Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Grand Ayatullah Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad

Written for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Modern Middle East Wars, to be published by ABC-CLIO.

Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, one of the four (some say five) grand ayatullahs residing in Iraq today.

One of the five grand ayatollahs who make up the Marja‘iyya of al-Najaf, the informal council of Iraq’s senior resident Twelver Shi‘i religious scholars, who has frequently served as the council’s representative public voice in post-2003 invasion Iraq. Al-Fayyad, like the majority of his council colleagues, is not a native Iraqi or an Arab. Born in 1930 in a small village in the Afghan province of Ghazni to a family of farmers, al-Fayyad is an ethnic Hazara, a Dari-speaking people who reside in Afghanistan and parts of Iran and Pakistan. Despite this, the grand ayatollah is fluent in Arabic, though Western reporters and scholars who have met him say that he speaks it with a distinct Dari Afghan accent. He is widely considered to be one of the most influential members of the Marja‘iyya, and also one of the most publicly engaged, arguably even more so than Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shi‘i scholar.
Al-Fayyad, like many young Muslims from religious families, began his informal religious studies early, at the age of five, learning the Qur’an from the village mullah, the local religious scholar. According to some reports, he and his family moved to al-Najaf when he was 10 years old. As he grew older, al-Fayyad began studying other subjects, including Arabic language and grammar, rhetoric, logic, Islamic philosophy, Ahadith (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and the 12 Shi‘i Imams), and Islamic jurisprudence. He ultimately pursued his studies under the supervision of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Kho’i, one of Iraq’s senior resident Shi‘i scholars during the 1970s and the most senior during the 1980s until his death in 1992. According to accounts from individuals close to both al-Fayyad and al-Kho‘i, the former excelled at his studies and is widely acknowledged to have been one of the latter’s best students. Some reports hold that al-Fayyad was, in fact, al-Kho‘i’s best student, and, now, is the most senior member of the Marja‘iyya, but he did not seek to chair the council because scholars who are not Iraqi or Iranian have little chance to gain followers among Arabs and Iranians, who make up the majority of the world’s Shi‘is. In 1992, when the Marja‘iyya was left without a chair after Kho‘i’s death, al-Fayyad, along with the council’s other members, supported al-Sistani for the position.
Following the March 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq by the United States and Great Britain, aided by a relatively small coalition of other countries, al-Fayyad proved to be the most willing to engage with the Americans and British, though he did nor support or oppose the invasion. Unlike al-Sistani, he has met occasionally with U.S. and British officials, both diplomatic and military, in order to relay the position of the Marja‘iyya. Al-Fayyad has stated that Iraqi law must take into account Islamic religious law, particularly with regard to social and family issues. He has spoken out strongly against forced secularization of Iraqi society, and has argued that there can be no absolute separation of the state from religion. However, he has also rejected the implementation of an Iranian-style governmental model for Iraq, one based on Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s concept of wilayat al-faqih, the governance of the supreme religious jurist in the absence of the twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who Twelver Shi ‘is believe went into a mystical “hiding” or occultation in the tenth century, and who will return at a time appointed by God. Thus, al-Fayyad has gone on record as being opposed to clerical rule in Iraq, though he does believe that the ‘ulama (Muslim religious scholars) should exercise some influence over Iraqi society, specifically ensuring the protection of Muslim moral and social values.
According to a December 2007 report from the Associated Press, he was supervising the seminary studies of Muqtada al-Sadr, the populist Iraqi Shi‘i leader and head of the Sadr Movement, though al-Fayyad and the Marja‘iyya do not approve of al-Sadr’s approach toward politics and have pressured him to clamp down on his more militant followers.
Fayyad (left) with Bashir Husayn Najafi, a Pakistani, one of the other grand ayatullahs
resident in Iraq.

The Marja‘iyya backed the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a loose coalition of mainly Shi‘i Arab political parties which includes the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and the Party of Islamic Call (Hizb al-Da‘wa al-Islamiyya), in the January 2005 interim elections and the December 2005 formal elections. Despite their early support, al-Fayyad and his council colleagues reportedly became increasingly critical of the UIA’s performance, particularly the combative political sectarianism of the SIIC and the Da‘wa Party. The Marja‘iyya, through senior spokespeople for the various members, let it be known in mid and late 2008 that it would not back any slate of candidates, and would instead urge its followers to vote for the party or parties that had the best plan for improving the situation in Iraq.
Cole, Juan R. I. The Ayatollahs and Democracy in Iraq, ISIM Paper 7. Leiden, The Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press & the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, 2006.
Hendawi, Hamza and Qassim Abdul-Zahra. “Iraq’s Maverick Cleric Hits the Books,” Associated Press, 13 December 2007.
Khalaji, Mehdi. “Religious Authority in Iraq and the Election,” Policy Watch #1063. Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2005.
Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, Official Web Site. http://www.alfayadh.net/
Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. “Iraq: The First Arab Shia State,” The Missouri Review 29, no. 2 (2006): 132-153.
Visser, Reidar. Shi‘i Separatism in Iraq: Internet Reverie or Real Constitutional Challenge? Oslo, Norway: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 2005.

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