Reimagining the Hawza and the State: According to Shi‘a clerics, what is the ideal relationship between religion and the state?

This chapter is part of POMEPS Studies 35: Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq. Download the full PDF here.

Marsin Alshamary, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

If you see the rulers at the doors of the scholars, then what good rulers and what good scholars. If you see the scholars at the doors of the rulers, then what wretched scholars and what wretched rulers.[1]

This view articulated to me by a cleric in Najaf is shared by most Shi‘a clerics I interviewed in Iraq. Whether Najafi or Kerbalai and whether elite or non-elite, Shi‘a clerics view themselves as the spiritual fathers of the Iraqi nation. They describe the role of the Marja‘ya (the leadership of the religious establishment) as “guardians of the political process,”[2] “paternalistic,”[3] and “a safety valve”[4] to be activated during crises, particularly in instances of war and violence. Other researchers have documented how Shi‘a clerics have employed de-escalatory rhetoric in critical times, such as the civil war and the war with ISIS. Scholars have also documented clerical involvement in high-level politics, such as government formation and elections (Al-Qarawee 2018; Sayej 2018).

Shi‘a politicians have nonetheless oftentimes found themselves quite literally at the doors of the scholars[5] and have complained about the informal veto power of the clerics. [6]  Most clerics, by contrast, do not view themselves as having undue influence over the state but rather complain that “the government [and] the politicians only hear what they want” and more specifically, that they disregard most of the statements of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the head of the religious establishment.[7] Iraqi clerics do not view their involvement in politics as antithetical to the democratization process but, rather, in defense of it against state encroachment.

These countervailing views on who is exerting undue influence on whom are emblematic of the general confusion surrounding the relationship between religion and the state in Iraq. This essay seeks to alleviate some of this confusion by presenting the perspective of Shi‘a clerics. This is an important perspective to document because Shi‘a clerics are influential actors in a political system in which Shi‘a dominance is becoming entrenched (as both Fanar Haddad and Toby Dodge demonstrate). In order to document these views, I rely on semi-structured interviews conducted with clerics in Najaf, Kerbala, and Baghdad between November 2018 and January 2019.[8] The interviewed clerics tended to be of two-types: mainstream and seminary-associated (students or teachers of various ranks) or clerical members of the Islamist Da‘wa Party.[9]

I recognize that the rhetoric clerics employ in interviews may be intentionally palatable to a Western audience.[10] Still, it is important to at least understand what concepts like “democracy” and “the state” mean to these influential actors on their own terms. To that end, I asked Iraqi clerics: “In your opinion, which state enjoys an ideal relationship between its religious institutions and its state institutions?” and  “What is the ideal relationship between religious institutions and state institutions?”[11] The purpose of the first question is to highlight potential state models for Iraq to imitate or to avoid. The second question is meant to motivate clerics to reflect specifically on the Iraqi case.

Models for the separation of religion and the state

The first question assesses clerical views towards the model of separation of religion and the state in other countries. The Iraqi case cannot be discussed without mention of regional models and particularly Iran and its system of rule of the jurisprudent (Wilayat Al-Faqih). The Iranian example has impacted views of Iraqi clerics in two key ways: first by raising the potential of the development of a similar model in Iraq and secondly (and, conversely) by describing the Najafi school as “quietist[12].”

Interviews and previous scholarship suggest that both views are simplistic. What may come as a surprise to some is that none of the interviewed clerics suggested that the Iranian model, broadly defined as direct clerical leadership of the state, was appropriate for Iraq. Rather, many clerics tactfully cautioned against it:

No state treats religious institutions in a good way. You have Saudi Arabia and you have other countries. I don’t need to say, it is clear which ones. These are political states, governments… the Mufti, the Sheikh of al-Azhar, the Marja‘a, if they want to silence him then they can silence him.[13]

