The four grand ayatullahs (ayatollahs) of the southern Iraqi Twelver Shi'i (hereafter "Shi'i") shrine city of al-Najaf al-Ashraf wield a great deal of influence over their millions of lay followers, both inside and outside of Iraq. Grand Ayatullahs al-Sayyid 'Ali Husayni Sistani, al-Shaykh Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad, al-Shakyh Bashir Husayn Najafi, and al-Sayyid Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim have spent their lives immersed in the rich tradition of education, in both the religious sciences and secular subjects such as logic and literature, of the Shi'i seminary institutions (Hawza 'Ilmiyya).
Shi'i practice, as it has developed, requires the laity (non-scholars/'ulama) to follow the rulings and example of a qualified jurist-scholar (mujtahid) who has spent many years (often decades) advancing their education in one of the Shi'i seminaries, generally in one of the major ones in southern Iraq or the Kadhimiyya area of Baghdad, near the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab bint 'Ali in Damascus, or in the shrine cities of Qum (Qom) or Mashhad in Iran. Smaller seminaries also exist in Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bahrayn, and other countries with Shi'i populations, though students who seek to proceed to the final stage of seminary education (bahth al-kharij) usually need to do so in one of the major seminaries in Iraq or Iran. The mujtahids followed are generally one of the maraji' al-taqlid (singular: marja' al-taqlid), the "reference points of emulation," or the grand ayatullahs (Ayatullah al-Uzma, using the International Journal of Middle East Studies transliteration system). Because of this requirement of lay Shi'is, the grand ayatullahs have tremendous influence, at least in theory. Collectively, they form the Marja'iyya, the informal "council" of Iraq's senior Shi'i religious scholars and jurists.
It is important not to exaggerate the influence of the maraji', however. Even the most widely-followed grand ayatullah, al-Sayyid (descendant of the Prophet Muhammad) 'Ali Husayni Sistani was unable to halt the bloody mid-scale civil war between Iraqi Sunni and Shi'i militias and their political party patrons in 2005-2007, despite the fact that he issued fatawa (legal opinions) calling for a halt in inter-communal violence and societal strife. Sistani's views were largely ignored by the participants, including the Iraqi Shi'i groups that claimed to recognize him as their marja', such as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), previously the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a name betraying its Khumaynist roots.
In Iraq's last national elections, held in December 2005, the four grand ayatullahs residing in al-Najaf, location of a shrine said to house the body of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shi'i Imam and the fourth Rashidun (Rightly-guided caliph/successor of Muhammad), backed the United Iraqi Alliance slate of candidates, a list that was dominated by Iraqi Shi'i Islamist parties, including the SIIC and Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiyya (Party of Islamic Call), the party of the current Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. However, they were unhappy with the UIA's performance and have not backed any political list for the national elections scheduled for this weekend.
The four grand ayatullahs of al-Najaf occupy a space between political quietism and the revolutionary political activism, led by certain religious scholars ('ulama) who adhere to the religio-political ideology espoused by the late Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Ruhullah Musavi Khumayni (Khomeini), who with his acolytes was able to seize control over a broad-based revolution in Iran in 1978-79 and oversee its Islamization in accordance with his theory of wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the jurisconsult). Sistani, Fayyad, al-Hakim, and Najafi do not support the Khumaynist theory of cleric-led governance (and then only by a certain segment of the 'ulama), nor are they political quietists. They have sought and continue to seek to guide Iraqi politics and social life, particularly with regard to their own constituent community, Iraqi Shi'is, who form an estimated 60-65% of the country's population. As part of this, the grand ayatullahs of al-Najaf have tried to ensure that the post-Saddam Husayn/Iraqi Ba'th constitution and legal codes are in accordance, or at least do not contradict, Islamic social and juridical norms, generally speaking. To view them as secular democrats is not entirely accurate, though Sistani and his colleagues have backed the democratic process, even against the former United States viceroy of the U.S.-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer.
The four grand ayatullahs are more in line with the theory of governance espoused by the late Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, wilayat al-ummah (authority of the nation/community), in which the 'ulama would serve as society's moral guides as opposed to its political rulers. Al-Sadr was murdered with his sister, Amina bint Haydar al-Sadr, also known as Bint al-Huda, in April 1980 by Saddam Husayn's regime.
All four grand ayatullahs have issued juridical opinions and advice to their lay followers and their students and aides in the Hawza 'Ilmiyya with regard to how they should approach the upcoming Iraqi national elections. Sistani, Fayyad, Najafi, and al-Hakim are, generally, in agreement on the major points, declining to back any political coalition or list and advising their followers to cast votes for the most qualified and morally and ethically sound candidates. Previously, they had also backed open lists of candidates as opposed to "blind" or closed lists. All four have also said that the participation of eligible voters is an imperative because of their vital importance to the betterment of the country and all of its communities. The fatawa on the 2010 Iraqi national elections from the four are linked-to at the bottom of the post, via my Scribd account.
Muqtada al-Sadr and Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Taqi al-Modarresi have also urged their followers to enthusiastically participate in the elections.
Fayyad issued a second fatwa aimed at seminary students, reiterating the Marja'iyya's position on the elections. He warns them against endorsing any candidate or political list, as well as against selling their votes, which is a betrayal of the country's interests. Fayyad writes that voters should not cast their votes carelessly and should carefully consider who to vote for. Their votes should be given to the most qualified candidates who seek to improve the country, not enrich themselves.
In the second half of his second fatwa, Fayyad condemns the political corruption that has been rampant among Iraq's ruling class since the fall of the Iraqi Ba'th Party, and calls for measures to ensure that those elected do not continue to pilfer the funds meant for the benefit of the country's citizens.
Fayyad...2010 Elections to Hawza Students, V. 2
Grand Ayatullah Fayyad's fatwa on the elections directed to students of Iraq's Shi'i seminaries
(shown with Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, a major Kurdish political leader (left); Al-Hakim's green scarf denotes his descent from the line of the Prophet Muhammad's family recognized by Twelver Shi'is; the scarf is similar to ones worn in Yemen by descendants of the Prophet's family from multiple lines)