It appears that the sudden death of Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim, who was the most likely candidate to succeed Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as the highest Shiite reference, prompted scholars at the hawza (seminary) in the city of Najaf to think seriously about a “post-Sistani” phase.
This also prompted 72-year-old Sheikh Mohammed Baqir al-Irawani to open an official office in Najaf, as he seems to be preparing himself to be ones of the religious references for Shiites after Sistani, who is 92 years old, dies.
Opening an office to receive scholars in Najaf is a significant step in declaring the religious authority position. Irawani teaches one of the largest classes at the Najaf hawza, with about 600 scholars studying at the highest level of religious studies (Kharij).
The pertinent question, however, is what does the timing of the opening of this office mean, especially since it comes two months after Hakim’s death?
Al-Monitor learned from a reliable sources in the Najaf hawza that “a group of hawza professors spoke with Irawani and convinced him to prepare himself to replace Sistani as the highest religious reference in the event of the latter’s death.”
"At the beginning, Irawani rejected the idea but had a change of heart eventually because he wishes to preserve the hawza and prevent any vacuum in leadership, which would undercut all the social and spiritual gains achieved by Sistani’s authority,” one of the sources said.
“Irawani is a scholar with a long history of teaching, preaching and authoring. He has many students scattered in the Shiite communities in many countries,” Saudi researcher and cleric Hussein Ali al-Mustafa told Al-Monitor.
“This background and his personality make him one of the best candidates to succeed Sistani,” he added.
But is Irawani the only potential candidate to succeed Sistani?
“There is a group of other scholars who are as knowledgeable as Irawani, notably Sheikh Hadi al-Raid, who is a well-known senior scholar of the hawza. He also represents the more traditional movement of the Najaf school,” Mustafa said.
“Irawani has many Iranian students and also Arabs from the Arab Gulf states and Lebanon, which would help him have more influence,” he added.
Mudar al-Helou, an Iraqi researcher and religious scholar, believes that “Irawani is the best candidate, but he does [does not descend from] the Prophet Muhammad, which could lessen his chances."
There are other candidates that are of the prophet's lineage, most notably the scholar Mohammed Rida al-Sistani (Sistani’s son); Riyad al-Hakim, son of the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim; and Sayyid Ali al-Sabzwari, son of Sayyid Abd al-Ali al-Sabzwari, another Shiite "marja," or source of emulation.
According to a reliable source, Mohammed Rida al-Sistani announced on many occasions that he was unwilling to take his father’s place because the Najaf hawza prohibits religious post inheritance from father to son, even if the latter was qualified to take over.
Similarly, Riyad cannot take the senior Shiite clergy position either because his father, once a grand ayatollah, died. Also, he is based in the Iranian city of Qom and not in Najaf. If he wishes to access the position in the post-Sistani years, he must move back to Iraq.
All of these factors play to Irawani’s advantage. There are, however, two other major persons who might challenge his candidacy, notably that of Ayatollah Hadi al-Radi and Hassan al-Jawahiri. Both men are of the same generation as Irawani.
But according to a source who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, “Radi might not present himself for the position [in order] to give leeway to Irawani, who had Sistani’s tacit approval to open his own office to receive scholars.”
Irawani has yet to publish his own "risalah," which are religious instructions for his followers, and he has not appointed any representative at home or otherwise.
He is influenced by his teacher, Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, especially by the latter’s position rejecting clerics’ involvement in direct political action. This means that if he were to ascend to the Shiite religious leadership, he would have an independent and traditional leadership that is not subject to political influence. This, however, does not mean that he lacks a sense of administrative or political awareness.
“Political interference is determined by how much interest there is. Here in Iraq, we should stay away as much as possible from politics except to guide and lead the people,” Irawani said in an interview published on al-Shafaqna.
He added, “Ayatollah Khoei may have believed that religious scholars ought not to interfere in politics in the beginning, and I still believe we shouldn’t unless it was necessary.”
Irawani’s political approach appears to be converging the views of his teacher, Khoei, with those of Sistani, which suggests that he would not issue any statements or take any political positions unless it serves the people’s interests and protects them from terrorism and violence and would support the state’s cohesion.
A Shiite religious authority such as Irawani who believes in “civil peace” and who rejects terrorism, violence and political Islam would be viewed with satisfaction by Arab governments in the Gulf — something that would ease sectarian political clashes and render “national integration” a more achievable goal.