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The Good Ayatollah By: Stephen Schwartz
Weekly Standard | Monday, July 12, 2004


Much hope is presently vested, by friends of a free Iraq, in the 74-year-old grand ayatollah, Sayyid Ali al-Husseini Sistani. Ayatollah Sistani acts as a marja, or religious guide, for many if not most Iraqi Shia Muslims from his residence in the holy city of Najaf. Since the Shia make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, it is a matter of some interest to know just where the grand ayatollah would lead his followers.

Sistani has thus far been an unwavering advocate of elected government in Iraq (far more steadfast than the Coalition itself). And now it is possible to ascertain his views on another important matter--relations between Muslims and non-Muslims--thanks to a volume of Sistani's pronouncements (fatwas) offering guidance to Muslims living abroad. A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West was dictated to Abdul Hadi al-Hakim and translated by Syed Muhammad Rizvi from an Arabic text approved by Sistani's office in the Iranian religious center of Qum. It can be downloaded at www.sistani.org/html/eng or bought from Islamic booksellers.

For the novice, any work of Islamic jurisprudence might prove difficult to navigate. Certainly, there is much here to disconcert the reader unfamiliar with the strict Shia sect. The book begins, for example, by warning that Muslims should not emigrate to non-Muslim countries unless they are certain that doing so will not undermine their faith or that of their relatives. Its pages mention numerous customs and notions alien to outsiders, like the prohibition on attendance at musical concerts intended purely for entertainment, rigorous habits of personal modesty, and acceptance of "temporary" as well as "permanent" marriage.

But more instructive than looking for exotic features of Shia teaching is a comparison of Sistani's views on key questions with those propounded by Wahhabi Islam, the official sect of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabi teaching is propagated via websites, newspapers, sermons, and lectures, in thousands of Sunni mosques and by Islamist organizations throughout the world. It is the contrast between Sistani's teaching and that of the Wahhabis that shows quite plainly who are our enemies and who are our friends.

A good place to start is the question whether Muslims living in the West may participate in electoral politics. Sistani answers yes, the Wahhabis answer no. And the difference between them in tone could hardly be greater.

The Ayatollah Sistani not only states that Muslim citizens of Western nations may vote, he goes on to counsel that they may, and sometimes should, run for office: "At times the higher interests of the Muslims in non-Muslim countries demand that Muslims seek membership of political parties, and enter parliaments, and representative assemblies." While he specifies that such decisions must be submitted to consultation with "trustworthy experts," his view is that Muslim citizens of countries like Britain should participate in the political process on an equal basis with non-Muslims.

The Wahhabis' attitude toward elections was on display during the recent vote for the European Parliament. In Britain, which has a Muslim population of at least 1.5 million, widely reproduced Wahhabi propaganda posters, flyers, and website commentaries bore the headline "The Messenger Muhammad (S.A.W.) Is Our Example--Did He Ever Vote?" (S.A.W. stands for Sallallahu Aleyhi wa-Sallam, or May the Peace of God Be Upon Him, and is usually abbreviated in English PBUH.) One might as well ask whether the Messenger Muhammad ever rode a bus, spoke on the telephone, or wore glasses, but that was not the point. Rather, the intent was to keep Muslims removed from the political process of a democracy.

A typical Wahhabi rant under this headline may be read at the pro-bin Laden website al-Muhajiroun. It declaims, "Muslims must not vote for anyone in the present election, even if they say that they are going to get you some schools or other benefits for the Muslim community." That "some people go to Parliament or local councils and legislate and others vote for them to go there and do so" is "clear-cut shirk," or idol-worship. "How can a Muslim say there is no legislator except Allah," asks the piece, ". . . and then vote for someone else to legislate [the unbelievers'] law and order?"

Such blandishments accurately represent the all-or-nothing mentality of Wahhabis living in Britain, according to whom no government is legitimate except an Islamic one--which is why they fully intend to establish an Islamic government in place of the country's present parliamentary system.

The contrast between the mentality of Sistani and that of the Wahhabis is even starker when one turns to the simplest level of participation in community life: Should Muslims extend Christmas and New Year's greetings to their Christian neighbors? Sistani says yes, the Wahhabis say no.

Sistani states very simply: "It is permissible to greet the Jews and Christians and also [other non-Muslims] on the occasions they celebrate like the New Year, Christmas, Easter, and the Passover."

