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Marjaʿ al-Taqlīd

The term marjaʿ al-taqlīd (Ar. marjiʿ al-taqlīd, Persian marjaʿ-e taqlīd)—literally, an authority to be emulated—designates the highest ranking authorities of the Twelver Shīʿī community. In local or national communities (especially Iran and Iraq) the term is loosely applied to between four and eight high-ranking jurists (ayatollahs). Worldwide, and at particular times, the term is used in a more restricted sense to refer to only one or two such jurists. The position is informally acquired and depends on patterns of loyalty and allegiance that vary with time, geography, politics (clerical and national), and the perceived conduct of the jurist. A gradual convergence of public opinion settles on one or more jurist(s), with the collegial opinion of the Shīʿī clerics—potentially divided by training and national allegiance but sharing a sense of the international and unified nature of the Twelver Shīʿī community—being a major factor in the designation.

Ideological Foundation.

The authority and power associated with the marjaʿ al-taqlīd depend on two theoretical structures. The first is ijtihād, the making of religious judgments and interpretations. Although the origins of ijtihād go back at least to the ḥadīth collections of al-Kulīnī (d. about 940), the Shīʿī theory of ijtihād found its first systematic exposition in the works of ʿAllāmah al-Ḥillī (d. 1325). The theory states that although the fundamentals of sharīʿah (the divine law) are definitively known, its details are uncertain and difficult of access, a matter of (informed) opinion, not knowledge. Those who have the training, skills, and piety to derive a ruling on questions of divine law are mujtahids. People who are not trained in ijtihād, the ʿāmmah (common people), are dependent on the mujtahids and must submit to their rulings. This submission is known as taqlīd and should be offered to the most learned jurist. Historically, this was a matter of local rather than national or international authority. The concepts of taqlīd and recourse (rajʿah, hence marjaʿ ) to authority have always been a part of the theory of ijtihād, but the term marjaʿ al-taqlīd and the notion of a sole marjaʿ emerged only in the nineteenth century.

The second theoretical structure supporting marjaʿ al-taqlīd is the delegation of juristic authority to those who best know the sharīʿah, namely the marājiʿ (plural of marjaʿ ) Delegation of authority is derived exegetically from several ḥadīth, the most famous of which is that of ʿUmar ibn Ḥanẓalah. In this ḥadīth, the sixth imam, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, assigns judicial authority to those who understand ḥadīth and the law. Over time, the Shīʿī jurists interpreted this to mean that, if there was any rightful executor of the sharīʿah during the period of the Imam 's absence or occultation (ghaybah), it was the qualified jurist, acting in his capacity as ḥākim sharʿī (canon-law judge) and nāʿib al-imām (representative of the imam).

The authority that senior Shīʿī jurists acquired also had a financial dimension. In the sphere of sharʿī taxes, there was agreement that the just and learned faqīh (jurisprudent) was the rightful manager of zakāt (alms) and khums (one-fifth of an individual 's annual increase in wealth). The khums or sahm al-imām (imam 's portion) is submitted voluntarily and is the major source of financial patronage for high-ranking jurists, ensuring them political independence and real power. Sunnī jurists have no corresponding access to an income independent of the state.

In the sphere of political authority, the Shīʿī theory of delegation of authority ensured that the lay ruler could never be seen as the rightful executor of sharīʿah, although the community might accommodate itself to his rule. A jurist, however, might be the ideal and real executor of the sharīʿah, depending on the implications of al-niyābah al-ʿāmmah (general deputyship to the imam) and wilāyat al-faqīh (the jurist 's guardianship over the community). These concepts were much debated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their most politically activist formulation is in the works of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989), who acquired the leadership of the Iranian Revolution of 1978–1979. The concepts found one of their most quietist formulations in the works of Ayatollah Abol-Qāsem Khoʿi (1899–1992), who stressed the spiritual dimension of the marjiʿīyah and the social and educational imperatives of the worldwide Shīʿī community.

Historical Development.

The theories of ijtihād and general deputyship were not exploited by jurists of the Ṣafavid period (1501–1722) because accommodation to government offered political advantage and because the community was divided on the question of ijtihād between the Akhbārīs, who denied its validity, and the Uṣūlīs. The scholarly genius and political skills of one man, Muḥammad Bāqir ibn Muḥammad Akmal al-Bihbahānī (d. c.1791), were responsible for the Uṣūlī victory over the Akhbārī position. Among his pupils was Jaʿfar ibn Kāshif al-Ghitāʿ (d. 1812), a jurist remarkable for his political skills—he mediated between the Ottoman authorities and the Qājār shah in Iran and was influential at the Qājār court—and for his decisive restatement of traditional political theory. The Russo-Iranian wars of the early nineteenth century led Fatḥ ʿAlī Shāh Qājār (r. 1797–1834) to look to the clerical class for support and legitimacy. Shaykh Jaʿfar offered it in a sophisticated statement of the law: as mujtahid and representative of the Hidden Imam, he gave his permission for jihād. It was an ad hoc response to a political situation but a significant development of theory and not atypical of such developments.

