“The turbaned man used to be holy,” a cleric complained to me. It was winter in the holy city of Najaf, and we were sitting in a sunlit office in one of the newer international religious seminaries. The cleric, who was the head of the seminary, had his door open as students in traditional clerical garb passed through the halls. It looked, in many ways, like a high school. The students’ faces were young and open. They came from countries near and far, foreign, and familiar to the average Iraqi: Lebanon, Iran, Senegal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and others. When I spoke to the students, they responded in perfect formal Arabic, but often deferred substantive questions to their teachers. They came to Najaf with a mission, hailing from communities where the Shia were persecuted minorities, unlike Iraq today.

Only two decades ago, the existence of such a school would have been impossible. It was a sprawling institution, clearly well financed, and operating freely and even coordinating with government officials to ease visa restrictions for its students. Before 2003, turbaned men used to be venerated by the public, and this veneration made them a threat to the state. Accordingly, the Iraqi government harassed, intimidated, deported, extorted, and executed hundreds of Shia religious clerics. Eventually, the Ba‘athist regime under Saddam Hussein attempted to co-opt and capture the religious establishment.1 Back then, clerics struggled to maintain the very existence of the revered hawza (the Shia religious educational institutions, collectively). But when the Iraqi state was remolded after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, clerics began to thrive.

Shia Islamists were the overwhelming winners of the first few elections, and they gave the Shia religious establishment and the hawza their freedoms and expanded their resources. The once-predatory and surveilling Ministry of Endowments (Awqaf) was dissolved into several endowment diwans, including the Shia Endowment Diwan, which is state-funded and whose leader is approved and designated by the head of the hawza in Najaf.2 With state surveillance gone, elite clerical offices collected tithes freely, as the more-open borders allowed pilgrims to flood into the country. For the first time in its history, the hawza was not in a contentious relationship with the Iraqi state. The reversal of fortunes is best described by Abbas Kadhim, who writes: “Suddenly the Ayatullah [Ali al-Sistani], who had been under the strictest house arrest, found himself in a position to make history and that was what he exactly did.”3

The hawza is essentially an unstructured space of religious learning, an intangible consortium of seminaries, libraries, offices, and mosques. Paradoxically, although it is an unstructured and informalized institution, it produces a rigid hierarchy of religious learning and authority, one that has captured the imagination of many. This includes the Shia Islamists that called on any affiliations with the hawza, whether tenuous or tangible, to bolster their own credibility.

After decades of training, the hawza produces a set of elite clerics that, in theory, have the authority to guide adherents in matters of personal and public affairs. They are then also able to accept the “khums” (meaning “a fifth”), a hefty religious tax that funds their seminaries and offices and that keeps them independent of state financial control. The khums is not strictly enforced (by the state or by the clerics themselves) but is a religious obligation that practicing Shia commit to by annually handing over a fifth of some of their acquired wealth to the religious establishment, to distribute amongst several strands of recipients, including the poor. In this way, elite Shia clerics, bearing the title of grand ayatollah, amass material and immaterial authority. The leaders of the religious establishment, the highest clerics, are referred to collectively as the marja’iyya. It is no surprise that they are either a threat or a potential resource to political authorities, who have vacillated between trying to destroy the institution—the hawza and the marja’iyya—or to control and benefit from it.

But this material and immaterial authority—wealth and public obedience—rests on the faith of adherents and their willingness to bestow it. If, as the cleric from the international seminary feared, the turbaned man is no longer considered holy by his adherents, then the very survival of the hawza is at stake. Without an influential hawza, the political landscape in Iraq will be stripped of an important actor, one that has often served as a mediator at critical junctures.

To reflect on this further, I unpack clerical authority and describe three forms it can take, and I show how those forms have manifested in the Iraqi public sphere over the past few years. The first form of clerical influence is the one described above: the authority a cleric wields over his adherents. The second form is the direct political authority of a cleric who has chosen to formally engage in politics. The last is the informal authority of elite clerics over politics through unofficial channels. In each of these relationships of influence, I ask: Has clerical authority changed in the last two decades, and why? What are the implications of this for Iraq’s political future?

I draw on data gathered through months of fieldwork in the hawza, where I spoke to clerics and observed their interactions in their spaces of learning and leadership. I also draw on wider fieldwork in Iraq, from interviews and conversations with activists, political leaders, and journalists who are puzzling over the future of the hawza and its place in Iraq.

