Ayatollah is a high ranking title given to Usuli Twelver Shī‘ah clerics
Clergy is the generic term used to describe the formal religious leadership within a given religion. A clergyman, churchman or cleric is a member of the clergy, especially one who is a priest, preacher, pastor, or other religious professional....

. Those who carry the title are experts in Islamic studies
Islamic studies
In a Muslim context, Islamic studies can be an umbrella term for all virtually all of academia, both originally researched and as defined by the Islamization of knowledge...

 such as jurisprudence
Jurisprudence is the theory and philosophy of law. Scholars of jurisprudence, or legal theorists , hope to obtain a deeper understanding of the nature of law, of legal reasoning, legal systems and of legal institutions...

, ethics
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...

, and philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

 and usually teach in Islamic seminaries
Hawza or ḥawza ʻilmiyya is a seminary of traditional Islamic school of higher learning. It is a term used mostly by the Shi'a Muslims communities to refer to a traditional Shi'a centre where clerics are trained...

. The next lower clerical rank is Hojatoleslam wal-muslemin.
Hujjat al-Islam is an honorific title meaning "authority on Islam" or "proof of Islam", given to Twelver Shī‘ah clerics...

 Ayatollah is similar in rank to a Bishop
A bishop is an ordained or consecrated member of the Christian clergy who is generally entrusted with a position of authority and oversight. Within the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox Churches, in the Assyrian Church of the East, in the Independent Catholic Churches, and in the...

 or Cardinal
Cardinal (Catholicism)
A cardinal is a senior ecclesiastical official, usually an ordained bishop, and ecclesiastical prince of the Catholic Church. They are collectively known as the College of Cardinals, which as a body elects a new pope. The duties of the cardinals include attending the meetings of the College and...

 in Catholicism.


The title is currently granted to top Shia mujtahid, after completing sat'h and kharij studies in the hawza
Hawza or ḥawza ʻilmiyya is a seminary of traditional Islamic school of higher learning. It is a term used mostly by the Shi'a Muslims communities to refer to a traditional Shi'a centre where clerics are trained...

. By then the mujtahid would be able to issue his own edict
An edict is an announcement of a law, often associated with monarchism. The Pope and various micronational leaders are currently the only persons who still issue edicts.-Notable edicts:...

s from the sources of Islamic religious laws: the Qur'an
The Quran , also transliterated Qur'an, Koran, Alcoran, Qur’ān, Coran, Kuran, and al-Qur’ān, is the central religious text of Islam, which Muslims consider the verbatim word of God . It is regarded widely as the finest piece of literature in the Arabic language...

, the Sunnah
The word literally means a clear, well trodden, busy and plain surfaced road. In the discussion of the sources of religion, Sunnah denotes the practice of Prophet Muhammad that he taught and practically instituted as a teacher of the sharī‘ah and the best exemplar...

, ijmāʻ
Ijmāʿ is an Arabic term referring to the consensus of the Muslim community. Various schools of thought within Islamic jurisprudence may define this consensus as that of the first generation of Muslims only; the consensus of the first three generations of Muslims; the consensus of the jurists...

, and 'aql
‘Aql , is an Arabic language term used in Islamic theology or philosophy to the intellect the rational faculty of the soul or mind. It is the normal translation of the Greek term nous...

("intellect", rather than the Sunnī principle of qiyas
In Islamic jurisprudence, qiyās is the process of deductive analogy in which the teachings of the Hadith are compared and contrasted with those of the Qur'an, in order to apply a known injunction to a new circumstance and create a new injunction...

). Most of the time this is attested by an issued certificate from his teachers. The ayatollah can then teach in hawzas according to his speciality, can act as a reference for their religious questions, and act as a judge. There is an important difference from Shi'a ayatollahs and "saints" in other religions and Sunni Islam
Sunni Islam
Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Islam. Sunni Muslims are referred to in Arabic as ʾAhl ūs-Sunnah wa āl-Ǧamāʿah or ʾAhl ūs-Sunnah for short; in English, they are known as Sunni Muslims, Sunnis or Sunnites....

: ayatollahs are not regarded as enlightened by God Himself, but by the Word of God.

There are a few women who are equal in ranking to the ayatollahs, and are known as Lady Mujtahideh. A current example of a Lady Mujtahideh is Zohreh Sefati
Zohreh Sefati
Madam Zohreh Sefati is a female Ayatollah . She was born in Abadan, Iran and today is considered a powerful personality in the country. Sefati is a member of the Socio-Cultural Council and a representative to the Supreme Council of Cultural Reforms. Madam Sefati was raised in a religious family...

. Historically, there have been several Mujtahidehs in Shi'ism, most famously the women in the family of Allama Hilli.


The name "ayatollah" originates from the Quran where human beings can also be regarded as signs of God, the literal translation of the title. 51:20–21 of the Quran states:

Grand Ayatollah

Only a few of the most important ayatollah are accorded the rank of Grand Ayatollah (Ayatollah Uzma, "Great Sign of God"). This usually happens when the followers of one of the ayatollahs refer to him in many situations and ask him to publish his Juristic book in which he answers the vast majority of daily Muslim affairs. The book is called Resalah
A Resalah , also resalah amaliyah is a book written by a Shia Marja that contains his practical rulings arranged according to topics dealing with ritual purity, worship, social issues, business, and political affairs, and outlining the principles used to derive specific rulings.All resalahs begin...

, which is usually a reinvention of the book Al-Urwatu l-Wuthqah, according to their knowledge of the most authentic Islamic sources and their application to current life.

There are around 70 living worldwide; the most famous of them are Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Hossein Vahid Khorasani
Hossein Vahid Khorasani
Grand Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorasani is an Iranian Twelver Shia Marja. He was born in Nishapur, Iran and moved to Najaf, Iraq in 1960 and studied in seminaries of Grand Ayatollah Khoei until he moved back to Iran in 1972 and currently resides and teaches in the Seminary of Qom, Iran. He is...

, Makarem Shirazi
Naser Makarem Shirazi
Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi is an ayatollah in Iran. He is a spiritual guide for many Shia Muslims.-In Iran:He started his formal Islamic studies at the age of 14 in the Agha Babakhan Shirazi seminary....

, Yousef Sane'i, Malakouti, Haeri, and Sadiq Shirazi
Sadiq Hussaini Shirazi
Grand Ayatollah Sadiq Hussaini Shirazi Grand Ayatollah Sadiq Hussaini Shirazi Grand Ayatollah Sadiq Hussaini Shirazi (Arabic: سيد صادق الحسيني الشيرازي; born 20.12.1360 H (Islamic calendar) 8 January 1942CE (Gregorian) is an Iraqi Shi'a Marja, and the brother of the late Grand Ayatollah Sayed...

. Currently there are four grand ayatollahs in Najaf, Iraq, center of the Iraqi Shi'i seminaries or Hawza
Hawza or ḥawza ʻilmiyya is a seminary of traditional Islamic school of higher learning. It is a term used mostly by the Shi'a Muslims communities to refer to a traditional Shi'a centre where clerics are trained...

(currently the most senior is Ali al-Sistani). Other grand ayatollahs include Basir Najafi, Mohammad Saeed Al-Hakim, and Mohammad Ishaq Al-Fayyad
Mohammad Ishaq Al-Fayyad
Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ishaq al-Fayyad is currently the second most senior Shi'a marja living in Iraq after Ali al-Sistani....


External links

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