Introduction

On August 29, 2022, Qom-based Grand Ayatollah Kazem Husseini al-Haaeri announced his resignation as a marjaa taqlid, a religious authority and source of emulation in the Shia community. He encouraged his emulators (muqallidin) to switch their allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He also used his address to launch a scathing attack against Muqtada al-Sadr, the populist cleric and leader of Iraq’s Sadrist movement. Haaeri insinuated that Sadr lacked scholarly credentials and had deviated from the approach of the movement’s two great martyrs, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr’s own father.

Haaeri’s intervention was significant primarily because of his status as a marjaa for the Sadrist movement. Consequently, his criticism appeared to threaten Sadr’s authority at a crucial time when he was mobilizing his followers in the dispute with Iran-backed factions over the formation of a new Iraqi government. But while Sadrists may have found Haaeri’s statement provocative, it did not seriously challenge Sadr’s authority due to Haaeri’s marginality within their movement.

Sadr has managed to build and protect his religious power by employing two strategies. He has maintained a plurality of religious associations, benefiting from the legitimation of more senior clerics—such as Haaeri—while ensuring that no single religious authority can rival his own within the Sadrist movement. And Sadr has also used a combination of orthodox and heterodox religious practices to diversify his own sources of religious authority. In so doing, he has overcome his weakness in the traditional methods of establishing clerical influence, particularly erudition and formal training in a religious seminary (hawza).

The Sadr-Haaeri relationship highlights the struggle for religious authority within the Sadrist movement, which is often portrayed as a merely political and social force. However, the religious lens explains broader political aspects of the movement, namely Sadr’s enduring ability to mobilize his base for action despite failures in governance and the lack of a coherent political vision. Meanwhile, situating Sadr’s political role within this broader, religious concept of leadership also points to Sadr’s potential vulnerability as a political actor, namely, a breakdown in his moral authority, which underpins his political power.

Sources of Religious Endurance Among Sadrists

Understanding Haaeri’s limited influence among Sadrists requires tracing his relationship with the movement before Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr’s assassination in 1999. During that time, the two ayatollahs were rivals, each competing over the legacy of Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr, whose students they had been, making them both potential inheritors of his religious authority. However, Haaeri had already declared his marjaaiyya, or status as a marjaa, giving him greater influence over Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr’s trajectory as a religious authority.

Haaeri had even refused to recognize Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr’s claim to be a marjaa and rejected his representative agents (wukala) when they visited Qom to establish Sadr’s offices there. This rejection hindered Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr’s efforts to expand his network of emulators and therefore build his own marjaaiyya. Haaeri reportedly expelled Sadr’s messenger, Abu Saif al-Waili, from his home, accusing him of working for the Baath Party’s intelligence agencies.1

Given this competition, why did Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr later designate Haaeri as his successor and marjaa of the Sadrist movement? According to Sadrist sources, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr was reluctant to make this designation, despite Haaeri’s connection to Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr and the Najafi hawza.2 He only did so toward the end of his life and under pressure from his followers, who feared that if he was assassinated, they would be left without clear religious direction, which could lead to an internal leadership struggle.

Moreover, Sadrists also relate that Haaeri was only one of several clerics whom Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr identified as possible sources of emulation after his death.3 Consequently, they opted to follow various clerics in line with Sadr’s recommendations. The older generation of Sadrists mainly followed Haaeri, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah (who studied in the Najafi hawza before moving to Lebanon), or Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Ishac al-Fayadh, who was based in Najaf.4 A smaller but significant number followed Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The veracity of this account is less important than its existence as a feature of Sadrist discourse. The implication is that, from a Sadrist perspective, the movement has never had a single religious authority after Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr.

The pluralization of religious authority within the Sadrist movement has also been accentuated by the practice of taqlid al-mayyit, or emulation of a deceased marjaa. From an orthodox Twelver Shia perspective, taqlid al-mayyit is normally considered an unconventional practice. Nevertheless, it is important for Sadrists because of the special emphasis they place on religious authority as embodied in the person of particular clerical figures, namely Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr and, especially, Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr.

Taqlid al-mayyit allows Sadrists to continue to follow Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr as a marjaa. However, the practice has two important caveats. First, it is supposedly limited to those who had followed the ayatollah while he was still alive. And second, emulators can only abide by Sadr’s rulings in cases that remain sound contextually—where the application of a fatwa, or religious ruling, has not been disrupted by unforeseen changes in circumstances.

