Derived from the terms āyat (sign, testimony, miracle, verses of the Qurʿān) and Allāh (God), ayatollah (Ar., āyatullāh, 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’ān 41:53. The sense of this title can be traced to the need for legitimacy sought by the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ during the absence of the twelfth imam, the Master of the Age, in the end of the greater occultation, from 940 to the end of time. Its attribution reflects the socioreligious environment prevailing in the Qājār period (1796–1925). The title was not in use among the Shīʿīs of Lebanon, Pakistan, or India and remained restricted in Iraq to mujtahids of Iranian origin. An imitation of the title ẓill Allāh (shadow of God) traditionally applied to Persian Islamic rulers, which was confirmed by the use of āyat Allāh zādah (son of ayatollah), a counterpart of shāh zādah (son of the shah), has also been proposed as the origin of the title (Matīnī, 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-Muṭahhar al-Ḥillī (d. 1325), converted the Mongol Il-Khān Öljeitü Muḥammad Khudābandah (r. 1304–1317) to Twelver Shiism. He was styled āyat Allāh fī al-ʿālamayn (ayatollah in the two worlds), in addition to his best-known title of al-ʿAllāmaʿ (that is, “the most learned”; this title became an essential requisite for a marjaʿ al-taqlīd, a “source of emulation” in the Qājār period). But this case remained an exception. Although the modern hagiographical Shīʿī literature sometimes applies retrospectively titles such as marjaʿ al-taqlīd or “ayatollah” to pre-Qājār ʿulamāʿ, this is historically groundless. Former Ṣafavid and even Qājār Shīʿī titles were styled differently. Most titles were related to the functions of the mujtahid, such as mujtahid al-zamān (mujtahid of the age), khātam al-mujtahidīn (seal of mujtahids), shaykh al-mujtahidīn (dean of mujtahids), and so forth. Except for the functional title of marjaʿ al-taqlīd, other titles were related to Islam, such as thiqat al-Islām (trustee of Islam) and ḥujjat al-Islām (proof of Islam).
The general use of the title “ayatollah” appears in the late Qājār period. It is mentioned in a pamphlet against the ʿulamāʿ (see ḤāJJ SAYYāH, Khāterāt [Tehran, 1930, p. 338; text written between the 1870s and 1910s). Among its earlier modern bearers one may find religio-political leaders of the constitutional revolution of 1905 to 1911, Sayyids ʿAbd Allāh Bihbahānī (d. 1910) and Muḥammad Ṭabāṭabāʿī (d. 1918). But anticonstitutionalist mujtahids were also called “ayatollah,” and a spiritual leader, ʿAbd al-Karīm Ḥāʿirī-Yazdī (d. 1937), founder of the new theological center of Qom, is said to be the first mujtahid to bear this title. Titles such as āyat Allāh fī al-anām (ayatollah among mankind), or fī al-ʿālamayn (in the two worlds), or fī al-warā (among mortals) also appeared during 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 research on Shīʿī leadership (Amanat, 1988), to the prerequisite notion of aʿlamīyat (superiority in learning) must be added the often overlooked concept of riyāsat (leadership) that is solidified by popular acclamation and payment of religious taxes. Although contributing to centralizing clerical authority, riyāsat also meant clerical leadership over specific communities (for instance, Arab, Turkish, or Persian-speaking groups in Iraqi Shīʿī sanctuaries, the ʿatabātsee ʿATABāT).
With the appearance of such outstanding figures as Moḥammad Ḥosayn Borujerdi (d. 1962), who emerged as the sole marjaʿ al-taqlīd, and the religious political leader Abol-Qāsem Kāshāni (d. 1962), the title “ayatollah” became ubiquitous. Losing its initial prestige, it even came to be applied, against their own usage, to Sunnī religious dignitaries. The leading ayatollah of his time came to be designated by the elative āyatullāh al-ʿuẓmā (grand ayatollah—that is, the supreme mujtahid or marjaʿ al-taqlīd), 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 imām to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989), quite unusual for Twelver Shīʿī (see Matīnī, 1983, p. 603f.).
At the time of Borujerdi's death there was a great discussion among prominent mujtahids, ayatollahs, and Shīʿī laymen regarding the role of the marjaʿ al-taqlīd and his function. Among the views discussed was the idea, formerly favored by ʿAbd al-Karīm Ḥāʿirī-Yazdī, that the concept of a sole marjaʿ al-taqlīd 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 marājiʿ al-taqlīd being established in the main centers of learning (Mashhad and Qom in Iran; Najaf in Iraq). After rivaling Qom from the 1960s until the mid-1970s, Mashhad declined in importance. After the events of 1963, Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as one of the top-ranking marājiʿ al-taqlīd, although Muḥsin al-Ḥakīm (supported by the shah) had a large following in Iraq.
Although Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ 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: ṭalabah (student), thiqat al-Islām (title formerly given to higher-ranking mujtahids), ḥujjat al-Islām, ḥujjat al-Islām wa al-muslimīn, āyatullāh, āyatullāh al-ʿuẓmā, and nāyib-i imām (lieutenant of the imam). The last title reflects the assumption of both temporal and spiritual power by Khomeini. The concept of niyābat (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 ḥujjat al-Islām.
With the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 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 vilāyat-i faqīh (wilāyat al-faqīh; mandate of the jurist), the most prominent opponent being Sharīʿat Madārī (d. 1986), demoted from the rank of grand ayatollah in 1982. One of the leading opponents, Ayatollah Abol-Qāsem Khoʿi (Abū al-Qāsim Khūʿī, d. 1992), had many followers. After Khomeini's death, Sayyid ʿAli Khameneʿi became the valī-i faqīh (leading theologian), while Ayatollah Ḥusayn ʿAlī Muntaẓirī, initially nominated by Khomeini as his spiritual heir (and ratified by the Assembly of Experts, or shūrā-yi khibrigān, in 1985), had been dismissed by Khomeini in 1989. See also ʿATABāT; IJTIHāD; MARJAʿ AL-TAQLīD; MUJTAHID; and IRAN; in addition, many of the figures mentioned are the subjects of independent entries.
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