Rather than subsume all types of authority under one umbrella, I disaggregate based on the three aforementioned channels of influence. These forms are not exhaustive; there are other channels of clerical influence that I allude to in the concluding section. However, these channels of influence are more measurable than others, and are frequently conflated in public discourse, which speaks about the diminishing influence of clerics without delineating which exact type of influence is diminishing. Ultimately, I argue that clerical authority over adherents has steadily decreased in the last few years and has now plateaued. Direct clerical authority over politics— at least, such authority that is visible to the public—has become more costly for clerics. Indirect clerical authority, however, continues to function, but is the most difficult to measure. As such, policymakers and analysts should recognize that, as clerical authority over adherents has waned, clerical desire to become visibly involved in politics has also lessened, as a result.

Debating Clerical Influence

Both journalistic accounts of the marja’iyya and scholarly works on Iraq that brush up against the topic of religion tend to paint Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as a powerful, charismatic, and secluded leader.4 However, traditional Islamic authority (and not only in Shia contexts), does not premise leadership on charisma, but on scholarly credentials and being able to reproduce the prophetic tradition.5 Authority is then manifested in a cleric’s ability to move an individual to a particular behavior without the use of coercion, due to a claim to scholarly religious credentials. Charisma is the realm of those who cannot make a claim to the prophetic tradition through a reputation of scholarship. It is not the traditional realm of those who inhabit a centuries-old seminary, like the hawza.

 If the turbaned man is no longer considered holy by his adherents, then the very survival of the hawza is at stake.

Therefore, if an individual loses their Islamic authority, it signifies something much larger than the community’s disavowal of an individual: it actually represents the community’s disavowal of an entire institution and its ability to be the legitimate interpreter of the prophetic tradition. In other words, if Sistani has lost his ability to influence adherents, then it does not bode well for the hawza as an institution because, as research on the hawza has shown, the institution reproduces a uniform set of socialized individuals.6 The stakes are great for the loss of the Shia religious establishment’s influence over adherents in Iraq. Shia Muslims constitute the majority of the Iraqi population, making Sistani the spiritual leader of millions of Iraqis (in addition to the millions of adherents he has outside of Iraq). For this reason, it is critical that we understand precisely what and how much of Sistani’s influence, if any, is currently in decline.

Public and scholarly discourse over whether Sistani and the religious establishment have lost influence has been brewing for years. In 2007, Juan Cole wrote an article with a bold title, “The Decline of Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s Influence in 2006–2007,” which describes Sistani as losing political influence.7 The essay details Sistani’s theological views toward Wilayat al-Faqih (“the rule of the jurisprudent,” a theological concept made famous by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) and his participation in politics in the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion, when there was a political vacuum. The essay claims that, as of 2007, Sistani’s relevance had diminished because the post-invasion political vacuum in Iraq had been filled by other actors. Secondly, the essay claims that the Iraqi public did not listen to his pleas for peace during the sectarian civil war that was roiling Iraq at the time of publication. Sistani ignoring pleas for calm, according to Cole, represented a decline in his authority.

But where Cole saw these events as evidence of Sistani’s declining influence, they were, in hindsight, more like evidence of the limits of his authority. Sistani could not stop sectarian war—but this fact simply showed the depth of public fear and anger. Sistani’s authority did not decline so much as it was insufficient to meet the challenges of a sectarian civil war and a political system with new and ambitious leaders.

Limits to Power

These limits also explain why, years later, Sistani’s authority appeared to rise and fall precipitously. In 2014, for example, he issued a religious edict urging Iraqis to join security forces to fight the Islamic State, and commentators perceived his influence to be high: thousands of Iraqis answered the call and flocked to join various security forces, including the Popular Mobilization Units (the disparate armed groups that helped defeat the Islamic State and remain key players in Iraqi politics and the security apparatus). Here again, however, Sistani’s success in rallying Iraqis did not show a heightened authority of the religious establishment, so much as it was an example of a religious authority aligning with national security needs during a crisis when other sources of leadership were sorely lacking.

Then, in 2019, when the Tishreen Movement’s mass protests brought the country to a standstill, protesters began to heed the Friday sermons that were delivered by Sistani’s representatives in Karbala. They followed the sermons closely, as an activist from Baghdad told me in an interview: “As Iraqis, we would wait for the Friday sermons to see if the marja’iyya supported the protestors, or would stand with the politicians.”8 That the protesters followed the religious establishment’s messaging while simultaneously calling for removing religion from politics is a testament to the marja’iyya’s importance: “Even though I am secular and liberal, I still believe that there is common ground between me and the marja’iyya,” another activist told me.9 That “common ground” was a shared desire for a stable and functional state that did not exploit religious authority. Clerics see these goals as a means to restore their reputation; activists recognize that clerical influence can aid them in their cause and does not necessarily contradict their desire to separate politics from religion.10

