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Ayatollah Sistani’s Doctrine Differs from Ayatollah Khoei’s One

Sayyid Monir Al-Khabbaz elaborated in details on the scientific approach of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, reiterating that the Ayatollah’s doctrine is totally different from that of Grand Ayatollah Khoie in terms of Jurisprudence (Fiqh) and  principle of Jurisprudence (Usool).

Born in 1965 in Al-Qatif, East of Saudi Arabia, Sayyid Monir Al-Khabbaz entered Najaf Seminary school when he was 13 years old, pursuing his religious education under the supervision of such Grand Ayatollahs as Khoie, Sabzevari, and Sistani. Just after Ayatollah Khoie passed away, he moved into Qom city and attended the senior level of clerical studies (Dars al-Kharij) under Grand Ayatollah Wahid Khorasani and Ayatollah Tabrizi. Being a lecturer on Kharij and Usool studies at Qom seminary school, Sayyid Monir Al-Khabbaz elaborated in details on the scientific approach of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, reiterating that the Ayatollah’s doctrine is totally different from that of Grand Ayatollah Khoie in terms of Jurisprudence (Fiqh) and Usool.

What follows is an interview by Andisha Journal with Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz:

Question: You are known as one of those figures who have studied under Grand Ayatollah Sistani. How did you come to know the Ayatollah and how long did you attend his classes?

Sayyid Monir Al-Khabbaz: When in 1978, i.e. forty years ago, I moved to Najaf seminary to pursue my religious education, I heard the name of Sayyid Sistani who was then regarded as one of the senior clerics in Najaf had a teaching position on Kharij studies as a mujtahid (expert in Islamic law). I was eagerly longing to see him in person, but as he used not to leave his home unless for teaching in seminary or visiting the holy shrine of Imam Ali (A.S), I failed. However, some day as he was walking in a street I finally managed to visit him and the very moment I saw him, I recognized that he was the person I had been hearing about much. Having completed my religious studies at both basic and advanced levels, I decided to attend his Kharij course but the problem was that the course was presented in Persian and thus they were offered only for Iranian elites and those Arabs who could speak Persian. I, therefore, asked some of my instructors including the late Allameh Sayyid Habib Hosseinian who was himself a student of Ayatollah Sistani to request that he offer the course in Arabic. One day we, together, went to his house and offered him our request but he replied that teaching in Arabic was really difficult for him and that he might not be able to express his words in full. However, we asked him to give it a try for a while and he said in response that he would think it over.

Following that meeting, I attended the Kharij classes of Grand Ayatollah Khoie and studied Usool subjects under Mirza Ali Gharavi for a while until one of Ayatollah Sistani’s students who was known as Sayyid Mohammad Ali Rabbani (who is living in Mashhad now) told me that the Ayatollah had decided to present his Kharij lessons in Arabic tentatively, and thus invited me to observe the class to see whether his teaching in Arabic was satisfactory or not. Although at the beginning he lacked sufficient mastery in lecturing in Arabic, I encouraged his Excellency to continue doing the job and assured him that his lectures in Arabic were clear enough for us to understand and that there was nothing to worry about. That encouragements worked and he was motivated to continue lecturing Kharij subjects in Arabic accordingly. The story, however, dates back to 1987 and I fully attended his classes until late 1990 when Intifada started.

Question: How did you find the Ayatollah’s lectures? What was his teaching methodology?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: When I attended the Kharij classes, the Najaf seminary was weak, constituting only of a few instructors and students including no more than 300 individuals from the basic levels to the advanced ones such as sat’h and Kharij. Kharij courses included the jurisprudence lessons taught by Sayyid Khoie, Sayyid Abdul Ali Sabzevari, Mirza Ali Gharavi, Sheikh Morteza Broujerdi, and Sheikh Ishaq Fayyadh; however, the most brilliant jurisprudence courses belonged to Ayatollah Sistani and that was why it was attended by many renowned and erudite seminary scholars who, however, were not beyond 25 or 27 people. As for his teaching methodology in Kharij subjects I could say that his method was the most comprehensive one among the Usooli schools, inspired by the Usooli school of Mirza Mahdi Isfahani who was well-reputed in Mashhad city, Iran. Moreover, he was deeply committed to the Usooli thoughts of Sheikh Hadi Tehrani and such well-known Usooli schools as Naeeni, Iraqi and Isfahani. To sum it up, the first characteristic of his course on Kharij studies was his perfect command of different Usooli schools.

