Ayatollah (UK: /ˌəˈtɒlə/ or US: /ˌəˈtlə/; Persian: آیت‌الله, romanizedâyatollâh, Persian pronunciation: [ɒːjjætˌolˈlɒːh]) is an honorific title for high-ranking Twelver Shia clergy in Iran that came into widespread usage in the 20th century.[1][2]

Originally used as a title bestowed by popular/clerical acclaim for a small number of the most distinguished marja' at-taqlid mujtahid, it suffered from "inflation" following the 1979 Iranian Revolution when it came to be used for "any established mujtahid".[3] By 2015 it was further expanded to include any student who had passed their Mujtahid final exam,[4] leading to "thousands" of Ayatollahs.[5]

The title is not used by the Sunni community of Iran,[1] nor by Shias in Lebanon, Pakistan, or India.[1] In Iraq, the title is not unknown, but is only used for clerics of Iranian origin.[1]

In the Western world – especially in decade after the Iranian Revolution – it was associated with Ruhollah Khomeini, who was so well known as to often be referred to as "The Ayatollah".


The title is originally derived from Arabic word Āyah pre-modified with the definite article al and post-modified with the word Allah, making ʾāyatu llāh (Arabic: آية الله).[6] The combination has been translated to English as 'Sign of God',[1] 'Divine Sign'[2] or 'Reflection of God'.[7] It is a frequently-used term in Quran, but its usage in this context is presumably a particular reference to the verse 41:53 "We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and in their own selves",[1] while it has been also used to refer to The Twelve Imams by Shias.[8]

Variants used are ʾāyatu llāhi fī l-ʾanʿām (Arabic: آية الله في الأنعام, lit.'Sign of God among mankind'),[9] ʾāyatu llāhi fī l-ʿālamayn (Arabic: آية الله في العالمَین, lit.'Sign of God in the two worlds', dual form)[9] or fī l-ʿālamīn (Arabic: في العالمین, lit.'in the worlds', plural form)[10] and ʾāyatu llāhi fī l-warā (Arabic: آية الله في الورى, lit.'Sign of God among mortals').[9]


See also: Taqlid, Ijtihad, and Fiqh

Though no formal hierarchical structure exists among Shia clerics, a "hierarchy of difference" can be elaborated to describe the situation.[11] Traditionally, the title Ayatollah was awarded by popular usage only to the very few highest ranking,[5] prominent Mujtahid.[1] Qualifications included

Consequently, by the 1960s a cleric addressed as an Ayatollah was expected to be a Marja'.[9]

Devaluation trend

The title of Ayatollah (and other Iranian Shi'i titles) has been "cheapened" since then.[1][12][5]

Roy Mottahedeh describes how the title of ayatollah was determined in the mid to late 20th century.

Only the titles 'jurisconsult' (faqih) and 'model for imitation' (marja' al-taqlid) had fixed meaning. Otherwise titles ... really expressed the informal consensus of mullahs as to the degree of deference they wished to show one another. A teacher in madreseh might be greatly offended if a letter from a layman failed to call him 'ayatollah', but he would vigorously reject the title if addressed as an ayatollah in public - vigorously, that is, until he sensed that other mullahs of his level would tolerate hearing him so addressed, at which point he would quietly let his students impose the title on him.[13]

According to Michael M. J. Fischer, the Iranian Revolution led to "rapid inflation of religious titles", so that almost every senior cleric began to be called an Ayatollah.[14] raising the number of individuals who call themselves an Ayatollah dramatically.[12]

An unwritten rule of addressing for Shia clerics has been developed after the 1980s as a result of Iranian Revolution,[9] despite the fact no official institutional way of conferring titles is available.[5] At first the title that had been reserved for a Marja', was gradually applied to an established Mujtahid.[3] With the post-revolutionary bureaucratization of Shia seminaries under the Islamic Republic, 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.[4] 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".[5]

This inflation led to invention of a new title, Ayatollah al-Uzma (lit.'Great Sign of God').[5] Originally, about half a dozen people were addressed as al-Uzma, but as of 2015, the number of people who claimed that title was reportedly over 50.[5]

Political connotations

Ruhollah Khomeini, known in the West as "The Ayatollah"

Another post-revolutionary change in what makes an ayatollah has been the falling away (at least in many important situations), of purely religious credentials and informal acclamation, and its replacement by political criteria.[15]

Ali Khamenei—who was addressed with mid-level title of Hujjat al-Islam when he was in office as President of Iran—was bestowed the title Ayatollah immediately after he was elected Supreme Leader of Iran in 1989, without meeting regular unwritten criteria (such as authoring a Risalah).[16] Since the 2010s, sources under government control tend to give him more distinguished titles like Grand Ayatollah and Imam.[15]

Certain clerics, such as Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari[2] and Hussein-Ali Montazeri,[17] who had fallen out of favor with the rulers were downgraded by not being addressed as an Ayatollah.