The religious establishment proved to be a critical actor in navigating a path out of the protest movement through government change. Through its sermons, it acted as a mediator between society and state. It cautioned against the destruction of public property, criticized attacks on media, called for the prime minister to step down, and outlined a path forward through early elections. But the religious establishment had to prove itself to the public and, more importantly, prove that it did not favor the political elite over the protesters. The religious establishment, by 2018, had paid a price for its oftentimes inadvertent association with Islamist parties: the Iraqi street began to distrust the establishment and to doubt that it had the best interests of the country in mind.11 This association with Islamist parties was rooted in the fact that prominent clerics—like the late Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr and Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim—provided the theoretical and ideological basis of many Islamist parties, as Ali Al-Mawlawi explains in his report in this series.12

As Iraq’s October 2021 parliamentary elections approached (the sixth such elections since 2003), public sentiment largely rejected what they saw as a corrupted electoral system. Many Iraqis spoke of boycotting, whether out of ideological conviction or out of sheer apathy. It was in this environment, on September 29, 2021, that Sistani issued a statement encouraging Iraqis to vote: “The Supreme Religious Authority encourages everyone to participate consciously and responsibly in the upcoming elections because, although [the elections] are not without their shortcomings, they are the safest way to move the country to a future that is hopefully better than its past.”13

This statement was not the first time Sistani had encouraged participation in elections or had intervened to direct the electoral process.14 Sistani played a key role in ensuring elections took place to determine the constitutional assembly and to ratify the constitution in October 2005.15 And, later, in the second parliamentary election in December 2005, Sistani released a statement (in response to an adherent’s inquiry) stating that the election was “not less important than its predecessor [the constitution-ratifying election] and citizens—men and women—should participate widely.”16 That same year, Sistani was criticized for indirectly endorsing the United Iraqi Alliance, an umbrella group for Shia political parties, in the elections. Critics argued that he should have remained politically neutral.17 Perhaps as a result of this criticism, Sistani urged citizens to vote in 2010 while maintaining the neutrality of the marja’iyya vis-à-vis particular parties.18 In 2018, Sistani assumed neutrality by leaving the decision to vote to the individual citizen, which many interpreted as permission to boycott. In part aided by Sistani’s apathetic stance, Iraq reached an electoral nadir in the 2018 election, with its lowest turnout so far (later surpassed in 2021) and a government that would ultimately be ousted by public protests.

The ancient mosque of Kufa, built in the era of Imam Ali, in Najaf governorate, Iraq. Source: Rasool Ali/Getty Images
The ancient mosque of Kufa, built in the era of Imam Ali, in Najaf governorate, Iraq. Source: Rasool Ali/Getty Images

Political versus Cultural Influence

Sistani may have been seeking to avoid another low-turnout election when he released his September 2021 statement urging Iraqis to vote. But for the first time in years, Sistani’s entreaty seemed to have little effect. Voter turnout, according to the Independent High Electoral Commission, was 43.5 percent, an all-time low.19 It’s possible that Sistani’s statement, shortly before the election and after the voter registration deadline, was simply too late to make a difference. Nevertheless, after the elections there was a sentiment in Iraq that Sistani’s influence was waning.

These patterns provide evidence of a declining clerical authority in the political realm. However, they do not necessarily mean that clerical influence over nonpolitical issues has also declined. For example, in the wake of a disastrous earthquake in Iran in 2018, Sistani directed his followers to donate a share of the religious tax toward relief efforts.20

What we do know is this: first, that clerics are aware of and concerned about a public reputational shift. It was not just the cleric in the Najaf seminary who recognized the loss of “holiness”; even clerics who are involved in politics, like Ammar al-Hakim of the National Wisdom Movement (also known as Hikmah), admitted in an interview that in 2003 people sanctified clerics [“yuqaddis al-imama’”], but that later, people began to develop “a civil inclination.” (Hakim used the word “madani,” translated as “civil,” which connotes secular political involvement.)21 However, when I asked clerics about whether they had concerns about decreasing religiosity in the country—which could be a proxy for their decreasing authority in religious matters—surprisingly few of them expressed such a concern. “Quite the opposite,” an advanced seminary student and cleric said in a 2019 interview. “It is hard to ask a person to always be religious, 100 percent at all times, day and night. God asks this, but a human cannot logistically do it. There are too many points of weakness. Religiosity is not just praying and fasting. It is a lot of obligations.”22

Another factor complicating analysis of clerical influence is that public opinion data from Iraq, conducted over various waves by the Arab Barometer, shows that trust in religious leaders has been plateauing, after an earlier drop (see Figure 1).23

Figure 1

In other words, between 2013 and 2018, there was a marked loss of trust in religious leaders. However, between 2018 and 2021, levels of trust plateaued. These data—as well as the pendulating pattern of trust in clerics following major events in the last several years, such as the Tishreen protests—suggests that public trust in the religious establishment may yet recover. The religious establishment has aided in this rehabilitation by beginning to differentiate between politicized and non-politicized clerics, whom they have diagnosed to be the root of the clerical decline of political authority.

