Second in a series of World Religion News articles on great religious leaders of our time.
When Pope Francis recently made a historic three-day trip to Iraq, the birthplace of Abraham, the forefather of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the pontiff considerably broadened his objective of improved relations with Muslims by traveling to the city of Najaf to meet Grand Ayatollah al-Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, an influential and moderate cleric of Islam’s minority Shiite (or Shia) branch of Islam.
Beyond the enormous interfaith implications of an unprecedented meeting between the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and the spiritual head of millions of Shiites across much of the Middle East, there was another reason why the Pope’s visit captured the popular imagination.
The 90-year-old al-Sistani is famously private, known for his modest way of life and profound devotion to learning. Born and raised in Iran, the spiritual leader has lived for decades in a rented house in a narrow street culminating in the Imam Ali shrine, one of Shiite Islam’s most venerated sites.
When Pope Francis, who is six years younger than al-Sistani, arrived in a bulletproof Mercedes and walked a few yards to the Muslim cleric’s house, he was accorded a rare honor: al-Sistani stood to greet Francis at the door of his sparsely furnished room, abandoning for once his usual practice of receiving guests while seated.
Besides underscoring al-Sistani’s humility, the respectful gesture pointed to his readiness to help Francis achieve a key goal: the protection of Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority, which has suffered severe atrocities in recent years at the hands of Islamic State terrorists.
As a Shiite, al-Sistani is hardly a stranger to persecution. For centuries, his minority sect has been caught in a sectarian war with extremists from the majority Sunni faction. Iraq’s Shiite majority endured decades of autocratic rule under a Sunni, Saddam Hussein, who was driven out of power only when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.
Despite injustices heaped on Iraq’s Shiites, however, one of al-Sistani’s greatest achievements has been to prevent his people from avenging Sunni extremist attacks, which were particularly pronounced in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led Iraq War.
It is a measure of al-Sistani’s wisdom and political acumen that Iraq’s Shiites have largely heeded his warning not to fall into the trap of sectarian conflict. It is much better, he has always counseled his co-religionists, to seek power through democratic means, thereby peacefully establishing majority rule in a region teeming with despots and dictators.
In His Own Words
Islam and society’s values. — Ayatollah al-Sistani, in a fatwa (holy edict) that he issued during the early years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq following the 2003 Iraq War, outlining the scope of U.S. authority in shaping Iraq’s future.
“Please don’t do this. Please be civilized. We don’t want to start a civil war. This is the most important point.” — Ayatollah al-Sistani’s 2004 response to a major Iraqi politician and the scion of a prominent religious family, Muhammad Bahrul-Uloum, who was so frustrated by the large-scale killings of Shiites by Sunnis in Iraq that he confronted the Ayatollah by angrily striking his cane on the ground and yelling, “We’re not going to have our families attacked by terrorists. Everything has its limits. Once that limit is passed, all that is left is God and your weapon.” Bahrul-Uloum bowed to al-Sistani’s request.
“Noble Iraqis, after more than three years of fierce fighting, precious efforts and challenges, you have achieved victory against the most powerful terrorist force that targeted Iraq in its past, present and future. You were victorious with your firm will and firm determination to preserve your country, your dignity and your holy places. You were victorious with the tremendous sacrifices of yourselves and all that you hold precious for the dear homeland; you have established the highest images of heroism and altruism and you have written the history of modern Iraq with letters of dignity and nobility, and the world stood in astonishment at your determination and patience and heroism and faith in the justice of your cause until this victory was achieved, which many thought was out of reach. But you made it a tangible reality within a relatively short period, you have preserved the dignity of the country and its pride and maintained the unity of land and people. How great a people you are, the veteran fighters the heroes of the armed forces of all types and classifications.” — Ayatollah al-Sistani, in a December 15, 2017, prayer sermon from Imam Al-Hussein Shrine, where he indicated that weapons should be under the control of the state and that armed groups should steer clear of political participation now that major combat against the Islamic State has ended.
