GRAND AYATOLLAH AL-UZMA
SAYYID ALI HUSSAINI SISTANI
For more than half a century, the school of the late Grand Ayatollah Imam
Abul Qassim al-Khoee has been an undepletable spring that enriched Islamic
thought and knowledge.
From his school graduated dozens of jurists, clergymen, and dignitaries who
took it upon themselves to continue his ideological path which was full of
achievements and sacrifices in the service of the faith, knowledge, and
Among those are outstanding professors of parochial schools, especially Holy
Najaf and Qom. Some of them have attained the level of 'ijtiihad'-
competence to deduce independent legal judgment enabling them to assume the
office of supreme religious authority.
Others reached lofty levels qualifying them for shouldering the
responsibilities of teaching and education. Most distinguished among those
towering figures is His Eminence Grand Ayatullah as-Sayyid Ali al-Hussaini
He ranks among the brightest, the most qualified and knowledgeable of Imam
al-Khoee's former students. In the following account, we try to paint a
picture of this meritorious cleric.
Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani was born on 9th Rabi Al-Awwal
1349 A.H. in the holy city of Mashhad. He was named Ali after his
He was brought up into a family known for its religious background. He
learned theological and rational sciences from many eminent and well-known
His father was named Sayyid Mohammad Baqir and his grandfather was the great
'Sayyid Ali' whose detailed biography has been brought in the book 'Tabaqaat
Al-a'laam Al-Shia (Categories of Shia Scholars) (part 4 page 1432) by Aqa
Bozorg Tehrani. He has mentioned that he was apprenticed to Late Ali
Nahavandi in Najaf and to Mojadded Shirazi in Samarra and finally to Sayyid
Ismaael Sadr. In 1308 A.H. he returned to Mashhad and therein he settled and
gained reputation as the teacher of renowned scholars such as the great
Jurisprudent, Mohammad Reza Aal Yasin (may Allah bless him).
In 1368 A.H. during the period of the Great Jurisprudent, Grand Ayatollah
Sayyid Hussain Brojardi he shifted to the holy city of Qom where he attended
Kharij lectures of Fiqh and Osoul (Jurisprudence & Fundamentals of
Jurisprudence) given by prominent scholars of the Religious Seminary
including Ayatollah Brojardi (may Allah bless him). He also attended Fiqh
lectures of Grand Sayyid Kohkamari during whose time he achieved much
erudity and experience in Fiqh as well in Rijal and Hadith sciences.
His wife and children lived in Isfahna during the Safavide period and his
great grandfather Sayyid Mohammad, appointed as Shaikhul Islam by King
Hussain of the Safavide dynasty in Sistan province. Later he traveled to
Sistan where he and his children remained settled.
Sayyid Ali was the first of his grandsons to migrate to Mashhad. He lived in
the Madresa of late Mohammad Baqir Sabsavari where he continued studying
until he migrated to the holy city of Najaf for higher studies.
At the age of 5 His Eminence started learning the Holy Quran. A woman who
was known as 'Mother of Aqaye Mudir' helped him learnt the Quran. He was
then admitted in a religious center for reading, writing, and for learning
basic mathematics and geography. He graduated from the center after he had
learnt calligraphy from Mirza Ali Aqa Zalim.
In the beginning of 1360 he started studying basic Hawzah lessons. He
finished reading a number of books namely, Sharh Alfia by Soyuti, Moghni by
Ibn-e Hisham, Motawwal by Taftazani, Moqamaat Al-Tabriri and Sharh Al-Nizam.
Of those who taught him at this level one was Nishabouri who was known as a
man of letters. He studied Sharh Lome'ah and the book of Qawanin (Laws) with
late Sayyid Ahmad Yazdi known as Nahang. He finished the Sath (level before
Kharij Level) books such as Makasib, Rasaael and Kifaya with Shaikh Hashim
who was one of the great scholars of his time. He also read a number of
books on philosophy like Sharh Manzuma-e Sabsavari and Sharh Ishraq and
Asfar of Sadrul Mutaallehin with Late Ayesi. He read Shawaqul Elhaam with
late Shaikh Mujtaba Qazvini and attended late Allamah Mirza Mahdi Isfahani's
lessons on divine teachings. Meanwhile, he attended Kharij lectures by late
Mirza Mahdi Ashtiani and late Mirza Hashim Qazvini (may Allah bless them).
