A Cursory Glance at Sayyid Sistani’s Unique Ideas in Ijtihad

A Cursory Glance at Sayyid Sistani’s Methods and Unique Ideas in Jurisprudence, Legal Theory, Hadith, and Rijal

Hamid Reza Tamaddon, Husayn Azizpour

Without a doubt, it is an arduous task in itself to speak about the style of istinbāṭ (legal deduction) and ijtihādī principles accepted by a particular jurist, let alone to do so in a short article. In the case of Ayatullāh Sīstānī, there is another aspect that adds to this difficulty in that no writings of his own have been published. All that is available of his fiqhī, uṣūlī, rijālī and ḥadīth discussions are lesson transcripts written by his students. Nevertheless, we can gain a general picture of his style of istinbāṭ by reflecting on these available works—especially books such as ‘Qāʿidat Ḍarar wa lā Ḍirār’ and ‘al-Rāfid fī ʿIlm al-Uṣūl[1] which are transcriptions of his lessons written by two of his distinguished students—and also by finding other published transcripts and what his students have said about their own teacher. In this article, we will briefly present some of his seemingly innovative opinions and principles.

Sayyid Sīstānī’s Innovative Opinions in Istinbāṭ

One of the noteworthy issues that makes the study of Sayyid Sīstānī’s uṣūlī ideas important is the attention he pays towards less discussed or neglected fields in both the sciences of fiqh and uṣūl al-fiqh (legal theory). Some of these include:

1. Differentiating between the narrations of the Ahl al-Bayt (a) that are in the context of teaching (maqām taʿlīm) and those that are in the context of issuing a legal verdict (maqām iftāʾ):

This principle of his is clearly borrowed from the uṣūlī ideas of Ayatullāh Mīrzā Mahdī Iṣfahānī and has been developed with precision.[2] According to this principle, not all narrations can be considered to be of the same kind. Some are educational in nature, stated in the context of teaching students [the general principles, rules and guidelines for Divine Law and where they apply] while others are like that of a doctor[3], stated in the context of answering a questioner and prescribing a solution to their problem in a specific case [by applying general principles to the specific subject matter at hand to determine the individual’s religious duty in those specific circumstances]. The influence of this principle in technical works can be seen in the discussion of ‘absoluteness and restrictedness’. On this basis, the differentiation between these two types of narrations must be considered when citing the absoluteness and universality of narrations to prove legal rulings. It is here that the importance of ‘examining the context in which narrations were issued’ is demonstrated.[4]

2. Consideration of the wilāyʾī (political) rank of the Prophet (s) and the Ahl al-Bayt (a) and differentiating between a wilāyʾī ruling and a sharʿī (legal) ruling:

Neglecting the wilāyʾī rank of the Prophet (s) and the Imams (a) is one of the important issues that sometimes causes errors when analysing their words and actions. In the sense that sometimes—given their position of leadership of the Islamic community (more so in the case of the Prophet (s) and Imām ʿAlī (a)), their consideration of the capacity of the narrators and other necessities of the time—there are narrations from them that are considered to be eternal just like their other words and actions. Whereas considering this rank highlights the necessity to not take all the narrations to be the same. In Sayyid Sīstānī’s view, this is one of the tools that can be used to resolve conflicts between narrations and a technique to explain the dimensions related to the legitimacy of the laws of the authoritative legislator.

3. Consideration of the objectives of the Sharīʿa and the theory of the spirit of the Sharīʿa (at least theoretically):

In his discussions on uṣūl, Ayatullāh Sīstānī has taken into consideration the place of the ‘objectives of the Sharīʿa’ as well as the theory of ‘spiritual’, rather than textual, agreement [of narrations] with the Sharīʿa. He has used these concepts in various instances such as evaluating narrations and legislation in areas that lack any sharʿī ruling. In this view, legal rulings must be in agreement with the general spirit of the legislator of the Sharīʿa when legislating. This has led to a different perspective he holds in examining narrations in which he relies on the importance of internal, textual criticism beyond a purely chain-based discussion[5]. This is the same basis of the methodology of the early Imāmī jurists and was later forgotten to some extent in the jurisprudential school of Ḥillah, with Ayatullāh Khūʾī’s principle-centred methodology also increasing this distancing.

