Ayatollah Isa Qassim, Reminiscent of Sheikh Khalaf at the Kingís Palace

2017-05-21 - 4:38 p

Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): The Government of Bahrain opted not to wait, as it wanted to make a quick move rather than implement economic and social appeasement projects. It thus rocked the political table bringing out all its files.

Without a mass survey, such as the one conducted by Justin Gengler in 2009, the government reached the same conclusions and the same views regarding the Shiite sect, i.e. "there is no use for political silencing or economic appeasement attempts."

Instead the Shia in Bahrain were surprised to see the government head towards passing the personal status law. It was carefully planned political decision on the regime's part, because it hit a sensitive nerve for the Shia clerics. This is the first of issues that the authorities succeeded in manipulating and with which managed to stir up the public. This move shook the Shia community and its leaders.

Led by Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, the Shia clerics in Bahrain stood against this decision, and it seemed like the King succeeded in provoking them, and even encouraging them to bringing back relations with him by opening new files on the table, even if non political in substance.

Sheikh Qassim visited the King and announced that a positive understanding on the issue was made. It; however, did not work. The Sheikh led a major campaign launched against that project. In 2005, a mass protest was staged, in which over an estimated 100,000 protesters took part. Sheikh Qassim led the protest himself and all different Shiite factions (including pro-government ones) united against this said law.

The emergence of Sheikh Isa Qassim as a unifying leader whose word is heard, and as the high authority of the Shia in the country is reminiscent of the role of Sheikh Khalaf Al-Asfour, and is perceived as a threat of history repeating itself. In the 1920s the example of Sheikh Khalaf succeeded in threatening the then new ruler's power, who was backed by the British government, after he expressed his opposition to the authorities' control over the Shiite judiciary.

Britain's foreign office dedicated a full file on Sheikh Khalaf and the issues linked to him. The British advisor Belgrave deemed his situation and bad relationship with the ruler may lead to serious trouble. A record from the British archive says that the political resident met with Sheikh Khalaf and described him as a significant figure. The British file on Sheikh Khalaf states that he was "looked upon as a pious man and walking with God," by the Shia in Bahrain.


Historians state that Belgrave himself went to Sheikh Khalaf's and stood at his door, yelling: Didn't I ask you to leave the country immediately? Sheikh was furious and said: "Neither you nor your British government can force me out of my country. I leave by my own will."

"When the residents of the villages learned about the incident, they stood up to defend Sheikh Khalaf and raised their weapons threatening anyone who attempts to bring any harm to the Sheikh. Then Sheikh Khalaf intervened after he saw that events escalated, fearing that the situation would blow up leading to unfavorable consequences and sparing blood, thus he decided to leave."

According to the British file, Sheikh Khalaf was considered an unwanted figure in the country. The records say that this angered the Shia population, hence protests were staged in the streets, markets were shut down in Manama, unrest erupted across the island signaling a potential crisis. In his record of events, Belgrave says that a delegate assigned by the ruler found the streets flooding with people at Sheikh Khalaf's house, following the decision to ban him from the judiciary and leading Friday prayers, also summoning him to Manama.

In 1931 after major confrontations with the authorities, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, backed by Britain, exiled Sheikh Khalaf from the country for a second time to Iraq. He lived in exile until his demise. In 2016, after major confrontations with the regime, the great grandson of the former ruler who holds the same name Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who is also backed by Britain, revoked the citizenship of another man: Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim.

Perhaps King Hamad liked to open the same issues over which his great grandfather clashed with the then Shia leader. Sheikh Isa Qassim is fighting for the same causes that Sheikh Khalaf fought for, which are simply: A "state" where people are guaranteed their rights.

At the King's Palace: For the Religious Rights of Shiites

Since the time of the late Sheikh Abdulamir Al-Jamri, the ruling family had a conviction that decisive political or high-level decisions should be discussed with the Shiite religious authority and not the politicians. Therefore, up to 2006, the ruling family made negotiations with the prominent Shia clerics or the offices affiliated to them.

According to an opposition source, the first meeting between King Hamad and Sheikh Isa Qassim was held a short while after his return to the kingdom in March 2001. The Source described the meeting (which wasn't apparently announced) as friendly and that it addressed political reform issues.

On May 11, 2003, i.e. 8 months after his meeting with the Crown Prince, Sheikh Qassim openly met with the King, but Sheikh Qassim was the one who initiated the visit this time, accompanied by a number of prominent clerics.

The Bahrain National Agency did not reveal anything about the meeting but a photo and a statement by the King saying that he "appreciates" the great services that these clerics offer in the path of guidance and advice and "commends" their role in reinforcing virtuous principles and striving to "establish the spirit of national unity," and consolidate the unified, mutually supportive family values.