In late 1368 A.H. he migrated to Qom to accomplish his studies in Fiqh and
Osoul. He was benefited by the two well-known scholars, Sayyid Hussain
Tabatabaye and Grand Kohkamari. The first gave lectures in Fiqh
(Jurisprudence and Osoul (Fundamentals of Jurisprudence) and the second gave
lectures in Fiqh only.
During his stay in Qom he was corresponding with late Allamah Sayyid
Bahbahani (the prominent scholar of Ahvaz province known as a follower of
Hadi Tehrani's school of thought). Their correspondence dealt with issues
related to Qibla. He did not accept views maintained by Hadi Tehrani.
Therefore he corresponded with Sayyid Ali Bahbahani who appreciated his
views and promised that he would see him from close on his visit to the holy
shrine of Imam Reza (a.s.) in Mashhad.
In early 1371 A.H. His Eminence left Qom for Najaf Ashraf and reached
Karbala on the occasion of Arbaeen (40th day) of Imam Husain (a.s.). On
having arrived in Najaf, he began attending Ayatollah Khoei and Shaikh
Husain Hilli's lectures in jurisprudence and fundamentals of jurisprudence
for a considerably long time. Meanwhile, he attended lectures of other
prominent scholars like Ayatollah Hakim and Ayatollah Shahroudi (may Allah
In 1380 A.H. Ayatollah Sistani traveled back to his hometown, the holy city
of Mashhad, expecting to stay and settle in it. In the same year, he was
awarded a permit by Imam Al-Khoee and another by Shaik Hilli, certifying
that he had attained the level of (ijtihad)- deduction of legal judgment in
matters of religion. He was also awarded a diploma by the distinguished
traditionalist and scholar Shaikh Agha Bozorg Tahrani testifying to his
skill in the science of "Rijal" biographies of 'hadith', prophetic
traditions, narrators and that of 'hadith'.
Upon returning to Najaf Ashraf in 1381 he embarked on research and teaching
jurisprudence as expounded by the great jurist Shaikh al-Ansari in his book
"al-Makasib", He followed it with an exposition of al-Urwatul Wuthqa book by
the jurist Sayyid Tabatabaye. He started giving lectures (externals) in
fundamentals of jurisprudence in Sha'ban, 1384 A.H. He completed its 3rd
course in 1411 A.H. (1990 A.D.). In 1418 A.H. he began teaching Kitab Al-E'tikaaf"
after completing exposition on 'Kitab Al-Sawm' not so long ago. He is
currently (Sha'baan 1423) teaching Kitab-ul-Zakat of Urwathul Wuthqa.
Some professors of Najaf center for theological studies (Hawza of Najaf)
were quoted as saying that they advised the late Ayatollah Khoei to groom
someone for the office of the supreme religious authority and the
directorship of Najaf Seminary. Thus the choice fell on His Eminence, Grand
Ayatollah Sistani for his merits, eligibility, knowledge, and impeccable
character. Accordingly, he started leading the prayer in Imam al-Khoee's
mosque, al-Khadra at his life time in 1408 and continued leading prayers
until the mosque was closed in 1414.
For the first time in 1384, His Eminence traveled to Makkah for pilgrimage.
Then in 1405 and in 1406 he traveled to Makkah for pilgrimage for a second
and third time consecutively. He started giving lectures (externals) in
fundamentals of jurisprudence in Sha'ban, 1384 A.H. He completed its 3rd
course in 1411 A.H. (1990 A.D.) His lectures in both the subjects have been
recorded by some of his students.
