AhlulBayt News Agency

source : Ijtihad News

15 November 2022

10:40:44 AM

Wilayat al-Faqih in the View of Ayatollah Sistani

For decades, the West-based campaign to secularize the vision and even the character of Sayyid ‘Ali al-Sistāni and jurists of the Najaf seminary has manipulated the Shi’i public opinion.

AhlulBayt News Agency: For decades, the West-based campaign to secularize the vision and even the character of Sayyid ‘Ali al-Sistāni and jurists of the Najaf seminary has manipulated the Shi’i public opinion.

This campaign has spread false notions like the myth of a “historical rivalry” between the Qom and Najaf seminaries,[1] or the existence of a quietist and apolitical tradition of Shi’ism among the jurists despite a few others breaking rhythm to seek power through militancy. It is hardly a secret that the aim of such misinformation is to disrupt Islamic unity, weaken the security of Islamic nations, and separate Iraq from even the bare idea of Islamic Revolution, let alone the slightest endeavor to imitate the Iranian experience. The West does not want a Shi’i cleric “dictating the terms of Iraq’s political future”.[2] It fears that if jurists like Sayyid al-Sistāni got what they wanted, the “Islamic Republic of Iraq” would be “up and running”.[3] It aims instead to support non-clerics who can be considered “relatively moderate” in their quest for public office.[4]

This requires a narrative on Shi’i Islam that allows it to follow, instead of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, models closer to Western ideals. Iraq as it is, they believe, “does not necessarily feel like the place that Jeffersonian democracy is going to arise from”.[5] Something like the Christian religious institution is needed, whereby Sayyid al-Sistāni could be seen as “the closest thing Muslims have to a pontiff”.[6] The seminary needs to stay in its lane if factions such as those it mobilized to fight ISIS after Sayyid al-Sistāni’s edict in 2014 gain enough “clout” to control Iraq and make it “similar to what Lebanon is today”.[7] Perhaps they reckon it needs to be possible to describe the Shi’i religious authority’s struggles after the Baathist regime’s tyrannical ways and the American invasion’s finishing touches as a preference of “the quietist, or moderate, tradition”;[8] that is, as opposed to the allegedly untraditional ‘theory’ of wilāyat al-faqīh that maintains “governments with authority over Shi’ites should be run by religious clerics in accordance with Islamic law”.[9]

Experts and commentators insist that this ‘quietist’ tradition is a “form of Shi’ism”,[10] that it is the “classical” way which “discourages” a jurist from “interference with political matters at the state level”,[11] and that Sayyid al-Sistāni adopted this approach from his “mentor”, Sayyid Abu’l-Qāsim al-Khoei.[12] The word they like to use in their reports is “aloof”.[13] After all, they assert that “a new theology”,[14] also called “a new, secular Shi’ism”, is on the rise.[15] They describe it as one that “opposes political Islam” and calls “for secular democracy”.[16]

Sayyid al-Sistāni leads what they characterize as a commitment “to coexistence and social justice, not supremacism and extremism”[17] – an obvious jab at the authority of the guardian- jurist in the Islamic Republic who is also sometimes referred to as the ‘Supreme Leader’. One even wrote an article called “Sistani Versus Khamenei” in which he described the aforementioned ‘rivalry’ as a “division”,[18] which is quite convenient considering the aspirations behind the narrative. Another said the two leading Shi’i authorities are “in a tussle to define Iraq’s national character”,[19] completely dismissing the elementary fact that jurists’ respect for state sovereignty and territorial integrity could never override their interest in advancing the cause of Islam. Nonetheless, the ‘experts’ do maintain that Sayed al-Sistāni’s “religious authority surpasses that of Iran’s supreme leader”,[20] and that he has a “religious stature that exceeds that of” the latter.[21] Emphasizing on such distinctions is the only way to attract the public to the ‘quiet’ and inactive profile they have illustrated.

A quite unfortunate byproduct of this narrative is the set of belittling descriptions that soften the jurists’ profiles and disqualify them in the public eye from any popular confidence in their potential leadership. They have a favorite term they like to use for this, as well, only this time it is a physical attribute: “frail”. How Cleric Trumped U.S. Plan for Iraq – The Washington Post (2003)[22] They call him “an old man”,[23] “camera shy”,[24] etc. Sometimes they line up these comments to make insinuations, as one article did when it stated he was ‘85, frail, rarely seen in public, and once traveled to London for medical treatment’.[25] That was years ago. He is 93 now, but needless to say, these observations point to the secular ambitions of most people already propagating that the jurists’ “tradition, worldview and policies are not at odds with Western values”, and that the word “Ayatollah” is “not always synonymous with the caricatures present in many Western minds.[26] One can only assume that means at other times it is synonymous.

