Obituary: Grand Ayatollah Abdul Aala Sabzawari

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Sayed Abdul Aala Sabzawari al- Mussawi, religious leader: born Sabzawar, Iran 1910; died Najaf, Iraq 16 August 1993.

ABDUL AALA SABZAWARI was the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shias, and the most senior cleric surviving in Iraq. His death at the age of 83, a year after that of his predecessor and longtime colleague, Grand Ayatollah Abolqassem al-Khoy, is another blow to the continuance of traditional scholarship in the holy city of Najaf which has been relentlessly persecuted by the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Sabzawari's career linked him to some of the notable figures in modern Shiism. He came from Sabzawar in Khorasan, north-east Iran, which in the 19th century had produced Mulla Hadi, the great scholar who made Sabzawar the centre of a brilliant school of philosophy sought by students from all over the Muslim world. Like his predecessor Khoy, Sabzawari was a pupil at Najaf of Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Naini, a prolific writer on the law who was involved in the Iranian constitutional movement, as well as Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Isfahani and Sheikh Agha Dhia al-Iraqi.

Sabzawari wrote over 50 works, of which 11 were on Koranic commentary and 35 on Islamic jurisprudence, as well as others on philosophy. In the 1960s he taught in Najaf when the city was the focus of an Islamic renaissance, a 'Shia international' which would both inspire and convulse the Muslim world, and in which the renewal of Islamic law was a crucial aspect.

Sabzawari was a deeply religious man who lived an austere life befitting a senior Marji (authority). He was strict in his insistence that the donations of the faithful should be spent for the purpose they were given. His charitable works were many, especially among the Shia of Iraq and Lebanon, and this included providing substantial funds for the poor and dispossessed.

During the uprising in southern Iraq early in 1991 Sabzawari, with Khoy, played a courageous and leading role in trying to lessen the violence which was taking place and stood side by side with the people. His son Mohammad was a member of the Supreme Committee appointed by Khoy to 'act in the public interest'. Though many lives were saved, terrible retaliation fell on Najaf after the revolt was crushed. Few of the clergy retained their freedom.

After Khoy's death in August 1992, Saddam Hussein attempted to foist his own candidate for spiritual leader upon the Shia Muslims. However, the Iraqi Shias had had a particularly close relationship with Sabzawari. Hence their acknowledgement of him as their religious leader.

Declining health and the desperate state of the Shia theological schools made Sabzawari's last two years very difficult for him. His death came on the eve of the anniversary of the Prophet's death when tens of thousands of Shia pilgrims would normally have thronged Najaf, but such public rituals for the Shia are now banned. The Iraqi government ordered the Grand Ayatollah to be buried within hours of his death with no public funeral ceremony. The torment of the Iraqi Shia continues.

(Photograph omitted)