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The title is originally derived from Arabic word Āyah pre-modified with the definite article al and post-modified with the word Allah, making ʾāyatallāh (Arabic: آية الله). The combination has been translated to English as 'Sign of God', 'Divine Sign' or 'Reflection of God'. It is a frequently-used term in Quran, but its usage in this context is presumably a particular reference to the verse [Quran 41:53] "We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and in their own selves", while it has been also used to refer to The Twelve Imams by Shias.
Variants used are ʾāyatallāh fī al-anām (Arabic: آية الله في الأنعام, lit. 'Sign of God among mankind'), ʾāyatallāh fī al-ʿālamayn (Arabic: آية الله في العالمَین, lit. 'Sign of God in the two worlds', dual form) or fī al-ʿālamīn (Arabic: في العالمین, lit. 'in the worlds', plural form) and ʾāyatallāh fī al-warā (Arabic: آية الله في الوراء, lit. 'Sign of God among mortals').
The earliest known address of this title is for Ibn Mutahhar Al-Hilli (died 1374), however it was not in use until the recent century. Glassé states that following domination of Twelver branch by followers of Usuli school and demise of Akhbari school, the title was popularized by Usulis as an attempt to promote their status. Hamid Algar maintains that this title entered general usage possibly because it was an "indirect result of the reform and strengthening of the religious institution in Qom". Abdul-Karim Haeri Yazdi who founded Qom Seminary, may be the first to bear the title according to Algar. Loghatnameh Dehkhoda indicates that during the Persian Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911), the honorific was used by constitutionalists to refer to Mirza Sayyed Mohammad Tabatabai and Seyyed Abdollah Behbahani.
Usage by location
The Sunni community of Iran does not use this title. It is also absent the vocabulary of Shias in Lebanon, Pakistan, and India. In Iraq, while the title is not unknown, it is only used for clerics of Iranian origin.
Michael M. J. Fischer opines in Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution that the Iranian revolution led to "rapid inflation of religious titles", and almost every senior cleric was called an Ayatollah.
The same phenomenon happened to the title Hujjat al-Islam before, which is today a less prestigious title than Ayatollah. However, as of 19th century it was given to people who were not only Mujtahids, but also were the most distinguished clerics of that time. Today there are "tens of thousands" called with that title, who are just aspiring to become a Mujtahid.
This trend led to invention of a new title called Ayatollah al-Uzma (lit. 'Great Sign of God'). In the beginning, about half a dozen people were addressed with the latter title, but as of 2015, the number of people who claimed that title was reportedly over 50.
Addressing someone with or without this title may have political reasons, rather than for purely religious credentials.
Ali Khamenei –who was addressed with mid-level title of Hujjat al-Islam when he was in office as President– was bestowed the title Ayatollah immediately after he became Supreme Leader of Iran in 1989, without meeting regular unwritten criteria (such as authoring a Risalah). Since the 2010s, sources under government control tend to give him more distinguished titles like Grand Ayatollah and Imam.
Though no formal hierarchical structure exists among Shia clerics, a "hierarchy of difference" can be elaborated to describe the situation. Traditionally, the title Ayatollah was awarded by popular usage to prominent figures only –who were necessarily a Mujtahid– and it was reserved for the very few highest rank clerics. Plus qualification as a definite Mujtahid, such person was regarded among his peers superior in aʿlamīyat (lit. 'superiority in learning') and riyāsat (lit. 'leadership'), the latter being determined by popular acclamation, as well as collecting a huge amount of Khums (religious taxes). Those conditions being applied, by 1960s a cleric addressed as an Ayatollah was expected to be a Marja'.
An unwritten rule of addressing for Shia clerics has been developed after the 1980s as a result of Iranian Revolution, despite the fact no official institutional way of conferring titles is available. Since 1979, the number of individuals who call themselves an Ayatollah, instead of being recipient of that title, has raised dramatically. The title that was previously customary for addressing a Marja', was gradually applied to an established Mujtahid. With recent bureaucratization of Shia seminaries under the current regime, four levels of studies were introduced and those clerics who end the fourth level, also known as Dars-e-Kharej (lit. 'beyond the text') and pass the final exam, were called Ayatollahs. Moojan Momen wrote in 2015 that every cleric who finished his training calls himself an Ayatollah and this trend has led to emergence of "thousands of Ayatollahs".
Stages of contemporary titles for Shia clerics in Iran can be understood from the following table:
|Usually a Marja' and issues fatwa|
|Can be a lesser Mujtahid||Can be a greater Mujtahid||Usually a greater Mujtahid|
|Allowed to receive charity|
|Allowed to wear clerical clothing|
(lit. 'Trust of Islam')
(lit. 'Proof of Islam')
|Hujjat al-Islam wal-Muslimin
(lit. 'Proof of Islam and Muslims')
(lit. 'Sign of God')
(lit. 'Great Sign of God')
Only a few of the most important ayatollahs are accorded the rank of Grand Ayatollah (Ayatollah Uzma, "Great Sign of God"). When an ayatollah gains a significant following and they are recognized for religiously correct views, they are considered a Marja'-e-Taqlid, which in common parlance is "grand ayatollah". Usually as a prelude to such status, a mujtahid is asked to publish a juristic treatise in which he answers questions about the application of Islam to present-time daily affairs. Risalah is the word for treatise, and such a juristic work is called a risalah-yi'amaliyyah or "practical law treatise", and it is usually a reinvention of the book Al-Urwatu l-Wuthqah.
- Algar 1987
- Glassé 2003
- Leaman 2006, pp. 85–86
- Salkind 2006, p. 739, vol. 1
- Hughes 2013, p. 126
- Calmard 2009
- Nasr, Nasr & Dabashi 1989, p. 265–266
- Bill, James A. (1982), "Power and Religion in Revolutionary Iran", Middle East Journal, 36 (1): 22–47, JSTOR 4326354
- Momen 1985, p. 205–206
- Momen 2015, p. 178
- Fischer, Michael M. J. (1980). Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Harvard University Press]. p. 2016. ISBN 9780674466159.
- Zuraidah, Mohd Don; May, Alan (2013), "The discursive representation of Iran's supreme leader in online media", Discourse & Society, 24 (6): 743–762, doi:10.1177/0957926513486222, JSTOR 24441464
- Amuzegar, Jahangir (2014). The Islamic Republic of Iran: Reflections on an Emerging Economy. Routledge. p. 210. ISBN 978-1-85743-748-5.
- Daryaee, Touraj (2012). The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. Oxford Handbooks in History. Oxford University Press. p. 378. ISBN 0199732159.
- Momen 1985, p. 204
- Golkar 2017, pp. 219
- Golkar 2017, pp. 219–223
- Emad El-Din Shahin (2016). The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics. Oxford University Press. p. 400. ISBN 9780190631932.
- Among the Shia, a mujtahid is a person generally accepted as an original authority in Islamic law, i.e. an ayatollah.
- Siddiqui, Kalim (1980). The Islamic Revolution: Achievements, Obstacles & Goals. London: Open Press for The Muslim Institute. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-905081-07-6.
- Ḥairi, Abdul-Hadi (1977). Shi-ism and Constitutionalism in Iran: A Study of the Role Played by the Persian Residents of Iraq in Iranian Politics. Leiden: Brill. p. 198. ISBN 978-90-04-04900-0.
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