Direct and Indirect Influence over the Political Class

Nearly every cleric I spoke with bemoaned the Iraqi clerical establishment’s fall from grace. In the same breath, these clerics pinned the blame for this fall on politicized clerics who besmirched the reputation of their more academically oriented peers. Ironically, even one of the most politicized clerics, Hakim of the Hikma Movement, made this connection: “There is a decline [in public respect for clerics] because some have gotten involved in politics in an inappropriate manner.”24

Although Hakim’s description of “inappropriate” is vague, it does point to a lack of consensus as to what constitutes legitimate or appropriate intervention in politics. Another cleric from a prominent family, speaking anonymously, was more decisive. “The cleric who gets involved in politics is using his religious legitimacy for the benefit of political parties,” he said. “We, as a Najaf entity, do not approve of Ammar [al-Hakim] or of Muqtada [al-Sadr]. I said to myself: if [Khomeini’s] Wilayat al-Faqih is right, I will join politics. I found it incorrect and decided against politics. To enter is to become a threat.”25

What both clerics are describing above is the direct clerical participation in politics through, for example, running for office or taking up a ministerial position. However, neither mentioned the more indirect role that elite clerics can have in politics, when they influence politicians through private meetings and messaging. Given its secretive nature, this latter form of influence is hard to measure.

Direct clerical authority in politics can be measured in a more straightforward manner, and based on voting patterns, does appear to be in decline, with voters giving less support to clerics and Islamist parties generally. (See Figure 2.) The change in the public perception of Islamist parties is also palpable in the Iraqi street, and is exemplified by the views of activists. “In 2003… the population wanted a Shia leader… people used to laugh at [Adnan] Pachachi when he said, ‘get a secular leader,’” said an activist from Basra, referring to a veteran Iraqi politician who was famously opposed to the American-led occupation. “Tishreen protests showed that a huge proportion of the population is tired of Islamists and want to live a dignified life; we do not want to suffer under the mistakes of the Islamists.”26

Figure 2

The electorate has doled out some punishment to clerics in office and of Islamist parties, but this public rejection has been diluted by the electoral boycott. In my conversations with activists, many of those who rejected Islamist parties channeled their rejection into an outright refusal to vote. As a result, the evidence from the ballot box is somewhat ambiguous with regard to the rise and fall of clerics and Islamist parties. For example, while Hakim’s movement recently suffered a major loss in the election—going from nineteen seats in 2018 to only two in 2021—the Sadrist Movement gained seats.27

It is hard to generalize about the role that clerics have played in Iraqi politics over the years. There are numerous other examples of clerics who took on official positions after 2003 or who ran in elections and won seats in parliament. The first and most prominent example is Ayatollah Mohammad Bahr al-Uloom, who was the president of the Governing Council of Iraq under the Coalition Provisional Authority, first in July 2003 and then again in March 2004. Another notable cleric was Humam Hamoudi, a leader in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), who played an important role in drafting the Iraqi constitution as chairperson of the Constitutional Writing Committee. He was elected deputy speaker of parliament from 2014 to 2018. Other examples include Khalid al-Attiyah, who was also deputy speaker of parliament from 2006 to 2010. In addition, Ali al-Allaq, of the Islamic Dawa Party, was a member of parliament for multiple terms. Others from ISCI included Jalal al-Deen al-Sagheer and Mohammed al-Mashkour. Even Iyad Allawi’s “secular” Iraqi National List contained, in 2005, a clerical parliamentarian, Iyad Gamal al-Din. Many of these clerics were religious figures during the days of opposition to Saddam Hussein. They either went on to lose in later elections or did not run at all in the latest election in October 2021.

Adapting to Electoral Reality

Some clerics have tried to adapt to their electoral punishment. While Ammar al-Hakim never ran for public office or held an official title, he moved from heading an Islamist party, ISCI, to form the National Wisdom Movement, a nonreligious party.28 While Hakim maintains the image of a cleric, he is positioning himself in line with Iraqi public opinion. When the National Wisdom Movement performed poorly in the 2021 elections, however, it showed that changing rhetoric does not necessarily soften the imagery of a cleric leading a political party.

