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.
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.
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 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,
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.
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.
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.
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.