Over the last fortnight, much has been said and written with regards to what is happening in Iraq. The alarmists have been out in abundance predicting the demise of the government, the breakup of the country and even the end of the world.
Perhaps most frustratingly, those who don’t have an iota of knowledge on either Iraq or world affairs are being heralded as “experts” and their diatribes as “analysis”. However, I digress. Something that neither the alarmists nor the so called experts have adequately discussed is the role of leadership, and in particular, Shia leadership.
It is of course no secret that the topic of authority is very important in Islam, and is in many ways the most important topic. The Qur’an speaks of it at great length as well as the Holy Prophet (SAW) throughout his life, emphasising the qualities required in a leader.
The characteristics required are numerous; however, top of the list since the beginning of mankind is the need for knowledge and insight. A leader can be everything; he cannot be ignorant. Thus the school of Ahlul Bayt (AS) stands head and shoulders above every other, believing in Imam after Imam who was not only revered by his friends, but also acknowledged by his enemies as the most knowledgeable in his time. The fact that the governments of the day continually summoned the Imams (AS) to answer their queries is proof enough for the recognition, albeit implicit, that there was no one more in knowledge than them.
It would be then unreasonable for Islam to claim to be a religion for all time if there was not a system of guidance in place during the ghaybat (physical absence) of the Twelfth Imam (AS). It is a mark of our timelessness that we continue to have leadership regardless of the circumstances and that even our maraji’ – who are not sinless like the Imams (AS) – are still a cut above the rest. A difficult situation – such as what happened in Iraq two weeks ago – can very easily lead to panic and despair, but a true leader is one whose response is calm and collected while being firm and strong at the same time.
Arise Sayyid Ali Husayni Sistani, who had already shown his mettle a decade prior in a decisive ceasefire, once again rose to the challenge. This time, with unconfirmed media reports of mass desertions rendering army support low, he issued a strongly worded statement supporting the armed forces against the “terrorists”, and then through his representative, Shaykh Abdul Mahdi Karbalai, encouraging able bodied men to defend the country by joining the armed forces.
It is particular important to note at this juncture that Sistani had been indirectly very critical of the government prior to the elections, however, his foresight in realising that this is a time of national unity has worded his statement very carefully, speaking of defending the country against ISIS, who are for all means and purposes foreigners in Iraq trying to run over the country through lawlessness. Such was the effect of his words that almost 2 million Iraqis signed up to the armed forces shortly after his statement was released and the security services having to issue a statement that there were now more than enough people and no more volunteers required.
It is also worth mentioning that originally the media had tried to portray Sistani’s statement as sectarian so he clarified to insist that he was calling on all citizens regardless of their religious allegiances. It is a testament to his insight that he rose above the sectarian narrative continously and furiously being peddled by the media; all the while empathising national unity against the terrorists.
While I am not a fan of Nouri al-Maliki or his Dawa party, any moral equivalence between them and the ISIS terrorists is disingenuous and dangerous. Many parts of the English speaking media reporting on Iraq speak of an “installed Prime Minister” who needs to be removed and replaced with another – while ignoring the fact that for all his faults, he has a democratically elected leader serving in his third term.
While the ISIS – too extreme for even Al-Qaeda – are a threat to democracy and peace loving people everywhere and will not hesitate in turning against their sympathisers when circumstances change. It is also worthy of note that the media who are usually so liberal in their labelling of terrorists continue to hesitate using the term for ISIS, cautiously preferring “Sunni militants” instead.
In such trying times, the Shia are blessed to have leadership with such insight in the form of the maraji’ who not only take responsibility for our spiritual needs but are also there to provide leadership on issues like these where it is absolutely imperative to stand as one against the enemies in order to defeat them in their objectives. So the next time you feel the need to criticise a scholar on his moonsighting method – pause, think and realise that there are far bigger fish to fry.