Fears of the development of a theocracy in Iraq are not entirely baseless. After all, Khomeini himself had similarly described his role as that of the guardian of the political system[14]. However, most Iraqi clerics (historically and presently) are doctrinally opposed to Khomeini’s Wilayat Al-Faqih model, suggesting that it is inappropriate for a state as religiously and ethnically diverse as Iraq. However, their lack of support for the Iranian model does not translate neatly into apoliticism – be it in the form of “quietism” that scholars of Shi‘ism use to describe the Najafi Hawza or the more disparaging accusation of “silence” that internal critics have employed:[15]

Every mujtahid and Marja‘a sees his position and his responsibilities as different. Sistani sees himself as speaking and giving advising and when there is time for jihad, he issued jihad. People who divide in this way do not understand history. Sayed Sistani is the student of Sayed Khoei. They characterize Sayed Khoei as the silent Hawza. The one who gives a fatwa of jihad [against ISIS], can he [Sistani] be called a silent Hawza? Therefore, this division is not a correct division.[16]

Many of the clerics I interviewed suggested a broader Western model as an alternative. Their conception of the West generally did not distinguish between Europe and the United States and, rather, fixated on general values like the freedom of religious practice and expression. Some who had visited Western countries were firm in their views: “in general the best countries for practicing your faith.”[17] Others spoke with a hopeful caution: “I hear that there is freedom in the West…there is the state that gives freedom to the religious institution.”[18]

The answers given to this question suggest that there is a divide between what clerics see as typical models of religion-state relations and what scholars and policymakers see (or, fear). Regional models – Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia – are largely ignored by clerics (with the exception of Oman). A general understanding of a Western model appeals to many others for its commitment to religious freedom. However, it is yet unclear what they understand the parameters of religious freedom to be in this model.

Theorizing religion and the state in Iraq  

My second question helps clarify these parameters by exploring the theoretical ideal relationship between religion and the state. This allows clerics to reflect on their own experiences and what they value. For example, clerics highly value their intellectual independence from the state and fear the transformation of their institution into Al-Azhar University (in Egypt) or Al-Mustafa College (in Iran).

Furthermore, their experience of repression under Ba‘athism has made them wary of the state. As Helfont demonstrates, the Ba‘athist government actively attempted to exert control over the academic production of religion by producing state-friendly clerics. This experience has led clerics to prioritize their independence, which they derive from the financial and ideological support of followers:

The Shi‘a marja‘a should be independent and should not be close to the sultan. They do not need to get money or authority from the government. They have authority and prestige and money and love from the people. People kiss their hands.[19]

The political economy of the religious establishment is difficult to study given the secrecy surrounding the various institutions (clerical offices, shrines, and other religious endowments). However, an obvious point of contention between religion and the state is in the management of funds. Shi‘a clerics have consolidated control over many religious endowments and the public offices which oversee them (Hasan 2019). This includes the very lucrative shrine institutions which have monopolized certain industries in the south (particularly in Kerbala[20]). In one example, Omar Sirri describes the takeover of the Al-Rahman Mosque in Baghdad by an Islamist party associated with an elite cleric.

This involvement in the market space raises the question of what role religious institutions occupy in civil society. Is religion part of civil society? Some clerics think this would be ideal: “religious institutions are like other civil society institutions – they must be free. They have a role to monitor and to critique and to encourage people to act.”[21]

On the other hand, other clerics stressed that religious institutions were unique and not simply civil society associations. Thus, while they value freedom and rule of law, they do not find this to be in contradiction with their supervisory and expanding role. For example, the same cleric who claimed, “the ideal relationship, as I tell you, the religious laws must support law and order and it [the religious establishment] must command believers to submit to law and not to break it,” also described the religious establishment as “paternalistic” and as a “father” who has “spiritual authority over society.”[22] This tension between this rhetoric of freedom and the paternalistic notion of guidance suggests a blurred definition of freedom. This definition may privilege certain notions of freedom which are outside of clerical control (i.e. freedom of religion) over other forms that are traditionally within clerical domain (i.e. social freedoms). 


