When Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was a young seminary student during the country's Baathist era, he preferred playing video games to attending theological courses. Now several years and a U.S. occupation later, that same Sadr is a major Iraqi political figure, studying to become an ayatollah at Shiite Islam's most prominent religious center of Qom, Iran. Sadr reportedly resides in Tehran and travels weekly to the Iranian shrine-city to study major works of Shiite jurisprudence under an unknown but certainly high-ranking cleric. He will exit his studies as a mujtahid, or learned scholar, with the recognized ability to issue religious decrees.
Behind this remarkable transformation -- from disinterested student to occupation-opposing cleric to serious scholar -- are big ambitions. And if all goes according to plan, Sadr will have a golden opportunity to return and take Iraq's political stage by storm.
Our story begins in the summer 2007, when Sadr first dabbled in getting the extra credentials. The idea came after an outbreak of violence between Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, another armed Shiite group, in Karbala. Soon afterward, Iraqi police intervened and Sadr called a cease-fire, suspending his militia's activity. He went underground for security reasons. Soon thereafter, he left for Iran.
Calling for calm and heading for Qom were calculated moves; both assured his Shiite partners that he was willing to restructure his forces for the sake of Shiite unity -- at a time when U.S. (or Israeli) forces seemed poised to consider military conflict with Iran. The cease-fire was welcomed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest ranking Shiite scholar in Iraq, who had earlier met with Sadr to try and calm Mahdi Amy splinter groups. Tehran, too, had an interest in containing Sadr's movement. The cleric's move to Iran allowed Iranian hard-liners to monitor him even while encouraging Sadr to become an ayatollah -- through religious circles with close ties to Tehran.
Interview: Mehdi Khalaji
What it was like trying to become an ayatollah in Qom.
By Elizabeth Dickinson
Shiite politics are complex, and it will take time for Sadr to become an ayatollah. Here's how he might complete his studies, and what it might mean when he returns home.
Becoming an ayatollah (literary "Sign of Allah") requires three cycles (halaqat) of scholarly training. The seminary student aims to reach the "age of responsibility," (qabl bulughi sin at-taklif), an intellectual-moral stage after which he is qualified to be an independent judge. Such a state of scholarly adulthood implies the ability to form opinion (rayi) on both spiritual and practical matters. There is no formal hierarchy among Shiite clerics, so graduate "degrees" come in the form of a letter, signed and stamped, acknowledging the mujtahid's permission (ijaza) to practice scholarly judgment (ijtihad). The letter affirms his maturity and integrity as a recognized scholar.