The Arabic-language website of the Grand Ayatollah Mahmud al-Hasani, the rising Shiite leader of Iraq, speaks volumes about the man making headlines in Iraq and challenging the cleric-turned rebel Muqtada al-Sadr. All that is known about him is that he is anti-American, anti-Iranian, anti-Sunni and at odds with most of the Shiite community as well. Many of the facts for this article were collected from the abundant information posted on al-Hasani’s website (https://www.alhasany.net) and from Arabic articles written on the internet by his supporters or insiders in the Iraqi Shiite community . Al-Hasani’s name first began appearing in the Western press in June, when his supporters stormed the Iranian Consulate in Basra protesting a talk-show that was aired on the Iranian TV channel al-Kawthar criticizing Ayatollah al-Hasani. His men burned down parts of the Iranian Consulate, then took down the Iranian flag and replaced it with an Iraqi one, demonstrating their anti-Iranian credentials.
Al-Hasani’s website carries a photograph of him with light shining from his face, as if he were blessed by a holy spirit. Each time his name is mentioned, the phrase “May God Preserve his Shadow” is found and so is “Wali Amr al-Muslimeen” (in charge of the Muslim ummah). It dates his ancestry back to Imam Ali, the icon of the Shiite faith in Islam. Al-Hasani grew up under the influence of his father, an educated man who surprisingly was not a cleric but rather a practicing lawyer and then judge in al-Kazimiyah. Born in 1960, Mahmud al-Hasani studied civil engineering at Baghdad University and graduated in 1987. In 1994, he joined the al-Hawza seminary to study Islam at the hands of the veteran Shiite scholar Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. This is where he first met al-Sadr’s son Muqtada, and the two men became friends, sharing a fierce hatred for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Although al-Hasani has since developed great disrespect for all scholars at al-Hawza, he continues to revere the elder al-Sadr until this day, referring to him as “leader of the majestic awakening of the Iraqis.”
In 1999, the elder al-Sadr was assassinated by agents of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Freed from his master’s guidance and influence, al-Hasani began charting out his own religious career and promoting himself as the new grand ayatollah of Shiite Islam. He was a prolific writer, authoring many books and articles on religious science and sending them to be critiqued at al-Hawza. Not many veteran scholars took him seriously, seeing him too young to master Shiite Islam. This infuriated him and led him to challenge all the authorities of the Shiite faith, claiming that he was the finest, most knowledgeable Shiite cleric in the Muslim world. He claimed that he was more of an authority on Shiite Islam than Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Iraq and the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, two towering and unchallenged religious authorities. The Shiite community was dubious and they continued to ignore his writings and lectures during the years 1999-2003.
This is where reality and fiction became blurred in the life of Mahmud al-Hasani. Highly egocentric, he started to see himself in a divine manner, unchallenged by mortals. He claimed that fearing his authority and education, the scholars at al-Hawza went mad. They cut off the salaries of his supporters, burned his books and said that he was a “lunatic” and a “thief.” Speaking about himself, al-Hasani says that he is the “only real danger to al-Hawza” because he unmasks their “fraud.” The high criticism that he has had of al-Hawza earned him many enemies among the Shiites. This was increased when he began criticizing Iran after the Anglo-American War in March 2003, claiming that the mullahs of Tehran were interfering in the day-to-day affairs of Iraq. He was also very critical of all politicians who were allied to Iran, such as former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
This again is where he found common ground with Muqtada al-Sadr. Both were opposed to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Also, both wanted to create an Iran-style theocracy in Baghdad, yet independent of Iranian influence. Both were also Arab nationalists at heart, refusing to partition Iraq and create an autonomous Shiite region in the south, as demanded by some Iranians, Hakim and SCIRI. His anti-Iranian stance (which is uncommon for Shiites) along with his dislike for al-Hawza made many in Iraq say that Mahmud al-Hasani is “made in America” to discredit both the scholars of the Shiite community and their backers in Tehran.
Shortly before the war of 2003, al-Hasani was arrested by Saddam Hussein for his views. He was sentenced to death but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The Baathists offered to release him if he issued a statement supporting Saddam, but he refused, launching a hunger strike instead for 35-days and prompting other inmates to revolt against prison authorities. Al-Hasani remained in jail until days after the downfall of the Iraqi regime in April 2003. Upon leaving prison he went to his father’s home and said that due to so much torture by Saddam and persecution by al-Hawza, he wanted to retire from public life. His father, however, did not let him, saying: “How can you abandon the people?” He added, “My son stood up to Saddam the murderer and his atheist state for the sake of justice and the Imam of Justice.” At this point he settled in Karbala and began a loud anti-American campaign. Meanwhile, other clerics like al-Sistani were calling on the Iraqis to cooperate with the United States, saying that using force and launching an insurgency would not hasten the U.S. departure from Iraq. His first high profile act was in October 2003 when his men ambushed an Iraqi police patrol, killing two policemen for cooperating with “the illegal regime.” In February 2004, his men attacked Spanish forces in al-Diwaniyah. A warrant was issued for his arrest and a $5,000 reward was announced for his capture.
Recently al-Hasani has created his own militia, the Husayn Army, to fight the United States and Sunni militiamen in Iraq. It seems that he will also be fighting the Shiites as well since he has recently quarreled with his former ally Muqtada al-Sadr. After having much in common and fighting together against U.S. forces in Najaf in 2004, they drifted apart. Al-Sadr angered al-Hasani when he joined the political process in January, securing parliamentary seats for his followers and bringing them in as cabinet ministers in the cabinet of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. With a militia at hand, and an estimated 50,000 followers in Iraq, Mahmud al-Hasani can create trouble. He will have a hard time making a name for himself because well-established leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim will fight against this development since al-Hasani challenges them in the Shiite political orbit. Nevertheless, he might be manipulated by one party against the other in inter-Shiite bickering, showing why Mahmud al-Hasani must be well understood at the early stages of his rise in order to avoid being surprised by him, similar to how the United States was caught off-guard by Muqtada al-Sadr’s rise back in 2004.
1. In addition to much of the information found at al-Hasani’s website (https://www.alhasany.net), other information comes from https://alakhyar.com, a pro-al-Hasani forum on the internet that contains biographical details about him; the name of the forum, translated into English, means: “The Finest.” Another Islamic forum that speaks heavily on al-Hasani is https://www.ansaralhusain.net, which translated means the “Supporters of Husayn (the Imam of Islam).”