Sunday, April 19, 2009

Millenarian Shi'ism in Iraq


Al-Sayyid* Mahmoud Sarkhi al-Hassani is a former student of the late Iraqi Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, the father of the influential contemporary Shi'i leader al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Hassani, who claims to have been one of Sadiq al-Sadr's top students (Note 1), is one of three major claimants to the legacy of Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated on the outskirts of the southern Iraqi Shi'i holy city of al-Najaf with two of his sons in 1999 by agents of the Iraqi Ba'thi dictator, Saddam Husayn. The others are Muqtada and Ayatullah Muhammad Yaqubi, another former student of Sadiq al-Sadr and the religious guide of the small Iraqi Shi'i religious political party Fadilah Islamiyyah (Islamic Virtue). A fourth former student, Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Kadhim Ha'iri, an Iraqi Arab, currently resides in the Iranian shrine and seminary city of Qum. Muqtada once recognized him as the religious guide to his Sadr Movement, but the two had a falling out after Ha'iri refused to return to Iraq. As a religious nationalist, Muqtada could not accept a religious guide for his socio-political movement who was not willing to be based in Iraq, particularly when that guide was an Iraqi himself. Al-Hassani's "love" for Sadiq al-Sadr is discussed at length in his biography, which I hope to examine more closely in the future (Note 2).

An Iraqi protester holds a poster of the "three al-Sadrs" (from left):
Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada, and Baqir al-Sadr.

Al-Hassani, whose religious scholarly credentials are disputed, claims to be a grand ayatullah and a mujtahid, a jurist who has reached the requisite rank to interpret Islamic law and religious sources and issue juridical opinions (fatawa) and binding decisions (ahkam). In visual media that I have found on his web site and Internet discussion forum, he is respectful, at least outwardly, of Iraq's other (non-disputed) resident grand ayatullahs (roughly half of whom are not Iraqi or Arab) and two in particular, al-Sayyid 'Ali Sistani (an Iranian) and Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad (a Hazara Afghan).

Not surprisingly, Al-Hassani's biography also extols his performance as a student in the Twelver Shi'i seminary system [al-Hawza al-'Ilmiyya] in al-Najaf, which he entered, it says, in 1994 (Note 3). He is said to have studied Shi'i Islamic jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) with Sistani and Fayyad, and assorted other subjects, such as 'ilm al-rijal (history of hadith transmitters), with a collection of other teachers including, "Shaykh Murtada Burujerdi," "al-Sayyid al-Hamami," and " 'Ali al-Sabzawari" (Note 4).

The few journalistic accounts, and the studies by Reidar Visser, a Norwegian historian of Iraq, about al-Hassani report that he is a millenarian (messianist). Some explanation is required here. Twelver Shi'is believe in an occulted (hidden) supreme religious figure, the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who they claim was "hidden" from the world's view in the tenth century in order to protect him from Sunni rivals, who sought to kill him after assassinating, Shi'is claim, his father, the previous Imam. They believe that Imam Mahdi had two occultations, minor and major. He is currently in the major occultation (al-ghayba al-kubra), and will return at a time appointed by God. Sunni Muslims also believe in a messianic Mahdi figure, but disagree that it was the son of the eleventh Imam, and many question whether he even had a son, since almost no one saw him, according to historical accounts. Twelver Shi'is have developed a rich hagiographical literature about Imam Mahdi and counter-polemics addressing Sunni criticisms and questioning of the traditional Twelver historical and theological accounts.

So, in a way, believing Twelver Shi'is are "messianic" in the same way many believing Christians are "messianic," in that they both believe in the return of a religious "savior" who will usher in a period of absolute justice before the apocalypse. However, despite prayers for the quick return of the Imam, most Twelver Shi'is, it has been argued by scholars, are not apocalyptic messianists in the same way that some evangelical Christians are, i.e. expecting the return of the "savior" very soon. Al-Hassani is said to be in the latter category, even claiming to be the deputy (na'ib) of the Imam, a charge his followers have denied. Sadiq al-Sadr was also reportedly an apocalyptic messianist, though this has yet to be substantially documented. He did pen a massive four-volume study of Imam Mahdi, Mawsu'at al-Imam al-Mahdi (Encyclopedia of the Imam al-Mahdi), (Note 5).

