These days, ayatullah al Sistani is only taking religious questions. For the Muslim conscious of Islam's political nature, it is too little and too late, and may Allah forgive al Sistani.
Sadly, Muslims with too little knowledge to derive interpretative rulings from texts (ie. who are not mujtahideen) but enough awareness and comprehension to discern the "path" of Muhammad (saaw) and his family from that of scholars who have sold out Islam, or have forfeitured their duties as "inheritors" of the prophets, or have otherwise become confused or mistaken in their rulings and direction, are forced to reevaluate their commitment to scholars and their leadership when they have demonstratively failed on such overt terms as al Sistani has by saying 'such and such scholar can be accepted on matters of ibaadat (laws of worship), or perhaps nikah (marriage laws) but not much else (or there is polite silent omission of anything else if one is that muchmerciful). Shockingly, and perhaps this demonstrates his honest attrition and humility thus revealing the merit of his piety and character, al Sistani has voluntarily done this to himself. If only more scholars would do so.
It is unbecoming for peon Muslims (such as this author) to publicly berate otherwise good scholars for their juristic failures. It is only appropriate to address the weakness in the interpretation and scholarship, rather than attacking the scholar. That, unless they have made their failures public in leadership for millions and demonstrated a publicly hurtful an unjust example for the Muslim world.
This is why the juristic and hence political leadership of al Sistani has been so painful for those conscious and conscientious Muslim observers of the tragedy of Iraq.
In the 8th of September 2006 edition of the Asia Times (online), Mark Spengler, an otherwise insightful and informed journalist, gets it wrong with his article titled: "Ayatullah al-Sistani and the End of Islam".
On the contrary, the "retirement" of al Sistani is a blessing for the future of Islam in Iraq, if its not to late in coming.
Spengler identifies al Sistani as the example of "traditional" Islam, as in that that shapes all aspects of life, from istinja (purification after bodily functions) to organizing societal affairs by ahkam shar`a (divine laws). To him, al Sistani's self imposed exile is the end of Islam as a traditional way of life as he sees it. This follows the universal trend of all religion's subjugation to the secular modern way of life as Spengler sees it. But Spengler's observations focus too narrowly on al Sistani as a wholistic model's failure and misses al Sistani's own conceptual and juristic legal adoptions and their individual failures.
Al Sistani adopted a juristic position on wilayat (governance) contrary to the Jafari school of fiqh as upheld normally by Qom and Tehran scholarly leadership. His position was most definitely contrary to the 4 Sunni schools of fiqh as found in any major Sunni juristic institution and in most Sunni political parties, let alone the Sunni political leadership in Iraq. Al Sistani's position on wilayat is: wiliyat is not the duty nor responsibility of ulama, or the fuqaha (legal scholars), or the believers, until the arrival/return of the Mahdi. This position enabled him to avoid any clash with Saddam's secular Baathist regime whose characteristics were to simply murder any leader or potential leader who took political positions contrary and not submissive to their own. During the time of Saddam's regime, one might forgive al Sistani that his position was truly the lesser of two evils: to be apolitical or completely follow Saddam.
It is worth noting that many Sunni scholars adopted similar apolitical legal positions.
However, al Sistani did not revisit that decision upon the invasion and occupation by the American coalition. Or if he did, he did not derive an interpretation which addressed the new circumstances facing the believers in Iraq. This juristic and political failure of al Sistani snowballed into one failure after another. While al Sistani was right to avoid meeting and therefore showing deferrence to American occupational rule, he failed to develop and lead the Shia to become a force, even over 2 or 3 years, which could expel the foreign occupation. (One might note that such a Shia force theoretically could have taken a nonviolent methodology to result in American expulsion- a methodology which believers from the Sunni and Shia communities would willingly have supported in unity). Consequently, Al Sistani's position meant he failed to unite with, support, or even verbally commend the proper Sunni resistance against the occupation. (As any good leader commends good behavior to reenforce it). And while a legal authority himself (ie. he is not obligated to follow anyone), he failed to realize that the overall enemy of the believers, the American coalition, used his own political position to divide the Muslims and further entrench themselves as well as to massively injure al Sistani's Sunni brethren. Failing to reevaluate his position after the obvious injury to society thereof was a colossal failure of al Sistani. As well, al Sistani's failure to even side with Muqtada al Sadr's resistance to American rule, though he did secure Sadr's immunity from America at the expense of 100s of Sadr's forces, sealed the absolute division, the blatent breach of divinely ordained brotherhood, between all Shia leadership and the overall Sunni Muslim community that upheld the cause of resistance.
The al Sistani position, that he wouldn't even reconsider his juristic position and support Shia believing forces fighting America, let alone show solidarity with Sunni leadership, was the most public division between believing Muslims of Iraq that any community could take. It completely undermined all Sunni efforts to reach out to Shias. It undermined Sadr's efforts at resistance. It played right into the hands of the American occupiers. It enboldened the warped deviant Sunni elements of Al Qaida/extremism to conclude all Shia were supporters of the occupation and therefore enemies of Islam, incorrectly but logically from their deviant scholarship, making Shia blood halal.
It is of little consequence that Shia juristic and political leadership in Qom and Tehran had been petitioning al Sistani for years to reevaluate his position given the new circumstances facing Muslims in Iraq. Their efforts were too late to block the American backed secular Shia and Sunnis from formulating the Iraqi constitution, empowering themselves with American and militia power. They were too late to block the deviant (ie. haram and fitan) but logical (ie. based on real and circumstantial evidence) political and military position of the extreme Sunni resistance which from the moment at Karbala could justify outright attacks on Shia targets.
Nontheless, al Sistani's departure from open leadership is not the end of traditional Islam. Spengler misses that from the Sunni perspective, a diverse community of legal scholarship enables different and competing ideological (hence juristic and political) guidance and leadership through reinterpretation of the divine texts to seek solutions. Shia scholarship under al Sistani failed to progress by reevaluating legal adoptions (such as wiliyat) to meet the new reality of American occupation and an opportunity to unite with Sunni leadership as a unifying effort for believers in Iraq and the Muslim world at large.
And Allah knows best.