Behind the Imam Ali Mosque in the Iraqi city of Najaf is an indoor book market. Men in black robes and turbans walk through the narrow alleys of the bazaar. The clergy are looking for reading material. They’ve been doing that here for seven centuries. No shortage of choice. Bookstore shelves contain Quranic commentaries, but also works by Friedrich Nietzsche, a biography of Che Guevara and a critique of religion by Karl Marx. And, of course, the self-help books by American television psychologist Dr. Phil. “All sources of knowledge,” smiles Rasoul al Ghourabi, a cleric at one of the book stalls. “I like a good discussion with atheists. It is precisely through discussion and criticism that we come closer to the truth.” That liberality belongs to Najaf, says the man in the turban proudly. “It’s not like in Iran here. There it is difficult for clerics to criticize the Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei]. In Najaf there is freedom of expression. We owe that to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.” Najaf is one of the most important centers of knowledge of the Shia world. The students of the Najaf Seminary (hawza) have been studying Islamic teachings since the eleventh century. A small number achieve the title of marja after decades of study, which gives them the authority to give legal advice that is followed by Shiites worldwide. Quran Commentaries and Books on Western Philosophy in the Book Market in Najaf Foto Ali Salam The main marja in Najaf is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The 92-year-old is known as a moderate, is an outspoken proponent of democracy and advocates a strict separation between religion and state. This distinguishes Sistani and his followers in Najaf from their main rivals, the clerics of the Shia seminary in the Iranian city of Qom, where many prescribe religious intervention in politics. Yet also in Najaf politics and the divine are quite intertwined. The advice of the clerics has a direct influence on the direction of the Shia political parties and militias in Iraq, where about 60 percent of the population is Shia. There is also no escaping Iranian influences. The Najaf and Qom seminaries are historically intertwined, giving Tehran great influence over Iraqi politics. Also read For Iraq, one scenario is even more hopeless than the other A recent example is the sudden resignation of the Qom-based Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri at the end of August. Despite his stay in Qom, Haeri, who was educated in Najaf, was still regarded as a marja of the Sadrists, the Iraqi political movement of Moqtada al-Sadr . The populist Shia leader, who won the elections last year but was unable to control the formation of the government, did not study enough for the title of marja himself, so after the sudden departure of Haeri he had a problem: his Sadrists were suddenly marja-less. The official reason for Haeri’s departure was that the 83-year-old was said to be too old and ill. That is highly unusual, because marja you are until death. Rather, it appears that the Iranian regime had a hand in the decision, all the more so as Haeri called on his followers to listen to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, from now on. A humiliation for Sadr, who wants to reduce Iran’s influence in Iraq. Partly because of this event, the highly flammable Sadr announced that he would then completely withdraw from politics. His supporters stormed government buildings in Baghdad and at least 30 people were killed. Pilgrims read the Quran in the courtyard of Imam Ali Mosque Photo Ali Salam Pilgrimage After the violence, Iran temporarily closed its borders with Iraq in early September. For a moment, the annual pilgrimage of millions of Shiites from Iran seemed to fall into the water. They then visit the grave of Imam Hussein (grandson of the Prophet Mohammed) in the Iraqi city of Kerbala, and often also Najaf. But borders are no match for believers, says bus driver Mohammed Ali, who is tiredly at the wheel of his tour bus in Najaf. “I delivered another 55 Iranians today,” he says. “They went crazy when the border closed, so after a day they opened it again. The whole bus started screaming: ‘We have to go to Imam Hussein!’ They see it as their sacred duty.” And so Najaf saw black with pilgrims, an estimated more than 21 million, the largest gathering of people in the world. With black flags and to the roar of religious songs, they walk the eighty kilometers from Najaf to Kerbala. Iraqi co-religionists hand out free food along the roads. In Najaf, many pilgrims first visit the Imam Ali Mosque, where Imam Ali, the Prophet’s nephew and son-in-law, is said to be buried. The next stop is the Wadi al-Salam cemetery. Because Shiites worldwide want to be buried close to Imam Ali, it has become the largest cemetery in the world with more than five million graves. Many pilgrims come to visit a family grave. “Iranians and Iraqis are brothers. They sometimes argue, but we remain brothers’ “Najaf is sacred to us,” says a man from Tehran, who walks past the rows of newly arrived tour buses. He waves away the recent tensions between Iran and Iraq with a smile. “Iranians and Iraqis are brothers. They sometimes argue, but we remain brothers.” Pilgrims in the Iraqi city of Najaf visit the Wadi al-Salam (Valley