• Category Category: A
  • View View: 1986
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

AYATOLLAH. Derived from the terms dyat (sign, testimony, miracle, verses of the Qur’an) and Allah (God), ayatollah (“sign of God”), is an honorific title with hierarchical value in Twelver Imamite Shiism, bestowed by popular usage on outstanding mujtahids, with reference to Qur’an 41.53. The sense of this title can be traced to the need for legitimacy sought by the Shi`i `ulama’ during the absence of the twelfth imam, the Master of the Age, in the end of the greater occultation, from 94o to the end of time. Its attribution reflects the socioreligious environment prevailing in the Qajar period (1796-1925). The title was not in use among the Shi’is of Lebanon, Pakistan, or India and remained restricted in Iraq to mujtahids of Iranian origin. An imitation of the title zill Allah (“shadow of God”) traditionally applied to Persian Islamic rulers, which was confirmed by the use of dyat Allah zadah (“son of ayatollah”), a counterpart of shah zadah (“son of the shah”), has also been proposed as the origin of the title (Matini, 1983).

The attribution of this title seems to have coincided with crucial moments of influence of Twelver Shiism in Iran. Its first reputed bearer, Ibn al-Mutahhar al-Hilli (d. 1325), converted the Mongol   Il-khan Oljeitu Muhammad Khudabandah (r. 1304-1317) to Twelver Shiism. He was styled ayat Allah fi al-`alamayn (ayatollah in the two worlds), in addition to his best-known title of al-`Allama’ (i.e:, “the most learned”; this became an essential requisite for a marja` al-taqlid, a “source of emulation” in the Qajar period). But this case remained an exception. Although the modern bio-hagiographical Shi’i literature sometimes applies retrospectively titles such as marja` al-taglid or ayatollah to pre Qajar `ulama’,  this is historically groundless. Former Safavid and even Qajar Shi i titles were styled differently. Most titles were related to the functions of the mujtahid, such as: mujtahid al-zaman (mujtahid of the age); khatam al-mujtahidin (“seal of mujtahidin”); shaykh al-mujtahidin (“dean of mujtahidin”), and so forth. Except for the functional title of marja` al-taglid, other titles were related to Islam, such as thiqat al-Islam (“trustee of Islam”) and hujjat al-Islam (“proof of Islam”).

The general use of the title appears in the late Qajar period. It is mentioned in a pamphlet against the `ulama’ (see Hajj Sayyah, Khaterat, Tehran, AH 1346/ 1930 CE, p. 338; text written between the 1870s and 1910s). Among its earlier modern bearers one may find religious/political leaders of the constitutional revolution of 1905 to 1911, Sayyids `Abd Allah Bihbahani (d. 1910) and Muhammad Tabataba’i (d. 1918). But anti-constitutionalist mujtahids were also called ayatollah, and a spiritual leader, `Abd al-Karim Ha’iri-Yazdi (d. 1937) founder of the new theological center of Qom, is said to be the first mujtahid to bear this title. Titles such as dyat Allah ft al-anam (“ayatollah among mankind”), or ft al-`alamayn (“in the two worlds”), or ft al-ward (“among mortals”) also appeared from the time of the constitutional revolution.

Besides being a fully qualified mujtahid, an aspiring ayatollah must assert his authority over both his peers and his followers. As shown by recent research on Shi`i leadership (Amanat, 1988), to the prerequisite notion of a`lamiyat (“superiority in learning”) must be added the often overlooked concept of riyasat (“leadership”) that is solidified by popular acclamation and payment of religious taxes. Although contributing to centralizing clerical authority, riyasat also meant clerical leadership over specific communities (e.g., Arab, Turkish, or Persianspeaking groups in Iraqi Shi’i sanctuaries, the `atabat [see `Atabat]).

With the appearance of such outstanding figures as Mohammad Hosayn Borujerdi (d. 1962), who emerged as the sole marja` al-taglid, and the religious political leader Abol-Qasem Kashani (d. 1962), the title ayatollah became increasingly common and ubiquitous. Losing its initial prestige, it even came to be applied, against their own usage, to Sunni religious dignitaries. The leading ayatollah of his time came to be designated by the elative ayatullah al-usma (“grand ayatollah”, i.e., the supreme mujtahid or marja al-taglid), the first bearer of the title being Borujerdi. A kind of restricted college of ayatollahs, in Qom, decided on his nomination. A further debasement of even this higher title occurred with the application of the title imam to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989), quite unusual for Twelver Shi’i (see Matins, 1983, p. 603f.).