His Scientific Genius :
Ayatullah Sistani is one of a few students who had the degree of
Ijtihad. He is known for his intelligence and plentiful researching
activities in biographies. He is also well-acquainted with many theories on
many scientific subjects of Hawzah. Ayatullah Sistani had been involved in
scientific competition with martyr Muhammad Baqir Sadr. This had been
certificated by the late Ayatullah Khou'i and also by `Allamah shaykh Husayn
Hilli who both had confirmed his being a Mujtahid through two separate
certification dated 1960, in which the two Ayatullahs had appreciated his
personality and knowledge. It is worthy to say that up to that date,
Ayatullah Khou'i had never certificated any of his students' knowledge or
Ijtihad, except for Ayatullah Sistani and Ayatullah shaykh Ali Falsafi (an
eminent `alim in the Hawzah of Mashhad. On the other hand, the famous `Allamah
shaykh Agha Buzurgh Tehrani wrote a letter to Ayatullah Sistani in 1960 in
which he eulogizing him for his intellectual talents on biography and hadith.
This means that, our master, Ayatullah Sistani, had been granted his high
scientific rank when he was only thirty-one years old.
His Methodology in Researching & Teaching :
Ayatullah Uzma Sistani has his own method of teaching which differs
from other teachers and scholars. For example, his method in teaching
Usoul distinguishes with the following features:
He speaks about the history of the research he is discussing, to know its
fundamental sources which might be philosophical, like the issue of the
simplicity of "mushtaqq" and its constructions. Or, they might be concerned
with beliefs and policy, like the research of "ta`aadul and taraajeeh", in
which he had explained that the difference of hadiths returns to
intellectual clashes and the political circumstances of that time during
which the Imams(a.s.) had lived.
Ayatullah Sistani always connects between the thought of Hawzah and the
contemporary civilizations. In his discussing the literal meaning and
distinguishing between it and the highest meaning, and whether this
difference is subjective or not; Ayatullah Sistani chooses the thought of
al-Kifaya's author, who believes that the said difference is external.
However, he himself builds his opinion on the a modern philosophical theory.
And when he discusses the name of TIME, he deals with this subject according
to a Western modern philosophical theory, which declares that TIME must be
taken from PLACE, having the consequence of light and darkness. As to the
form of imperative, Ayatullah Sistani discusses this matter depending on
some sociologists' theories, which say that the reason behind dividing the
REQUEST into: Order, Begging, and Asking, is the intercession of the
requester in his Request, as whether it is of higher, equal or lower than
the normal level.
Ayatullah Sistani always looks after the principles in relation with Fiqh.
He thinks that the hawzah students became bored because most of scholars are
dealing with subjects on Usoul exaggeratedly, by repeating the others
researches, instead of innovating new researches of their own. Thus, the
students cannot be enticed with such unuseful and boring repetition.But
fortunately, we do not find this situation in the lectures or lessons that
are being held by Ayatullah sistani. He rather, discusses the subject from
all its sides until he reaches a final logical conclusion.
The Marriage to the Infidel: This is one of the disputatious rules about
which the scholars have different opinions. They believe that it is a mere
intellectual rule. But Ayatullah Sistani regards it as a part of the rule
called "Idhtiraar" (obligation) which is a legal rule confirmed by many
historical texts like "Anything which Allah has prohibited is lawful for
whoever is driven to necessity". Or sometimes, he amplifies a rule by
emphasizing what is seems to be important.
His Social View About the Text: There are many Faqihs who deal literally
with historical texts and remain stable upon their mere words and meanings,
and do not try to move even one step forward. For instance, such faqihs
depend on the apparent meaning of the prophetic hadith in which the Holy
Prophet(s.a.) had prohibited the Muslims from eating the meat of domestic
asses during the time of the battle of Khaybar, and believe that the asses'
meat is prohibited, without objection. But, from the Ayatullah Sistani's
point of view, faqihs must penetrate into the real meaning behind the text's
words. He says that the Holy Prophet, and for sure, wanted to utilize the
few number of asses the Muslims have in the best and most useful ways. One
of those ways is that these asses must be kept alive to convey the arms and
other important provision to the Muslim army, since they were the only means
available for transportation. Thus, Ayatullah Sistani believes that the
prohibition must have been temporary and must not be understood as absolute
Experience & Acquaintance: Ayatullah Uzma Sistani believes strongly that a
faqih must be acquainted with Arabic literature, civilization, orations,
poems, grammar,...etc., otherwise he wouldn't have enough ability to deal
with any text, and so, he cannot distinguish this meaning from that. And,
also a faqih must have enough knowledge about historical biographies and
dignities, in order to be able to recognize any text in relation to that
personality. Moreover, it is amazing to mention here, that Ayatullah Sistani,
and in many occasions, disagrees with rules that are unanimously agreed by
most of scholars. As an example, the ulama do not accept ibn al-Fadha'iri's
criticism book in regard to some personalities, either, as they believe,
because of the huge number of criticism he had against those personalities,
or because they doubt his being the author of the book. While Ayatullah
Sistani believes that ibn al-Fadha'iri is the real author of that book, and
that he must be regarded more reliable than even Najjaashi, al-Shaykh, and
others, for his criticism. Ayatullah Sistani always encourages the scholars
to study the different copies of hadith, and distinguish between them to
fetch the differences, and also study the biography of the narrators. He
does agree with those who regard al-Sadouq more reliable (in narrating
traditions) than al-Shaykh. He rather believes that al-Shaykh is trustworthy
enough. However, Ayatullah Sistani and martyr Sadr both try to give a new
formation to the subject.
