Elvire Corboz, Aarhus University

*This piece was drafted as part of the New Analysis of Shia Politics workshop. See POMEPS Studies 28 for the full collection.

The establishment of Iran’s Islamic Republic unsettled the traditional framework for clerical authority in Shi‘ism. For the previous 150 years, the marja‘iyya had been the most influential yet informal clerical institution. Based on the principle of emulation (taqlid) according to which believers need to follow the legal opinions of a qualified religious scholar, the clerics recognized as such – the maraji‘ (sing. marja‘; source of emulation) – provided the most authoritative religious and sometimes political guidance for the Shi‘i community. In 1979, the creation of the position of guardian-jurist (vali-ye faqih) at the head of the Iranian state instituted a new and competitive model of clerical leadership. A marja‘ or, after the constitutional amendments of 1989, simply a religious scholar aware of the circumstances of his time was given the right to rule. This guardianship was aimed at not only the Iranian nation but also the umma (Muslim community) at large. Accordingly, Ayatollah Khomeini and ‘Ali Khamene’i after him have made a bid to the leadership of the Shi‘a in competition with other maraji‘.

Today, the worldwide popularity and influence enjoyed by Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani of Najaf in Iraq seem to indicate that the marja‘iyya has fared well enough in the age of Iran’s vali-ye faqih. Yet some believe that Shi‘ism is about to enter, as soon as the ageing Sistani dies, a post-marja‘iyya age. At the heart of this prognosis is the success of Iran’s Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamane’i in putting the traditionally autonomous seminaries of Qom under his control, through both a policy of statization and the use of coercive power. Most of the clerical establishment has consequently become an arm of the Iranian state. If there are still independent scholars in Iran and abroad, they find it difficult to develop strong networks and are bound to remain marginal authorities with little more to do than provide religious guidance about Shi‘i rituals.[1] Also symptomatic is what some perceive as the weakness of Najaf’s clerical establishment. It does not have in its ranks a scholar capable of achieving comparable authority to Sistani’s. Intra-clerical divisions and competition can only be exacerbated in the future, leaving the door open for Iran’s vali-ye faqih to further consolidate his leadership.[2] Without dismissing the validity of some of these arguments, this memo aims to take another look at the crisis of the marja‘iyya. I argue that, in spite of undeniable challenges, the marja‘iyya has structural capacities that help it maintain itself in the face of the power exerted by the Iranian guardian-jurist.[3]

My argument about the resisting potential of the marja‘iyya is based on two premises. First, competing claims to Shi‘i clerical leadership do not necessarily result in a zero-sum game outcome. Rather, the competition between the vali-ye faqih and the traditional marja‘iyya is dynamic and unlikely to follow a linear course. As Eickelman and Piscatori usefully remind us, sacred authority in contemporary Muslim societies is fragmented among various groups, such as heads of state, traditional religious authorities, or new educated elites, who compete for it. Yet “several or all may exercise authority simultaneously – one individual’s sacred authority is not exclusive of another’s.”[4] Moreover, this fragmentation can have various outcomes, ranging from intensified conflict to accommodation.[5]

The second premise of my argument is that, to understand the dynamics of the competition, it is worth considering the competing potential of all the competitors. Unlike analyses that focus on the power exercised by Iran’s vali-ye faqih, I propose to shift perspective to explore the marja‘iyya’s own capacities. I identify three of its intrinsic features which, I argue, allow it to maintain itself: its “poly-cephalic”[6] nature and both its broad temporal and geographical scopes. These features not only contribute to the marja‘iyya’s potential to resist, but they can also shape the nature and outcome of the competition with the vali-ye faqih, including the need for the latter to accommodate with it. This argument is based on a consideration of the marja‘iyya as a structure of authority, regardless of the variety of ideological or theological trends to which different maraji‘ belong. However, this memo examines these features in reference to the marja‘iyya of the Najafi tradition, which does not necessarily shun involvement in political affairs but does not accept the model of a guardian-jurist entrusted with the right to rule. I draw from the insights I have gained into the internal working of the marja‘iyya through research conducted in Najaf, Qom, and the larger geography of Shi‘ism among the main offices, associated institutions, and networks of several maraji‘.

