Bahrain - Shi'a Ulama
About two thirds of Bahrain's citizens are Shi'a. The Bahraini Shi'a look to a few senior clerics (Ulama) in Bahrain as their principal guides in religious doctrine and practice, as well as in many secular affairs. Many of these clerics established an independent Ulama Council in 2004. Local Sunni leaders, who often accuse the Shi'a of allegiance to Iran, often cite the fact that many leading Shi'a clerics studied in Qom, and that 10 to 15 percent of citizens are of Persian origin.
Bahraini Shi'a clerics tend not to disclose whom they support financially or to whom they refer for guidance (i.e. their Marja'). Most Bahrainis believe their clerics refer to Najaf, although at least one senior cleric, Sayed Abdulla Al Ghoraifi, is close to Ayatollah Fadlallah in Lebanon, and one, Sheikh Mohammed Sanad, refers to Qom. During Saddam Hussein's regime, Bahraini clerics shifted their studies from Najaf to Qom out of security concerns. The Government of Bahrain offers stipends to clerics of both sects, but most Shi'a clerics refuse the money - and the Shi'a community overwhelmingly distrusts the few who accept it.
A cleric's rank does not directly correspond to his level of influence. Leading Shi'a clerics, acting independently of the government, established Bahrain's Ulama Council in October, 2004, with the following four stated objectives: -- Maintain service to society (i.e., the Shi'a community) and its unity -- Protect and defend the Islamic identity of society -- Provide sanctuary and leadership for the Ulama -- Increase Islamic awareness in society The council maintains a website, www.olamma.net, and staffs an office in Al Hillah village, Bahrain. The council relies on donations from Bahraini Shi'a for all its expenses. It claims to be apolitical, but its views have important consequences for some political questions in Bahrain. For example, in 2005 the Council declared that it would support a bill in parliament reforming personal status law only if the Ulama in Bahrain drafted it and the Marja' in Najaf reviewed and approved it. Because the government had proposed the law without such consultations, Shi'a street demonstrations convinced the government to withdraw the bill from parliament. Many Shi'a view the Ulama Council in Bahrain as an extension of Najaf.
The Ulama council is comprised of a general assembly, a central commission, an executive administration, and a women's administration. The general assembly elects seven members to the central commission for seven year terms, and rarely meets as a body. -- The central commission leads the council and issues its official statements. The General Assembly elects members to the commission; members then choose from among their number a chairman (Sheikh Isa Qassim), deputy chairman (Sayed Abdulla al Ghoraifi), and a spokesman (Sheikh Mohammed Sangoor). Members of the general assembly volunteer for one of the five bureaus in the executive administration: - the Studies and Research bureau, - the Social Affairs bureau, - the Media and Public Relations bureau, - the Development and Services bureau, and - the Educational Outreach bureau.
The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs claims responsibility for overseeing all mosques, ma'tams, endowments, and the Sharia court system. Eight of the 15 Sharia judges are Shi'a. The government also maintains the Supreme Islamic Council, comprised of Sunni and Shi'a clerics, who advise the government. In addition to the judges and members of the council, the government maintains a list of imams to whom it provides a monthly stipend. When popular Shi'a clerics returned from exile in 2001, the government offered them the stipend, but most rejected it. Most of the Shi'a population distrusts the clerics associated with the government, including the Shi'a members of the Sharia court and the Supreme Islamic Council.
Sheikh Isa Qassim (Rank: 1, Influence: 1, Scholarship: 1) -- Most Bahrainis view Sheikh Isa Qassim as the senior Shi'a cleric. He and Sheikh Hussein Najati vie for precedence in Bahrain's Shi'a community, and are the island's two Faqihs (jurisprudents). Although some of their followers call them Ayatallahs, many Shi'a assert that neither has really earned the title. Qassim is the founding chairman of the Ulama council. Born in Diraz in the 'forties, he studied in Najaf before returning to Bahrain. He served as a member of the lower house of parliament that the Amir dissolved in 1975. He remained an outspoken critic of the government, and was very close to the late spiritual leader of Bahrain, Sheikh Abdulamir Al Jamri. In 1994, Qassim went to study and teach in Qom, but remained focused on the grievances of Bahrain's Shi'a, sending numerous faxes and letters commenting on their status. When Qassim returned to Bahrain in 2002, he surprised the Shi'a population by announcing he would eschew politics. He favors qualified engagement with the government so long as the government continues to permit legal Shi'a political and press activity, and he supported the Wifaq party when it ran for parliament. The Shi'a community does not take insults to Qassim lightly, as evidenced when 5,000 Shi'a marched in support of him on 19 June 2008. Qassim rarely refers to Shi'a by name, preferring to speak of "Islam" and "Muslims" without reference to sects. He once declared, "If Sunnis were the ones discriminated against, I would stand up for them more than I stand up for the Shi'a." Qassim's admirers stress his humility and persuasiveness. He preaches at the mosque in Diraz village.
