Marja˓ al-taqlid (Persian Marja˓-e taqlid) literally means "the source of imitation." Marja˓ al-taqlid is a title given to the highest-ranking cleric within Twelver Shi˓ism. The conception of a single leading scholar who both directs and leads the ulema was not absent in Shi˓ism, but the marja˓ institution did not emerge until the nineteenth century. The first universally recognized marja˓ was the influential mujtahid Murtada al-Ansari (d. 1864). He was followed by a series of scholars whose level of support as marja˓ varied, and a number of scholars at the same time could be put forward as "sources" (maraji˓) simultaneously. There is no formal means whereby a marja˓ is selected: it seems he emerges as the "most learned" (a˓lamiyya). There is also much dispute of the level of his authority (as a spokesperson, or as an authority to be obeyed by other scholars and the community). In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolution in Iran arguing that a single "supreme jurist" should control both the religious and the political affairs of the Shi a. His success changed the institution of marja˓al-taqlid, politicizing it and making disobeying the orders of the supreme jurist similar to treason. After Khomeini died in 1989, there were political and religious disputes among the Shi˓a over the role of the marja˓al-taqlid. This dispute contributed to the declaration by the Iranian government, in 1994, that Ayatollah ˓Sayyed Ali Khamane˒i (a former close associate of Khomeini) was the single marja˓ al-taqlid when the then undisputed marja˓ Ayatollah Khu˒i died. This move was undoubtedly linked to the need to establish the position of "leader of the revolution" (rahbar) in Iran. Ayatollah Khamene˒i's position as the Marja˓ al-taqlid has, however, remained a matter of dispute.
Amanat, A. "In Between the Madrasa and the Marketplace: The Designations of Clerical Leadership in Modern Shi˓ism." In Authority and Political Culture in Shi˓ism. Edited by S. A. Arjomand. Albany: State University of NewYork Press, 1988.
Lambton, A. K. S. "A Reconsideration of the Position of the Marja˓ Taqlid and the Religious Institution." Studia Islamica 20 (1964): 115–135.