Ayatollah

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Ayatollah (Arab., ‘sign of God’). Title of high-ranking Shiʿite Muslim authorities, especially in Iran. It is a recent (20th cent.) title for exceptional jurists (mujtāhid), whose authority rests on that of the infallible Imām—though in 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini (see KHUMAYNI) adopted the title of Imām for himself. An Ayatollah's decisions (fatwā) have authority only for those who examine and agree with them—in theory; in practice, Ayatollahs gain personal followings, among whom their decisions are accepted as binding. The extension of these personal followings to even wider communities is again a recent innovation.

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ayatollah (Arabic, reflection of God) Honorific title bestowed upon a Muslim leader who has attained significant distinction and, often, political influence. See also Khomeini, Ruhollah

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a·ya·tol·lah / ˌäyəˈtōlə/ • n. a Shiite religious leader in Iran.

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ayatollah: see Shiites.