Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani

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Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani
Ayatullah Ali Sistani
Born August 4, 1930
Place of Birth Mashad, Iran
Based In Najaf, Iraq
Website www.sistani.org
Grand Ayatullah Sayed Ali al-Husayni Sistani (Arabic: آية الله العظمى السيد علي الحسيني السيستاني) is one of the most revered religious scholars in the Shi'ite world. According to many, he is the most widely-followed scholar alive in the world today.



Ayatullah Sistani was born in the city of Mashad in Iran on August 4, 1930 (9th Rabi al-Awwal, 1349 A.H), into a family with a long history of religious scholarship. His great grandfather, Sayyid Muhammad, had been appointed as a religious scholar in the Sistan region of Iran during the Safavid era, where his family settled and derived the name Sistani. Ayatullah Sistani’s grandfather Sayyid Ali later moved for a period to Mashad, and then on to the shrine city of Najaf in Iraq to complete his studies. Ayatullah Sistani began his religious education at the age of five, studying the Holy Qur’an. A woman who was known as the “Mother of Aqaye Mudir” helped him learn the Qur’an. It was at the age of eleven, when he began his formal Islamic seminary training, where he studied Arabic rhetoric as well as intermediary fiqh with Sayyid Ahmad Yazdi. He continued studying the higher levels of fiqh, including al-Makasib of Allamah Murtada Ansari and the important work on usul al-fiqh, al-Kifayah, with Shaykh Hashim Al-Qazwini. He also pursued the study of Islamic philosophy, such as the works of Sabziwari, and eventually moved on to study dars al-kharij with Shaykh Mahdi Al-Ashtiani and Shaykh Hashim al-Qazwini.

In 1948 (1368 A.H), he moved to the city of Qum and continued his studies with a number of prominent scholars, notable Sayyid Husayn Tabataba’ee and Sayyid Muhammad al-Hujjah al-Kawkhamri. Under them he studied fiqh and usul al-fiqh.

In 1951 (1371 A.H), he moved to the city of Najaf, first visiting the city of Karbala during the commemoration of the Arba’een, and then began attending lectures by Ayatulah Abu al-Qasim al-Khu’i, as well as Shaykh Hussayn Hilli on jurisprudence and the fundamentals of jurisprudence. In the mean time he also attended lectures by other prominent scholars such as the most well-known marja’ of the time, Ayatullah Muhsin al-Hakim.

After 9 years, In 1380 AH, Ayatullah Sistani moved back to Mashad intending to stay back and settle in, however in the same year he was awarded the ijaza (permission) by Ayatullah Khu’i and Shaykh Hilli to deduce legal judgment in matters of religion. He had reached the level of ijtihad, bringing Sistani back to Najaf in the following year. He has been living in Najaf ever since.

Ayatullah Sistani was known for his political quietism, following the methodology of his teacher, Ayatullah Khu’i. Nonetheless, like most powerful Shi’ite clerics, he was continually harassed by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. He was imprisoned briefly after the post-Gulf war Shi’ite revolt, and would later be subject to house arrest in Najaf.

Ayatullah Khu’i appointed Ayatullah Sistani as his successor in the Najaf seminary shortly before he died in 1992. Ayatullah Sistani led the funeral prayers for Ayatullah Khu’in 1992, an important symbol of his new position in the seminary system. He has since moved on to become one of the most popular marja in the world, though he ruled that all people who did taqlid of Ayatullah Khu’i should continue following Khui’s rulings. Importantly, he was selected as the marja’ by the powerful Khoja World Federation, an organization of primarily East African Shi’ites of Indian origin. They have translated the Persian version of his book of legal rulings, the tawzi ul-masa’il, into English, which increased his popularity in the Western world. He remains the most powerful clerical figure within Iraq to this day.

Role in Post-Saddam Iraq

Ayatullah Sistani’s political role in Iraq began on the eve of the second Gulf War. In spite of his position as the head of the Shi’ite seminary in Najaf, he has not in anyway sought a political leadership role in the way of Iranian clerics. There is some dispute as to Sistani’s position concerning the Iranian Government and the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih. Contradictory statements have been reported on his position. On his official website, he loosely accepts the permissibility of religious scholars taking charge of what are known as al-umur al-hisbiyyah (Arabic: الأمور الحسبية), which involve certain social roles, such as, safeguarding the wealth of a missing person. He states:

Every jurisprudent (Faqih) has wilayah (guardianship) over non-litigious affairs. Non-litigious affairs are called "al-omour al-hesbiah". As for general affairs to which social order is linked, wilayah of a Faqih and enforcement of wilayah depend on certain conditions one of which is popularity of Faqih among majority of momeneen.[1]

One of Sistani’s great political feats was brokering an agreement between arch-rival Muqtada Sadr and the US Marines when Sadr attempted to seize control of Najaf. Sistani was able to convince Sadr and his militia to standown[2].

Sistani has thrown his support behind the electoral process in Iraq at numerous stages. He has argued that Iraqi Shi’as must take advantage of the opportunity for democracy in Iraq, and make their voices heard through the political process. He has come out repeatedly against the more violent militias in the country, and tried to preach a philosophy of non-violence in the midst of Iraq’s ever-widening sectarian war.


In addition to the controversies surrounding his generally apolitical stance during Saddam’s time in Iraq, he sparked controversy with an edict he issued against University of Virginia religious studies professor Abdulaziz Sachedina. Sachedina was criticized for a speech he gave where he spoke about religious pluralism, as well as comments that some believed were an implicit denial of the succession of Imam Ali to the Prophet Muhammad. Sachedina, who was a follower of Sistani at the time, went to Najaf to meet the Ayatullah Sistani. Sachedina reported that the Ayatullah asked him to cease all teaching activities, and offered to compensate him by paying his academic salary out of khums money. Sachedina did not accept, and Sistani issued a ruling barring the Shi’ite community from consulting Sachedina in religious matters[3].


Ayatullah Sistani often makes use of historical analysis in dealing with the study of texts, attempting to situate them in their larger social and intellectual context. He has argued that the presence of seemingly contradictory hadiths has to be understood in light of the political and doctrinal controversies of the past. He has also attempted to use some modern methodologies in the field of semiotics in approaching language issues in usul al-fiqh. An example of this would be the issue of what separates a nounal meaning from a prepositional meaning in Arabic, and whether or not the difference between them is essential or relative, based on perspective. He argues that it is based on perspective, but makes recourse to some contemporary philosophical doctrines, stating that there is an ambiguity in the way that the human mind may perceive such meanings, and that the human mind may perceive the same object in two different forms.

His legal rulings, for the most part, conform to traditional Shi’ite rulings, especially those of his teacher, Ayatullah Khu’i. However, he has been more liberal in some areas than his predecessor, such as ruling on the ritual purity of Christians and Jews, or the permissibility of using leather from animals that are not known to have been slaughtered Islamically. His most famous ruling concerns moon-sighting, and this has been a subject of some controversy. While Ayatullah Khu’i ruled that the sighting of the moon in one country suffices for confirming the beginning of the lunar month in other countries (so long as it is night in those countries as well), Ayatallah Sistani has ruled that this only suffices if the two countries share the same horizon. Because he ruled that the followers of Ayatullah Khu’i should continue following Khu’i, this has led to the occurrence of double eids in many countries.

His Works

Some of his works available online are as follow:

External Links


  1. What is Grand Ayatollah Sistani's opinion about Wilayat-e Faqih? Governance of Jurist
  2. Al-Sadr's Killing Fields by Rowan Scarborough
  3. Implications of A. Seestani's rulings on Dr. Sachedina
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