Members of the clergy and officials in Iraq were at pains the negate the western projection of the war on ISIS in sectarian terms
For years, reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has been the go-to person for millions of people as the leader of the Najaf-based Iraqi Shia Muslim religious establishment (Hawza). He has guided them on day-to-day and theological issues as a spiritual guide.
Sistani’s rare but authoritative interventions on issues such as democratization have helped positively shape Iraq after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. His 2014 fatwa urging resistance against ISIS brought him under the global spotlight.
The edict triggered the most spirited fightback ever against terrorism and played a key role in ISIS’s territorial decimation in 2019, making Sistani, 92, the most sought-after figure among visiting journalists.
Sistani, who is known for his modesty and frugal lifestyle, however, seldom appears in public or on TV and mostly issues messages through representatives. He remained unavailable despite all possible efforts for a meeting of our group of journalists covering the war on ISIS in 2016.
Sistani’s deputy, Grand Ayatollah Basheer Hussain Najafi, tried to make up for the unavailability by hosting us at his barely furnished small and modest office in a building of mud and wood in the narrow lanes of Iraq’s Najaf.
The meeting with Najifi came as a great relief for our delegation as he spoke to us in the language we understood—Urdu. Arabic-speaking Iraqi officials and clerics until then briefed us through translators or in broken English.
Najafi, a Pakistani born in the northern Indian city of Jalandhar before the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, spoke clearly, eloquently, and passionately about Iraq’s national unity against odds.
The theme of his address, like other members of the clergy in Iraq, was what they called the negation of the western projection of the anti-ISIS war in sectarian terms.
Najafi sat on the floor as he spoke to us in a corner of his office, which was just big enough to accommodate a small piece of furniture—a book rack. He wore a white turban and a flowing beard of the same colour and began by telling us how the Prophet Muhammad would get up when people visited him.
He thanked us for coming to Iraq and said we were serving our country. ‘You have two obligations,’ he said. ‘Look after the country you consider your own. Stick to the truth and point it out when politicians make mistakes. This is your loyalty to country,’ he told us as we gathered around him in the cramped and carpeted office.
Najafi said the Prophet emphasized the importance of patriotism. ‘Your country is your mother. The country nurtures you,’ Najifi added as he switched to politics. Some people, he said, without naming anyone, want to push Iraq back to dictator Saddam Hussein’s era. ‘They want to suppress the Shia [majority] by saying they are violating the rights of Sunnis…’
Najafi underlined terrorists were killing everybody and Iraq was unitedly fighting them. In the state of war, he repeated at least twice, a Sunni holds the key defence ministry. ‘The assembly speaker is also a Sunni. …cannot they [the Western media] see it… put out the real story of Iraq,’ he urged us as he raised his pitch.
‘We have smashed these terrorists; they violated women and killed children of Shias as well as Sunnis,’ Najafi said. ‘God forbid, God forbid, God forbid…they are lying that the Shia are oppressing Sunnis,’ he added. Najafi quickly emphasized: ‘We are not saying we have done them [Sunnis] a favour; they are ours we are theirs. ‘… [lies are] being spread to make Shia fight the Sunni. Both Sunnis and Shia have been displaced. Sunni women have been violated in front of their families.’
Najifi said the Iraqi army did not have enough strength to take on ISIS as it was made a voluntary force after Saddam’s fall and they had to enlist volunteers to fight the terrorist group. ‘We did not force anyone [and] both the Sunni and Shia enlisted to save their country.’
Najafi said Sistani’s fatwa for resistance against ISIS was a call for defensive jihad to defend Iraq, its people, their honour, and sacred places when the Sunni-dominated areas mostly faced the brunt of the terrorist violence.
The Shias believe only the infallible Imam of the time—the Mahdi—can call the offensive jihad. The Mahdi is believed to have disappeared in AD 874 to return at the end of time. In Mahdi’s absence, a call for a defensive jihad can be made only when the community or its sacred places are under attack.
The Shia calls for jihad in Iraq over the last century have been mostly defensive. They include Sayyid Kadhim Al-Yazdi’s call for resistance to the 1914 British invasion and to defend Iraq along with the Ottoman Empire.
Sistani’s jihad call asked the volunteers to enlist to fill the deficit in the Iraqi forces while underlining their ‘number should not need to exceed the sufficient force that can accomplish the objective of protecting Iraq, its people, and sacred places.’
After explaining the nuances of the call for defensive jihad, Najafi began wagging his finger when he referred to Wahabism or Salafism, the official creed of neighbouring Saudi Arabia. He did not name Saudi Arabia but said Wahabism is based on ‘the animosity with the prophet’s family’, the devotion to whom is central to Shiism.
‘…they are friends of Israel and trying to [also] destroy Syria… big governments which want to control smaller ones are behind ISIS. They used [Osama] bin Laden and then killed him. Satanic things are being spread,’ he said, essentially blaming the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel for terrorism in Iraq.
Najafi responded to a question about the common perception that the Shia are disrespectful to three out of the Prophet’s four successors, saying they just do Tabarra. He said Tabarra simply means disassociation.
The Shia-Sunni tensions have often flared up over the alleged disrespect as the Shias consider the fourth caliph Ali, who lies buried in Najaf, as the Prophet’s only rightful successor. The Shias believe only the Prophet’s direct descendants could be his successors.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide