His Eminence Grand Ayatollah Saanei was born to a clerical family in Neekabad, Isfahan Province in 1316 Hegira (1937). His father, the late Hojat-ul-Islam Sheikh Mohammad Ali Saanei, acclaimed for his piety and quality of virtue, was a cleric.
His grandfather, Ayatollah Haj Mulla Yusef had been among the devout and highly respected clerics of his own time. Haj Mulla Yusef was tutored in divine philosophy by the well-known Iranian philosopher, Jahangir Khan, and in jurisprudence, he had been among the pupils of Grand Ayatollah Mirza Habibullah Rashti. Haj Mulla Yusef was a disciple and propagator of the great Mirza-ye-Shirazi, the man who led the “tobacco movement” in opposition to the monopolistic concession, which the government of his time had granted to a British firm. His grandfather, an ardent advocate of Shirazi’s views, was known for his love of freedom and objection to social injustice. He never hesitated to stand up against the way people were treated in the hands of some feudal landlords and other agents of oppression.
Encouraged by his father to devote his life to the pursuit of seminary studies, the young Saanei entered the Isfahan Seminary in the year 1325 Hegira (1946). While being in Isfahan, he attended the lectures and tutorial sessions held by seminarians there. And upon the completion of the preliminary studies in divinity, he entered the Qom Seminary in the year 1330 Hegira (1951).
In Qom, his exceptional talent and exemplary diligence that earned him a place among the most successful students, helped to attract the views of the prominent seminarians who held him in high esteem. As a brilliant seminary student, he emerged with flying colors and ranked first in the advanced level examinations in the year 1334 Hegira (1955). He was awarded the commendation of the famous Grand Ayatollah Boroujerdi (May God bless his soul) for his exceptional achievement.
This ingenuous seminary student, assessing
the unique qualities of the late Imam
Khomeini’s teachings, joined the circle of the Imam’s pupils in the same year. Backed by his own notable aptitude and great zeal, he continued to derive great benefit from the Imam’s lessons on Islamic Principles and Jurisprudence and the canonical laws.
In the year 1342 Hegira (1963), he ranked as one of the outstanding graduates of these classes.
Sheikh Saanei as an industrious student of canonical principles (Kharij) and a keen learner of the intensive and conclusive research works of Imam Khomeini, actively and successively attended the seminary sessions held by His Eminence for several years, which according to Mr. Saanei himself “led to the perception of the principles rather than mere knowing and learning them.”
Apart from Imam Khomeini’s classes, Ayatollah Saanei also attended the courses given by such illustrious seminarians as Grand Ayatollah Boroujerdi, Grand Ayatollah Mohaqeq Damad and Grand Ayatollah Araki (May God give rest to their souls).
The combination of his inborn God given gift and devotion to learning enabled Sheikh Saanei at the age of 22 to reach to the rank of Ijtihad (the authority to deduce independently the religious laws) in the year 1338 (1959).
In the year 1354 Hegira (1975), he began his formal career as a lecturer in divinity. He offered courses on the Book of Zakat at the Haghani (the Twain Martyrs) School of Divinity. His lectures, compiled by two of his pupils at the School, are extant as a proof of his command of the subject and the clarity of his teaching. When he began to teach the Kharij (an advance level at seminary school, equivalent to post graduate studies at any given university independent of any text or prescribed text) courses, a number of seminary students and lecturers attended his classes, among whom are a number of the most distinguished seminary researchers and Mujtahids (Islamic Jurisprudents) of our time who are active either at the seminaries or in governmental agencies having important roles in the affairs of the Islamic Republic.