A Brief Biography of His Eminence Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani
Birth and Lineage
His Eminence Sayyid al-Sistani was born on the ninth of Rabi al-Awwal in 1349 AH in the Holy City of Mashhad in Iran.[i]
His father was Sayyid Muhammad Baqir, the son of Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani (may God have mercy on them). Both were prominent and well-known scholars in the religious seminaries in Najaf, Qum, and Mashhad.
His lineage is traced to Imam Hussain ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib (may peace be upon them), the son of Fatimah, daughter of Muhammad (may God’s blessings be upon them and their progeny).
Most of the people who have known His Eminence Sayyid al-Sistani and have spent time with him have noted that, since his youth, he was a quiet person who spent most of his time in meditation and reflection. They say he has a calm, content, and patient personality. He is very humble and has lived an extremely simple life. His asceticism is apparent from his food, clothing, and residence. He does not like self-promotion and forbids his representatives from spending a penny on advertising his religious authority or posting his pictures in public places. Moreover, he does not like titles, to the extent that he has deleted the title of “Ayatullah” from some pages of his office’s website. Also, he does not allow any organization or Islamic center to be named after him. Instead, he instructs believers to name them after historic scholars in order to resurrect their names and keep them in our memory. Finally, he has a fatherly spirit. He does not favor one person over another, whatever their color, language, ethnicity, or status. He considers himself a father to all believers—needing to be fair and just in treating them all.
His Eminence started learning the Quran and reading and writing at the age of five years. He started studying religious disciplines by the beginning of the second decade of his life and continued until he attended the doctrinal lectures of Ayatullah Mirza Mahdi al-Ashtiani and the jurisprudential research lectures of Ayatullah Mirza Hashim al-Qazwini in Mashhad.
He moved to the religious seminary in Qum in 1368 AH and attended the research lectures of the supreme religious authority, Sayyid Hussain al-Tabatabai al-Burujirdi (may God have mercy on him), on jurisprudence and its roots. He also learned much about the disciplines of hadith and biographical evaluation from him. In addition, he attended the lectures of the great jurisprudent, Sayyid Muhammad al-Hujjah al-Kuhkamari (may God have mercy on him).
He quickly passed all hawzah levels, and found it time to move to the religious seminary in Najaf for higher studies at the beginning of the year 1371 AH, and has resided there ever since. He attended the research lectures on jurisprudence and its roots given by the two prominent figures Sayyid Abu al-Qasim al-Musawi al-Khoei and Shaykh Hussain al-Hilli (may God have mercy on them) and studied under them for a long period of time. During that time, he also attended the research lectures of other prominent figures including Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim and Sayyid Mahmud al-Shahrudi (may God have mercy on them).
He outshone his peers through keen intelligence, ample research, perseverance in learning, and familiarity with many theories in different religious disciplines, thereby becoming in 1381 AH the only one among his peers (i.e., the scholars in the early thirties) to receive the following certificates from prominent scholars:
- Certificate of absolute ijtihad from his master, His Eminence Sayyid al-Khoei (may God have mercy on him), who did not give this particular certificate to anyone except him and Shaykh Ali al-Falsafi
- Certificate of absolute ijtihad from his master, Shaykh Hussain al-Hilli, who did not issue this certificate to anyone other than His Eminence
- A certificate from the greatest of muhaddiths, Shaykh Agha Buzurg al-Tehrani, commending His Eminence’s skill in the disciplines of hadith and biographical evaluation. The certificate was dated 1380 AH.
He taught jurisprudential research beginning in 1381 AH and roots of jurisprudence research beginning in 1384 AH. However, deteriorating security conditions have compelled him to stop lecturing in recent years.
He has authored more than forty published and unpublished works. A complete list of them can be found on the website of His Eminence’s office, may God prolong his life.
Features of His Eminence’s School of Thought
His Eminence cares about knowing the roots of a jurisprudential question and its surrounding circumstances, including the doctrinal and political environment, before issuing his jurisprudential verdict. Thus, he does not limit himself to religious texts only.
He connects seminary thought to contemporary culture. The reason is that a question may take many manifestations, requiring the jurisprudent to know all the schools of thought and what makes them have different opinions and interpretations of the same issue.
He is committed to the principle of modernization in the theories and premises of jurisprudence and its roots and does not settle for discussing the existing literature and commenting on it. Take the principle of respect as an example. It is the principle of respecting others and their opinions and laws. His Eminence modernized this great Islamic principle and formulated it as a jurisprudential code used by believers who live in non-Muslim or mixed, multi-religious countries.
He is committed to the comparative study of the different schools of great religious seminaries, using the opinions of their most prominent jurisprudents. For example, he mentions the opinion of Sayyid al-Burujirdi as a representative of the school of Qum; then he mentions the opinions of Sayyid al-Khoei and Shaykh Hussain al-Hilli as representatives of the school of Najaf; then he compares and analyzes those opinions before finally giving his own. He does the same when discussing issues in which the jurisprudents of the Shia Imami school have a different opinion than that of the jurisprudents of other Islamic schools.