At the time of Borujerdi’s death there was a great discussion among prominent mujtahids, ayatollahs, and Shi’i laymen regarding the role of the marja al-taglid and his function. Among the views discussed was the idea, formerly favored by `Abd al-Karim Ha’irs-Yazdi, that the concept of a sole marja` al-taglid be abandoned. Each mujtahid should then specialize in a field and be followed in that field. Another idea was that a council of mujtahids should be sharing leadership. In practice, there was a split in the leadership, outstanding ayatollahs and maraji` al-taglid being established in the main centers of learning (Mashhad and Qom in Iran; Najaf in Iraq). After rivaling Qom from the 1960s until the mid1970s, Mashhad declined in importance. After the events of 1963, Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as one of the top-ranking maraji` al-taglid, although Muhsin al-Hakim (supported by the shah) had a large following in Iraq.

Although Shi`i `ulama’ were traditionally reluctant to structure their leadership, as a result of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, by 1980 a sort of seven-degree hierarchy was established: talabah (“student”); thiqat al-Islam (title formerly given to higher ranking mujtahids); hujjat al-Islam; hujjat al-Islam wa al-muslimin; ayatullah; ayatullah al-`uzma; nayib-i imam (“lieutenant of the Imam”). The latter title reflects the assumption of both temporal and spiritual power by Khomeini. The concept of niyabat (general vicegerency of the Hidden Imam) was until then purely theoretical in Twelver Shiism. Despite its devaluation, a growing number of mujtahids bore the title ayatollah. A decree from Khomeini (September 1984) stated that certain persons calling themselves ayatollah should henceforth be called hujjat al-Islam.

With the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran (1979), a leading role was attributed to prominent ayatollahs. But some of them reluctantly accepted or even objected or opposed the application of Khomeini’s theory of vilayat-i fagih (wilayat al fagih; mandate of the jurist), the most prominent opponent being Shari-at  Madari (d. 1986), demoted from the rank of grand ayatollah in 1982. One of the leading opponents, Ayatollah Abol-Qasem Kho’i (Abu al-Qasim Khu’i, d. 1992) had many followers. After Khomeini’s death, Sayyid ‘Ali Khamene’i became the vali-i faqih (leading theologian), while Ayatollah Husayn `Ali Muntaziri, initially nominated by Khomeini as his spiritual heir (and ratified by the Assembly of Experts, or shura yi khibrigan, in 1985), only to be dismissed by Khomeini in 1989, is still waiting a general acknowledgment of his title of dyatulldh al-`uzma at the top of the hierarchy.

[See also Ijtihad; Marja` al-Taqlid; Mujtahid; and Iran; in addition, many of the figures mentioned are the subjects of independent entries.]


Akhavi, Shahrough. Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran. New York, 1980.

Algar, Hamid. “Ayatollah.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 3, fasc. 2, p. 133. New York and London, 1982-. See related bibliography. Amanat, Abbas. “In Between the Madrasa and the Marketplace: The Designation of Clerical Leadership in Modern Shi’ism.” In Authority and Political Culture in Shi’ism, edited by Said Amir Arjomand, pp. 98-132. New York, 1988.

Arjomand, Said Amir. The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam. Chicago and London, 1984.

Arjomand, Said Amir. “Ideological Revolution in Shi’ism.” In Authority and Political Culture in Shi`ism, edited by Said Amir Arjomand, pp. 178-209. New York, 1988.

Arjomand, Said Amir. The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York and Oxford, 1988.

Bakhash, Shaul. The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution. London, 1986.

Calmard, Jean. “Ayatullah.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., Supplement, pp. 103-104. Leiden, i96o-. See related bibliography. Calmard, Jean. “Mardja’i-taklid.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 6, pp. 548-556. Leiden, i96o-. See related bibliography. Calmard, Jean. “Mudjtahid.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 7, pp. 295-304. Leiden, i96o-. See related bibliography.

Fisher, M. M. J. Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1980.

Matini, J. “Spiritual Titles in Iranian Shi’ism” (Persian). Iran Nameh 1.4 (1983): 560-608.

Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shi`i Islam. New Haven and London, 1985.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ayatollah/

  • writerPosted On: October 12, 2012
  • livePublished articles: 768

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Translate »