Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

A new Afghan Shia Leader: Return to quietism versus political Islam?

Qayoom Suroush 13 min

A new leader is emerging in Afghanistan’s Shia community, one who so far has chosen to abstain from any presence or involvement in the religious or political affairs of the country. Ayatollah Mohammad Eshaq Fayaz is being supported by Afghan Shia – among them rather influential figures such as Second Vice President Sarwar Danish – who are longing for a different kind of religious leadership: more modern and more detached from Iran and its political influence. Ayatollah Fayaz has been living in Iraq for most of his life where he became one of the four Islamic jurists running the Shia world community’s highest ruling council, the shura-ye marje. He stands for unity among Sunni and Shia and demands that Islam modernises itself. However, to gain more power in Afghanistan, he will need much more than just scholarly recognition, says AAN’s Qayoom Suroush. He describes how religious Shia leadership is established, introduces the most important players in Afghanistan and globally and explains what obstacles newcomers like Ayatollah Fayaz face in challenging the local religious heavyweights.

Ayatollah Mohammad Eshaq Fayaz. Picture: his website

In mid-August, while the tensions over election results divided politicians into opposing groups, a conference was held in Kabul to introduce Ayatollah (1) Mohammad Eshaq Fayaz, one of the highest-ranking Afghan Shia leaders who, having lived in Iraq for most of his life, had abstained from showing a presence in the country. The conference under the title “A Tribute to Ayatollah Fayaz’ Scholarly Achievements” (bozorgdasht az maqam-e elmi-ye Ayatollah Fayaz) was meant to introduce his thinking to Afghanistan. Ayatollah Fayaz himself did not participate in the gathering. Instead, he sent his son, Sheikh Mahmud Fayaz, and a group of other followers (see here for his message in Dari).

Nevertheless, the large loya jirga tent was filled to the last chair with what might have been several thousand guests from all political and religious camps and both from the Shia and Sunni communities ­– civil society and academic leaders, many students, and even high-ranking former and current government representatives. Among them were ex-Vice President Karim Khalili and the new Second Vice President for new president Ashraf Ghani, Sarwar Danish as well as national unity government CEO Abdullah Abdullah, a Sunni (here for news in Dari). As a sign of respect, even Hamed Karzai, then still president, and prominent mujahedin leaders Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf and Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, both among the most influential religious leader although they belong to quite different strands of Islam, sent messages (for Karzai’s message see here). From the morning until late into the afternoon speakers took the stage, praising Fayaz’ main messages – Islamic unity among Shia and Sunni and the need to modernise Islam (all transcripts here).

The wish for a different kind of religious leadership

The unanimous praise from such a heterogeneous audience was somewhat of a surprise, as even on the Shia side the political and religious leadership rarely has been on ‘one page’ over the past few years. One issue aggravating tensions has been the Shia Family Status Law that was brought into force by parliament and presidential signature in July 2009 and, based on Shia clerics’ views, contains a regulation that allows a husband to force his wife to have sex – something women’s rights activists and many others, including from the Shia community, considered rape. (2)

Another issue that a part of the Afghan Shia has become increasingly critical of is the Iranian influence on the religious leadership. Since the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979, the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran practices a ‘missionary’ approach, promoting the Shia faith in other Muslim countries, including in Afghanistan. This is based on the concept of political leadership (welayat) by the best (the most educated, just and honest) expert in Shia Islamic jurisprudence (faqih), therefore called welayat-e faqih, developed by Iran’s late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. (3) Afghan Shia mujahedin parties had to accept this concept in order to receive Tehran’s support during the war against the Soviet occupation. Up to today, Afghan ayatollahs receive financial support from the Iranian government to run their madrassas.

People critical of the influence of the mostly rather conservative religious leaders, as well as of religious leaders who took up political positions during the decades of war and allied themselves with Iran’s religious-political leadership, now hope that Fayaz can help Shia communities to emancipate themselves from what is perceived as Iranian dominance. It is significant that the event in Kabul had not originally been initiated by Fayaz or his office, but by Afghan Shia – mostly from the academic and political elite, some rather secular – who feel they need a different kind of religious leadership.

How Shia leadership is organised

On the political side, the most influential groups among Afghanistan’s Shia community are the various Wahdat (unity) parties that go back to Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan, established in 1989 in Bamyan, upon a suggestion by the Iranian leadership, in an attempt to bring together the Shia mujahedin groups. This name is still used by the party led by Khalili; Sarwar Danish, the second vice president to Ashraf Ghani, is a member as well. The second most important of the Wahdat parties is Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Mardom-e Afghanistan led by Mohammad Mohaqqeq, who was second vice presidential candidate to Abdullah and who is now deputy CEO. There are some smaller groups, too, some officially registered, others not. None of the Wahdat party leaders consider themselves religious leaders, although all of them have a background of religious education. Many of them attended the event for Fayaz, though.