He is thoroughly aware of other disciplines and specialties, such as contemporary law. For example, he examines French, Egyptian, and Iraqi laws and employs them in analyzing jurisprudential principles and expanding their use.
His Eminence was among the most distinguished students of the Supreme Religious Authority, Sayyid al-Khoei (may God have mercy on him) (1413 AH), as he was the only one of his students to give research lectures during his life. His master paid special attention to his abilities and even appointed him to be the imam of congregational prayer at al-Khadra Mosque.[ii] After the passing of Sayyid al-Khoei, Sayyid al-Gulpaygani (may God have mercy on him) of Qum and Sayyid Abd al-Ala al-Sabzawari (may God have mercy on him) of Najaf emerged as religious authorities. However, both of them passed away soon after that (1414 AH). After them, Shaykh Muhammad Ali al-Araki and Sayyid Muhammad al-Ruhani (may God have mercy on them) emerged as religious authorities, and they also passed away in a short period of time. Consequently, people in religious and seminary circles looked upon His Eminence Sayyid al-Sistani as an authority (may God prolong his life) because of his high religious stature and his piety and prudence. Several prominent jurisprudents, such as His Eminence Ayatullah Sayyid Ali al-Bihishti and His Eminence Ayatullah Murtada al-Burujirdi in addition to many senior lecturers in the seminaries of Qum and Najaf, directed believers to emulate Sayyid al-Sistani. As a result, many believers in Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, Pakistan, and India started to follow His Eminence. Soon, most believers in other Muslim and non-Muslim countries around the world were emulating him. To this day, he is the supreme religious authority who has the most followers among believers. May the Almighty prolong his life and help Islam and Muslims with his existence.
Struggle and Important Events
His Eminence resisted the plan of the Baathist regime to suppress the religious seminary with the highest degree of patience and forbearance. The Baathist regime expelled many jurisprudents and scholars, including some of His Eminence Sayyid al-Sistani’s students. His Eminence himself was on the verge of being expelled several times. He was questioned more than once and endured the insults and offenses of the Baathists. However, all that pressure could not change his decision not to leave the religious seminary in Najaf.
He tolerated and resisted the pressure and harassment of the Baathist regime during the Iran-Iraq war. When Iraqi people revolted in 1411 AH and the regime crushed the revolution with brute force, it detained His Eminence Sayyid al-Sistani and many other scholars. They were persecuted, harshly questioned, and even tortured in the notorious Ridhwaniyah detention camp. The Baathist regime later assassinated some of them such as Martyr Ayatullah Shaykh Murtada al-Burujirdi and Martyr Ayatullah Mirza Ali al-Gharawi.
After the passing of the Supreme Religious Authority Sayyid al-Khoei (may God be pleased with him) and the acceptance of His Eminence Sayyid al-Sistani as a religious authority, the Baathist regime pressed to change the direction of the religious authority in Najaf. It did what it could to tarnish the reputation of Sayyid al-Sistani and damage his stature among jurisprudents and used various methods to prevent believers from seeing him, such as closing al-Khadra Mosque in 1414 AH. When all those attempts failed, the regime planned to assassinate him, as documents recovered after the fall of the Baathist regime show.[iii] As a result, he stayed in his house for several years and could not even visit the shrine of the Leader of the Faithful (may peace be upon him) although his house was only a few meters from the shrine.
After the fall of the Baathist regime and the occupation of Iraq in 1424 AH (2003 CE), the occupiers attempted to dictate a certain constitution and system of government to Iraqis. In response, His Eminence Sayyid al-Sistani (may God prolong his life) sent a letter to the Security Council warning of the risks of approving this so-called transitional law. The Security Council complied with the request of His Eminence. Also, he issued his famous edict insisting that only Iraqis draft the new constitution, that there be a referendum on the constitution so that Iraqis decide whether or not it takes effect, and that the constitution not be in conflict with Islamic principles and the noble values of the Iraqi people.[iv] In the end, that was what happened, and the system of government in the new Iraq was in compliance with the opinion of the supreme religious authority, embodied in His Eminence Grand Ayatullah Sayyid al-Sistani (may God prolong his life). Therefore, he not only protected Iraq from being dominated by the occupiers but contributed to protecting the entire region from a grand plan for which the occupation of Iraq was only the beginning.
His Eminence Sayyid al-Sistani left Iraq on the nineteenth of Shaban 1425 AH (August 6, 2004) to have heart surgery in one of London’s hospitals. His absence emboldened various local and foreign parties to exploit the void of his stabilizing authority and bring instability to the political situation. As a result, violence broke out in Iraq and warring factions even entered the holy shrine of Imam Ali (may peace be upon him) and used it as a base. This exposed Najaf to shelling and destruction and the holy shrine was on the verge of being destroyed. At that time, the medical authorities in the British hospital permitted His Eminence to leave the hospital. He immediately left and boarded the first plane going to Kuwait. Upon landing in Kuwait, he headed directly to Basra. Then he joined millions of believers in a grand march from Basra to Najaf. Despite all the risks and the possibility of a disaster threatened by some parties in the war, His Eminence (may God prolong his life) insisted on liberating Najaf from warfare, whatever the price. His Eminence arrived in Najaf, with millions accompanying him, on the ninth of Rajab. Upon seeing millions marching toward them, the warring parties left the holy shrine. As such, His Eminence prevented a catastrophe that would have irreparably damaged the dignity and status of the Imami school of Islam.