“This decision is denounced and condemned. It has hurt the sentiments of hundreds of Arabs and Muslims, but it will not change the fact that Jerusalem is an occupied land that should return to the sovereignty of its Palestinian owners no matter how long it takes.” — Ayatollah al-Sistani, in a December 2017 statement regarding the decision by the United States to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The Stories Others Tell
“[It] was an occasion for the Pope to thank Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani for speaking up — together with the Shiite community — in defense of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships of recent years, and for affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.” — Vatican statement on Pope Francis’s March 6, 2021 meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani in his hometown of Najaf during the first visit ever made to Iraq by any Pontiff.
“In March 2003, as U.S. troops pushed north from Naseriya, the little-known supreme leader of Iraq’s Shias, the grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, told his community not to resist the American march to Baghdad. Shortly thereafter, when U.S. Marines drove into the heart of the holy city of Karbala at midnight, they found it quiet and dark, save for the luminescent golden dome of the shrine of Imam Husayn — a scene of serenity and beauty that dazzled many of the young American fighting men. The only face of Shiism [Islam as taught by Shia] that revealed itself to American troops as they entered one of Shiism’s holiest cities was a distinctly quiescent and even spiritual one. The Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, interpreted the Ayatollah’s decree as a good omen for the United States. He told the Congress that there was now a ‘pro-American’ fatwa in place; the war in Iraq, he suggested, was already realizing the Bush Administration’s wish: the Muslim world was changing even before the Marines reached Baghdad. Sistani’s decree, however, was less a favor to America than a first step in claiming Iraq for the Shia.” — Vali Nasr, Professor of Middle East Studies and International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, in his 2006 book, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.
“Our mission is to explain to the people what Ayatollah Sistani said. He said, ‘Do not make your own army — this army does not belong to the Shia. It belongs to all of Iraq. It is for the Shia, the Sunni, the Kurds and the Christians.’” — Sheikh Emad al-Gharagoli, Iraqi cleric quoted in a June 21, 2014, New York Times article regarding Ayatollah al-Sistani’s call to all able-bodied Iraqi men to help security forces defeat the Islamic State terrorist group.
“As political events unraveled in Iraq in the aftermath of the  U.S.-led invasion, Grand Ayatollah Sistani was looked to for guidance in navigating this unchartered terrain. His leadership was demanded and tested during particular moments in contemporary Iraqi history. Most recently, Grand Ayatollah Sistani played a key role in maneuvering Iraq toward stability during the 2019 October protests, when his representatives delivered messages that carefully toed the line between citizens’ rights and the sanctity of the Constitution and the electoral system.” — Marsin Alshamary, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Iraqi politics and Shiite political activism, in a March 4, 2021 blog on Pope Francis’s historic visit to Iraq.
“The Jews of Iraq are almost entirely gone. The precarious position of ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq is a reminder that the real test for Middle Eastern countries goes beyond holding democratic elections and includes whether minorities are secure. This is why the Pope’s meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the world’s leading cleric of the so-called quietest school of Shiite Islam and a moderating force in Iraq, was his most important. The ayatollah knows that Shiites are a minority in most other Muslim nations across the region. Shiites also know what it’s like to be persecuted. Tolerance for ethnic and religious minorities will not come to the Middle East tomorrow. But having Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani uniting around the idea sends a powerful message to the world.” — March 8, 2021 Wall Street Journal editorial on Pope France’s historic visit to Iraq.
“Sistani prudently did not seek to become the paramount source of authority among the Shia, but rather strove to be an honest broker and bridge-builder who could link various political voices and communities. He did not attempt to add line or color, but only to provide the canvas on which the Iraqi Shia community could paint its future. He did not try to produce an ideal ‘Islamic’ state, but merely to give constitutional and elective power to Shias in accord with their numbers and the principle of majority rule.” — Vali Nasr, Professor of Middle East Studies and International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, in his 2006 book, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.
“Because Ayatollah 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.” — Insight from Ayatollah al-Sistani’s official biography.