The religious wing of the Shia leadership is less pluralistic. And those who are influential did not attend the gathering at the loya jirga tent. There were no official reasons given, but one possible one is that the local Shia leadership is not all that happy about Fayaz surfacing in Afghanistan and competing for followers – the currency in which the influence of religious leaders is measured.

Absent was for example the most powerful religious Shia leader in post-2001 Afghanistan, Ayatollah Mohammad Asef Mohseni, who is also a former mujahedin and political party leader. For many decades, until 2003, he headed the second largest Shia party, Harakat-e Islami (Islamic Movement) that had refused to join the original Wahdat party. After his retirement as Harakat leader, he built the biggest hawza (a university-like madrassa) of Afghanistan, in west Kabul, the Hawza-ye Khatm ul-Nabi’in that reportedly cost an estimated 17 million dollars (see here, here and here). He also founded the well-known TV channel Tamadon. He has been widely accused of having received Iranian financial support for these projects in order to promote Iranian policies in Afghanistan – although, in an interview with Radio Azadi, he rejected this and said the entire budget came either from his own wealth or from worshippers’ taxes (khoms).

Other high-ranking Afghan Shia ayatollahs missing at the event were Mohaqqeq Kabuli and Mohammad Hashem Salehi and the younger and thus less influential, Waezzada Behsudi. (4)

An impressive religious career

So who is this man who brought together such a large audience from afar? Ayatollah Fayaz was born in 1930 in Suba, a village in Jaghori district of Ghazni province, to a farmer’s family. He went to the madrassa in his village and at the age of 17, when his mother died, he left for Mashhad in Iran. Mashhad is a centre of Shiite worship as the grave of Shia’s eight Imam, Reza Sadiq, is located here. Fayaz started his religious studies in Mashhad, but after one year went to Najaf in Iraq, one of the seven holy sites of the Shia faith. Here, one of the most well-known Shia madrassas of the world is located, the Hawza Elmiya-ye Najaf. Fayaz joined the madrassa classes of well-known Ayatollah Sayed Abu al-Qassem al-Khoi’i (1899–1992) who taught fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Fayaz soon became one of his best students, and in 1962 al-Khoi’i allowed him to publish his first book, “al-Muhazerat” (The Lectures), a transcript of al-Khoi’i’s lessons on the principles of jurisprudence. In the preface to the book, Ayatollah Khoi’i praised Fayaz as the “apple of my eye.” Later, Fayaz himself started teaching jurisprudence in the madrassas of Najaf.

Since then, Ayatollah Fayaz has published more than 20 books, mainly in Arabic, on different subjects including women’s rights, Islamic banking, Islamic state government and modern medicine (some of his books are also available online here, in Dari and Arabic). However, only since 2011 have some of his books have been translated into Dari – among the translators was Sarwar Danesh, now second vice president.

Eventually, in 1992, he was asked to join into the shura-ye marje, the Shia world community’s highest ruling council, consisting of four Islamic jurists. The term marja hails from the term used for religious authority in the Shia faith (it literally means  ‘reference‘). There are the highest of marjas and ‘lower’ marjas, usually regionally important religious leaders. The highest marjaas the head of the Najaf council is considered to be the most influential jurist in the Shiite world – is currently Ayatollah Ali Sistani, an Iranian.

Nevertheless: when Fayaz’ book on women’s positions in Islamic society was launched in Kabul in November 2011 – the first public introduction of the ayatollah’s works in Afghanistan – Second Vice President Danish (then acting minister of higher education) introduced him as the “the best of all marjas currently out there” (and here) – something than can well be understood as a challenge to not just the current Afghan religious leadership, but maybe even to the Iranian politico-religious leadership.

The de-politisation of Afghan Shia Islam?

Fayaz is attractive to a large group of Afghan Shia for different reasons. First, he is liked by those who believe that the clergy should stay out of political positions and, particularly, stay away from political parties in a state that is not an Islamic state. In his book The Islamic State, Fayaz declares that there is no strong evidence in the words of the prophet (hadith) or his successors (the imams) that approve welayat-e faqih. He does think, though, that a country should be an Islamic state and it should be ruled by the most just, honest and educated Islamic jurist – but not because the prophet or the imams said so, simply because this person would be the most skilled for the job. This is different from the Iranian system where religious leadership is considered as God-given. Fayaz’ view leaves room for interpretation and for competition among potential leaders of the state.

A second reason for Afghan Shia liking Ayatollah Fayaz is that he, in contrast to his rivals for religious leadership in Afghanistan, has not been involved in the violence of the civil war or with any of the political parties driving it. Commanders and fighters of Mohseni’s Harakat, for example, have been accused of numerous killings, for instance during the Afshar massacre in 1993 (see here a Human Rights Watch report). This makes Fayaz more acceptable for those who suffered during the mujahedin era.