In theory, this ought to have created a generational divide. Younger Sadrists, who were not alive during Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr’s lifetime, would be forced to adopt another marjaa—primarily Haaeri—as their source of emulation. However, Sadrists argue that the movement’s younger affiliates can still follow Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, provided they also follow a living marjaa who permits this practice. One Sadrist explained, “Younger Sadrists should follow a living mujtahid [a recognized religious authority], unless they think [Mohammed] Sadeq al-Sadr is still the most knowledgeable in comparison to living mujtahids, and then only if they follow the fatwa of a mujtahid who allows them to do so.”5

Ultimately, taqlid al-mayyit has further diversified Sadrist religious authority. The various interpretations of the practice, resulting in the emulation of different combinations of clerical references, highlight the flexibility of Sadrist emulators vis-à-vis taqlid. Moreover, this also shows how each Sadrist emulator participates in the practice and is not merely a passive recipient of clerical instruction. Sadrist emulators, therefore, have been a source of innovation for how religious authority is identified and ascribed.

Balancing Many Fathers

Haaeri’s relationship with Muqtada al-Sadr after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was built on unstable foundations. Nevertheless, both Sadr and Haaeri had strong incentives to cooperate. Sadr faced an internal struggle for control of his father’s movement. More senior clerics, such as Mohammed al-Yaaqubi, the head of Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr’s office in Najaf in 2003, argued that after Sadr’s death, his religious authority had transferred to them as the most qualified clerics among his pupils. This threatened to relegate to secondary importance Muqtada al-Sadr’s claim of inheritance by dint of family ties.

Yaaqubi split with Muqtada on July 16, 2003. He declared himself a marjaa and sought to seize control of Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr’s organizational and financial networks—primarily collection of the khums, or a tithe on the wealth of believers. Consequently, Haaeri’s designation of Muqtada al-Sadr as his representative in Iraq on April 7, 2003, authorizing him to perform functions normally reserved for a marjaa—collecting and distributing the khums and issuing certain religious rulings—was critical. It strengthened Sadr’s claims to religious authority among the Sadrists, helping him to fend off competition.

Haaeri, in turn, also needed Sadr. He represented an opportunity for Haaeri to build influence within the Sadrist movement through a junior cleric who would, theoretically, be amenable to Haaeri’s religious guidance. Without Sadr, and given his own location in Qom, Haaeri was exposed to challenges from the likes of Yaaqubi, who could more easily create “facts on the ground” in Iraq. Haaeri’s formal designation as a marjaa for the Sadrist movement would count for little if it was not combined with Sadr’s capacity to mobilize coercive power to seize the movement’s religious real estate and organizational networks.

Haaeri’s cooperation with Sadr was not merely a reflection of his own religious interests but also part of a web of relations through which the Iranian state sought to tie Sadr and the Sadrists to its interests. The dynamics of Haaeri’s early relationship with Sadr maps closely with the strategy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) toward the Sadrist movement. This includes Haaeri’s involvement in early meetings Sadr and his entourage held with Iranian political and intelligence officials immediately following the U.S.-led invasion. Similarly, when the IRGC pivoted toward breaking up Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi militia following the disastrous Battle of Najaf of August 2004 and sought to dilute Sadr’s authority by elevating rivals, Haaeri formally withdrew his support from Sadr. He instructed Sadrists to send their khums directly to his own offices.

Despite this early turbulence in the Sadr-Haaeri relationship, the break was hardly irrevocable. After 2004, Sadr frequently sought to improve his clerical standing through studies and associations with different religious authorities, including Haaeri. However, Sadr managed these relationships carefully, seeking legitimization from senior marjaas while maintaining multiple religious associations. Consequently, the notions that Haaeri was the central religious authority for Sadrists and that Sadr continued to follow Haaeri and went to Iran to study under the ayatollah risk obscuring this crucial aspect of his religious strategy.