Origins, early 20th century

The earliest known address of this title is for Ibn Mutahhar Al-Hilli (died 1374), however it was not in use as a title for those qualifying until the 20th century.[1] 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.[2] Mirza Ali Aqa Tabrizi was the first one to use the term Ayatullah for the sources of emulation in Najaf, especially Akhund Khurasani (1839–1911), to distinguish them from the clerics of lower rank in Tehran, during the 1905-1911 Persian Constitutional Revolution.[18] (Mirza Sayyed Mohammad Tabatabai and Seyyed Abdollah Behbahani were also given that honorific by constitutionalists according to Loghatnameh Dehkhoda.)[19]

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".[1] Abdul-Karim Haeri Yazdi (1859–1937) who founded Qom Seminary, may be the first to bear the title according to Algar.[1]

While the title Ayatollah was sporadically used during the 1930s,[1] it became widespread in the 1940s.[2]

Stages of contemporary titles for Shia clerics in Iran

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')
Hujjat al-Islam
(lit.'Proof of Islam')
Hujjat al-Islam wal-Muslimin
(lit.'Proof of Islam and Muslims')
(lit.'Sign of God')
Ayatollah al-Uzma
(lit.'Great Sign of God')

Grand Ayatollah

Main article: Marja'

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".[21] Usually as a prelude to such status, a mujtahid[note 1] is asked to publish a juristic treatise in which he answers questions about the application of Islam to present-time daily affairs.[22] Risalah is the word for treatise, and such a juristic work is called a risalah-yi'amaliyyah or "practical law treatise",[23] and it is usually a reinvention of the book Al-Urwatu l-Wuthqah.[citation needed]

See also

Explanatory notes

  1. ^ Among the Shia, a mujtahid is a person generally accepted as an original authority in Islamic law.



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Algar 1987
  2. ^ a b c d e Glassé 2003
  3. ^ a b Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, 1985, p.205-6
  4. ^ a b Golkar 2017, pp. 219
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Momen 2015, p. 178
  6. ^ Leaman 2006, pp. 85–86
  7. ^ Salkind 2006, p. 739, vol. 1
  8. ^ Hughes 2013, p. 126
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Calmard 2009
  10. ^ a b Nasr, Nasr & Dabashi 1989, p. 265–266
  11. ^ Momen 1985, p. 204
  12. ^ a b Momen 1985, p. 205–206
  13. ^ Mottahedeh, Roy (2000) [1985]. The Mantle of the Prophet : Religion and Politics in Iran. Oxford: One World. p. 241.
  14. ^ Fischer, Michael M. J. (1980). Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Harvard University Press]. p. 2016. ISBN 9780674466159.
  15. ^ a b 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, S2CID 146360568
  16. ^ Amuzegar, Jahangir (2014). The Islamic Republic of Iran: Reflections on an Emerging Economy. Routledge. p. 210. ISBN 978-1-85743-748-5.
  17. ^ Daryaee, Touraj (2012). The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History. Oxford Handbooks in History. Oxford University Press. p. 378. ISBN 9780199732159.
  18. ^ Hermann 2013, p. 439.
  19. ^ Bill, James A. (1982), "Power and Religion in Revolutionary Iran", Middle East Journal, 36 (1): 22–47, JSTOR 4326354
  20. ^ Golkar 2017, pp. 219–223
  21. ^ Emad El-Din Shahin (2016). The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics. Oxford University Press. p. 400. ISBN 9780190631932.
  22. ^ Siddiqui, Kalim (1980). The Islamic Revolution: Achievements, Obstacles & Goals. London: Open Press for The Muslim Institute. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-905081-07-6.
  23. ^ 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, South Holland: Brill. p. 198. ISBN 978-90-04-04900-0.

General and cited sources