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Shi'a Beliefs
Tawhid (Monotheism)Tawhid of EssenceTawhid in AttributesTawhid in ActionsTawhid in Worship
Other BeliefsTawassulShafa'aTabarruk
Divine Justice
Bada'Amr Bayn al-Amrayn
Infallibility'Ilm al-ghaybMu'jizaIntegrity of the Holy Qur'an
InfallibilityWilaya'Ilm al-ghaybOccultation of Imam al-Mahdi (a) (Minor Occultation,Major Occultation) • Reappearance of Imam al-Mahdi (a)Raj'a
End TimeHereafterBarzakhEmbodiment of ActionsBodily ResurrectionAl-SiratTatayur al-KutubMizanHashr
Other Outstanding Beliefs
Ahl al-Bayt (a)The Fourteen InfalliblesTaqiyyaMarja'iyyaTawalliTabarri

Marjaʿ (Arabic: المرجع; lit. authority to which one refers) is a jurist and religious scholar whose edicts (fatwas) about jurisprudential issues are followed and acted upon by a group of Shi'a and to whom his followers give their religious taxes and fines. Al-Marjaʿīyya (Arabic: المَرجَعیّة, lit. religious authority) is the position of giving edicts and is the highest religious ranking for Twelver Shi'as. The position is not held by appointment. The Shi'as usually make inquiries about the person who qualifies as an authority by consulting with religious scholars and clergies. The most crucial condition to qualify for marja'iyya is scholarly superiority to other jurists. A follower of a marja' is called his "muqallids" (who adopts marja's edicts).

Given the demographic, several mujtahids (jurists) usually undertake the position of marja'iyya in each period, and in very few cases, one mujtahid is considered by the majority of the Shi'as in the world as the absolute authority. These jurists are usually referred to by honorary titles, such as ayatollah and grand ayatollah. Most of the Shiite authorities were based in Iraq (Najaf, Karbala, and Samarra) and Iran (Qom, Mashhad, Isfahan, and Tehran).

The most prominent recent Shiite authorities were Muhammad Hasan al-Najafi known as the author of Jawahir al-kalam, al-Shaykh Murtada al-Ansari, al-Sayyid Muhammad Hasan al-Shirazi (who issued the fatwa of prohibition of tobacco), al-Akhund al-Khurasani, Sayyid Husayn Burujirdi, al-Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim, al-Sayyid Abu l-Qasim al-Khoei, and Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini (the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran).

Shiite authorities have usually had a strong influence on people, and sometimes their views or statements about social, political, and cultural issues have led to movements among their followers. The Russo-Persian War, the Tobacco Movement, Persian Constitutional Revolution, 1920 Iraqi Revolt (Thawrat al-'Ishrin), and the Islamic Revolution of Iran are historical events that were developed under the influence of Shiite authorities.


Marja'iyya is the most important social and religious position in the Shiite community. Marja' is a mujtahid (jurist) who is followed by a number of the Shi'as, that is, some Shi'as practice their religious acts in accordance with that of mujtahid's jurisprudential views and pay their judicial alms to him or his representatives. To follow a religious scholar in this way is called "taqlid".[1]

The extent of the social influence of a marja' depends on the number of his followers. The financial power of a marja' is reinforced by the judicial alms paid by his followers. Shiite authorities can spend these financial resources in religious propagation, administration of Islamic Seminaries, helping people in need, and public services.


A mujtahid can qualify as a marja' if he meets some requirements the most important of which is that he should be superior to other qualified mujtahids with regard to his scholarship in jurisprudence. Other conditions include justice, being a man, maturity, and sanity. Then, it is permissible to follow his fatwas, that is, to act upon his jurisprudential views.[2]

Procedures of Selection

A marja' is not selected by appointment. A person becomes a Shi'i authority when the Shi'as accept him as an authority. In manual of fatwas (al-risala al-'amaliyya), some ways are introduced for finding out about a person who is qualified for marja'iyya: personal knowledge, judicial evidence (that two qualified persons testify that someone is a'lam—superior in scholarship), being well-known as a'lam[3], or being introduced by a group of scholars such that their views lead to personal knowledge.[4]


The most important task of a marja' is to issue fatwas for his followers in religious matters. However, marja'iyya is not restricted to issuing fatwas. Shi'i authorities are usually well-known teachers of Islamic seminaries, and Islamic seminaries are administered under their supervision.

Financial Resources

The institution of marja'iyya is financially dependent on judicial alms, people's donations, and personal vows.