If we turn to the Wahhabi website www.myiwc.com, representing the "Islamic web community," we find a diatribe by Jamal al-Din Zarabozo. He writes that "it is not allowed for Muslims to congratulate the non-Muslims on their holidays and festivals. . . . It is one of the greatest sins in Allah's sight . . . a greater sin than congratulating them for drinking wine."

Zarabozo, whose rhetoric is notorious among Muslims for its excesses, cites a reported opinion by Abdullah ibn Umar, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, that "whoever stays in the lands of the foreigners and celebrates their New Year's Days . . . shall be resurrected with them on the Day of Resurrection," that is, excluded from the Muslim hereafter. Zarabozo also cites an opinion of Ibn al Qayyim, a fourteenth-century disciple of Ibn Taymiyyah, the forerunner of Wahhabism, holding that Muslims should not even "sell Christians anything they may use in their holidays of meat, blood, or clothing, nor should they loan an animal to ride on, nor help with anything concerning [their] festival because all of that would be a way of dignifying their idolatry and helping them in their [unbelief]."

Moving on to actual friendships between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, Sistani welcomes them, the Wahhabis forbid them.

Sistani writes, "A Muslim is allowed to take non-Muslims for acquaintances and friends, to be sincere towards them and they be sincere towards him, to help them and they help him in fulfilling the needs of this life." He notes that Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, the founder of Shia jurisprudence, said, "If a Jewish person comes to sit with you, make that a good meeting."

Wahhabis teach that such relationships should be avoided at all costs. (The Muslim Students Association is especially pernicious in spreading this view among Muslim college students in North America.) The authoritative Wahhabi website Islam Q&A declares that "a Muslim's relationship with Muslims is different from his relationship with others. . . . With regard to non-Muslims, the Muslim should disavow himself of them, and he should not feel any love in his heart towards them. . . . If [the] Muslim has to be with [non-Muslims] physically, he should not be with them in his heart, and he must avoid mixing with them unnecessarily. . . . The rights of Allah and His Book and His Prophet are more important than our personal rights. Remember this, for this is one of the things that will help you to hate them and regard them as enemies until they believe in Allah alone."

Some Wahhabis have adopted a viewpoint slightly less harsh. Abdullah Ibn Abd ur-Rahman Jibreen, a prominent Saudi cleric and state religious functionary whose fatwa against hijackings has been used to paint the Wahhabis as enemies of terrorism, concedes, "It is allowed to mix with the disbelievers, sit with them and be polite with them as means of calling them to Allah, explaining to them the teachings of Islam, encouraging them to enter this religion and to make it clear to them the good result of accepting the religion and the evil result of punishment for those who turn away. For this purpose, being a companion to them and showing love for them is overlooked in order to reach that good final goal."

It is true that Shia and Wahhabi leaders have one unfortunate point of agreement: Both call on Muslims in the West to boycott Israeli products. Wahhabis, however, are instructed to go the extra mile and boycott American products as well. The differences between the dour, rigid mentality that Saudi Arabia seeks to impose and the moderate views of Ayatollah Sistani, meanwhile, extend to matters as trivial as depictions of human beings (Wahhabis command that such paintings be destroyed; Sistani accepts them) and as grave as punishments for adultery (the Wahhabis kill an adulteress; Sistani writes that "it is not permissible for [a Muslim man] to kill [a Muslim woman who commits adultery], even if he sees her in the act").

Most important, perhaps, Sistani's book makes no mention of concepts, dear to Muslim radicals, such as the goal of establishing Islamic rule in Western countries and the duty to fight jihad in non-Muslim lands. Instead, Sistani exhorts the Muslim living in a non-Muslim nation that when he has made a commitment "to abide by the laws of that country"--as he implicitly has in signing immigration documents--he must keep his promise.

The lesson here is simple and essential: The Ayatollah Sistani does not seek to promote a clash of civilizations or a conflict between religions. He does not teach the necessity of aggressive dawa (Islamic evangelism) or jihad against non-Muslims. The Saudis and their Wahhabi servants insist on both.

And that, of course, is a major reason why extremist Saudi clerics incite Muslims to kidnap and murder Americans and other non-Muslims on Saudi soil. It is also why Saudi Arabia so fears a democratic, Shia-led Iraq on its northern border, and why Wahhabi preachers urge pious Muslims to kill and die fighting all who defend the new Iraq.


Stephen Schwartz, an author and journalist, is author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror. A vociferous critic of Wahhabism, Schwartz is a frequent contributor to National Review, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.


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