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February 8, 2005
Sistani: No Shari'a Need Apply

Contrary to the desperate analyses from Western journalists that have appeared almost daily since the Iraqi elections, the most influential Shi'ite cleric does not want an imposition of Shari'a law. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani instead wants the government to follow parliamentary processes to codify a new direction for the world's newest democracy:

A spokesman for Iraq's most influential Shia cleric has denied reports that the cleric is demanding that Islam be the country's sole source of law.

Hamed Khafaf said Ayatollah Ali Sistani believes Iraq's new constitution should respect what he described as the Islamic cultural identity of Iraqis. ...

In Ayatollah Sistani's view, his spokesman went on to say, it was up to the elected representatives of the people in the new National Assembly to decide the details.

Mr Khafaf said the ayatollah had approved the current wording of Iraq's interim constitution, which states that Islam is a source of legislation and no law contradicting Islamic tenets may be passed.

In order to understand the subtleties of why Sistani does not represent Iranian-style Shi'ite philosophy, which insists on Shari'a law, one has to know of the differences between Qum (Iran) and Najaf (Iraq) instruction. Qum teaches an activist Shi'ite philosophy, what Americans would probably call fundamentalism, in which Islam controls all aspects of life, temporal as well as spiritual. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini represented the apex of Qumian power during the Iranian revolution, as an example, and the hardliners still in charge in Teheran follow the Qum model of Shi'ism.

Sistani, on the other hand, follows the Najaf philosophy of "quietism", a more philosophical and less temporal form of Shi'ism. In fact, one of the reasons that Qumian thought took prominence in Shi'ism was Saddam's oppression of Najaf's Shi'ite mosques and madrassas, suppressing moderate Shi'ism in favor of the radical fundamentalism that pushed Khomeini to power in 1979. The Americans and/or the Brits understood the subtle differences, which is why the Coalition has been so anxious to keep Sistani relatively happy, or at least mollified. Renewing Najaf's quietism also will allow moderate Islam to compete with radical Qumian and Wahhabist philosophies, which will also help battle Islamist terrorism in the mosques where it starts.

Sistani's message makes sense to those who have watched this unfold. Does that mean that Sistani will sit by and let an American-style legal code be enacted in Iraq? No, but it also means that Sistani has no intention of seeing a theocracy arise which might turn in his grasp and result in the continued suppression of Najafian Shi'ism.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 8, 2005 1:11 PM

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