Shi'i authorities usually have a strong influence on their followers and even all the Shi'as, and thus, they can establish their social and political views.[5] For example, after the fatwa of al-Sayyid Muhammad al-Mujahid, a great number of the Shi'as went to war against the Russians[6]; the fatwa of the tobacco ban by al-Mirza al-Shirazi led to the abolishment of the British tobacco monopoly in Iran[7]; and June 5, 1963 Demonstrations in Iran to protest the arrest of Ayatollah Khomeini.[8]

According to the Sunni scholar, Muhammad Rashid Rida, no Sunni scholar has had the influence of Shiite mujtahids—especially those educated in the Islamic seminary of Najaf—neither alone nor collectively. He mentions as examples the boycott of elections in Iraq in the period of the King Faisal and the tobacco ban by al-Mirza al-Shirazi.[9] Samuel Benjamin, a US envoy to Iran, said that the most important mujtahid in Tehran commutes with a mule and has only one servant, but he can end a king's throne with one word.[10]

Historical Periods

For Shi'i marja'iyya to gain grounds, it had to live through a variety of circumstances like governmental interventions, ethnic tendencies, political events, and strength or weakness of Islamic seminaries. The history of the Shi'i marja'iyya can be divided into nine periods.

Before the 13th/19th Century

Rasul Ja'fariyan takes the recent period of marja'iyya to begin with al-Wahid al-Bihbahani who had an authority in scholarship, rather than the administration of the Shi'i affairs, that is, it was not the case that the majority of the Shi'as followed him.[11] Before this period, the Shi'as usually acted upon the fatwas of some local scholars, and thus, there was no marja' followed by the majority of the Shi'as in the world.


According to some researchers, the period of a global, influential marja'iyya for the Shi'as began in the Seminary of Najaf with Muhammad Hasan al-Najafi, known as "Sahib al-Jawahir" (d. 1266/1850).[12] He did not require ijtihad (deducing edicts from the primary sources) for judges, and thus, he permitted that a judge adjudicates on the basis of the fatwas of a mujtahid (jurist).[13] Many of his students went back to Iran and served as propagators of his marja'iyya and fatwas.

After Muhammad Hasan al-Najafi, the Shi'i marja'iyya was still based in Iraq and the Islamic Seminary of Najaf. The most influential authorities in this period include al-Shaykh Murtada al-Ansari (d. 1281/1864) and Muhammad Hasan al-Shirazi (d. 1312/1896) who issued the fatwa of the tobacco ban.[14]

The Persian Constitutional Movement led to obvious interventions of Shiite authorities in political affairs. Al-Akhund al-Khurasani and al-Sayyid Muhammad Kazim al-Yazdi, the author of al-'Urwat al-wuthqa, were crucial figures in the movement both of whom were Najaf-based Iranians. However, they had opposing views about the Movement. Al-Khurasani issued the Constitutional fatwa, and al-Yazdi opposed it.

In 1337/1918 when 'Abd al-Karim Ha'iri Yazdi (d. 1355/1937) moved to Qom, a new period of the Seminary of Qom began. Al-Sayyid Muhamamd Kazim al-Yazdi died in the same year. When the Islamic Seminary of Qom was taking shape and al-Sayyid Muhammad Kazim al-Yazdi and Shaykh al-Shari'a al-Isfahani (d. 1339/1920) died, part of the Shiite authority moved to Iran along with al-Ha'iri himself.

Sayyid Husayn Burujirdi's migration to Qom in 1363/1943 and his activities led to the burgeoning of the Islamic Seminary of Qom. After the death of al-Sayyid Abu l-Hasan al-Isfahani (d.1365/1946) who lived in Najaf, Burujirdi was the prominent Shiite authority until 1961.[15]

After the death of Ayatollah Burujirdi, marja'iyya was not passed on to a single person. It was provided by a number of Shiite authorities in Iran and Iraq at this period.[16] Although in the early years of this period, al-Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim (d. 1390/1970) in Najaf was more outstanding than others[17], late in this period of 33 years, Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1409/1989), the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, turned into the most widely accepted Shi'i authority in Iran and al-Sayyid Abu l-Qasim al-Khoei turned into the most influential Najaf-based Shiite authority.

After the demise of al-Khoei in 1413/1992, the global Shi'i authority was concentrated in Qom for three years. This was because of the death of Shiite authorities in Najaf, the deportation of many Iranian scholars from the Islamic Seminary of Najaf, and the restrictions imposed by the ruling Ba'ath Party in Iraq. The compulsory migration of Najaf-based Iranian scholars led to the thriving of the Islamic Seminary of Qom and the weakness of the Islamic Seminary of Najaf. In this rather short period, Sayyid Muhammad Rida Gulpayigani and Muhammad 'Ali Araki were the most prominent Shiite authorities.

