The Official Website of the Office of His Eminence Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani

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Appendix 3: List of Updated Rulings → ← Appendix 1: Table of Weights, Measures, Values, and Quantities

Appendix 2: Biography of His Eminence al-Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani

In the name of Allah, the All-Beneficent, the Ever-Merciful.

All praise belongs to Allah, who elevated the stations of the scholars, until He endowed upon them the station of the Prophets and gave preference to their ink over the blood of the martyrs. And may the choicest of His blessings and salutations descend upon the one He chose from amongst all the former and latter generations, and whom He sent as a mercy to all the worlds. And [similarly upon] his noble and pure family.

Indeed, the honour of knowledge is not hidden, and its merits cannot be enumerated. Those worthy of it have inherited it from the Prophets, and thereby attained the position of representing the Seal of Successors, for as long as the earth and sky remain.

And from amongst those who – in pursuit of it – traversed the path of the righteous predecessors, is the honourable scholar, who acts according to his knowledge, is eminent and distinguished, is relied upon by the magnificent jurists, is the authoritative source on Islam, al-Sayyid Ali al-Sistani. May Allah perpetuate the days of his abundant contributions and conferring of benefit to others; and may He increase the likes of him, [those] scholars who act according to their knowledge… [1]

These beautiful words are the beginning of an official letter of recognition of ijtihād, given to Sayyid al-Sistani by his teacher, the late Sayyid Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei (may Allah have mercy upon him) in 1380 AH. In this letter, Sayyid al-Khoei attests that Sayyid al-Sistani – who at that time was only thirty-one years of age – is a qualified jurist who must act in accordance with his own deduction of Islamic law (that is, he must exercise his own ijtihād). In his letter, Sayyid al-Khoei also authorises Sayyid al-Sistani to narrate hadiths from him.

Sayyid al-Sistani is a distinguished scholar who has been a guardian of the Twelver Shia faith for a period of over thirty years. The following lines amount to a short biography of His Eminence, focussing on his family, seminary studies, and marjaʿiyyah.

His Lineage

‘They were descendants one of another.’ (Qur’an 3:34)

Sayyid al-Sistani is the son of Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir, the son of Sayyid ʿAlī, the son of Sayyid Muḥammad Riḍā. His father, Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Sistani (d. 1370 AH), was one of the well-known pious scholars of the city of Mashhad, and his noble mother was the daughter of the scholar Sayyid Riḍā al-Mihrabānī al-Sarābī.

The noble family of His Eminence is one that is well-known for both knowledge and piety. In the eleventh century AH the family lived in Isfahan, the then capital of Safavid Iran. Later on, one of the forefathers of His Eminence, named Sayyid Muḥammad, was appointed to the official position of shaykh al-islām in the province of Sistan, located in eastern Iran. From then on, the family came to be known as al-Sistani.

One of the outstanding scholars of this family was Muḥammad Bāqir Astarābādī (d. 1041 AH), more famously known as Mīr Dāmād (may Allah have mercy upon him). Remembered primarily as a philosopher, Mīr Dāmād was a polymath, who from a very young age had mastered various intellectual and traditional sciences. Moreover, he was a teacher of spirituality and ethics who reared eminent students such as Ṣadr al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Shīrāzī (d. 1050 AH), known as Mullā Ṣadrā (may Allah have mercy upon him). In many places, Mullā Ṣadrā refers to this teacher of his with amazing words. For example, in his commentary on Uṣūl al-Kāfī, Mullā Ṣadrā writes:

My master, support, teacher…the most sublime and illuminated sayyid, the most radiant and holy scholar, the godly philosopher, the godly jurist, the master of his age and the choicest of his era…whose name is Muḥammad and whose title is Bāqir al-Dāmād al-Ḥusaynī, may Allah sanctify his intellect with godly light.[2]

