasted at Khomeini’s 1988 decree that the Islamic state could

set aside essential legal prescriptions like pilgrimage for state


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