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An ayatollah (UK: // or US: //; Persian: آيتالله, romanized: āyatullāh, from Arabic: آية الله, romanized: ʾāyatu llāh "Sign of God") or ayatullah is a high-ranking Usuli Twelver Shī‘ah cleric. Those who carry the title are experts in Islamic studies such as jurisprudence, Quran reading, and philosophy and usually teach in Islamic seminaries. The next lower clerical rank is Hujjat al-Islam.
The name "ayatullah" originates from a passage in the Quran which the Shi'a, unlike the Sunni, interpret to mean human beings can be regarded as 'signs' or 'evidence' of God. Passage 51:20–21 of the Quran states:
On the earth are signs (Ayat) for those of assured Faith,
As also in your own selves: Will ye not then see?
The term was not commonly used as a title until the early twentieth century. The title of Ayatollah became popularized with the creation of Qom Seminary in 1922.
The title is currently granted to top Shia mujtahid, after completing sat'h and kharij studies in the hawza. 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 are a few women who are equal in ranking to the ayatollahs but are not ayatollahs, and are known as Lady Mujtahideh. A Mujtahid cannot have a congregation. The most outstanding in recent history was Nosrat Amin, also known as Banu Isfahani. Current examples of the Lady Mujtahidehs are Zohreh Sefati and Lady Ayatollah Aatieh Hassani, also known as Imam'ah Al-Hassani, daughter of Grand Ayatollah Gholamreza Hassani.
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". Usually as a prelude to such status, a mujtahid is asked to publish a juristic treatise in which he answers questions about the application of Islam to present-time daily affairs. Risalah is the word for treatise, and such a juritic work is called a risalah-yi'amaliyyah or "practical law treatise", and it is usually a reinvention of the book Al-Urwatu l-Wuthqah.
There are 86 Maraji (plural of Marja') living worldwide as of 2017, mainly based in Najaf and Qom. The most prominent of these include Ali al-Sistani, Seyyed Ali Khamenei, Muhammad al-Fayadh, Muhammad Saeed al-Hakim, and Bashir al-Najafi in Najaf; and Hossein Vahid Khorasani, Mousa Shubairi Zanjani, Sayyid Sadeq Rohani, Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani, Abdul-Karim Mousavi Ardebili, Naser Makarem Shirazi and Yousef Saanei in Qom.