Looking back at such statements, one can realize today what the King's stance towards Sheikh Qassim and the other prominent clerics was 13 years ago, and try to figure out the radical changes in his stance to a large extent.

As for the Sheikh and his companions, BNA reported that they expressed their thanks and appreciation of the King, stressing on the importance to "continue reinforcing openness and working on everything that reaches the aspirations of the citizens."

In fact, these last words describing the meeting reveal that it must have taken a political course.

Diplomacy of Clerics

Following one day, Sheikh Isa Qassim revealed to Al-Wasat newspaper that the meeting tackled the personal status law and announced that a "positive agreement" was made with the King. He added that it was a positive meeting and was not a political confrontation.

However, within days, Sheikh Qassim led a campaign for signing a popular petition opposing the law that would be sent to the King. During an interview, Sheikh Qassim spoke with the diplomacy of a cleric who was once a politician and member of parliament (1973) and said: "The petition is addressing the King but it is not directed against him. It is a piece of paper that we put in the hands of anyone who wants to protect this country from this huge sin and obscenity, whether members of the parliament or cabinet."

Sheikh Qassim made it clear that he is willing to communicate himself with any party, whether it be the King or the MPs who are unrecognized by the people, for the sake of protecting the religious rights of the Shiites.

Despite all attempts to form an agreement on the highest levels, bringing down the tone of the Shiite leadership's rhetoric, and accepting the restriction of their authority should constitutional guarantees be made regarding its mechanism, the issue remained heated and serious threats continued to be made amid a massive media campaign promoting passing the law in the parliament in the face of fierce Shiite opposition led by Sheikh Isa Qassim.

The Shiite Judiciary before 1923: The Higher Power and Legal Government

Senior Shiite clerics argued that the imposition of the personal status law is not only a great threat to the community, but an interference, unprecedented in Bahrain's history, in the doctrinal peculiarities governing marriage, divorce and inheritance. They saw that the King was ready to go beyond a non-contractual constitution, establishing by its laws his individual rule not only over politics and the governance of the state, but also over all their lives on this land.

Thus, instead of sensing progress on the level of religious freedoms and rights, after the Charter, Shiite scholars led by Sheikh Isa Qassim felt that their most exclusive achievements, which they maintained even in the darkest periods of the Al Khalifa rule, were liable to loss.

In his famous book Tribe and State, Lebanese sociologist Fouad Khouri points out that the Shia courts were not officially recognized by the regime before 1923, unlike the Sunni court that was under the authority of a single judge officially recognized by the regime.

Khouri says that the emergence of Shiite judges on a voluntary basis was based on popular support, not on the basis of official appointment. The Shia courts operated outside the structure of state and government, notes Khouri. He says that the role of the legitimate judges during that time exceeded issuing verdicts on personal status issues, to power and higher authority competing with the ruling authority. He says their followers regarded them as the supreme authority and sovereignty... as if they were the legitimate authority in the country.

In his book, entitled The Past and Present of Bahrain, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Mubarak calls the Shiite judiciary "the legitimate government" and says that people believed that whoever contradicts the rulings of scholars is an apostate.

According to Khouri, Shiite judges enjoyed the same privileges as the tribal councils in terms of controlling resources and exercising power independently of the government. He explains that the Shia religious courts were, in form, a substitute for the rule of the Sunni tribes.

Sheikh Khalaf


There is no wonder then when the ruler's consideration extends to the work of the Shiite judges, and he actually begins to include them under the cloak of his rule, to control their work, neutralize them and reduce their power and influence. According to historical sources, this was only after the stability of the rule of the Al Khalifa family, at the time of Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa (ruled between 1869-1923), with the support of the British.

The relationship between the ruling family and the Shiite judiciary apparently began in 1910, when one of the Shiite clerics in Manama was instrumental, through the ruler Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, in recognizing Sheikh Khalaf Al-Asfour as a judge of the Shia, according to a British Archives document, as reported by Sheikh Ibrahim al-Mubarak.

Historians concur that Sheikh Khalaf enjoyed great leadership of the Shiite community, as well as influence and control, and that his word was heard. Sheikh Khalaf took on the issuing of Fatwas and the judiciary from his headquarters in the capital, Manama, led Friday prayers, and built many mosques that are famous today, namely the Ras Rumman Mosque. It is said that by his virtue a large section of the Waqf endowments were taken back from their usurpers (Montadhem Al-Daren, Mohammad Ali Al-Tajer). He seems to have distinguished himself by the central leadership of his vast activity beyond Manama, traveling between the villages, reaching Barbar, Aali, Dar Kulaib, Al-Dair, Samaheej and Sitra. Amid the attacks of the Fedayis, land grabs, and forced and feudal taxes, people gathered around the Sheikh deeming him a higher leader for pushing away grievances, uniting all factions and strengthening their position.