These attempts certainly are not new. In 1985, the focus was on Sheikh ‘Hussain al- Montazeri who was in talks to succeed Imam Khomeini. They would say he “hardly resembled” the latter; that while Imam Khomeini had a “stern demeanor” and a “rigid approach”, the Sheikh was “known for his down-to-earth language and candor”.[27] The pattern in these attempts at softening and trivializing the jurists could not be more detectable: Sayyid al-Sistāni has a “snowy beard”,[28] Sheikh al-Montazeri was “grizzled”,[29] and the list goes on.

Meanwhile, in the real world, jurists are not divided into those who believe in Islamic governance and those who do not. They are not divided into those who believe the jurist has executive authority and those who do not. Jurists work as an apparatus that acts in the interest of Islam and the believing public, as well as that of the states where they reside. Among those familiar with the principles of wilāyat al-faqīh in Shi’i jurisprudence, it is known that the Shi’i jurists are of two groups: there are those who maintain the view that the textual evidence for the jurist’s guardianship is sufficient proof of the absolute authority of the jurist, while the second group of jurists disagree and instead postulate that the jurist is the authority in all that is required by the duty of implementing Islamic laws and rulings; or in all that is required by the duty of preserving order; or in all that is required by the duty of establishing justice in society; or in what are referred to as the ‘hisbiyyah affairs – i.e. “the affairs that it is known the divine Lawgiver requires and does not tolerate leaving unattended”.[30]

Currently, the top three jurists serving as religious authorities in Iraq are Sayyid ‘Ali al- Sistāni, Sheikh Mu’hammad Is’hāq al-Fayyādh, and Sheikh Bashir ‘Hussain al-Najafi. The opinions of Sheikh al-Fayyādh and Sheikh al-Najafi are a bit straightforward, which makes the false claims that Najaf is a secular seminary ironic. Sheikh al-Fayyādh says: “A government in the Shi’i doctrine is legitimate if and when it is based on the principle of religious governance, whereby the leading authority is appointed by God – whether that be in the period of the infallible guardian’s [apparent] presence or occultation, given just as the guardianship of the most noble Prophet (s) and purified Imams (a) is representative of God, so is that of the jurist who meets the criteria in the period of the occultation”.[31] Sheikh al-Najafi says: “In addition to issuing edicts and conveying Islamic rulings, the jurist is entitled to a public guardianship over the Muslims, such that he has a duty to manage the affairs of the Muslims”.[32] But what about Sayyid al-Sistāni, who is the most prominent of them?

The Textual Proofs

To prove the absolute guardianship of the jurist, many jurists relied on the narration of ‘Umar b. ‘Handhalah,[33] while some relied on the narration of Is’hāq b. Ya’qūb,[34] and a number of other narrations. As for the first, which is said to be the firmest of the proofs in terms of authenticity and indication, Sayyid al-Sistāni considers it a reliable narration,[35] but does not view it as sufficient evidence of guardianship in the particular sense. And even in the case of the second narration, Sayyid al-Sistāni says “its chain is not sound and is insufficient proof”.[36] In fact, Sayyid al-Sistāni does not consider any of the narrations indicative of an absolute guardianship being extended to the jurist – i.e. that the jurist is, in juridical affairs, entitled to the same purview as the infallible guardian except should proofs make an exception. The Sayyid says after presenting a number of narrations and examining them in terms of authenticity and indication: “If it is just us and these narrations, the guardianship of the jurist cannot be proven”.[37] That is, guardianship in its aforementioned connotation.

