mirror imams




Beirut, 31 August 2004


So after a three-week fierce fight in Najaf, the whole mini-war ended without any climax: not only was there no final decisive battle, one in which, according to classical military strategy, one of the two parties would have surrendered, declared defeat, and accepted his foe’s terms and conditions, but, more importantly, as it turned out, it was all about shuffling one imam for another. Grand Ayatollah Sistani is an old imam in his late seventies, who in the three weeks when his city was embattled, miraculously suffered from a heart malaise and had to be rescued in London. He comes from a line of imams who believe in the separation between the temporal and religious. If we include politics as part of the temporal world, then such a doctrine would limit the imam to his religious duties only, namely functions that primarily deal with legal matters (the fiqh), not to mention purely religious and moral issues, which are de facto within the fiqh’s realm. Sistani’s opponent and foe, Muqtada al-Sadr, comes from a line of prestigious imams, the last of which was his uncle Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, who was presumably executed by the Saddam régime in 1980. Muqtada himself, the only one of the Sadrs to have escaped the brutish Baathist rule, must despite his age (allegedly no more than thirty), consider himself as an imam. But his vision of the imamate is at the other end of Sistani’s and closer to the one propounded by the likes of Khomeini during the Iranian revolution in 1978/9: the governance of the jurist (wilayat al-faqih) includes temporal matters as well, primarily politics. To be sure, such battling views of the imamate are nothing new, and they’re as old as Islam itself. They in effect began as soon as the caliphate/imamate was looked upon as illegitimate in the eyes of some of the beholders. Thus, even though to many believers within the newly established Islamic umma, ‘Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the prophet, should have been the prime choice for the caliphate, the majority of the umma nevertheless accepted willy-nilly the caliphates of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. The ascension of ‘Uthman to the caliphate upon ‘Umar’s assassination, created further drifts, and even more rival doctrines on the origins and functions of the caliphate/imamate: What to do when the caliph is looked upon as illegitimate? Can a community morally save itself in the presence of a caliph that is illegitimate? Should that community choose to elect its own caliph/imam? Rival theories emerged over the centuries, out of which Sistani’s and Sadr’s are only remnants of a long past that still haunts the present.


The main problem in Islamic political thought, however, are not the rival theories regarding the caliphate/imamate per se, but the fact that political doctrine, up to the middle ages and later, did not progress beyond that dubious notion of the imam’s persona. In effect, since the early middle ages, what would qualify as an Islamic “political” literature was no more than an admonition genre, one that provided advice to the caliph/imam on how to rule, what to avoid, and how to treat his enemies and friends. Such a mirror-of-princes literature therefore came short of elaborating a theory of political institutions, one that would have for instance nailed down the relationship between state and society, or that would have posed issues of sovereignty regarding society and its individual subjects. It would have also posed the limits of political power, and how to establish mechanisms for a legitimate rule of law. As there has been little conceptual progress in Islamic political doctrine over the centuries, and as the imam’s persona remained the center of all debates, Mesopotamia and the Levant were exposed to modern political thought only after the demise of the Ottomans, while Egypt went earlier in that direction thanks to the sudden break created by the French occupation (1798-1801).


Both Sistani and Sadr are mirror imams to ‘Ali, whom the Shiis veneer as their first imam, and whose tomb-cum-shrine was at the center stage of Najaf’s fiercest fights. ‘Ali was assassinated in Kufa in 661 by a Kharijite, amid a dispute between the ‘Alids and the rising clan of the Umayyads over the nature of the caliphate. To the Kharijites, who believed in an imamate based only on merit—and not on inheritance or kin—they thought that ‘Ali had betrayed his mission and compromised with the Umayyads. But even though ‘Ali died in Kufa, whom he had made as the new capital of the caliphate and the center of Shiism a decade prior to his assassination, he was presumably buried in a secret location in Najaf, only three miles west of Kufa. The ascension of Najaf from a notoriously hidden location to another major Shii city is undeniably related to the expansion of imam ‘Ali’s shrine. It is usually admitted that it was the ‘Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid who inaugurated the monument celebrating ‘Ali, which kept growing in size and received major improvements over the centuries, which eventually led to the 15,000 square-meter behemoth that we’re familiar with today.


In the major devastation that the city had witnessed in August, the imam ‘Ali shrine proved to be the safest building, and were it not the Shiis holiest site (referred to as the sahn haydari), the Najaf uprising, had it occurred at all, would have surely not dragged that long. The shrine remained therefore almost intact, while much of the city, its houses, shops, industries and manufactures, not to mention its infrastructure, have been severely damaged. To put it differently, the space that celebrates a dead person, and the Shiites prime imam, has managed to survive the devastation inflicted upon living individuals and their properties: “le mort saisit le vif,” would have noted Marx with irony—dead capital eating the bodies and minds of live individuals and their belongings. Moreover, since both Sistani and Sadr are mirrors to the big deceased imam, their strategy has all along been one of holding access to the shrine’s compound, even though they’ve pursuing their goals differently. Thus, while Sistani, capitalizing on a well rooted line of followers in Najaf, has adopted for a peaceful strategy, one that restricts his role to the religious only, his foe by contrast opted for a violent “uprising,” which was more a hijacking of the holy shrine and its charismatic imam than anything with a deeply rooted and revolted clientèle. Consequently, the American role, after a major ordeal inflicted upon the city, has been restricted to that of giving back the shrine—and hence the city—to its peaceful Grand Ayatollah, which must have been an anticlimactic dénouement for those hard fighting marines. But the lack of a climactic ending notwithstanding, those marines must have felt themselves in a similar position to their counterparts in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket: having been defeated all along by hidden and deadly snipers, the marines, once in control of the situation, realized to their dismay that the sniper that was killing them one by one all along was nothing but a young Vietcong woman, now finally deeply wounded, in the final scene of the film, and we see her begging the marines to shoot her, so that she won’t die gradually suffering from her wounds.


The marines and their commanders must have felt betrayed for another reason: their protégé the prime minister Iyyad ‘Allawi got nothing from that ordeal, and for now at least Sistani has not only robbed any initiative form Sadr, but from ‘Allawi as well. Surely, the American aim to reconstruct a secular and democratic government in Iraq must be gradually vanishing, as the traditional power relations, religious or otherwise, are resuming their role in the public sphere. A rule-of-law state should be problematic in a society where people admire their imams and shamans, and where authoritarian Baathist, pan-Arab, jihadic, and tribal figures receive all the awe and respect they look for; and where labor, production, efficiency and capitalism prove to be secondary matters: lasciate ogni speranza, give up any hope, reads one of the inscriptions above the gate to Dante’s Inferno.






copyright © 2004 zouhair ghazzal