Thirdly, Ayatollah Fayaz’ acceptance among the educated class of the Shia communities owes much to his modern views regarding women’s rights, Islamic banking, medicine, and Islamic unity. For instance, according to Sharia law (a constantly changing, constantly added to catalogue of religious rulings or fatwas), women cannot become judges while Fayaz believes otherwise – he ‘even’ sees them as potential presidents. Ali Amiri, a philosophy professor at the Ibn Sina Private University and one of those who had been pushing for a different, more diversified religious Shia leadership (he is regularly in the Afghan media demanding change and had been involved in organising the ceremony for Fayaz), told AAN that “if we had had access to his opinion at the time of tensions regarding the Shia family law, the law would look different today.”

He and other supporters also quote other elements of Fayaz’ world view which they like, for example, for his stance towards the internet. Some ayatollahs, like Makarem Shirazi, a well-known Iranian ayatollah, believe that high speed internet is haram because it enables people to download un-Islamic material, such as pornography (see here – it is not clear why he thinks that weaker internet would not provide the same result, while just taking longer). In contrast, Ayatollah Fayaz not only allows followers to use the internet but wants to unblock webpages the Iranian government censors. This includes Facebook and some news agencies like the  BBC. Yet another example is his opinion about organ transplantations, a traditionally contested topic in Islamic – and other – societies. Many ayatollahs do not allow patients to undergo such surgery arguing that it changes God’s ‘design’ of the individual human being. Fayaz, however, believes that if a transplant can save a life and the donor has agreed to give one of his organs, it should be allowed.

One side-aspect, but an important one, is that Fayaz would be able to de-politicise Eid, the highest Afghan religious holiday – something that many Afghan Shia would welcome. At almost every Eid ul-Fitr, the Afghan Shia communities face the problem of choosing which day to celebrate the first day of Eid. Usually, the (Sunni) Afghan government falls in line with the Eid announcement of the (Sunni) government of Saudi Arabia while Afghan Shia leaders wait for the Eid announcement of the (Shia) Iranian government. Due to the two countries’ enmity, Iran regularly commences Eid one day later than Saudi Arabia. Thus the Afghan Shia start their celebrations one day later than the Afghan Muslim majority. This puts them in between chairs. If an Afghan Shia celebrates Eid with the government, he or she can be accused of bowing down to a Sunni leadership – and if they celebrate with Iran, they can be accused of disrespecting their own government. Having a religious leader who cannot be accused of being a ‘stooge’ of the Iranian government announce the first day of Eid, whatever that day may be, would give the holiday some of its innocence back and take pressure off them, Shiites think.

On a more general note, many Shia Muslims approve particularly of Fayaz’ message that Islam needs to modernise itself, as ignorance, says Fayaz, is the cause of much of the current violence, insecurity and extremism in the name of Islam.

Ayatollah Fayaz as ‘marja’ for Afghanistan?

There are, however, obstacles to Fayaz gaining more influence in Afghanistan and trumping local heavyweights. Shia religious leadership needs much more than merely rank and file and scholarly achievements. As analyst Mehdi Khalaji pointed out: “To become a marja, a mojtahed [a religious scholar of a high rank who is allowed to bring innovation into Islamic jurisprudence; this includes ayatollahs] must reach much social popularity through an economic network. In reality, [he] is not necessarily the most knowledgeable mojtahed but rather a mojtahed who successfully organised a profitable network by building relations with different authorities.” Only this would guarantee enough followers – and thus religious taxes and personal wealth – to keep him in power.

Unlike Sunni clerics who, in most countries, including Afghanistan, are dependent on the government for any financial support, Shia ayatollahs receive four kinds of donation from their followers: zakat (alms paid based on the value of ‘natural’ possessions such as land, livestock or gold), khoms (one fifth of the annual business profits of the respective follower), sadqa (charity) and fitr (fast-keepers tax at end of Ramadan). These can be substantial amounts. Iranian Ayatollah Sistani, the highest marja, for example, collects 500 to 700 million dollars from his followers worldwide every year. Ayatollah Fayaz on the other hand, due to his long absence from the country, does not have the social and economic networks – thus resources – to bolster his outreach.

These resources are needed to run offices and keep in touch with followers. It is also needed to print the leader’s views on paper and flood the market in order to gain more followers. For years, Ayatollah Fayaz’ staff worked from a shop-turned-office in Qala-ye Naw, a remote neighborhood in the far west of Kabul. Aside from Kabul, he has only three other offices across the country: in Herat, Balkh and Ghazni. Neither does he own land to build madrassas on, or run a newspaper, radio or TV channel to promote his views. Until recently, his Kabul office was selling his books, instead of giving them away for free like other religious leaders do. The Iranian government does print his books, but with far fewer free copies than they allow the other three members of the Najaf jurists’ council because Fayaz writes against the official government line. Staff of his Kabul office told AAN that they did not have the money to print books in Kabul on their own.

