Ayatollah al-Sistani: Getting out of Muslim Politics is Easier Said Than Done

Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s decision to get out of politics reminds us of the closing poem from the Chinese author Wu Ching-Tzu’s novel The Scholars:

For love of the Chinhuai River, in the old days I left home;
I wandered up and down behind Plum Root Forge,
And strolled about in Apricot Blossom Village;
Like a phoenix that rest on a plane
Or a cricket that chirps in the yard,
I used to compete with the scholars of the day;
But now I have cast off my official robes
As cicadas shed their skin;
I wash my feet in the limpid stream,
And in idle moments fill my cup with wine,
And call in a few new friends to drink with me.
A hundred years are soon gone, so why despair?
Yet immortal fame is not easy to attain!
Writing of men I knew in the Yangtse Valley
Has made me sick at heart.
In days to come,
I shall stay by my medicine stove and Buddhist sutras,
And practice religion alone.

Sistani has evidently decided to leave Shi’ite politics to the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Retreat such as this makes sense in a religion such as Buddhism, where the whole idea is to escape desire and reach Nirvana. Some forms of Christianity encourage this kind of thing. But in Islam, especially with Sufism in retreat and Islamicism (Wahabbi and otherwise) taking over, we find the idea of a prominent Muslim leader retreating from politics an oxymoron, irrespective of his own desires in the matter.

Although most Americans dislike the idea of Muqtada taking over, and his theocracy would be a disaster for everyone else in Iraq outside of Shi’a Islam, putting him in the driver’s seat would give mullah and lay politician in Tehran a serious case of heartburn.

Quotation from Wu Ching-Tzu, The Scholars. Translated by Yang Hsien-Yi and Gladys Yang. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.

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