Multiple sources of emulation can balance the marja‘iyya’s power

A first feature of the marja‘iyya is its poly-cephalic nature. The existence of a sole, supreme, marja‘ is an ideal that was never really fulfilled in the history of the marja‘iyya. From the 1990s, moreover, the scholars laying claim to the position proliferated for at least two reasons. In 1992, the death of Abu al-Qasim Khu’i, the most widely followed marja‘ and the archetypical representative of the Najafi tradition for the previous couple of decades, left a leadership vacuum. The claim to the marja‘iyya of ‘Ali Sistani and several other of Khu’i’s former students dates from that time. The way the Islamic Republic dealt with the loss of Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989) also exacerbated the fragmentation of the marja‘iyya among many contenders. Unlike Khomeini in whose persona the dual functions of vali-ye faqih and source of emulation had been merged, ‘Ali Khamane’i lacked the scholarly credentials to be recognized as a marja‘.

After the Islamic Republic’s initial experiment of recommending the emulation of two other maraji‘, the more assertive bid to the marja‘iyya made by Khamane’i in the mid-1990s required a new approach. This approach was encapsulated in the list of several suitable maraji‘ issued by the pro-governmental Society of Qom Seminary Teachers.[7] The significance of this list lies beyond the inclusion of Khamene’i’s name. It also institutionalized the fragmentation of the marja‘iyya in order to accommodate his contested pretensions to the position. In other words, if Khamene’i could not claim to be the supreme marja‘, neither were the other contenders: they were all one of the many. ‘Ali Sistani is currently the most widely followed marja‘ and ‘Ali Khamene’i’s own following is now far from negligible. In addition, dozens of other scholars of more or less well-established statures and representing a variety of ideological trends claim the position of marja‘. The main representatives of the Najafi tradition include Ishaq al-Fayyad, Sa‘id al-Hakim, and Bashir al-Najafi in Najaf, Husayn Vahid Khurasani in Qom, as well as several scholars who announced their marja‘iyya in more recent years.

Fragmentation can weaken the Najafi marja‘iyya, especially if none of the maraji‘ becomes the most widely followed. At a minimum, however, each of them contribute independently to the total sum of the marja‘iyya’s authority. They help defuse, with whatever amount of authority they have, ‘Ali Khamene’i’s own authority. Furthermore, although these many marja‘iyyat also compete with one another, they should not be viewed as completely separate entities. The quadrumvirate of Najaf has often co-signed religious edicts, for instance on issues related to Iraqi political affairs.[8] The clerical and lay networks associated with the different maraji‘ have also far looser boundaries than generally assumed. The wukala’ (representatives) are a case in point. Some of them, generally the main ones, assume their function for just one marja‘, to whom they often have familial relations. However, many other representatives answer the religious questions, collect the khums (religious taxes), and cater for the needs of the followers of several if not a myriad of maraji‘ in the locality where they are based. Similarly, the lay emulators of the maraji‘ can overlap. They increasingly tend to pick-and-choose from the legal opinions of different qualified jurists, an option allowed by Sistani himself.[9] The fluidity across different marja‘iyyat and their networks might ensure some stability when Sistani dies.

The gradual development and long lasting influence of maraji‘ authority

A second feature of the marja‘iyya is the broad temporal scope of the authority exercised by the maraji‘. To clarify how this can sustain the competing potential of the marja‘iyya, one needs to deconstruct common assumptions about both the “beginning” and the “end” of a marja‘’s leadership.

The emergence of a source of emulation and the consolidation of his marja‘iyya is a gradual process. His recognition might be limited at first but later expand, for instance though not only if he is able to attract the support networks, associated institutions, and popular following of a former marja‘. ‘Ali Sistani himself did not develop at once the wide aura that we know him today. He was eventually able to do so in spite of pressure and meddling by the Iraqi Ba‘th regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran which both sought to promote alternative sources of emulation. As for what will happen next, skepticism that no current marja‘ or future claimant to the position can achieve Sistani’s stature right after him is probably well-founded. Yet the variables at play in the consolidation of one’s marja‘iyya are too complex to exclude the possibility at some point.

