Sistani, Ali Husseini al- (1930–)

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Sistani, Ali Husseini al-

Iranian-born theologian and jurist Ali al-Sistani is the head of the Shi'ite school of Najaf (Iraq), also known as the Hawza. He is the supreme figure among his peers, the three other major clerics in the country, each of whom also carries the title "Grand Ayatollah." He came to the fore of the religious scene in Najaf after the death of his mentor and predecessor, Grand Ayatollah Abu'l-Qasim al-Kho'i, in 1992, being the most prominent scholar among al-Kho'i's students. After spending more than twelve years under virtual house arrest in his residence in Najaf, the U.S. invasion of the country and the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime placed Sistani at the top of Iraq's power pyramid. Immediately after 2003 he became the highest source of political legitimacy in the country in spite of not being an Iraqi citizen. Except for the Americans and other coalition officials, he was visited by almost all national and international figures working on the Iraqi issue. As a matter of tradition, he refused to meet with any official associated with the coalition that occupied Iraq. Nevertheless, he was essential in keeping the majority of the Shi'ites from open revolt.


Name: Ali Husseini Sistani

Birth: 1930, Mashhad, Iran

Family: Married with children

Nationality: Iranian (resident in Iraq)

Education: Iran (Mashhad and Qom), Iraq (Najaf); reached the levelof ijtihad (independent deduction of legal and religious rulings) and became a grand ayatollah, the highest level of Shi'ite scholarship.


  • 1960: Reaches the level of ijtihad (becomes an ayatollah)
  • 1990: Completes the third series of graduate courses in jurisprudence (fiqh) and principles of jurisprudence (usul)
  • 1991: Endorses the Shi'ite uprising in the South and is imprisoned and tortured by Saddam's security police
  • 1992: Succeeds al-Kho'i as the chief Shi'ite scholar in Iraq
  • 2003–present: After the collapse of Saddam's regime, becomes the unrivaled leader of the Iraqi Shi'ite community


Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani was born in 1930 in the holy city of Mashhad, northeastern Iran. Mashhad is a major Shi'ite religious and educational center where the eighth Shi'ite imam, Ali al-Rida (also Riza or Reza) was buried in 817 c.e. The city has been a major pilgrimage place where millions of Muslims arrive from many countries to visit the imam's shrine. Sistani's last name is derived from Sistan, an eastern Iranian city, where his great-grandfather, Sayyid Muhammad al-Husseini, established a new residence after being appointed as Shaykh al-Islam in the province by Hussein al-Safavi, the last shah of the Safavid dynasty (1692–1722). However, Sistani's lineage is better traced by his alternative last name, al-Husseini. The al-Husseini family goes back to the family of the Prophet Muhammad, making Sistani an Arab by ethnicity and an Iranian by nationality. Sistani's family consisted of several prominent religious scholars, the most important of whom was his aforementioned great-grandfather and his father, Sayyid Muhammad Baqir, a student of the legendary scholar Mirza Hasan al-Shirazi of Samarra from Iraq.

Following the custom of most religious families, Sistani began learning the Qur'an at age five. After some early learning, he entered the religious seminary to receive a formal education on the basics. He began his journey with religious science at ten, studying the fundamental Hawza lessons, known as the muqaddimat. He finished reading a number of books, including all of the classic books illustrating Arabic grammar and several other books on the basics of logic and mathematics. He then studied Sharh al-Luma, a major work on Shi'ite jurisprudence, and the book of Qawanin (Laws) with the late Sayyid Ahmad Yazdi. After finishing the sutuh texts (the second level of Hawza studies after which a student qualifies for graduate studies), with Shaykh Hashim al-Qazwini, one of the leading scholars of his time, he also read a number of books on philosophy, including the works of Mulla Sadra, and attended the required lessons on divine teachings. Meanwhile, he attended the Kharij lectures (the level preparing the student for ijtihad) of the late Mirza Mahdi Ashtiani and the late Mirza Hashim Qazwini.

At this point, he needed a more prestigious seminary. In 1949 he traveled to Qom, the best learning center in Iran, to begin another round of studies in fiqh (jurisprudence) and usul (principles of jurisprudence) with two prominent scholars, Sayyid Hussein Tabataba'i and Grand Ayatollah Kuhkamari—the first lectured on fiqh and usul and the second gave lectures in fiqh only.

In early 1951 Sistani left Qom for Najaf, Iraq. Upon his arrival in Najaf, he began attending Ayatollah Kho'i and Shaykh Hussein Hilli's lectures on jurisprudence and principles of jurisprudence. Meanwhile, he attended lectures of other prominent scholars like Ayatollah Hakim and Ayatollah Shahrudi.

Sistani rose in religious ranks to be named a marje (religious reference) in 1960, while on a trip to visit his native city, Mashhad, apparently with the intention to settle there. He received a certificate (ijaza) from Grand Ayatollah Kho'i and another from Shaykh Hilli, acknowledging that he had attained the level of ijtihad (possessing the ability to deduce legal and religious judgments). He also received a similar acknowledgment from the distinguished traditionalist and scholar, Shaykh Agha Buzurg Tehrani, testifying to his skill in the science of Rijal (biographies of the narrators of prophetic traditions).

Upon receiving this good news, he was encouraged to return to Najaf the following year and immerse himself further in the research and teaching of jurisprudence. He started giving a series of lectures at the graduate level on the principles of jurisprudence between 1964 and 1990.

Grand Ayatollah Kho'i decided in his late years to prepare a successor for the position of the supreme religious authority and the leadership of the Najaf Seminary. The choice fell on Grand Ayatollah Sistani for his merits, eligibility, knowledge, and character. Accordingly, he started leading the prayer in 1986 at Ayatollah al-Kho'i's mosque, al-Khadra, and continued leading prayers there until the mosque was closed in 1993, a year after al-Kho'i's death. His rise to the supreme position in the Shi'ite scholarship and authority in Iraq in 1992 presented him with tremendous challenges, especially because the government considered him an adversary ever since he supported the uprising of 1991. He remained under house arrest until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when a new era of reserved activism began.


Sistani presides over the Najaf seminary, known as the Hawza, an institution whose existence has continued for more than a thousand years. In this capacity he is the guardian of a firmly held tradition of learning at the same time as he is expected to make his own contribution to this tradition, mainly through ijtihad.

In addition to his teaching, Sistani has written forty-two books and treatises on various religious sciences. Since the fall of Saddam's regime the Sistani leadership has emerged as the most influential religious institution in Iraq. In addition to his dominance in Iraq, he also has representatives (wakils) and offices in every country with a Shi'ite community, including major representations in the United Kingdom, India, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria, Turkey, and the United States. However, Sistani's most impressive success has been in Iran, whose citizens traditionally follow local ayatollahs. According to Vali Nasr, "many Iranians have begun giving their religious taxes and donations to Sistani's representative in Qom, where Sistani enjoys great popularity and influence among the city's merchants and its teeming bazaars" (The Shia Revival, 2006).

The Najaf Hawza continues to grow in size and prestige, becoming the most influential seminary in the Shi'ite world since the collapse of Saddam's regime. Saddam's thirty-five-year tyrannical reign suffocated the school and eliminated its most illustrious scholarly figures either by execution, deportation or—as in the case of Sistani—by placing them under a very strict house arrest. This practice gave rise to the rival seminary in the Iranian city of Qom, especially following the Iranian Revolution in 1979. With Saddam gone from the scene and the ensuing extraordinary level of religious freedom in Najaf, the seminary under Sistani's leadership has recovered almost fully in less than four years and has begun attracting the best and the brightest scholars and students alike. Taking lessons from the Lebanese experience, many centers in Iraq were established and managed by the representatives of Sistani, providing what the Iraqi state has failed to deliver. They built educational and information facilities, including Internet and media outlets in most Iraqi cities.

In addition to receiving religious guidance, Iraqis can also receive financial support from the well-funded charitable organization of Sistani. Sistani is the best-financed ayatollah in Iraq and one of the best-financed Muslim scholars worldwide. The money comes from the religious duties of the Sistani constituency (muqallidun) worldwide. This patronage inevitably translates into more loyalty and popularity for the Grand Ayatollah and the institutions under his guidance.

Sistani has been one of the first ayatollahs to use the Internet and the technological revolution of the current era. The Internet has helped Sistani increase his social and religious network on a worldwide scale. Sistani's website provides religious advice and disseminates his works and religious rulings (fatwas) in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Turkish, French, and English. It receives 15,000 visits and up to 1,200 e-mail messages each day.

After the fall of Saddam in 2003, many Shi'ites who disapproved of the quietist position of the Hawza on matters of politics in the previous eighty years surrounded Sistani's home and attempted to force him to leave Iraq. Sistani's popularity among the Iraq tribes helped him survive this challenge to his authority. Having skillfully discerned the situation, Sistani made major modifications to his political position. He began his major political involvement in the post-Saddam era in June 2003, when his office in Najaf issued a communiqué that challenged the American-created Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)'s decision to form an interim government for the transfer of sovereignty. Sistani demanded an immediate general election, through which all eligible Iraqi voters (men and women) had to vote for their representatives of choice to form a constitutional assembly.

When the CPA announced on 15 November 2003 a plan for the Iraqi political process, Sistani's office responded with a categorical rejection of the plan because, as quoted in Andrew Arato's article, "Sistani v. Bush: Constitutional Politics in Iraq,"

the instrumentality envisaged in this plan for the election of the members of the transitional legislature does not guarantee the formation of an assembly that truly represents the Iraqi people. It must be changed to another process that would so guarantee, that is, to elections. In this way, the parliament would spring from the will of the Iraqis and would represent them in a just manner and would prevent any diminution of Islamic law.

Since 2003 Sistani has always supported the elections and popular participation in the political process, although he strongly recommended that religious figures keep an advisory role rather than actively holding office, and has led by example. However, he did not keep a mere advisory role when he saw the country at a close range from a catastrophe during the battle between the Multi-National Forces and the fighters of muqtada al-sadr when the battle was coming to the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf. He returned from London and scored a historical triumph for himself while steering the country away from an imminent bloodbath.


