Senior clergy of Shiʿism whom faithful are supposed to follow in religious matters.
Marja al-taqlid, or authority appointed to be emulated by believers, is one of the main pillars of Twelve Imam Shiʿism during the period of the occultation of the twelfth imam, the last of the faith's infallible leaders. Twelver Shiʿism holds that the Twelfth Imam, Hasan al-Askari, left earth in 873 c.e., beginning a period of occultation in which Shiʿites are left without a member of the progeny of the first imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, son-in-law and nephew of the prophet Muhammad, to rule over them. Before his major occultation, the Twelfth Imam appointed four special assistants, the last of whom died in 939 c.e. Shiʿite biographical compilations generally take Abu Jaʿfar Mohammad Koleyni (d. 940), one of the first compilers of Shiʿite traditions, to be the first marja al-taqlid after the occultation. In the medieval period, however, the office was not well defined. That task was undertaken by Shaykh Mohammad Hasan Esfahani Najafi, known as Sahb alJavaher (d. 1849). In all, seventy-seven marja al-taqlid were recognized from 940 to 1995 (different sources provide slightly different tabulations), forty-nine of whom were Iranians and the rest Arabs.
The marja al-taqlid is regarded as one of the highest ulama (clergy) in Shiʿism; his words and deeds serve as a guide for those members of the community unable to exert independent judgment (ijtihad). As such, holders of the position have come to enjoy substantial political clout in the modern period, especially because believers throughout the world provide the marja al-taqlid with considerable donations in the form of religious tithes. In fact, one of the qualifications of a marja is his ability to attract donations and raise enough money to finance the education of religious students. There are six conditions for the marja al-taqlid that are accepted unanimously by Shiʿite theologians, namely maturity (bulugh), reasonableness (aql), being of the male sex (dhukurrat), faith (iman), justice (edalat), and legitimacy of birth. (These are general principles for the selection of a marja al-taqlid, and no specific process has ever been formalized.) Except for a brief period of centralization in nineteenth-century Iran engineered by Shaykh Morteza Ansari (d. 1864), clerical decentralization is an integral part of the Shiʿite hierarchy. Another defining characteristic of the marja al-taqlid, which again distances it from the papacy, is that designation to the position is entirely at the discretion of the believers themselves. The marja al-taqlid is not appointed by an official body resembling a council of ulama.
The sanctity of the office has increased in political clout in the modern period. In 1963, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was arrested by the government of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the entire Shiʿite world rallied behind him and pressured the shah into releasing him. With the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the governance of the jurist (velayat-e faqih), which designates a single leader (vali-ye faqih) for Shiʿites, the office of marja al-taqlid has acquired an ambiguous position, somewhat rivaling that of the vali-ye faqih. Since the death of Khomeini, no single ayatollah has emerged as a sole, authoritative marja al-taqlid ; rather, several ayatollahs are recognized as sharing relatively equal status as marja al-taqlids.
see also iranian revolution (1979); khomeini, ruhollah; pahlavi, reza; shiʿism; velayat-e faqih.
Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shiʿi Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shiʿism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.
updated by eric hooglund