In his new book, God’s Man in Iraq: The Life and Leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Century International fellow Sajad Jiyad draws on original sources and hundreds of interviews during decades of fieldwork inside Iraq to show how Sistani, as the revered senior Shia cleric in a Shia-majority country, commands the loyalty of millions of faithful. With quiet authority, Sistani has tried from behind the scenes to steer Iraq through a series of existential crises since the U.S. invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. During decades of turmoil, war, and regime change in Iraq, Sistani has loomed above every other cleric and politician.
In the summer of 2014, as the Islamic State stormed across Iraq, an ascetic Shia cleric raised his voice and rallied the country to stop the extremists’ bloody march.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, at the time eighty-five years old, delivered a decree through a Friday prayer sermon on June 13, 2014: “Citizens who are able to bear arms and fight terrorists in defense of their country, people, and sanctities,” he said, “must volunteer to join the security forces.”
The decree, which came to be known as the jihad fatwa, successfully rallied Iraqis—across ethnic and sectarian backgrounds—to repel the Islamic State. The moment is but one of the starkest examples of Sistani’s decisive influence, not just in Iraq but in the wider world of Shia Islam. Sistani has done more to stabilize Iraq than any other figure, and has appealed to perhaps a majority of the world’s Shia Muslims with his indirect model of clerical authority—a stark contrast to the competing model of direct clerical rule advanced by his rivals in Iran.
Sistani is now ninety-three, and contenders have already begun positioning themselves to succeed him. Jiyad assesses the players and the complex selection process for Najaf’s leadership.
Observers of Iraq and of Shia power will find God’s Man in Iraq an incomparable appraisal of Sistani’s legacy—and an invaluable guide to the perilous transition that will follow his tenure.
God’s Man in Iraq is available online and from booksellers. The book was produced as part of “Faith and Fracture,” a Century International project supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Open Society Foundations.
About the Author
Sajad Jiyad is a fellow at Century International and director of the Shia Politics Working Group. An Iraqi political analyst based in Baghdad, he is the managing director of Bridge, an Iraqi nongovernmental organization and consultancy focused on development projects for young people. Sajad’s main focus is on public policy and governance in Iraq. He is frequently published and cited as an expert commentator on Iraqi affairs. Sajad’s educational background is in economics, politics, and Islamic studies.