The Magazine

Who Speaks for Iraqi Shiites?

Not Iran's ayatollahs.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By NATHANIEL RABKIN
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"Shiites are mostly always loyal to Iran and not the countries where they live." So said Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in a televised interview in April 2006. In December 2004, Jordan's King Abdullah warned that a new, Shia-dominated Iraq would become part of a "Shiite crescent," extending from Iran to Lebanon, presumably under the firm grip of Iran's "supreme leader," Ali Khamenei. Many Western analysts shared these views, and commented that while America had liberated the country from Saddam's dictatorship, Tehran would prove the real power broker in the new Iraq. A minority of analysts (Reuel Marc Gerecht in these pages among them) rejected this view. They argued that an independent Shiite religious leadership would flourish in Iraq, and ultimately come to challenge Khamenei's power over Shiites across the region, even in Iran itself.

So far, the minority view is prevailing, as the leaders of Iraqi Shiism have asserted their independence from Iranian authority. The reemergence of Iraq's Shiite leadership comes as the Iranian regime, having dropped all but the thinnest pretense of democracy, now stands only on the religious claims of authority made by Ali Khamenei. And there are indications that many Iranians reject these claims.

The independence of the four great Shiite ayatollahs of Najaf--the city 100 miles south of Baghdad that is a holy site for Shia Islam--can be easily ascertained from their public statements. Each of these ayatollahs maintains an extensive website, usually in Arabic and Persian, although some maintain sites in English, Urdu, and other languages as well. (The content appearing in one language does not always appear in another. All quotations in this article come from the Arabic websites, unless otherwise noted.) Each website has an extensive question and answer section, dealing with all kinds of religious questions, including those with political implications. Each ayatollah, responding to his followers' questions in carefully couched and diplomatic language, rejects or casts severe doubts on the religious authority of Ali Khamenei.

The ayatollah most open about his rejection of Khamenei is Ishaq al-Fayadh, who writes at, in response to a question about the relationship between religion and politics, that no true Islamic government "exists today on any part of the earth." He adds that the policies pursued by the existing governments of the world "have no connection to religion." Elsewhere, he recommends elections as the best way of selecting good rulers.

On the website of Ayatollah Said al-Hakim (, readers pose a number of questions about Wilayat al-Faqih (literally, rule of the jurist). This is the doctrine, favored by Khomeini, according to which a Shiite religious scholar should exercise supreme political power, under the title of Wali al-Faqih. Hakim explains that the concept is "subject to disputes among scholars." One reader asks: "If I follow a religious authority who does not believe in Wilayat al-Faqih, must I still obey the Wali al-Faqih?" Hakim responds: "Wilayat al-Faqih is a technical issue, and, as in all technical issues, each individual should follow the fatwas of his own legitimate jurist." On Hakim's English website (, this ruling ends with the additional clause, "whether this jurist believes in the issue of Wilayat al-Faqih or does not." In Iran, denying the doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih can result in a jail sentence or worse.

Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafy accepts Wilayat al-Faqih, but has a different version of it than the Iranians. According to Najafy (, Khamenei can claim political authority only over territory he actually controls, and "his hand is extended only over Iran. .  .  . I don't think anyone believes that his dominion covers the entire earth." Asked explicitly whether he considers himself subordinate to Khamenei's religious authority, Ayatollah Najafy writes: "the rulings of one scholar cannot bind another."