Early life as a child:
Sistani was born in Mashhad, Iran, to a family of religious scholars. During the Safavid period, Sistani's ancestor Sayyid Mohammad was appointed by Sultan Husayn to the office of Sheikh ul-Islam (Leading Authority of Islam) presiding over the Sistan province, where he then traveled with his children and settled, an event which accounts for the usage of the title "al-Sistani" in Ayatollah Sistani's own name today. Sistani began his religious education as a child, first in Mashhad 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 rank of Mujtahid in 1960. 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.
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.
During the years of Saddam Hussein's rule of Iraq through the Ba'ath Party, Sistani survived the violent Ba'athist repression and persecution that killed many Shia clerics. After the deaths of several leading ayatollahs in Iraq, including Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, Sistani emerged as the preeminent Shia cleric, although Sistani's mosque was shut down in 1994, and did not reopen until the United States-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.
Shortly after the U.S. 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 Sheik 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.
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. 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."
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."
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.
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 (United States).
As the leading Ayatollah in Najaf, Sistani oversees sums amounting to millions of U.S. 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. 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."
Additionally, Sistani has a substantial following within Shia communities all over the world and is the current Nayb-i Imam (Preeminent 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.
Views and edicts
In consensus with the majority of all Shia marja, Sistani does not condone abortion, except when there is risk of the pregnancy harming the mother: Question: Is a mother allowed to abort the fetus, if she does not want it while the soul has not yet entered it and there is no serious danger to the mother's life?
Answer: She is not allowed to do that, except if the continuation of the pregnancy would harm her health or put her in an unbearable difficulty. Like many of the Ahl al-Sunnah (Sunni) scholars, Shia marja do not condone abortions on the grounds of expected illness or deformity. Sistani shares this view: Question: Sometimes the doctors reach the following conclusion: This fetus is afflicted with a very serious disease; it is therefore preferable that it should be aborted because if that child is born, it will be deformed or will die soon after birth. Is it, therefore, permissible for the doctor to abort the fetus? Is it permissible for the mother to agree to the abortion? And who of the two will become liable for indemnity?
Answer: Just the fact that the child will be deformed or that it will not live for a long time after his birth does not ever justify the termination of the pregnancy. Therefore, it is not permissible for the mother to consent to the abortion just as it is not permissible for the doctor to go ahead with the procedure. And whoever performs the abortion will become liable for the payment of indemnity. Sistani also does not condone abortion after rape.
Sistani has publicly accepted the practice of adoption but maintains that the relationship gained by the adopter and the adoptee cannot become mahram: Question: Are we allowed to adopt children and consider them as our own children?
Answer: It is permissible for a person to adopt a child, but the child is not considered his son or daughter; the child remains a stranger (non-mahram) to him or his wife and he or she does not inherit the person who has adopted him or her.
In accordance with the Qur'an and Islamic beliefs, Sistani does not consider alcohol to be ritually pure, and therefore does not condone drinking it. Additionally, Ayatollah Sistani does not condone the sale of alcohol in any Muslim-owned businesses, nor eating or drinking where alcohol consumption is allowed: Question: What is your opinion on Muslims eating in non-Muslim or even Muslim owned and operated restaurants which serve halal food however also serve alcoholic drinks? If the alcohol is not being consumed at our table, does this change the ruling?
Answer: If alcohol is not consumed at your table, there would be no objection and you can eat halal food in that restaurant. But, if going to such a restaurant is considered bad for the reputation of a Muslim, it is not acceptable to eat there.
The Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book) are the Jews and Christians. Like many of his peers, Ayatollah Sistani considers them to be ritually pure: Question: What is the fatwa about Ahl al-Kitab? Are they clean or unclean?
Answer: The Ahl al-Kitab (that is, the Jews and Christians) are ritually pure (tahir) as long as you do not know that they have become ritually impure (najis) by coming into contact with an impure object. You can follow this ruling when dealing with them. This extends also to the permissibility of eating halal food prepared by the Ahl al-Kitab.
Sistani does not condone artificial insemination (AI) under any circumstances. Additionally, Sistani has indicated that the origin of donor spermatozoa used in the process of insemination shall supersede any existing understandings and determine the official paternity of children; appropriate inheritance laws will apply.
Answer: It is not permissible to keep a dog.
Sistani supports the growth of beards and recommends that they be grown to a visible or fist-long length.Additionally, Sistani condones shaving under extreme circumstances: Question: Is it permissible to shave a beard, if one is faced with an unavoidable or a difficult situation?
Answer: A Muslim is allowed to shave his beard, if he is compelled to do so or if he is forced to shave it for medical reasons, etc. It also allowed if he fears harm to his life by not shaving or if growing the beard would put him in difficulty (for example, if it becomes a cause of ridicule and humiliation that is not normally tolerable by a Muslim).
In medical treatment, Sistani regards a medically brain dead patient as a being a person who is, "...not proven to be dead...," as per Islamic jurisprudence: Question: Some people believe that a brain-dead person is a dead person, even if the heart has not yet stopped and that it will definitely stop after that. This is what the doctors say. Is a person who has been pronounced brain-dead be considered dead, even if his heart is still working?
Answer: The criterion in applying the term “dead” in so far as the application of religious laws goes is the common perception of people, in the sense that they would call him “dead”. And this is not proven in the situation mentioned in the question.
Sistani supports the traditional views on clothing for both males and females.
Sistani condones the use of contraception as long as no harm is caused to the user: Question: What is Grand Ayatollah Sistani's fatwa on the use of Intrauterine Devices and pills by a woman to prevent pregnancy?