A Life in Brief
Grand Ayatollah al-Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani was born in a family of clerics on 9th Rabi Al-Awwal 1349, according to the Islamic calendar, or August 4, 1930, in Mashhad, an important pilgrimage site in Iran and the nation’s second-most populous city after the capital Tehran.
The young al-Sistani started learning the holy Quran at the age of five and later joined a religious center where he learned reading, writing, mathematics, geography and calligraphy. In 1948 (1418 in the Islamic calendar), at the age of 18, al-Sistani migrated to the Iraqi city of Qum for further religious studies. He graduated from a
renowned Shia theological school in the Iraqi city of Najaf run by the late Grand Ayatollah Imam Abul-Qassim al-Khu’I.
A renowned scholar of Islamic jurisprudence known for his keen appreciation for history and “a gift for seeing the big picture,” as Middle East expert Vali Nasr has aptly described him, al-Sistani rose to the top of his class in the theological school he attended.
The religious leader promotes his views and helps shape Shiite public opinion through a far-reaching network of representatives at all levels of society. Remarkably, he does this without endorsing any particular politician or political program.
Although born and raised in Iran, al-Sistani kept a distance from Iranian clerical politics, partly because he had “profound theological and political differences with his fellow clerics who were ruling Iran,” as Nasr points out.
Still, al-Sistani never tried to promote a theological or religious rivalry between the land of his birth and his adopted country. With Iraq’s emergence as a Shiite spiritual center competing with Iran, al-Sistani’s collaborative approach made it possible for Shiites across the Middle East to forge a consensus aimed at furthering their respective communal interests as well as promoting Shiite regional power.
Achievements We’ll Remember
March 2003: Ayatollah al-Sistani tells his followers not to defy the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a step that helps his minority Shiite community assert its political power following the downfall of the authoritarian Sunni-led regime of Saddam Hussein.
2003: Following the ouster of Saddam Hussein amid the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Ayatollah al-Sistani asserts that the Iraqi Constitution not be authored by Paul Bremmer, director of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, but that the document be crafted and voted on by an elected constituent assembly, as a precursor to a national
2005: At the insistence of Ayatollah al-Sistani, Shiite political parties form an electoral alliance to compete for a place in the constituent assembly, followed by parliamentary elections. The coalition, known as the United Iraqi Alliance, handily wins a majority and forms a government.
June 2014: Ayatollah al-Sistani issues a fatwa — a religious edict — calling on able-bodied men to help Iraqi security forces defend Iraq against the Islamic State terrorist group. The cleric takes pains to cast the mobilization not as particularly Shiite, even though the bulk of its members were clearly Shiite, but as a national unity movement.
October 2019: Ayatollah al-Sistani issues calls for restraint as violent anti-government protests combined with excessive force to quell them, claim some 190 lives nationwide and leave nearly 2,000 people wounded. The cleric’s representatives deliver carefully crafted messages to the public stressing both the importance of citizens’ rights and the inviolability of the Constitution and the electoral process.
March 2021: Ayatollah al-Sistani issues a strong statement of support for the civil rights of Iraq’s persecuted Christian minority during a historic visit to the country by Pope Francis.
Ayatollah al-Sistani’s Religion
Ayatollah al-Sistani belongs to the Shiite branch of Islam, with which about 10-15 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide identify. The sect was formed following a historical dispute over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad after his death in 632 A.D.
Shiites argued that Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, should be his immediate successor. Sunnis disagreed, backing Abu Bakr, a close companion of the prophet and the father of his second wife.
Shiites believe that when the hereditary line of Ali’s 11 male descendants ended — the last of them, a boy, disappeared in the 9th century in Iraq after his father was murdered — it fell upon religious leaders to interpret theological and legal knowledge to the larger community. The most learned of these leaders are respectfully known as Ayatollahs.
Scholars of the Arabic language define the word “Shiite” to refer to a group of people who develop consensus around an issue. The word “Sunni,” by contrast, means “orthodox.” Although Sunnis hold Ali in high regard, they totally reject the Shiite belief that he is Muhammad’s successor.