Retrospectively, Shīʿī tradition has asserted a sequence of sole marājiʿ going back to the time of the imams. The events and personalities of the early nineteenth century, together with improving communications, made the emergence of a sole marjaʿ a real possibility. Muhammad Bāqir al-Bihbahānī and Ja ‘far ibn Khidr Kāshif al-Ghitāʿ had many of the prerequisites for this authority but do not seem to have received the title. It is the two great scholars of the next generation who are associated with its use: Muḥammad Ḥasan al-Najafī (d. 1850) and Shaykh Murtaḍā Anṣārī (d. 1864). The reputations of both depended on scholarly rather than political achievement. Al-Najafī 's restatement of Uṣūlī legal tradition, the Jawāhir al-kalām (The Jewels of Theology), was succeeded and to some extent displaced by the methodological subtlety and discretely innovative thinking of Anṣārī. His epistles on hermeneutic theory (uṣūl al-fiqh) represent a new phase in the history of this discipline. His Kitāb al-makāsib (Book of Profits) is a finely structured analysis of one section of the law that manages to integrate an astonishing diversity of legal issues. His discussions are 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 govern than was Khomeini, who, more than a hundred years later, converted the same topic into a political ideology.

Following the death of Anṣārī, Muḥammad Ḥasan ibn Maḥmud al-Shīrāzī (d. 1895) came to be recognized as sole marjaʿ after obscure events led to his move from Najaf to Samarra. The decisive action that revealed general acknowledgement of his status was his famous intervention against the Iranian government 's granting of a tobacco concession to a British subject in 1891. The large public protests and the success of his fatwā forbidding the use of tobacco were another example of opportunistic involvement in politics transforming a particular jurist into a symbolic figure of great political stature.

In the generation following Shīrāzī, it is difficult to identify sole marājiʿ. The senior jurists were in Najaf, and most of them supported the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1909, but some jurists, in both Najaf and Iran, did not, notably Shaykh Faz̤lullāh Nūrī (who was executed shortly after the success of the constitutionalists). After the 1920 Iraqi revolt against rule by the non-Muslim British failed, mujtahids who had supported the revolt were exiled to, or fled to, Iran, leading to the emergence of Qom as a center of learning that rivaled Najaf, a development exploited by the Pahlavis who sought to bring the marājiʿ under state control. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s a number of leading marājiʿ divided among them the allegiance of the Shīʿī world. Only in the mid-1940s did near-universal consensus settle on Ayatollah Muḥammad Ḥusayn Burūjirdī, 1875–1962) as the sole marjaʿ. Borujerdi was politically quietist and scholarly. His requirement that Shīʿī clergy not involve themselves in politics was advantageous to the Shah and other governments with large Shīʿī populations. Although he did intervene against the Shah 's proposed land reform at the end of his life, most of Borujerdi 's activities were devoted to the day-to-day juristic problems of his followers.

After the death of Borujerdi, the marjaʿ with the widest following was Ayatollah Muḥsin al-Ḥakīm (1889–1970) of Najaf. He too opposed land reform and made a major effort to educate Muslims on the need for government that meets minimum Islamic requirements. To that end he built mosques and libraries and supported the activities of Ḥizb al-Daʿwah al-Islāmīyah (Party of the Call to Islam), an initiative that was met with repressive measures by Iraq 's Baʿthist government. Religious schools were closed, their funds were seized, and their Iranian students were expelled from the country. Religious publications were strictly censored, and instruction in Islam was banned from government schools. Ayatollah al-Ḥakīm 's son Mahdī was arrested and tortured. Under external pressure to protect the marjiʿīyah, Ayatollah al-Ḥakīm issued a fatwā forbidding political participation by ʿulamāʿ, but he authorized ʿulamāʿ membership in organizations that propagated Islam. Eventually the Iraqi government executed most of Ayatollah al-Ḥakīm 's sons and many of his grandsons. The government tried to get control of the ḥawẓah (center of religious education) in Iraq by making Shīʿī clerics government employees as Sunnī clerics were, an initiative that many Iraqi clerics resisted even to their deaths.