Five people were killed in Bahrain after security forces launched an operation near the home of the kingdom's Shia-Muslim spiritual leader and his supporters responded with violence. The raid on 23 May 2017 took place in Diraz, the home village of Ayatollah Isa Qassim and the site of a sit-in encampment of his followers. Security forces opened fire and killed the five "outlaws" after being attacked with "hand grenades, iron bars, and bladed weapons and axes, which resulted in the injury of 19 security men", Bahrain's Interior Ministry said in statement. It said 286 people had been arrested, including "fugitives" who had escaped from Jau prison. It was unclear on Tuesday if Qassim was one of the detained.
Sheikh Hussein Najati (Rank: 2, Influence: 2, Scholarship: 3) -- Najati, the other Faqih, is not a member of the Ulama Council, but generally agrees with its public statements. Unlike many of the other leading clerics, Najati's influence does not derive from his family, but instead from his status as a Faqih. He was born in the sixties and is an Ajmi -- a Bahraini Shi'a of Persian origin. Najati started his studies in Najaf, but transferred to Qom. He still refers to Najaf for guidance. When he returned to Bahrain in 2002, he was relatively unknown. He supported the government, and had several audiences with the King. Following the "Bandargate" scandal of 2006, Najati began criticizing the government for allegedly betraying King Hamad's political reform project. He has called for the government to amend the constitution and improve the standard of living for all Bahrainis.In 2008 he met repeatedly with the president of the Women's Union NGO and offered her advice on drafting a second attempt at a bill reforming personal status law. According to local media, he told her that a successful family law must be accepted by the Shi'a community, be approved by the Marja' in Najaf, and include a guarantee that any future amendments will come from Sharia authorities, not Bahrain's parliament. Najati preaches on Muharraq island.
Sheikh Mohammed Sanad (Rank: 3, Influence: 10, Scholarship: 2) -- Sanad is not a member of the Ulama Council, but generally agrees with its public statements. His relative influence on the Shi'a community is low because he only spends two months a year in Bahrain; the rest of his time he spends teaching advanced students in Qom. He was born in the sixties, and comes from a well-known Manama family. Politically, he opposes the government. In 2002, he called for the U.N. to oversee the drafting of Bahrain's new constitution out of distrust of the Government of Bahrain 's intentions Many Shi'a contend that the unilateral drafting of the 2002 constitution is evidence of the government's intent to marginalize them. He has also publicly questioned the legitimacy of the Al Khalifa family's rule. The unlicensed opposition party, Haq, looks to him as its Marja', and he in turn refers to senior clerics in Qom. Sanad and Qassim take differing approaches to politics, but in June Sanad publicly supported Qassim following media attacks on him by a Sunni rabble-rouser.
Sheikh Abduljalil Al Moqdad (Rank: 4, Influence: 6, Scholarship: 4) -- Al Moqdad is not a member of the Ulama council. He was born in the early sixties in Bilad Al Qadeem village and continues to lead prayers there. Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of the Wifaq party, lives in Bilad Al Qadeem. He refers to Najaf for guidance. A relative newcomer to the list of influential clerics, Shi'a started talking about him in 2006, the same year that Haq split from Wifaq. Most of his followers support Haq. Much of his influence derives from his humble beginnings and continued closeness to the poor. Al Moqdad is also close to Najati, and replaces him as Imam in Muharraq when he travels. Al Moqdad distrusts the government and considers Wifaq ineffective and uncaring. Al Moqdad criticized Wifaq leader Ali Salman's quick condemnation of rioters after a police officer died in April 2008. Al Moqdad believes that Wifaq, rather than immediately condemning the rioters, should have waited to see how the community and government responded before issuing a statement. Al Moqdad has called for Qassim, Najati, Al Ghoraifi, and Al Wadaee to publish joint statements on issues of concern to the Shi'a. The Shi'a street believes that Al Moqdad handles much of the money Bahrainis send to clerics abroad.
Sheikh Abdulhussein Al Sitri (Rank: 5, Influence: 7, Scholarship: 7) -- Al Sitri is a member of the Ulama Council, but does not hold an executive position. He was born in the forties. Shi'a supporters praise his humble personality and accessibility. He refuses to engage with the government. During the late eighties and early nineties, security forces raided his home and large library several times. In the late nineties Sheikh Ahmed Al Asfoor, acting on behalf of the Government of Bahrain, invited Al Sitri to sit on the government-recognized Shi'a Sharia court as a judge -- Al Sitri refused. Al Sitri refrains from making political statements in public, and makes only general comments in private. He studied in Najaf, and continues to refer to the clerics there. He does not endorse the Iranian regime's doctrine of velayat-e-faqih. He preaches on Sitra island.
