The Shiite community has much more religious coherence than its Sunni counterpart.
This raises several questions for Sunni authorities, including the ones raised by prominent Iraqi Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Qabisi in response to Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa regarding the need to defend Iraq against extremist Sunni attacks. “Shiites have a strong authority that orders and is obeyed. However, Sunnis do not and will not have a similar leadership or authority,” he said.
The religious Shiite institution has never had a clerical system such as the Catholic Church in the Vatican. However, it does have a strong bond with its popular base and can mobilize millions by issuing a single fatwa. The Shiite authority has a prominent historical role within Sunni communities through the social and spiritual power that the religious leadership has over its followers.
One can find several examples of Shiite clerics having prominent social roles in the region’s modern history. Sayyid Hassan al-Shirazi’s fatwa (1814-1896) led the dissolution of one of the greatest trade contracts between the Kingdom of Iran and Great Britain in 1891.
Shiite authorities played a decisive role in the constitutional revolution in Iran between 1905 and 1907. The entire Iraqi public rose up against the British when they occupied Iraq after World War I, in the Great Iraqi Revolution of 1920. There are plenty of other examples that can be seen throughout Sistani’s leadership in modern-day Iraq.
Despite all the social transformations of the modern era, Shiite authorities still have a broad social power over their followers in the various Shiites communities around the world, which gives great power and cohesion to Shiites compared with other denominations of Islam. Where does this power come from, how is it implemented, and how do the religious authorities communicate with their followers in Shiite communities?