Do Shi'ite have a religious hierarchy, like Catholics?

That is, could the “Grand Ayatollah” Ali al-Sistani outrank the “radical cleric” Moqtada al-Sadr and punish him for getting out of line?

Could he “excommunicate” him in some way, or make him ineligible to speak in his mosque?

Or are all the mosques semi-independent?

Here’s a partial andwer:

Juan Cole


Not really, no. Except perhsps by force.



While Ithna’ashari Shi’ism does have a hiearchy, it is one of scholarship and afforded respect as theologians. One can be subordinate to a higher rank of “cleric” only if one willingly chooses to be. Which many do, by giving due deference. The respect afforded a Grand Ayatollah is usually considerable.

But not everyone may recognize you as a Grand Ayatollah ( Khamene’i in Iran is considered to hold that honored status purely through nepotism, rather than merit - hence his voice carries less weight than his predecessor Khomeini ). And as always in Islam one can have status as a religious leader disproportionate to your actual ability as a scholar through sheer force of personality.

Al-Sadr is a relatively low-ranking cleric in terms of scholarly hiearchy. But by trading on his famous name and positioning himself as the radical alternative ( in both religious terms, representing the ideas of his late father and in political terms ), he has galvanized considerable popular support among certain groups. He can’t act as a religious ‘source of emulation’ due to his lowly status, but he can function as a potent secular leader. He would best avoid open confrontations with uber-respected figures like Sistani when possible, but he is not in any way formally subject to him unless he wants to be.

Which he and his followers do not - instead they take the extremely convenient and extremely controversial stance of using a dead man as a source of emulation - his father, the martyred Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr ( himself a quite controversial figure in the religious establishment, due to his justifications for granting certain types of religious authority to tribal leaders ).

  • Tamerlane

I should amend this - there are things he could do. For example he could issue a fatwa saying al-Sadr’s teachings are theologically unacceptable or some such - even order his death if he couild concoct a good enough reason. But such would only have as much force as others gave it. For example Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie was binding only on those who chose to accept it ( which should be all people, and there were many, who accepted Khomeini as a source of emulation ). Fatwas are not universal and all-powerful - Grand Ayatollah Shariatmadari issued a fatwa against Khomeini’s Iranian constitutuion, yet it remains ;).

There is nothing like the universal ban that excommunication represents.

  • Tamerlane

Caution: both my reporting of facts as known to me and whatever opinion is inevitably conveyed by my phrasing, this is all subject to commentary regarding the Islamic part from Tamerlane, Aldebaran, or other Muslim in/from areas which have been Islamic for centuries, as well as the same from any person of Jewish descent WRT conversion from Judaism who has the historical knowledge. Most people who are from Islamic lands, as well as we who are interested and have learned about it, have strong opinions about it. I am trying to be careful not to offend the rules for the GQ forum so that this thread will not need to be moved to GD. :cool:

Just as a person who is born into a Jewish family with strong religious or cultural identity, Muslims do not recognize or accept that someone once born or converted to Islam as having the ability to change their identity.

Strictly observant religious Jews have, through much of the time since the high Middle Ages, regarded family members who converted to either Islam or Christianity as having died, and behave as if they had, including holding appropriate mourning ceremonies (“sit kiddush/kaddish[COLOR=DarkOliveGreen](sp? and I get confused about the meanings)”)[/COLOR].

The following should not be construed as a condemnation of any individual Muslim, nor is it intended to be derogatory WRT Islam, even though I am mostly not an admirer of it. I have known many Muslims, both when I was in college and in other contexts. All whom I have met have been very friendly people who were enjoyable to know and to spend time with.

In Islamic lands, even those which have national laws guaranteeing freedom of religion (as Islamic law - shariat - does, to a limited degree, for those who are born & raised in another monotheistic religion with written scriptures, AKA “People of the Book,” which predates Islam throughout its history, so long as they pay a tax) it has often been observed more in the breach than not.

Someone raised Muslim does not have the freedom to convert, and this is written into the laws of more than one Islamic state. If the family learns of it, the family will put heavy pressure on them to recant, same with the government. I know of several siblings from a Lebanese Muslim family who immigrated to the U.S., and converted to Christianity after arriving here. The one sibling I know is one of my sources for this information. I also know an Egyptian man who came to the U.S. to go to college and who converted before finishing college. He was disowned by his family, and has been unable to return home even to visit because of the pressures. I should add that the family pressure is augmented by similar pressure from others who learn of it. I have also heard/read reports of this. Please note that this doesn’t only apply to conversion to Christianity. I knew an Iranian grad student who had become a convinced atheist. He also was afraid to go home because of the intense pressure he would receive to return to practicing Islam.

