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 faqihs also became referred to with this title. In the past centuries, this title was only used for al-'Allama al-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 "al-muhaqqiq" was given to al-Muhaqqiq al-Hilli.
Al-'Allama al-Hilli (d. 726/1326), was the first scholar to be given the title of "ayatollah". Sharaf al-Din Shulistani, al-Shaykh al-Baha'i and al-'Allama al-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 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 al-Shaykh Murtada al-Ansari, Shaykh Husayn Najaf and al-Sayyid Muhammad Hasan al-Shirazi. At the time of Mashruta (Persian Constitutional Revolution) (1905 - 1911), historians used the title for al-Akhund al-Khurasani, Mirza Husayn Khalili Tihrani, Shaykh 'Abd Allah Mazandarani and others. Before this time, all marja's were officially referred to with the title hujjat al-Islam.
Ayatollah al-'Uzma (Grand Ayatollah)
In 1340/1922, when Shaykh 'Abd al-Karim Ha'iri established the Islamic 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).
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