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Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhsin al-Tabataba'i al-Hakim (1889–1970)

With the success of the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Red movement started to gain extensive support around the world. Particularly in the Middle East, many Muslims saw communism as the solution to all their socio-economic woes, and communist parties around the Arab world began to attract massive numbers of disenfranchised youth, especially in Iraq. And yet, the disastrous results of communism were already foreseen by a seemingly out-of-touch old cleric living and teaching in the Shia seminary of Najaf, whose religious edict declaring communism equivalent to Shirk and Kufr (polytheism and disbelief) marked the end of communism in Iraq.

He was born Sayyid Mohsin ibn Sayyid Mahdi Tabatabai al-Hakim to a scholarly family in the holy city of Najaf in 1306 AH. He received his religious education in Najaf, studying under such great giants of the seminary as Akhund al-Khurasani, Sayyid Abul Hasan al-Isfehani, Sayyid Kadhim Tabatabai Yazdi, and Shaikh Muhammad Hussain Naini. Upon the demise of his teachers, Sayyid Mohsin al-Hakim was recognized as the de facto leader of the Najaf seminary, and upon Ayatollah Burujardi's death in 1380 AH, he was accepted as the sole Marja Taqleed (Religious Authority) by Shias around the world.

Under Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim, the seminary grew extensively. He embarked on a program to collect various books and manuscripts that had hitherto been ignored or disorganized, culminating in his famous library containing over 30,000 books and nearly 5,000 various manuscripts. It is said that in times of financial shortage, Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim used to offer the prayers and fasts for diseased individuals and would use that money to buy these books and manuscripts from their owners. He also established several new religious schools, including the Madressa Sharif al-Ulema in Karbala, Madressas Sayyid Yazdi, Dar al-Hikma, and Ilmiya in Najaf, Madressa Ilmiya in Hilla, as well as a religious school especially for students of Afghan and Central Asian origin. His list of students includes such great names as Sayyid Abul Qasim al-Khoei, Sayyid Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini, Martyr Sayyid Qadhi Tabatabai, Martyr Sayyid Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr, Sayyid Ali Hussaini Sistani, Sayyid Sa'eed Tabatabai Hakim (his grandson), Shaikh Hussain Waheed Khurasani, and Shaikh Nasir Makarem Shirazi.

During his time, the seminary increased its international outreach efforts, and Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim used the seminary's financial resources to establish mosques, Hussainiyas, and Islamic cultural centers all over Iraq, as well as in places like Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. His code of practice and hundreds of Islamic books was published in local languages such as Urdu and Pashto and made easily accessible to the masses in these places for the first time.

As the socialist Ba'ath Party went about creating an autocratic state in Iraq, Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim's own sons Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi al-Hakim and Sayyid Baqir al-Hakim established the Islamic Da'wa Party along with Martyr Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and Sayyid Murtadha al-Askari. The Party sought to counter the Ba'ath regime's autocratic and un-Islamic practices, and as a result, many of its members were brutally killed.

Like Ayatollah Burujardi, Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim (and later, Ayatollah Abul Qasim al-Khoei) is accused of maintaining a "quietist" attitude during this period. However, one must remember that his religious leadership occurred during some very turbulent times. Revolutions do not take place overnight, and Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim recognized that in order to effectively counter the Ba'ath Party in the long run, there must be a dedicated group of scholars and jurists to lead the masses. Therefore, he let Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr be in charge of the resistance movement, whereas he himself concentrating on producing the next great crop of Shia academia. Indeed, many of his students and at least six of his sons were brutally persecuted and subsequently killed by the Ba'ath regime. Today, the influential Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) is led by Sayyid Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim's sons.

In 1390 AH, Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim passed away. He was laid to rest inside his library in Najaf, and the mantle of leadership in the Najaf seminary was passed on to Sayyid Abul Qasim al-Khoei.


Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhsin al-Tabataba'i al-Hakim (1889–1970) (Arabic: أية الله العظمي سيد محسن الطباطبائ الحكيم‎) was born into a family, the Tabatabai, renowned for its scholarship. He was always in the forefront to defend Islam and Muslims. He became the sole Marja in 1961 after the death of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Husayn Borujerdi. His son Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was the leader of SIIC the largest political party in Iraq.

