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Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s prime influence comes from his status as Shi’ism’s leading marjah al-taqlid, the title (literally object of emulation) given to a cleric whom Iraq’s 15 million Shia Muslims regard as a guide in every aspect of their lives. Born in Mashad, Iran, the young Ali began studying the Koran as a youthful prodigy at the age of five. He has lived immersed in Islamic study ever since, first as a student in Qom and then for the past four decades in Najaf which has been the centre of Shia learning for 1,000 years. He has studied philosophy, rhetoric and law under the great scholars of his day and has developed a reputation for penetrating to the “real meaning” behind the words of key Islamic texts. His followers speak of his holiness, personal asceticism and intellectual rigour characterised by a keen interest in modern science, economics and international politics.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is seldom seen in public. He does not do TV interviews. He communicates only through written edicts or through lower-ranking members of the network of scholars who study the Koran and Islamic law in the provincial town of Najaf. And yet the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani is undoubtedly now the most powerful man in Iraq. Revealingly it has taken almost a year for George Bush to wake up to that fact.
Sistani was said to be of the “quietist” school of Islamic tradition. He had, after all, lived in uneasy stalemate with the Saddam regime, spending long periods under house arrest and largely staying out of politics. And in the early months of the US occupation he had seemed malleable enough. His initial response to the invasion was to advise “believers not to hinder the forces of liberation, and help bring this war against the tyrant to a successful end for the Iraqi people”. What the Americans failed to note was that he added that Iraqis working with the occupiers should ask, at the end of every conversation with them, “when they were leaving”.
Most revealingly he is a specialist in ijtihad, the use of reason to apply Koranic values to contemporary situations – a discipline which only the most distinguished Shia clerics are allowed to practise. (The “gates of ijtihad” were closed to Sunni Muslims 1,000 years ago.) This allows Islam to be reinterpreted in light of changing circumstances.
Who is the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani?
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, born 4 August 1930, the most important Shiite cleric in Iraq, where the population is about 60 percent Shiite. The reclusive, Iranian-born wields great influence over Iraq’s future. Sistani’s clout was confirmed August 27 when he negotiated an end to a bloody three-week standoff between Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army and U.S. AND Iraqi forces around the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, one of Shiism’s holiest sites. Sistani’s intervention stopped the violence after efforts by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi Interim Government (IIG), and the Iraqi National Conference had failed.
What is the source of his influence?
He is a revered Islamic thinker and one of the most respected Shiite clerics in the world. The majority of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, as well as millions of Shiites around the world, turn to Sistani for guidance on how to live their lives in accordance with Islamic law. He has also shown himself to be a critical figure on the national political stage. “Without Sistani, they would not have had a solution to the Najaf crisis,” says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst for the Congressional Research Service. “The IIG is almost completely beholden to Sistani to keep Sadr in check.”
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani Quick Facts
- Birth date: August 4, 1930
- Birth place: Mashhad, Iran
- Birth name: Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani
- Father: Sayyid Mohammad Baqir, a religious scholar
- Mother: Name unavailable publicly
- Marriage: Information unavailable publicly
- Children: Muhammad Rida al-Sistani – eldest son. Total number of children unavailable publicly.
- Religion: Shiite Muslim
- He is a member of a well-known family of religious scholars and began studying at the age of 5.
- Al-Sistani has written many books and treatises on Islamic law and life.
- During Saddam Hussein’s regime, Sistani was under house arrest for many years.
- Rarely does interviews and is rarely seen in public.
- 1952 – Sistani moves to the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, to study with Shiite clerics there.
- 1990 – Is chosen by other religious figures to lead an important network of schools in Najaf.
- September 2002 – Issues his first political fatwa, urging Muslims to unite and defend Iraq against outside aggressors.
- April 2003 – Sistani’s house arrest is lifted after the US-led invasion of Iraq. Sistani issues his second political fatwa, urging the Iraqi people to remain neutral and not to interfere with the US forces.
- June 3, 2004 – Sistani endorses the new Iraqi government. Says the new government lacks “legitimacy of elections” and does not represent “in an acceptable manner all segments of Iraqi society and political forces. … Nevertheless, it is hoped that this government will prove its efficiency and integrity and show resolve to carry out the enormous tasks that rest on its shoulders.”
- August 3-26, 2004 – Fighting engulfs the city of Najaf. Militiamen loyal to Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr battle US forces for control of the area.