This notion of the gradual consolidation of the marja‘iyya has implications for how the Iranian state will deal with the maraji‘. In the mid-1990s the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers could get away with ignoring ‘Ali Sistani and not include his name in its list of suitable maraji‘. This stance was however not sustainable after Sistani’s authority became so widespread, and the Najaf-based marja‘ eventually made it to the list.[10] Similarly, the modus vivendi reached by Sistani’s marja‘iyya with the Iranian state in order to operate in the seminaries of Qom was far from a given in the early days. Sa‘id al-Hakim and Ishaq al-Fayyad, have also been able, in spite of their lesser status, to establish some sort of a foothold in the Iranian hawza with the small offices operated by their sons.

Common assumptions about the “end” of a marja‘’s leadership should also be refined. His authority can reach well beyond his lifetime as it also entails the legacies he leaves behind. In addition to his scholarship, his students constitute one such legacy. Students trained in the Najafi tradition help ensure the maintenance and dissemination of this school of thought. Among them, the most eminent mujtahids (scholar capable to derive laws through independent reasoning) are also likely to form the next generation of maraji‘. That ‘Ali Sistani has not taught for many years could be detrimental for the future of the marja‘iyya. However, the mujtahids potentially able to replace the older generation of maraji‘ in Najaf still include former students of the late Abu al-Qasim Khu’i. This is the case of Shaykh Hasan al-Jawahiri and Shaykh Muhammad Baqir al-Irawani who are both 68 years old. Others, such as Muhammad Sanad (b. 1961), have been trained by senior maraji‘, who represent the Najafi tradition in both the Iraqi and Iranian seminaries.

Recent developments in both jurisprudence and practice also contribute to keeping alive and well the influence of the maraji‘, even after their demise. The principle of taqlid al-mayyit (emulation of the deceased), which allows the emulators of a deceased marja‘ to continue following his rulings, is increasingly accepted by Shi‘i jurists and practiced by the laity.[11] Perhaps related to this development, a recent practice that is becoming commonplace is for the offspring of a deceased marja‘ and the former networks associated with him to keep his office open and projects running, as well as to find ways to continue collecting the much needed khums. The institutionalization of Abu al-Qasim al-Khu’i’s marja‘iyya in the transnational Al-Khoei Foundation and that of Lebanon’s Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah are not unique cases.[12] Muhammad Javad Tabrizi (d. 2006) was one of Qom’s maraji‘ of the Najafi tradition whose office and affiliated website are actively sustaining his legacy.[13]

The maintenance of the marja‘iyya of a deceased marja‘ will probably not survive the passing of time in the long-term. The practice can have a double impact in the short and medium-term, however. First, it adds the enduring authority of deceased maraji‘ to the total amount of authority associated with the marja‘iyya in the Najafi tradition. Illustrative of the need for Iran’s vali-ye faqih to accommodate with this is the governmental National Center for Answers to Religious Questions in Iran. It offers the users of its websites the option to obtain answers in accordance with not only ‘Ali Sistani’s and Vahid Khurasani’s legal opinions – this is in line with the inclusion of these maraji‘ among the six suitable sources of emulation identified by the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers. The name “Khu’i” is also on offer on this website.[14] Second, the possibility for the authority of a deceased marja‘ to be maintained after his death can smoothen the impact of his loss and the succession crisis it might engender.

