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Āyatollāh (Arabic: آیة الله ) (The sign of Allah), is a title that is used for top ranking Shi'a faqihs (Jurists). Using ayatollah in this meaning became prevalent since the early 14th/20th century. After the establishment of the Seminary in Qom by Shaykh 'Abd al-Karim Ha'iri Yazdi, other great Fuqaha also became referred to with this title. In the past centuries, this title was only used for 'Allama Hilli.
In Early Islamic History
Titles such as, Thiqat al-Islam, Hujjat al-Islam and Ayatollah were first used for specific individuals as expressions of respect and all these titles remained exclusive to those certain scholars for several centuries. In the 4th/10th century, the title, "Thiqat al-Islam" was given to al-Kulayni. In the 5th/11th century, the title, "Hujjat al-Islam" was given to Muhammad al-Ghazali. In the 7th/13th century, the title, "Muhaqqiq" was given to Ja'far b. Hasan al-Hilli (known as al-Muhaqqiq al-Hilli).
Hasan b. Yusuf b. Mutahhar al-Hilli, 8th/14th century, was the first scholar to be given the title of "Ayatollah". He is well-known by his other title, al-'Allama al-Hilli. Sharaf al-Din Shulistani, Shaykh Baha'i and 'Allama Majlisi, mention al-'Allama al-Hilli with the title: Ayatollah fi al-'Alamin (the sign of Allah in the worlds). Al-'Alamma al-Majlisi uses the same title for Shams al-Din Muhammad b. Makki (al-Shahid al-Awwal).
In the 14th/20th century
In the early 14th/20th century, the title, "Ayatollah" was used for someone else for the first time: Mirza Husayn Nuri (b.1254/1836 - d.1320/1903) gave the title to Al-Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi Bahr al-'Ulum. After a few decades, Shaykh 'Abbas Qummi used the title of "Ayatollah" for Shaykh Murtada Ansari, Shaykh Husayn Najaf and Sayyid Muhammad Hasan Shirazi. At the time of Mashruta (Persian Constitutional Revolution) (1905-1911), historians used the title for Akhund Mulla Kazim Khurasani, Haj Mirza Husayn Mirza Khalil, Shaykh 'Abd Allah Mazandarani and others.
Ayatollah al-'Uzma (Grand Ayatollah)
In 1340/1922, when Shaykh 'Abd al-Karim Ha'iri established the (Hawza) Seminary of Qom as the center of Shi'a Islamic studies, several great scholars who gathered there were referred to with the title, "Ayatollah". Gradually, prominent scholars who had reached the position of a Marja' became referred to as Ayatollah al-'Uzma (Grand Ayatollah).
- The material for this article is mainly taken from آیت الله in Farsi Wikishia.