In November 2008, al-Hassani was arrested (Note 6). I was unable to find out what his current status is as of this writing.

I have been looking into al-Hassani during research for my current research project.

*For Shi'i Muslims, a sayyid (feminine: sayyidah) is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, through the line of his daughter Fatimah and her husband, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shi'i Imam (historical religious/political leader).

Note 1: Al-Hassani's official biography, نبذة مختصرة عن حياة,
("Abridged Account about [al-Hassani's] Life").

Note 2: نبذة مختصرة عن حياة, Section 5:
حبه للاستاذه السيد الشهيد الصدر الثاني , قدسه سره
("His Love for His Professor, al-Sayyid al-Shahid (the Martyr) al-Sadr the Second [Sadiq al-Sadr], God bless Him."

Note 3: نبذة مختصرة عن حياة,
Section 6: درسته الحوزوية و التدرج العلمي
("His Hawza Studies and Knowledge Progression")

Note 4: Ibid and نبذة مختصرة عن حياة,
Section 7: الطالب المتميز

("The Distinguished Student")

Note 5: A beautifully bound print copy can be purchased HERE. PDF versions can be downloaded HERE.

Note 6: Press release from the Association of Muslim Scholars, a council of Iraqi Sunni religious scholars ('ulama); HERE.

A special thanks to Munir Gibrill and Dr. Zaineb Istrabadi for guiding me through sections of the text that I had difficulty translating.


Mahdi said...

As always, very informative and thorough.

On your note on "apocalyptic" messianism, what do you mean by "very soon"?

Because I think that can go one of two ways. The first suggests a notion of determined imminence, which contradicts with the famous "كذب الوقاتون" hadiths. The second speaks to the idea that it can happen very soon, but without specificity. The latter, I believe, is rather prevalent in many Twelver Shi'i circles.

Also, I'm curious. Forgive this outsider's ignorance on the subject, but, how prevalent is the usage of the term "apocalyptic" with regards to Twelver Shi'i beliefs? Because it has certain connotations that are derived from its Christian origin that don't seem to fit in this context.

إبن الصقلي said...

Thank you for your comment, my dear friend (after all these years, the first comment in writing! :-o ;-P )

With regard to your two questions:

(1) In the accounts of al-Hassani that I have run across, it is claimed that he expects (as opposed to "hopes" for) the return of the twelfth Imam certainly within his lifetime. This is one of the reasons, these claims go, why he says he is the new deputy of said Imam.

With regard to your statement about Twelver Shi'is, the ahadith aspect is something you know much more than I about, and in any case, I agree with you. Twelver Shi'is, and they certainly aren't unique among Muslims or religions in this, are "messianic" in the sense that they believe in an "awaited one" who will usher in a period of pure justice, etc., before the end of days.

(2) You are, of course, correct to point out the very "Christian" (or "Judaeo-Christian") context in common parlance of the terms "apocalyptic" and "apocalypse."

However, if we detach it from this assumption of sorts, we are left with a term that I think, arguably, accurately can be used to describe "other" (non-Christian) systems of belief. Specifically, I use the term in accordance with the third definition lists:

"a prophetic revelation, esp. concerning a cataclysm in which the forces of good permanently triumph over the forces of evil."
Dictionary.comA similar argument, as you know, is made about the term "fundamentalist."

The terms must frequently used in the academe, from my own experience, to describe Shi'i beliefs are: "Mahdist" and "millenarian," the second of which also requires some specification and tweaking.

In hindsight, I should have discussed the issue of definitions more in the post, as well as stuck with one term.

Thanks again for taking the time to bring up these important issues and distinctions.