- August 6, 2004 – Sistani, who seldom leaves his home in Najaf, travels to London for treatment for heart problems.
- August 25, 2004 – Sistani returns to Iraq and begins negotiating a ceasefire in Najaf. Before his return he asks all Iraqis to “march to Najaf in order to rescue the city.”
- August 26, 2004 – Arrives at his home in Najaf, where he and Sadr reach an agreement to put an end to the violence in the region.
- February 13, 2005 – The results of Iraq’s January 30, 2005, election are released. Sistani’s United Iraqi Alliance comes in first, with more than four million votes.
- December 2008 – Sistani endorses the Iraqi government and US military troop withdrawal proposal.
- January 2009 – Releases a statement urging Iraqis to vote in the upcoming provincial elections but states that he is not endorsing any candidates.
- March 2011 – To express his dissatisfaction with Iraqi political leaders, Sistani refuses to meet with them.
- March 2013 – Sistani issues a fatwa prohibiting shedding Iraqi blood, particularly Sunni blood.
- June 13, 2014 – Through his representative, Sistani appeals to his followers to join the security forces in fighting ISIS militants. “Citizens who are able to bear arms and fight terrorists … should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy purpose.
- May 11, 2018 – Ahead of the first parliamentary elections since the defeat of ISIS, Sistani urges voters to learn from the past and not reelect “corrupt” lawmakers. Unlike in past elections, he doesn’t insist everyone get out and vote to ensure a solid Shia showing at the polls.
- July 13, 2018 – As protests spread across southern Iraq over a lack of jobs and government services, Sistani urges authorities to address the complaints, but also calls for peaceful protests.
What are Sistani’s political views?
He favors an Islamic state, but not a theocracy as in neighboring Iran. Sistani has said that no law in Iraq should conflict with Islamic principles, and he wants Islam to be recognized in law as the religion of the majority of Iraqis. However, he has not promoted an official role for Islamic clerics in Iraq’s new government. Sistani supports an Islamic state that is compatible with elections, freedom of religion, and other civil liberties. And although Sistani does not favor violent confrontation with the United States, he has defied U.S. authorities when their plans conflicted with his views.
How have Sistani’s views clashed with the United States?
In June 2003, he issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, stating that the framers of Iraq’s constitution had to be elected, not appointed, by U.S. officials and members of the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council. In November 2003, he issued a statement saying that elections—not a system of regional caucuses envisioned by the U.S.-led coalition authorities—would be the proper way to select a transitional government. He also demanded U.N. involvement in overseeing the election process. In another difference with U.S. plans, Sistani called for a transitional assembly to ratify an interim constitution drafted by the Iraqi Governing Council and to define the terms under which U.S. and allied troops would remain in Iraq after sovereignty was handed over June 28. All of Sistani’s views have been accommodated.
What is the difference between Sistani’s philosophy and that of Iran’s government?
The Iranian revolution deepened a growing disagreement within the Shiite community over the proper relationship between religion and politics, says Juan Cole, an expert on Iraqi history at the University of Michigan. Ayatollah Khomeini was a proponent of an Islamic political theory that emerged in the mid-20th century called velayat-i-faqih, or rule by Islamic jurist. This theory backed the idea that governments with authority over Shiites should be run by religious clerics in accordance with Islamic law. A more traditional Shiite position—often called quietism—holds that clerics shouldn’t get involved in day-to-day affairs and instead should serve as an authority independent from politics. Sistani has long favored the quietist, or moderate, tradition.
Does Sistani appear in public?
Rarely. Because of his failing health and security concerns, he meets privately with visitors and issues statements from his office in Najaf. When he went to London August 6 to seek medical treatment, it was the first time he had left his home in six years.
How did the recent peace plan affect Sistani’s stature?
Experts say Sistani has proven he’s the most powerful political leader in the country, a role he was in danger of losing to Sadr. “Before Sistani came back [from Great Britain], his popularity had slipped,” Katzman says. “Sadr had seized the spotlight and was saying to Shiites, ‘No one will speak for you but me.’ But Sistani’s return and engagement won back a lot of support,” he says. The majority of Shiites are deeply grateful to Sistani for preventing damage to the holy shrine to Imam Ali, says Amatzia Baram, senior fellow and Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace. But some middle-class and educated Shiites think Sistani’s plan let Sadr get away with too much, Baram says.
What are the details of the peace plan?
