Ayatollah (Ar. Ayatullah)

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The term ayatollah (Ar. ayatullah), literally "Sign of God," refers to high-ranking scholars within the Twelver Shi˓ite tradition. The term emerged in the early modern period (late 19th century) to describe the elite of the Shi˓ite scholarly community. In modern works, many early Shi˓ite scholars were anachronistically given the rank of ayatollah. Ayatollahs are nearly always experts in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), and are normally required to have written extensively in this area. The requirements for qualification as an ayatollah are not entirely clear in traditional descriptions of the Shi˓ite hierarchy, though the rank of ijtihad and associated qualifications of learning are often mentioned. Ijtihad is a condition, though not everyone who has attained it will be called "ayatollah." The vagueness is due to absence of rigid ranks in the Shi˓ite hierarchy. Before and since the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979), the term "grand ayatollah" was used for the "sources of imitation." Since the revolution, there has been a tremendous increase in the use of the term for the Iranian clerical elite.

Ayatollahs are found at the apex of the scholarly structure, having studied in traditional seminaries (madrasas) and having passed through a number of intermediate ranks (among which is Hojjat al-Islam). A scholar seems to be granted the rank of ayatollah through general agreement among the scholars. A person might be referred to as ayatollah by one writer and, when no one disputes the appellation, most scholars subsequently refer to him as ayatollah. An ayatollah, theoretically, holds this rank until he dies, though in recent times, ayatollahs (such as ayatollahs Shari atmadari and Muntazeri in Iran) have lost their status after serious disputes with supposedly higher-ranking Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

See alsoHojjat al-Islam ; Khomeini, Ruhollah ; Marja˓al-Taqlid ; Shi˓a: Imami (Twelver) .


Mottahedeh, Roy. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion andPolitics in Iran. London: Chatto and Windus, 1986.

Robert Gleave