The marājiʿ in Iran were also in conflict with their government. The political activities of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) in the early 1960s, one of which was opposition to land reform, had led to his exile from Iran and his residence in Najaf, Iraq. There he developed his theory of Islamic government based on the idea of wilāyat al-faqīh, a system in which God 's law is administered by a cleric who knows it. The Islamic revolution in Iran gave Khomeini political power and made him the marjaʿ for many Iranians, but the implementation of his wilāyat al-faqīh was in many ways more inimical to the interests of the marjaʿ al-taqlīd than were the policies of shahs and other dictators. When he was still in Najaf, he had advocated using the people 's khums for funding the state, a plan that would remove this money from the control of the marjaʿ scholars and thus deprive them of their financial independence. His wilāyat al-faqīh linked the role of marjaʿ with temporal political power in a way that placed the government in the superior position. Senior clerics like Muḥammad Kāẓim Sharīʿatmadārī (d. 1986) and Muḥammad Rizā Gulpaygānī (d. 1993) who could challenge his dominance were placed under house arrest if they spoke out. Shariʿatmadārī, marjaʿ for many Azeri (Azerbaijani) Iranians, was even stripped of his religious status as a Grand Ayatollah when the government got a significant number of the professors in Qom to issue a declaration demoting him. Wilāyat-al-faqīh was taught in schools throughout Iran, and obedience to the faqīh was declared a religious obligation. The government moved to institutionalize Friday congregational prayers. Government policies were announced during the Friday sermons, and the media were used to cover the sermons and mobilize support for the policies, all measures that strengthened government control over religion and reduced the independence of the marājiʿ.

Ayatollah Abol-Qāsem al-Khoʿi (1899–1992) became the marjaʿ for Iraq and for most of the Shīʿī community outside Iran following Ayatollah al-Ḥakīm 's death. Al-Khoʿi was scholarly and quietist and opposed to political activity by Shīʿī clerics, a position that probably saved his life and the very existence of the marjiʿīyah in the Iraq of the 1970s and 1980s. His quietism did not, however, totally protect him from Saddam Hussein who kept him under house arrest from 1980 until the 1991 rebellion against the Iraqi government. Had he issued a fatwā putting the weight of the marjaʿ al-taqlīd behind the uprising, his support might have made a crucial difference, but he was in his nineties and maintained his position against political involvement. Consistent with his lifelong attention to his followers ’ moral well-being, he directed his followers not to buy goods brought back from the invasion of Kuwait on the basis that the goods were stolen. This led to his being transferred to police custody, where he died. His institutional legacy endures in the London-based al-Khoʿi Foundation, an extraordinary international network of mosques, schools, libraries, and charitable institutions from London and New York to Bombay, Islamabad, Malaysia, and Thailand, and in the many young ʿulamāʿ he taught.

In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini 's successor as guardian, ʿAli Khameneʿi, was unable to build a broad following as a marjaʿ. Certain Iranian merchants and others who stood to benefit called him their marjaʿ and paid their sahm al-imām to him, but for reasons such as a desire to continue choosing their own guide and the government 's using the sahm al-imām as a slush fund, most Iranians refused to accept the government 's candidate. The government countered this by encouraging the emergence of numerous marājiʿ so that no one marjaʿ could become strong enough to threaten the system, and by using house arrest against those, such as Ayatollah Ṣādiq Rūḥānī, who rejected government control.

In Najaf, Ayatollah ʿAlī al-Sīstānī (b. 1930) became the most followed marjaʿ. His elevation was due to his scholarly qualities and his piety, and to the fact that he was outside the control of the Iranian government. His elevation came despite the fact that Saddam Hussein 's severe repression of Najaf   's ḥawzah prevented him from having the large following of students usually associated with high-ranking clerics. When the United States occupation of Iraq in 2003 created political opportunity and need, al-Sīstānī responded, just as Shaykh Jaʿfar in the early nineteenth century and Muḥammad Ḥasan al-Shīrāzī in the late nineteenth century had responded to their political opportunities. He immediately forbade revenge killings of Baʿthists, and he met frequently with the other three Grand Ayatollahs of Najaf, all of whom gave precedence to his views, thereby maintaining a united front for the marjaʿ al-taqlīd of Iraq. He pressed the occupation authorities for one-person–one-vote elections and had his aides portray voting as a religious obligation, hence the very large voter turnout in both of Iraq 's elections in 2005. He directed clerics not to accept public office and was able to prevent most Shīʿī retaliation for Sunnī insurgent attacks on Shīʿī people and mosques from 2003 to 2005. Even after the destruction of the gold-domed Shīʿī shrine at Samarra in 2006, he publicly supported reconciliation of all Iraqi communities while demanding that Islam be the sole source of legislation in the country 's new constitution and warning against the separation of state and religion.

Quintessential Conflict with Government.