The marja‘iyya’s potential to resist is transnational

The third feature of the marja‘iyya is its geographical scope, which is transnational. This multiplies the sites of competition with the vali-ye faqih, leaving the possibility open for the competition to have different outcomes in different locations. The situation in the Iraqi and Iranian seminaries is of paramount importance. If one should be cautious not to oversimplify the so-called Qom-Najaf rivalry – neither seminaries are homogeneous entities – each seminary remains a particularly strong sphere of influence for the vali-ye faqih and the Najafi marja‘iyya respectively. Qom hosts by far the largest community of learning of the Shi‘i world. ‘Ali Khamane’i’s success to put it under his control is a clear asset, even if, as also discussed by Ali Kadivar’s paper in this volume, more independent networks remain.

The case of Najaf needs more elaboration. Decades of Ba‘thist rule had put it in a debilitating state. It has spent the past fifteen years to start recovering. Although the size of its community of learning is still no match to Qom’s, it has steadily increased from a few hundred scholars and students in 2003 to an estimated 20,000 today. Religious institutions that had been closed or destroyed were also restored and new ones built. The potential of Najaf to flourish again has not been lost on the Iranian leadership. Efforts to spread its influence in the Iraqi hawza have ranged from pro-Khamane’i propaganda campaigns,[15] the establishment of religious and educational institutions, and attempts to prepare the ground in the hawza for the pro-vali-ye faqih Ayatollah Mahmud Hashimi Shahrudi to compete over the succession of Sistani.

However, Najaf’s leadership and larger clerical community have been able to limit this influence.[16] Preserving the autonomy of Najaf, especially in the context of the leadership vacuum that ‘Ali Sistani’s death will engender, also seems to be their priority. The Iraqi law on Shi‘i endowments is instructive in this regard. Article 4 gives the prerogative to the marja‘ a‘la (supreme marja‘) – currently Sistani – to approve the appointment of Iraq’s holy shrines’ administrators. This article is particularly illuminating for the information it provides about how this marja‘ a‘la is recognized: “and he is the jurist whom the majority of the Shi‘a of Iraq from among the jurists of Najaf al-Ashraf refer to in emulation” (emphasis mine).[17] To clarify, this article confirms the traditional role of the ahl al-khibra ( or people of experience, i.e. the more senior scholars capable to assess the knowledge of other scholars) in the identification of the marja‘. And in this case, Najaf’s senior scholars are entrusted with the role to back the candidate who will control the shrines after Sistani. The mujtahids and students I have met in Najaf are perhaps too confident that the matter will be solved “quickly.” Yet their optimism indicates that they are aware that time will be of the essence and that consensus would be preferable.

Finally, any consideration of the marja‘iyya’s authority and the nature of the competition with Iran’s vali-ye faqih should not be limited to the Shi‘i centers of scholarship in Iran and Iraq. Maraji‘ and vali-ye faqih alike exert influence transnationally through their support networks, distribution of patronage, and establishment of educational institutions. ‘Ali Khamane’i’s resources and infrastructure to do so are massive, as those are also derived from the state. The Mustafa International University is one example of the Islamic Republic’s endeavors to train an international community of scholars.[18] The transnational capacity of the Najafi marja‘iyya is best captured by the reach exercised by truly global maraji‘ of ‘Ali Sistani’s kind, or for a case of a deceased marja‘, by the Al-Khoei Foundation’s maintenance of Abu al-Qasim Khu’i’s worldwide institutional legacy. In addition, maraji‘ with less financial and networking capacities can still develop a presence in select countries. In recent years, the Afghan Ishaq al-Fayyad of Najaf has made more concrete efforts to build his marja‘iyya in his home country. Focus countries are not necessarily bound to the nationality or ethnic origin of the maraji‘. For the past decade, the Iraqi Sa‘id al-Hakim has paid particular attention to Pakistan. Similarly, national or local maraji‘ based in countries away from the centers of learning in Iraq and Iran also contribute to the transnational presence of the marja‘iyya. All in all, the transnational networks of the marja‘iyya and the vali-ye faqih often exist side by side in the many sites that make up the geography of Shi‘ism. Conditions on the ground regulate the capacity of their respective networks, as well as the interactions between them.[19]

The purpose of this memo is not to predict what the future holds for the Najafi marja‘iyya. Rather, this excursion into the internal working of the marja‘iyya, conducted not only from a present-day but also a recent historical perspective – history might matter – has highlighted the complexity of the dynamics that shape the nature and potential outcome of the competition between the marja‘iyya and vali-ye faqih models of authority.

