Ali al-Sistani

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani
علي السيستاني
Religion Shia Islam (Usuli Twelver)
Other names Arabic: علي الحسيني السيستاني
Persian: علی حسینی سیستانی
Born (1930-08-04) August 4, 1930
Mashhad, Iran
Senior posting
Based in Najaf, Iraq
Period in office 1992–present
Predecessor Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei
Religious career
Post Grand Ayatollah

Al-Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani Arabic: السيد علي الحسيني السيستاني), or Sayyed Ali Hosseini Sistani (Persian: سید علی حسینی سیستانی), commonly known as Ayatollah Sistani in the Western world, born August 4, 1930, is an Iranian Usuli marja in Iraq and the head of many of the seminaries (Hawzahs) in Najaf.[1]

He is described as the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shia Muslims.[2]


Early life

Sistani was born in 1930 to a family of religious clerics, his father was Muhammad Baqir al-Sistani. Sistani himself claims to have been born in Mashhad, Iran, however there are disputes whether or not he was born in Mashhad or in Sistan then moved Mashhad as a child due to Iran not issuing birth certificates in its eastern provinces (now known as Region 5) until decades later. Sistani began his religious education as a child, first in Mashhad in his father's hawzah, and continuing later in Qom. In 1951, Sistani traveled to Iraq to study in Najaf under Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei. Sistani rose to the Usooli clerical rank of 'mujtahid' in 1960.[3] At the unusually young age of thirty-one, Sistani reached the senior level of clerical accomplishment, or ijtihad, which entitled him to pass his own judgments on religious questions.[4]

Grand Ayatollah

The top maraji of Najaf Hawzah: (from left to right) Mohammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, Ali al-Sistani, Mohammad Saeed Al-Hakim and Bashir al-Najafi.
Ali al-Sistani and Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei

When Grand Ayatollah Khoei died in 1992, Sistani ascended to the rank of Grand Ayatollah through traditional peer recognition of his scholarship. His role as successor to Khoei was symbolically cemented when he led funeral prayers for Khoei; he also inherited Khoei's network and following.

Ba'ath Party

During the years of Saddam Hussein's rule of Iraq through the Ba'ath Party, Sistani was untouched during the violent Ba'athist repression and persecution that killed many clerics including Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr in 1999 which Saddam denied any involvement. His predecessor, Khoei, sat down with Saddam on state TV.[5] After the death of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei in 1992, Sistani emerged as the prominent Shia cleric to guide the Shia people under Saddam rule, although Sistani's mosque was shut down in 1994, and did not reopen until the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Role in contemporary Iraq

Since the overthrow of the Ba'ath Party, Sistani has played an increasingly prominent role in regional religious and political affairs and he has been called the "most influential" figure in post-invasion Iraq.[6][7]

Shortly after the US invasion began, Sistani issued a fatwa advising Shia clergy to become engaged in politics in order to better guide the Iraqi people toward "clearer decisions," and to fight "media propaganda." As the summer of 2003 approached, Sistani and his followers began to petition the occupying forces for a constitutional convention. Later, Sistani called for a democratic vote of the people for the purpose of forming a transitional government. Observers described the move as being a path leading directly to Shia political dominance over Iraq's government, as Shia Muslims make up approximately 60% of the total Iraqi population. Subsequently, Sistani criticized plans for an Iraqi government for not being democratic enough.

In early August, 2004, Sistani experienced serious health complications related to a previously diagnosed heart condition. He traveled to London to receive medical treatment. It was, reportedly, the first time that Sistani had left Iraq in decades, and may have been due, in part, to growing concerns for his safety from sectarian violence. Though still recovering, Sistani returned later in the month to broker a military truce at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf where Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army had been cornered by American and Iraqi forces. Sadr, who rose rapidly to prominence through a series of independent military actions beginning in 2004, has since actively challenged Sistani's more progressive influence over Shia in the region.[8]

Sistani's edicts reportedly provided many Iraqi Shia cause for participating in the January 2005 elections—he urged, in a statement on October 1, 2004, that Iraqis recognize the election as an "important matter," additionally, Sistani asked that the elections be "free and fair. . . with the participation of all Iraqis." Soon after, Sistani issued a fatwa alerting Shia women that they were religiously obligated to participate in the election, even if their husbands had forbidden them from voting.[9] In an issued statement Sistani remarked that, "truly, women who go forth to the polling centers on election day are like Zaynab, who went forth to Karbala."[10]