But Muqtada al-Sadr, another turban-wearing cleric from a prominent clerical family, may yet show that there is a path for clerics in politics. Sadr has not suffered at the ballot box. On the contrary, his movement won the highest number of seats of any party in the last two elections, in 2018 and 2021. Still, it is difficult to see Sadr as an example of rising clerical power in Iraq, since there are other explanations for his dominance at the polls. In particular, he owes his electoral success to an alignment of three factors: his uncontested claim to his family name and heritage; an electoral boycott; and the new 2021 electoral district law. The law divided Iraq into eighty-three districts (as opposed to the eighteen districts of previous elections) and votes were nontransferable, meaning that the strategy typically used by Sadr’s opponents—of flooding the political scene with candidates and amassing transferable votes—was now rendered useless.29

Sadr is an outlier. He represents clerical authority in politics, but not the authority of the marja’iyya.

Sadr’s following is more cult-like than religious, since he lacks traditional religious credentials. This was most recently brought into focus by a statement this year from Grand Ayatollah Kathem al-Haeri, the spiritual advisor to the Sadrists, who criticized Sadr for the chaos he was causing in Iraq, stating that he lacked the scholarly training to be a leader.30 This statement came after Sadr withdrew his representatives from parliament and took to the streets in protest, frustrated with his inability to form a majority government. Following the statement from his spiritual guide, Sadr announced a withdrawal from politics. In response, his followers resorted to violence and the country was nearly lost to a civil war between the Sadrists and rival Shia paramilitary groups. The next morning, Sadr chastised his followers and ordered them to withdraw. In a display of astounding authority, they withdrew almost immediately.

In other words, Sadr is an outlier. He represents clerical authority in politics, but not the authority of the marja’iyya, which he has no direct claim to. In another report in this series, Ben Robin-D’Cruz argues that Sadrist electoral power comes from four key sources: elite institutional capture, state capture, expertise and social capital, and the aforementioned messianic-charismatic religious authority.31

There are signs that other politically inclined clerics who are not outliers like Sadr have learned to navigate public disenchantment with Islamist parties. In the 2021 elections, an intriguing new party—Ishraqat Kanoon—emerged with six parliamentary seats and took everyone by surprise. The party attempts to merge secular civil and Islamic values, possibly in an attempt to appeal to a society that has grown distrustful of Islamists but is still conservative. The party’s members have been wary of giving interviews (they politely but firmly declined to speak to me). Despite the paucity of information available about the party, some facts have come to light—including, according to a party member who asked to remain anonymous, that it is supported by the Holy Shrines in Karbala (though not necessarily financially supported).32 Activists in Najaf and Karbala also claim that the party is tied to prominent clerical families and that it has the implicit support of the marja’iyya.33 These statements are yet to be confirmed, but if true, reflect the adaptation of the religious establishment to societal changes in Iraq.

The religious establishment has come to terms with the fact that the turbaned man is no longer perceived as holy. And because the marja’iyya obtains its power and money from the public, it will be incentivized to seek ways to ensure the continuity of those resources. This can be reflected through more deliberate distancing from politicized clerics or shifting toward more implicit and less costly forms of intervention, including the so-called Najaf Veto.

The “Najaf Veto”

The so-called Najaf Veto has taken on a nearly fable-like quality, with observers of the Iraqi elections discussing it during every government formation. It is, of course, not a real veto and not an official legal tool. Rather, it is the informal ability of the marja’iyya to reject a candidate for the premiership. It is the norm in Iraq, through informal but entrenched consociationalism, that the premiership is accorded to a Shia candidate; it follows that the candidate must also have the approval of the Shia religious establishment.

Historically, the marja’iyya has exercised its informal veto power in tense moments in Iraqi politics. The earliest example is in 2006 when Ibrahim al-Jafari was adamant on maintaining his position as prime minister, despite the dire situation in Iraq. After the bombing of the Holy Shrines in Samarra, the marja’iyya—through private channels—encouraged Jafari to step down. The same would happen with his successor, Nouri al-Maliki, after the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in 2014.34 In both these scenarios, Najaf simply prevented the political process from collapsing, and supported it getting over a hurdle in times of crisis, rather than dictating the precise outcome of the process. In both instances, the Shia political parties reached out to the religious establishment to break the political impasse.

The marja’iyya has flexed its muscles in other, similar ways. During the 2019 protest movement, the marja’iyya encouraged the prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, to resign—which he did in November 2019. Following him, three different prime minister-designates attempted to form a government; only Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the third and final candidate, succeeded. Kadhimi’s success in forming a government—and conversely, Mohammad Tawfiq Allawi and Adnan al-Zurfi’s failure to do so—were not caused by the marja’iyya’s opinion. Najaf did not push for Kadhimi; they merely did not veto him.