of Peace), the largest cemetery in the world. Photo Melvyn Ingleby The ties between Iraqi and Iranian clerics are also close. During the reign of the secular Iranian shah, many Iranian clerics emigrated to Najaf, including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeiny, the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution (1979) and first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. Conversely, many Iraqi clerics fled to Qom in the 1980s and 1990s to escape persecution by Saddam Hussein. After the fall of Saddam in 2003, many clerics returned to Najaf. Thanks in part to Sistani’s liberal course, the seminary once again blossomed into the main attraction for Shiite students from all over the world. “Of course the Iranians are a bit jealous of us,” chuckles Abdul Latif al-Hamidi, a cleric who studied under Sistani’s son. “They want us to come back to Qom.” Cleric Abdul Latif al-Hamidi in his mosque in Najaf. Photo Melvyn Ingleby Hamidi – black turban, neatly trimmed beard – sits on a plastic chair in his mosque in Najaf. On the mint green carpet are the prayer rugs of the Iranian pilgrims who spent the night here. The cleric shows photos in which he and his guests are happily stirring a large pot of food. Theological differences don’t matter at such times. But those differences do exist. The main stumbling block between Najaf and Qom is the concept of velayat-e faqih , which means ‘guardianship of the Islamic jurist’. Ayatollah Khomeiny developed it into a doctrine in which the Islamic jurist does not only act as guardian in limited cases (for example of orphans), but is given guardianship of the entire nation. After the Iranian Revolution, this radical interpretation was enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic, turning Iran into a theocracy. A bad idea, according to the clergy in Najaf. Not only because theocracy quickly leads to dictatorship, but also because, in their view, Khomeini’s theory simply does not accord with the Qur’an. “There is no strong legal basis for it,” says Mehdi al-Hakim, another cleric in Najaf with thick glasses and a soft voice. After serving breakfast in his living room, he picks up an edition of the Quran decorated with gold glitter to back up his point. Sistani therefore wants clerics to keep aloof from government affairs, Hakim explains. “We can give advice, but people are free to make their own choices. During elections, Sistani will therefore at most advise that it is wise to vote, but never say for whom.” ‘Sistani is the tent that houses all Iraqis’ Yet Sistani has unprecedented political influence. Precisely because of his impartial stance, he is pretty much the only figure widely listened to in divided Iraq. “Sistani is the tent that houses all Iraqis,” says Hamidi beaming. “He is not in government, but in people’s hearts. That makes him the most powerful man in Iraq. One piece of advice from Sistani can mobilize huge crowds.” Cleric Mehdi al-Hakim in his living room. Photo Ali Salam Defensive jihad This became apparent in June 2014, when Islamic State had conquered large parts of Iraq and was rapidly advancing towards Baghdad. Sistani issued a fatwa (legal advice) calling for a ‘defensive jihad’ to save Iraq from destruction. The People’s Mobilization Units (al-Hashd al-Shaabi), an alliance of militias that soon had 140,000 volunteers, set up thereupon, played a decisive role in defeating IS. Because of their military cooperation with Iran, some of these militias came under great Iranian influence. After the fall of IS, they turned into political parties, and so that Iranian influence continued to work its way into Iraqi politics. Sistani wants the militias to remain politically neutral and to be integrated into the Iraqi army, thus providing an important counterweight to Iran. Sistani also knows how to keep impulsive Iraqi politicians in line. When Moqtada al-Sadr had his supporters storm the Green Zone in Baghdad at the end of August, it was the 92-year-old Grand Ayatollah who whistled him back, Reuters news agency concluded citing anonymous Iraqi government sources. Both Hamidi and Hakim confirm that reading. According to the clerics, Sistani sent a message to Sadr via email warning that he would publicly condemn him if the violence did not stop. To prevent that humiliation, Sadr would have tied up. “Sistani always guards the peace,” says Hamidi. “When Iraqi blood is at stake, he intervenes.” But what if the 92-year-old Sistani is no longer there? The election of his successor does not follow a fixed protocol and could take months. In addition, a much-mentioned candidate, the Afghan Marja Muhammad al-Fayadh, is 92 years old and is nowhere near the prestige of Sistani. The clerics in Najaf fear that Iran will use it. If it succeeds in influencing Sistani’s succession, or even putting forward a candidate who subscribes to the doctrine of velayat-e faqih, it will threaten Najaf’s liberalism. Moreover, the powerful militias of the People’s Mobilization Units will then come under even more Iranian influence. “We are scared, very scared,” Hamidi said at his mosque in Najaf. “If Sistani dies, peace in Iraq is in danger.” Newsletter NRC The Hague Mood Follow politics in The Hague closely and become an initiate in The Hague yourself A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 5, 2022