Given this consideration of the primary objectives of the Sharīʿa such as justice and human dignity, as well as of the innate (fiṭrī) principles of religion which are explained by the Noble Qur’ān and the Sunna of the Prophet (s) and Ahl al-Bayt (a)[6], Sayyid Sīstānī rejects legal opinions such as the permissibility of slandering innovators in religion, which is the opinion of some Imāmī jurists, due to the fact that it is incompatible with, or rather opposed to, the spirit and primary objectives of the Sharīʿa.[7]

4. A lawmaker’s paradigm of the Islamic Sharīʿa:

In line with his legalistic view of the Sharīʿa, Ayatullāh Sīstānī has proposed the theory of ‘legal authority’[8] [to describe the relationship between humans and God]. He has endeavoured to critique the view of a slave-master system of relations between humans and God in Islamic jurisprudence by explaining the backdrop of rational law-making in different societies and offering a specific explanation about the contents of the sharʿī discourses (khiṭābāt) of the Holy Legislator. On the basis of this view, the suggested structure of the science of uṣūl also changes and the discussions of uṣūl are arranged based on the element of ‘authority’.[9]

5. Employing new fields of knowledge in understanding some of the issues of uṣūl al-fiqh:

Some of Sayyid Sīstānī’s innovative positions can be seen in the use of new sciences and fields, such as psychology, linguistics, anthropology, history and so on, in discussions of uṣūl such as ‘word coinage’ and the reconciliation of conflicting narrations. In the transcripts of his lessons by Sayyid Munīr al-Khabbāz, he says:

أن الفترة التي نعيشها الآن بمقتضى العوامل الاقتصادية والسياسية تمثل الصراع الحاد بين الثقافة الاسلامية والثقافات الأخرى على مختلف الأصعدة، فلا بد من تطوير علم الأصول وصياغته بالمستوى المناسب للوضع الحضاري المعاش. وقد ركزنا في بحوثنا على بعض الشذرات الفكرية التي تلتقي مع حركة التطوير لعلم الأصول من خلال الاستفادة من العلوم المختلفة قديمها وحديثها كالفلسفة وعلم القانون وعلم النفس وعلم الاجتماع ومن خلال محاولة التجديد على مستوى المنهجية وعلى مستوى النظريات الكبروية استمدادا من كلمات الاعلام

In the time period we live in now, there is a severe conflict between Islamic culture and other cultures on various levels due to [the dynamics created by] contemporary economic and political factors. Therefore, it is necessary that the science of uṣūl and its formulation is [structurally] developed at a level commensurate with the conditions of modern civilisation. In our discussion, we have focused on some of the intellectual fragments that converge with the movement to develop the science of uṣūl by making use of various sciences, both old and new, such as philosophy, law, psychology, sociology and by attempting to [enact a] revival on a methodological level and on a grand theoretical level, drawing from the words of the great scholars [of uṣūl].[10]

Then, continuing from the previous statement and in order to draw the reader’s mind closer to the discussions, he explains some of the issues of the science of uṣūl such as the nature of word coinage (waḍʿ), prepositional meaning (al-maʿnā al-ḥarfī), the combination of a command and prohibition on one act (ijtimāʿ al-amr wa al-nahī), the conduct of rational people (banāʾ al-ʿuqalāʾ), the conduct of religious people (sīra al-mutasharriʿa), types of customs, collating probabilities (ḥisāb al-ihtimālāt), and so on.[11] For a more accurate understanding of the causes of conflict, taking heed of the philological, social and logical backgrounds etc., that pertain to each discussion can be helpful.

