Sistaining Democracy
Posted Nov 22, 2005

One of the most intriguing features of post-invasion and post-Saddam Iraq has been the emergence of Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as a major figure in the political arena. A scholar of immense repute, al-Sistani was known prior to the invasion for being a venerated senior member of the Hawza of Najaf, a thousand-year-old council of scholars, and for being decidedly apolitical. The eminence of al-Sistani is derived from his status as being a ‘scholar of scholars’ by virtue of his leadership position on the Hawza, which is attained not by any political campaigning but by virtue of one’s mastery and proficiency in the Islamic sciences, legal studies and ability to deduce independent legal judgments. The Hawza itself is composed of roughly a 1000 scholars, and the Hawza of Najaf in particular is held in the utmost regards because of it is long history, which can be traced back to the great 11th century.

But what is without doubt the most fascinating aspect of al-Sistani’s emergence as the most important political figure in Iraq, perhaps because of his very position beyond the political realm, is his own personal history. What school system produces a mullah who insists on the development of a democratic political process, and who is uncompromising in his insistence upon elections? What educational establishment produces a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence and legal theory who exercises such forbearance and patience, even during the occupation of his country by foreign forces? What college or seminary produces a man who can single-handedly prevent a country of over 25 million people, divided along longstanding ethnic, cultural and sectarian lines, from erupting into civil war? What institution fosters a religious leader who can diffuse a situation as volatile as that presented in August of last year when the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr confronted U.S. Marine Corps at the hallowed shrine of Imam Ali?

The answers are quite surprising. Although he was born in Iran, al-Sistani is a product of the madrassahs - schools, colleges - of Mashhad, Qom and Najaf. It has amazed me, as it has amazed so many Muslims, how much these very same schools have been dragged in the mud by U.S. media, particularly after the 9/11 attacks. The talking heads on every major news channel vied for the most sensational take on just how backward these venerable institutions were. What was most frustrating for anyone with even an iota of familiarity with the Arabic language and the Islamic tradition was how patently ignorant these Middle East or Islam ‘experts’ really were. Aside from the fact they persistently referred to them as the ‘madrassah schools’ meaning ‘school of schools’, the assessments put forth were seen exclusively through the shattered lens of the 9/11 attacks and as such often participated in a reverse projection of such a perception of Islam upon the entire 1400 year old Islamic tradition and history.

So the madrassahs were blamed for producing the radicals and fanatics, and the conclusion drawn was that these educational systems needed to be modernized or westernized.

What was ignored, of course, was the actual history of the madrassahs present throughout the Islamic world. These schools were founded and funded by endowments - often times from sultans or other political leaders - to provide free educations for those who would have otherwise been unable to acquire them. These endowments would pay for the construction of the school buildings, which were often adjacent to mosques and for the salaries of the teachers and scholars who would teach there. Many of the madrassahs also provided accommodations at no fee for the students.

Thus, a large segment of the population, which would otherwise have been illiterate and uneducated, was provided an education and often very prestigious educations at that. Many of the students from such schools would go on to study in universities to become doctors, lawyers, engineers or businessmen. Many would also go on to study Islam at the madrassahs corresponding to what we might conceive to be the university or college level.

What is also interesting is the strong sense of continuity and tradition the madrassahs represent. Many of them feature scholars who can trace their chain of knowledge, from student to teacher, back to the Prophet Muhammed himself or at least to one of the preeminent early scholars of Islam. In the case of the madrassah attended by al-Sistani in Najaf, that great scholar was Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. In sum, these institutions represent the classical, traditional and normative Islamic teachings as understood and interpreted by 1400 years of scholarship. And while they are so shamelessly vilified, and while people who don’t have the slightest clue about them speak so passionately about reforming them, it is worth noting whatever modicum of stability or progress is made in Iraq, it will be in large part due to a students of the madrassah system, al-Sistani.

It is also worth noting who didn’t attend madrassahs. Osama bin Laden attended Victoria College, a prestigious British school in Egypt that has educated the likes of King Hussein I of Jordan, actor Omar Sharif and the late professor Edward Said of Columbia University. Osama bin Laden’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, never attended a madrassah either, and in fact he received his degree in medicine from Cairo University. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi apparently wasn’t too keen on the whole education enterprise to begin with, as he dropped out of school at the ripe age of 17, and you guessed it, never attended a madrassah.

So of the three most prominent terrorist leaders today, there is not a single religious scholar among them. Suffice it to say their actions belie their lack of religious instruction and their distance from the very teachings in whose name they commit the most heinous atrocities.

Of late however, there have been disturbing attempts to manipulate the madrassah system for less-than-noble ends. Although they are too elaborate to expand upon in length here, they are important to mention nonetheless. The first is the influence of the United States upon the madrassah system in Afghanistan from the Cold War era. The United States actively sponsored and encouraged the most violent teachings from within Afghan society, in an effort to produce a militant generation to defeat the Soviet Union. According to some reports, part of this effort involved the publishing of schoolbooks teaching children to count using missiles and tanks.

The second insidious effort has come from an eighteenth-century pact between Ibn Saud (the first monarch and namesake of the modern Saudi state) and the puritanical reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab - with the former offering protection to the latter in return for his religious backing.

Together, these two developments have introduced a very alien militancy couched in religious terms and dressed up in Islamic trappings. At this point, I might have needed to elaborate on just how much this contradicts the normative scholarship in Islam. However, al-Zarqawi’s fatwas - legal rulings or religious decrees - which he is totally unqualified to produce in any case, indicating his opinion al-Sistani is an apostate, illustrate that contradistinction clearly enough.

If Iraq is to have any chance of achieving the stability and calm its people so desperately desire, it will need a Sunni counterpart to stand alongside al-Sistani to drain the credibility of al-Zarqawi, much in the way al-Sistani drained the credibility of al-Sadr by way of his superior scholarship. Though there have been conferences by the most eminent Sunni and Shiite scholars reaffirming their uncompromising stance towards extremism, such as the Amman Initiative this past summer, which attracted 170 of the most distinguished Islamic scholars from over 40 countries, the problem is far from rectified.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi recently called for both the leading legal scholar - Mufti - of Saudi Arabia, and the Sheikh of the Sunni world’s oldest university, Al-Azhar, to provide al-Sistani with the moral support he deserves by going to Najaf to make a definitive stand in his support. As much as it marks a break in convention, it is a call whose response may very well determine the fulfillment of Iraqi aspirations for a peaceful future.

Ibrahim Mansour is a Rutgers College sophomore majoring in political science. His column, Uberhim, runs alternate Fridays in The Daily Targum at