As a result of the fall of the Baathist regime and the subsequent occupation, Iraq witnessed unusual waves of politicized sectarian fighting. Frantic campaigns of identity-based killing started. Leaders of aberration, along with commanders of some factions, helped fuel this sectarian unrest with funds, weapons, and propaganda until it reached such a high degree that the holy shrine of the two Askari imams in Samarra was detonated on the twenty-third of Muharram 1427 AH. The entire country was on the verge of explosion, and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were at risk of being colored red with blood. His Eminence employed his wisdom and shrewdness and the highest degree of restraint despite all the tragedies and atrocities he was witnessing. He issued religious edicts and instructions to forbid assaulting any human being, whether they be Muslim or non-Muslim, Shia or Sunni. He repeated his famous saying, “Do not say, ‘Our brothers, the Sunnis,’ but say, ‘Ourselves.’” He forbade seizing the mosques of one sect by another and pressured zealots to leave the mosques they had seized even though those mosques were in their areas. By doing this, he was able to stop the sectarian war and return peace and security to Iraq and its people. However, it should be noted that attempts to reignite sectarian war in Iraq have not stopped.
Last but not least is the historical religious edict of collective jihad[v] on the eleventh of Shaban 1435 AH against the terrorist group ISIS, which crossed the border overnight, occupied Mosul, and reached as far as a few kilometers from Baghdad, amid a complete collapse of the Iraqi army and high treason by its leadership in that area. Immediately, thousands of believers volunteered to become soldiers under the command of the Iraqi army, obeying the order issued by His Eminence (may God prolong his life) since he refused to let them fight under the command of any entity except the official Iraqi army. This religious edict was a first, coming approximately 100 years after the edict of jihad against the British occupiers of Iraq in 1920 CE. As a result, Iraq and the region were prevented from falling under the control of the Khawarij[vi] of our time and the leaders of aberration. We ask God, the Glorified, to protect believers and their homelands from the evil of their enemies embodied in al-Qaeda, Taliban, ISIS, the Nusra, and other such groups and to expedite the return of our master, Sahib al-Zaman (may peace be upon him), who will spread justice and equity in this world after it is filled with injustice and inequity.
His Eminence Sayyid al-Sistani is the first religious authority to be commended by the Security Council of the United Nations for his role in combating terrorism and his sponsorship of displaced Sunni Muslims, Christians, and other minorities who emigrated to Najaf and Karbala after the brutal assault of the terrorist gang ISIS. That commendation came in the Security Council report issued on January 10, 2014.[vii] His Eminence is also the first religious authority whom a Secretary-General of the United Nations visited in his residence to thank him and show appreciation for his efforts and positions against extremism and terror. On July 24, 2014, the Secretary-General of the United Nations visited His Eminence Sayyid al-Sistani and spoke with him for about an hour. He expressed his appreciation for the position of Sayyid al-Sistani that calls for peace and preserving the unity of the country. He said, “I am extremely honored to have met His Eminence Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani today for the first time. He is a man of the deepest wisdom and tolerance. He is an inspiration and a role model for his many followers in Iraq and beyond.” He added, “I expressed the United Nations’ gratitude for His Eminence’s support for all efforts to protect civilians in the current conflict…I expressed to His Eminence how deeply moved I was by his consistent calls for all sides to refrain from sectarian or ethnic rhetoric.” The Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon ended his remarks by saying, “Once again, I was deeply impressed by my time with His Eminence. You can continue to count on my full support along with the United Nations as the people of Najaf and all of Iraq work to build a tolerant, peaceful, and prosperous country for all its people.”[viii]
[i]. Most of the information herein was taken from the official website of the office of His Eminence, www.sistani.org, with some additions and alterations.
[ii]. Al-Khadra Mosque is a historical mosque adjacent to the shrine of the Leader of the Faithful, may peace be upon him. It has a high symbolic status. For years, only supreme religious authorities led congregational prayers in it and lectured there.
[iii]. “The Hawza under Siege,” by Dr. Abbas Kadhim, Boston University. Online PDF file available on: https://www.bu.edu/iis/files/2013/04/Bath-Party-ArchiveFinal-1.pdf
[iv]. The edict can be found on the website of the office of His Eminence Sayyid al-Sistani: https://www.sistani.org/arabic/archive/273/
[v]. The edict can be found on the website of the office of His Eminence Sayyid al-Sistani: https://www.sistani.org/arabic/statement/24906/
[vi] The Khawarij were a group who accused Imam Ali (may peace be upon him) of disbelief and fought against him, believing that he should not have accepted arbitration after the Battle of Siffin. One of their members assassinated the Imam.