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MARJA` AL-TAQLID. The term marja al-taglid designates the highest ranking authorities of the Twelver Shi`i community. They are usually few in number. In local or national communities (Iraq, Iran) the term can be loosely applied to between four and eight high-ranking jurists (or ayatollahs). On a world scale, and at particular times, the term is more stringently used to refer to only one or two such jurists. The position is informally acquired and depends on patterns of loyalty and allegiance which vary with time, geography, politics (clerical and national), and the perceived conduct of the jurist. In the two decades after 1970, the Shi’i community was dominated by two ayatollahs of immense stature: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (19021989), a majority of whose followers were found in Iran, though he had followers elsewhere; and Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khu’i (Abol-Qasem Kho’i; 1899-1992), whose followers included most Arabic-speaking ShFis (those in Iraq, the Gulf states, Lebanon, and Syria) and probably a majority of those in India, Pakistan, and East Africa and some in Iran. Their divergent views of how Islam should respond to the crises of the late twentieth century neatly illustrates the breadth of possibilities in an ancient juristic tradition. Their deaths have left the community in a position not historically unprecedented where there are between six and nine possible claimants to the title, most of them in Najaf, Iraq, or in Qom, Iran. If the patterns of the past are repeated, there will probably be a gradual convergence of public opinion on a more limited number. Not the least factor will be the collegial opinion of the Shi’i clerics, pupils to previous masters, potentially divided by training and national allegiance but sharing a sense of the international and unified nature of the Twelver Shi`i community.

The authority and power that have come to be associated with the marja` al-taghd depend on the historical convergence of two theoretical structures. The first is that of ijtihad. Although it has origins that go back to the hadith collections of Kullni (d. about 940) and earlier, the Shi`i theory of ijtihad found its first systematic exposition in the works of `Allamah al-Hill! (d. 1325). It is a theory which combines an epistemology and a structure of authority. It states that although the fundamentals of shafah (the divine law) are definitively known, the bulk of its details are uncertain and difficult of access, a matter of (informed) opinion, not knowledge. Those who have the training, the skills, and (ideally) the piety to exercise the utmost possible effort (ijtihad) to derive a ruling on questions of the law within this area are mujtahids. Those who do not belong to this group (the `ammis, the common people) are dependent on the mujtahids and must submit to their rulings. This submission is known as taglid and should be offered to the most learned jurist. Historically, this was a matter of local rather than national or international authority. The concept of taglid and the idea of recourse (to authority, from raja’ah, hence marja` have always been a part of the theory of ijtihad, but the term marja` al-taglid and the notion of a sole marja` for the whole community emerged only in the nineteenth century. [See Ijtihad and the biography of Hilli.]

Sunni and Shi`i theories of ijtihad are not markedly different (the stress on the closing of the door of ijtihad which has marked Western perception of the Sunni tradition is wrong), but the Shi`i jurists added a second set of ideas related to juristic authority. These ideas were derived exegetically from a number of hadith, the most famous of which is that known as the hadith of Ibn Hanzalah. In this hadith the sixth imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq, is seen to transfer judicial authority to those of his followers who know and understand hadith. Over time, the Shi’! jurists interpreted this as meaning that, if there was any rightful executor of the shad `ah during the period of the imam’s absence (the Ghaybah), it was the qualified jurist, acting in his capacity as hakim shar’i (legitimate judge) and na’ib al-imam (representative of the imam). In the sphere of shar’i taxes, there was convergent agreement that the just and learned faqih was the rightful manager of zakat (alms) and Mums (the “fifth,” a ritual tax on specified products). Of these, the latter (usually assessed as 20 percent of income and voluntarily submitted) became and still is a major source of financial patronage for high-ranking jurists, ensuring political independence and real power. (Sunni jurists had no corresponding access to an independent income.) [See Zakat; Khums.] In the sphere of political authority, the Shi’i theory ensured that the actual governor could never be seen as the rightful executor of shari `ah, although the community might accommodate itself to his rule. A jurist, however, might be the ideal and real executor of the shari `ah, depending on the implications of al-niyabah al-`ammah (general deputyship to the imam), and, possibly, in virtue of wilayat al -faqih (the jurist’s general guardianship to the community). These concepts were much debated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They found one of their most politically activist formulations in the works of Ayatollah Khomeini, whose political career culminated in his acquired leadership of the Iranian Revolution in 19781979. They found one of their most quietist formulations in the works of the Ayatollah Khu’i, whose writings and activities stressed the spiritual dimension of the marja’iyah and the social and educational imperatives of the worldwide Shi’i community. [See Wilayat al-Faqih; Iranian Revolution of 1979.]