IOW, think of the sort of intense familial/community pressure that an individual raised in a very intensely practicing conservative-wing Baptist (yes, there are many different variations on intensity and severity among Baptist organizations), or an equally intense Pentecostal or Catholic family. The lectures, harangues, tears, partial shunning, and many of the other ways that social pressures are brought in any “closed” community. And in those nations which have non-conversion laws, it may be the family’s duty to report the individual’s conversion.

Given this circumstance, I’m sure you can understand why excommunicating a Muslim is simply unimaginable. :slight_smile:

But how are you recognized a a grand ayatollah (or even a mere ayatollah) at the first place? Because your followers begin to consider you as such and it spreads around? Because others Ayatollahs recognize you as such? Is there any formal process or aknowledgment?

A couple of clarifications:

One “sits shiva” when one is observing the initial period of mourning for a dead person.

Kiddush is the blessing for wine.

Kaddish is the prayer in memory of the dead.

Eva Luna, Loser Jew (as you can tell by the fact that I’m posting on a Friday after sundown)

:o :o

I knew I was messing up; I just wasn’t sure how, or how badly. :smack:

Thanks for the correction! Maybe I can remember it after this.

Pretty much - it seems to be a combo of the two. Years of study, writing and preaching on theological matters eventually impresses enough people ( in an entirely amorphous process that involves both scholarly respect offered and public acceptance ) that one can lay claim to the title. There are different ranks up to Ayatollah but no formal, set requirements for any of them.

The position of Grand Ayatollah is similar but a bit more rigorous. Often it will involve recognition in the form of an appointment as head of a major recognized seminary/school/network of schools. In addition usually the candidate must have authored a particular type of treatise ( sort of like a dissertation I suppose, only it is supposed to be a more or less definitive statement on that cleric’s religious stance ) on ethics/religious law - that in addition to all the numerous other religious writings/commentaries/opinions they should have been authoring for years to get to that point. Finally they must have a significant popular following that recognizes them as a source of theological emulation, which is a big deal among pious Shi’ites.

A little ceremony may be held as one progresses up the ranks and there is something of a process to the office of Grand Ayatollah as above, but it generally isn’t terribly structured far as I can tell.

So while Shi’ism ( or at least this sect ) is considerably more hiearchical than Sunnism, it still isn’t nearly as tightly organized as Catholicism.

  • Tamerlane

And Knish is a yummy potato dumpling thingy.

Rank is denoted also by dress - people of certain ranks wear certain colors and items of clothing. Most noticeable is the color of the turban - there are rules as to who can wear what color.

Another point: according to predominant Shi’a Ithna 'Ashari Usuli Islam, one cannot follow a dead mujtahed (one who is followed). Once one’s mujtahed dies, one must find a new one to follow. A dead mujtahed’s rulings may be followed only if one’s new mujtahed explicitly endorses them (he must approve the rulings, not saying something like “I endorse the late Grand Ayatollah Syed Ali InsertShiaNameHere”). Usually this is not a hurdle, as if one mujtahed dies, another will assume him place that follows the same policies.

An exception, perhaps, to this (and to many other rules) is the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. (He is even called “Imam” Khomeini, which some Shias believe is close to blasphemy and revolt against the Hidden Imam, Imam Mahdi.)

There are various ranks: some of the most prominent are Hujjat-ul-Islam (literally “Proof of Islam”), Ayatollah (actually Ayat-ullah, literally “Sign of God”), and Ayatollah al-Uzma or Grand Ayatollah.

There are a number of Grand Ayatollahs. Right now one of the most popular and influential is (Hazrat) Ayatollah-ul-Uzma al-Hajj as-Sayyed Ali al-Husseini as-Sistani.

(Sadr is a problematic figure in Iraq. Many Shiites believe that his followers killed Grand Ayatollah Khoei after the liberation of Iraq. Sadr and his father have had disputes and issues with the traditional religious authorities.)

Takfir - declaring another as a non-Muslim - is something that is not common in Islam. (Unless it is a Khariji movement like the Salafis/Wahhabis.) Shia authorities do not generally engage in takfir. This is the closest one can come to “excommunication.”

GA Sistani is a very, very powerful figure in Iraq. His arrival meant the sure end to the uprising - no Shia in his right mind would disobey someone with the clout and authority (and religious credentials) as GA Sistani. (I believe that had Sadr and his men taken over some minor shrine, perhaps Sistani would not have felt the need to be involved. But taking over the Shrine of Imam Ali? That’s highly unacceptable.)

