Who is an Ayatollah? Any person with some religious education and a turban? Or is it essential for that person to have some requisite qualification?
In recent years there has been a dilution in the meaning and sense of many such terms. A case in point may be the concept of ‘Shaheed’: a term which once stood for someone who sacrificed his/her life in the way of God. In recent years the term came to apply on any one who “sacrificed” his/her life for a cause.
Same ‘vulgarisation’ appears to have been done in recent years in the Shi’i world for other terms as ‘Ayatollah’ which literally means “sign of God”, and ‘Naib-i Imam‘, a term traditionally but sparsely used for select marja‘ who were attributed to have attained the status of ‘deputy’ of the living 12th Imam of the Ithna ‘asharis.
Some time back a Shi’i pesh imam (one who leads prayers) and imam-i juma’ (one who leads Friday prayers) declared that all who don a turban (‘ammāmah) are the Naib-i Imam. He declared this in a way as if the only demarcator and qualification to be the Naib of the Living Imam was this sartorial marker: the ubiquitous turban! This was a declaration which made a mockery of the hesitation of many previous spiritual and scholarly marja‘ who had literally trembled to be placed anywhere near this position! To them it was only the Divinely Inspired and appointed Imam, who could elevate any of his servant to that exalted position!
Similar obfuscation has been committed to the title and position of Ayatollah and Ayatollah al-Uzma!
Those who carry the title Ayatollah are experts in Islamic studies such as jurisprudence, ethics, and philosophy and usually teach in Islamic seminaries (hauza).
The title gained worldwide popularity only after the Islamic Revolution of Iran.
The title is granted to top Shia mujtahid ( those who can do ijtihad), after completing sat’h and kharij studies in the hauza (seminary). By then the mujtahid would be able to issue his own edicts from the sources of Islamic religious laws: the Qur’an, the Sunnah, ijmāʻ, and ‘aql (“intellect”, rather than the Sunnī principle of qiyas). Most of the time this is attested by an issued certificate from his teachers. The ayatollah can then teach in hawzas (shia seminaries) according to his speciality, can act as a reference for their religious questions, and act as a judge. There is an important difference from Shi’a ayatollahs and “saints” in other religions: ayatollahs are not regarded as enlightened by God Himself, but by the Word of God.
Only a few of the most important ayatollah are accorded the rank of Grand Ayatollah (Ayatollah Uzma, “Great Sign of God”). This usually happens when the followers of one of the ayatollahs refer to him in many situations and ask him to publish his Juristic book in which he answers the vast majority of daily Muslim affairs. The book is called Resalah, which is usually a reinvention of the book Al-Urwatu l-Wuthqah, according to their knowledge of the most authentic Islamic sources and their application to current life.
There are 66 living worldwide as of 2013, mainly based in Najaf and Qom. The most prominent of these include Ali Sistani, Mohammad Yaqoobi, Hossein Vahid Khorasani, Makarem Shirazi, Yousef Sane’i, Malakouti, Haeri, and Sadiq Shirazi. There are currently five grand ayatollahs in Najaf, Iraq, center of the Iraqi Shi’i seminaries or Hawzas; the most senior of which is Ali al-Sistani. Other grand ayatollahs based in Najaf include Mohammad Yaqoobi, Basir Najafi, Mohammad Saeed Al-Hakim and Mohammad Ishaq Al-Fayyad.
Unfortunately today in the Shi’i world every second mulla is seen usurping this title. Some who during their whole lifetime had no ‘amaliya‘ (book of rulings or ijtihad, to be followed by others) are even being labelled as Ayatollah al-Uzma!