The convergence of the theories of ijtihad and of general deputyship secured and guaranteed the increasing authority of the great marja’s of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Available to the jurists of the Safavid period (1501-1722), these ideas were not exploited both because accommodation offered political advantages and because, beginning in the early seventeenth century, the community was divided, precisely on the question of ijtihad, between the Akhbaris (who denied its validity) and the Usulis. From the mid-seventeenth until the late eighteenth century, Shi’i clerics were engaged in a painful academic dispute about ijtihad which had perennial social consequences. For most of that period, the Akhbaris dominated the centers of learning in Iraq and elsewhere. Biographical sources indicate that the scholarly genius and the political skills of one man, Muhammad Bagir ibn Muhammad Akmal alBihbahani (d. 1791), changed this. He is responsible for a general realignment of scholarship in Najaf, which ensured the dominance of the Usuli tradition of thought until the present day and created the conditions for the decisive emergence of the great marja’s. Among his immediate pupils was Ja’far ibn Khidr Kashif al-Ghita’ (d. 1812), a jurist remarkable for his political skills (he mediated between the Ottoman authorities and the Qajar shah in Iran and was influential at the Qajar court) and for his decisive restatement of traditional political theory. The Russian wars of the early nineteenth century led Fath ‘Ali Shah to look for support and legitimacy to the clerical class. Shaykh Ja`far offered it in a sophisticated statement of the law: as mujtahid and representative of the Hidden Imam, he gave his permission to the sultan of Iran to undertake the management of jihad (war against nonbelievers). It was an ad hoc response to a political situation, but a significant development of theory and not untypical of how such developments took place. Its implications reverberated in the works and imaginations of succeeding generations of jurists. [See Akhbariyah; Usullyah.]

Retrospectively, the Shl’! tradition has liked to assert a sequence of sole marja’s going back to the time of the imams. In fact, it was the events and personalities of the early nineteenth century, together with improving communications, that made the emergence of a sole marja` a possibility. Bihbahani and Kashif al-Ghita’ had many of the prerequisites for this authority but do not seem to have attracted the title. It is the two great scholars of the next generation who are associated with its earliest use: Muhammad Hasan al-Najafi (d. 185o) and Shaykh Murtada Ansari (d. 1864). The reputations of both depend on their scholarly rather than their political achievement. Najafi’s magnificent restatement of the Usfili tradition of legal writing, the _7awahir al-kalam, was succeeded and to some extent displaced by the methodological subtlety and discretely innovative thinking of Ansarl. His epistles on hermeneutic theory (usul al figh) represent the beginnings of a new phase in the history of this discipline. His Kitab al-makasib is a finely structured analysis of only one section of the law that manages to integrate an astonishing diversity of legal issues. His discussions are massively detailed, formally organized, and appropriately equivocal about the implications of a sophisticated juristic tradition. He may be the first major jurist to devote a special section to the question of the jurist’s right of guardianship. Although he uses the same material, he is much less convinced about the jurist’s right to government than was Khomeini, who, more than a hundred years later, converted the same topic into a political ideology.

After the death of Ansari it became gradually evident that the senior mujtahid was Muhammad Hasan ibn Mahmud al-Shirazi (d. 1895). He was recognized as sole marja` only after the obscure events that led to his move from Najaf to Samarra. The decisive action that revealed general acknowledgement of his status was his famous intervention in the affair of the Tobacco Regie in 1891. It is another example of opportunistic involvement in politics which, whether through judgment or luck, transformed a particular jurist into a symbolic figure of immense political stature.

In the generations following Shiraz! it is difficult to pinpoint sole marja`s. The senior jurists of Najaf continued to dominate, as did Iranian politics, especially during the period of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1909. A majority of jurists in Najaf supported the constitution, but some, both in Najaf and Iran, did not, notably Shaykh Fazlullah Nuri (who was executed shortly after the success of the constitutionalists). The informal nature of the marja’iyah, and the absence of any institutions to embody its authority, made it difficult for a jurist simply to command; rather, he had to acquire and hold authority. This sometimes meant following rather than dictating the mood of the people. Grand political gestures had little effect if they were not accompanied by significant acknowledgment and success. Mirza Muhammad Taqi Shiraz (d. 1920) issued a decree calling for a jihad against the British in Iraq, but it had little resonance at any level. [See Constitutional Revolution and the biography of Nuri.]