Now, when Ayatullah Sistani discusses the rule of "ta`aadul and taraajeeh",
he refers to the secret concealed inside this rule, which is the reason of
the hadiths' difference. So, if the scholars attempt to point the reasons of
the difference behind the legal texts, there will no problem at all. The
same subject had been discussed by martyr Sadr, but he had dealt with it
according to the absolute intellection, while Ayatullah Sistani gave many
temporary and historical evidences, until he got important rules through
which many disputes have been solved and removed. It is said that Ayatullah
Sistani is using this method in the Fiqh lessons he is holding.
Comparing between different schools: Commonly, many scholars try to
constrict their researches to this religious school or that, but Ayatullah
Sistani differs. He always compares his research or discussion with the two
main centers of knowledge, namely the hawzah of Mashhad and the hawzah of
Qum on the one hand, and the hawzah of Najaf on the other hand. For
instance, he conveys the opinions of Mirza Mahdi Isfahani (one of the
scholars of Mashhad), Boroujerdi (an `alim from Qum), and the opinions of
the three researchers, Ayatullah Khou'i, and Shaykh Hasan Hilli (as scholars
The Sistani's method in Fiqh has a particular feature, some of which are
Comparing between the Fiqh of Shia and other Islamic sects' Fiqh.
Benefitting from the modern laws (like the Iraqi, Egyptian, and French laws)
in some Fiqh subjects, especially when he discusses the subjects such as the
Sale and the Choices.
Renewal in Discussing some Fiqh rules and according to this era's
circumstances, contrary to some scholars who deal with the historical texts
as they are without attempting to change any part of it as the conditions
may request that.
Sistani's Personality :
Whoever associates with Ayatullah Sistani, he will notice how high
spirituality he earns, the spirituality that Ahlul Bayt(a.s.) have always
called to. This feature, indeed, has rendered him one of high rank's
scholars and a true pious. However, the most remarkable characteristics of
Ayatullah Sistani are the following:
Equity and Respecting Others' Opinions: Because Ayatullah Sistani is fond of
knowledge and always does his best to Reach the truth, and also because he
respects everybody's opinion and every objective point, he keeps reading and
researching all the time. He is very anxious to know others' thought and
discover the target points of his mates. Many times and in many occasions we
see him referring to one of the scholar's opinion even this scholar is not
one of his masters, or he is not very known in the Hawzah, only because that
opinion has an objective point (or points) of view.
Discussing Subjects Politely: It is known among the scholars that subjects
and on many fields are being discussed roughly in the Hawzah of Najaf. It is
no doubt that such a manner may cultivate the students' knowledge and purify
it from every incorrect understanding. However, the students quarrel about
something unimportant, and thus, the same manner may be mere squabble. In
this case, more precious time would be wasted in vain, and no one would
reach the holy aim, which is certainty, for which he pays all that endeavor
and exertion. On the other hand, we see Ayatullah Sistani avoids disputes
and void argumentation, or disregarding others' opinions and conclusions. He
always tries to use polite phrases, and always does his best to keep the
scholars' respect and veneration. Another feature, is that Ayatullah Sistani
used to repeat his speech and phrases that consist important points; but if
he noticed a continuous arrogance and obstinacy from a student, he then
Training Beside Education: Education is not only an official job through
which a teacher may practise a routine work against his salary. Such a
behaviour shall certainly deviate the teacher from the main target which is
training his students. A teacher must regard his work as a heavenly mission
which he must practise with love, care, and full responsibility. It is said
that Ayatullah al-Hakim's high behaviours were Sistani's excellent model. He
himself became a model of his master, the late Ayatullah Khou'i, and is
treating his students exactly as the late Khou'i used to treat his students.
