QOM – Secular voices in Tehran are adamant: Ninety percent of the political power in Iran is in Qom. One may be tempted to add that at least 70% of the political power in Iraq is also situated in Qom.

It’s only a small room, one of its walls plastered with blue cabinet files containing e-mail printouts from all over the world. Behind a glass wall, five youngsters scan documents nonstop. Appearances are deceptive.

This is the room housing www.sistani.org, arguably the nerve center of Shi’ite Islam today, run by a soft-spoken, scholarly looking man, Ali Shabestari. Some grand ayatollahs may be grander than others. Since the war, invasion and occupation of Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – based in Najaf, 160 kilometers south of Baghdad, but born in Sistan-Balochistan province in Iran – has become the paramount voice of Shi’ism. The victory of the Shi’ite-led coalition in the January elections in Iraq was basically a Sistani victory. Most of his closest aides are based in Qom, in Central Iran about 200 kilometers south of Tehran. Sistani’s unquestioned moral authority has put the limelight on nothing less than a silent battle for the core of the Shi’ite soul.

Sistani’s website, in five languages, receives an average of 15,000 visitors a day, and “700 to 1,200 e-mails every single day,” according to Shabestari. “There were so many page visits and e-mails from predominantly Sunni, Wahhabi Saudi Arabia that the Saudi government blocked the site,” he says with a chuckle (10% of Saudi Arabia’s population is Shi’ite, living in the oil-rich Persian Gulf). From non-Arabic visitors to Sistani’s website, e-mails are mostly about Iraqi politics; nowadays overwhelmingly about the federation of Iraq. Shabestari shows some e-mail print outs and the relevant response handwritten by the grand ayatollah himself.

The question is inevitable: who is the most authoritative voice in Shi’ite Islam today? Is it the discreet, almost recluse Sistani in Najaf, Iraq who forced the American superpower to bow to his wishes? Or is it the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? Who has the upper hand, Najaf or Qom?

Pick your marja’a

Hojjatoleslam Mahdi Hassan Zadeh is the director of the Aalulbayt World Assembly, dedicated to “spreading Shi’ite culture around the world.” He explains that “in a meeting 14 years ago, Shi’ite scholars from more than 100 countries decided to set up a center to propagate Shi’ism.” Today, according to the center’s figures, there are close to 150 million Shi’ites worldwide. These include 2 million in Western Europe (out of 10 million Muslims); 5% of these 2 million were born in Europe. In Asia there are 1 million Shi’ites, mostly in Xinjiang and Beijing in China, and 3 to 4 million in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar). India, Pakistan and Bangladesh account for almost 70 million. In the US, since 1990, 4 million Americans have converted to Islam; of a minimum of 10 million Muslims, 2 million Americans are Shi’ite.

The figure of the marja’a – a source of imitation by the faithful – is at the center of Shi’ism. The marja’a represents Imam al-Mahdi, the hidden Imam who will reappear one day to save mankind. Marja’as are also at the center of the barely disguised rivalry between the holy cities of Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran. Zadeh says that previously Najaf was the center “because there were more marja’as. Under repression by Saddam Hussein, most of them migrated to Qom, and now they are mostly here. Imams predicted in books that the center [of the Shi’ite faith] would move to Qom.”

According to Zadeh, there are now eight marja’as, all of them grand ayatollahs. Only Sistani is based in Iraq, in Najaf. The others are Khamenei, Makaram Shirazi, Fazel Lankarani, Tabrizi; Bahjat, Safi Golpaygani, and Shirazi. All the Iranians are close followers of the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Zadeh adds that “in each time there is a supreme marja’a. Now it is Ayatollah Khamenei.” But who were they before Khomeini? Zadeh points to a list of all marja’as since the 7th century.

Zadeh says, “All marja’as have a duty to establish an Islamic government. And this government should be established according to the will of the people. Imam Khomeini was ready; people wanted it.” This implies that Sistani in Iraq was just delivering what the Shi’ite majority of the population wanted. Iraq may not become an Islamic republic, but at least none of its laws shall contradict Sharia, or Islamic law.

Zadeh explains that velayat-e-faqih (the ruling of the jurisprudent) is “the duty and belief of all marja’as. The fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] should be running political and social life.” The devil, of course, is in the details. “Shi’ites in practice believe that state and religion go together.” Does that mean the absolute preeminence of Sharia law? “Islam says we have solutions for all aspects of life. And all Iranians accept this.” But it’s important to remember that when the concept of velayat-e-faqih was erected as the basis of Iran after the revolution, it was opposed by Ayatollah Khoei in Najaf (a traditionalist), Ayatollah Shariatmadari in Qom (a liberal) and Ayatollah Taleqani in Tehran (a “leftist,” meaning progressive). Even with different positions, they all agreed that the marja’a should not mess around with politics.