Sheikh Khalaf served in this position for eight years, outside the authority of the government as it was previously known, and then became the first Shiite Muslim Bahraini religious scholar to be recognized by the ruling tribe as a judge of the Shiites.

Although Isa bin Ali's rule was characterized by feudalism and systematic persecution of the Shiites until he was dismissed in 1923, but this did not prevent him from accepting the recognition of the Sheikh as a judge for the Shia, but he was dismissed from his post less than a year later, and then was recognized again as a judge, four years after that.

According to a British document seen by Bahrain Mirror (from the archives that Awal Centre for Studies and Documentation is in the process of translating), Sheikh Khalaf was one of the biggest supporters of the British reforms led by Major Daily, who overthrew the anti-Shia oppressive rule of Isa bin Ali. For this reason particularly, the British Resident in the Gulf, Lionel Haworth, hesitated to accept the request of Sheikh Hamad bin Isa, the new ruler of Bahrain, to remove Sheikh Khalaf from office, according to the letter issued in March 1927.

Picture from the British record-exclusive to Awal Centre

The relationship between Sheikh Khalaf and the new ruler remained strained, and his relationship with British Advisor Charles Belgrave (who came in 1926) was also bad. The political resident, according to his letter, feared that this could be a source of potential problems.

The relationship between Sheikh Khalaf and the new ruler remained strained, and his relationship with British Advisor Charles Belgrave (who came in 1926) was also bad. The political resident, according to his letter, feared that this could be a source of potential problems.

The British political resident met with Sheikh Khalaf (whom he describes as an important figure) and advised him to establish a good relationship with Sheikh Hamad in order to remain in office. He also advised Sheikh Hamad to show him affection and respect. But that did not happen, Sheikh Khalaf was exiled to Iraq, and other judges were appointed in his place, through a so-called election body, whose membership is held by Shiite dignitaries.

After many incidents, Shiite petitions submitted to the ruler, and mediations led by the then king of Iraq, Sheikh Khalaf returned to his country after about 3 years. According to a number of sources, he was placed under house arrest, and after it was lifted and he moved to the village of A'ali and took the reins again, he was offered to lead the official judiciary, but he refused the offer.

Unlike the performance of Friday and congregational prayers, it seems that Sheikh Khalaf ran the judiciary independently, while there were judges appointed by the government. The Sheikh's activity sparked the wrath of Belgrave and the government, and ended up in exile again in Iraq. He was directly threatened by Belgrave, who came to his home to force him to leave.

Sheikh Al-Asfour may have opposed the modernization and institutionalization of the judiciary under the rule of Al Khalifa, by granting them the right to appoint or dismiss judges, and even pass rulings, or may have opposed the curtailing of the powers of the Shari'a judiciary and restricting them to personal status cases, or perhaps in short, he was not willing to yield to the Al Khalifa rule.

In fact, Sheikh Khalaf was not the only one who entered into conflict and confrontations with the ruling tribe, for a number of other appointed judges did as well, such as Sheikh Salman Al-Asfour and Sheikh Abdullah Al-Ta'an, who were dismissed. And even Sheikh Ahmed Al Harz, who died in mysterious circumstances.

Despite the entry of several prominent religious figures in the judiciary, including Sheikh Baqer Al-Asfour, Sheikh Mohammed Ali Humaidan, Sheikh Suleiman Al-Madani and Sheikh Abdulamir Al-Jamri, that is after the government maintained its grip over it, and after it became an indispensable authority to resort in order to organize these affairs, the debate regarding it was not over yet.

To this day, the King (ruler) continues to unilaterally appoint Shiite Shariah judges, although the majority of them nowadays are considered government loyalists today. The features of the Shiite community's particularities; however, remain at least preserved, and the judge is liable for the rest.

Substitute for the Authorities

Khouri considers that the Shiite judges entered into a conflict with the government and were a substitute for it, competing over power. In his analysis, Khouri perhaps answers the secret behind the government's interest in the Personal Status Law (which represents the remnants of the Shari'a judiciary).

Sheikh Khalaf Al-Asfour still did not see that after the Al-Khalifa tribe and the new regime under its control could be trusted with safeguarding the particularities of the Shia faith.

In addition to the doubt and mistrust that still governed the relationship between Shiite clerics and the regime, the ruling tribe itself sought to contain the Shiite judiciary (after being neglected or unrecognized in earlier periods), reducing the status of prominent Shiite religious clerics, and their central and leading role in organizing the affairs of their community, especially in times of clashes, as Khouri notes.