The 1920s and 1930s saw the emergence of Qom as a center of learning that rivaled Najaf. In both cities it was possible to discern a number of leading maija’s who divided between them the allegiance of the Shi`I world. Only with the arrival of the Ayatollah Burujirdi (Mohammad Hosayn Borujerdi; 1875-1962) in Qom in 1945 did there gradually emerge again a near-universal consensus that here was the sole maija’ for the whole community. (It is unclear, however, how the Arabicspeaking Shi`is reacted to Iranian leadership during this period.) Borujerdi was politically a quietist and scholarly. Like most of the marja’s before him, the bulk of his activity was devoted to the day-to-day juristic problems of his followers, an unspectacular activity ensuring the quiet accommodation of the ShM world to the exigencies of twentieth-century fife. Owing to the focus of Western scholarship on narrowly political issues, it is still difficult to assess the importance of this activity.

Burujirdi’s death in 1962 precipitated another period in which there were from eight to twelve significant marja’s, in Najaf, Qom, Tehran, and Mashhad, each of whom had a measure of community allegiance. The period saw some formal lay and religious discussion about the post and the possibilities of reforming or institutionalizing it. But political events and traditional loyalties proved more important than academic discussion. In Iran, the political activities of Ayatollah Khomeini in the early 196os gave him a substantial prominence which survived his exile in Najaf and increased in proportion to dissatisfaction with the Pahlavi government. The period of exile (1965 to 1978-1979) gave him time to develop and propagate his theory of government, based on the idea of wilayat al fagih. Inside Iran the routine business of giving and developing juristic rules depended on the day-to-day activity of the three senior ayatollahs, Muhammad KdZim Shari’atmadari, Muhammad Riza Gulpaygam, and Shihab al-Din Mar’ashl Najafi. Even in the late 1970s, Khomeini’s leadership had not acquired universal assent, not among the educated young who were often indifferent, cynical, and more attracted by socialist and communist ideologies, nor among the old who, resisting clerical pressure to follow only a living marja`, would sometimes cite Burujirdi as their favored authority. Those with Sufi affiliations would sometimes transfer the term to the leader of their Sufi order. The events of the revolution and its longterm aftermath gave Khomeini political power and international prestige. Since his death, however, the position of the maija’ is at least, again, clearly separate from political structures. Religious leadership in Iran after Khomeini’s death is uncertainly focused and complicated by political involvement.

In the Arabic-speaking Twelver Shi i community, the name of Ayatollah Khu’l has been dominant since the early 1970s. His stature grew, as it became evident that his political and religious stance was an alternative to that of Khomeini. It is probably true of Khomeini, in spite of his great fame, that he did not achieve a truly international significance as maija`; he was perceived too much as Iranian. Revolutionary movements of course adopted him as their symbol, and political movements entered into alliance with his government. But the piety, learning, seriousness, and political quietism of Ayatollah Khu’i gained him a broad international following and, consequently, control of immense wealth. This he administered with a quiet institution-building skill. Living in Najaf, his indifference to political power was always interpreted as distaste for the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, and may have become active opposition during the Shi’i revolt in southern Iraq which followed the Gulf War of 1990-1991. His institutional legacy lies in an extraordinary international network of mosques, schools, libraries, and other charitable institutions, which, through his rulings, have been integrated into the existing structures of national and international bodies, from London and New York to Bombay, Islamabad, Malaysia, and Thailand. How this will survive is still uncertain. The enduring legacy of his thought is likewise uncertain, but markedly pragmatic and eirenic, it might turn out to be more significant for the needs of the Shi’i community in the twenty-first century than that of Khomeini.

[See also Ayatollah; Ithna `Ashariyah; Najaf; Qom; Shi i Islam; and the biographies of Borujerdi, Kho’i, and Khomeini. ]


Algar, Hamid, Religion and State in Iran, 1785-1906: The role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period. Berkeley and Los Angleles, 1969. Arjomand, Said Amir, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam. Chicago and London, 1984.

Lambton, Ann K. S. “A Reconsideration of the Position of the marja` al-taqlid and the Religious Institution.” Studia Islamica 20 (1964): 115-135.

Lambton, Ann K. S. “The Tobacco Regie: Prelude to Revolution.” Studia Islamica 22 and 23 (1965): 119-157 and 71-90.

Lambton, Ann K. S. “A Nineteenth-Century View of Jihad.” Studia Islamica 32 0970): 181-192.

Martin, Vanessa. Islam and Modernism: The Iranian Revolution of 1906. London, 1989.

Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shit Islam. New Haven and London, 1985.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/marja-al-taqlid/

  • writerPosted On: August 3, 2014
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