Confronted with the evidence of the Taliban mix of Wahhabism and Deobandi ideology and its disaster in running Afghanistan, Zadeh says, “It’s not the first time in history that we have blunders like that. The Taliban claimed they were running an Islamist state. They were wrong. Shi’ites on the other hand leave a lot of space for popular criticism.”

The concept of an Islamic state, according to Imam Ali, for Shi’ites, is still the model of pure Islam. Zadeh quotes a saying by Imam Ali, “With the help of the people we can establish an Islamic state.” But how to adapt from the 7th century to the 21st? “That’s the advantage of Islam. It’s not a religion just for Arabs, but for all mankind. We automatically adapt for change.”

As far as the new Iraqi constitution is concerned, the view of the Qom clerical establishment is that “as long as laws do not contradict Sharia, they are acceptable.” Zadeh admits that the situation in both countries is extremely different. In Iran there was a popular revolution, led by a charismatic religious leader, which turned into a regime admitting no dissent. In Iraq there was a military intervention from a Western power, which opened the way for dozens of political parties. “In Iraq they have to contend with other powerful minorities. That’s the beauty of religion.”

The conversation inevitably turns to Imam Mahdi, the heart of the Shi’ite faith. Zadeh says that “all religions seek a savior. We in Shi’ism have the hidden Imam. Why are we all waiting for him? We are tired of wars, of corruption. So we must prepare and be ready for when the imam comes.”

The conversation is enlivened by the arrival of Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, a senior personage who until recently was the representative of the Supreme Leader in London. In fluent English, Araki says, “Al-Qaeda bombings represent the absolute opposite of Muslim ideology, of humanity. Nobody can accept these kinds of actions. We have condemned them.”

Araki equals al-Qaeda with American politicians: “They use democracy. It does not mean that democracy is killing people in Afghanistan and other countries.” Al-Qaeda, for its part, uses Islam: “It does not mean Islam accepts these kinds of actions. All Islamic instructions are the opposite of killing people without aim.” The Islamic Center of England, according to Araki, has done its best to publish leaflets and books and organize conferences with European scholars explaining the difference between Islam and terrorism.

Pick your holy city

The heart of Shi’ite proselytizing is Aalulbayt’s global information center. It houses three websites, plus www.sistani.org. The main site is www.al-shia.com – available in no less than 27 languages, boasting huge archives, everything translated by a group of students, native speakers, in Qom. There are Afghans, Tajiks, Russians, northern Africans; they have been transferring all Shi’ite textbooks online for three years now.

Zadeh says this is considered the number one Shi’ite website, and number seven among all Muslim websites. It has an average of 250,000 visits a month, from as many as 133 countries. The other sites are www.Quran.al-shia.com – only about the Koran, the whole book translated in 27 languages, plus interpretations; and www.balaghah.net, with a collection of Imam Ali’s sayings in 22 languages. The center also has offices in major world cities, from London and New York to Karachi and Istanbul.

Aalulbayat’s information center is officially managed “under the supervision of the office of His Eminence, Grand Ayatollah Sistani.” This makes him in fact the electronic grand ayatollah par excellence, with unparalleled power to reach all corners of the Shi’ite world, something that implies a most uncomfortable question to be posed to Qom clerics: the fact that Khamenei, in spite of all his political and financial muscle, has never managed to impose himself as the undisputed supreme authority in such a manner – neither among the clerical hierarchy, neither among the faithful. Certainly not in Qom, but in Tehran reformists refer to him not as grand ayatollah but as “Seyyed Ali Shah” – in an extremely unflattering parallel with the late shah who was ousted in the Islamic revolution.

Asia Times Online has confirmed in the Shi’ite neighborhoods of Beirut how Khamenei is regarded as a supreme marja’a – but the feeling is far from unanimous. For instance, Ayatollah Hossein Fadlallah, the supreme Shi’ite authority in Lebanon, is a very active critic of the theory of velayat-e-faqih; he insists the faithful are absolutely free to choose who is their marja’a.

This “battle” between Sistani and Khamenei extrapolates to the extremely fluid interplay between Najaf and Qom. During Saddam, Qom all but eclipsed Najaf. Qom was lavished with funds from the Iranian state – attracting teachers and students alike to its well-funded hawza (seminaries and religious schools).

Najaf, though, kept enjoying the advantage of being totally independent from either Baghdad or Tehran. Now free, Najaf is shining again as a center of autonomy and free criticism – thanks to Sistani’s spiritual role – while Qom is inextricably linked with political power in Tehran. It’s not a question of Tehran influencing Qom; the point is the overwhelming influence of Qom over Tehran.

In Iraq on the other hand, there will be no velayat-e-faqih: in a “republican, parliamentary, democratic and federal” Iraq, Islam in the proposed Iraqi constitution, is “a main source of legislation.”

The verdict is open on which model – Iran or Iraq – best reflects the aspirations of nearly 150 million Shi’ites worldwide.