The Executive Authority of the Jurist

Yes, the Sayyid does consider the narration of ‘Umar b. ‘Handhalah proof that the jurist has been appointed for judicial authority during the period of the occultation,[38] and moreover, he does not consider it permissible for anyone else to be judge.[39] Perhaps this alone proves the executive authority of the jurist regardless of the absolute guardianship not being proven, given the judge’s verdict requires an apparatus to enforce it. In other words, not being of the view of the absolute guardianship does not entail denying the jurist’s executive authority. For this reason, Sayyid al- Sistāni introduces the affairs over which he believes the jurist has a mandate as “the affairs that pertain to the leader in any organized society”.[40] Furthermore, he clearly calls the jurist’s authority over public affairs an “executive guardianship”.[41]

Islamic Rulings as Proof

What also backs this is what the Sayyid has mentioned in terms of the nature of divine rulings requiring a manager and that they may not be obstructed. He says: “Some of them pertain to the order of society, such as criminal laws like the implementation of punishments and reprimands, financial affairs like appointing ministers to collect zakāt (alms), kharāj (taxes placed on specific lands), and the likes in order to spend them accordingly; and [some of them pertain] to that which is required for the preservation of order and the prevention of vacancies and deterioration, for doing so in the more general sense requires that the guardian of the Muslims’ affairs legislate laws to satisfy changing interests; and other matters such as spreading justice and lifting oppression, given these are social rulings that the divine Lawgiver would not tolerate being obstructed, and it is clear that these rulings are not among the rulings that it is possible for any individual from society to set out to fulfill”.[42]

The Jurist is the Manager

Therefore, who is the candidate for whom it is permissible to set out to fulfill these affairs and rulings? Sayyid al-Sistāni says: “It is of the responsibilities of the Prophet (s) and the Imams (a) to take charge of these rulings either directly or indirectly. This is because it is our belief that the Imams (a) inherit all of the positions of the Prophet (s); and since carrying out such functions in which people refer to the leader are of the duties of the Imams (a), then if they (a) are incapable of doing so directly, they must entrust others to do so, as established by Ameer al-Mu’mineen (a) having appointed governors/ministers in various states; and we know that the Imams (a) have appointed a manager to execute matters during the occultation”.[43]

The Sayyid’s statements confirm the legitimacy of the jurist setting out to fulfill the functions required to maintain order, establish justice, lift oppression, execute the divinely constituted rulings, implement punishments and reprimands, and preserve the interests of the Ummah. They also confirm the jurist’s authority in the ‘hisbiyyah affairs. He says: “We find proven the jurist’s guardianship in the ‘hisbiyyah affairs, which are many, such that fulfilling them does not allow for the obstruction of the many rulings which leaving unattended would cause one to leave the fold of Islam”.[44] The Sayed saying the ‘hisbiyyah affairs “are many, such that fulfilling them does not allow for the obstruction” of many rulings means the posts of executive power and jurisdictions are included in the sphere of ‘hisbah by default.[45] This is a crucial point in understanding the authority of the jurist, especially in his view.

All of the above debunks the false narrative that Sayyid al-Sistāni is apolitical, believes in the separation of religion and state, etc. Rather, it is quite strange that such claims could be made despite the illegitimacy of other candidates whom it is certain the divine Lawgiver would not tolerate setting out to fulfill such functions. This is what the Sayyid mentions as he says: “While we deny the consensus regarding the [absolute] guardianship of the jurist, we still do not deny the consensus regarding the illegitimacy of a non-jurist’s guardianship, and therefore, guardianship over these affairs is for the jurist”.[46] He declares, leaving no doubt: “There is no objection that, according to Shi’i jurisprudence, no category of people has been appointed to fulfill these functions except the jurists – that is, if a trustee has been appointed, it is the jurists and no one else; and as a result, the guardian during the occultation on behalf of the Imam (a) is the jurist”.[47]

The History of the Imams (a)

Some may argue against the guardianship of the jurist by raising the point that the occultation is an instance of short handedness, and there were many executive affairs that the Imams of Ahl al- Bayt (a) did not set out to fulfill; and therefore, the certain extent of authority sanctioned for the jurist during the period of the occultation is that which the Imams (a) set out to fulfill during their lifetimes when they themselves were shorthanded. But the Sayyid answers this as he says: “It is not possible to classify matters into what the Imams (a) set out to fulfill and what they did not set out to fulfill, for their doing so or not doing so is dependent upon their ability to do so” [48] – that is, considering the circumstances.

