The Prominent Figure as al-Sistani’s Potential Successor: al-Irvani

SHIA STUDIESOPINION 15.12.2021
Mushtaq Al-Hilo Senior Expert

The most prominent figure among the candidates for the succession of al-Sistani is al-Irvani.

Since the formation of the marja al-taqlid position (highest-ranking authorities of Twelver Shia community, who execute shariah) in the Shia sect a couple of centuries ago, the primary marja al-taqlid has been chosen among clerics from Najaf without consideration of their nationality or ethnicity. That is why Najaf has always hosted several clerics from different Shiite communities. The four marja al-taqlids that have come into prominence in the last 20 years are from Najaf: Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Iranian origin, Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Saeed al-Hakim of Iraqi origin, Ayatollah Mohammad Ishaq al-Fayadh of Afghani origin, and Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi of Indian origin. Madrasas of Najaf lost a great cleric with the death of Ayatollah al-Hakim in September 2020.

A New Move From Ayatollah al-Irvani

Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Irvani has opened his own office in Najaf a few weeks ago. Undoubtedly, having an office of one’s own does not make someone a marja al-taqlid. Nevertheless, what is significant in this incident is the person who opened the office and the attitudes of the religious circles towards the opening of the office. Considering the issue from this angle, it seems that al-Irvani’s move does not only aim to fill in for Ayatollah al-Hakim but also intends to take Ayatollah al-Sistani’s position after him.

According to the custom, it is highly unlikely for the other two grand marja al-taqlids to replace al-Sistani because of their age, even if they are alive in the event of al-Sistani’s death. As it has been seen in the past periods, the clerics who have been chosen as the marja al-taqlids are mostly 60-70 years old. The reason behind this fact is to prevent any potential instability and weakness that may arise from the frequent change in the office due to the deaths of the clerics, who work as the highest religious authority, on short notice. Indeed, a younger cleric may govern the madrasas at least for 10-15 years.

Can al-Irvani Be the Successor of al-Sistani?

Al-Irvani seems to have the expected characteristics more than anyone among the possible candidates who may fill al-Sistani’s shoes after him. Even though al-Irvani is not a grandson of the Prophet, it should be noted that this is not an obstacle for being the primary marja al-taqlid. We should also remember that al-Irvani’s office was opened with the support of al-Sistani’s office. Therefore, it may be considered as the confirmation of al-Sistani for al-Irvani’s candidacy. Al-Irvani’s capability as a scholar, his intellectual path, and his personality can be illustrated as the main reasons behind this support. In the meantime, Ali al-Madan, an Iraqi researcher on religious studies, claims that Mohammad Reza, the son of al-Sistani, has been influential in the decision for support. According to al-Madan, there are some claims towards Mohammad Reza that he wants to eliminate by supporting al-Irvani such as he wants to replace his father and he aims to set a new custom for the relevant office by doing so. Al-Madan also believes that Mohammad Reza intends to continue his current job in his father’s office after him, probably in al-Irvani’s office. Mohammad Reza is 13 years younger than Ayatollah al-Irvani, and if al-Irvani replaces al-Sistani, it will increase Mohammad Reza’s chances to be the next candidate.

The support of al-Sistani’s office for al-Irvani to be a marja al-taqlid can be considered as an intelligent move from the administration of the Najaf Howzah since the atmosphere after October 2019 Protests necessitated the rise of an Iraqi religious leader in terms of strengthening the national identity. A non-Iraqi figure who has the highest religious authority would not be welcomed by the Iraqi youth and it could weaken the relevant office. Even though al-Irvani has Yerevan-Turk origins, he is better known for being an Iraqi. He has only Iraqi citizenship and does not speak any other languages other than Arabic.

In addition to the support of al-Sistani’s office, al-Irvani may also gain the endorsement of pro-Iranian groups in Iraq since his origins go back to Yerevan that was governed by Iran in the past. Furthermore, he lived for 20 years in Qom, the religious center of Iran, and gave lectures in the howzehs in this region. Besides, he has never adopted an anti-Iranian attitude.

Al-Irvani is known as a humble and respectful cleric who has a modest lifestyle and friendly relations with other clerics, and he is loved by his students. Due to these characteristics of him, the opening of his office is welcomed not only in Najaf but also in Qom, Gulf countries, and other Shiite circles in Lebanon.

Until today, al-Irvani has shown no interest in holding something like an office, and his actions did not imply any ambition to be a marja al-taqlid. Most importantly, he has not published his Risalah Amaliya (a pamphlet prepared by marja al-taqlids on the subjects of fiqh and religious practices for their followers) yet. The books that he has published so far have predominantly shown textbook quality. Since publishing a book that includes the personal ideas and interpretations of the writer regarding religious issues mean that the writer claims to be marja al-taqlid, it is not received well by religious circles. Seemingly, al-Irvani has been aware of this situation and tried to avoid making this mistake. His attitude on this issue that is appreciated by the relevant circles, increases his chance to have al-Sistani’s office after him.

Who Is al-Irvani?

Al-Irvani’s ancestors moved to Najaf for religious education approximately 200 years ago. His grandfather Fadhil al-Irvani was a prominent cleric in his time. His father, Mohammed Taqi Fadhil al-Irvani (1913-2005), was also a cleric who lived in Najaf. Muhammad Baqir Irvani was born in 1949 in Najaf. He took the majority of his classes from Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr and Ali al-Sistani. Although he tried to avoid political activities, he went to Iran in 1984 and lived in Qom until 2003 following the execution of Ayatollah Sadr, one of his teachers, by the Saddam regime.

