Ayatullah al-Uzma Sistani
For more than half a century, the late Ayatullah Uzm Khou'i has been a clear source for many scholars who have been his students and later became eminent `alims. One of the most eminent among the students of the Late Ayatullah Khou'i is Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Husayni Sistani, who is known for his genius, knowledge, and talent. Hereby, we shall try to give a brief account (a biography) of this remarkable personality:
1- His Birth and Upbringing:
Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Husayni Sistani was born in Rabi`ul Awwal 1349 A.H. (1930 A.D.) in Mashhad, into a family known for its religious background. He learned Arabic literature and rhetoric. While he learned theological and rational sciences from many eminent and well-known religious scholars in Khurasan. Ayatullah Sistani attended many lectures at the Kharij stage and benefited from the knowledge of Allamah Muhaqqiq Mirza Mahdi Isfahani. He also benefited from the knowledge of `Allamah Mirza Mehdi Isfahani. After that, in 1948, Sistani traveled to Qom - in the lifetime of the late Ayatullah Boroujerdi - and began studying in its seminary.
He benefited greatly from vast knowledge of the late Ayatullah Boroujerdi, especially in Usool and Fiqh; thus he agreed with almost all of his points of view. There, he also attended the lectures of Ayatullah Hujjat Kuhkamar'i. His thirst for religious knowledge led Sistani to migrate to Najaf in 1951, where he attended some lectures of Ayatullah Hakeem, Shaykh Husayn Hilli, and the late Ayatullah Khou'i. In particular, he attended the lectures of Ayatullah Khou'i on Fiqh and Usool for more than ten years. Sistani also completed series of lessons on Usool which he learned under Ayatullah Shaykh Husayn Hilli.
Meanwhile - exactly from the year 1948 until now, Ayatullah Sistani has been teaching the Kharij stage (based on the book titled "al-Makaasib" by Shaykh Ansaari). He also teaches the book of Tahaara (purity) and many parts of the book on Prayers, in addition to parts of the book of Khums (the one-fifth tax). In 1964, Ayatullah Sistani began teaching the Kharij stage of Usool, and up until the year 1990 he has completed three series of lectures on this subject.
2- His Scientific Genius:
Ayatullah Sistani is one of the few students who obtained a degree of Ijtihad. He is known for his intelligence and his vast research activities on biographies. He is also well acquainted with many theories on many scientific subjects of the Hawzah. Ayatullah Sistani was involved in scientific competitions with martyr Muhammad Baqir Sadr. This had been certificated by the late Ayatullah Khou'i and also by `Allamah Shaykh Husayn Hilli whom both had confirmed his being a Mujtahid on two separate certification dated 1960, in which the two Ayatullahs had appreciated his personality and knowledge.
It is worthy to say that until 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 Buzurgh Tehrani wrote a letter to Ayatullah Sistani in 1960 in which he eulogized him for his intellectual talents on biographies and hadith. This means that Ayatullah Sistani, had been granted his high scientific rank when he was only thirty-one years old.
3- His works:
Ayatullah Sistani began teaching the Kharij stage on Fiqh, Usool, and biography 34 years ago. He held many lectures on the book entitled "Makaasib", and on many subjects such as purity, prayers, judgment, khums, and other rules of Fiqh like usury, Taqiyyah (precaution), and the rule known as "ilzam" (obligation). Sistani also taught Usool for three complete sessions - 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 Habib Husaynan, `Allamah Sayyid Murtadha Isfahani, `Allamah Sayyid Ahmad Madad, `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. Hereunder, are some of Ayatullah Sistani's books and treatises:
1- Explanation on "al-`Urwa al-Wuthqah". 2- Researches on Usul. 3- The book of Qadhaa' (judgment). 4- The book of Sale and Choices. 5- A treatise on doubtful clothes. 6- A treatise on the rule of "Yadd" (hand). 7- A treatise on the traveller's prayers. 8- A treatise on the rule of "tajaawuz" & "Faraagh". 9- A treatise on "Qiblah". 10- A treatise on "Taqiyyah" (precaution). 11- A treatise on the rule of "ilzam" (obligation). 12- A treatise on ijtihad & imitation. 13- A treatise on the rule of "La Dharar wa la Dhiraar". 14- A treatise on Usury. 15- A treatise on that the correspondence of ibn abi `Umayr is reliable. 16- A criticize on the treatise titled "The correction of Chains" of Ardabili. 17- An explanation on the book titled "Mashyakhat al-Tahthibayn". 18- A treatise on the past methods in regard to the reliable narrations. with many other handwritten compilations and treatises on rules for the imitators.
4- His Methodology in Researching and Teaching:
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 Holy 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 a 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 unuseful 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 is 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.W.) 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 in 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), Boroujerdi (an `alim from Qum), and the opinions of the three researchers, Ayatullah Khou'i, and Shaykh Hasan Hilli (as scholars from Najaf). The Sistani's method in Fiqh has a particular feature, some of which are related here below:
1) Comparing between the Fiqh of Shia 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.
5- Ayatullah Sistani's Personality:
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 in 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 Khou'i, and is treating his students exactly as the late Ayatullah Khou'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 life way. He earns ordinary house and furniture, and wears inexpensive garments. He does not care about fashion or modern mode.
E)Ayatullah 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 knowledge 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.
6- The Religious Authority:
Some masters in Najaf Ashraf relate that, after the demise of Ayatollah Sayyid Nasrullah Mustanbit, many scholars had suggested on Ayatollah 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 Ayatollah Khou'i. After the death of Ayatullah Khou'i, Ayatollah 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,Ayatullah Sistani became the only marja` (religious authority). He began to send duties and salaries, and teaching in the same classroom of Ayatollah Khou'i (in Masjid Khadhra'); thus, his followers increased day after another, especially in Iraq, the Persian Gulf region, India,...etc. Ayatollah Sistani has the highest rank among the mujtahids and scholars throughout the Islamic World, and especially in the hawzahs of Najaf Ashraf and Qom.