The Shii Mujtahids in Iraq

The Shii Mujtahids

Faisal’s relations with the leadership of the Shii shrine cities were troubled from the start. Even though he tried putting his best foot forward with them, the attention showered by Faisal on the mujtahids was not completely reciprocated. For example, Sayyid Mahdi al-Khalisi and Sayyid Muhammad al-Sadr only gave him conditional pledges of allegiance (Nakash 1994, 77). Although a Shii consensus had emerged very early after the 1920 revolt that favored the choice of a (Sunni) Hashemite for the throne of Iraq, Faisal’s close relationship with the British made some of the Shiis uneasy.

When the leading mujtahids decided to raise the stakes by issuing fatwas banning the participation of Shiis in the elections of 1922, the die was cast. Since most of the important mujtahids of the time were nationals of Iran, “the government introduced an amendment to the existing Law of Immigration on June 9, 1923 permitting the deportation of foreigners who were found engaging in anti-government activity” (Nakash 1994, 82).

To preempt being arrested, the nine leading mujtahids fl ed to Iran, leaving the fi eld wide open for the Arab-born clergy to take their places. This they did, signaling the return to the government fold of a number of important Shii spiritual leaders who were intent not only on producing a rapprochement with the monarchy but also on consolidating their domestic positions vis-à-vis the resurgent Iraqi Shii leadership in Najaf and Karbala.

The Shaykhs of the Mid-Euphrates

Although historian Yitzhak Nakash believes that the failed revolt of 1922–23, which led to the voluntary exile of an important section of the Shii leadership of the Iraqi shrine cities, “symbolized the decline of Shi’i Islam in Iraq and its rise in Iran in the 20th century” (Nakkash 1994, 88), the situation may not have been that dire.

There was, for instance, Faisal’s relationship with the wealthy Shii property owners in the tribal south. The big tribal shaykhs in the mid-Euphrates region had long been seen by both the British and, later on, Faisal I, as a bulwark against the petty concerns and interests of the antistate faction, particularly the rising intelligentsia in the towns. The British reversed the parceling of tribal lands among various sections of particular tribes that had been instituted by the Ottomans in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries to weaken the power of the shaykhs.

The British consolidated the hold of the paramount tribal shaykh on what had been communal tribal property by pushing for various land laws that privileged the ruling tribal stratum. Among the most important were laws that bolstered the individual ownership of land in the hands of big shaykhs. This was to grow into a near-British obsession; various British offi cials rationalized the growth of private property in the tribal domains as a law and order issue. The important shaykhs were made not only responsible for agricultural output destined for the world market but also the guardians of order in the countryside.

After independence in 1932, the Iraqi government continued this policy by introducing land laws that reorganized the land tax so that it became a tax only on a certain number of basic goods brought to market; it became, therefore, a tax on consumption. As a result, from 1932 onward, the tribal shaykhs, which as a group became privy to an obscene amount of land, paid little or no taxes at all (Batatu 1978, 105).The British relied on the landed shaykhs for a number of reasons, not all of which were shared by Faisal I.

First, certain British offi cials, such as Lady Gertrude Bell (1868–1926), the Eastern secretary to the high commissioner, held a romanticized vision of them as the “backbone” of the country. In the 1920s and 1930s, those ideas were part and parcel of the ordinary European’s view of the Arab, for the concept of the “noble savage” still held sway among British offi cialdom. Second,the British thought that “[the shaykh] was the readiest medium at hand on which [the British] could carry on the administration of the countryside” (Batatu 1978, 88). Because the British had been sorely tested in the 1920 insurrection, putting severe strain on the Exchequer (British treasury), they needed a local cadre of offi cials to fund, police, and administer the backcountry of Iraq.

And while an army had been instituted, and the mostly Assyrian Christian staffed “Iraq levies” were considered a signifi cant, if secondary, military force operating under British command, tribal militias were thought to be equally important adjuncts to Iraq’s defenses. However, the British opposed national conscription (though the Assyrian levies were more or less conscripts), which would have incorporated tribesmen into national service; even the most pro-British members of Faisal’s government realized that it was a policy designed to diminish the effectiveness of the one legitimate national fi ghting force in the country, the Iraqi army.

Moreover, the tribal shaykhs were given seats in parliament by government fi at; Batatu estimates that in 1924, “out of the 99 members who made up the Iraqi Constituent Assembly . . . no fewer than 34 were shaykhs and aghas [Kurdish chieftains]” (Batatu 1978, 95). The Tribal Criminal and Civil Disputes Act, incorporated into the Iraqi constitution of 1925, further strengthened the shaykhs’ power as an identifi able bloc by enshrining tribal custom in law. But it was only after Iraq’s independence in 1932 that the shaykhly class came into their own, and they began to use parliament to legislate further economic gains and press for policies that ultimately resulted in “highly concentrated landholdings and a huge inequality in land distribution” (Haj 1997, 34).

Besides the wealthy tribal strata, however, there were other constituencies that were fast amassing land and power in Faisal’s Iraq. First, northern “pump pashas,” men of merchant and landholding background who invested in mechanical pumps to reclaim agricultural land, began to make their appearance in the mid-1920s. They were encouraged by a law that offered tax incentives to entrepreneurs who could resuscitate unclaimed state lands, and more than 1 million acres were brought into play by the middle of the 20th century.

Second, entrepreneurial capital began to be invested in industries, amongst them textiles, construction, and agribusinesses such as date processing. But, as Samira Haj notes, because of a number of structural problems, Iraqi industries remained “small and fragile and confi ned to light consumer industries” (Haj 1997, 74). Nonetheless, a new class of mercantile and industrial interests, some landed, some not, had defi nitely begun to make its appearance in the 1930s.

Even after Faisal I’s death in 1933, the Iraqi state, personifi ed by Faisal’s successors, Kings Ghazi I and Faisal II, continued to rely on a narrow sector of the populace that formed the pillars of state rule, the ex-Sharifi ans and the tribal shaykhs. However, by relying on this narrow stratum, the state marginalized groups and parties for which there was not much affi nity at the top. Among the most important were the Kurds.