Al Askari Mosque, shrine of the 10th and 11th Shi’i Imams, in Samarra Iraq before the 2006 bombing. (Photo by Toushiro, available at Wikimedia Commons).

March 01, 2009


The occultation of the last Shi’a Imam (the Mahdi) created a problem: Who can guide the Shi’a community and interpret the Qu’ran and the traditions rightly during his absence? Modern Shi’ism resolves this dilemma with a semi-hierarchical structure of religious scholars that has no parallel in Sunnism (or Judaism or Christianity, for that matter).

The religious leader of the Shi’a community must be a scholar learned in the texts and traditions, but also skilled in the art and science of rightly interpreting them, a process called ijtihad. Gaining both the knowledge and the heuristic skills takes time and training at the hands of established and recognized teachers. Thus the path of the future leader of the community begins in a seminary. There the student studies the Qu’ran, the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and also of the first Imam, Ali, and the traditional law code (shari‘a) that previous scholars have elaborated. After a few years, the student may receive from his teacher the title of Hojjat-ol Eslam or “Proof of Islam.” This title does not certify the student to conduct interpretation (ijtihad) for others or to issue religious edicts (fatwa). In order to advance further, the student must complete another round of courses focusing on the process of interpretation and argumentation. If he can satisfy his teacher of his competence after this round of studies, the student may then receive a certificate that he is qualified to make religious rulings (that he is a mujtahid, i.e., one who performs ijtihad). At this point, he may call himself Ayatollah (“Sign of God”).  

[Note: Iranian-born Ayatollahs customarily take surnames indicating their places of birth—thus Khomeini was from the town of Khomein; Sistani from Sistan; Mesbah-Yazdi from Yazd; and so on. In the 20th Century the title “Grand Ayatollah” (Ayatollah al Ozma) emerged to denote the most important marja of a time or a region. Sistani in Najaf is one of the very few currently styled in this way.]

All Ayatollahs can issue religious rulings and can obtain significant followings among lay Shi’a (i.e., those who are not themselves mojtaheds). But a handful of Ayatollahs have predominant importance within Shi’ism. They are called marjas (from marja-e taqlid or “source of emulation”) because they are believed by other mojtahids and many lay Shi’a to be the most accomplished and authoritative religious scholars of their day. The transition from ayatollah to marja depends on the publication of a book of religious rulings that revises traditional religious law (sharia) in some way to account for circumstances peculiar to modern times, and on the recognition of the would-bemarja by other ayatollahs. Each marja also prescribes his own particular ways of conducting Shi’a rituals, most notably of going on the hajj to Mecca and performing the rites there. Every devout Shi’a follows the marja of his or her choosing, and no one can force a Shi’a to choose a marja against his or her will (in principle): women can choose independently of their fathers or husbands, for example, and even the theocratic Iranian regime has made no attempt to require its citizens to follow any particular marja (a rather significant point for Iranian politics and relations between Iran and Iraq—see the biography of Ayatollah Khamenei for details). Each marja thus stands in for the absent Imam in providing guidance to his followers about how to behave rightly and worship God.

The system is neither closed nor fixed, however. Promotion depends upon the recognition of one or two clerics in the higher rank. There is no canonical list of ayatollahs or marjas that definitively lists who holds what rank. And there is no set number of clerics at any level—ayatollahs do not fill any given number of “sees” like Catholic bishops, for example. Today, the most important marjas in the Middle East are Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf, Iraq; Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, an Iraqi who is the spiritual leader of Lebanese Hezbollah, and by nature of his political claim if not religious credentials which are less than many of his peers in Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. But marjas do not generally specify their successors, and it is by no means clear what will happen when Grand Ayatollah Sistani dies, for example. He might be followed by one of the four significant ayatollahs in Najaf, or he might be succeeded by an ayatollah from elsewhere—historically, most of Iraq’s marjas have hailed from Iran, in fact (Sistani himself is of Iranian birth).

The fluidity of the system does not weaken its importance, however. The Qu’ran enjoins all Muslims to pay a “poor tax” (khoms)—paying the tax is one of the “five pillars of Islam” that are the essential conditions for being a devout Muslim. Shi’a pay their poor-tax to their marja. Marjas collect these taxes through representatives in Mecca and, depending on their stature, around the Middle East or even the world. A powerful marja, therefore, maintains a network of offices in key sites in the Middle East, and each office collects significant amounts of cash which are then transmitted to the marja for his use.  The more money a marja collects, the more influence he can wield. 

Marjas can use these funds to support students—and the stature of a marja can be determined in part by how large a stipend he pays his students—or to support other religiously-sanctioned activities. In the case of Lebanon, for instance, many Lebanese Shi’a (particularly among the Lebanese diaspora) pay their poor-tax to representatives of Hezbollah (endorsed by Ayatollah Fadlallah), and these funds make up a significant (although unknown) portion of Hezbollah’s operating budget. Grand Ayatollah Sistani is the most popular marja in Iraq and in Iran, and the wealthiest. Ayatollah Khomeini in his day was an extremely popular marja. His successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, on the other hand, does not have a large following and uses Iranian state funds to support his students (and pursue other religious activities) at a level beyond what his poor-tax income would sustain.

Traditionally, differences between marjas were relatively minor—their interpretation of the Qu’ran and Shi’a traditions in the 20th Century has been largely confined to matters relating to modernity not foreseen in the earlier texts rather than fundamental doctrinal issues. There has been one major exception, however: Ayatollah Khomeini reinterpreted the Qu’ran and the traditions to argue that the most learned religious scholar must be not only the religious leader of the community, but also its political leader. This doctrine, called the “rule of the jurisprudent” (velayat-e faqih), is highly controversial in Shi’a circles. Many leading Iranian clerics rejected it; most Iraqi clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Sistani, reject it utterly. It is the theological basis of the current Iranian regime, but there is no mechanism within Shi’ism to establish it formally as orthodoxy as long as important marjas and ayatollahs dispute it. The lack of any such mechanism, which would be similar to the Catholic doctrine of Papal Infallibility, means that the religious underpinnings of Iran’s theocracy will likely remain controversial even among Shi’a (let alone among Sunnis, most of whom do not recognize this hierarchy or methodology at all) for some time. 

Next section: Velayat-e Faqih

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