Al-Sayyid Ali al-Sistani (b.1930) has been Grand Ayatollah since 1992.
Ayatollah Sistani is one of the top living scholars of Shia Islam.
Though born in Iran, he has lived and taught in Najaf, Iraq, the intellectual capital of global Shiism, since the age of 21.
He is the most influential person in Iraq, and he also has a large following around the world.
Sistani’s family traces its lineage back to Fatimah, the daughter of Muhammad. He is the son and grandson of prominent Shia scholars who taught in the seminaries in Najaf, Qom, and Mashhad. Ali began his Quranic studies at the age of five and showed early brilliance. He studied in Mashhad and Qom in Iran, and then in Najaf, Iraq.
Sistani reached the top level of cleric, becoming a mujtahid, one who is entitled to make independent legal rulings based on their interpretation of Sharia, by the age of 31. In Najaf he studied under, then taught jurisprudence alongside of, Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei for 32 years. He succeeded him as Grand Ayatollah upon al-Khoei’s death in 1992.
He is married and is known to have one son, Muhammad Rida al-Sistani. He lives simply, rarely appears in public, and is said to be very humble and pious.
As the supreme religious authority in Iraq, Sistani has played a significant role in stopping sectarian violence and promoting democracy in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
He has had major moderating influence in Iraqi political processes. In a dramatic return from heart surgery in London, he negotiated a cease-fire to end the al-Sadr-led armed Shiite rebellion against coalition forces in 2004.
He has often said, “Do not say, ‘Our brothers, the Sunnis,’ but say, ‘Ourselves.’” He forbids sects from seizing mosques from one another.
When Islamic State forces threatened Iraq, he called upon Shia Muslims to liberate Iraq from them, but only to fight within the Iraqi army. Thousands volunteered.
He was commended by the United Nations Security Council for his role in combating terrorism and for his care of displaced minorities after the brutal assault of Islamic State jihadists in Mosul. Sistani wants Iraq to flourish once again as a unified modern nation.