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Biography of Ayatollah Sistani

Ayatullah 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 grandfather. He was brought up into a family known for its religious background. He learned theological and rational sciences from many eminent and well-known religious scholars.

Biography of Ayatollah Sistani

Foreword:

For more than half a century, the school of the late Grand Ayatullah Imam
Abul-Qassim al-Khu’i 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 society.

Among those are outstanding professors of parochial schools, specially Holy
Najaf and Qum. 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 al-Sayyid Ali al-Hussani al-Sistani.

He ranks among the brightest, the most qualified and knowledgeable of Imam al-khu’i’s former students. In the following account, we try to paint a picture of this meritorious cleric.

His Birth and Upbringing:

Grand Ayatullah 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 grandfather.

He was brought up into a family known for its religious background. He learned
theological and rational sciences from many eminent and well-known religious
scholars.

His father was named Sayyid Muhammad Baqir and his grandfather was the great ‘Sayyid
Ali’ whose detailed biography has been brought in the book ‘Tabaqaat Al-a’laam
Al-Shi`a (Categories of Shia Scholars) (part 4 page 1432) by Aqa Buzurg Tehrani.
He has mentioned that he was apprenticed to Late Ali Nahavandi in Najaf and to
Mujadded Shirazi in Samarra, Iraq and finally to Sayyid Isma`il 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 Ayatullah Sayyid
Hussayn Burujirdi he shifted to the holy city of Qum where he attended Kharij
lectures of Fiqh and Usul (Jurisprudence & Fundamentals of Jurisprudence) given
by prominent scholars of the Religious Seminary including Ayatullah Burujirdi
(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 Isfahan during the Safavid period and his great
grandfather Sayyid Mohammad, appointed as Shaikhul Islam by King Hussain of the
Safavid 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 Alfyyah by Soyuti, Moghni by Ibn-e
Hisham, Motawwal by Taftazani, Maqamaat 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 Lum’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, Rasa’il and Kifayah with Shaykh 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 Shaykh 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 Qum to accomplish his studies in Fiqh and Usul.
He was benefited by the two well-known scholars, Sayyid Hussan Tabatabaye and
Grand Kuhkamari. The first gave lectures in Fiqh (Jurisprudence and Usoul
(Fundamentals of Jurisprudence) and the second gave lectures in Fiqh only.

During his stay in Qum,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 Qum for Najaf Ashraf and reached Karbala on
the occasion of Arba`in (40th day) of Imam Husayn (a.s.). On having arrived in
Najaf, he began attending Ayatullah Khu’i and Shaykh Husayn 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 Shahryudi (may Allah bless them).

In 1380 A.H. Ayatullah 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-Khu’i and another by Shayk 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 Shakh Agha Buzurg Tehrani 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 Urwatul Wuthqa.

Some professors of Najaf Center for Theological Studies (Hawza of Najaf) were
quoted as saying that they advised the late Ayatullah Khu’i 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 Ayatullah Sistani for his
merits, eligibility, knowledge, and impeccable character. Accordingly, he
started leading the prayer in Imam al-Khu’i’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 al-Sadr. This had been certificated by the late Ayatullah
Khu’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 Buzurg 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
Usul distinguishes with the following features:

a : He speaks about the history of the research he is discussing, to know its
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.

b : 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 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.

c : 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 Usul exaggeratedly, by repeating the others researches,
instead of innovating new researches of their own. Thus, the students cannot be
enticed with such uneless 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.

d : 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 seems to be important.

e : 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 permanent one.

f :.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 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-Saduq 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.

g : 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), Burujerdi (an `alim from Qum), and the opinions of the
three researchers, Ayatullah Khu’i, and Shaykh Hasan Hilli (as scholars from
Najaf).

The Sistani’s method in Fiqh has a particular feature, some of which are related
here below:

1)Comparing between the Fiqh of Shi`ah and other Islamic sects’ Fiqh.

2)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.

3)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:

a :.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 on 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.

b :.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 prefers silence.

c :. 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 Khu’i, and is
treating his students exactly as the late Khu’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.

d :.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.

e :.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 Ayatullah Sayyid
Nasrullah Mustanbit, many scholars had suggested on Ayatullah 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 Ayatullah Khu’i. After the
death of Khu’i, Ayatullah 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
Ayatullah Khu’i (in Masjid Khadhra’); thus, his followers increased day after
another, specially in Iraq, the Persian Gulf region, India,…etc.

Ayatullah Sistani has the highest rank among the mujtahids and scholars
throughout the Islamic World, and especially in the hawzahs of Najaf Ashraf and
Qum.

His works :

Ayatullah Sistani began teaching the Kharij stage on Fiqh, Usul
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 Usul 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 Usul.

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