He has consistently urged the Iraqi Shia not to respond in kind to attacks from Sunni Salafists, which have become common in Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq like the area known as the "Triangle of Death," south of Baghdad. Even after the destruction of the Shia Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in February 2006, his network of clerics and preachers continued to urge calm and told their followers that "it was not their Sunni neighbors who were killing them but foreign Wahhabis."[11] Sistani's call for unity after the bombing of the mosque helped to control a potentially dangerous situation, preventing the country to enter in a bloody sectarian war. Sistani did the same when the same mosque was bombed again in 2007.[12]

An alleged plot to assassinate Sistani was foiled on January 29, 2007, when three Jund al-Samaa gunmen were captured at a hotel near his office. It is believed to have been part of a larger attack against a number of targets in Najaf.[13]

In an online open poll, 2005, Ali al-Sistani was selected as the 30th topmost intellectual person in the world on the list of Top 100 Public Intellectuals by Prospect Magazine (UK) and Foreign Policy (US).[14]

On June 13, 2014 Sistani appealed that Iraqis should join the armed forces to fight terrorism exemplified by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militant group which had taken over Mosul and Tikrit and was threatening Baghdad.[15]

Fatwa for jihad against ISIS

In June 2014 Sistani issued a fatwa calling for "Citizens to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places," against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group.[16]

Shia patronage

As the leading Ayatollah in Najaf, Sistani oversees sums amounting to millions of US dollars. Sistani's followers offer him a fixed part of their earnings (tithe), which is used for educational and charitable purposes. Sistani's office has reported that it supports 35,000 students in Qom, 10,000 in Mashhad, and 4,000 in Isfahan.[17] It also oversees a network of representatives (wakil) "who promote his (Sistani's) views in large and small ways in neighborhoods, mosques, bazaars, and seminaries from Kirkuk to Basra."[18]

Additionally, Sistani has a substantial following within Shia communities all over the world and is the current Grand Marja of the Twelver sect of Shia Muslims. In Iran, as a result of the post-invasion opening of the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala to Iranians, many Iranians are said to return from pilgrimage in Iraq as supporters of Sistani.[19]

Ali al-Sistani’s Doctrine

An article entitled "Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s Doctrine"[20] reads "While Ayatollah Sistani remains mostly a recluse – a solitary man who seeks comfort and peace in the word of God, his shadow has stretch broad over Iraq, and his advice have echoed throughout. If many continue to measure their affluence and influence through their media visibility, Ayatollah Sistani needed no more than piety, and intelligence of the heart to reach millions".[21] The article mentiones Ali Sistani has placed "Marjaiat as a Civil Institution" and "Marjaiat – the Median of Government-Nation". His "Sensitivity to Corruption", "Sensitivity to Flattery and Formation of Biased Flow", "Avoiding over Politicization","Avoiding Exposure and Competition", "Supporting Human Rights and Freedom of other Religions", his "knowledge and wisdom" and his "Personal behaviour, ethics , honesty and modesty and moderation" has been recognised as the main source of his strength and power . That’s why, Grand Ayatollah Sistani gradually became the supreme Shia Marjaiat and the spiritual leader of the Iraqi people, without having any political authority. The article added "Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s power is not generated from traditional exposure, political and economic interference or any Mafia-like actions. He has done nothing to make himself a powerful person and is not competing with anyone. Although he does not have any military or political power, and even though he does not have access to funds his opinions have carried and shaped policies across not just Iraq but beyond. For the past 37 years Ayatollah Sistani has lived in the same modest rented house. Although he is well renowned his has no fortune to his name. A good listener and a curious mind still, Ayatollah Sistani epitomises good manners, and kindness of the heart.[22]

Criticism and controversy

A protest against Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera

In May 2007, hundreds of Shias demonstrated publicly in Basra and Najaf to protest comments made by television presenter and journalist Ahmed Mansour during a Qatari broadcast of Al Jazeera television programming. While presenting Bela Hodod (a.k.a. Without Borders), Mansour voiced skepticism of Sistani's leadership credentials while directing questions about the Iranian-born cleric to his guest, Shia cleric Jawad al-Khalsi. Mansour also suggested that Sistani was not aware of contemporary problems in Iraq or of prevailing post-war conditions, and he alleged that Sistani's edicts were, largely, written and disseminated by aides. At another point, Mansour asked Khalsi whether the United States was using Iraqi politicians, and also Sistani, to promote western interests in Iraq.[23]

Saudi cleric

In January 2010, during a Jumu'ah khutba (Friday sermon), Saudi cleric Mohamad al-Arefe vehemently criticized Sistani by referring to him as an "atheist" and by describing his behavior as "debauched".[24] The remarks prompted protest by his followers in Iraq, Qom and Lebanon. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rebuked the Saudi religious authorities.[25] Lebanon-based Islamist militant organization Hezbollah also condemned the attack on Sistani, calling the speech "inauspicious," while praising Sistani as one of Shia Islam's "most prominent religious references."[26]

Nobel Peace Prize nomination

On 4 March 2014, the Daily Telegraph commentator Colin Freeman published an article[27] naming Ali al-Sistani as the most appropriate Nobel Peace Prize candidate. He also reported that he had been nominated earlier in 2006, by a group of Iraqi Christians.