The second characteristic of his Kharij course was his mastery over modern schools of law, and his vast knowledge in psychology (the science of the self/Ilm al-Nafs), sociology, modern philosophy, and western philosophy was really invaluable to his students. He was also well familiar with modern linguistics, and thus in my opinion he was a modern example of Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr, the martyr, in terms of the comprehensive, vast, and broad knowledge he had especially in modern sciences. He would acquire information on any book published in Arabic or Persian and used to study widely in every subject, the results of which was a great knowledge which showed itself in his Kharij courses or in any other course on modern philosophy, psychology or other sciences. The third characteristic was that when he finished presenting the materials prepared for each session, he would try to present a novel topic either through defamiliarizing the commonly known discussions or by adding new points to them; thus, innovation was one of the characteristic features of his teaching methodology which he was totally committed to in his Usooli arguments. The fourth characteristic was, however, that he was very meticulous in comprehending the ideas and thoughts which had previously been offered by Sheikh Naeeni as he had completed a course on Usool (principles of jurisprudence) under Sheikh Hossein Helli, the greatest student of Sheikh Naeeni and the closest one to him who was then known as “The Tongue for Naeeni, the researcher); that was why Ayatollah Sistani repeatedly disputed Sayyid Khoie’s understanding of Naeeni ideas, believing that he had misunderstood many of his ideas, because, as mentioned earlier, Ayatollah Sistani relied in this regard on the opinions of an instructor who was closer to Ayatollah Naeeni than Sayyid Khoie.

Question: Taking what you already mentioned into consideration, could we claim that Ayatollah Sistani offers different views on jurisprudence and Usool from those of his instructor, Ayatollah Khoie, or that he has his own distinct doctrine?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: He has his own special doctrine, i.e. Sayyid Sistani’s doctrine is totally different from that of Sayyid Khoie in terms of jurisprudence and Usool.

Question: What are the distinct features of Sayyid Sistani’s doctrine? Could you please mention a few?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: I already mentioned some of those features; however, his jurisprudence course-which I attended for a short while- was more consistent with Sayyid Broujerdi’s doctrine than that of Sayyid Khoie’s as he was the student of Ayatollah Broujerdi for 5 years and was thus inspired in that regard by him. He was also unique in comprehending the jurisprudence of the Sunni Islam, i.e. he knew the Sunni’s jurisprudence even better than them themselves because of his extensive studies and researches in that regard. Just as introduced and recognized in Sayyid Broujerdi’s doctrine, Ayatollah Sistani believed that knowing the traditions narrated by the AhlulBayt (A.S) would be impossible unless their opposing Sunni jurisprudence (raised and discussed during each of Imam’s era) are known and taken into account through contrastive analysis, because like Sayyid Broujerdi, he argued that the AhlulBayt’s traditions were told against their contemporary Sunni jurisprudence, explicating that they were annotations on, additions to, reinterpretation of, or criticisms against the jurisdictional views of the Sunnis; that’s why you see that there are many differences between the understanding of Ayatollah Sistani of the traditions and that of Ayatollah Khoie’s, since he reads and understand the traditions by contrasting them against their opposing Sunni jurisprudence offered during the time when the intended hadiths have been told.

