Part 1 of this article can be read here.
More than five years ago, Sayyid Ahmed Shirazi’s statements about “the desirable during the month of Rabi’ al-Awwal” stirred controversy and many condemned them especially as Ahmed’s father Ayatollah Sayyid Sadiq Shirazi was one of the most prominent Shiite references.
Ahmed Shirazi’s statements were based on an extremist sectarian stance. In January 2013, Doctor Tawfiq Alsaif commented that Ahmed was “a young cleric” – meaning he had little knowledge and experience. Alsaif added that Ahmed’s remarks “were void of wisdom and righteousness and full of superstition and hatred.”
Alsaif, who was the secretary general of the Reform Movement in Saudi Arabia, had strong ties with late Shiite reference Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammed al-Shirazi, who is Ahmad’s uncle. Commenting on this relation, Alsaif said: “I knew Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammed al-Shirazi for years and very closely. I never heard him say a bad word or make any statements that reflect hatred towards anyone. His late son, and my friend, Sayyid Mohammed Reza Shirazi, was also like that.” Alsaif’s remarks reflect the difference between Ahmed and his nephew. Alsaif believes that Ahmed’s attitude “harms the status of his father Ayatollah Sayyid Sadiq Shirazi and harms all Shiite.”
During the 1980s, a group from the Organization for the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula was visiting Sayyid Mohammed al-Shirazi in his house in the Iranian city of Qom. One of the members complained and said: “The reactionaries are restraining our acti
vity and work.” A participant at the meeting told me that Sayyid Shirazi, who was well-known for his calm character, got upset and angry. “This was the first time I saw him angry. It was nothing like him. He rebuffed our friend who made the complaint and described others as reactionaries and said he must do his work and let others do their work and that the arena is enough to fit everyone,” he said.
Sheikh Abdolkarim Haeri, a teacher at the religious hawza (seminary) in Iraq’s Karbala, who had attended Ayatollah Mohammed al-Shirazi’s lessons for around 18 years, criticized the behavior of some members of the Shirazi Movement. In a lecture posted on YouTube, he said: “The school which is well-known for its morals collapsed in some aspects as some of the (Shirazi Movement members) resorted to insults.” Haeri wondered why people see others’ flaws but not their own, adding that this was a “pharaoh-like” behavior in an indirect reference to Sayyid Hussein Shirazi’s comments comparing Ayatollah Khamenei to a “pharaoh.”
“How can we say we abide by the shurat al-fuqaha when we act upon the guardianship of the jurist like others do? We only make statements opposing the latter but we act upon it!,” Haeri said and called on Al-Shirazi leaders not to solely make decisions or take stances that reflect on the entire movement. “Consult your movement members as three fourth of them are not okay with this,” he added.
Haeri’s stance upset Al-Shirazi “hawks.” Other Al-Shirazi members agreed with him and voiced their discontent with how Al-Shirazis as a reference changed as in the past it was a pioneering reference unlike other classical religious ones. Most of those who voiced their discontent belong to the first generation of Shirazis, who were engaged in the religious and political work with founder Sayyid Mohammed Shirazi. The problem here, however, is that those figures do not form a movement on their own and their critical voices are still not heard.
Al-Shirazis not identical
The different points of view reflect a reality that goes back to the 1960s. Truth is, Al-Shirazis are not one identical movement but a group of followers with different opinions and political, ideological and jurisprudential stances. They are an “unbalanced” and contradictory bunch of people – a combination of awareness and backwardness like a former member of Al-Shirazis once told me.
Let’s go back to the beginning when there were two points of view, one adopted by Sayyid Hassan al-Shirazi and another adopted by Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammed Taqi al-Modarresi. Sayyid Hassan al-Shirazi, who was assassinated in Beirut in 1980 by Iraqi Ba’ath gunmen as his supporters claim, believed that the reference must be in direct contact with the “ummah” (people). He believed that they can manage people’s affairs and spread ‘dawah’ without having to establish Islamic organizations and parties to perform this role. In his book Islam’s Word, he criticized the parties and laid the basis for a reference that’s linked to followers without organizational means.