On 8 March 2014, The Tehran Times[28] reported that a group of members of Iraqi parliament announced that they intend to nominate Ali al-Sistani for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.

Thomas L. Friedman, former Bureau Chief of The New York Times in Beirut and Jerusalem (1982–88), nominated Ayatollah Sistani for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 and wrote the article titled “Nobel for Sistani” which was published in the New York Times on 20 March 2005.[29]

Guardianship of Islamic Jurists (wilayat al Faqih)

Like his predecessor Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, Sistani has not wholly embraced the post-Age-of-Occultation theory known as the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, which was espoused and supported by the late Iranian Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and which is currently extant and enforced by the Iranian government through its own constitution and by its supreme leader and highest religious authority Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Sistani's scholarship regarding guardianship resembles Khoei's scholarship, but differs in several respects. Additionally, the primary difference between Sistani's interpretation and the interpretation of Grand Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei is reportedly in the range of power that a Grand Ayatollah has in ruling the Islamic community. Sistani has publicly stated and maintained that his interpretation of doctrine is one that grants more power to the Ayatollahs than Khoei, but less than either Khoemeini or Khamenei:

Question: What is Grand Ayatollah Sistani's opinion about Velayat-e Faqih?

Answer: Every jurisprudent (Faqih) has wilayah (guardianship) over non-litigious affairs. Non-litigious affairs are called "al-omour al-hesbiah." As for general affairs to which social order is linked, and enforcement of doctrine, this depends on certain conditions, one of which is popularity of the Faqih among the majority of momeneen (believers).[30]

On the specific question of obedience to a Supreme Leader, Sistani has said that any pronouncement given by a Supreme Leader "supersedes all, (including those given by other Maraji') unless the pronouncements are proven to be wrong or the pronouncements are proven to be against what is in the Qur'an or in Religious Tradition."[31]

Additionally, instead of advocating for rule by Islamic clerics or for fundamentalist legal views, i.e. "the Quran as constitution," Sistani is said to favor a more relaxed perspective related to the provision of values and guidelines for social order (nizam al-mujama) as being the recognized, primary role of Islam.[32]

Also, according to Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of political science at Tehran University, Sistani has consistently avoided supporting strict interpretation of the theory, especially of absolute guardianship, nor has he explicitly offered any substantive affirmation of the theory as a whole (including limited guardianship); thereby creating "a major lacuna" in the "grand ideological scenario" of the Islamic Republic of Iran.[33]

According to scholar Vali Nasr, despite Sistani's disagreements with Iran's ruling clerics, he has "never tried to promote a rivalry" between his religious center of Najaf and the Iranian center in Qom, and has never made any comments about the confrontations between reformists and conservatives in Qom or between clerics in Lebanon,[34] a reflection, Nasr believes, of Sistani's reluctance to become involved in politics.




His office states that thirty two other works exist, but have not been translated into English.[35]


By working with Shia computer programmers and other specialists, Sistani sponsored the establishment of The Aalulbayt (a.s.) Global Information Center, an international web-resource, and he has since been called "the electronic grand ayatollah par excellence."[36]

Cyber attacks

On September 18, 2008, hackers attacked hundreds of Shia websites. The attacks reportedly were the work of group-xp, a Muslim faction based in the United Arab Emirates which is linked to Salafi and Wahhabi, strict forms of Islam. They attacked an estimated three hundred Shia internet websites including the The Aalulbayt (a.s.) Global Information Center. It was later dubbed the "largest Wahhabi hacker attack" in recent years.[37]

After the attack, visitors to the site were greeted by a red attack banner bearing the slogan "group-xp" paired with a message in Arabic denouncing Shia beliefs and officials. Hackers also replaced a video of Sistani with one of comedian Bill Maher mocking Sistani.[38]

However, the attack led to the retaliatory hacking of more than nine hundred Wahhabi and Salafi websites.[39] One such successful attack was documented on video and uploaded to YouTube on October 3, 2008. The hacker, a Shia from the United Arab Emirates using the handle "ShiaZone," was shown logging into email accounts of suspected members of group-xp. The hacked email accounts reportedly yielded group-xp's contact information, information that was subsequently posted on Shia websites.[40]