6. Considerations of the history and context of narrations in the legal deduction (istinbāṭ) of a sharʿī ruling:

Like his own teacher, Ayatullāh Borūjerdī, he considers a special place for historical examination and understanding the context of the evidences when analysing jurisprudential and uṣūlī issues. For example, when trying to find the rulings for some issues in the discussion of usury (ribā), he first employs the method of historical examination before engaging with principles (qawāʿid) by devoting attention to the units of measurement in different lands.[12]

7. Consideration of the fatāwā (religious edicts) of non-Imāmī jurists:

Due to the context in which the formation of Shīʿī jurisprudence occurred and the rule of non-Imamis in the time of the Imams (a), Sayyid Sīstānī is attentive to the fatāwa (legal verdicts) of non-Imamis. This is itself another aspect to the importance that historical considerations have in his thought. For example, in several instances, he refers to the book of al-Mughnī of Ibn Qudāma to report the opinions of the Ḥanbalīs and to the Kitāb al-Umm to state al-Shāfiʿī’s view.[13]

8. Challenging the dichotomy of certitude (qaṭʿ) and speculation (ẓann) by considering the element of assurance (iṭmiʾnān):

On this basis, Ayatullāh Sīstānī believes that the prevalent interpretations of concepts such as knowledge and speculation are incorrect and influenced by the entry of philosophy into the Islamic world. By taking into consideration the influence of Greek philosophy on the Islamic sciences when it entered the Islamic world, he examines the usage of this terminology and concludes that knowledge (ʿilm) in the Arabic language means insight and clarity while in philosophical texts it has been translated as decisive belief. In the works of many jurists and uṣūlīs, knowledge has been used in this later philosophical meaning of the word. Sayyid Sīstānī believes that the intermixing of these two meanings together has influenced the occasionally incorrect expressions of the Qur’ān and Sunna.[14]

9. Using non-Muslim studies and research in ijtihādī issues:

It is no secret that Ayatullāh Sīstānī is highly studied in various intellectual issues. For example, in the transcripts of his lessons on usury which were delivered 45 years ago, and published recently, he cites the ‘The Spirit of the Laws’ by Montesquieu to explain the effects of the prohibition of practicing usury through legal fictions.[15] There are other noteworthy examples of him citing works such as ‘The Story of Civilization’ by Will Durant or ‘The History of Islamic Civilization’ by Jurji Zaydan to describe the pre-Islamic judicial system.[16]

From what has been presented, it is clear that Ayatullāh Sīstānī has always been attentive to the necessity for innovative thought and skilled advancement of the discussions of uṣūl, and the insufficiency of previous discussions while simultaneously benefiting from the precious heritage left behind by the predecessors.

A Brief Examination of Some of Ayatullāh Sīstānī’s Ḥadīth and Rijālī Principles

To discuss the ḥadīth and rijālī principles of Sayyid Sīstānī, and specify their various dimensions, requires a greater opportunity that would need independent articles and books. However, in these brief notes, we will just mention some of these in a summarised and signposted manner. Those who seek more detailed analysis can refer to the sources in the footnotes.

1. Companions of Consensus (Aṣḥāb al-Ijmāʿ):

With regards to the statement of Kashshī about the Companions of Consensus[17] there are differences of opinion that can be divided into a few categories:

  1. Some believe that if the chain of the narration is sound until the Companions of Consensus, then there is no longer any need to examine the remaining individuals after them that lead to the infallible.
  2. Some believe that in addition to the Companions of Consensus themselves, their teachers (Mashāyikh) are deemed reliable narrators.
  3. Some others believe that only the Companions of Consensus themselves are proved to be reliable narrators.