The second feature of Ayatollah Sistani’s jurisprudence school was his concentration on the books written by early Muslim scholars, reading the topics from those books and explicating the same just as they did. He used to research on the popular views and sayings of the early Muslim jurists, referring to them in any problem and then elaborating on the problem and its possible solutions and its historical development to date accordingly. The third feature of his jurisprudence school was his extensive command of manuscripts. Having a great knowledge on which manuscript to prefer and how to value it, he never referred to the printed version of the Four Books of Hadiths (as credited in Shia Islam), but relied on their manuscripts instead and distinguished the authentic hadiths by comparing and contrasting the discrepancies he found in different versions of them. Another feature of his jurisprudence school was his insistence on comprehending the hadiths in the context of all other ones, referring to this as “inferential comprehension” of scriptures, arguing that the hadiths are not comprehended only through intellectual and conventional care, but the only yardstick for comprehending them is inferential comprehension. In other words, by inferential comprehension he meant that a jurist would not comprehend a hadith unless he considers it in the context of all other hadiths; thus it would not suffice to, for instance, be simply familiar with the hadiths on saying prayers (Salat) or fasting (sawm) (صوم), but one needs to have a general understanding of all the hadiths narrated by AhlulBayt (P.B.U.T) so that he/she knows their rhetoric and taste well enough and develops a sense of understanding their words as attested by a hadith which reads that you may not become a jurist unless you know the rhetoric and taste of our words. He was in close contact with Aqa Bozorg Tehrani and was deeply fond of him who had provided the Ayatollah with a detailed written permission note to recite hadiths of AhlulBayt (P.B.U.T), describing Sayyid Sistani as a great jurist with an excellent competency in researching and comprehending the hadiths and a vast knowledge on the printed and manuscript versions of the hadith collections. These are some features specific to Ayatollah Sistani’s school compared with that of Ayatollah Khoie’s.

Question: Did you travel to Najaf after the martyrdom of Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: No. when I moved to Najaf he was still alive and I managed to study under his supervision for 2 years. He was then martyred.

Question: What was the reaction of Ayatollah Sistani to the dreadful atrocities committed by the Baath Regime and the martyrdom of Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: When I was attending his classes on Kharij studies, generally he had some political positions and considerations on the status quo of the then Iraqi regime and the Iraqi society but he avoided any action on the surface due to the dangerous situation of the time and the lack of popular leadership within Iraqi society. In other words, the marj’a of Iraqi people was Ayatollah Khoie at that time and he had not become one yet, and though he was offered to be accorded with the title he refused to accept it while Grand Ayatollah Khoie was alive; so, like many other instructors of Najaf seminary, he voiced some criticisms against the ruling regime.

Question: Did he express anything about the status quo at that time?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: Well, he would express his views in that regard among his students in private, but he never addressed the public on that whatsoever.

Question: What was the role of Ayatollah Sistani in the then Iraqi society?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: Sayyid Sistani was critical of the approach taken by Grand Ayatollah Khoie in dealing with the Iraq’s state of affairs at that time and despite holding him a considerable respect and knowing that he had taken the approach considering the complicated situation of that time, he believed that the Ayatollah could exercise a better leadership as a marj’a regarding the country’s state of affairs and the Iraqi society as a whole and could manage the situation more efficiently; therefore, from the very moment he inherited the religious leadership of the Iraqis as the marj’a after the death of Ayatollah Khoie, Sayyid Sistani attempted to be more in touch with the public and to narrow the gap between ordinary people and the maraji, as a result of which he replaced many of the Ayatollah’s representatives with young elite clerics as they were more in contact with the Iraqi people and thus were more familiar with their problems and difficulties.

Sayyid Sistani deeply cared about receiving regular reports, event during the Saddam rule, on the society’s state of affairs and thus passionately pursued the activities of the then marj’a’s representatives and their approaches, investigated the needs of the people and constantly examined the popular culture. Returning the obligatory religious funds (including Zakat, Khums, and Kaffara) to the society and avoiding accepting such a money was one of the first measures he took immediately after he was ascended to the position of the marj’a of the Iraqis. Whenever a believer referred to him to pay his religious funds he would allow him/her to distribute it among the needy himself/herself and not to refer to him again in that regard. That fatwa is still valid and any Iraqi Muslim citizen who is entitled to pay religious funds is allowed to allocate it in any way he/she considers appropriate to the needy in his/her local region, helping to eliminate poverty and to empower many needy people accordingly. The fatwa was especially helpful when many Shiite Iraqis lost their homes, families, etc, in Sha’banieh intifada, making them destitute and needy. The fatwa, however, helped them return to normal life, making them feel that their marj’a understand their sufferings and thus getting them to particularly like him even more than ever. This type of relationship did not exist during the tenure of Ayatollah Khoie as the Baath Regime prevented him from making any close contact with the society.