Public Acceptability

Sayyid al-Sistāni responds to a religious inquiry about his opinion on the guardianship of the jurist in which he says: “Guardianship in what the jurists call ‘the ‘hisbiyyah affairs’ is established for all jurists who meet the criteria for emulation. As for further guardianship in public affairs upon which the order of Islamic society is contingent, it is established for those of the jurists who meet its criteria, and the circumstances of its application have conditions, one of which being that the jurist is accepted by the general public of believers”.[49]

What is understood from his words is: (1) that setting out for public affairs that are outside the sphere of ‘hisbah is not for all jurists, but rather for those who satisfy the criteria of such a broad mandate with functions besides the legislative role in which jurists convey Islamic rulings in their edicts; (2) that what the Sayyid means by the believing public’s general acceptability being a condition is not that it is a requisite of the legitimacy of the jurist’s guardianship, but rather that it is required to operationalize the jurist’s authority in public affairs. That is to say, it is mandatory upon the people to assist the jurist in his fulfillment of the executive authority and its pertinent duties. In any case, this is quite obvious considering the previously clarified point about jurists operating within their capacity and the surrounding circumstances.[50]

The Guardian-Jurist’s Executive Orders

Sayyid al-Sistāni says: “The orders of the jurists whose guardianship is established are binding to all in the ‘hisbiyyah affairs, and moreover, in the public affairs upon which the order of Islamic society is contingent”.[51] He also said in response to an inquiry about whether the guardian- jurist’s executive orders are binding to all Muslims around the world: “The guardianship of the jurist and its instances, for whomever it is established, is not limited to a geographical area”.[52] This explains the role of jurists who do not believe in the absolute guardianship and believers who emulate them, ]namely that they still have a duty to abide by the executive orders of the guardian-jurist based on the postulates they acknowledge (such as by way of the ‘hisbah).


As a result, the view that the jurist who meets the criteria is the guardian over the Ummah’s affairs and has an executive authority; that it is mandatory to enable the jurist of this public mandate and act on his commands and prohibitions; that his orders are binding and it is impermissible to weaken him or obstruct his leadership; that his purview expands as his influence does, etc. is not limited to the view of the absolute guardianship. Rather, it applies to guardianship in the name of establishing justice, maintaining order, and preserving public interests, as well – and that is the view of Sayyid ‘Ali al-Sistāni, may God prolong his life and service to Islam and Muslims.



[1] In Bid to Counter Iran, Ayatollah in Iraq May End Up Emulating It – The New York Times (2015)

[2] How Cleric Trumped U.S. Plan for Iraq – The Washington Post (2003)

[3] Q&A: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – The New York Times (2004)

[4] Iraq’s Shiite Islamists On the Threshold of Power – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2008)

[5] The Emerging Shia Crescent Symposium: Is Shia Power Cause for Concern? – Council on Foreign Relations (2006)

[6] The Pope Met a Different Kind of Ayatollah—As a Shiite Muslim I am Hopeful – Newsweek (2021)

[7] Iran as a Strategic Threat to the U.S. in the Middle East and Its Impact on U.S. Policy in the Region – Missouri State University (2015)

[8] IRAQ: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – Council on Foreign Relations (2005)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Quietism and the U.S. Position in Iraq – Center for Strategic & International Studies (2008)

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The Pope Met a Different Kind of Ayatollah—As a Shiite Muslim I am Hopeful – Newsweek (2021), In Bid to Counter Iran, Ayatollah in Iraq May End Up Emulating It – The New York Times (2015), Shia cleric challenges Bush plan for Iraq – The Guardian (2003), and others

[14] Secular Shiism on rise in Shiite Crescent – Al-Monitor (2019)

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] The Pope Met a Different Kind of Ayatollah—As a Shiite Muslim I am Hopeful – Newsweek (2021)

[18] Schism among Shiites on clerical rule – The Seattle Times (2009), Sistani versus Khamenei on Iraq’s Hashd al- Sha’abi – The London School of Economics & Political Science (2020), and others

[19] Shia leaders in two countries struggle for control over Iraqi state – The Guardian (2016)

[20] In Bid to Counter Iran, Ayatollah in Iraq May End Up Emulating It – The New York Times (2015)

[21] Iraq: The Clerics and the Militias – The New York Review (2015)

[22] How Cleric Trumped U.S. Plan for Iraq – The Washington Post (2003)

[23] In Bid to Counter Iran, Ayatollah in Iraq May End Up Emulating It – The New York Times (2015)

[24] The Pope Met a Different Kind of Ayatollah—As a Shiite Muslim I am Hopeful – Newsweek (2021)

[25] In Bid to Counter Iran, Ayatollah in Iraq May End Up Emulating It – The New York Times (2015)

[26] The Pope Met a Different Kind of Ayatollah—As a Shiite Muslim I am Hopeful – Newsweek (2021)

[27] Iran’s Future: Different Sort of Ayatollah – The New York Times (1985). Ironically, the articles are even titled similarly.

