Obituary: Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Mirza Ali al-Gharawi

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AYATOLLAH ALI al-Gharawi was a prominent marja (source of emulation) for Imami-Twelver Shia Muslims and a great jurist and scholar.

He was born in 1930 in Tabriz in Iran. His father Haj Asdullah Haj Hasan, who was a prosperous merchant and who for a time had had a business in Kuba (in present-day Azerbaijan), died when Ali was only two years old so he was brought up by his mother Sayyida Fezza, the daughter of Sayyid Mohamed Uskui. It was because Ali was a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohamed on his mother's side that he bore the title of Mirza, as was the custom.

It seems that it was was due especially to his mother and her influence that at the early age of six Ali embarked upon a traditional religious education with a view to his eventually becoming an alim (religious scholar). He received all his elementary education in Tabriz and then travelled to the holy city of Qom to complete his intermediate studies at the religious academy, the Hawzah-ye Elmiyeh, and at the age of 16 he commenced advanced studies. Among his teachers figured the illustrious marja the late Ayatollah Sayyid Husayn Borujerdi and Ayatollah Mohamed Kuhkamari.

Mirza Ali spent 5 years at Qom and then moved to al-Najaf al-Ashraf in Iraq to complete his advanced studies at the Hawzah there - the oldest university in Shia Islam. Now began his intimate association with Najaf which would continue until his death. He became known as al-Gharawi, which is derived from al-Ghari, the ancient name of Najaf, and it was by this surname (nisba) rather than by his original name of Tabrizi that he came to be identified.

His teachers at Najaf included great scholars and jurists such as the late Ayatollahs Shaikh Husayn al-Hilli and Mirza Mohamed Baqir al-Zanjani but the one to whom he undoubtedly owed the most and the one whom he looked upon as his mentor was the late Ayatollah Sayyid Abul-Qasim al-Khoi, one of the most prominent marjas of the whole 20th century.

Still not 30, al-Gharawi was acknowledged as a mujtahid (competent to make independent juridical decisions). Al-Khoi in a written document dated July 1958 testifies to the academic excellence of his pupil and lookes forward to the day when he would become a marja.

Khoi's wish was eventually fulfilled when Mirza Ali, following the demise of the marja Ayatollah Abd al-Ala al-Sabzevari in August 1993, published his own juridical decisions "al-Fatawa al-Mustanbata" which was the first step for any prospective marja.

As a marja, Ayatollah Gharawi had followers in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. At the same time he was a teacher at the Hawza right up to his death and also one of the imams who led congregational prayers in the sacred enclosure known as the Rawda which contains the tomb of the first Shia Imam Amir al-Muminin Ali ibn Abi Talib. He is the author of numerous works on fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) most of which remain, however, in manuscript form. His published works include a dozen volumes relating to Khoi's lectures on Yazdi's renowned treatise al-Urwa al-Wuthqa replete with his own annotations.

It was Gharawi's wont every Thursday to make the 50-mile journey north to Karbala to pray in the Rawda there and visit the tomb of Imam al-Husayn, the third Imam and grandson of the Prophet Mohamed. Last Thursday was to be his last visit. Returning home to Najaf on the motorway he was shot dead in a hail of bullets along with his son-in-law Shaykh Mohamed Taqi Faqih (a Lebanese national), the driver and a friend.

The Iraqi authorities failed to carry out any thorough police investigation into the incident. Furthermore no funeral procession was allowed nor any public mourning. Gharawi's body was washed in haste and rushed to the cemetery of Wadi al-Salam in Najaf. The ritual prayer over the deceased was said not by an ayatollah, as would have been customary, but by one of Gharawi's students and the body was speedily buried in the presence of a few family members and government officials.

The Iraqi government has of course denied any implication in the murder and accuses hostile foreign agents of the deed. Shia leaders throughout the world however regard the assassination of Gharawi to be simply the latest in a series of crimes planned and perpetrated by the Iraqi Mukhabarat (Intelligence Services). Two months ago another great alim, Ayatollah Murtada al-Burujirdi, was shot dead in Najaf. Both men were outstanding scholars and marjas and were never involved in political activity but nevertheless were spiritual leaders of Shia Iraqis who are looked upon by the regime with considerable apprehension.

Despite the general oppression wrought upon the Shia in Iraq during the past 30 years many Shia ulema still live in the holy city of Najaf. Grand Ayatollah Ali Seestani, who of all the marjas has the greatest number of followers world-wide, has been under virtual house arrest for three years. Another marja is Ayatollah Sayyid Mohamed Said al-Hakim, grandson, on his mother's side, of the late marja Muhsin al-Hakim who was the principal marja of all the Shia before al-Khoi.

Sheikh Mohamed Ishaq al-Fayyad, a Pakistani who has lived for the past 50 years in Najaf, is expected by many to seek recognition soon as a marja.

A. B. D. R. Eagle

Mirza Ali al-Tabrizi, religious scholar and jurist: born Tabriz, Persia 1930; married Batul Kermanshahi (three sons, five daughters); died Karbala, Iraq 18 June 1998.