One day Ayatollah Sistani went to the Al-Khadhra mosque, where Ayatollah Khoie was its usual prayer leader, to lead the prayers; when finished, the people took him from there to the holy shrine of Imam Ali (A.S) while carrying him over their shoulders, reciting Salawat all through the way, gathering around him when arrived at the shrine. This event occurred during the Saddam rule, making the security forces worried that this man might cause troubles for the regime; they therefore put him under some sort of house arrest, placing some strict constraints on his leaving or entering home.

Question: Were such constraints in place during Ayatollah Khoie’s tenure too?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: No, I meant that such constraints were imposed after his death. However, even when Ayatollah Khoie was the marja’, Ayatollah Sistani were among those who, together with his sons and a group of his seminary students were arrested during Sha’banieh intifada, some of whom were killed or injured. Anyway, following the passing away of Ayatollah Khoie, the strict constraints were intensified in such a way that one day the mercenaries of the regimes, guised as clergies who sought help, raided his home. His son, Sayyid Muhammad Reza found that they were the security forces who had entered the house under the guise of clergies; while he was attempting to find a way to escape from them, they started shooting and killed the Ayatollah’s servant but the Ayatollah himself was saved form the bullets by Allah; actually, the servant sacrificed his life to prevent the bullet from hitting the Ayatollah.

Question: Some Shia Muslims are worried about the future of Shiite authority in post-Sistani era and the problems they may face thereafter. In your opinion, what’s the future and destiny of the Shiite marja’ and the Najaf seminary like after Ayatollah Sistani? Is there anyone who can succeed him as a marja’ and continue his way forward?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: Late in his life, i.e. nearly six or seven years before his death, Ayatollah Khoie were thinking over the destiny of Najaf seminary when he was dead. In that time Ayatollah Sabzevari was the second living marja’ in Najaf, but considering the fact that he was very old and ill, Sayyid Khoie wanted to trust the seminary to a younger marja’ who could preside over it for a long time and improve its status; and his choice was Ayatollah Sistani. He therefore asked the Ayatollah to bear some parts of his responsibilities as a marja’ while he was still alive, but Sayyid Sistani refused to accept Shiite authority as a marja’ and conceded only to lead the prayers on his behalf and to teach religious subjects in the place where Ayatollah Khoie used to teach so that people know that he is prepared to succeed Sayyid Khoie as a marja’. When Ayatollah Khoie passed away, Ayatollah Sabzevari who was an elderly well-reputed marja’ and was older and much more known to the public than Ayatollah Sistani, naturally took the Shiite authority; however, it was Ayatollah Sistani who succeeded him as a marja’ after his death.

Sayyid Sistani believes now that he cannot appoint anyone as his successor, regarding the traditional and well known method of the seminaries more reliable than appointing the next marja’ personally. Traditionally, when a marja’ died the seminary elites and the most erudite jurists would assemble in a place and choose from among themselves the most knowledgeable mujtahid who were the most competent one in inferring and deriving Islamic rulings from the commonly known sources. As you may know, there are presently some other living maraji in Najaf seminary including Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Saeed al-Hakim, Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, and Ayatollah sheikh Bashir al-Najafi, some of whom are younger than Grand Ayatollah Sistani and some are nearly the same age as him and it appears that one of them would succeed the Ayatollah when he is passed away. As for the post-Sistani era, however, I’m not qualified enough to say whether the Shiite authority would remain as powerful as it has been throughout his tenure or whether his successor would be competent and discrete enough to efficiently manage the affairs or not.

Question: In your opinion, why doesn’t Ayatollah Sistani leave his home to visit the holy shrine of Imam Ali (A.S) or to teach at the seminary? Do you have any answer for these questions?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: As far as I know there are some security restrictions in place and that he has not shut down his classes permanently, but they are shut down only for this year.


