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In Sunni tradition, the title was used exclusively for the scholar al-Ghazali, due to his influential integration of Sufism and sharia. However, there is some evidence of application of the term to later Sunni scholars, in imitation of the Shia usage. Deobandis granted this title to their leader Hanafi Maturidi theologian Muhammad Qasim Nanautavi for his debates with scholars of other religions and establishing Darul Uloom Deoband.
In Twelver Shia the title is awarded to scholars. It was originally applied as an honorific to leading scholars, but now the use indicates a status in the hierarchy of the learned below Ayatollah. It is divided into two sub ranks, Hujjatu l-Islām wa l-Muslimīn ("Authority of Islam and on Muslims") and Hujjatu l-Islām ("Authority of Islam"), given to middle-ranking clerics.
Hawza students start their studies learning fiqh, kalam, hadith, tafsir, philosophy and Arabic literature. After mastering these levels they are given the Hojatoleslam title, and can start becoming mujtahid by studying advanced textbooks known as satḥ, and research courses known as kharij.
- Algar, Hamid (23 March 2012). "Ḥojjat-al-Eslām". Encyclopædia Iranica. XII. p. 426. Archived from the original on 17 May 2012.