Cooperation between the marjaʿ al-taqlīd and those who govern is in the interests of both parties because it guarantees their mutual legitimacy, but there are countervailing forces as well. Because the laity 's channeling of their sahm al-imām is the decisive factor in determining which mujtahid, if any, becomes marjaʿ, the clerical class itself cannot control who becomes marjaʿ. The informal nature of the marjiʿīyah, and the absence of any institutions to embody its authority, make it difficult for a jurist to command; rather, he has to acquire and hold authority by other means. This has often meant following, rather than dictating, the mood of the people. Cooperating with unpopular government policies risks undermining the mujtahids ’ position as champions of the people. Antigovernment action, on the other hand, risks their judiciary jurisdiction, and may even imperil their lives.

Reform-minded clerics like the Iraqi Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr (1931–1980)and many pious laypeople have desired to institutionalize the marjaʿ al-taqlīd in order to make it more accountable and more able to resist government pressure. They have sought to modernize the curriculum of the seminaries so that more science and economics and other subjects that clerics need in order to be leaders in the modern world will be taught. In as much as ijtihād is based on knowledge, being regarded as knowledgeable is crucial to the position of the mujtahids. They have to be able to counter ideologies competing with Islam and to project an appealing Islamic ideology, but reforms require more institutionalization, which has been difficult to achieve. Factors militating against institutionalization include nation state boundaries, ideological divisions among the clergy, pressures from lay sources of clerical finance, and competition among cities for the economic benefit the ḥawzah students and pilgrims confer.

Whereas Khomeini weakened the institution of marjaʿ al-taqlīd by positioning the government with its faqīh over the marājiʿ, Ayatollah al-Sīstānī’, by rejecting direct involvement of clerics in politics but supporting the assertion that the jurisprudent has authority over all social and political matters, strengthened the marājiʿ. Khomeini justified the subordination of juristic pluralism as necessary to the maintenance of order in society, that is, he justified it on the grounds of state interest, not on juristic grounds and certainly not on the grounds of the interest of the marjaʿ al-taqlīd. In Iran the government has taken steps to get control of the marājiʿ, whereas in Iraq the marjaʿ has become popular and able to influence government. In al-Sīstānī 's view of Islamic government, the government rules but the marājiʿ have the God-given authority to approve or disapprove government proposals. Muslim clerics have always claimed the right and duty to advise governments, but governments have not always listened. Whether the clergy should be directly involved in government, as implemented by Khomeini, or should confine their involvement to advising lay elected officials, as supported by al-Sīstānī , divides the marājiʿ al-taqlīd of today.



  • Abdul-Jabar, Faleh. “The Genesis and Development of Marjaʿism Versus the State.” In Ayatollahs, Sufis, and Ideologies: State, Religion, and Social Movements in Iraq, edited by Faleh Abdul-Jabar, pp. 61–89. London: Saqi, 2002. Discussion of conflicts among marājiʿ and between them and governments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Akhavi, Shahrough. Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the Pahlavī Period. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980. Rich political history of the relationships between the Islamic clergy and the Pahlavi governments.
  • Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran, 1785–1906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969.
  • Allawi, Ali A.The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. Knowledgeable account, by an Iraqi government insider, of Iraqi politics from 2003 to 2007, including the marājiʿ  's involvement.
  • Arjomand, Said Amir. The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam. Chicago and London, 1984.
  • Arjomand, Said Amir, ed. Authority and Political Culture in Shiʿism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988. Insightful chapters on the development of authority within Shiism.
  • Calder, Norman. Studies in Early Muslim Jurisprudence. Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press, 1993. Scholarly development of theory on the origins of Islamic law, based on early juristic works, many translated for the first time.
  • Lambton, Ann K. S.“A Reconsideration of the Position of the marjaʿ al-taqlid and the Religious Institution.”Studia Islamica20 (1964): 115–135.
  • Lambton, Ann K. S.“The Tobacco Regie: Prelude to Revolution.”Studia Islamica22 (1965): 119– 157; 23 (1965): 71– 90.
  • Lambton, Ann K. S.“A Nineteenth Century View of Jihad.”Studia Islamica32 (1970): 181– 192.
  • Martin, Vanessa. Islam and Modernism: The Iranian Revolution of 1906. London: Tauris, 1989.
  • Millward, William. “Leadership in the Islamic Republic and the Hierarchy of Shiʿa Islam.”Commentary39 (January 1994). Informative analysis of the hierarchy of power in Iran published by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
  • Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shiʿi Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shiʿism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. Excellent portrayal of Shiism and its leaders.
  • Walbridge, Linda S., ed.The Most Learned of the Shiʿa: The Institution of the Marjaʿ Taqlid. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Examination of the social, political, and theological forces that shape the institution of the marjaʿ.
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