(Personal note: the Office of GA Sistani is very good with responding to requests for guidance from muqallidin from all over the world. I sent a query and received a personal response within a few days.)


Another exception - Muqtada al-Sadr and his supporters follow Muqtada’s martyred father, the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr ( a somewhat controversial figure in of himself and an old ideological/theological opponent of Sistani’s ).

  • Tamerlane
  1. Am I correct that Sistani hangs out at Karbala? Does he have a specific mosque or shrine congregation which he heads, or is he a figurehead/administrative figure above one or more institutions, each with its own head?

  2. Who takes over if Sistani dies today, and what would his duties/powers/support be, especially if not a Grand Ayatollah?

  3. How many Grand Ayatollahs are there in the world at any given time (I realize various groups may reckon this differently)

  4. Similar questions for Sadr - I think his “home” mosque is in Kufa.

  5. Who ran the Imam Ali Shrine before Mahdi Army members were available to provide guidance? And now that Sistani followers basically kicked them out, does Sistani appoint someone directly, is there a council that appoints someone, or does the congregation choose in some way?

Thanks for any elaboration on these.

I have been trying to make sense of al-Sadr’s influence level, even if he is the 31 I believe he claims, instead of twenty-something, as others have claimed.

Is he perchance a descendant of Fatima/Ali? I know that Shia are, by definition, 'Aliid adherents.

I suppose it’s possible that he has merely acted the part of a “seed crystal” for the enormous well of resentment, fear and hate that our administration has stirred up. However, it doesn’t seem all that likely that he’d be the leader. In all I can remember of Muslim factions and movements, the leaders have almost invariably been 40+, and usually a committee/council of some sort.

Can you tell me which it is, please? :slight_smile:

He heads the Najaf hawza, which is considered the premier school/seminary in Itna’ashari Shi’ism. With it he controls numerous endowments and scholarship funds.

I’ve heard it mooted that Grand Ayatollah Ishaq al-Fayyad ( who is Afghan by birth and part of the same scholarly circle as Sistani in Najaf ) would be the most likely successor. Though he is pretty elderly himself (Grand Ayatollahs almost always are ).

No set number. I’m actually not sure how many are around currently, but at least 4 or 5 in Iraq and almost certainly a larger number in Iran.

His biggest actual power base is in the slums of Baghdad. Kufa represents a more recently acquired area of influence.

The impression I get is that SH controlled the shrine before the war, appointing its caretakers, but that traditionally it has been under the control of the senior clerics of the Najaf hawza. Apparently the late Ayatollah Abdul Majid Khoe’i had held the key, presumably as son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abdul Qasim al-Khoe’i, the most important Shi’ite cleric in the 20th century ( both Khomeini and Sistani were among his students and he was Sistani’s prececessor at Najaf ). He of course was killed by a mob almost certainly instigated by al-Sadr, after he had refused to surrender said key.

How the actual administrative running of the shrine is conducted, I have no idea.

It would appear he is, or at least he is often referred to as Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, which would indicate that he is indeed a descendant of the prophet. But that is nothing unusual - Sayyids form a virtual religious caste and it is like a family calling. Many Shi’a clerics are Sayyids. Khomeini was one as well, as is Sistani and I believe most ( but not all ) Grand Ayatollahs in general.

His standing is based on two things. The status of his late father, as noted above, who established a powerful following by pursuing a populist path and coming up with a jurisprudential stance that granted certain types of traditional religious authority to Shi’a tribal chiefs in Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr was therefore on the outs with the traditional clerical establishment and he sought to “Arabize” said establishment, purging it of the dominant Iranian influence ( al-Sadr was unusual in being Arab - most of Iraq’s senior clerics are not - for that reason SH gave him some support for a time, before eventually having him killed as he seemed to become too powerful and uppity ). As noted, traditionally you don’t follow a dead day-to-day religious authority in Shi’ism - you pick a new one. But the ‘Sadrists’ have refused to do so, preferring the dead populist - this devotion to his father gives the younger al-Sadr a built-in support network ( again mostly in Baghdad ).

Secondly he has succeeded at least in part in rallying the disaffected by playing the radical rebel card. How deep that goes is arguable - some recent polls have been ominous. But it is awful hard to tell from here and maybe even if you were one the spot. Will the Najaf retreat be seen as a moral victory and U.S. blamed for the destruction, hence handing al-Sadr a strategic win? Or will the consolidation of that all important town into the hands of his ideological opponents permanently weaken his grip?

I dunno :).

  • Tamerlane