Marja of the Hawza,
Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husseini Sistani is the prime marja, or spiritual reference for Ithna’Ashari‘a (Twelver) for Shi‘a Muslims. He is the leading sheikh of the Hawza Seminary in
Preeminent Shi‘a Cleric and Marja Taqlid
Sistani’s influence in the Twelver Shi‘a sect stems from his scholarly lineage and education, which has enabled him to reach the status of marja taqlid - the highest status in the Usuli branch of Twelver Shi‘a Islam. Marja taqlid means literally one who is worthy of being imitated - placing Sistani in a position of great authority over Twelver Shi‘a Muslims. There are currently only 29 marjas worldwide. Sistani is descended from a family of religious scholars, and was educated in the leading institutions in
Sistani also has very significant financial clout due to his position as marja. 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 Shi‘a development organization in the world that maintains a network of educational and humanitarian establishments for both Shi‘a and non-Shi‘a Muslims.
Significantly, Sistani is against the idea of Velayat-e Faqih, suggesting Shi‘a clerics should not get involved in politics. Paradoxically this approach has afforded him very strong influence as a religious leader unsullied by politics. This became clear after the