Shi’a Islam is a cleric based religion. Each Shi’a selects a Marja, one worthy of emulation, and follows his teachings. These teachings range from spiritual matters; issues of family, marriage, property, and inheritance; to political matters. While there are several Marjas, the most influential Marja is Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani of Najaf, Iraq. Sistani is Iranian by birth but has lived in Najaf most of his life. He is of the “quietist” school, which means he believes clerics should guide their flock through spiritual advice and not be involved in politics. However, in 2004 when the Bush administration attempted to set up a confessional system of government that would have given virtually equal representation to Sunnis and Kurds, Sistani protested and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in protest. The Bush administration acceded to Sistani’s wishes and the constitution of Iraq is based on the principle of one person one vote. Sistani is 83 years old and in poor health. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has been trying to set up his choice as Sistani’s successor. Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi is 65 years old, has served for ten years as the head of Iran’s judiciary, and is considered a hard-liner. If Khamenei is successful in placing Shahroudi in this position, he will have great influence in Iraq and beyond.
This project examines two interrelated questions. First, what is the state of affairs with Sistani’s succession? And Second, what is the scope of the Marja’iyya system throughout the world? This project will proceed by examining the websites of the major clerics of Shi’a Islam and proceed to map their scope, influence, and financial support networks, since each Shi’a Muslim is required to pay 20% of their earnings to their Marja in religious taxes.