Modarresi, however, believed that parties and organizations are important and that they must work under the umbrella of the religious reference which in turn will implement its Islamic program among people. Modarresi further detailed this opinion in his book The Islamic Leadership.
Modarresi’s perspective produced the “Movement of the Vanguard Missionaries” which included three major parties:
1. The Islamic Action Organization which was mainly concerned about Iraq. Its secretary general was the late Sheikh Qassem al-Assadi and its spiritual father was Modarresi.
2. The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain whose secretary general was Sheikh Mohammed Ali al-Mahfouz. After he returned to Bahrain, Mahfouz formed the Islamic Action Society, also known as the Amal Party. The authorities then dissolved the party and arrested some of its leaders following protests in February 2011. The spiritual father of the front was Hadi al-Modarresi, who was well-known for his enthusiastic and revolutionary rhetoric.
3. The Organization for the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula which was led by Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar. Its name was changed to the ‘Reform Movement’ and it was later dissolved and its members returned to Saudi Arabia in 1993.
The several references
Ayatollah Mohammed al-Shirazi, who founded the Shirazi Movement, was highly respected by his supporters. He had a strong, attractive and persuasive figure as he was good at controlling differences among his followers. However, after his death in 2001, the movement suffered from a leadership void. His brother Sayyid Sadiq could not fill this void, although he assumed Sayyid Mohammed’s role as a reference. Meanwhile, Sayyid Mohammed’s followers remained loyal to his memories.
This legacy of Al-Shirazis is currently dispersed as such:
1. The reference of Ayatollah Sayyid Sadiq Shirazi represents the traditional movement that’s distant from renewal. Most of those who imitated late Sayyid Mohammed Shirazi in Iran, the Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries refer to it. This reference however lacks modernity and relies on stories of the Prophet Mohammed and Ahl Al-Bayt without making any thorough examinations. This is in addition to its “sectarian” or even “insulting” attitude. However, it does not go as far as accusing others of infidelity.
2. The reference of Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammed Taqi al-Modarresi represents around 10%-15% of Al-Shirazi supporters. This movement is closer to “political Islam” movements. It does not insult those who oppose it or accuse them of infidelity. It works within the context of Islamic unity. However, it has lost its ability to present new ideas or develop its theories about life and jurisprudence.
3. The movement of ideologist “hawks” includes both Kuwaiti cleric Yasser Al-Habib and Sayyid Mujtaba Hussaini Shirazi, although they disagree on some religious matters. This movement lacks religious depth, and is quite shallow. It adopts a sectarian and insulting rhetoric which is uncommon among Shiite scholars. They do not hesitate to make judgements against Sunni or Shiite symbols or even against Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) companions and go as far as accusing them of infidelity and of misguiding people.
4. A group of figures have left The Shirazi Movement and became independent. These figures abided by the reference of Sayyid Mohammed Shirazi for years. Some left the movement at an early stage, while others did so when Sayyid Mohammed passed away and decided to engage in new experiences that are more open and modern. Some of these prominent figures are: Sheikh Ahmad al-Kateb, Sheikh Sadiq al-Abadi, Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, Doctor Tawfiq Alsaif and Sheikh Qassem al-Assadi. Some of these figures became moderate and enlightened, while others adopted a liberal and civil approach and voiced critical views.
This diversity among the Shirazis means one must not deal with them as if they are one homogenous movement or representatives of one phenomenon. There are real differences among them – differences that deepen every day in the wake of contentious developments and conflicting opinions.
Iranian authorities’ detention of Sayyid Hussein Shirazi stirred a debate among Shirazi leaders and their followers. Most of them agree on opposing ‘the Guardianship of the Jurists’. However they disagree over the time and the approach.
Following Sayyid Hussein Shirazi’s arrest, Al-Shirazi followers voiced their objection via media outlets and social media networks. This raises several questions about their relation with the media and their historical experience in this field. I will discuss this in my next topic.
This article is also available in Arabic.
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. His twitter handle is @halmustafa.