[28] How Cleric Trumped U.S. Plan for Iraq – The Washington Post (2003)

[29] Iran’s Future: Different Sort of Ayatollah – The New York Times (1985)

[30] Taqreerāt al-Imām al-Sistāni, v.5, p.127

[31] Manhaj al-‘Hukūmah al-Islāmiyyah, p.13

[32] Mustafa al-Deen al-Qayyim, p.31

[33] Wasā’il al-Shi’a, v.27, p.136, Al-Kāfi, v.1, p.412, Tahtheeb al-A’hkām, v.6, p.218: It is narrated that ‘Umar b. ‘Handhalah said: “I asked Abā ‘Abdillāh (a) about two men of our companions between whom there was a dispute surrounding a loan or inheritance for which they sought the judgment of the ruler and judges – [[asking] whether that is permissible. He (a) replied: “Whosoever seeks their judgment in truth or falsity has certainly sought the verdict of the undivine authority, and whatever he rules for them is ill-gotten even if it is
an established right of theirs, for it has been attained via the judgment of the undivine authority, which God has commanded should be rejected as He says: {They wish to refer rulership to the undivine authority, while they were commanded to reject it}.” I said: “Then, what shall they do?” He (a) answered: “They shall look to whomever among you has narrated our speech and looked into our permissions and prohibitions and has known our rulings; let them accept him as a judge, for I have appointed him as a ruler over you, such that if he judges by our verdict and his ruling is rejected, then it is God’s command that has been underestimated and it is we who have been rejected, and the one who rejects us rejects God, and is on the verge of polytheism.”

[34] Kamāl al-Deen wa Tamām al-Ni’mah, p.483-484, Wasā’il al-Shi’a, v.27, p.140, [Sheikh al-Tūsi’s] Al-Ghaybah, p.176: It is narrated that Imam al-Mahdi (aj) wrote in response to Is’hāq b. Ya’qūb: “As for the rising occurrences, refer regarding them to the narrators of our speech, for they are my proof over you and I am the proof of God”.

[35] Taqreerāt al-Imām al-Sistāni, v.5, p.101

[36] Taqreerāt al-Imām al-Sistāni, v.5, p.84, 117-118

[37] Taqreerāt al-Imām al-Sistāni, v.5, p.119

[38] Taqreerāt al-Imām al-Sistāni, v.5, p.84

[39] The Sayed says in his responses to the religious inquiries on his official website that “it is a post exclusively for the Islamic ruler” and says in Al-Fiqh li’l-Mughtaribeen, p.204: “It is not permissible for anyone to set out for the judiciary except those qualified for it, nor on the basis of any laws besides Islamic laws”.

[40] Taqreerāt al-Imām al-Sistāni, v.5, p.85

[41] Taqreerāt al-Imām al-Sistāni, v.5, p.86

[42] aqreerāt al-Imām al-Sistāni, v.5, p.122; and quite similar is what Imam al-Khomeini says in Al-‘Hukūmah al- Islāmiyyah, p.27-33

[43] Taqreerāt al-Imām al-Sistāni, v.5, p.122

[44] Taqreerāt al-Imām al-Sistāni, v.5, p.128

[45] Quite similar is what Sayed Mu’hammad Ridha al-Golpaygāni says in Al-Hidayah Ilā Man Lahu’l-Wilāyah, p.48

[46] Taqreerāt al-Imām al-Sistāni, v.5, p.123

[47] Taqreerāt al-Imām al-Sistāni, v.5, p.122

[48] Taqreerāt al-Imām al-Sistāni, v.5, p.124

[49] Al-Fawā’id al-Fiqhiyyah, v.1, p.39

[50] Quite similar is what Sayed ‘Abd al-A’la al-Sibzawāri says in Muhathab al-A’hkām, v.1, p.115

[51] Al-Fawā’id al-Fiqhiyyah, v.1, p.36

[52] Al-Fawā’id al-Fiqhiyyah, v.1, p.53