By Track Persia
September 30, 2021
On 3 September, Iraq witnessed the passing of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Saeed al-Hakim who died aged 85 in Iraq’s Shiite holy city of Najaf. Hakim was one of the top four Shiite clerics who were part of the Shiite religious authority in Najaf which is commonly known as the marja’iyya.
Hakim was the only Arab marja (singular of maraji: high religious authority cleric with following). Currently, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, an Iranian-born, is the head of this institution which also includes Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Fayadh, an Afghani, and Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, a Pakistani.
Hakim’s father, Muhammad Ali Al-Hakim, was also an ayatollah who was, in turn, a descendant of Grand Ayatollah Muhsin Al-Hakim (died in 1970) who once was the head of the Marjaiya in Najaf. Hakim was known among scholars in Najaf for being active and for his abundant literature on Islamic law and Shiite fiqh ((jurisprudence).
Hakim was considered the second most senior marja after Sistani. He also enjoyed a considerable influence within the seminary and among the Shiites of Iraq—and beyond—due to his lineage and reputation as well as the activities of his religious, cultural and charitable institutions. Therefore, he was considered as the most prominent candidate to succeed Sistani. Having said that, after the demise of Hakim, there is an indication that the leadership of the Shiite religious authority in Najaf could in the coming years return to the Hakim family after a five-decade hiatus.
Nonetheless, a few questions are being raised: who will take the place of Hakim, who will be heading of the Shiite authority in Najaf after the 91-year-old Sistani dies, and most importantly, how will the regime in Iran influence the succession of Sistani?
It is worth noting that ascending to the marja’iyya is not hereditary. Nonetheless, there are a few candidates in Najaf eligible to succeed Hakim, including many members of the al-Hakim family. Having said that, the most prominent candidate among the Hakim family is Hakim’s son, Riadh Muhammad Saeed al-Hakim. Although it is difficult for a son of a demise marja to succeed his father, sometimes this custom can be broken. This makes the question of who will succeed Sistani very important.
Before addressing this question, the process of succession the most senior marja needs to be addressed first given it is a more complex matter. It is not usually a straightforward process, especially, it is known that the marja’iyya in Najaf is, unlike its counterpart in Iran’s Qom, is independent of the state and non-institutionalised.
The naming of the most senior grand ayatollah in Najaf usually takes some time, perhaps several years, particularly regarding the matter of qualifying a marja to become the supreme religious authority, this could even take several years.
There are indications that after the death of Sistani, Najaf will witness a long vacuum in the marja’iyya leadership because selecting new the top marja is dependent on many factors. While in Qom the succession process is much more straightforward because the Iranian state involves in all religious affairs including religious succession. Having said that, there has been long-running competition between the Shiite religious authorities of Iraq’s Najaf and Iran’s Qom over leadership that can control the majority Shia in the Muslim world.
It is worth mentioning that most maraja in Iraq, including those constitute the pillar of the highest Shiite religious authority in Najaf, the marja’iyya, do not advocate the Shiite doctrine of wilayat al-faqih (the rule of cleric) which is reflected in theocratic rule in Iran. This doctrine was re-invented by Iran’s late Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and it has been applied as the form of governance in Iran since the foundation of the Islamic Republic in 1979 after the success of the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah.
A few years before his death, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the former head of the Iranian Judiciary and chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council had been groomed by the Iranian regime to succeed Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Shahroudi described the Shi’i concept of wilayat al-faqih as “part of the infallible Shi’i imams’ wilayat. His critics accuse him of committing violations against human rights and issuing unjust rulings against Iranians when he was in the judiciary including the closure of dozens of newspapers, massive arrests of journalists, students and political activists and the executions of underage prisoners.
Additionally, Shahroudi was also looking for the prospect of becoming the most senior cleric for the Shia in the world. His strong link to Iraq’s most powerful political Shi’i factions encouraged him to promote himself to succeed even Sistani, who has the highest number of Shiite followers in the world.
Shahroudi worked hard to promote himself for the marja’iyya by launching his official office in Najaf, a step viewed by many as an attempt to lure away Sistan’s followers. The public agenda of his visit to Iraq was aimed to unify Iraq’s Shi’i factions ahead of the 2018 elections, especially because he had been once a senior leader of Iraq’s Islamic Da’wa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq when members of these parties had been in Iran during the 1980s.
The visit of Shahroudi, however, did not appear to be successful as he found himself snubbed by most conservative Najaf-based clerics. The four most senior Najaf-based maraji, including Sistani, refused to meet him. This indicates that the Iranian agenda’s of imposing wilayat al-faqih in Iraq, i.e. replacing the traditionalist marja’iyya in Najaf with the radical revolutionary one which is reflected in the concept of wilayat al-faqih will unlikely to be successful. Shahroudi died a few years later of serious health issues which he had been suffering for long years.
The bottom line, the theocratic regime is not expected to stop looking for installing an ally marja to succeed Sistani that believes in the rule of a cleric. Having said that, according to the norms, the successor of Sistani is expected to be a senior Najaf-based marja from within the conservative Najaf school which Sistani and the other senior maraji in Najaf follow. Currently, there are several traditionalist Najaf-based maraji who have more potential than any candidate aligned with Tehran or Qom-based.