Sayed Jawad Al Wadaee (Rank: 6, Influence: 3, Scholarship: 9) -- Al Wadaee is a member of the Ulama Council, but does not hold an executive position. He was born in the thirties. Much of his influence derives from his family and his status as a Sayed. He has repeatedly declined appointments to the official Shi'a Sharia court and other government positions. He refuses to get involved with politics. He maintains his own Hawza (religious college) in Bahrain. He refers to senior Bahraini clerics in Najaf, who have praised his integrity, and studied with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Al Wadaee lives in Barbar village, and leads prayers in Ras Ruman.
Sheikh Hameed Al Mubarak (Rank: 7, Influence: 8, Scholarship: 5) -- Al Mubarak is not a member of the Ulama Council. He was born in 1962 to a well known, well respected, and wealthy family, from which he derives most of his influence. Al Mubarak serves as a senior Shi'a judge on the Sharia court. His reputation and influence suffer from his position with the government, but not as much as some of the other clerics who accept the government stipend. He is viewed as a relatively liberal, very bookish cleric. He taught himself English, went to the U.S. on an Embassy exchange in 2006, and participated in a roundtable discussion on women's rights hosted by Secretary Rice in March, 2008. He contributed to a USG-funded Freedom House family law project, writing the Shi'a perspective on personal status law in Bahrain. He maintains that the Marja' in Najaf should review any family law reform bill. He likes to bring his Iranian wife with him to meetings, including a two hour meeting with the US Ambassador 30 March 2008. Al Mubarak leads prayers in A'ali.
Sayed Abdulla Al Ghoraifi (Rank: 8, Influence: 5, Scholarship: 8) -- Al Ghoraifi serves as the deputy chairman of the Ulama Council. Much of Al Ghoraifi's influence derives from his well-respected family and from his status as a Sayed. He was born in the sixties, lived in Lebanon in the early 1990's, and became very close with Ayatallah Fadlallah, eventually becoming Fadlallah's representative in Bahrain. His admirers cite his persuasiveness and calm. He addresses politics in his sermons, and regularly calls for dialogue with the regime and the Sunni community. When he critiques the government, he does so in a low-key manner which has reportedly earned him the King's respect. Bahrain TV news from time to time runs stock footage of the King attending Al Ghoraifi's majlis. Although his family is from Manama, Al Ghoraifi leads prayers in Nuaim village.
Sheikh Ahmed Al Asfoor (Rank: 9, Influence: 4, Scholarship: 10) -- Sheikh Ahmed Al Asfoor is not a member of the Ulama Council. His influence derives from his late father, Khalaf Al Asfoor, who was the leading Faqih of Bahrain, and his age -- He was born in the thirties. He was a senior judge on the Sharia court and is now an advisor to the Supreme Islamic Council. He is the uncle of Sheikh Mohsin Al Asfoor. The Asfoor family fell out of favor with the government following King Hamad's accession, although they may be rebounding as evidenced by the Minister of the Royal Court's recent visit to the Asfoor majlis, and the prominent placement of Sheikh Ahmed at a meeting the King held with clerics on 26 July 2008.
Sheikh Mohsin Al Asfoor (Rank: 10, 9, Scholarship: 6) -- Sheikh Mohsin Al Asfoor is not a member of the Ulama Council. He was born in the sixties. While studying in Najaf in the eighties, he denounced the Al Khalifa family in a book. When he returned to Bahrain, he renounced the book and his former political positions. Like his uncle, his influence derives from his family, specifically his grandfather and father. He continues to accept the government's stipend, and most Shi'a perceive him to be motivated by money. This perception is bolstered by his positions on the boards of directors of several Islamic banks, insurance, and investment firms. When he leads prayer, it is in Manama.
Mohammed Ali Al Mahfouth is identified with the followers in Bahrain of the late Ayatallah Shirazi. A number of Bahrain's Shirazis were jailed for sedition in the 1990s; Al Mahfouth spent much of the nineties in Damascus calling for the overthrow of the Al-Khalifahs. He and his followers were eventually pardoned. The Shirazis reject velayat-e faqih. Mahfouth is the chairman of the small Amal party, which has no seats in parliament. Despite his political proximity to the unregistered Haq movement, and his frequent presence at demonstrations, he has issued statements supporting the King's recent call for calm and dialogue to address sectarian tensions. Al Mahfouth leads prayers in Bani Jamrah, a frequent hotspot for anti-Al Khalifa demonstrations.
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