He was born Sayyid Abul Qasim ibn Sayyid Ali Akbar in the small town of Khoei, Iran, in 1317 AH. His father was a prominent local scholar, and after pursuing his early religious education under him, he migrated to the holy city of Najaf at the tender age of 13 for higher education. In Najaf, he studied under the greatest Shia scholars of the time, including Sayyid Muhammad Hussain Isfehani, Shaikh Muhammad Hussain Naini, Shaikh Diauddin al-Iraqi, and Sayyid Mohsin al-Hakim.
Upon the death of Sayyid Mohsin al-Hakim in 1390 AH, Sayyid Abul Qasim al-Khoei was recognized as one of the leading Religious Authorities of the time. Imam al-Khoei has been often accused of political "quietism" and failing to speak up against the atrocities of the Ba'ath Party in Iraq. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, almost all the founders of the Islamic Da'wa Party were students of Imam al-Khoei. Similarly, many of the leaders of the Islamic Revolution of Iran had studied under Imam al-Khoei at some point or another. Furthermore, Imam al-Khoei had a great responsibility towards the seminary and Shia academia. If he had spoken up against the Iraqi government or in favor of the Islamic Revolution, the Ba'athists would have had a perfect excuse to completely destroy the seminary. Therefore, leaving other teachers of the seminary in charge of political affairs, Imam al-Khoei himself focused on academia and generating the next great corps of Shia scholars.
He conducted higher level jurisprudence lectures (Dars al-Kharij) for over 50 years in the Najaf seminary. A detailed discussion of Imam al-Khoei's contributions to Shia jurisprudence is beyond the scope of this article. However, under his leadership, the seminary produced among the greatest scholars of our generation. It would not be an overstatement to say that the overwhelming majority of today's Shia scholars – including almost all of our present Religious Authorities (Maraja Taqleed) – are either direct students of Imam al-Khoei or students of his students. Among his most notable pupils included Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Sayyid Ali Hussaini Sistani, Sayyid Ali Khamenei, Sayyid Sadiq Rouhani, Sayyid Sa'eed al-Hakim, Shaikh Taqi Behjat Foumani, Shaikh Bashir Hussain Najafi, Shaikh Ishaq Fayyadh, Shaikh Nasir Makarem Shirazi, and Shaikh Hussain Waheed Khorasani. He also authored such great works as Al-Bayan Fi Tafsir al-Qur'an, Fiqh al-Qur'an alal Madhahib al-Khamsa, and Mu'jam Rijal al-Hadith. The latter is an unmatched 22-volume encyclopedic work containing the biographies of narrators of Hadith that is considered truly groundbreaking in its scope and extent.
Despite his lofty status, Imam al-Khoei lived an extremely austere life. He wore tattered robes, his daily meals came from his daughter's house, and a foreign businessman had taken responsibility for his everyday household expenditures. He was always greatly concerned about the affairs of believers worldwide. His students narrate that many a times, they saw him in the morning with dark patches around his eyes. Upon inquiry, they found out that he had watched the news the night before and had worried so much about the affairs of believers in some part of the world that he hadn't slept all night.
In addition to dispatching religious scholars to attend to the needs of believers in the remotest parts of the Shia world, he also established Shia centers of higher learning in many parts of the world, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. The Imam al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation has published hundreds of books in English, Urdu, and Gujrati, as well as created schools, hospitals, orphanages, and mosques around the Shia world. He was among the first Religious Authorities to send personal representatives as far east as Thailand and Malaysia and as far west as the United States and Europe.
After the failed Shia uprising against the Ba'athists in 1412 AH, Imam al-Khoei was arrested and forced to appear on television alongside Saddam. Upon mounting public pressure, he was then released and put under house arrest. Despite untold atrocities committed against him, his family members, and his close students, Imam al-Khoei refused to ever speak in favor of the Ba'athists or Saddam.
As a result of his deteriorating health conditions, Imam al-Khoei passed away in 1413 AH. Amid a government-imposed curfew, his family was ordered to conduct the funeral services as soon as possible and bury his body before dawn the next day. His funeral prayers were led by Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani, and he was laid to rest near Imam Ali's (peace be upon him) shrine in Najaf.