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Marji' (Arabic: مرجع, transliteration: marjiʿ; plural: marājiʿ), literally meaning "source to follow" or "religious reference", is a title given to the highest level of Twelver Shia authority, a Grand Ayatollah with the authority given by a hawzah to make legal decisions within the confines of Islamic law for followers and lower-ranking clerics. The highest ranking marjiʿ is known as the marja al-mutlaq or marja al-taqlid al-mutlaq.[1][2][note 1]

Sources differ as to when the institution of the marja˓ emerged, with Murtadha al-Ansari (d. 1864)[2] and Muhammad ibn Ya'qub al-Kulayni (d. 940 or 941 CE)[3] both being called the first marja'.


Currently, maraji' are accorded the title Grand Ayatollah (Arabic: آية ‌الله العظمی ʾĀyatullāh al-ʿUẓmā). Previously, the titles of Allamah (such as Allameh Tabatabaei, Allameh Majlesi, Allameh Hilli) and Imam (such as Imam Khomeini, Imam Rohani,[4] Imam Shirazi[5] and Imam Sadr)[6] have also been used.

Someone who follows/imitates a marja' (who performs taqlid) is called a muqallid.

Other clerical titles[edit]


The title of an ayatollah transpires when he becomes a celebrated figure in the hawza and his students and followers trust him in answering their questions, and ask him to publish a juristic book, the risalah amaliyah—a manual of practical rulings arranged according to topics dealing with ritual purity, worship, social issues, business, and political affairs. The risalah contains an ayatollah's fatwas on different topics, according to his knowledge of the most authentic Islamic sources and their application to current life. Traditionally only the most renowned ayatollahs of the given time published a risalah. Today, however, many ayatollahs of varying degrees of illustriousness have published one, while some of the renowned ones have refused to do so.

Marja al-taqlid al-mutlaq

The highest marja' or “first-among-equals”, is called the Marja al-taqlid al-mutlaq.[7]

Role, authority, requirements[edit]

Traditionally, taqlid or "imitation" of an expert in Islamic jurisprudence (a mujtahid) is lawful and obligatory for all Muslims not so trained themselves;[8] (on "matters of belief" or usulu 'd-din, they must train themselves).[9] From the perspective of Shia jurisprudence, during the occultation of the Mahdi, (for the past 1000+ years) the highest ranking Shia hawzah clerics are bestowed with responsibility for understanding and explaining Islamic religious jurisprudence. As of the 19th century the Shia ulama taught believers to turn to "a source of taqlid" (marja' at-taqlid) "for advice and guidance and as a model to be imitated."[10][11]


Where a difference in opinion exists between the maraji', each of them provides their own opinion and the muqallid will follow their own marja's opinion on that subject.[12] A mujtahid, i.e. someone who has completed advanced training (dars kharij) in the hawza and has acquired the license to engage in ijtihad (ʾijāz al-ʾijtihād) from one or several ayatollahs, is exempted from the requirement to follow a marja'. However ijtihad is not always comprehensive and so a mujtahid may be an expert in one particular area of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and exercise ijtihad therein, but follow a marja' in other areas of fiqh.

Who and where[edit]

Several senior Grand Ayatollahs preside over hawzas, religious seminaries. The hawzas of Qom and Najaf are the preeminent seminary centers for the training of Shia clergymen. However, there are other smaller hawzas in many other cities around the world, the biggest ones being Karbala, Isfahan and Mashhad.

There are 85 Maraji living worldwide as of 2022,[13][14] mostly residing in Najaf and Qom. The most prominent among them are Hossein Vahid Khorasani, Mousa Shubairi Zanjani, Sayyid Sadeq Rohani, Naser Makarem Shirazi, Sadiq Hussaini Shirazi, Hossein Noori Hamedani and Abdollah Javadi-Amoli in Qom; Ali al-Sistani, Muhammad al-Fayadh, Muhammad Saeed al-Hakim and Bashir al-Najafi in Najaf.

Dispute over Marja al-taqlid al-mutlaq

In the early 1990s, the leading marja', Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, died and Ali al-Sistani, "emerged" as the marja al-mutlaq or highest Marja' in the world of Shia Islam. According to Mohamad Bazzi, Al-Sistani's word "on religious matters carries the most weight" among Shia.[1]

However, in 1994, the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) declared it was the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei who was "the single marja˓ al-taqlid" or "undisputed marja˓".[2]

According to Mohamad Bazzi, this was a bid "to displace" Ali Sistani, the true Marja al-taqlid al-mutlaq, "and his allies in Najaf", but it "failed" because Khamenei "had modest religious credentials (he was only elevated to the rank of ayatollah after Khomeini’s death, so he could assume the post of supreme leader). Faced with Baathist persecution and an Iranian power grab, Sistani was able to retain his position."[1] Gleave does not mention al-Sistani but states that Khamenei's "position as the Marja˓ al-taqlid" has "remained a matter of dispute".[2]

Conditions for a marja'[edit]

