Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Moqtada al-Sadr’s Religious Training

In February 2007 Moqtada al-Sadr fled Iraq for neighboring Iran. At first, his movement denied that he had left, but eventually they said that he had gone to Iran for religious training. Who he studied under seems to be under contention, but all of the figures named believe in Khomeini’s clerical rule, and have tied Sadr closer to Tehran.

Reports said that Sadr had gone to Iran in 2007 to study in Qom, one of the centers of Shiite religious studies. Sadr supposedly was going for weekly classes there to become a mujtahid, a learned scholar. If he attained that rank he would have the power to issue religious decrees. Many believed that Sadr was striving to become an ayatollah, which would give him greater religious and political standing when he returned to Iraq.

Ayatollah Haeri (Al-Shahed)
The Sadr Trend initially claimed that Moqtada was studying under Ayatollah Kadhem al-Hussein al-Haeri. Haeri is an Iraqi born cleric that lives in Qom. He was a follower of Sadr’s uncle Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr. After Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, was killed by Saddam Hussein in 1999, many in the Sadr movement argued that Haeri should be his successor. He became Moqtada’s spiritual leader, and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in April 2003, Haeri appointed Sadr his representative in Iraq. That meant Sadr could collect religious taxes from Haeri, which became the main source of funds for the movement in 2003. The two had a falling out in 2004, but patched up their relationship when Sadr came to Iran in 2007. 

Ayatollah Shahroudi (Reuters)
Besides Ayatollah Haeri, several other prominent clerics in Iran have been tied to Sadr’s training there. The Associated Press mentioned Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the former head of Iran’s judiciary. Shahroudi was born in Najaf, Iraq where he attended religious studies, including classes given by Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Shahroudi was a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council in Iraq, before returning to Iran to help establish the Islamic state after the 1979 Iranian revolution. He later ascended to be the chief justice, but after the disputed 2009 Iranian elections, Shahroudi went back to full time teaching in Qom. The Washington Post recently reported that Sadr spent more time in Tehran under Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazidi. Yazidi, an ultra conservative, is the spiritual adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, is close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and is a member of the Assembly of Experts, which can elect and remove the country’s supreme leader. A senior Sadrist in Najaf also claimed that Sadr was studying under a cleric close to Iran’s  Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

All of the mentors mentioned for Sadr are followers of Ayatollah Khomeini’s version of clerical rule, many of them are close to the hardliners in Iran, and have followed Iran’s foreign policy towards Iraq. Ayatollah Haeri for example, came out against Sadr’s April 2004 uprising, opposed Iraq signing the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the U.S., and came out for Maliki’s second term in office after the March 2010 elections, all of which mirrored Iran’s stance. Yazidi on the other hand is an adviser to President Ahmadenijad. Shahroudi has been called a moderate conservative in Iran, and seemed to be dissatisfied with the 2009 elections there, but he was a student of Ayatollah Khomeini, and took part in the Iranian Revolution.

While in Qom, Sadr was inculcated in Khomeini’s theology, which is different than the Shiism prevalent in Najaf. Both schools believe that ayatollahs should play a leading role in society and politics. Khomeini however advocated the direct supervision of the government by clerics. Sadr has now transferred his studies to Najaf. If he hopes to become an ayatollah and join the religious hierarchy there, the marjaiya, he would traditionally have to gain the support of powerful clerics. On the other hand, he could try to force his way in rather than integrate into the establishment. With a militia and his movement’s new political standing after the March 2010 elections Sadr could be a serious threat to the marjaiya in the coming years. If he were successful that would also be a coup for Tehran because Sadr has grown closer to its leadership, and it sees Najaf, as a rival. Sadr has to make the right decisions for this to happen however, and that has always been a problem for him. 


Associated Press, “Shiite militia may be disintegrating,” 3/21/07

Beaumont, Peter, “Battle for Iran shifts from the streets to the heart of power,” Guardian, 6/28/09

Cochrane, Marisa, “The Fragmentation of the Sadrist Movement,” Institute for the Study of War, January 2009

Dareini, Ali Akbar, “Cleric in Iran issues fatwa against US-Iraqi pact,” Associated Press, 10/22/08

Faith World, “Former Iranian chief justice rises to senior Shi’ite rank, eligible to be next leader,” Retuers, 9/24/10

Felter, Joseph and Fishman, Brian, “Iranian Strategy in Iraq, Politics and ‘Other Means,’” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 10/13/08

Hendawi, Hamza and Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Aide: Iraq’s al-Sadr may stay in Iran for years,” Associated Press, 8/22/08

Kagan, Kimberly, “Iran’s Proxy War against the United States and the Iraqi Government,” Institute for the Study of War, 8/20/07

Haugh, Maj. Timothy, “The Sadr II Movement: An Organizational Fight for Legitimacy within the Iraqi Shi’a Community,” Strategic Insights, May 2005

Los Angeles Times, “Sadr aides deny the cleric is in Iran,” 2/14/07

O’Connell, Barry, “Biography of Ayatollah Shahrudi,” Leaders of Iran12/22/04

Rahimi, Babak, “Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr Seeks Regional Influence with Visit to Ankara,” Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, 5/26/09
- “The Rise of Ayatollah Moqtada al-Sadr,” Foreign Policy, 7/27/09

Sarhan, Saad and Davis, Aaron, “Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr returns to Iraq after self-imposed exile,” Washington Post, 1/6/11

Visser, Reidar, “The Sadrists of Basra and the Far South of Iraq,” Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, May 2008

Wong, Edward, Fathi, Nazila, “The Reach Of War: Looming Presence; Iran Is in Strong Position to Steer Iraq’s Political Future,” New York Times, 7/3/04


Michael C said...

I am extremely curious which ministry Sadr's block will end up with. I have heard it described as Defense, Interior or Energy. Any of those will give him extreme leverage in policy (even though it won't be him but one of his followers in the position). In my opinion, Interior is the worst outcome because then he controls the police, and can sanction/coordinate crackdowns on Sunnis while shielding his followers.

Joel Wing said...

Currently the Sadrists hold the following offices:

Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Ministries of Housing, Labor, Planning (temp), Public Works (temp), State, Tourism - 6 ministries total, 2 temporary

They have been pushing for one of the security ministries but I'm not sure Maliki will give it to them. The National Coalition is supposed to get Interior and National Security. One will probably go to the State of Law. It's definitely something to look out for.

Joel Wing said...


Just read that Maliki is going to propose that the National Security Ministry go to Jaafari's Reform party. They didn't get any ministries so far. I would assume Maliki would want a State of Law member or independent close to him to get Interior. That could shut the Sadrists out of at least the top security positions. Jaafari's party is close to them though so deputies and others may still go to Sadrists.

Al-Saffar said...

Hi Joel,
Just a quite clarification. Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi was not taught by the late Abdul Majid al-Khoei, but may have been taught by his father, Ayatollah Abul Qassim al-Khoei. The former was murdered by Sadr, the latter was the grand ayatollah who most others studied under.

Joel Wing said...


Thanks for the information. I read Khoei and assumed it must have been the younger one. Will fix the article accordingly.

Joel Wing said...

That should say "Saffar." Sorry that's the automatic spell check on my phone doing that.