Ayatullāh Sīstānī accepts the third principle and is of the opinion that the statement of Kashshī is not in the position of authenticating the narrations of the Companions of Consensus but merely intends to establish their reliability as narrators.[18]

2. Sayyid Sīstānī’s change of opinion about the mass authentication of the narrators of Kāmil al-Zīyārāt:

In the introduction of Kāmil al-Zīyārāt[19], Ibn Qūlawayh al-Qummī makes a statement about the trustworthiness of the narrators in the chains contained in the book. Scholars and thinkers throughout history have interpreted this statement in different ways, some of which we will refer to here:

  1. Some believe that this statement authenticates and affirms the trustworthiness of all the narrators in the series of chains in the book. There are differences of opinion also among those who believe this.[20]
  2. Some are of the belief that Ibn Qūlawayh’s authentication here is general, meaning that under every chapter there will generally be some narrations from trustworthy individuals.[21]
  3. Some are of the opinion that this statement is about the trustworthiness of the direct first-degree teachers of Ibn Qūlawayh in this book, not the remaining narrators in the following links of the chain.[22]

Sayyid Sīstānī initially accepted the first interpretation, with the specification that Ibn Qūlawayh’s statement only authenticates the narrators of the chains of narrations about the rewards for visiting the Ahl al-Bayt (a), not all the narrations in the book.[23] Later, his view changed and he adopted another opinion, namely that the meaning of the introduction of Kāmil al-Zīyārāt is that the narrations of weakened narrators have not been mentioned in this book, but rather Ibn Qūlawayh has only mentioned narrations that have been transmitted by trustworthy individuals. In reality, this statement neither refers to the authentication of all the narrators of the book nor just the direct first-degree teachers of Ibn Qūlawayh. Instead, the intended meaning is that only those narrations that have passed under the magnifying glass of the critical scholars of reports (nuqqād al-akhbār) have been mentioned in the book.[24]

3. The unreliability of Faḍl b. Shādhān’s Kitāb al-ʿIlal

Faḍl b. Shādhān was one of the greatest companions of the Imams (a) and among the jurists and theologians who wrote tens of books, including Kitāb al-ʿIlal.[25] Shaykh Ṣadūq has transmitted all or part of Kitāb al-ʿIlal in ʿIlal al-Sharāʾiʿ and ʿUyūn Akhbār al-Riḍā. The scholars and jurists have different opinions about this treatise that can generally be divided into three categories:

  1. Some consider this treatise to be authored by Faḍl b. Shādhān himself and not that he narrated it from Imām al-Riḍā (a). In reality, Faḍl wrote this treatise on the philosophy of legal rulings and their reasons.
  2. Some consider this treatise to be Faḍl b. Shādhān’s narrations of Imām al-Riḍā (a) and thus regard it to be authoritative and of great importance.
  3. Others, such as Sayyid Sīstānī, believe that, although this treatise consists of narrations from Imam al-Riḍā (a), it is not reliable. This is because the reliability of the narrators of one of its two chains is not established and so we cannot trust it. In addition, Sayyid Sīstānī presents some other arguments for this view such as the strangeness of some of the treatise’s contents, the inappropriate nature of some of the expressions attributed to the Imam (a), the correspondence of some of the expressions to that which was common among the theologians of the time, some of the errors of Faḍl that Shaykh Ṣadūq has commented on[26], the impossibility of Faḍl transmitting directly from Imam al-Riḍā (a) etc. Therefore, Sayyid Sīstānī does not consider what is attributed to Imam al-Riḍā (a) in this treatise to be authentic.[27]

Finally, we will mention only a summarised list of some of the other opinions of Sayyid Sīstānī so that those interested can pursue the discussions by referring to the sources:

