Ali al-Sistani

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Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani (Arabic: السيد علي الحسيني السيستاني Persian: سید علی حسینی سیستانی), born approximately August 4, 1930, is a Grand Ayatollah, a Shia marja and currently an important person in relation to the occupation of Iraq.


Ali al-Sistani was born in Mashhad, Iran to a family of religious scholars. His grandfather, for whom he was named, was a famous scholar who had studied at Najaf. Sistani's family comes from the area of Iran known as Sistan, which accounts for the title "al-Sistani" in his name. Sistani began his religious education as a child, beginning in Mashhad, and moving on to study at the Shia holy city of Qom in central Iran. After spending a few years there, he went to Iraq to study in Najaf under Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassim Khoei.

There Sistani settled down, raising a family and becoming an integral member of that city's community when he was made a marja by Khoei in the 1960s. The influence of Khoei on Sistani is well-known. Among other things, Sistani follows Khoei's belief of separating the clergy from politics, and subsequently of keeping out of great political involvement. This helped to keep him away from the attention of the ruling Baath Party, notorious for the mistreatment of Shiites and the persecution of their leaders in order to keep the Shia population under control. Sistani's non-involvement in politics notwithstanding, he was harassed many times by the Baath party. He was imprisoned shortly after the Shia Rebellion that followed the first Gulf War. He was also the target of a number of assassination attempts during the 1990s.

Khoei died in 1992, but not before naming Sistani as his replacement. Ayatollah Sistani cemented his relationship as successor to Khoei by leading the funeral prayers of his teacher. Khoei's death was followed by those of other notable clerics in Najaf, bringing Sistani to the fore as the most respected of the Shiite imams in Iraq. His position was contested by other clerics, including Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, but his role as successor to the legacy of Abdul-Qassem Khoei gave him an edge. His preeminence was cemented after the assassination of Sadr by Saddam Hussein.

In his role as Ayatollah, Sistani oversees sums amounting to millions of dollars, which he distributes in various ways, including payment for the religious education of would-be scholars across the Muslim world.

While Sistani had survived the persecution that killed many other Shia clerics, his mosque was shut down in 1994, and continues to be to this day. Since around that time, he has usually kept himself in his house in Najaf, in what is seen by many as a protest against persecution, but others consider to have originated from the house-arrest orders issued by the Baath Party. Despite his seclusion and inaccessibility, Sistani exerts great control over the Shia population of Iraq, and is seen as the main leader of the majority of that nation's Shia. It is because of this influence that he continues to play an important role in the current politics of Iraq.

In early August 2004, Ayatollah Sistani, who has long been suffering from a heart condition, reportedly suffered serious health problems. He is said to have been transported to Beirut and from there to London for medical treatment. It was the first time in many years that Sistani had left his home in Najaf, which seems to indicate that his medical condition was serious. On August 25, Ayatollah Sistani returned from London to broker an agreement that eneded the standoff in Najaf at the holy Imam Ali shrine between U.S. marines and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi army.

Role in contemporary Iraq

Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sistani has played an increasingly political role in Iraq, and Western mainstream media universally call him the most politically influential figure in post-invasion Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr, who is 42 years Sistani's junior and the head of an independent militia known as the Mehdi army, has risen to prominence in the course of 2004 and is often referred to as a potential rival, but the two overcame considerable tensions to agree on a common slate of Shiite candidates in the elections scheduled for Jan. 30, 2005. Observers note that their social base is quite different, with Sistani's support strong among the Shiite property-owning classes, and Muqtada's stronger among the urban poor, who provide most of the members of the Mehdi army.

Sistani's increased political activism since 2003, always exercised through representatives, has often been interpreted as a response to Muqtada's increasing celebrity; it is also, no doubt, a response both to increasingly dire conditions in Iraqi society and to his own responsibilities as the sole grand ayatollah in Iraq.

Shortly after the American occupation began, Sistani issued fatwas calling on Shia clergy not to get involved in politics. However, as the summer of 2003 approached, Sistani became more involved, though always through representatives, never directly. He began to call for the formation of a constitutional convention, and later demanded a direct vote for the purpose of forming a transitional government, seeing this as a sure path to Shiite dominance over Iraq's government, since most observers say that Shiites make up about 60% of Iraq's population. Subsequently, Sistani has criticized American plans for an Iraqi government as not being democratic enough.

Sistani's edicts and rulings have provided many Iraqi Shia religious backing for participating in the January 2005 elections -- he urged, in a statement on October 1, 2004, that the people should realize that this was an "important matter" and he also hoped that the elections would be "free and fair . . . with the participation of all Iraqis". While some radical Islamists argue that democracy is "non-Islamic" because it holds that power derives not from Allah but from the people, Sistani's message is that Shiites have a religious obligation to vote. 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.

External links

de:Ali al-Sistani fr:Ali al-Sistani nl:Ali al-Sistani


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