Grand Ayatollah Abu'l-Qasim al-Kho'i (1899–1992) is considered one of the most prolific Shi'ite scholars of the twentieth century. He was born in the Iranian province of Azerbaijan and traveled with his family to Najaf, Iraq, at thirteen to continue his religious studies. His legacy and contribution can be measured by more than thirty books, in addition to his twenty-four volumes on the biographies of the transmitters of prophetic traditions, Mu'jam Rijal al-Hadith. Furthermore, few scholars in modern Shi'ite history trained eighteen grand ayatollahs as al-Kho'i did. Among his students are Grand Ayatollahs Ali Sistani, Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad. Al-Kho'i took the responsibility of the Shi'ite leadership in the harshest times in centuries, as he had to successfully maintain the neutrality and independence of the school during thirty-five years of the Ba'thist rule in Iraq, especially the reign of terror under Saddam Hussein between 1979 and al-Kho'i's death in 1992.

Al-Kho'i was the main teacher and mentor of Ayatollah Sistani. Prior to his death, he prepared Sistani to take his position as the chief Shi'ite scholar in Iraq and the head of the Najaf school (the Hawza). Sistani said about him, "He, may Allah elevate his status, was an exemplar of the caliber of the early righteous generations, with his unique genius, his many gifts and honorable intellect that qualified him to be at the vanguard among the Shi'ite scholars, who devoted their lives to support the religion and the sect."

Another strong involvement by Sistani was his personal interference to prevent the United Nations Security Council from including any language referring to the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) that was governing Iraq before the permanent constitution was ratified. Sistani argued that the TAL was problematic on the basis of its genesis and its content, which would hinder efforts to reach an agreement on a constitution that would secure the interests of all Iraqis.

Following these and many other successful intercessions, Sistani became the most powerful figure in Iraq despite his Iranian citizenship. His humble office in Najaf became the site of pilgrimage for Iraq's officials who seek legitimacy or popular support for their agendas or political aspirations. The man who was thought to be a quietist ayatollah used a remarkable skill to gain the upper hand in every situation, thanks to his incredible self-restraint and immense wisdom that has allowed him to resist the temptations of power and the spotlights.

The Shi'ites have been accustomed to many centuries of giving full allegiance to a hidden imam. Sistani managed to make use of this tendency and successfully keep himself invisible to the people, while simultaneously maintaining a presence in every moment of their lives.


World perceptions of Sistani are prejudiced by the conventional wisdom that ayatollahs are anti-West radicals whose worldviews are still trapped in a seventh-century theological mindset. This opinion was shaped by a long history of negative experience Western officials had in dealing with traditional Shi'ite religious scholars. Major media coverage of everything Shi'ite reinforced this negative image. However, this perception changed very rapidly as Sistani handled his responsibilities in a very admirable way so that the most skeptical of his observers turned quickly to praise him. Additionally, his status was helped by the fact that the other key figures within the Iraqi political process were the corrupt Iraqi politicians and the eccentric neo-conservative Americans, none of whom could compete with an insightful personality like Sistani. They possessed none of his wisdom, self-restraint, or lack of desire for attention.

At every turn Sistani outperformed his rivals. Perhaps the starkest example of his symbolic triumph was his call for national elections in Iraq while the Americans, whose rationale for invading Iraq had been reduced to the single claim of democratizing Iraq, opposed holding elections on the pretense that Iraq was not ready.


Sistani's greatest legacy will perhaps be his triumphant effort to spare the city of Najaf from destruction during the showdown between the U.S. forces and the loyalists of Muqtada al-Sadr. His return from London just in time to prevent the bloodbath and the procession that accompanied his motorcade from Basra to Najaf was an event not experienced by any Shi'ite scholar in the past sixty years. His most memorable trait will be his skill in facing the greatest challenge to Iranian Shi'ite scholars in Iraq—maintaining a pivotal role in the social and political current of events without alienating the authorities. He ably overturned an eighty-year-long tradition of quietism and stepped into the political arena to play a constructive role that often has spared many Iraqi and non-Iraqi lives. He will also be remembered for his remarkable resistance to the spotlights that made him more effective and revered by the Shi'ites and the world at large.


It is neither permissible to steal from the private as well as the public property of non-Muslims, nor vandalize it, even if that stealing or vandalizing does not tarnish the image of Islam and Muslims. Such an act is counted as perfidy and violation of the guarantee given to non-Muslims indirectly when one asked permission to enter or reside in that country. And it is forbidden to breach the trust and violate the guarantee in regard to every person irrespective of his religion, citizenship, and beliefs.



Arato, Andrew. "Sistani v. Bush: Constitutional Politics in Iraq." Constellations 11, no. 2 (2004): 174-192.

Kadhim, Abbas. "Al-Sistani's Triumph." Al-Ahram Weekly. 2-8 September 2004.

Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Sistani, Grand Ayatollah Ali. Minhaj al-Salihin (Path of the Righteous), Vols. 1-3. Beirut: Dar al-Mu'arrikh al-Arabi, 1998.

―――――――A. Code of Practice for Muslims in the West. London: Imam Ali Foundation, 1999. Available from

The Official Website of Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Available from

                                                Abbas Kadhim