The last period of the marja'iyya began after the death of Muhammad 'Ali Araki (1415/1994). In this period, a number of mujtahids in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan have been the Shiite authorities.

Period Prominent Marja's Seminary
Minor Occultation to the 13th century Shi'a followed variety of scholars Different areas
1200/1785 - 1266/1850 al-Mirza al-Qummi, Muhammad Hasan al-Najafi Iraq
1266/1850 - 1281/1864 Murtada al-Ansari Iraq
1281/1864 - 1313/1895 al-Mirza al-Shirazi Iraq
1313/1895 - 1337/1918 al-Akhund al-Khurasani, al-Sayyid al-Yazdi Iraq
1337/1918 - 1365/1946 Ha'iri, al-Na'ini, al-Isafahani Iraq, Iran
1365/1946 - 1380/1960 Sayyid Husayn Burujirdi Iran
1380/1960 - 1413/1992 Al-Hakim, al-Khoei, Khomeini, Gulpaygani, Araki Iraq, Iran
1413/1192 - now Bahjat, Tabrizi, Fadil, al-Sistani, Khamenei, Makarim Iraq,‌ Iran

In Iraq

The global concentrated marja'iyya began in the Seminary of Najaf in the 13th/19th century with Muhammad Hasan al-Najafi and al-Shaykh Murtada al-Ansari. Since then, Shiite authorities were always based in Iraq, and in particular, in Najaf. In addition to Najaf, some Shi'i authorities resided in Karbala. In the period of al-Sayyid Muhammad Hasan al-Shirazi, the Shiite authority moved to Samarra. Al-Akhund al-Khurasani, Sayyid Kazim Yazdi, and Sayyid Abu l-Hasan Isfahani were Shiite authorities in Najaf. In the years 1365/1945 - 1380/1960, the Shiite authority was concentrated in Ayatollah Burujirdi in Qom, but at the same time, al-Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim (d. 1970) and al-Sayyid Mahmud al-Husayni al-Shahrudi (d. 1974) were followed by some Shiite populations. When Ayatollah Burujirdi died in 1961, al-Hakim, al-Shahrudi, and al-Khoei (d. 1992) undertook the Shiite authority in Najaf. Because of the long period between the deaths of al-Shahrudi and al-Khoei, al-Khoei turned into one of the most influential Shiite authorities. From 1965 to 1979, Ruhollah Khomeini was banished from Iran to Iraq and lived in Najaf.

In 1970s, the Iraqi government deported many Iraq-based Iranians which led to the compulsory migration of some teachers and students of the Seminary of Najaf to Iran, and in particular, to the Seminary of Qom. (See: al-Mu'awidun) After the victory of the Islamic Revolution of Iran and the crackdowns of the Seminary of Najaf by the Ba'ath Government, the future of marja'iyya changed. Marja'iyya has become more concentrated in Iran ever since.

After 1991 Uprisings in Iraq, the Iraqi government increased the crackdown on the Seminary of Najaf. In the early years after the deaths of Abu l-Qasim al-Khoei and Muhammad 'Ali Araki, two of al-Khoei's students ('Ali Gharawi Tabrizi and Murtada Burujirdi), who were candidates for marja'iyya, were assassinated and killed. After a while, al-Sayyid Muhammad al-Sadr, a student of al-Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, whose marja'iyya was accepted by some Shi'as, was also killed. These assassinations and pressures practically isolated the Seminary of Najaf. However, part of the Shiite marja'iyya survived in Najaf.

After the Second Iraq War (Persian Gulf War) in 2000, the regime in Iraq changed. In this period, the Seminary of Najaf was relieved from pressures, and students from other areas went to Najaf. Some teachers who were deported from Iraq for years returned to Iraq. One of the most influential Shiite authorities in Najaf is al-Sayyid 'Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, a student of Ayatollah al-Khoei.

