Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Ayatollah (Arabic: آية الله; Persian: آیتالله) is a high title given to major Shia clergymen. The word means 'sign of God', and those who carry the title are experts in Islamic sciences such as jurisprudence, ethics, philosophy and mysticism, and usually teach in schools (hawza) of Islamic sciences. A handful of the most important Ayatollahs are accorded the title Grand Ayatollah, or Marja al-taqlid ("object of emulation"). There is usually only one Grand Ayatollah in Iraq and a few in Iran. Currently there are six living Grand Ayatollahs, including Ali Khamenei, Ali al-Sistani, Sayyid Ali, Kazem al-Haeri, Muhammad Fazel Lankarani and Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi .
When Western people say 'the Ayatollah', they usually mean Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who brought the word into the international limelight during the 1979 Iranian Revolution; a possible secondary meaning would be the term's use to indicate the serving Supreme Leader of Iran.
See also: List of Ayatollahs
- Slate Magazine's "So you want to be an Ayatollah", explaining how Shiite clerics earn the title
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