  1. He does not believe the attribution of personal interpretation (ra’y) and qiyās to Ibn al-Junayd al-Iskāfī is correct.[28]
  2. He does not believe the trustworthiness of all the teachers of Jaʿfar b. Bashīr is established, based on the statement of Najāshī.[29]
  3. He believes that Qāḍī Nuʿmān is Ismāʿīlī and not proven to be trustworthy.[30]
  4. He believes that it is permissible to employ systematic correction of the text (al-taṣḥīḥ al-qīyāsī) only in the confounding narrations of Ibn Abī ʿUmayr.[31]
  5. He believes the book al-Fiqh al-mansūb lil Imām al-Riḍā ʿalayhi al-salām is actually the same book as al-Shalamghānī’s Kitāb al-Taklīf.[32]
  6. He believes that Rijāl Ibn al-Ghadāʿirī is correctly attributed to him and that the objections to this attribution are unjustified.[33]
  7. He believes that the narrations of Ibn Idrīs al-Ḥillī’s Mustaṭrafāt al-Sarār are unreliable other than the rare narrations (nawādir) of Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. Maḥbūb.[34]

The aforementioned topics are only a part of Sayyid Sīstānī’s many views and opinions. To become more familiar with other aspects of His Eminence’s opinions and discussions, researchers can refer to the lessons transcribed by his students.[35] The aim of this article was to show that taking Sayyid Sīstānī’s style and methods of istinbāṭ into consideration can open up new horizons within various fields in Islamic studies, especially in fiqh, uṣūl, rijāl and ḥadīth.[36]


[1] The book ʿidat Ḍarar wa lā Ḍirār is the transcript written by his son, Ayatullāh Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Sīstānī and the book al-Rāfid fī ʿIlm al-Uṣūl is Ayatullāh Sayyid Munīr al-Khabbāz transcript of his teacher’s advanced (Khārij) lessons on uṣūl which also includes a commendation by Sayyid Sīstānī.

[2] Mīrzā Mahdī Iṣfahānī, al-Iftā’ wa al-Taqlīd (1), pp. 82-98; Ibid, al-Mawāhib al-Sannīyya, pp. 443-451.

[3] It is similar to a doctor writing a prescription for a patient.

[4] For example, see: Sayyid Hāshim Hāshimī, Taʿāruḍ al-Adilla wa Ikhtilāf al-Ḥadīth, pp. 188-234.

[5] Sayyid Munīr al-Khabbāz, al-Rāfid fī ʿIlm al-Uṣūl, p. 11.

[6] For further explanation, see: Sayyid Muḥammad ʿAlī Rabbānī, Mabāḥith al-Hujaj, pp. 24-25.

[7] Refer to the text of the advanced (khārij) lessons of jurisprudence of Ayatullāh Muḥammad Taqī Shahīdī, Mabhath Muḥarramāt fī al-Sharīʿa, 03/08/1396. Available on the website and channel ‘Ustād Shahīdī’s Lessons’.

[8] Meaning that God is seen as a law-maker who deals with humans as rational beings.

[9] To understand the theory of ‘legal authority’ and its fruits, see: Yaḥyā ʿAbdallāhī, Nezām-e Qānūnī-e Velāy’ī dar Fiqh va Usūl (the transcribed lessons of Ayatullāh Sayyid Aḥmad Madadī); ʿAlī Elāhī Khorāsānī, Nazariyye E’tebār Qānūnī dar Gozār az Shakhsīyat-garāyī; Hamīd Rezā Tamaddon, Feqh-e Eslāmī va Bāzkhānī-e Mafhūm-e ‘Haq’ dar partow ‘Tafakkor Qānūnī’ Seyrī dar ‘Goftemān-e Haq-madārī’ nazd-e Āyatollāh Sīstānī, published on the site ‘dinonline’.

[10] Sayyid Munīr al-Khabbāz, al-Rāfid fī ʿIlm al-Uṣūl, pp. 17-18.

[11] Ibid, pp. 21-24.

[12] To study one example, see: www.tamaddon.kateban.com/post/۴۴۲۸.

[13] For example, see: Sayyid Muḥammad ʿAlī Rabbānī, al-Ijtihād wa al-Taqlīd wa al-Iḥtiyāṭ, p. 62, p.466; Sayyid Hāshim Hāshimī, Taʿāruḍ al-Adilla wa Ikhtilāf al-Ḥadīth, p. 257.

