In Shia Islam, it is considered essential for the adherent to choose a mullah to follow. The mullah serves as both an interpreter and spiritual guide. No less an authority than Ayatollah Mohammad Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi has stated that the average Iranian is incapable of religious adherence without such guidance.
As with Catholicism and orthodox Judaism, this has resulted in elaborate Biblical canons. In some religions, active manipulation of the symbol systems has ceased, relying on dialogues from long ago. Some religions, notably Judaism, are open to it, but Talmudic writing has dropped off. In Sunni Islam, it is forbidden. In Shi’ism, symbol systems are still actively manipulated with great energy. Religious beliefs are still in the process of synthesis, or what Shiites might prefer to be called interpretation, accomplished by complex symbolic manipulations of a kind distinct from the Western secular tradition. There seems to be a keen aesthetic, both of the writings and the credentials of the writers. Regardless of our sympathy or lack of toward the results, Shiite pursuit of religious scholarship is a highly intellectual affair.
Muqtada al-Sadr is the son of Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, who, quoting Wikipedia, “ at ten, was delivering lectures on Islamic history, and at eleven, he studied logic.” He was a direct descendant of Muhammad, entitling him to wear the black turban, a blood distinction among ayatollahs. In other words, Muqtada’s pop had a genius I.Q. This is useful in a field where, merely to be admitted to study, one must know the Koran by heart. The Wiki article states that he is of both Iraqi and Iranian ancestry. This is more important than having Italian roots in the U.S. It is extremely important.
It appears that, while he has fire in the belly, Muqtada al-Sadr did not inherit his father’s remarkable gifts. This is not to say he’s unintelligent; merely that he is not a mental giant. Starting the Mahdi Army gave him his first opportunity for religious authorship, which came as a statement about the disposition of booty. Fighters were permitted to take whatever they wanted, provided they tithed a fifth of it.
Perhaps he was inspired by the abject poverty of his followers, but it did not last long. As Islam respects property rights, religious authorities, to whom he was obligated by religious and class ties, probably forced a change.
The sparse history of the Mahdi Army is dotted with hostile actions varying from small to large, but with little or no political articulation. Consider the alternative: grandiloquent speeches and development of an independent political philosophy. The absence of it, against a background of almost constant small-arms actions with some escalations, indicates an al-Sadr with little to say, one who lacks an inner voice. He could have grabbed the mic any time he wanted. According to The Middle East Quarterly, “…the large number of Shi’ites who follow him do so not because of his status as a marja’ or religious authority, but because for them, he is the symbol and the personification of Sadr’s legitimacy. Shi’ite Islam is hierarchical. ”
This goes along with his background as an undistinguished religious scholar, who, between 2007 and 2011, studied in Iran, it is thought, to burnish his religious credentials so as to become an ayatollah. He still isn’t one. The bar is high. Mere executive talent isn’t enough.
In February 2014, in an incredibly flamboyant and surprising gesture, al Sadr resigned from public life in a handwritten note. As with previous communications, it contains no political articulation. Perhaps it’s hard for him to do. But the handwritten note, which astonished so many of his followers, is not organic of himself or his organization. It suggests the strategy of a more intellectual, cunning thinker, someone to whom the flowing script of Arabic would have more meaning.
Political speech writers are de rigueur in the U.S. Political platforms are influenced by political strategists. There are even some political dynasties. But Muqtada al-Sadr is considered by his followers to be a descendant of Muhammad, and he is bound to a theocratic class, largely based in Iran, that has no comparison with anything in the West.
Touchingly, al-Sadr has stated that he is opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq. This ingenuous stance is very much appreciated here. But he remains very much a facet of Iran’s power projection. Read the section of The Middle East Quarterly article titled “A Hidden Hand?”
Next: how Iran’s political ecosystem facilitates deception.