A few generations thereafter, we come across the grandfather of His Eminence and his namesake. Sayyid ʿAlī al-Sistani (d. 1340 AH), the grandfather, was one of the students of Mīrzā Muḥammad Ḥasan al-Shīrāzī and Sayyid Ismāʿīl al-Ṣadr in the early fourteenth century AH. Mīrzā al-Shīrāzī was the marjaʿ at that time and had established a seminary in the city of Samarra. He is famously known for the edict he issued in 1309 AH that forbade the smoking of tobacco. Sayyid Ismāʿīl al-Ṣadr was also a well-known jurist and seminary teacher of his time, who intentionally avoided becoming the marjaʿ after Mīrzā’s death. He was one of the earlier figures of the Ṣadr family; both Imam Mūsa al-Ṣadr and the martyr Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr are amongst his grandsons (may Allah have mercy upon them all). Āghā Buzurg Tihrānī (d. 1389 AH), one of the teachers of His Eminence, narrates the following about Sayyid ʿAlī al-Sistani the grandfather, ‘Verily he attained a lofty status, and obtained an abundant share of knowledge along with piety and righteousness. His conduct was excellent, his character outstanding, and his personality was flawless.’[3]

His Studies

‘And [He] made her grow up in a worthy fashion.’ (Qur’an 3:37)

Sayyid al-Sistani was born in Mashhad on 9 Rabīʿ al-Awwal 1349 AH. At the age of five he began learning the Noble Qur’an. Thereafter, he went to a religious school where he learnt to read and write, along with other elementary studies, including calligraphy. At the age of eleven, upon his father’s advice, he commenced his studies in the Islamic seminary. He quickly progressed through the introductory and intermediary levels, to reach the baḥth al-khārij in less than nine years, while still in his teens. Baḥth al-khārij refers to the highest level of classes in the Islamic seminary, where the teacher does not limit themselves to a specific textbook, but rather they present their own research on the subject by referring to the views of various jurists and then presenting their own view with its own evidence and justification.

In addition to studying the traditional subjects of Arabic grammar, jurisprudence, and the principals of jurisprudence, during this time Sayyid al-Sistani also studied the intellectual sciences of philosophy and ʿirfān.

In 1368 AH, before the age of twenty, Sayyid al-Sistani moved to the holy city of Qum. There, he continued baḥth al-khārij studies under great jurists such as the late marjaʿ, Sayyid Ḥusayn Burūjardī. In a telling incident during this time, Sayyid al-Sistani once engaged in a jurisprudential discussion about rulings pertaining to the qibla. In a series of letters that he wrote to a well-known jurist named Sayyid ʿAlī al-Bahbahānī of Ahwaz, he discussed and challenged the understanding of Sayyid al-Bahbahānī and his teacher. In one responding letter, Sayyid al-Bahbahānī lauded the scholarly level of the young Sayyid al-Sistani, addressing him as, ‘the pillar of those scholars who investigate and examine, and the choicest of the jurists who are precise and closely scrutinise.’[4]

In 1371 AH, Sayyid al-Sistani then moved to the holy city of Najaf. There, he remained focussed on his baḥth al-khārij studies under the leading jurists of Najaf such as Sayyid Muḥsin al-Ḥakīm, Sayyid Maḥmūd al-Shāhrūdī, Sayyid al-Khoei, and Shaykh Ḥusayn al-Ḥillī. In the words of Sayyid al-Khoei, the presence of Sayyid al-Sistani in his class was not like that of other students. Rather, it was of one of ‘comprehension, meticulous investigation, deep immersion, and careful precision.’[5] It is worth noting that throughout his studies – whether in Mashhad, Qum, or Najaf – all his teachers were among the greatest scholars of their time.

In 1380 AH, at the age of thirty-one, Sayyid al-Sistani was given an official recognition of ijtihād from his teachers Sayyid al-Khoei and Shaykh Ḥusayn al-Ḥillī. Such an open recognition is an age-old tradition of the Islamic seminary, and while many who reach the level of ijtihād may not receive such written recognition, for those who do receive it, the acknowledgement serves to act as a proof to others.

From 1381 AH onwards, Sayyid al-Sistani began to teach baḥth al-khārij. In the subject of Islamic jurisprudence, he taught various topics such as transactions, purification, prayers, fasting, and khums. In the principles of jurisprudence, he completed three entire courses, the last of which ended in 1411 AH. In the words of his famous student Sayyid Munīr al-Khabbāz, the courses of His Eminence in jurisprudence were ‘the most brilliant’ in all of Najaf, and his method in the principles of jurisprudence was ‘the most comprehensive’ of all.[6] While initially these courses were offered in Persian, His Eminence later taught in Arabic as well.

