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The bad boy of Iraqi politics is going back to school. Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of Iraq’s largest Shiite militia, is studying to become an ayatollah. It might seem like a minor development within Iraq’s notoriously insular Shiite politics, especially against the backdrop of daily bloodshed. But Sadr’s decision has enormous implications for Iraqis and the United States.
The 33-year-old Sadr is taking a long view, showing greater political skill than the United States and his Iraqi rivals usually give him credit for. Once a renegade cleric with a ragtag militia fighting US forces, Sadr has transformed himself into a statesman. He controls a key bloc in the Iraqi Parliament and he was a kingmaker in the selection of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as prime minister. Now Sadr is trying to burnish his religious credentials, which would make him an even more formidable force in Iraqi life. After he attains the title of ayatollah — the second-highest clerical position in Shiite Islam — Sadr can issue his own fatwas, or religious rulings, and he will no longer have to defer to senior clerics. He will also be able to teach other clergymen, and his followers must obey his rulings.
Sadr’s aides told the Associated Press that he is on track to attain the status of ayatollah by 2010, or even sooner. That would be a remarkable fast-tracking of the normally rigid system of Shiite scholarship. In the Shiite hierarchy, Sadr is a low-level cleric, several ranks and many years away from attaining the title of ayatollah. It’s not even clear that he truly reached the status of hojat al-Islam, which is what his supporters call him–more out of respect for his leadership than his religious achievement. In normal circumstances, it can take two decades for a cleric to establish the record of teaching and deep study of Islamic law required to become an ayatollah.
The title of hojat al-Islam applies to a range of seminary students, from those holding the equivalent of a master’s degree to others with a freshly minted doctorate. (Sadr first enrolled in advanced seminary studies in 2000, but he dropped out after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.) An ayatollah is akin to a tenured, senior professor who has published several books and has a wide following. Think of superstar academics like Stanley Fish or Cornel West–that’s what Sadr is aspiring to.
Why did Sadr suddenly decide to resume his long-neglected religious studies, and why is a seemingly esoteric debate about clerical status so important to the future of Iraq? The answers lie in the marshy fields of southern Iraq, where oil and religion mix. Sadr is positioning himself for a new battle with his main rival for dominance of the Shiite heartland: the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, led by a US and Iranian-backed cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. On December 16 British forces handed control of Basra Province–home to the vast majority of Iraq’s oilfields and the country’s only port–to the Iraqi government. In reality, that means Iraqi police and security forces loyal to Sadr, Hakim or the smaller Fadhila Party. Whatever Shiite faction ultimately rules Basra will be in a position to dominate the rest of southern Iraq. And in a few years, the master of Basra (undoubtedly, he will be a cleric) will control much of the oil and the means of shipping it. He will become the most powerful man in Iraq, regardless of who is prime minister in Baghdad.