Thursday, July 10, 2008

Profile: Grand Ayatullah Sayyid 'Ali al-Sistani

Grand Ayatullah Sayyid 'Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani
[An encyclopedia article I authored, forthcoming in the Encyclopedia of Global Terrorism and the War on Terror, Diversion Press. Do not cite or reproduce without permission.]

The Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani is one of the five grand ayatollahs who make up the Marja‘iyya of Najaf, the informal council of Iraq’s resident senior Twelver Shi‘i religious scholars. He was born on August 4, 1930 into a Shi‘i clerical family in the eastern Iranian shrine city of Mashhad, one of the country’s premier centers of religious education and scholarship, and is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, as his “sayyid” title denotes. His father, Sayyid Muhammad Baqir, taught in the Hawza or Shi‘i seminary of Mashhad.
Like many Shi‘i seminary students and sons of prominent scholars, al-Sistani began his religious education at an early age, reportedly beginning to memorize the Qur’an at the age of five. He attended a religious school where he studied reading, writing, geography, mathematics, history, and calligraphy. Al-Sistani began his formally entered the Hawza in 1941 where he began studying Shi‘i jurisprudence, Shi‘i ahadith (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and the 12 Shi‘i Imams), Qur’anic studies, philosophy, and Arabic language. In 1949, he moved to the shrine city of Qum, the most important center of Shi‘i scholarship in Iran, in order to pursue advanced studies in Shi‘i jurisprudence and law. While in Qum, he studied with several prominent mujtahids, high-ranking Shi‘i scholars qualified to interpret Islamic sources and law, including Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba‘i (1892-1991), the author of the monumental Qur’anic exegesis Tafsir al-Mizan and a noted expert in Islamic philosophy.
Al-Sistani moved to the Iraqi shrine city of Najaf, then the center of Shi‘i religious scholarship and education in Iraq and the world, in 1951, where he would remain for a decade while completing his religious education in the Najaf Hawza, as the collective of Shi‘i seminary institutions is known. While in Najaf, he studied with the prominent ayatollah Sayyid Abu’l Qasim al-Kho’i (1899-1992).

In 1960, al-Sistani received his certification of ijtihad, which made him a mujtahid, and he returned to Mashhad for one year before returning to Najaf. In Najaf, where he has remained till this day, he began teaching in the Hawza and wrote treatises and books on a variety of religious topics. He operated within the fold of his prominent Najaf-based teacher, the Iranian al-Kho’i, who himself was a student of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim, an Arab Shi‘i who was then the most influential Shi‘i scholars in Iraq and the Arab world.
In June 1970, al-Hakim died and his followers split between his two most prominent students, al-Kho’i and Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (1935-1980), both of whom assumed the rank of grand ayatollah and marja‘ al-taqlid, roughly “reference point for emulation,” a Shi‘i senior mujtahid whose rulings his followers emulate in their own lives. Traditionalists followed the al-Kho’i, a political quietist, while activists followed the revolutionary Baqir al-Sadr. In April 1980, Baqir al-Sadr was arrested and executed by the Iraqi Ba’th, leaving al-Kho’i as Iraq’s senior Shi‘i scholar until his death while under house arrest in 1992.
Following the death of al-Kho’i, al-Sistani was widely recognized by his peers as his teacher’s successor. Adopting the role of a marja‘ al-taqlid and grand ayatollah, al-Sistani received intense scrutiny by Iraqi government security forces and was placed under virtual house arrest, since he was a potential threat to the regime due to his large following among Shi‘is in Iraq and around the world. His main Shi‘i rival was Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (1943-1999 [left in portrait] who assumed the political activist mantle of his cousin Baqir al-Sadr and who was critical of the political disengagement of al-Sistani and the other members of the Marja‘iyya of Najaf. Initially tolerated and even patronized by the Iraqi government which saw the potential in dividing the Iraqi religious establishment between two rival leaders, Sadiq al-Sadr’s growing popularity and more frequent and biting criticisms of the government led to his murder, with two of his sons, on the outskirts of Najaf in 1999 by Ba’thist gunmen.
Al-Sistani and his Marja‘iyya colleagues assumed a more active role in Iraqi politics following the U.S. and coalition invasion in March 2003 and the subsequent toppling of the Iraqi Ba’thist government. Early in invasion, they issued juridical opinions (fatawa, singular: fatwa) which called upon Iraqis to neither oppose nor actively assist the invaders while also following the rule of law in order to avoid anarchy in areas from which the Ba’thists had fled or been driven out of.