The Najaf Veto falls under a broader range of clerical authority—the informal authority to intervene in high politics. Another variation of this type of authority is the legitimization the marja’iyya gives certain individuals by virtue of agreeing to meet with them or exchange messages with them. Along the same lines, the decision to avoid meeting politicians can be understood as recusing oneself from the process entirely. This has been Sistani’s practice for the last few years, where he notably met with only a few Iraqi leaders (like former Iraqi presidents Jalal Talabani and Fouad Masoum) and with some world leaders, like Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, Special Representative Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, and Pope Francis.35 The evidence points to the fact that the religious establishment is recalibrating its informal political authority, rather than losing it. Najaf’s role in legitimizing politicians or vetoing them is still strong. For example, a November 2021 statement from Sistani’s office declared that the office was “not a party to any meetings, discussions, communications or consultations regarding the creation of political alliances and the formation of the next government, and there is absolutely no validity to the news that is promoted by certain parties and actors in media and social networking sites.”36

The publication of such a statement seems intended to protect the marja’iyya from political exploitation and to demonstrate to the public that the religious establishment is not responsible for the behavior of Islamist parties. However, less directly, it also shows that the Shia political class still seeks the legitimacy of the religious establishment. The question remains: if the political authority of the clerical establishment is decreasing, why would the political class still look to it for legitimacy? Perhaps Shia political parties’ learning process and adaptation are slower, or perhaps they are willing to exercise every tool at their disposal to remain relevant. The association of the religious establishment with politicized clerics is far costlier for the religious establishment than it is for the clerics themselves.

Recommendations for Policy and Research

The issue of clerical authority, particularly in politics, does not easily lend itself to making policy recommendations. It is both a sensitive topic and, if not addressed appropriately, risks raising the critique of essentialism. After all, why should religious authority matter more in the Iraqi case than elsewhere in the world?

In some ways, this bridge has already been crossed. Sistani’s role in politics—past and present—is a favorite topic of analysis, and the question of his succession informs much of the speculation about the future of politics in Iraq. In many of the reports and articles written on the matter—this one included—Sistani’s name is synonymous with that of the marja’iyya and even Najaf itself. This should not be interpreted as meaning that Najaf would be irrelevant without Sistani; rather, it indicates that Sistani is a product of the religious establishment. This assertion, along with the reflections on the nature of religious authority, should inform all future decisions made by both Iraqi policymakers and foreign policymakers interacting with Iraq.

The nature of the religious establishment’s political authority over its adherents has changed in the last few years. But the rate of decline has slowed. Simply put, policymakers, researchers, activists, and all other parties interested in the role of the religious establishment should not operate on the assumption that it will cease to be relevant in the near future. However, they should also adopt the practice of defining authority and how it is delineated.

Simply put, policymakers, researchers, and activists should not assume that the religious establishment will be irrelevant in the near future.

Engaging in more public opinion data collection—particularly panel data—could better inform analysts’ conjectures and hypotheses about the religious establishment. It is also worth remembering that the religious establishment is ultimately an academic institution, and may also be interested in studying its own influence.

Policymakers, particularly Iraqis, must remember that the hawza is an academic institution and that it can occupy an important position among global religious institutions that will ultimately be beneficial to Iraq. The hawza’s influence is not only internal and political. It can also be effective externally as well, given the appropriate environment. An example of the possibilities for international and cross-religious collaboration was Pope Francis’s meeting with Sistani in Iraq in March 2021, after which Sistani affirmed his belief that religious authorities like himself have a role in ensuring the security of Iraqi Christians.37 The meeting was possible because of the improving security environment in Iraq.

As for those policymakers who fear the religious establishment’s involvement in politics, this report has shown that the establishment’s political influence expands in times of crisis. With good governance and stability, its political role will naturally decline.

Clerical Authority Remains Relevant

To say that clerical authority has diminished in Iraq is to make a sweeping statement, one which there is no evidence to support. What can be said, however, is that the ability of elite clerics to influence politics, through voters as adherents, has indeed diminished and plateaued in recent years. Various forms of evidence point to this: public opinion data, interviews with activists and politicians and, most importantly, the acknowledgement of clerics themselves. But what this presents is not necessarily a reduction in clerical authority overall, but a limitation of clerical political authority.

Future research can inquire as to whether a reduction in clerical political authority has spillover effects onto other areas of influence. It can also inquire whether this reduction caused a decrease in public religiosity, or is a symptom of this decrease—a question as yet unanswered. The reason that Iraqi activists, politicians, and clerics give for this limitation in authority is that once clerics became involved in formal politics—in parliament, for example—their poor performance sullied the reputation of the entire religious establishment.