The agreement called for:
- Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free cities
- All foreign forces to withdraw from Najaf
- Iraqi police to be placed in charge of security
- The IIG to compensate those harmed by the fighting
- A census to be taken in preparation for national elections scheduled for January
Many experts say this agreement represents a victory for Sadr, because it does not require the Mehdi Army to disarm or Sadr to face outstanding charges for the murder of a rival cleric last year. The agreement also covers only Najaf and does not address violence by Sadr supporters in other cities, including Baghdad. A Sadr spokesman told Al Jazeera August 30 that Sadr wanted the Najaf agreement “to cover all of Iraq,” but did not provide details. Baram says the cease-fire is still quite fragile. “The whole thing is hanging in the air,” he says.
Why does Sistani support elections?
In part because they are the most legitimate expression of the will of the Iraqi people, Sistani says. If chosen through elections, “the parliament would spring from the will of the Iraqis and would represent them in a just manner and would prevent any diminution of Islamic law,” he wrote in his November 2003 statement. Analysts say Sistani believes elections will put Iraq’s majority Shiites in power, and that group would affirm Islamic ideals if given the chance. “Sistani thinks the elections will lead to a Shia-run regime, and he wants the Shia to cooperate,” Katzman says.
What is Sistani’s background?
Sistani was born near the Iranian city of Masshad, a holy place of Shiite pilgrimage centered on the tomb of Imam Reza, the eighth Shiite imam. At age five, Sistani began studying the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and continued his studies as a young man in the Iranian city of Qom, according to Sistani’s website, www.sistani.org. His rise to eminence began when he moved to Najaf in 1952. There he studied with some of the most important Shiite clerics of the time, including the Grand Ayatollah Imam Abul Qassim al-Khoei, a major figure in the quietest tradition. When Khoei died in 1992, Sistani was selected by his peers to head the most important hawza—or network of schools—in Najaf. He has written many books on Islamic jurisprudence and over the years has gained a reputation as one of the top Shiite religious authorities in the world. Some 10 percent to 20 percent of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims are Shiites.
Did Sistani have any rivals for leadership of the hawza?
Yes, experts say. One of the most important was Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who was gunned down in 1999 along with two of his sons (Saddam Hussein’s forces are suspected in the murder). Sadr preferred the more activist, Khomeini-like tradition, urging underground resistance to Saddam’s rule. Sadr and other critics portrayed Sistani as a coward and referred to him derisively as the “silent authority,” experts say. Today, Sadr’s son Muqtada has positioned himself as a rival to Sistani. Experts say Sistani has not attacked Sadr directly or otherwise addressed Sadr’s challenge to his authority. “Sistani’s doing it the old way,” Baram says. “He’s letting Sadr discredit himself.”
How are Shiite leaders chosen?
They rise by consensus through the ranks, from the level of prayer leader to ayatollah, a title awarded to those who have exhibited mastery of Islamic law and jurisprudence and have attracted many followers. The apex of the hierarchy is the marjah al-taqlid, or object of emulation. Sistani has attained the level of marjah.
What’s the role of a marjah?
A marjah has the authority to interpret Islamic law and provide guidance to Shiites on day-to-day matters. All lay Shiites—even relatively non-religious ones—have a marjah, Cole says. The marjah’s admonitions are often related to mundane questions of so-called personal law, such as whether a Muslim is permitted to wear perfume (yes, according to Sistani) or sell lottery tickets (no—it’s a form of gambling, Sistani says). While Shiites around the world today follow more than one marjah, Sistani is probably the most influential, Cole says.
Is the marjah speaking in the name of God?
No, Islam experts say. He is practicing ijtihad, the competence to use independent judgment to decipher the Quran and other sacred Islamic texts. Only the most advanced clerics are awarded permission by the hawza to practice ijtihad. The interpretation of a marjah is his best judgment and can sometimes be wrong. But according to Shiite tradition, as long as the marjah gives the interpretation his best effort, Allah will forgive any error, Cole says.
Is it significant that Sistani is Iranian-born?
The position of the marjah is similar to that of the pope in Roman Catholicism: he has moral and religious authority across national boundaries. Opponents of Sistani have sometimes played up his Iranian roots in an attempt to argue that he maintains some loyalty to the Iranian state. But Sistani’s views reflect his independence from the Iranian clergy, experts say. “He’s an ally, but not an instrument,” Katzman says. “He doesn’t take orders from Tehran.” Other Shiite groups and leaders in Iraq—such as the Shiite political party Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution—maintain much more active ties with Iran than Sistani does, he says.