Ayatullah Sistani, always encourages his students to ask and research, until
they reach the truth. In the same time, he insists on respecting the
scholars and `ulama.
Piety: Sometimes, the hawzah undergoes problems or critical attitudes which,
if they are not to be faced bravely, many facts that affect the principles
of the Islamic religion shall be concealed. There is no doubt that all `ulama
must stand with courage in front of these incorrect currents. But the same
situation may rise because of personal enmity or competitions to reach a
higher rank or hollow reputation. In this case, many `alims, such as
Ayatullah Sistani, prefer to stand aloof instead of participating in this
dilemma, as happened after the demise of Ayatullah Boroujerdi and Ayatullah
al-Hakim. Ayatullah Sistani is very well-known for his humble and simplicity
in lifeway. He earns ordinary house and furniture, and wears unexpensive
garments. He does not care about fashion or modern mode.
Sistani's Intellectual Works: Ayatullah Sistani is not a mere faqih; he is
rather a well-educated personality. He is acquainted with most of
contemporary knowledges and civilizations, and has modernized thoughts and
opinions. Ayatullah Sistani is heedful of the international economic and
political information. In one word, Ayatullah Sistani can be considered as a
modern faqih with genuine principles.
The Religious Authority :
Some masters in Najaf Ashraf relate that, after the demise of
Ayatollah Sayyid Nasrullah Mustanbit, many scholars had suggested on
Ayatollah Khou'i that he should prepare the appropriate base by choosing a
personality from the hawzah (of Najaf) so that the religious authority may
remain alive and effective. His choice became correct and the choiced was
Sayyid Sistani for his knowledge, good manner, stable policy, and many other
virtues. Ayatollah Sistani then began to perform the prayers at the niche of
Ayatollah Khou'i, and started studying in his school. Later on, he wrote a
commentary on the Resaalah of Ayatollah Khou'i. After the death of Khou'i,
Ayatollah Sistani was one of those six personalities who participated in the
funeral and he himself performed the prayers on the late's body. After that,
Sistani became the only marja` (religious authority). He began to send
duties and salaries, and teaching in the same classroom of Ayatollah Khou'i
(in Masjid Khadhra'); thus, his followers increased day after another,
especially in Iraq, the Persian Gulf region, India,...etc.
Ayatollah Sistani has the highest rank among the mujtahids and scholars
throughout the Islamic World, and especially in the hawzahs of Najaf Ashraf
His works :
Ayatullah Sistani began teaching the Kharij stage on Fiqh, Usoul,
and biography 34 years ago. He held many lectures about the book titled as "makaasib",
and many subjects such as purity, prayers, judgment, khums, and some other
rules on Fiqh like usury, Taqiyyah (precaution), and the rule known as "ilzam"
(obligation). Sistani also taught the Usoul for three complete courses, some
of which are ready for publication, like his research on the scientific
roots (principles), "ta`adul and taraajeeh", some researches on Fiqh, some
chapters about prayers, the rule of Taqiyyah and ilzam. Many eminent
scholars, such as `Allamah shaykh Mahdi Murwaarid, `Allamah Sayyid Murtadha
Al-Mohri, `Allamah Sayyid Habib Husaynan, `Allamah Sayyid Murtadha Isfahani,
`Allamah Sayyid Ahmad Madadi, `Allamah Shaykh Baqir Irwaani, and many other
teachers in the hawzah, have recorded his researches. During that, Ayatullah
Sistani was busy in compiling important books and some treatises, in
addition to what he had written on Fiqh and Usoul.
Hereunder, are some of Ayatullah Sistani's books and treatises:
with many other handwritten compilations and treatises on rules for the