However, there is little evidence to suggest that elite clerical authority over adherents as politicians has been affected by this shift in public opinion. Quite the contrary, logic suggests that as politicized clerics fall from grace, they will cling ever more tightly to the legitimacy the religious establishment confers. And, in response, the religious establishment will seek to protect its reputation and to more tightly police who can and cannot use its name for political reasons. The marja’iyya is intentionally restraining itself from exerting too much authority on political figures, lest it becomes more implicated in the political system that Iraqis have rejected.

The marja’iyya’s restraint leaves many avenues of clerical authority open. Clerics can exercise formal and informal authority over different actors—voters, politicians, activists, and others. They can use religious rhetoric to send direct messages through sermons, or they can hint or suggest their approval and disapproval. They can also utilize public channels to address politicians, thereby broadcasting their involvement in politics and putting politicians in the spotlight. Or they can employ private channels to communicate with politicians. The difficulty in studying clerical authority and in analyzing or reporting on it is that certain types of authority are more easily measurable than others. Moreover, the choice of mechanism with which to relay the message is in and of itself a data point and a valuable insight as to how clerical authority works and is deployed.

This report’s methodological weakness is that it is only able to examine publicly available clerical interventions, and some private ones that have become public knowledge, but it cannot present a complete picture. As such, it cautions against a general interpretation of the rise or fall of clerical authority in a context of incomplete data.

This report has examined the direct authority of clerics over adherents who are citizens, which is a category that is of importance to Iraq’s political future. The Shia of Iraq constitute a sizable majority with great electoral power and the ability to move them to vote or to stop protesting, for example, has direct political consequences. Therefore, the scholarly and journalistic preoccupation with whether this form of authority is growing or weakening is understandable. However, analysts should exercise caution when drawing conclusions about this question—authority is not only political, and voters are not the only adherents with political power. Future analysis should attempt to detangle and make clear the reach of religious authority. Clerics understand that their authority can be intricate, and their influence both direct and indirect. Researchers must understand this, too.

This report is part of “Faith and Fracture,” a TCF project supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Cover Photo: A man in Karbala, Iraq, with the Shrine of Imam Hussein in background. Source: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images.


