Liaison office of Grand Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Al Sistani (L.M.H.L) in London, Europe, North and South America.
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 society.
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 as-Seestani.
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.
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 excellence
As-Sayyid as-Seestani excelled his peers, especially in the power of his interjections, his quick wit, his prolific research in jurisprudence, biographies of narrators, and his keeping abreast with many theories in different fields of theological sciences.
There used to be great competition between Martyr Ayatullah Mohammed Baqir as-Sadr and as-Sayyis as-Seestani. In 1380 A.H. and in recognition of his achievements he was awarded a permit by Imam Al-Khoee and another [permit] by ash-Shaik al-Hilli, certifying that he had attained the level of (ijtihad)- ability to deduce independent legal judgment in matters of religion.
In the same year he was awarded a diploma by the distinguished traditionalist and scholar ash-Shaikh Agha Buzurg at-Tahrani testifying to his skill in the science of "ilmerrijal" biographies of 'hadith' and prophetic traditions. He was then 31 years of age.
For the past 34 years as-Sayyid as-Seestani has been just teaching the different disciplines in the parochial school and researching while at the same time writing many books on jurisprudence, fundamentals, the judiciary and transactions, 12 treatises on certain acts of worship and transactions, one critique of Aradabili's treatise of rectifying the chain of authority of narrators of 'hadith', a treatise on the conduct of scholars of old on the authority of reports.
This is in addition to other manuscripts and manuals of religions dispensation for reference by the followers (muqalideen). His research and teaching methodology His is a unique methodology. Regarding "Fundamentals" his methodology is characterized by the following:
Discussing the history of research to establish its roots which may
hinge on philosophical, ideological, doctrinal, or political
To give an example his research into the question of 'ta'adul' proportionality and 'taraajeeh' preponderance in which he explains that the differences in the texts of traditions stemmed from the ideological conflict and political climate prevalent at the times of the Imams (a.s.).
It should be clear the delving to the disclosure of the different angles of the matter and notions discussed. The linkage between theological thought and contemporary cultures.
In his treatise on the difference between literal and nominal meanings and whether it is subjective or perceived, he advocates the interpretation of the author of 'Kifayetelusul' who maintains that the different is perceived, however, he had substantiated it with reference to modern philosophical theory of accumulative intellectual realization which revolves around the activity of the human brain and its inventiveness in that it could comprehend two different perspective, one independent and clear which is expressed as "name" and the other by means of machinery and contraction expressed as "letter". He embarks on the same path when discussing the conflicting between scholars in the question of "time", to name but a few examples.
Giving weight to exploring the origins of jurisprudence and doing away with the indulgence in fruitless research which is redundant insofar as its benefit to widening the jurists horizon such as discussing the status of knowledge, and the inherent problems in the philosophers definition of "knowledge".
Inventiveness and modern approach
Unlike traditional professors of theology who have no tendency for inventiveness, as-Sayyid as-Seestani and Martyr as-Sayyid as-Sadr are in a class of their own. They go to greater lengths to give the answer to a problem with the need for and interest of research in mind. For instance as-Sayyid as-Seestani approached the problem of the usage of the word in different meanings; the fundamentalist discussed it from the perspective of possibility and impossibility, as a rational and philosophical research, whereas he discussed it from the perspective of incidence and incidence because such a discussion offers the strongest proof of possibility.
He also discusses it from the angle of the patent meaning of the text and its latent one. When he embarked on discussing the question of proportionality and peropndearnce, he has maintained that the main thrust of the discussion lies in the causes of varying texts of traditions.
If these causes are investigated, using historical evidence, and the differences in legal texts pinpointed the complex problem facing the jurist. The researcher and anyone making use of the texts of the Prophet and his Progeny would disappear. This in turn would render the reports of preponderance and change redundant.
The same question was tackled by Martyr as-Sayyid as-Sadr who discussed it from a rational point of view only. Comparison between the different schools of thought In order to put forward a sound study for any subject, as-Sayyid as-Seestani compares his findings with those of al-Mirza Mahdi al-Asfahani, representing Mashhad school of though, as-sayyid al-Burujardi, of Qom, and the three textual critics, as-Sayyid al-Khoee, and ash-Shaikh Hussain al-Hilli, representing Najaf.
His juristic methodology
His juristic methodology has the following distinct characteristics:
Comparative jurisprudence i.e. Shia and Sunni:
Familiarizing oneself with Sunni juristic thought contemporary to the time of the text such as the contained in "Malik's Muwatta" or "Abu Yusuf's Khiraj" make clear to us the opinions and goals of the Imams (a.s.) at those times. Making use of modern-made laws in certain juristic respects as is the case in his reference to Iraqi, Egyptian and French laws when he discussed the book of "Contract of Sale and Right of Withdrawal". This widening one's scope in analyzing juristic principles, widening its goals, and expanding its practical use.
Inventiveness of approach
Unlike traditional clerics who follow literally what they have been taught, as-Sayyid as-Seestani's approach to juristic principles is characterized by lending weight to some of these principles by reinterpreting them.
To give an example, the principle of "Izlam" compulsion is expounded by some jurists thus: A practicing Muslim may make use of other Islamic schools of thought laws insofar as his personal interest is best served albeit his school of though does not approve it. As-Sayyid as-Seestani interprets such a practice on the basis of "respect (ihtiram)" i.e. showing respect for others peoples laws and opinions. He has based his interpretation on the freedom of expression, like when you say, "Every people have their own way of conducting marriage"; hence "the lawfulness of marriage of a polytheist". Examining the text in its social context Investigating the text in its social climate and the circumstances affecting its implications to arrive at a better understanding of it leads to deducing sound legal judgment.