Activities in Hawza Ilmiyya, Najaf

The hawza of Najaf grew immensely under his Marjaiyya. His historic opinion piece (although, not an official fatwa), branding communism as kufr and atheism proved the beginning of the end of communism in Iraq.

Muhsin Al-Hakim led the hawza, also known as the marja'iyya, the group of Shi'i scholars based in Najaf responsible for determining Shi'i religious doctrine, during a time of considerable tumult in Iraq. Communism had enveloped the south of Iraq, Iraqi nationalist parties (and most prominently the pan-Arabist Ba'ath party) were largely in control of Iraq's political institutions, particularly during the last decade of Hakim's life. It is important to note, however, that the hawza is not a papacy and that therefore "leading" it does not mean that Hakim alone could pronounce Shi'i doctrine, all members of the hawza of sufficient standing (namely, those given the title absolute interpreter, or mujtahid mutlaq) developed their own rules based on accepted techniques and practices. Hakim was simply the most respected of the relatively small group of scholars.

Political Stances

Hakim's general stance with respect to all of these movements, in contradistinction to those of his children, who later became extraordinarily active politically, was one of quietism. In fact, Shi'i quietism, later exemplified by hawza leaders such as Grand Ayatollah Abul Qasim al-Khoei and current Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, probably reached its apotheosis in Iraq during Hakim's tenure. Thus, while Hakim did attempt to limit Communist influence among the Shi'a by banning their participation in the party, for the most part he preferred to remain out of politics, at least tacitly agreeing with Baghdad's rulers to keep the hawza's scholars politically neutral in exchange for relative immunity for those scholars. Implicit in this stance was a certain alienation and disaffection with the notion of the modern nation state and the exercise of political authority. The state, and politics, were assumed to be inherently sullying, and something which good Shi'is should avoid. Quietism is thus not secularism, where the state and religion are presumed to have important, but separate, spheres of influence, but rather a type of devotion to the religious authorities and suspicion of political ones. Politics and religion would then be united once again after the return of the hidden Mahdi, now disappeared for over a millennium. The Mahdi is a lineal descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who is the Imam in Shi'i theology, an infallible individual in whom political and religious authority for the Muslim community is vested and who will ultimately bring justice to the world with his reappearance under Shi'i eschatological theory.

Other Point of View

There were some within the hawza who were less enamored of Hakim's stance respecting political authority. Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, for example, a more junior member of the hawza during Hakim's time, sought a series of reforms to the hawza to make it more politically palatable and appealing to the Shi'i masses who were proving susceptible to Communism. Sadr therefore tried to unify and centralize the hawza, placing more power in the hands of the senior scholar, and sought to make its materials more accessible and understandable to the lay community, filled as it was with arcane and obscure language, often on minutiae of no interest to the broader Shi'i masses. He helped found the Da'wa party as well, an Islamist party that Sadr imagined would give the hawza political influence in Baghdad.

While Hakim had a great deal of respect for the intelligence and enthusiasm of Sadr, he viewed his political activism as contrary to its principles and interests. Hakim therefore asked Sadr to dissociate his relationship with Da'wa and generally discouraged his efforts to reform large parts of the hawza curriculum, though some important reforms were undertaken. Hakim therefore maintained the quietist balance through very difficult times, and ultimately projected a stance on politics and religion in the Shi'i community that remains influential today.

With Hakim's death, Sadr's activism increased and ultimately his ideas proved too threatening to the Saddam and his government. In 1980, he and his sister were killed by Saddam Hussein's interrogators, as were any members of the hawza who were inclined to take Sadr's politically active position. With the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, however, Shi'ism has reached a considerable period of ferment, with the religious community attempting to achieve some form of balance between the political activism announced by Sadr and the quietist stance embodied most clearly in the form of Muhsim al-Hakim.

He was buried in the great and modern library he had established.