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The title was first given to Hasan b. Yusuf b. 'Ali b. Mutahhar, widely known as: al-'Allama al-Hilli. After the establishment of the Seminary in Qom by Shaykh 'Abd al-Karim Ha'iri Yazdi, other great Fuqaha (Jurists) also became referred to with this title.
In Early Islamic History
- 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
- In the 8th/14th century, the titles, "'Allama" and "Ayatollah" were given to Hasan b. Yusuf al-Hilli
All of these titles remained exclusive for the above mentioned scholars for several centuries. As time went on, they gradually came into general usage for other scholars.
First Scholar to be given the title of "Ayatollah"
Hasan b. Yusuf b. Mutahhar al-Hilli was the first scholar to be given the title of "Ayatollah". He is well-known by his other title, al-'Allama al-Hilli. Ibn Hajar al-'Asqalani (d.852/1448) refers to 'Allama al-Hilli as Ayat fi al-Dhaka, (a sign of intelligence). 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). Mulla Muhammad Baqir Majlisi uses the same title for Shams al-Din Muhammad b. Makki.
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. Gradually, Mashruta 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.