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Sistani and Saudi Arabia: Relations to face sectarianism

There is a desire to communicate and build a good relationship based on trust and respect

Hassan Al Mustafa

Published: Updated:

In 2005, I visited the Iranian city of Qom - the largest center for Shiite scholarship in the world - with Dr Abdul Jabbar al-Rifai, editor of the magazine Contemporary Islamic Issues, who has contributed to the provision of modern interpretations of religious texts. He and I went to meet Jawad al-Shahristani, who represents powerful religious figure Ali al-Sistani.

Shahristani received us with great generosity and took us to his private bureau, where we met alone and talked about the region’s issues, particularly Iraq. At the end of the meeting, he asked me to pass a message to a prestigious Saudi media figure, expressing his appreciation of him and his articles on Iraq. He asked me to tell him that on Sistani’s behalf, he would like to invite him to Qom to introduce him to Sistani’s scientific and charitable institutions.

I thanked Shahristani for his courtesy, and a few days later I met the friend to whom I was supposed to pass the message and invitation. He welcomed the invitation, but apologized for not being able to accept it at the time due to other arrangements and preoccupations.

During the reign of late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, a special envoy of the monarch went secretly to the Iraqi city of Najaf, not far from the shrine of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, which is sacred to Shiite Muslims. He went there to see Sistani, in a private meeting arranged with care and without media. The aim was to establish trust and respect between Riyadh and Najaf, contributing to the fight against sectarianism and provocation between Muslims.

The envoy sent King Abdullah’s regards to Sistani, and conveyed his praise for his rejection of extremism and sectarianism. The envoy invited him on an official visit to Saudi Arabia, where he would be hosted by the Royal Court. Sistani thanked the king and reiterated his support for Muslim unity, his rejection of sectarianism, and the importance of civil peace. He appreciated the invitation, but apologized for not being able to make it due to health reasons.

There is a desire to communicate and build a good relationship based on trust and respect because they are aware of the threat to the region from sectarian conflict in Iraq, Syria and other Arab countries

Hassan Al Mustafa

The high-ranked Saudi official who told me the story of King Abdullah and Sistani said the kingdom appreciated Sistani’s positions in combating sectarianism, and his fatwas against killings and revenge between Sunnis and Shiites.

He added: “We respect the independence of Sistani in being a religious authority who does not abide by any political diktats, and pursues a policy line independent from Iran, maintaining the Arab character of Shiite Arabs… in addition to [refusing] to implicate Shiites in the ongoing Syrian conflict.”

Mutual benefit

There is a desire to communicate and build a good relationship based on trust and respect. This is what can be deduced from the above stories, which are publicly disclosed for the first time. Both Najaf and Riyadh have outstretched hands, because they are aware of the threat to the region from sectarian conflict in Iraq, Syria and other Arab countries.

This is confirmed by the story told by Iraqi President Fouad Maasum in an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper. He said Sistani stressed the need for closer ties with Saudi Arabia because “this is in the interest of Iraq,” adding that he transmitted this view to King Abdullah, who described Sistani as “a wise and virtuous man.”

Lebanese religious figure Hani Fahs said: “Sistani and the Najaf authority are a guarantee of moderation and the protection of Arab Shiites.” Fahs told me in Beirut that Sistani was a safety valve for coexistence between Sunni and Shiite Arabs. The Najaf authority does not get involved in politics, except regarding major issues affecting civil peace, the state, the interests and safety of the people, injustice and tyranny.

Independence

Even after the participation of Shiite religious parties in the Iraqi government after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the Najaf authority preferred to stay independent. The authority, led by Sistani, said it did not want a religious - or specifically Shiite - state.

Lebanese journalist Jihad Zein, who visited Najaf in 2010, quoted the authority’s sources as emphasizing that they believe in the plurality of a civil state, as they did during the development of the new constitution years ago.

Despite the modesty of his small house and the difficult security conditions, Sistani preserves the tradition of hosting people from different countries who come to visit the shrine of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib. After being subjected to security inspection, the visitors sit in a small lounge and wait for Sistani, who comes out and delivers a quick lecture that goes along with the nature of the audience members and their nationalities.

Sheikh Habib al-Jamii, a Saudi Shiite cleric and editor of Sahel magazine, visited Sistani’s home in Najaf several times. He says Sistani has always been keen to draw the attention of young people and visitors to the importance of respecting rules, adding that Shiite Muslims must “maintain their gains in their countries, and work to achieve their goals through peaceful and legal means.”

He also said Sistani often recommends Shiites to “take part in their homelands, not be subject to regional… agendas, and to live with their fellow Sunnis because they are brothers.” Regarding demands and rights, Jamii said Sistani “does not support clashes with government, but rather he calls for the respect of laws and constitutions, promoting the civil state.”

As for the Syrian civil war and the participation of armed Shiite factions there, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraq’s Abu al-Fadl Abbas battalions, Sistani’s stance differs from that of Shiite polity led by Iran. He does not support involvement in the war, and only considers those killed defending the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab and its narrow surroundings as martyrs. This position demonstrates Sistani’s independence from Iranian policy.

He urged Iraqis to “help your displaced brothers from the cities of Mosul, Ramadi, Salah al-Din and other cities, and provide them with shelter, money and food without asking them if they are Shiite or Sunni.” He said when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) “attacked the cities of Iraq, killed and destroyed cities, I issued fatwas about the necessity of self-defense and protecting sanctuaries against foreigners, not against our Iraqi Sunni brothers.

“When you fight now in Ramadi and other Iraqi cities, you shall be defending your brothers to save them from ISIS. You shall not be conquerors. You shall sacrifice your souls for your brothers against intruders.” These attitudes come in the context of maintaining civil peace and ending sectarian assaults on unarmed civilians.

This leads to say that a balanced relationship with great Islamic authorities, with a profound long-term vision would contribute to the consolidation of coexistence between various components under the wing of the civil state, guaranteeing freedom of belief for everyone without constraints or discrimination.

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Hassan AlMustafa is Saudi journalist with interest in middle east and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.