Al-Sistani declined to become directly involved in post-Ba’thist Iraqi politics since he believed that the appropriate role of the Shi‘i clergy was an unofficial advisory one. He did not support Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini’s concept of wilayat al-faqih or the “guardianship of the most learned jurist,” which stated that the government should be run by the revolutionary Shi‘i clergy and that traditionalist clergy who did not fall in line should be marginalized.

Al-Sistani and the Marja‘iyya faced challenges on several fronts, from the young activist Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, the youngest son of Sadiq al-Sadr, Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (1939-2003) and his party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and smaller Iraqi Shi‘i socio-political movements like the Fadila Party and the millenarian movement of Sayyid Mahmoud Sarkhi al-Hassani. Muqtada’s followers reportedly attempted to forcibly eject al-Sistani and other non-Arab members of the Marja‘iyya in 2003 but were forced to desist their siege of the grand ayatollahs’ houses in Najaf when thousands of Shi‘i Arab tribesmen loyal to the Marja‘iyya entered the city to defend them. In August 2004, al-Sistani played a prominent role in ending an ongoing insurgency by Muqtada’s Mahdi Army paramilitary, returning to Najaf after having undergone medical treatment in Great Britain just weeks before in order to meet personally with Muqtada and Iraqi officials.

The United States’ plan to appoint an assembly which would draw up a new Iraqi constitution and hold limited caucus-style elections was effectively blocked by al-Sistani and the Marja‘iyya, which publicly called for full popular elections. The first of such elections were held in January 2005. Al-Sistani tacitly backed a loose coalition of mainly Shi‘i political parties, the United Iraqi Alliance, in these elections. He grew increasingly critical of the political infighting which marred the formation of a new Iraqi government in the spring of 2005 and again following parliamentary elections in December 2005. Following the bombing of the important Shi‘i shrine of al-‘Askari, al-Sistani issued several calls for calm and against sectarian reprisals, which went largely unheeded. In 2006, he announced through his representatives that he would withdraw from Iraqi politics as his influence was seemingly on the decline. However, during the spring of 2008, al-Sistani once again emerged as an important and influential figure on the Iraqi political scene following a bloody campaign by the U.S. and Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council against Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Al-Sistani declined to call for the disbandment of the Mahdi Army or back any political faction or party in the next round of local elections, set for 2009.

Further Reading:

Ahlul-Bayt Global Information Center (al-Sistani media outlet). “[Biography of] The
Religious Authority, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid ‘Ali Husayni al-Sistani.”

Cole, Juan. “The United States and Shi‘ite Religious Factions in Post-Ba‘thist Iraq.” Middle East Journal 57 (2003): 543-566.

Imam Ali Foundation-London (al-Sistani web site). Accessed at:

Jabar, Faleh A. The Shi‘ite Movement in Iraq. London: Saqi Books, 2003.

Nakash, Yitzhak. Reaching for Power: The Shi‘a in the Modern Arab World. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2006.

Rahimi, Babak. “Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Democratization of Post-Saddam Iraq,”
The Middle East Review of International Affairs 8, no. 4. (al-Sistani official web site). Accessed at:

Walbridge, Linda S. “The Counterreformation: Becoming a Marja‘ in the Modern
World,” in The Most Learned of the Shi‘a: The Institution of the Marja‘ Taqlid. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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