  1. Samuel Helfont, Compulsion in Religion, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018); and Abbas Kadhim, “The Hawza Under Siege,” Boston University, 2013.
  2. For a discussion of the religious endowment and its relation to Shia theology, see Haider Ala Hamoudi, “Engagements and Entanglements: The Contemporary Waqf and the Fragility of Shi’i Quietism,” The Journal of Law and Religion 35, no. 2 (2020): 215–49.
  3. Abbas Kadhim, “Forging A Third Way: Sistani’s Marja’iyya between Quietism and Wilayat Al-Faqih,” in Iraq, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World, ed. Ali Paya and John Esposito (New York: Routledge, 2010), 69–73.
  4. Mustafa al-Kadhimi, “Sistani Calls for ‘Civil State’ in Iraq,” Al-Monitor, January 16, 2013, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2013/01/iraq-sistani-calls-civil-state.html.
  5. Ismail Fajrie Alatas, What Is Religious Authority? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).
  6. Marsin Alshamary, “Prophets and Priests: Religious Leaders and Protest in Iraq” (PhD Dissertation, MIT, 2020).
  7. Juan R. I. Cole, Juan, “The Decline of Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s Influence in 2006-2007,” Die Friedens-Warte 82 no. 2–3 (2007): 67–83.
  8. Activist from Baghdad, Iraq, interview with the author, October 2021.
  9. Activist from Najaf, Iraq, interview with the author, November 2021.
  10. For a review of relations between liberal activists and clerics, see Marsin Alshamary, “The Protestor Paradox: Who do anti-Islamist Activists Look Toward Clerical Leadership?,” The Brookings Institution, 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/FP_20220425_protestor_paradox_alshamary_v2.pdf.
  11. Marsin Alshamary, “Religious Peacebuilding in Iraq: Prospects and Challenges from the Hawza,” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 15, no. 4 (2021): 494–509.
  12. Ali Al-Mawlawi, 2022, “Discursive Politics and the Portrayal of Shia Islamists vis-à-vis the Iraqi State,” forthcoming in this series.
  13. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, “The Statement of His Eminence’s Office Issued Concerning the Upcoming Parliamentary Elections in Iraq” (in Arabic), Najaf: The Office of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani, September 29, 2021, https://www.sistani.org/arabic/statement/26536/.
  14. Kadhim, “Forging a Third Way.”
  15. E. H. Braam, “All Roads Lead to Najaf: Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s Quiet Impact on Iraq’s 2010 Ballot and Its Aftermath,” Journal of International & Global Studies 2, no. 1 (2010): 1; and Babak Rahimi, Ayatollah Sistani and the Democratization of Post-Ba‘athist Iraq (United States Institute of Peace, 2007).
  16. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, “A Question Regarding the Iraqi Elections” (in Arabic), Najaf: The Office of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani, 2005, https://www.sistani.org/arabic/archive/288/.
  17. Rahimi, Ayatollah Sistani.
  18. Braam, “All Roads Lead to Najaf.”
  19. Independent High Electoral Commission, “2021 Iraqi Council of Representatives Elections—Final Results by Electoral District,” https://ihec.iq.
  20. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, “His Eminence (May His Shadow Persist) Permits His Followers in Iran to Help Those Affected by the Recent Earthquake,” Najaf: The Office of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani, 2018, https://www.sistani.org/arabic/archive/25692/.
  21. Interview with the author, Baghdad, Iraq, June 2019. On “madani,” see Alshamary, “The Protestor Paradox.
  22. Author interview with advanced seminary student in Najaf, Iraq, January 2019.
  23. Arab Barometer Wave III, V, and VI (Iraq).
  24. Hakim, interview.
  25. Anonymous cleric, interview with the author, Baghdad, Iraq, September 2021.
  26. Activist from Basra, interview with the author, September 2020.
  27. Hamzeh Hadad, “Path to Government Formation in Iraq,” Konrad Adenaeur Foundation, 2022, https://www.kas.de/documents/266761/0/Hamzeh+Hadad+-+Path+to+Government+Formation+in+Iraq+2022.pdf/54d58e79-343a-8460-6c1d-a02c34f986b1?version=1.0&t=1641904073323.
  28. Abbas Kadhim, “A Major Crack In Iraqi Shia Politics,” The Huffington Post, July 24, 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/a-major-crack-in-iraqi-shia-politics_b_59766ab6e4b01cf1c4bb72bd.
  29. By contrast, Ammar al-Hakim is one of many prominent members of the Hakim family. The legacy of the family is undoubtedly held by the recently deceased Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Saeed al-Hakim.
  30. Jonathan Guyer, “Why Iraq Could Be Approaching Another Civil War, Explained by an Expert,” Vox, September 1, 2022, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2022/9/1/23331369/iraq-civil-war-muqtada-al-sadr.
  31. Ben Robin-D’Cruz, “The Sadrist Electoral Machine in Basra,” Century International, October 11, 2022, ​​https://tcf.org/content/report/the-sadrist-electoral-machine-in-basra/.
  32. Anonymous member of Ishraqat Kanoon, interview with the author, November 2021.
  33. Anonymous activists in Karbala and Najaf, interviews with the author, November 2021.
  34. Loveday Morris, “A Letter from Sistani Turned the Tide against Iraq’s Leader,” Washington Post, August 12, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/a-letter-from-sistani-turned-the-tide-against-iraqs-leader/2014/08/13/3b3426cf-60ee-4856-ad26-d01a9c6cc9c3_story.html.
  35. See “Iraqi President Visits Shiite Cleric Al Sistani Adds Presser,” published to AP Archive YouTube channel, July 21, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-8-6jq5WNA; “Iraqi President Visits Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani in the Holy City of Najaf,” published to AP Archive YouTube channel, August 3, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SG9NjyiGPfc; Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, “His Eminence Sayyid Sistani receives a visit from Iranian President Dr. Hasan Rouhani” (in Arabic), Najaf: The Office of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini Al-Sistani, March 13, 2019, https://www.sistani.org/english/archive/26259/; “Iraq’s Top Shiite Cleric Backs Early Parliamentary Elections,” September 13, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/virus-outbreak-middle-east-ali-al-sistani-elections-iraq-b03bfca1e93d0e2efd5986fe022b5137; and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, “A Statement Issued by the Office of the Supreme Religious Authority of World’s Shia Muslims, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Regarding His Meeting with the Grand Pontiff, the Pope,” Najaf: The Office of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, March 6, 2021,https://www.sistani.org/english/statement/26508/.
  36. Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s Office, “A Statement from a Source in the Office of His Eminence with Regard to New Government Formation in Iraq,” November 2, 2021, https://www.sistani.org/arabic/archive/26538/.
  37. “Pope Francis Meets Iraq’s Shia Leader al-Sistani,” Al Jazeera, March 6, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/6/pope-francis-meets-iraqs-shia-leader-al-sistani#:~:text=Pope%20Francis%20has%20met%20with,Iraq’s%20long%2Dbeleaguered%20Christian%20minority.