Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hussein Al-Sistani is the prime marja, or spiritual reference for Ithna Asharia (Twelver) Shia Muslims.
He is the leading sheikh of the Hawza Seminary in Najaf, Iraq and the preeminent Shia cleric globally.
Sistani’s influence in the Twelver Shia sect stems from his scholarly lineage and education, which have enabled him to reach the status of marja taqlid—the highest status in the Usuli branch of Twelver Shia Islam. Marja taqlid means literally one who is worthy of being imitated—placing Sistani in a position of great authority over Twelver Shia Muslims. Sistani is descended from a family of religious scholars, and was educated in the leading institutions in Iran. He later went to Najaf, Iraq to study under the Grand Ayatollah Abu Al-Qasim Al-Khoei. On Khoei’s death in 1992, Sistani took over as grand ayatollah, inheriting Khoei’s following. He soon rose to become the leading cleric in Iraq.
Sistani also has very significant financial clout. As a marja his followers give him a religious tax (khums, Arabic for one-fifth). The redistribution of this tax for the common good is one of the key roles of a marja. Much of this remittance is redistributed through the Al-Khoei Foundation—the largest Twelver Shia development organization in the world that maintains a network of educational and humanitarian establishments for both Shia and non-Shia Muslims.
Significantly, Sistani is against the idea of Velayat-e Faqih, suggesting Shia clerics should not get involved in politics. Paradoxically this approach has afforded him very strong influence as a religious leader unsullied by politics. Sistani has used his position of quietist authority to wield influence also as a peacemaker in turbulent, post-invasion Iraq. His comments about the political scene have been credited with bringing about stability in key moments. He has identified eliminating political corruption and improvement of public services as the main issues of the day. He has also issued strong statements against DA’ISH, calling on Iraqis to unite against the militants.
Sistani rarely meets officials but made an exception for Iran’s President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif in March 2019. Pope Francis also visited Sistani’s home in Najaf in March 2021 during the Pope’s visit to Iraq.