What if Sistani and Bin Bayyah joined forces?

Hassan Al Mustafa
Hassan Al Mustafa
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In 2005, I was in late Sayyed Hani Fahs' living room in his southern suburb of Beirut apartment, where I used to always visit him. I sat there, listening to his conversations, and engaging in intellectual and political discussions with him, enjoying debates that had no limit but the sky, with no restrictions or taboos.

With his usual poise and soft smile, Abu Hassan talked to me about his vision of the "religious authority" in the city of Najaf in Iraq. How it was gaining prominence with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani assuming leadership of the Hawza seminary of Najaf, shortly after the passing of the Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei.

Sayyed Fahs' sentence: "Sistani is a guarantee of moderation" has always stuck with me, dispelling many ambiguities I had about the reference, who came at a critical political, social, and security juncture in Iraq's modern history.

Skilled builder

The son of Jjibchit Village, who believed in the value of "moderation," and defended it until his last breath, had a relationship of respect and trust with the Najaf reference. At the same time, he was greatly valued by political figures and leaders in the Gulf, due to his views that were always in favor of stability and dialogue, and against sectarianism, and his unwavering belief in the importance of the Arab Shia Muslims having their own free will, and not being controlled by politicians in Iran or any other country.

He was a strong believer in "citizenship" as a great link between the individual and the state, which should guarantee all his rights, regardless of his religion, color, gender, or ethnicity, because all men are created equal. No one is deemed better than others.

Fahs, who was widely appreciated, served as a link between many spiritual, civil, and governmental forces, which enabled him to play significant roles no one else could.

I like to recall this now, to envision the important and proactive role that Sayyed Fahs, or his followers, would have played in building a common and long-lasting working relationship between two Islamic references that have a big impact on broad sectors of the Gulf and the Arab and Islamic worlds, the great scholar, Sheikh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, and Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Great common ground

Despite their different doctrines, Bin Bayyah and Sistani are among the few religious references who are in agreement over several points, the most important of which being the importance of getting past narrow sectarian rhetoric, believing in the significance of "human beings," respecting their rights, and granting their dignity.

Sistani, an Iranian-born Iraqi, and Bin Bayyah, a Mauritanian-born Emirati, have both been destined to play extremely sensitive roles, which would not have been possible without their virtues of self-restraint, control of emotions, the ability to prioritize public interest over private, and keeping cool, calm heads, resisting being drawn after the sentiments of the public, their followers, or angry public opinions.

 Iraqis visit the Najaf Heritage and 1920 Revolution Museum in the Khan al-Shilan building on February 27, 2014 in the holy city of Najaf, central Iraq. (AFP)
Iraqis visit the Najaf Heritage and 1920 Revolution Museum in the Khan al-Shilan building on February 27, 2014 in the holy city of Najaf, central Iraq. (AFP)

The following points can be considered points of convergence between Sistani and Bin Bayyah:

1. Believing in the civic state as a reference, in which governance is a secular matter that lies within the prerogative of the head of state or the prime minister, depending on the regime in place.

2. Promoting the consecration of concepts that are not believed in by a cohort of traditional religious authorities, such as: "the rule of law," "citizenship," and "respect of human rights." Sistani and Bin Bayyah refer the application of these concepts to the executive, legislative, and judicial state bodies, which are vested with the responsibility of administering justice.

3. Rights, all rights, are not exclusive to "Muslims," the state has a duty of guaranteeing the rights of all its citizens, with no religious discrimination, preserving their rights to protection, education, receiving medical care, having jobs and being allowed to assume different positions, based on competence and integrity.

4. Acknowledging that cooperation, understanding, and dialogue, are the safest means to resolve differences, regulate disparities, establish mutual respect, and reinforce pluralism, without resorting to violence or forcibly or arbitrarily imposing opinions.

5. Maintaining security in the region and sparing it the atrocities of political and sectarian conflicts, by rejecting the existence of armed militias outside the authority of the state, as well as refusing the "bullying" or physical or moral terrorism carried out by one government against another.

6. Believing in "state sovereignty," and rejection of any intervention of any state in the affairs of neighboring states, as such interference would undermine regional security and stability, and create and further complicate internal problems.

7. Urging religious scholars not to assume any governance, to settle for the roles of guidance, education, and spirituality, and to merely handle politics in its broad terms, without taking part in its polarizations and conflicts.

8. Rejecting the use of "religion" as a political tool in conflicts between states, parties and different currents, and emphasizing the nature of "religion" as a worship and a social affair that should not be a card to be played for political gains.

9. Emphasizing that all Muslims, regardless of their doctrines, are believers, not be considered apostates, stripped of their lives, money, or honor. Therefore, they should stand against takfiri and fundamentalist rhetoric, regardless of its origin.

10. Respectfully communicating with different religions and being open to them, without engaging in doctrinal conflicts, and enabling their followers to practice their religious rituals and build their places of worship, without facing any obstacles.

The above-mentioned points represent the "backbone" of the Sistani and Bin Bayyah projects, both of which have similar major objectives despite the difference of some details or ways of execution. Their common ultimate objective being: "achieving peace," "avoiding wars and conflicts," confronting "sectarian and fanatical rhetoric," and "building modern, developed and safe states."

As they say, good intentions alone are never sufficient. Work is the key for all achievements, and the first step in the journey of a thousand miles has already been taken, albeit by each in their own way and according to their own circumstances. There is great potential in identifying shared agendas, and the magnitude of the goals that would be achieved if two such references came together joining their great jurisprudential, spiritual, and popular powers. A lot can be gained out of that, probably, and that's what the next article will be about.

This piece was originally published in, and translated from, Al-Nahar Al-Arabi.

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