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.
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, Imam Shirazi and Imam Sadr) have also been used.
From the perspective of Shia jurisprudence, during the occultation of the Mahdi, the highest ranking Shia hawzah clerics are bestowed with responsibility for understanding and explaining Islamic religious jurisprudence.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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 86 Maraji living worldwide as of 2017, mostly residing in Najaf and Qom. The most prominent among them are Hossein Vahid Khorasani, Mousa Shubairi Zanjani, Sayyid Sadeq Rohani, Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani, 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.
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- Slate Magazine's "So you want to be an Ayatollah", explaining how Shiite clerics earn the title