 Thus, clerics are able to employ the rhetoric of democracy, but they are simultaneously unable to recognize that their self-ascribed paternalistic role is inherently undemocratic. Their motivations for espousing this role stem from their desire to maintain their independence and to protect themselves from state control. What can potentially be harmful is that their professions of loyalty to democracy may make the need to negotiate their position in society less urgent. There is a true fear, however, of stickiness in politics: if religious-state relations continue to go unaddressed in Iraq, the informal will gradually take on the characteristics of the permanent. Some suggest that it already has and that clerics are becoming stake-holders in an entrenched political system.


[1] Interview with Mohammad Al-Qubanchi. Najaf, Iraq. December 2018. Translated by the author. Original Arabic quote:

 إذا رأيت الحاكم على باب العالم فنعم الحاكم ونعم العالم ، وإذا رأيت العالم على باب الحاكم فبئس العالم و بئس الحاكم

[2] Ibid.

[3] Interview with Ali Shukri. Karrada, Baghdad, Iraq. December 2018.

[4] Interview with Hadi Al-Modaressi. London, UK. October 2017.

[5] Sistani has met with many politicians including Hayder Al-Abadi and most recently Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Nabih Berri of Lebanon.

[6] The idea of a Marja‘ya “veto-power” has been expressed by many Iraqi politicians (including Islamists), see for example interview with Bahaa Al-Araji.

[7] Interview with anonymous cleric (anonymous by request). Najaf, Iraq. January 2019.

[8] This essay is part of a longer project on the separation of religion and the state from the religious actor perspective. The evidence presented in this essay is suggestive and preliminary.  

[9] A missing component of the analysis is the Sadrist Movement whose clerical members I have not interviewed. Although they are largely considered to be outside the mainstream religious establishment they are nonetheless critical actors in the Iraqi state and in the discourse on the role of religion in politics in Iraq.

[10] At the same time, this was one of the questions that I received requests for anonymity for. Therefore, there are a few times in this essay where I quote clerics anonymously (in some instances, I do so without their request).

[11] In Arabic this question was:

برأيكم ما هي الدولة التي تتمتع بعلاقة مثالية بين المؤسسات الدينية والمؤسسات الحكومية؟  

وما هي العلاقة المثالية بين المؤسسات الدينية والمؤسسات الحكومية؟

[12] The term “quietist” is often used in academic discourse to refer to clerics who are apolitical and stands in contrast with “activist” clerics who engage in politics. Certain clerics are associated with each term. Most contemporary scholars of Shi‘ism have dispelled the myth of quietism in the Iraqi Hawza or at least, have cautioned that it is overly simplistic. See, for example: (Al-Qarawee 2018; Corboz 2015; Louer 2012; Sayej 2018).  

[13] Interview with anonymous cleric (anonymous at his request). Najaf, Iraq. January 2019.

[14] In his famous interview with Oriana Fallaci, Khomeini explained that “Since the people love the clergy, have faith in the clergy, want to be guided by the clergy, it is right that the supreme religious authority should oversee the work of the Prime Minister or of the President of the republic, to make sure that they don’t make mistakes or go against the law” see: (An Interview With KHOMEINI 1979).

[15] The accusation of “silence” was made by Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq Al-Sadr in the late 1990s against Grand Ayatollah Sistani (and the school of Grand Ayatollah Khoei in general).

[16] Interview with Mohammad Ali Bahraluloom. Najaf, Iraq. December 2017.

[17] Interview with Jawad Al-Khoei. Najaf, Iraq. December 2018.

[18] Interview with Ahmed Kashif Al-Ghita. Najaf, Iraq. January 2019.

[19] Interview with Hussein Baraka Al-Shami. Baghdad, Iraq. January 2018.

[20] Many Kerbalais complain about the monopoly of the Al-Kafeel Company (associated with the Imam Abbas Shrine). The company runs factories, hospitals, school and even provide cellular services.

[21] Interview with Mohammad Al-Qubanchi. Najaf, Iraq.  December 2018

[22] Interview with Ali Al-Taleqani. Kerbala, Iraq. December 2018.