Such is as-Sayyid as-Seestani approach. For instance when he tackle the reported "hadith" tradition of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) at Khayber, "forbidding meat", his interpretation is that such forbidding should be confined to that particular incident in that point in time.
The evidence he advances is that the Prophets forbidding was for a military exigency in that the donkey was a means of transport and preserving it would serve that purpose. Hence, no extrapolation should be made from it at a later time for circumstances changed.
Expertise in the tools of deduction
As-Sayyid as-Seestani is of the opinion that a jurist cannot be called as such unless he has acquired all the necessary expertise to enable him to do so. Among such vehicles is the mastery of Arabic, full knowledge of the traditions of the Prophet and his Progeny and detailed accounts of their narrators for the science of biographies of transmitters of "hadith" is a prerequisite tool for the jurist to achieve authenticity.
In this respect he holds opinions which may go against what is universally held such as his confirming the authenticity of the book "Ibnil Ghadha'iri", a critical study of narrators of "hadiths" and that he is more reliable in this regard than "an-Najashi" and "as-Sheikh at-Tusi". He also stresses the importance of familiarizing oneself with the different compilations of "hadith" and their different copies to ensure knowledge about the author as regards accuracy, authenticity and the manner of compiling.
However, in this connection he does not condone the notion that "as-Sadooq" is more accurate than "ash-Shaikh at-Tusi". He believes that "ash-Shaikh" was a reliable reporter quoting from sources available to him duly substantiated with evidence at his disposal.
Those who come into close contact with as-Sayyid as-Seestani will discover that he is endowed with ideal spiritual traits. Of these are the following:
Fairness and respect for the other opinion
Based on his love for science and knowledge, interest in arriving at the truth, and upholding freedom of expression and the constructive word, as-Sayyid as-Seestani reads a lot to aquaint himself with the different opinions whether they are expressed by well-known scholars or less well-known ones.
Thus he may quote an opinion expressed by ash-Shaikh Mohammad Ridha al-Mudhaffar in his book "Usul al-Fiqh" Fundamentals of Jurisprudence; by the same token he takes the liberty of alluding to another opinion which he admires, though it may belong to a peer, a rival, a friend, or a less famous scholar.
Etiquette of debate
His manner of conducting debate or discussion is a far cry from the heated aimless time wasting arguments some may indulge in. He never resorts to silencing others, interrupting them or belittling their contribution to the subject discussed.
No matter who the other side is - a teacher, a peer, or a student- he always uses nice words to address others. Yet he adopts an appropriate approach in handling any category without overstepping the line of courtesy and good manners in order to preserve the integrity and respect of those involved.
Manners of the educationalist
Teaching is not only a paid profession. If not coupled with the concern for the advancement of the student and showing love and affection for him, the teaching process will be devoid of its noble aims and objectives in producing committed, well-manners generation fully aware if their responsibilities towards themselves and society in general.
However, as-Sayyid as-Seestani is considered among the elite, like as-Sayyid al-Hakim and as-Sayyid al-Khoee, who view teaching as an heavenly obligation which should be fulfilled to the best ability of the teacher.
He constantly reminds his students to spare no effort in asking about everything however trivial it may seem them such as inquiring the number of pages in a book, so that they may get used to close contact with the teacher. Moreover, he often encourages them to compare his study and research with the others in the same field with a view to finding out strengths and weaknesses.
There is a striking phenomenon the majority of scholars and great men seem to share, in that they rise above controversy, which may be perceived by some as negative. On pondering, however, such stands prove wise because they have been necessitated by the concern for the public interest.
Indeed, "at times when innovations threaten to creep into the religion, it is incumbent on the scholar to put his knowledge to use in the defense of faith. Otherwise, Allah will strip him of the light of belief" as the Prophet (s.a.w) put it.
Yet, when such trials and tribulations are deployed to serving the personal ends of this cleric or that, or the general climate experience acrimonious propaganda warfare fanned by mutual enmity and envy, the ulema of the parochial school (al-Hawza al-Ilmiyah), among whom is as-Sayyid as-Seestani, prefer silence and refrain from entering the fray.
Such was the state of affairs in the aftermath of the death of as-Sayyid al-Hakim and as-Sayyid al-Burujurdi, and history repeats itself at these days after the departure of as-Sayyid al-Khoee where competition and jockeying for titles and positions have become rife.
Furthermore, as-Sayyid as-Seestani's contenment and humility is reflected in his simple attire, the small house in which he lives but does not own, and the simple furniture therein.
His ideological production
As-Sayyid as-Seestani is not a jurist per se. He is a highly educated man who keeps abreast with modern vision with regard to the development of political and economic thought. He has very good ideas in the realm of administrative theory as well as social thought that is compatible with modern progress. With all this in perspective, he views the dispensation of religious edicts as a right of good path for the Islamic society.
Office of the supreme religious authority
Some professors of an-Najaf center for teological studies (Hawzat - an-Najaf) were quoted as saying that after the death of a-Sayyid Nasrullah al-Mustanbit they advised the late as-Sayyid al-Khoee to groom someone for the office of the supreme religious authority and the rectorship of Najaf Parochial School.
Thus the choice fell on as-Sayyid as-Seestani for his merits, knowledge, probility and impeccable character. Accordingly, he started leading the prayer in Imam al-Khoee's mosque, al-Khadra at his life time, writing his annotation on as-Sayyid al-Khoee's manual acts of worship. After the passing away of as-Sayyid al-Khoee he was among the six persons who took part in his funeral, and performed the service on the dead body.