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Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini al-Sistani
Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini al-Sistani, (Born approximately August 4, 1930) is an Iranian born Grand Ayatollah, and Twelver Shi'a marja residing in Iraq. He is currently the preeminent Twelver cleric in Iraq as well as an important political figure in Post-invasion Iraq.
The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was born August 4, 1930 in Mashhad, Iran to a family of religious scholars. His grandfather, for whom he was named, was a famous scholar who had studied in Najaf. Sistani's family originally comes from Isfahan. During the Safavid period, his forefather Sayyid Mohammad, was appointed as "Shaikhul Islam" (Leading Authority of Islam) by King Hussain in the Sistan province. He traveled to Sistan where he and his children settled the area of Iran known as Sistan, which accounts for the title "al-Sistani" in his great grandson's name today. Ali Sistani began his religious education as a child, beginning in Mashhad, and moving on to study at the Shi'a holy city of Qom in central Iran in 1949. After spending a few years there, in 1951 he went to Iraq to study in Najaf under the late Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassim Khoei. Sistani rose in religious rank to be named a Marja in 1960 under the military dictatorship of Iraqi president Abd al-Karim Qasim. At the unusually young age of 31 (1961) Ayatullah Sistani reached the senior level of accomplishment called Ijtehad, which entitled him to pass his own judgments on religious questions.
When Ayatollah Khoei died in 1992, Sistani ascended to the rank of Grand Ayatollah by the traditional method - through peer recognition of his scholarship. His role as successor to Khoei was symbolically cemented when he lead the funeral prayers of his widely esteemed teacher and he would go on to inherit Khoei's network and following. With the death of other leading ayatollahs in Iraq including Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, Sistani emerged as the preeminent Shi'a cleric in Iraq. As the leading Ayatollah in Najaf, Sistani oversees sums amounting to millions of dollars. Sistani's followers offer him a fixed part of their earnings, which he spends for educational and charitable purposes. Sistani's office reports that he supports 35,000 students in Qom, 10,000 in Mashhad, and 4,000 in Isfahan. He also oversees a network of representatives (wakil) "who promote his view in large and small ways in neighborhoods, mosques, bazaars, and seminaries from Kirkuk" to Basra.
He is also said to have a substantial following in Iran as a result of the post-invasion opening of the Iraqi shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala to Iranians, including "great popularity and influence among" the bazaari of the city of Qom.
While Sistani had survived the persecution that killed many other Shia clerics, his mosque was shut down in 1994, and did not reopen until after the American invasion which toppled the Baath regime. Since that time, he has usually kept to himself in his house in Najaf. His behavior is seen by many as a protest against persecution, but others consider it to originate from the house-arrest orders issued by the Baath Party. Despite his seclusion and inaccessibility, Sistani has extensive influence throughout the Shi'a population of Iraq through a network of junior clerics who convey his teachings. Due to his influence, he has played a quiet but important role in the current politics of Iraq. He is particularly known for forcing the Coalition Provisional Authority into a compromise on the constitutional process, for issuing a fatwa calling on all Shi'a especially women to vote, and for calling on Shi'a communities not to retaliate to Sunni sectarian violence.
In early August 2004, Sistani, who has long been suffering from a heart condition, reportedly suffered serious health problems and he travelled to London to receive 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 enough for caution.
Role in contemporary Iraq
Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sistani has played an increasingly wider political role in Iraq, and the Western mainstream media has called him the "most influential" figure in post-invasion Iraq.
Shortly after the American invasion began, Sistani issued fatwas calling on Shia clergy to get involved in politics to guide masses towards what he sees as "the clearer decisions", and to fight what he sees as "media propaganda". 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 Shia dominance over Iraq's government, since most observers say that Shia make up about 60% of Iraq's population. Subsequently, Sistani has criticized American plans for an Iraqi government as not being democratic enough.
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