Question: You mean that he is teaching right now?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: Yes, he has a course for his own sons but due to security restrictions he does not offer any public course; and as for his leaving his house, it is not the case that he never leaves home, but he rarely does so; in other words, sometimes after carefully checking the temporal, spatial and especially the security conditions, he visits the holy shrine as a pilgrimage and may visit the elderly jurists and clerics such as his visiting Sheikh Fayyad; and sometimes when any of the senior clerics gets into trouble he would pay him a visit. Anyway, his commutes are done under security measures. By the way, although he himself likes to get out of his house, his family and companions are worried about his safety or any possible assassination against him.

Question: What is Ayatollah Sistani’s view on, for instance, Mahdism? As you know, there is a current that interprets any happening as a sign of the End Times or the Resurrection Day. However, it appears that the Ayatollah does not agree with such sentiments. Is it right?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: Yes it is; it is not the Ayatollah’s approach to relate everything to the signs of the Resurrection Day or the End Times, as if the Islamic community should remain passive and see what would happen! He, instead, follows a scientific approach and pays full attentions to the responsibilities and duties of the maraji and the Shia community during the Occultation so that they may acquire some achievements in terms of civilization and knowledge production and to be actively engaged with the realm of science and knowledge by performing such duties. He, therefore, instructs all Iranian and Iraqi officials, the cultural elites of the Iraqi society or any other nation who visit him about the fact that the Shia community needs to produce knowledge and technology in all varied fields so that it can become a prosper and leading community worldwide and this is exactly what our lord, Imam Mahdi (P.B.U.H) expects us to do.

Question: You have experienced the atmosphere of the Najaf Ashraf in that time and you have been living in Qom for nearly 30 years now. Which one do you prefer? Today’s Qom or the Najaf in that era?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: Naturally as the holy shrine of Imam Ali (A.S) is located in Najaf, an especial spiritual atmosphere prevails in the city which so deeply touches one’s soul that he/she may not feel the same anywhere else even in some other cities that host the holy tombs of other infallible Imams (P.B.U.T). Moreover, Najaf is naturally charged with an atmosphere which makes living simple and down-home; in my opinion, Najaf provides the seminary students with better living conditions as they can simply live a humble life and enjoy even the lowest levels of living there. It has traditionally been like that. But the case is different for Qom. Since 1990 when Ayatollah Khoie passed away and I left the Najaf to settle in Qom, which makes nearly 27 years now, the city has undergone a drastic change and is more varied than Najaf in terms of culture and knowledge. Moreover, there are a wide variety of exegesis, philosophy and Quranic sciences courses as well as many other schools of thought which are offered and practiced here in Qom which is unrivalled by any other seminary including the Najaf that has never experienced such a great diversity in scientific schools. The vast number of active students and jurists is another characteristic of the Qom city, indicating the prosperity, vividness, and the active nature of a seminary which seems obvious as the Najaf seminary started to decline during the early 1980s when the Iraq-Iran war which was imposed against Iranians by the Baath regime began while the Qom seminary was flourished during all those years. So, in my view the scientific movement of the Qom seminary is stronger and more comprehensive than that of the Najaf one.

Question: Don’t you think that these gigantic religious institutions which are active in Qom may prevent the seminary students from reaching the scientific levels of such great clerics as Ayatollah Khoie and Ayatollah Sistani?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: The existence of such gigantic institutions in Qom is necessary. We don’t expect the seminary students to be equipped with outdated knowledge and remain in the same level as existed 100 or 150 years ago, but we expect them to be acquainted with different cultures and different views of the scholars worldwide and to be totally aware of the current state of affairs in the world. So I believe that such a diversity and variety of the existing fields of knowledge is necessary for training more competent and knowledgeable clerics.

Question: Could Najaf seminary make the same progress?

Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz: I think it can. Najaf seminary has the potentials to progress and regain its lost prosperity; it could become the best seminary in the Shia world in terms of its vast potentials and capabilities and might reach such a level in the coming years by relying on its strength and qualifications.

About Ali Teymoori

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