The grand ayatollah, 73, secludes himself in a well-guarded compound in the Shi'a holy city of Al-Najaf and works mostly at night studying religious questions. He is often reported to maintain that clerics should stay out of politics to concentrate on spiritual matters instead.
At the same time, he has refused to meet directly with U.S. officials. His refusal has became a strong political message of discontent with the U.S.-led occupation, even though he and most Shi'a welcomed the toppling of Saddam Hussein in April.
To learn more about al-Sistani and his views of Iraq's future, our correspondent spoke with Iraqi sociologist Faleh Jabar of the University of London. Faleh, currently on a fellowship at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, has written extensively on Iraqi Shi'a movements.
The sociologist says al-Sistani is often portrayed by the media as a man of spiritual concerns with a highly ascetic lifestyle. But as one of a handful of top Iraqi Shi'a leaders regarded as a "marja" -- or "model for emulation" -- by the faithful, al-Sistani also is the head of one of his community's richest religious foundations, thought to have assets worth tens of millions of dollars.
Jabar says that, as leaders of institutions with vast networks of social services, al-Sistani and other top Iraqi Shi'a clerics are in constant touch with the concerns -- both spiritual and worldly -- of their community. "Seemingly they are isolated, living like hermits. But this is a myth," he said. "They have thousands of students, of novices, of agents, of representatives, and they have the best feedback in the world. They can feel [the concerns of their community]. This is an institution that we are talking about. We are not talking about a person living in a small room."
Iraq's religious foundations, which are supported by contributions from a marja's followers, fund institutions and services ranging from religious schools, to dormitories for religious students, to welfare grants to the needy. Al-Sistani inherited his vast endowment network from the late Grand Ayatollah Abd al-Qasim al-Khoi, who named him as successor before his death in 1992.
Jabar says that "grass roots" pressure from followers propelled al-Sistani to make his demand for direct elections. That demand, which would assure a dominant voice for Iraq's Shi'a majority, is in direct opposition to Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer's plans for the government to be selected through a caucus, or representative, system. Caucus systems are often used to balance the interests of competing groups -- which in Iraq include Shi'a, Sunnis, and Kurds.
Jabar described al-Sistani's intervention by saying: "Bremer's way of doing things is a bit heavy-handed. And the caucuses were organized in such a way that they gave the impression that it would be direct appointment by Bremer rather than selection based on consultation. And people reacted very fiercely. So this is motive number one on the part of Sistani in asking for direct elections. He knew that there were difficulties, but it was to put some pressure on Bremer."
Jabar continues, "A second motivation is that he fears Bremer is doing the same thing that the British did in 1921, that there was a Shi'ite majority yet the majority of the government was Sunni."
But the demand for direct elections is just one of a number of politically charged moves by al-Sistani in recent months. He also has issued several key fatwas -- opinions that carry the weight of religious law for followers -- regarding the proper form of Iraq's next government. At least two have drawn a clear distinction between al-Sistani's vision of Iraq's future and that of the Shi'a Islamist parties, such as the formerly exiled Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The Shi'a Islamist parties favor strong participation of the clergy in politics.
"He issued several fatwas," Jawar said. "First, he said, we will not have a government like Iran, meaning [theocracy] is not applicable in the case of Iraq. The Shi'a Islamic parties would like to forget this [fatwa]. The second fatwa is that he forbade clerics from assuming any administrative and government office at all."
Jabar says these fatwas were in part motivated by al-Sistani's belief that clergy should not become part of the political system and thus risk losing their spiritual authority. But they also may be an effort to balance the interests of distinct groups within the Shi'a population. These include a strong middle class of professionals that is uncomfortable with the Islamist political parties. Tensions between the groups have risen as Islamist parties have sought to impose dress codes on women in some parts of southern Iraq where their armed militias hold power.
The leaders of SCIRI and other Shi'a Islamist groups have frequently sought to claim they have al-Sistani's support. They notably did so again last month in pushing a bill through the Iraqi Governing Council to make it possible to apply Islamic law -- or Shari'a -- instead of civil statutes in domestic cases such as inheritance and divorce. That bill, fiercely opposed by many Iraqi professional women, has not been signed into law by Bremer.
But Jabar says that despite the efforts of the Shi'a Islamist groups to claim al-Sistani's backing, relations between them and the ayatollah remain far from settled.
The sociologist says al-Sistani's writings suggest he would be comfortable with a constitution that enshrines Islam as the state religion, assures freedom of worship to all communities, and accepts sharia as just one of several sources of legislation. That is a position closer to the sentiments of the Shi'a middle classes. However, al-Sistani also is reported to have said in his religious rulings regarding personal behavior that men and women should not mix socially, that music for entertainment is prohibited, and that women should veil their hair.
Just how much al-Sistani will continue to influence Iraq's future development is likely to depend on how Washington resolves the election question and how smoothly it can hand over power to an Iraqi sovereign government. Jabar says al-Sistani's record over the past months suggests he will keep trying to ensure that the Shi'a exercise a major voice in the new Iraq. But he will also try to ensure that the Shi'a political parties do not tear their own community apart in the process.
The grand ayatollah now has the role of his community's ultimate arbiter largely because several other key Iraqi Shi'a religious leaders have died in recent years. A highly popular rival who espoused a strong clerical role in politics, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, was killed by presumed agents of Saddam Hussein in 1999. His assassination left al-Sistani as the preeminent and best-financed of the grand ayatollahs remaining in Al-Najaf today.