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Shiites break ground in Washington DC: An interview with Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Hakim

Written By | Feb 5, 2014

WASHINGTON, February 6, 2014 – This month, Communities Digital News sat down with Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Hakim, a high ranking Shiite Muslim scholar visiting the United States. Recently, Ayatollah al-Hakim spoke at the United States Institute of Peace, at a closed doors event, on the relationship between the United States and Iraq. Last week, he was one of the first Ayatollahs to speak to a Western audience about the infamous “Shiite Crescent” at a roundtable hosted at the Brookings Institute.

Before moving to the interview itself, it is important to understand the role and position of Ayatollahs within the Shia Muslim academic sphere.

In contrast to the Sunni system of decentralized religious scholars, Shia Muslims utilize a more direct approach. Religious seminaries in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Qum allow students to complete three main levels of study. The lowest level is akin to a Bachelor’s degree from a college in the United States, and is called muqadamat; the intermediate level is closer to a Master’s degree and is called sutooh; and the advanced degree is akin to a Ph.D and is called bahth al kharij.

Finishing the bahth al kharij level typically takes approximately ten years, and in some cases can take as long as twenty years. When an individual has completed the highest level with sufficient expertise and knowledge, through a process with more than a thousand years of history, they can achieve level of ijtihad, and then are given the title of Ayatollah. As a unique privilege and responsibility, when a person achieves ijtihad, they are capable of deriving Islamic law.

The word “Ayatollah” literally means “sign of God,” but functionally is only a title of respect. Some minor details of the process may differ from one Shia seminary to another, but Sunni Muslims utilize a different methodology to derive Islamic law and grant the degree of ijtihad. Sunni Muslims do not call their scholars by the title of “Ayatollah” whatsoever, making it an exclusively Shia term.

A unique aspect of Shiite Islam is that the seminaries search amongst the Ayatollahs for those who are exceptional in their knowledge of Islamic law. In extremely rare circumstances, an Ayatollah will demonstrate unique foresight and adeptness in Islamic law. In this case, other Ayatollahs will nominate him to be granted the rank and title of Grand Ayatollah, and ask him to create a written set of Islamic rulings to be distributed to the public.  There are other ways of becoming a Grand Ayatollah, but they are exceptions more than the rule.

Shia Muslims are obligated to look towards the Grand Ayatollahs to understand how to perform Islamic practices and follow religious law.

There are only a handful of living Grand Ayatollahs in the world today, and each of them sustain a large following.  Astoundingly, four of them reside in the Iraqi city of Najaf.

The most well-known such individual is Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani. He popularly pushed for a “one man, one vote” system in the early days of the new Iraqi government and is credited with preventing a full civil war in Iraq. His likely successor, according to London based think tank Chatham House (and many others in the Najaf seminary), is Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Saeed al-Hakim, and is like minded in his push for peace.

Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Hakim is a relative of the latter Grand Ayatollah, but strongly reiterates that he has not come to the United States in any sort of formal or representative capacity. Instead, he seeks only to open a dialogue between the United States and Iraq as a whole, a process he believes has been long in coming.

Of the four that reside in Najaf, each Grand Ayatollah is a different race. Grand Ayatollah Sistani was born into an Iranian family of scholars, (his well known predecessor, the late Grand Ayatollah Khoei, was Turkish). Grand Ayatollah Fayyad hails from Afghanistan, and Grand Ayatollah Najafi is Pakistani. Interestingly, of the four, only Grand Ayatollah Hakim is Iraqi.

In Part 2 of this article series, we’ll talk with Ayatollah al-Hakim to get his insight on world affairs and religious issues.

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Rahat Husain

Rahat Husain has been working as a columnist since 2013 when he joined the Communities. With an interest in America and Islam, Rahat is a prolific writer on contemporary and international issues. In addition to writing for the Communities, Rahat Husain is an Attorney based in the Washington DC Metropolitan area. He is the Director of Legal and Policy Affairs at UMAA Advocacy. For the past six years, Mr. Husain has worked with Congressmen, Senators, federal agencies, think tanks, NGOs, policy institutes, and academic experts to advocate on behalf of Shia Muslim issues, both political and humanitarian. UMAA hosts one of the largest gatherings of Shia Ithna Asheri Muslims in North America at its annual convention.