According to the statement of a friend of his, when he wanted to go to Qom, his teacher Ayatollah al-Khoei said to him: “If you leave, who is going to give lectures in Najaf?” Al-Irvani, in fact, is a true scholar. He devoted 50 years of his life to teaching fiqh and usul al-fiqh. He had taught kharij al-fiqh (the highest level in religious education) for 30 years in this period. Shortly after he moved to Qom, he came to the fore as the best teacher who gives lectures in Arabic. Although there were more senior teachers than him at the time, his classes had become more popular among students. In addition to students from Arabic countries, students from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan who speak Arabic also attended his classes. Even now, thousands of students follow his lectures online. Currently, al-Irvani has the most crowded kharij al-fiqh class in Najaf. His style of educating his students is identical to his teacher Ayatollah Khoei. If he is chosen to be the primary marja al-taqlid, his students from all Shiite communities will be his most significant supporters.

His Political Views

Even though he had given lectures in the Qom Howzeh for approximately 20 years, this circle has had less influence on him, and he stayed loyal to the Najaf Howzah. He had always been interested in fiqh and usul al-fiqh in his lectures and has not been focused on philosophy and sufism despite the tendency of the Qom Howzeh to these subjects. According to him, prioritizing taqwa, seeking peace in life, and avoiding politics unless it is inevitable are the characteristics of the Najaf Howzah. Al-Irvani believes that unanimity and freedom of thought come into prominence in the Najaf Howzah. In other words, even if the members of the Najaf Howzah have different opinions, they do not reveal this difference of opinion in public. Thus, controversial issues are not debated in public, and unanimity is protected.

Al-Irvani is one of the clerics who adopt the moderate approach in fiqh issues. For instance, he does not have challenging views about the education and career of Muslim women in the West. Moreover, in contrast to many traditional clerics, he opposes “slander” the opponents even in special cases. Despite these ideas, he represents the traditionalist approach to religious subjects. That is why al-Irvani supported the serious accusations of Khorasani and Tabrizi in a manifesto which he wrote with seven other clerics from the Qom Howzah in September 1997 when they accused Ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah of having “deviant ideas” due to his questioning of the historical narratives accepted by Shia sect. Although there are some claims about the relevant manifesto to be published under the pressure of Iranian security forces, it should not be forgotten that protecting traditional beliefs of the sect is an important precondition for a cleric to maintain his position in the religious circles and to be marja al-taqlid. Therefore, it is understandable that al-Irvani is against modern thoughts in religious circles.

Al-Irvani has always stayed away from politics both in Iran and Iraq. The only area in which he was active has always been religious education. There is only one exception for this fact. At the end of 2002, when the USA was about to attack Iraq, Ayatollah al-Sistani was under the pressure of the Saddam regime and he may not be able to share his comments on the developments freely with his followers. As a consequence, al-Irvani and three other Iraqi scholars formed an organization called “The Iraqi Howzah's Office in Qom” in coordination with the al-Sistani’s Qom office and made statements concerning the current developments, especially the US invasion. However, after the collapse of the Saddam regime and the start of al-Sistani’s Najaf office to its activities, he ended his cooperation with the relevant organization.

Al-Irvani’s approach concerning the religious circles’ relations with politics is compatible with the ideas of his teacher Ayatollah Khoei. In other words, al-Irvani, who follows the approach of the Najaf school, believes that intervening the politics is acceptable only based on necessity and expediency. According to him, al-Sistani’s intervention in some political issues was caused by unique conditions. Otherwise, Sistani would not have intervened in them in the normal circumstances. Al-Irvani thinks that the situation in Iraq is different from Iran and it is not possible to get every group to accept one singular approach like Iran. For al-Irvani, there are three factors that gave rise to al-Sistani’s success: rational and comprehensive approach, knowing recent developments and awareness, iron will and decisiveness.

Conclusion

The next step for al-Irvani after opening his office is to publish his own Risalah Amaliya. However, it seems unlikely for him to publish it while al-Sistani is still alive. Considering al-Irvani’s status in howzehs, forsooth, he will be a marja al-taqlid following the publication of his Rrisalah Aamaliya. The critical question at this point is that whether he will take the Sistani’s office after him or not? Evidence indicates that al-Irvani is a potential successor of al-Sistani. Because he meets all of the requirements for holding the position of marja al-taqlid. Indeed, he is the person who has the expected characteristics more than others for the relevant office among the candidates for the office. As well known, the list of marja al-taqlids is announced by the publication of an official institution named Islamic Seminary of Qom. Nevertheless, there is no similar official mechanism in Najaf for the process. In Najaf, for a cleric to be the primary marja al-taqlid requires the gathering of the former primary marja al-taqlid’s office around the cleric and the general consensus about him. There is another possibility that should be mentioned here that even if al-Irvani’s position as the primary marja al-taqlid is certain after al-Sistani’s death, it may not be openly expressed until the deaths of older clerics to show respect to them. It is possible to say that if al-Irvani is the successor of al-Sistani, he will follow the same path as al-Sistani.

However, it should be noted that the marj al-taqlid in Iraq has achieved an outstanding position and as a result of a series of domestic and international factors, its involvement in the social and political lives of the people has grown significantly since 2003. Such a situation is unlikely to be repeated in the near future, and naturally, the position of marja al-taqlid inevitably diminishes in comparison to the current situation.

Al-Sistani, Al-Irvani, Marja al-Taqlid, Najaf Howzeh

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