There is no official body resembling a council of ulama to designate someone a marja al-taqlid, nor any formalized specific process to do it, because reaching the position of marja al-taqlid "is entirely at the discretion of the believers themselves", (for example, being able to raise enough money "to finance the education of religious students" from donations from the believers, is one of the qualifications of a marja').[3] Nonetheless, there are "general principles" for their selection including several "conditions" which have been "accepted unanimously by Shiʿite theologians".[3]

  • maturity (bulugh),[3]
  • reasonableness (aql),[3]
  • being of the male sex (dhukurrat),[3]
  • faith (iman),[3]
  • justice (edalat), and
  • legitimacy of birth.[3]


First Marja'[edit]

Shiʿi "biographical compilations generally" consider Muhammad ibn Ya'qub al-Kulayni (d. 940 or 941), (one of the first compilers of Shiʿite hadith), to be "the first" post-occultation marja al-taqlid, according to Neguin Yavari and Eric Hooglund.[3] According to Robert Gleave, the institution of the marja˓ emerged in the nineteenth century[note 2] with the first universally recognized marja˓, "the influential mujtahid Murtadha al-Ansari (d. 1864)".[2] When asked directly "Who was the first ever Marja-e-Taqleed?", only one of four mullahs at resented with the question replied (Mohammad Al-Musawi) and would only say, "from the time of the Prophet (SAWA) and the Infallible Imams, Muslims who lived in places far away from them, were ordered to refer in religious matters to the scholar in their area".[16]

Shiite authorities in the history of Shi'ism have an important role in the religious, political and social thought of their communities. One example is the fatwa of Mirza Mohammed Hassan Husseini Shirazi imposing sanctions on the use of tobacco during Qajar rule, which led to the abolition of the tobacco concession.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ According to Robert Gleave: "Marja˓ al-taqlid is a title given to the highest-ranking cleric within Twelver Shi˓ism. ... a number of scholars at the same time could be put forward as "sources" (maraji˓) simultaneously."[2] According to Mohamad Bazzi: "marja al-taqlid" is "a senior cleric whose edicts" the faithful "follow, or emulate", and there are numbers of marja' al-taqlid aka marja'. It is a "marja al-taqlid al-mutlaq" who is the "highest of these marjas ... a supreme religious authority".[1]
  2. ^ Ahmad Kazemi Moussavi agrees[15]


  1. ^ a b c d Bazzi, Mohamad (12 August 2014). "The Sistani Factor How a struggle within Shiism will shape the future of Iraq". Boston Review. Retrieved 13 October 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Gleave, Robert. "MARJA˓ AL-TAQLID. Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World". Retrieved 13 October 2022.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i yavari, neguin. "MARJA AL-TAQLID". Retrieved 10 August 2022.
  4. ^ "موقع مکتب سماحة آیة الله العظمی السید محمد صادق الحسینی الروحانی (دام ظله) :: الصفحة الرئیسیة". Archived from the original on 2019-09-13. Retrieved 2020-04-24.
  5. ^ "Default Parallels Plesk Panel Page". Archived from the original on 2013-07-24.
  6. ^ "مركز الإمام موسى الصدر للأبحاث والدراسات". Archived from the original on 2008-09-05. Retrieved 2020-04-24.
  7. ^ Bazzi, Mohamad (August 12, 2014). "The Sistani Factor". Boston Review. Retrieved 23 December 2022.
  8. ^ Peter, Rudolph. "IDJTIHAD AND TAQLID IN 18TH AND 19TH CENTURY ISLAM". Die Welt des Islams: 139.
  9. ^ "Taqlid: Meaning and Reality". 20 January 2013. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  10. ^ Momen, Moojan (1985). An Introduction to Shiʻi Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shiʻism. Yale University Press. p. 143. ISBN 0-300-03531-4. Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  11. ^ see also "Ask a Question. Marja'". Al-Islam. Retrieved 22 December 2022.
  12. ^ "تکليف،تقليد و انتخاب مرجع تقليد براي بانوان". Archived from the original on 9 January 2008.
  13. ^ "List of Maraji (Updated) as of 2017". Archived from the original on 2018-08-19. Retrieved 2018-08-19.
  14. ^ "Another list of Maraji (2017)". Archived from the original on 2018-08-19. Retrieved 2018-08-19.
  15. ^ Moussavi, Ahmad Kazemi (Winter 1985). "The Establishment of the Position of Marja'iyyt-i Taqlid in the Twelver-Shi'i Community". Iranian Studies. 18 (1): 35–51. doi:10.1080/00210868508701646.
  16. ^ "Ask a Question. When did the institution of Taqleed get started? Who was the first ever Marja-e-Taqleed? Is Taqleed obligatory or optional and why? Is there any evidence from the Imams for it?". 2 September 2020. Retrieved 13 October 2022.
  17. ^ Politics, Protest and Piety in Qajar Iran (30 January 2013). Tobacco Protest. Archived from the original on 2015-09-05. Retrieved 2015-08-05.

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