Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sayyed Loud, He's Mook and He's Proud

A recent story in Newsweek highlights the important role that Moqtada al-Sadr is playing in the recent reduction of violence (by ordering his militia to stand down), and the extent to which US military officials are earnestly pursuing the detente - a story first discussed on this site here:

U.S. commanders are engaged in talks with the Shiite militants for the first time since 2003. In public statements the Americans are careful to distinguish between the "special groups" trained and funded by Iran—who are accused of the bulk of Shiite attacks on U.S. forces—and the Sadrist mainstream. "We thought that it would be important that we respect [Sadr's] decision to, fairly courageously, declare the ceasefire," Petraeus said in a recent interview with NEWSWEEK. In some Baghdad neighborhoods, the Americans are even paying Mahdi fighters to help keep the peace. Officially, the Sadrists deny any dialogue with Americans; a senior cleric says talks are a "red line" the movement wouldn't cross. But Petraeus says he is in regular contact with a "senior Sadr political official." Some of his ground commanders exchange text messages with counterparts in the Mahdi Army.

Petraeus recently started using the honorific "seyed" when referring to Sadr and has asked U.S. officers to do the same. [ed: "seyed," "sayyid" or "seyyid" is used to address those whose families can trace a direct lineage to the Prophet Mohammed] [emphasis added]
Petraues is right to put a premium on maintaining good relations, and recent whispers that Sadr might lift the Mahdi Army cease fire should give all involved a cause for concern. Most likely, however, Sadr is warning the US and its Shiite allies in the Iraqi government (such as ISCI) to tamp down aggressive actions against his cadres. There is only so much Moqtada will take, and he has been adept at using threats such as these in the past in order to secure his position. Pushing him too far could have dire consequences.

Interestingly, the article also repeats a story that has popped up in several places over the past couple of months: that Sadr is re-dedicating himself to his theological studies in an effort to attain the rank of ayatollah.

Senior clerics close to Sadr, who did not want to be named speaking about their boss, confirm that he himself is studying to ascend to the rank of ayatollah, using books, CDs and even texts on the Internet. Sadr, these aides say, is particularly focused on the teachings of Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, an Iraqi-born cleric who now heads the judiciary in neighboring Iran, as well as Ayatollah Ishaq Fayadh, one of the four top clerics in Najaf.
As Matt Duss and Juan Cole point out, however, this is easier said than done. According to Duss:

Contrary to reports like this one, Muqtada can't really "study to become an ayatollah," at least not in the way the story frames it. He can study to become a mujtahid, which means he is authorized to practice ijtihad, rational examination of the scriptures (coming from the same root as jihad, or struggle, in the sense that ijtihad is an intellectual struggle, the exertion of scholarly effort) and issue decisions, or fatwas, in response to questions posed by adherents.

One achieves the rank of mujtahid through a fairly formalized course of study. To reach the rank of ayatollah, however, requires, in addition, a significant body of published scholarly work, a substantial following who recognize him as a marja al-taqlid ("source of emulation," a guide to correct Islamic practice), and, importantly, recognition and acclaim by other mujtahids, students, and clerics. The title of ayatollah is bestowed on those who have exhibited special insight into scriptures, excellent facility with the Arabic language in its most complex grammar, and superior juristical chops, qualities that Muqtada, by all accounts, does not possess. (Sadly for noted video game enthusiast Muqtada, lighting up the scoreboard in FIFA 06 is not presently one of the categories in which aspirants to the rank of ayatollah are judged, but times do change ...) Even if he is recognized as a mujtahid (as is probable, given that, as Juan Cole notes, many of his instructors were followers of Sadr's father, and also: Do you really want to fail a dude who has his own militia?) I think it's rather unlikely that he will be recognized as an ayatollah, and certainly not any time soon.
Both Duss and Cole acknowledge, though, that Sadr might be able to take a form of short cut by capitalizing on political appeal to attain greater religious adulation and, thus, perceived authority than might be earned adhering strictly to the religious hierarchical track. Even without the attainment of that exalted title per se, Sadr's improved religious stature (as a mujtahid) as well as his political clout would make him ayatollah-esque. Duss again:

But what's really interesting and significant about Sadr is how little this matters. Because of the political power he currently holds in Iraq, and the size and depth of commitment of his movement, Sadr already wields influence to rival an ayatollah's. Up until now, he's had to rely on the fatwas of senior clerics for his formal religious legitimacy. Once he achieves the rank of marja, and is able to issue his own fatwas rather than relying on the credentials of sometimes uncooperative allies, his political power will more than suffice for the influence that would come were he recognized as an ayatollah.
Contrary to the recurring conservative meme as wishful thinking, Moqtada al-Sadr's stature, power and influence are only growing. Sayyed again.

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