In the past few decades, however, Sayyid al-Sistani’s public classes have stopped for security reasons, as he has been forced to remain at his home. Despite these difficulties, and along with the many meetings he holds with visitors, Sayyid Munīr al-Khabbāz narrates that His Eminence continues to teach his sons at home.[7] Those who visit him are pleasantly surprised with how he, despite his age, enthusiastically engages in academic discourse. Visitors are also taken by surprise upon witnessing his remarkable memory.

His Marjaʿiyyah

‘Scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets.’ (Imam al-Ṣādiq (ʿA))[8]

Sayyid al-Sistani’s life and legacy are not limited to his scholarly contributions. Rather, he has played an active and fundamental role in navigating the political turmoil that has engulfed the noble and oppressed nation of Iraq. When he moved to Iraq in 1371 AH, the country was still a monarchy under King Faisal II. Over the decades which ensued, His Eminence would be witness to revolution and war. First, a revolution toppled the monarchy and established a republic in 1377 AH. Later, the Ba‘ath party came to power, and ruled for over twenty years, led by the ruthless dictator Saddam Hussein.

Perhaps no period was harder for Sayyid al-Sistani than during the rule of Saddam Hussein, lasting from 1399 AH until the American invasion in 1424 AH. Saddam limited the mourning ceremonies of Imam al-Ḥusayn (ʿA), forbade the Shias from walking to Karbala in commemoration of Arbaʿīn, and sought to weaken the Islamic seminary. Saddam launched an eight-year war against the nascent Islamic Republic of Iran that led to hundreds of thousands of people losing their lives. He brutally suppressed uprisings and executed his opponents.

In 1411 AH, Saddam invaded and annexed neighbouring Kuwait. In response, the United States led a coalition of countries that fought what is known as the First Gulf War, seeking to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. When the objective of this war was quickly achieved and a ceasefire was declared, Iraq itself exploded into uprisings. Various groups in Iraq, united in their desire to oust Saddam, began to rebel. Encouraged by Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait, the uprisings made quick progress. Within two weeks, most of the country had fallen to the revolutionaries. However, this victory was not to last. Despite the UN establishing no-fly zones in the Shi‘i areas of southern Iraq, Saddam used his helicopters to crush the opposition. A bloodbath ensued. Many people were killed and millions were forced to flee. Even the blessed shrines in Najaf and Karbala were attacked by Saddam’s army. Many Islamic seminaries and mosques were destroyed and priceless original manuscripts were lost. The foremost marjaʿ of the Shi‘i world, Sayyid al-Khoei, was arrested and taken to Baghdad where he was forced to meet with Saddam on national television in an attempt to humiliate him and seek legitimacy for the Ba‘ath party. During this chaotic period, Sayyid al-Sistani was arrested along with other Iranian nationals living in the city of Najaf and suffered physical torture at the hands of his jailers.

In 1413 AH, Sayyid al-Khoei, the eminent marjaʿ and teacher of Sayyid al-Sistani, passed away, having led a long life dedicated to spreading the teachings of the school of the Ahl al-Bayt (ʿA). Prior to Sayyid al-Khoei’s demise, scholars in Najaf had already begun to consider who would be the most suitable jurist to succeed him, and who would be the most qualified mujtahid to take up the position of marjaʿiyyah and uphold the strength of the Islamic seminary of Najaf. The answer was clear: Sayyid al-Sistani was considered amongst the most prominent mujtahids for this role. In addition to his own outstanding and compelling scholarly credentials, there were even indications that this was the desire of the late Sayyid al-Khoei. For example, some years earlier, Sayyid al-Khoei appointed Sayyid al-Sistani to lead congregational prayers in his place when he was too sick to lead.[9] Within a short span of time, Sayyid al-Sistani who hitherto was only known in the seminary circles of Najaf, began to be recognised as the foremost marjaʿ of the Shia world. It was not long before a three volume Arabic manual of Islamic laws titled Minhāj al-Ṣāliḥīn (The Path of the Righteous) was published in accordance with the edicts of His Eminence. In the Introduction to this work, Sayyid al-Sistani writes:

I have responded to the request that a group of believers have made – may Allah the Exalted give them success in attaining His pleasure – [asking me] to change the differing rulings [where Sayyid al-Khoei’s fatwas were different, and replace them with the new fatwas that are] in accordance with my own opinion.[10]

With the death of other outstanding and widely followed marājiʿ in successive years, the position of Sayyid al-Sistani as the most prominent marjaʿ gained more following and popularity. For example, both Sayyid ʿAbd al-Aʿlā Sabzawārī in Iraq and Sayyid Muḥammad Riḍā Gulpaygānī in Iran, passed away in 1414 AH. Within a few years, English copies of the book Islamic Laws, in accordance with Sayyid al-Sistani’s fatwas, were widely available in the West.

