Dispatch

The Rise of Ayatollah Moqtada al-Sadr

What is the fiery Iraqi cleric doing in Qom, Iran?

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.

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.

All this takes a minimum of 15 to 20 years, with each of the three cycles lasting nearly seven years. The first phase, the introduction (al-muqaddimat,) includes a study of rhetoric and logic. The second cycle, known as the externals (as-Sutuh), involves the study of major scholarly texts on Shiite jurisprudence and theology. The third stage of final discussion (dars al-Kharij) usually requires attending public lectures conducted under the supervision of a high-ranking scholar. The talks focus on specific themes within the vast array of theological discourses. It is at this final stage when the intellectual maturity of a student is recognized by his peers and instructor. During the weekly sessions, usually three to four hours a week, an outstanding student will be noticed for his scholarly abilities and declared a mujtahid.

Apparently, Sadr is somewhere at this final cycle of studies, attending tutorials (rather than lectures) under a high-ranking cleric, most likely an Arabic-speaking grand ayatollah with close ties to Tehran.

The status of mujtahid, however, does not automatically entitle a Shiite scholar to become an ayatollah. First, the student will take on the post-graduate status of hujjatul-Islam, or defender of Islam. The boundary that separates a mid-ranking hujjatul-Islam from the higher-ranking ayatollah is usually a thin one, and changing circumstances or political situations can permit a junior mujtahid to rise in the ranks. In the early 1960s, for example, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was detained for his political activities by the shah, so Grand-Ayatollah Hossein Borujerdi, a traditional conservative cleric, granted Khomeini ayatollah status as a way to speed up his release. After the death of Khomeini in 1989, hujjatul-Islam Ali Khamenei succeeded his mentor and immediately became an ayatollah with the approval of a number of high-ranking clerics in Qom.

With the backing of a single high-ranking cleric, Sadr could follow the same precipitous rise, becoming a practicing mujtahid with ayatollah stature, at any time. Neither the opposition of other high-ranking scholars nor the quality of scholarly training he may have acquired in his so-far limited studies could prevent such a promotion.

So what if Sadr becomes an ayatollah? How would his standing in Iraq change?

The good news is that U.S.-Iraqi military offensive against the Mahdi Army in spring 2008 has considerably marginalized Moqtada Sadr and his political movement in Iraq. The movement's diminishing clout became particularly poignant after the 2009 provincial elections. The Sadrists suffer not only from declining public support but a lack of the same coherent, organized military that gave them political leverage in Baghdad back in 2005.

But the bad news is that, in spite of recent setbacks, Sadr remains a major political figure in Iraqi politics. For the most part, his inexperience, and at times incompetence, has not eclipsed his appeal, and his charisma continues to attract many downtrodden young Shiites. They seem him as the khalifa, the representative of the 12th descendent of the Prophet of Islam, Imam Mahdi, whose eventual return is believed to culminate in the establishment of divine justice on Earth. Sadr's pedigree also links him with legendary clerical figures including his father, Ayatollah Sadeq al-Sadr, revered by many Iraqi Shiites as a saint. That heritage has given the young cleric legitimacy, despite his weak religious credentials.

Indeed, Sadr has plenty of opportunities to revive his movement's political fortunes ahead of the January 2010 general elections. The phased withdrawal of U.S. forces, along with the possible renewal of sectarian violence in the country, could be the ideal backdrop for the resurrection of the Sadrists. Sadr can reconstitute his militia with relative ease, turning it into a Hezbollah-like organization capable of wielding influence both on the streets and in the political arena. This is where Tehran could play a major role: During his studies in Qom, Iranian hard-liners may encourage Sadr to lead a new Mahdi Army in Iraq in a new challenge against the U.S. presence there. The opportunities for such a battle would only grow if there were to be a violent confrontation between Iran and the United States over Tehran's nuclear program.

More importantly, if he succeeds in becoming an ayatollah in the next few months, Sadr will return to Iraq set to consolidate his movement and become the sole spiritual leader of the Sadrists. His followers would no longer need to look to Ayatollah al-Sistani for spiritual guidance. And using religion would only re-empower the political side -- uniting it with one centralized spiritual authority. New religious credentials would allow Sadr to issue fatwas, or religious verdicts, and make many political decisions with a religious justification. The movement's popularity would surely grow. Unruly factions within the Mahdi Army, meanwhile, could be convinced to obey civilian clerical leaders of the movement, themselves claiming a special kind of spiritual power thanks to the elevated religious credentials of their revered leader, Ayatollah Sadr. In essence, Sadr could at last become independent from the Najaf clerical establishment that he has relied upon - and sometimes challenged -- since 2004.

There is also the issue of money. Sadr is not merely trying to attain religious legitimacy by becoming an ayatollah; he has his eyes on major sources of religious and financial capital that have traditionally benefited high-ranking Shiite clerics. With thousands of followers in southern Iraq, especially some wealthy tribal leaders and Arab-Iranians in the province of Khuzestan, Sadr could benefit from a flow of religious taxes, voluntarily donated by devout Shiites to a spiritual leader whom they emulate.

The future looks bright for the young for Sadr. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, he has, time after time, proved himself a shrewd politician with a talent for reinventing himself according to shifting circumstances. If he maintains the support of Tehran and expands his popularity in Iraq, he is bound to remain a key part of Iraq's future political order. The only question is how positive this role will be. Based on his past actions, especially the decision to have his followers participate in the earlier elections, it is likely that Sadr will give more prominence to political rather than military means of attaining power. This could be good news for the consolidation of Iraqi democracy, as the country aims to move away from militia politics.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

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