The most influential among the religious Shia leaders are also expected to pay monthly stipends for students enrolled in Shia madrassas, the so-called shahria for the students’ accommodation. The highest marja, Sistani, does indeed give out stipends to all Shia madrassa students across the globe (in Afghanistan, 1200 Afghani per month, appr. 21 Dollars). Other lower ranking religious leaders pay as much as they can, particularly in areas where they have many followers. According to sources in Kabul madrassas, there are around 2,000 madrassa students in Kabul and the highest stipends for these students are given by Ayatollah Mohaqqeq Kabuli who pays 2500 Afghani (44 Dollars) per month. Ayatollah Mohseni does not pay out cash amounts at all but his madrassa enrolls up to 300 students annually and provides all facilities including food and accommodation for free for them. Ayatollah Khamene’i, the Iranian religious leader, pays 2,000 Afghani (35 Dollars) to all Afghan Shia enrolled in madrassas around the world, including in Kabul. Fayaz’s Kabul office, in comparison, usually pays about 1,000 Afghani (17.5 Dollars) for Afghan students once a year.

A beginning – but not much more?

Ayatollah Fayaz seems to be willing to expand his activities in Afghanistan and to answer to his new supporters’ pleas for more influence on current Shia matters. One indication of this was when he sent his eldest son to the event in the loya jirga tent in August. There is no information about why he did not come to Kabul himself – there are several possible explanations, though. One is his age; Ayatollah Fayaz is nearly 85. Another is that he might want to ‘test the waters’ and learn more about supporters and adversaries before leaving Najaf, a center of Shia leadership, and commiting resources to a potential ‘Afghan mission.’ Nevertheless, his team just opened a second office in Kabul. And after the celebration in Kabul, a series of smaller events was held in different parts of Kabul city including at Ibn Sina Private University and in Herat and Ghazni provinces.

Fayaz’ chance to become a prominent marja in Afghanistan now depends on how successfully he can expand his networks and introduce his beliefs to the public – but also on how actively the current religious powerbrokers would oppose him. He does seem to enjoy the support of influential figures such as Mohammad Mohaqqeq, second deputy to CEO Abdullah Abdullah, who, during the Kabul ceremony for Fayaz also emphasised the need to modernise Islam. Karim Khalili, then still second vice president, called Fayaz the “pride of not only Afghan Shia, but also Afghan Sunni.” Both these political Shia leaders do not get along well with the currently most powerful religious leader Asif Mohseni. There will be shifts within the Shia religious leadership, with the pressure from the educated class of Afghan Shia on traditional structures and powerbrokers increasing. It is just not yet clear whether they will be in favour of Ayatollah Fayaz or not.


(1) Literally, ayatollah means ‘sign of God.’ Those who carry it are experts in Islamic studies such as jurisprudence, ethics or philosophy and usually teach in Islamic seminaries, also called madrassas. Only ayatollahs can become marjas. Those ayatollahs serving in the jurists’ council in Najaf are sometimes also called grand ayatollah.

(2) See some media reporting here; reports by Human Right Watch and Open Democracy on the issue here; and here as well as women’s rights activists arguments here).

(3) At the core on this doctrine is the belief that the Islamic community is ruled by the successor of the Prophet Muhammad (the imam) who, in the Shia belief, can only be a direct blood relative. But since the last, the twelfth Shia Imam known as ‘The Mahdi’, went into hiding – and therefore is known as the Hidden Imam –, Islamic jurists should rule the Shia community until he returns to the world and establishes his government. Ayatollah Khomeini has further developed this concept to cover not only religious but also political leadership.

The other two council members are Ayatollah Mohammad Said Hakim, originally from Iraq, and Ayatollah Sheikh Bashir al-Najafi, originally from Pakistan and like Fayaz a disciple of Ayatollah Khoi’i.

(4) Ayatollah Mohaqqeq Kabuli is originally from Parwan province of Afghanistan and many of his followers are from that region. He is based in Iran but runs a madrassa in west Kabul; compared to Mohseni’s madrassa it is small, though. In Iran, Kabuli established the Etihad-e Islami-ye Afghanistan (Afghanistan Islamic Unity) party in 1978 and which later joined Wahdat party. Ayatollah Salehi is based in Kabul and is the deputy head of the Afghanistan Shia Ulama (religious scholars) council; the head of the council is Ayatollah Mohseni. Salehi, too, runs his own madrassa, but cannot compete with Mohseni, either. Ayatollah Behsudi, a man in his fifties, has been an ayatollah for about ten years. He runs a small madrassa in Kabul, although he hails from Wardak province.



ayatollah Iran Iraq Islam Mohammad Eshaq Fayaz Shia