Today, the same events are taking place again. The government does not consider the organization of the Shiite judiciary a matter of significance, and only deals with the issue by provoking the Shiite scholars, and limiting their role by restricting them to state institutions and placing them under its full control by bringing them under its cloak one way or another. (For instance, the government assigned Sheikh Abdulamir Al-Jamri, one of the prominent National Assembly members in 1973, to the Shariah judiciary before he resigned at the end of the 1980s and led the 1990s uprising, and after the National Charter phase, Sheikh Isa Qassim's group was offered to join the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs.)

The Word that Silenced the King

The state of discontent with the form of the ruling system that had escalated, since 2002, was not going to allow further compliance and recognition of the system.

Shia religious clerics, led by Sheikh Isa Qassim, were not to hand over the affairs of their religious community to a constitution they saw as illegitimate, and to a regime they saw as tyrannical and deceitful. The angle in which this file should be viewed is not that of modernization and restriction, but rather from a purely political angle. Sheikh Qassim accepted the restriction of authority, on the condition of having a constitutional guarantee, but the keys to this acceptance targeted the foundation of the King's project, which is the 2002 constitution.

The Shiite clerics' campaign launched against the Personal Status Law was a perfect opportunity for trying to convince the King to amend the constitution, says former MP Abdulnabi Salman. "If the king had agreed to the amendment to grant the required guarantees to Shiite scholars, it would have opened the way for other demands to amend the constitution". Salman says he told Sheikh Isa Qassim at a meeting that the constitutional guarantee would not work; "it will not happen. Once we talk to the king about a change in the constitution, he will deafen his ears".

Since, of course, he would not accept the constitutional amendment (an excuse that seemed sufficient, convincing and even surprising), the King in fact remained silent, and only the Sunni part of the law was enacted.

Ayatollah Qassim Reminiscent of Sheikh Khalaf at the King's Palace


In fact, the campaign of the supreme leader of the Shia in Bahrain, Ayatollah Qassim, succeeded on more than one level. First, it proved that his view and the view of Shiite scholars (including supreme Shiite authority Ayatollah Sistani) is not against modernization, institutionalization and restriction. It even convinced the secular allies that the issue is a matter of religious particularities that can not be imposed on any sect. On a more important level, Sheikh Qassim's move thwarted the King's project to provoke him politically, and turn the table on him, so that he would appear in a politically humiliating position, confined and pushed to the corner of the Constitution again.

Perhaps the political table (both sides) used this card to force the Shiite opposition, or may be open a door for it to enter parliament, under the notion of "avoiding harm," as Sheikh Qassim said in 2006.

On the other hand, Sheikh Qassim proved to be the model of a religious scholar open to options and prepared to move on two fronts: the front of using political pressure means such as petitions and rallies, and the diplomatic front, resorting to dialogue and agreements. His prestige and hardline approach in favor of independence did not prevent him from standing on the King's door. The king knew what would provoke Sheikh Isa Qassim and what the most sensitive issue was to him, but the Sheikh benefited from the experience, although it tried to show him in a helpless position unable to meet the challenges, without having any presence or representation within government institutions. This issue called for a review and not for retreat.

Perhaps the ultimate aim of the government was to including Sheikh Isa Qassim or those close to him in the judiciary after restricting it, in order to bring them under the cloak of the state, and perhaps the government did not want history to repeat itself and have another example of Sheikh Khalaf Al-Asfour manifested in the person of Sheikh Isa Qassim, yet that did not go as it expected!

While Sheikh Khalaf was a strong supporter of the reforms of 1923 and its arrangements that lifted the grievances of the Shiites, he rejected the hegemony and consolidation of the rule of the tribe in the form of a "state" supported by major world powers. Similarly, the cleric and man of politics Sheikh Isa Qassim accepted the draft charter in 2001, but he stood in the face of the non-contractual 2002 constitution, and its consequences.


The presence of Sheikh Khalaf was reflected in Sheikh Qassim as he walked through King Hamad's palace, reminding of a history of persecution. Just like the crowds gathered at the house of Sheikh Khalaf as witnessed by Belgrave, people have been rallying outside the house of Sheikh Isa Qassim for months now to protect him from the retaliation of Hamad bin Isa (II).

Seventy years later, the state acknowledged the injustice that Sheikh Khalaf suffered from, and that he was a great national and religious leader and named a street after him in Manama. So why should we wait 70 years to see the government name a street in Diraz after Sheikh Isa Qassim rather than besiege him in it?

Arabic Version


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