Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

What is an Ayatollah?

Ayatollah is Arabic for “Sign of God,” an honorific title conferred on leading Shi’a religious scholars, especially in Iran and Iraq. In traditional Shi’a circles, accomplished scholars can attain the rank of Ayatollah by popular acclaim and through the acknowledgment of their peers. Among those of that rank, some are also further distinguished by the title “Grand Ayatollah.” Of those, in turn, a group of seven have traditionally been singled out as “Sources of Imitation” and are thereby acknowledged as the most influential teachers among Shi’a Muslims.


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