[14] Sayyid Munīr al-Khabbāz, al-Rāfid fī ʿIlm al-Uṣūl, p. 61; Sayyid Hāshim Hāshimī, Taʿāruḍ al-Adilla wa Ikhtilāf al-Ḥadīth, pp. 227-230.

[15] Sayyid Hāshim Hāshimī, al-Ribā, p. 114.

[16] Sayyid Muḥammad ʿAlī Rabbānī, al-Ijtihād wa al-Taqlīd wa al-Iḥtiyāṭ, p. 105.

[17] al-Ṭūsī, Ikhtīyār al-Rijāl, p. 375.

[18] Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Sīstānī, ʿidat Ḍarar wa lā Ḍirār, p. 19.

[19] Ibn Qūlawayh, Kāmil al-Zīyārāt, p. 4.

[20] See: Sayyid Muḥammad Saʿīd al-Ḥakīm, Miṣbāḥ al-Minhāj (Kitāb al-Tijāra), v1, p. 462; Sayyid Muḥammad Riḍā al-Sīstānī, Qabasāt min ʿIlm al-Rijāl, v1, p. 91.

[21] Mīrzā Jawād Tabrīzī, Tanqīḥ Mabānī al-ʿUrwa, v2, p. 346; Ibid, Ṣirāṭ al-Najāt (Older Edition), v2, p. 457.

[22] Mīrzā Ḥusayn Nūrī, Khātimat Mustadrak al-Wasā’il, v3, p. 251; Sayyid Abū al-Qāsim al-Khūʾī, Introduction to the 5th Edition of Muʿjam Rijāl al-Ḥadīth, v1, p.23; Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr, Buḥūth fī sharḥ al-ʿUrwat al-Wuthqā, v2, p. 290.

[23] Sayyid Muḥammad Riḍā al-Sīstānī, Qabasāt min ʿIlm al-Rijāl, v1, p. 91, quoting his father’s comment on Muḥaddith Nūrī’s Khātimat Mustadrak al-Wasā’il.

[24] Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Sīstānī, ʿidat Ḍarar wa lā Ḍirār, p. 21; Sayyid Muḥammad Riḍā al-Sīstānī, Qabasāt min ʿIlm al-Rijāl, v1, pp. 89-124.

[25] Najāshī, Rijāl al-Najāshī, p. 307.

[26] See: Ṣadūq, ʿIlal al-Sharāʾiʿ, v1, p. 257, p. 262.

[27] Sayyid Murtaḍā al-Muhrī, Mabāḥith al-Rijālīyya, pp. 5-38; Sayyid Muḥammad Riḍā al-Sīstānī, Buḥūth fī sharḥ Manāsik al-Ḥajj, v1, pp. 123-133.

[28] Sayyid Muḥammad ʿAlī Rabbānī, Mabāḥith al-Hujaj, pp. 285-295.

[29] Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Sīstānī, ʿidat Ḍarar wa lā Ḍirār, pp. 19-20.

[30] Ibid, pp. 63-65.

[31] Sayyid Murtaḍā al-Muhrī, Libās al-Mu

[32] Ibid, p. 57.

[33] Ibid, p. 59.

[34] Sayyid Murtaḍā al-Muhrī, ʿidatā al-Farāgh wa al-Tajāwuz, pp. 38-39.

[35] Similarly, those interested in rijālī discussions can refer to the following Telegram channel (https://t.me/zobdatolfavaed) to become familiar with Sayyid Sīstānī’s opinions and views, as well the views of Sayyid Shubayrī Zanjānī and his son Sayyid Muḥammad Jawād Shubayrī Zanjānī.

[36] In the forthcoming book (1399) Hukm, Sunnat va Sharī’at: Khāneshī az Dīdgāh-hāyeh Usūlī-e Āyatollāh Sīstānī by Hamid Reza Tamaddon and Ali Elahi Khorasani, Imam Sadiq University Publications, there will be more on the uṣūlī opinions of Sayyid Sīstānī.