Sistani and Bin Bayyah: The collaboration of the sane against extremism

Hassan Al Mustafa
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I have previously touched upon the commonalities between the two religious authorities Sayyid Ali al-Sistani and Shaykh Bin Bayyah in an earlier article entitled “What if Sistani and Bin Bayyah joined forces?”, published by “Al-Nahar Al-Arabi” on October 23.

The two figures share many points of convergence, a fact that will facilitate building a solid foundation for an efficacious joint action affecting broad categories of Muslims in different countries.

This is especially true since both men’s mentalities are based on the implementation of social, cultural, educational and service agendas, which adhere to the law and respect the sovereignty of the states in which they operate, without being involved in political conflicts or instigating Muslims to retreat into separate societies.

A Reunion of Moderation

In December 2019, the UAE capital Abu Dhabi hosted “The Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies,” led by Sheikh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, and attended by many dignitaries from various faiths, religions, nationalities, and races.

Among the attendees was Sayyid Ali al-Khoei, grandson of the late supreme authority of Shia Muslim Ayatollah Abul-Qasim Al-Khoei, as was the Iraqi academic and critic Dr. Hassan Nazim, who later became the Minister of Culture in Mustafa al-Kazemi’s Government. The two men signed the New ‘League of the Virtuous’ (Hilf al-Fudul) agreement that was launched at the Forum.

The agreement aims to establish common humanitarian foundations that regulate disagreements, respect all faiths and individual and collective rights, and entrench the values of “inclusive citizenship” and “the rule of law.”

In his turn, Sheikh Abdallah Mahfoudh Bin Bayyah was actively wandering around, greeting the attendees, catching up with friends, and sharing futuristic ideas.

The relationship of respect that ties Mahfoudh and both al-Khoei and Nazim, regarded to be close to the Sistani authority, and their soft power among intellectuals, writers and religious scholars, as well as study centers, houses of expertise and Hawzas, and their firm belief in “moderation” and “rationality”...are all valuable building blocks for a new active group of modern religious and civic leaders, who are ranked second and third after Sistani and Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, leaderships that take initiatives, and push for more permanent partnerships.

Institutionalization of Efforts

It will definitely take more than personal relations and friendships between the close circles of Sistani and Bin Bayyah to achieve this collaboration, as the essential step remains the institutionalization of efforts. In this regard, it is useful to consider achieving the following:

The transformation of both religious authorities of Sayyid al-Sistani and Shaykh Bin Bayyah into institutions that have their own established systems, structures and executive branches, which will free these authorities from their dependence on the existence of a single person, and enable them to continue to survive and function after this person’s decease. They will work towards implementing the higher ideologies and values of these references and their followers.

The authority institution’s engagement in a cooperative relationship with other spiritual institutions, be they Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, as with other faiths of humankind, which will alleviate religious hostilities and faith-based hatred, such as those promoted by extremists.

The cooperation of the authority institution with civil society organizations and community-based and charity organizations, with which it shall join forces in providing all forms of support to various sectors of the population.

The authority institution does not engage in direct political work, or clash with governments or even overly favor one over the other, but rather works to forge normal, healthy, balanced, mutually respectful, independent, and mutually reinforcing relationships.

Intensification of joint work between the Al-Sistani and Bin Bayyah authorities, through existing institutions such as: The Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, Al Muwatta Center, Aal al-Bayt Institute, Imam Jafar Sadiq center, and other institutions.

Training of civil and spiritual cadres, who will become the new “leaders,” able to work and argue freely, breaking the chains of traditions and formalities that might constrain Bin Bayyah and Sistani’s activities. Achieving this step at this point of time is of particular importance, as it can grant these leaders acceptance and presence among believers.

Read more: Iraq ‘will never be the same’ after protests: top cleric al-Sistani

A lot can be achieved through the Sistani and Bin Bayyah authorities, given the level of respect they enjoy among political leaders of many Arab, Islamic and European countries, specifically in the Arabian Gulf. These leaders can propel their followers to believe in respect for all human beings, renounce all forms of violence, and engage in building a better future.

The Civil State

Those close to Ayatollah al-Sistani’s office tell me that since the fall of the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Sistani’s perspective has been that religious scholars should not take office and that there should be a civil order that respects Islam, refusing to replicate the experience of the Islamic Republic of Iran, believing that the Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) governance model is not suitable in Iraq, a desired homeland for all its people of different races and religions.

A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on September 1, 2020 shows him speaking with education ministry officials during a video conference in Tehran. (AFP)
A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on September 1, 2020 shows him speaking with education ministry officials during a video conference in Tehran. (AFP)

Read more: Iranian reformists: Wilayat al- Faqih ideology contradicts concept of a republic

Sheikh Bin Bayyah holds a very similar, if not identical, view. He believes that religious scholars should not compete with governments over managing state affairs, which is considered a “mundane” matter. There are legislative, executive, judicial and regulatory institutions charged with this task.

The collaboration of the sane and wise is no longer considered a luxury. It is a pressing need to maintain security and stability in a region rife with wars and conflicts, ravaged by inflammatory, violent and sectarian rhetoric. Its people have been held hostage by extremists who undermine their dreams for too long. Cooperation is the lifeline to save us from drowning in these seas of blood and hatred.

This piece was originally published in Al-Nahar Al-Arabi.

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