According to Sadrists, Haaeri is not the only marjaa under whom Sadr studied. For instance, prior to Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr’s assassination, the young Muqtada al-Sadr had studied with Mohammed Kalantar in Najaf. For Sadrists, Kalantar represents a striking counterpoint to Haaeri, owing to his deeper social connections to the Sadr family, his support for Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr’s marjaaiyya, and his personal sacrifices after the cleric’s assassination in 1999, when one of his sons was also killed. After 2003, Sadr also studied in Qom under Haaeri, Grand Ayatollah Jaafar Subhani, and Haaeri’s younger brother Ali Akbar al-Haaeri.6 In recent years, Sadr has also sought increasingly to align his public positions closely with the Sistani marjaaiyya.

Despite these efforts to increase his clerical authority through study or association, Sadr remains far from achieving the status of a marjaa. In his own studies, Sadr has completed the stage of al-satuh al-aaliya and progressed to the final stage of al-bahth al-kharij, in which students submit a dissertation that critically assesses an important issue of Islamic jurisprudence.7 Sadr has not yet declared himself an ayatollah and instead uses the title hujjatu al-islam wal-muslimin (proof/authority of Islam and for Muslims), the clerical rank immediately below that of ayatollah. Even after completing the bahth al-kharij stage, Sadr would then need to author his risala amaliyah, the book-length treatise on Islamic jurisprudence produced by a mujtahid on his pathway to becoming a marjaa taqlid.

Sadr’s Adoption of Religious Practices to Enhance His Authority

Despite lacking key elements of normative clerical authority, Sadr has gone far in assuming the functions of a more senior religious authority. He has done so by developing practices to diversify his sources of religious power beyond those derived from formal clerical training.

To illustrate this approach, and to put Sadr’s clerical standing in perspective, he can be compared to his peer and rival within the broader Sadrist current, Qaïs al-Khazaali. Khazaali and Sadr are close in age, and both studied under Sadr’s father. However, Khazaali has progressed further in his hawza training than Sadr, having completed the bahth al-kharij. Many in the hawza regarded his dissertation as having demonstrated a strong command of Islamic jurisprudence.8 Yet Khazaali has not sought to establish himself as an autonomous religious authority within the hawza. He has declared that he follows Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s interpretation of wilayat al-faqih (the Guardianship of the Jurist) and is a representative of Khamenei. Consequently, compared to Sadr, Khazaali does not seek to adopt clerical functions such as preaching or istifta (a religious inquiry where emulators elicit a jurisprudential interpretation from a marjaa, normally on everyday matters). Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the organization Khazaali leads, has sought to receive the khums, but not on the basis of Khazaali’s religious authority, and very few have contributed.9

Sadr has therefore gone much further than Khazaali in terms of seeking to play an autonomous religious role, and has done so by drawing on sources of religious legitimation lying outside formal clerical training. For example, Sadr made early allusions to his personal connection to the Hidden Imam (a central eschatological belief in Twelver Shiism regarding the return of the Imam al-Mahdi at the end of time), thereby claiming a mystical power granting access to unmediated religious insight. More recent innovations include his establishment of a consultative council composed of older, more senior clerics, mainly pupils of Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, to advise him on matters of religious guidance. Once more, the practice involves pluralizing religious authority.

Sadr also makes frequent use of physical objects as sacred artifacts. For instance, he is often pictured with a walking stick, evoking his father’s iconic staff. Similarly, when Sadr visits senior clerics in Najaf, he typically arrives in an old Mitsubishi Galant. This is another powerful Sadrist image, the Galant being Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr’s car when he was assassinated. Such practices speak to an embodied religious authority, unmediated by the rationalist religious discourse or formal institutions. For Sadr, these artifacts connect him directly to his father’s religious authority.

Moreover, many of the practices contributing to the religious power of the marjaaiyya are more anchored in personal-charismatic forms of legitimation than in rational-legal and institutional forms associated with formal hawza training. In other words, Sadr is not as external to religious orthodoxy as commonly claimed, but instead he combines conventional and heterodox practices to maximize his religious authority. Meanwhile, the Shia religious field is fertile terrain for religious-political movements, such as the Sadrists, who draw primarily on an ideology of charisma.