In 1424 AH, the United States again invaded Iraq and this time toppled Saddam stating that Iraq had failed to abandon its weapons of mass destruction. Allah says, ‘And the wrongdoers will soon know to what place of turning, they shall turn back’ (Qur’an 26:227).

In the two decades that have passed since the fall of Saddam, Sayyid al-Sistani’s role in Iraq has been crucial. In the beginning, he started by encouraging people to be involved in the post-Saddam political process by calling for democratic elections. In this manner, he was guiding the Iraqi society to the fact that their political rights need to be acquired through modern methods and that it was necessary to draft a majority endorsed constitution that recognises the rights of all citizens equally. In 1425 AH, His Eminence quickly rushed back from a heart operation in the United Kingdom to peacefully end a fierce battle that had broken out between Iraqi and US forces against Muqtadā al-Ṣadr, sacrificing his personal health to return to Basra to save Iraq from unnecessary bloodshed. Moreover, he spearheaded the multi-million people’s march from Basra to Najaf, protesting the American-led war, despite risks to his life, and even against the warning of the Iraqi Minister of Security. In 1435 AH, he issued a call for all those who were able to help the Iraqi security forces in their fight against ISIS.

At the same time, Sayyid al-Sistani called for Shias to refrain from revenge attacks on Sunnis after explosions in holy shrines, such as in Samarra. He called for Shi‘as to understand that Sunnis are not only ‘our brethren’ but rather ‘ourselves’. In addition, the team of His Eminence worked effortlessly to accommodate displaced non-Muslim Iraqis, including Christians and Yezidis, as refugees in the Shia shrine cities, until they could return to their homes safely. As a result, scholars of the Islamic world, especially in Iraq, together with many international figures, continue to depict His Eminence’s marjaʿiyyah as one of moderation (wasaṭiyyah) and wisdom, in whose fatherly compassion all seek refuge. The moderation of His Eminence is seen also in his ruling that Muslims who reside in countries as minorities must respect the national laws that apply to them.

On another note, in striving to serve the community while understanding its challenges more scientifically, the office of Sayyid al-Sistani established multiple humanitarian and academic institutions, such as the Al Ayn Foundation, the Astronomical Research Centre, and the Theological Research Centre. These organisations, as well as others of their like, ensure that His Eminence is up to date with the latest social developments, including moon sighting issues, economic and intellectual challenges, and even matters relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The foregoing paragraphs outline but a few of the outstanding achievements and different dimensions of the life and personality of our noble marjaʿ, Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani. May Allah lengthen his blessed life and elevate his lofty rank in both this world and the Hereafter.

[1] Al-Sīrat al-Dhātiyyah, Official Website of the Office of His Eminence al-Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. (accessed 8 July 2022).

[2] Ṣadr al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Shīrāzī, Sharḥ al-Kāfī, vol. 1, p. 214.

[3] Āghā Buzurg Tihrānī, Ṭabaqāt Aʿlām al-Shīʿah, vol. 16, p. 1434.

[4] An image of this letter is available in the biography on the official website of Sayyid al-Sistani, previously cited.

[5] Refer to the same recognition of ijtihād that was quoted in the beginning of this article.

[6] Refer to an interview with Sayyid Munīr al-Khabbāz published in the Iranian journal Andīshih: Ali Teymoori, ‘Ayatollah Sistani’s Doctrine Differs from Ayatollah Khoei’s One’, Itjihad Network, 26 September 2020. (accessed 8 July 2022).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Yaʿqūb al-Kulaynī, al-Kāfī, vol. 1, p. 32, narration 2.

[9] Refer to Sayyid al-Sistani’s biography on the website of his office, previously cited.

[10] Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, Minhāj al-Ṣāliḥīn, vol. 1, p. 4.
Appendix 3: List of Updated Rulings → ← Appendix 1: Table of Weights, Measures, Values, and Quantities
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