Answer: It is permissible for a woman to use IUD and other birth control devices provided that they do not pose serious harm to the woman's health and that the insertion of the device does not involve a harãm act, such as the male touching or looking at the private parts of the woman's body that are forbidden for him to look at. Similarly, it should not involve the female looking at, and touching without gloves the private parts that are harãm to touch or look at. Moreover, the IUD should not cause the abortion of the fertilized ovum after its implantation [in the womb].
Sistani regards a selected few games (or other potential instruments of gambling) to be prohibited in Islam: Question: Some people play with gambling instruments other than chess and backgammon for enjoyment and without placing a bet.
Answer: It is prohibited to play with all that is considered a gambling instrument even without placing a bet.
Sistani conditionally supports a prohibition of public dancing: Question: Some schools in the West make it obligatory that their male and female students learn dancing. This dancing is neither accompanied by the common song, nor is it for entertainment; it is part of the educational curriculum. So, is it haraam for the parents to allow their sons and daughters to attend such classes?
Answer: Yes, if it contravenes the religious upbringing. Rather it is, based on obligatory precaution, forbidden absolutely, if the student has reached the age of maturity — except if he has a valid reason for approving of it; for example, if he follows a mujtahid who allows it. In the latter case, nothing prevents him from allowing his child to take part in such activity.
According to Sistani, if a chemical change occur in manufacturing of the gelatin, then there is no problem in eating it. Otherwise, any gelatin extracted from animal sources must be from an animal slaughtered according to Sharia. Question: Gelatin is used in a number of drinks and food items in the West. We do not know that gelatin has been extracted from a vegetable or an animal source; and that if it is from an animal, is it from its bones or from the tissues around the bones; neither do we know if the animal was one that is halãl for us or harãm. Are we allowed to eat such gelatin?
Answer: It is permissible to eat if the doubt is whether it has been extracted from an animal or vegetable. But, if it is known that it was derived from an animal, then it is not permissible to eat without ascertaining that the animal was slaughtered according to sharí‘a. This prohibition applies, as a matter of obligatory precaution, even if it was extracted from animal bones. Of course, if a chemical change occurs in the original ingredients during the process of manufacturing the gelatin, there is no problem at all in eating it. Similarly, even if one has doubt whether the animal was slaughtered Islamically or not, still there is no problem in adding the gelatin [made from that animal] to the food in such a minute amont that it is completely absorbed in it.
Sistani condones the playing of some music, but conditionally labels all music as haraam. Question: Just as many questions are asked about halal and haraam music, many questions are asked about halal and haraam songs. Is it correct to say that haraam songs are those that arouse sexual, lustful urges and promote unstable and degrading behaviour? Is it correct to say that songs that do not arouse lustful desires, but elevate the souls and thoughts to lofty levels like religious songs of praise dedicated to the Prophet Muhammad and the Imams (a.s.), or the songs that lift the spirits and morale [of the fighters] and the like are halãl songs?
Answer: All songs (al-ghinã’) are haraam. Based on the definition that we accept, al-ghinã’ is the entertaining expression by way of tunes that are common to those who provide entertainment and amusement. In this prohibition, we should include the recitation of the Holy Qur’ãn, supplications (du‘ãs), and songs of praise of Ahlul Bayt (a.s.) uttered to the accompaniment of those tunes [that are used by the entertainers]. The prohibition of reciting other non-entertaining expressions —like songs intended to lift the morale [of fighters]— is based on compulsory precaution. However, the tune that cannot be described as such is not haraam by itself.
Sistani forbid smoking for the beginner if it entails serious harm, even if the harm is only probable: Question: Medical literature states that smoking is the main cause for heart and cancer diseases, and it also shortens the life span of the smoker. So, what is the rule on smoking concerning (a) the beginner, (b) the compulsive smoker, and (c) the passive smoker? In the third case, the medical experts say that the smoke also harms a person sitting besides a smoker. What would be, the ruling if he considers passive smoking to be of considerable harm?
Answer: a)Smoking becomes harãm for the beginner if it entails serious harm, even at the future, regardless of whether that serious harm is certain, most probable, or just probable so much so that sensible people would demand caution. However, with the protection from serious harm (for example, by smoking less frequently), there is no problem in it. b)If continuing to smoke will cause serious harm to the compulsive smoker —as explained above— it is necessary for him to refrain from it unless the harm in quitting is similar, greater than to the harm in continuing, or the great difficulty that he will face in quitting is such that it cannot be normally tolerated. c)The same rule as explained in (a) for the beginner, applies in this case also.
Guardianship of Islamic Jurists (Velayat-e 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). 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 Marja) 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."
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.
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.
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, a reflection, Nasr believes, of Sistani's reluctance to become involved in politics.
- Current Legal Issues
- A Code of Practice For Muslims in the West
- Hajj Rituals
- Islamic Laws
- Jurisprudence Made Easy
- Contemporary Legal Rulings in Shia Law
Thirty-two other published works exist, but have not been translated into English.
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."
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 Sunni 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.
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.
However, the attack led to the hacking of more than nine hundred Wahhabi and Salafi websites. 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.
Criticism and Controversy
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.
In January 2010, during a Jumu'ah khutba (Friday sermon), Saudi cleric Mohammad al-Urifi vehemently criticized Sistani by referring to him as an "atheist" and by describing his behavior as "debauched". The remarks were considered extremely offensive, prompting outraged protest in some Shia communities in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rebuked the Saudi religious authorities. Lebanon-based military 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."