See also


  1. Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival, Norton, (2006), p.171
  3. Sami Moubayed (February 10, 2005). "Coming to terms with Sistani". Asia Times Online. Archived from the original on 10 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-21. External link in |publisher= (help)
  4. "When Grand Ayatullah Sistani Speaks, Millions Obey: Says Time". 30 April 2005. Archived from the original on June 28, 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-21. External link in |publisher= (help)
  5. Daily Times editorial, dated 15th Feb, 2013. "Grand Ayatollah Syed Abul Qassem al-Khoei - II — Tammy Swofford"
  6. Gethin Chamberlain and Aqeel Hussein (Last Updated: 1:13am BST 04/09/2006). "I no longer have power to save Iraq from civil war, warns Shia leader". London: The Telegraph. Retrieved 2007-08-21. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  7. "Shiite Cleric Seen as Iraq's Most Influential Leader". pub. November 27, 2003. Retrieved August 21, 2007. a frail, 70-something Shiite Muslim (search) cleric with a heart condition — has emerged in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq as the land's most influential figure, something US planners may not have counted on.
  8. Rowan Scarborough "Al-Sadr's Killing Fields", Washington Times, September 1, 2004,
  9. Nordland, Rod (February 9, 2005). "The Cities Were Not Bathed in Blood". Newsweek.
  10. al-Rahim, Ahmed H. (2005). "The Sistani Factor". Journal of Democracy. 16 (3): 50–53 [p. 51]. doi:10.1353/jod.2005.0038.
  11. Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival, Norton, (2006), p.178
  12. "The Reclusive Grand Ayatollah Sistani Remains Highly Influential in Iraq". Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  13. ZEYAD KASIM (06-03-2007). "Messianic Shia Cult Emerges in Southern Iraq". Archived from the original on July 7, 2007. Retrieved Aug 21, 2007. Check date values in: |date= (help); External link in |publisher= (help)
  14. "Intellectuals". 2009-10-14. Archived from the original on 2009-09-30. Retrieved 2012-08-15.
  15. "Could Isis take Iraq's capital?". New Statesman. Retrieved 19 June 2014.
  16. Al Khatteeb, Luay (10 July 2014). "What Do You Know About Sistani's Fatwa?". Huff Post. Retrieved 8 July 2015.
  17. Martin Kramer (April 4, 2003). "The Ayatollah Who Spared Najaf". Retrieved 2007-08-21.
  18. Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival, Norton, (2006), p.177
  19. Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival, Norton, (2006), p.221
  20. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s Doctrine / By Abolfazl Fateh and Catherine Shakdam,
  21. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s Doctrine / By Abolfazl Fateh and Catherine Shakdam,
  22. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s Doctrine / By Abolfazl Fateh and Catherine Shakdam,
  23. AP (May 4, 2007). "Iraqi Shia protest against Al-Jazeera's "insults" against top cleric". International Herald Tribune. Archived from the original on December 5, 2008. Retrieved 2007-08-21.
  24. "No Operation". Retrieved 2012-08-15.
  25. "موقع قناة المنار- لبنان". Retrieved June 1, 2016.
  26. "alJazeera Magazine - Hezbollah Denounces Offense against Shiites, Sayyed Sistani". Retrieved June 1, 2016.
  27. Forget Obama and the EU. The man who should really have the Nobel Peace Prize is an obscure Iraqi cleric
  28. Iraqi MPs launch move to nominate Ayatollah Sistani for Nobel Peace Prize
  29. "A Nobel for Sistani". New York Times. March 20, 2005.
  30. Q & A » Governance of Jurist (1)
  31. Ayatollah Watch quoting statement on his website on August 9, 2009
  32. Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival, Norton, 2006, p.173
  33. Sadegh Zibakalam (2 March 2010). "Iran's top priority in Iraq is anti-Americanism".
  34. Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival, Norton, 2006, p.172
  35. Works of Sayyid Al al-Sistani
  36. Pepe Escobar (August 31, 2005). "Sistani. Qom: In the wired heart of Shi'ism". Asian Times Online. Retrieved 2007-08-21. External link in |publisher= (help)
  37. "الأخبار - استمرار اختراق مواقع إلكترونية للسيستاني ومؤسسات شيعية عربي". 2008-09-24. Retrieved 2012-08-15.
  38. "IRAQ: The ayatollah gets hacked". Los Angeles Times. September 20, 2008. Archived from the original on 22 September 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-20.
  39. "شبكة راصد الإخبارية". Archived from the original on 2012-03-18. Retrieved 2012-08-15.
  40. "اختراق عناوين بريد GroupXP الوهابية التي تحرشت بمواقع الشيعة". YouTube. Retrieved 2012-08-15.

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