In Iran

In the recent period, the Islamic Seminary of Qom was established after the migration of 'Abd al-Karim Ha'iri Yazdi in 1340/1921. When he migrated to Qom, part of the Shiite authority moved to Iran. He was alive until 1937. After him, three prominent teachers of the Islamic Seminary of Qom administered the seminary: Sayyid Sadr al-Din Sadr, Sayyid Muhammad Taqi Khwansari, and Sayyid Muhammad Hujjat. None of them had a global authority, however. In this period, the Shiite authority was mainly concentered in the Islamic Seminary of Najaf, and in particular, al-Sayyid Abu l-Hasan Isfahani (d. 1365/1946).[18]

In 1364/1945 at the request of a group of scholars in the Islamic Seminary of Qom, Sayyid Husayn Tabataba'i Burujirdi, a student of al-Akhund al-Khurasani, migrated to Qom. After Isfahani, he had a global, wide-ranging marja'iyya. It can be said that late in his life, there was no other influential authority in Iraq or Iran.[19]

Burujirdi's presence in Qom led to the thriving of the Islamic Seminary of Qom. After his death, a number of mujtahids were introduced as Shiite authorities. Other than Sayyid Muhammad Hadi Milani in Mashhad, Iran-based authorities resided in Qom. Here are the most important figures: Sayyid Ahmad Khwansari (d. 1985), Sayyid Kazim Shari'atmadari (d. 1986), Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989), Sayyid Shihab al-Din Mar'ashi Najafi (d. 1990), and Sayyid Muhammad Rida Gulpayigani (d. 1993). Two days after the demise of Ayatollah Burujirdi, Kayhan newspaper published a list of some Shiite mujtahids who were possible candidates for marja'iyya.[20]

In 1994, Muhammad 'Ali Araki, the last living student of 'Abd al-Karim Ha'iri Yazdi, died. Since then, a number of mujtahids most of whom were students of Burujirdi and al-Khoei were introduced as Shiite authorities. Although some of them have more followers than others, none of them has a global marja'iyya. Here are the best-known living authorities (alive until May 2017): Husayn Wahid Khurasani, Lutf Allah Safi Gulpayigani, Sayyid Musa Shubayri Zanjani, Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei, Nasir Makarim Shirazi in Iran, and Sayyid 'Ali Sistani in Iraq.

See Also


  1. See Ṭabāṭabāʾī al-Yazdī, al-ʿUrwa al-wuthqā, vol. 1, p. 4; Raḥmān Sitāyish, Taqlīd, p. 789.
  2. Ṭabāṭabāʾī al-Yazdī, al-ʿUrwa al-wuthqā, vol. 1, p. 26-27.
  3. Ṭabāṭabāʾī al-Yazdī, al-ʿUrwa al-wuthqā, vol. 1, p. 24-25.
  4. Khomeini, Tawḍīḥ al-masāʾil, p. 12.
  5. See: Naqībzāda & Amānī, Naqsh-i Rūḥānīyyat-i Shīʿa dar pīrūzī-yi inqilāb-i Islāmī, p. 81-82.
  6. Naqībzāda & Amānī, Naqsh-i Rūḥānīyyat-i Shīʿa dar pīrūzī-yi inqilāb-i Islāmī, p. 99-100.
  7. Naqībzāda & Amānī, Naqsh-i Rūḥānīyyat-i Shīʿa dar pīrūzī-yi inqilāb-i Islāmī, p. 102.
  8. Naqībzāda & Amānī, Naqsh-i Rūḥānīyyat-i Shīʿa dar pīrūzī-yi inqilāb-i Islāmī, p. 103.
  9. Rashīd al-Riḍā, al-Khilāfa wa l-Imāma al-ʿuẓmā, p. 90.
  10. Abrāhāmian, Tārīkh-i Īrān-i mudirn, p. 41.
  11. Jaʿfarīyān, Tashayyuʿ dar ʿIrāq, marjaʿīyya wa Īrān, p. 58.
  12. Ḥāʾirī, Tashayyuʿ wa mashrūṭīyyat dar Īrān, p. 82.
  13. Jaʿfarīyān, Tashayyuʿ dar ʿIrāq, marjaʿīyya wa Īrān, p. 59.
  14. Ḥāʾirī, Tashayyuʿ wa mashrūṭīyyat dar Īrān, p. 82-83.
  15. Jaʿfarīyān, Tashayyuʿ dar ʿIrāq, marjaʿīyya wa Īrān, p. 79.
  16. Qurbānī, Tārikh-i taqlīd dar Shīʿa, p. 373.
  17. Jaʿfarīyān, Tashayyuʿ dar ʿIrāq, marjaʿīyya wa Īrān, p. 81.
  18. Ḥāʾirī, Tashayyuʿ wa mashrūṭīyyat dar Īrān, p. 84.
  19. Qurbānī, Tārikh-i taqlīd dar Shīʿa, p. 373.
  20. Rūḥānī, Nihḍat-i Imām Khomeini, p. 77, 1238.


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