At a more abstract level, these competing modes of authority in the Shia religious field are mutually dependent. Their underlying practices are dialectically related—ascetic withdrawal versus social and political activism; mental abstraction versus embodied action; scholarly endeavor versus unmediated and mystical inspiration; transcendence versus immanence. These oppositions do not express a distinction between “authentic” versus “illegitimate” religious authority but are themselves the generative mechanism for the power of the religious field. Consequently, the Sadrists are not a religious aberration, nor will the movement simply fade in time. The Sadrist tendency will persist for as long as Iraq’s Shia religious field remains implicated in the country’s broader political and social cleavages.

Implications for the Sadrists’ Political Future

Looking forward, the anticipated death of Sistani will mark a transitional moment for Shiism in Iraq. Sadr is far from ready to become a marjaa and cannot replace Sistani as Iraq’s preeminent Shia religious authority. Nevertheless, the reshuffling of the post-Sistani Najafi religious hierarchy will present Sadr with an opportunity to increase his share of religious power. However, Sadr is the leader of a social movement, not a school of religious teaching within the hawza. His religious authority will be shaped by his primary audience, the Sadrist base, more than by recognition from the Shia religious establishment.

The nature of this religious authority acts as a window into the political dimension of the Sadrist movement. Recent events in Iraq have reinforced how Sadr’s religious authority explains his lasting ability to politically mobilize followers, through elections, protests, or violence. It is therefore essential for understanding the power he wields as a political figure. That Sadrists are willing to sacrifice for Sadr and the Sadrist community by committing their time, resources, and bodies to the Sadrist cause reflects an underlying religious motivation.

This interpretation often confounds Western policymakers. Their implicit secularist and rationalist assumptions often lead them to view religion as a resource deployed in pursuit of political goals. Yet Sadr does not provide a coherent political vision beyond his own empowerment within the system. Similarly, Western observers believe the popularity of an Islamist movement, such as the Sadrists, depends primarily on material and transactional factors linked to effective governance and employment patronage. Yet Sadr’s power persists despite his movement’s lamentable governance record. Moreover, most Sadrists remain in the lowest echelons of Iraq’s political economy of employment distribution.10

Consequently, Sadr’s political presence on the Iraqi scene will not be diminished by the intervention of senior clerics nor by the Sadrists’ failure to deliver political reform. Rather, Sadr’s potential vulnerability could arise from missteps that undermine his followers’ perception of their leader as a protector, guide, and unifier of the Sadrist community. Sadr cannot be seen as failing to maintain the bonds of solidarity that hold the Sadrists together nor as squandering the sacrifices of his followers. It is such a crisis of moral authority, a fundamentally religious consideration, that Sadr most fears and that now drives his political behavior in ever more radical and risky directions.

About the Author

Benedict Robin-D’Cruz is a postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University in Denmark where he works on the Bringing in the Other Islamists (TOI) project. He specializes in the Shia politics of Iraq and the country’s Sadrist movement.

Notes

1 Rashid al-Khayoun, Al-Islam al-Siyyasi fi-l-‘Iraq (United Arab Emirates: Al-Mesbar, 2012), 383.

2 This paragraph and the next are based on interviews conducted by the author with several anonymous Sadrist sources during fieldwork in Iraq, June–August, 2016; also, personal communication between the author and a senior Sadrist source who asked to remain anonymous, conducted via electronic communication, September 1–2, 2022.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Interviews conducted by the author with a senior Sadrist figure during fieldwork in Iraq, August 2016; personal communication between the author and the same source on August 28, 2022.

6 Personal communication with a senior Sadrist source, September 1–2, 2022.

7 Conversation with a senior Sadrist source, Beirut, Lebanon, January 2019.

8 Personal communication of Younes Saramifar with the author, electronic communication, September 3, 2022. Based on Saramifar’s fieldwork in Iraq with Shia armed groups.

9 Personal communication of Saramifar with the author, September 3, 2022.

10 This is the conclusion that Renad Mansour and I reached in our survey of Sadrists in Sadr City, which showed that an overwhelming percentage of them were either unemployed or were daily wage workers, which is the lowest employment status in Iraq. Our findings will be published in Renad Mansour and Benedict Robin-D’Cruz, “The Sadrists and Iraq’s Tilt Towards Chaos,” Policy Brief, (London: Chatham House, 2022, forthcoming). The trailer for the brief can be found here: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2022/08/understanding-iraqs-muqtada-al-sadr-inside-baghdads-sadr-city.