[1] Mehdi Khalaji, The Last Marja: Sistani and the End of Traditional Religious Authority in Shiism, Policy Focus 59 (Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2006).

[2] Harith Hasan al-Qarawee, Sistani, Iran, and the Future of Shii Clerical Authority in Iraq, Middle East Brief 105 (Waltham, MA: Crown Center for Middle East Studies, 2017), pp. 5–7.

[3] For another contribution on the resilience of the clerical establishment of Najaf, see Hayder al-Khoei, ‘Post-Sistani Iraq, Iran, and the Future of Shia Islam’, War on the Rocks, 8 September 2016.

[4] Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim Politics, 2nd edn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 68.

[5] Ibid, pp. 131–135.

[6] I borrow this term from Constance Arminjon Hachem, Chiisme et État: Les Clercs à l’Épreuve de la Modernité (Paris: CNRS, 2013), p. 188.

[7] Saskia Gieling, ‘The “Marja‘iya” in Iran and the Nomination of Khamanei in December 1994’, Middle Eastern Studies, 33(4), 1997, pp. 777-787.

[8] Roy Parviz Mottahedeh, ‘The Quandaries of Emulation: The Theory and Politics of Shi‘i Manuals of Practice’, The Ninth Farhat J. Ziadeh Distinguished Lecture in Arab and Islamic Studies (Seattle: University of Washington, 2011), p. 14.

[9] On this development from a jurisprudential perspective, see ibid, pp. 13–14. On the adoption of this practice, see Moojan Momen, Shi‘i Islam: A Beginner’s Guide (London: Oneworld, 2016), p. 222.

[10] See the Society’s website (http://www.jameehmodarresin.org/).

[11] Mottahedeh, ‘The Quandaries of Emulation’, pp. 11–13, 17; Morgan Clarke, ‘After the Ayatollah: Institutionalisation and Succession in the marjaʿiyya of Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Faḍl Allāh’, Die Welt des Islams, 56(2), 2016, pp. 164–168.

[12] Elvire Corboz, Guardians of Shi‘ism: Sacred Authority and Transnational Family Networks (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), ch. 3; Clarke, ‘After the Ayatollah’.

[13] See http://tabrizi.org/.

[14] See http://www.pasokhgoo.ir/.

[15] On this, see the anecdote on the publication in Najaf of My Leader Khamenei with a forged endorsement by Sistani in Al-Khoei, ‘Post-Sistani Iraq’.

[16] See for example how Mahmud Hashimi Shahrudi’s plans to move to Najaf were curbed in Al-Qarawee, Sistani, Iran, and the Future of Shii Clerical Authority in Iraq, p. 6.

[17] Al-‘Atabat al-‘Alawiyat al-Muqaddasa, Dalil al-‘Atabat al-‘Alawiyat al-Muqaddasa: Tarikh wa I‘mar…, vol. 42 (Beirut: Dar al-Rafidayn, 2011), p. 320.

[18] Keiko Sakurai, ‘Making Qom a Centre of Shi‘i Scholarship: Al-Mustafa International University’, in Masooda Bano and Keiko Sakurai (eds), Shaping Global Islamic Discourses: The Role of al-Azhar, al-Medina, and al-Mustafa (Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press in association with The Aga Khan University, 2015).

[19] For an ethnographic study of the institutions associated with the Najafi marja‘iya and with Iran’s vali-ye faqih in a micro-locale, see Radhika Gupta, ‘Experiments with Khomeini’s Revolution in Kargil: Contemporary Shi‘a Networks between India and West Asia’, Modern Asian Studies, 48(2), 2014, pp. 370–98.


The Najafi Marja‘iyya in the Age of Iran’s Vali-ye Faqih (Guardian Jurist): Can it Resist?