Sistani’s Fatwa trumped Bremer
Rajiv Chandrasekharan has a wonderful article in the Washington Post on the way Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s fatwa of June 28 stymied US civil administrator Paul Bremer. .
This was the substance of my remarks on Nightline on Monday night, as well.
Sistani insisted that drafters of a new Iraqi constitution be elected. Bremer wanted to appoint them. Bremer apparently thought right up through October that some way could be found to get around Sistani’s ruling. One idea he had was to have other, more pliant pro-US clerics come out with a competing ruling. Another was to send them to Sistani to try to convince him to change his mind.
Just so the CPA knows, here is how Shiite Islam of the Usuli school (which predominates in Iraq) works. Ideally, every Shiite should follow the most learned and the most upright jurisprudent in his rulings on how Islam is to be practiced. He rules only on subsidiary matters about which the laity might have some questions, not about fundamentals like the 5 daily prayers. Typically the most respected and most learned of the ayatollahs at Najaf is considered the marja` al-taqlid or “Object of Emulation.” Laypeople without a seminary training must obey his rulings implicitly. The laity also get some say about which Object of Emulation they want to follow (in this respect Shiism is less like Catholicism than like the Baptists, where congregations hire their preacher. But it is more like Catholicism in having a hierarchy.)
The system has become quite hierarchical. At the lowest level, a seminary graduate is a mujtahid or jurisprudent, able to derive the law from the sacred texts with the tools of juridical reasoning he learns at seminary. Muqtada al-Sadr is said to be on the verge of attaining this level. Mere mujtahids in theory really can only interpret the law for themselves. The next rank is Hujjatu’l-Islam or Proof of Islam. The next highest rank is Ayatollah. Then the really senior ayatollahs are Grand Ayatollahs.
Sistani is a Grand Ayatollah. Someone like Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, who serves on the Interim Governing Council, is much junior to him. He is just an ayatollah or maybe even a Hujjatu’l-Islam. Typically the clerics with large followings are Grand Ayatollahs, and they are Objects of Emulation.
Anyway, Bremer’s hope that he could have people like Bahr al-Ulum overrule Sistani would be like hoping a bishop could overrule the Pope. Even 5 bishops could not. And then Bremer’s hope that he could put pressure on Sistani to change his mind was also in vain. A jurisprudent is bound by his juridical reasoning as long as he doesn’t see new evidence or come up with a new argument. It would be seen as completely corrupt to change a ruling merely on pragmatic grounds, and at the behest of the Americans or of more junior jurists! A Grand Ayatollah gives, rather than taking, marching orders.