Thus far, the influential Iraqi Shi’ite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, has refused to meet with the U.S. Civilian Administrator in Iraq, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. At al-Sistani's website, the Grand Ayatollah summarizes his views on “najas,” or sources of “pollution.” These items would pollute Muslims simply by touching them, and they include non-Muslims themselves. While the Grand Ayatollah’s writings equivocate regarding which non-Muslims are “officially” najas, al-Sistani’s failure to meet with Ambassador Bremer may reflect his true, unstated sentiments. Clearly, al-Sistani and Ambassador Bremer are engaged in a political dispute over the timing and conduct of elections in Iraq. However, the Grand Ayatollah’s refusal to even meet with the U.S. Civilian Administrator (in stark contrast to al-Sistani’s meetings with the Muslim UN Representative Lakhdar Brahimi) suggests that a more profound dynamic may be operative: the Ayatollah may fear becoming "polluted" by a non-Muslim.
Mohammad Baqer Majlesi (d. 1699), one of the most influential clerics of the Safavid Shi’ite theocracy in Persia, popularized key aspects of the Shi’a ethos among ordinary persons. He advocated that non-Muslims -- Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and pagans -- should not be greeted by a Muslim. Certainly the most prominent contemporary Shi’ite clerics among al-Sistani’s brethren in the neighboring Shi’ite theocracy of Iran have not minced words about which non-Muslims are najas. Ayatollah Khomeini stated explicitly, “Non-Muslims of any religion or creed are najas.” The Iranian Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri further elaborated that a non-Muslim (kafir’s) impurity was, “a political order from Islam and must be adhered to by the followers of Islam, and the goal [was] to promote general hatred toward those who are outside Muslim circles.” This "hatred" was to assure that Muslims would not succumb to corrupt, i.e., non-Islamic, thoughts.
Professor Laurence Loeb’s seminal analysis of dhimmi Jews under Muslim suzerainty in Iran (“Outcaste- Jewish Life in Southern Iran,” 1977), documents the social impact of Shi’ite najas regulations, beginning with the implementation of a “badge of shame [as] an identifying symbol which marked someone as a najas Jew and thus to be avoided. From the reign of Abbas I [1587-1629] until the 1920s, all Jews were required to display the badge.”
Loeb emphasizes, “Fear of pollution by Jews led to great excesses and peculiar behavior by Muslims.” For example, they refused to walk near Jews in the rain, for fear of becoming polluted by touching something that once touched a Jew. Professor Loeb provides the example of water as medium of impurity, and includes a bizarre, striking account by a Jew from Shiraz:
“Water was considered the most common agent of pollution, therefore Jews were not permitted to use the public baths…The possibility that rain-water might splash off a Jew onto a Muslim led to the prohibition of Jews walking in public during the rain. One informant from Shiraz told the following anecdote:
‘When I was a boy, I went with my father to the house of a non-Jew on business. When we were on our way, it started to rain. We stopped near a man who had apparently fallen and was bleeding. As we started to help him, a Muslim akhond (theologian) stopped and asked me who I was and what I was doing. Upon discovering that I was a Jew, he reached for a stick to hit me for defiling him by being near him in the rain. My father ran to him and begged the akhond to hit him instead.’”
For Ambassador Bremer to remain willfully oblivious to the deeply entrenched Shi’ite dogma of najas, or worse, ignoring and tacitly accepting its discriminatory effects, bodes poorly for American efforts to help Iraqis create a modern democratic and ecumenical society. The “culturally authentic” but brutally oppressive Shi’ite theocracy of neighboring Iran demonstrates clearly the corrosive impact of najas dogma in a contemporary Muslim society.
Ambassador Bremer must remain steadfast in supporting an Iraqi Constitution devoid of Shari’a-sanctioned infringements on equal rights for Iraq’s non-Muslims, and women. In addition, Bremer should make clear, through his words and actions, that the new Iraq must reject najas dogma as another unacceptable form of discrimination. Bremer might start this process by insisting on a face to face meeting with al-Sistani. Without a rain date.