Iranians and the Politicization of the Shiite Clergy: Honorific Titles and Ebrahim Raisi as an Example


In the media, Ebrahim Raisi — before winning the presidential election — had always been called Hojatoleslam wal-Muslimin, an honorable title referring to having authority over Islam and Muslims.  In  his inaugural speech to announce Raisi as the chief justice  in March 2019, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei referred to him as  “Hojatoleslam wal-MusliminEbrahim Raisi.”  However, newspapers and media  agencies close to the Iranian government began to use the title “ayatollah” to refer to Raisi,  especially after he won the presidential election held in June 2021 which was  engineered by the Guardian Council through disqualifying  Raisi’s most powerful rivals.

The titles given to the clergy is an important issue in the community of clerics in general and in the seminary in particular.   They no longer depict mere honor  as was the case before the modern state was established.  Titles now indicate a jurist’s  jurisprudential ranking and his rank within  the seminary’s leadership.  

However,  after the Iranian revolution, such titles were politicized to a  large extent. Before, a jurist’s rank was based on  popularity, fame, and jurisprudential capacity — matters that were dependent on clerics specifying who had more knowledge and greater jurisprudential capacity.  After the revolution,  a jurist’s position was determined by  the political authority, which boosted his popularity and fame through its media and security tools.  This is a big shift away from the public and the clerical community evaluating the rank of a cleric. The political authority began to determine the rank of a cleric.

Perhaps this (the Iranian government intervening in  promoting clerics and redrawing the seminary’s leadership) was the reason why many Shiite clerics denounced the issue of “jurisprudential capacity” (i.e,  popularity and ranks). Marja Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah (1035-2010)  said in his critique of  jurisprudential capacity:

“I don’t believe that ijtihad-practicing clerics should meet the condition of having certain ‘jurisprudential capacity’ for people to follow them in taqlid. This is because — in my view — that there is no proof that ‘jurisprudential capacity’ is a reliable criterion.  But I  believe the condition [of ‘jurisprudential capacity’] is ijtihad and the experience based on long-standing practice. I also believe that ‘jurisprudential capacity’ is unrealistic. Across the world, in all areas of knowledge, there is no specific person that could be pointed to as having more knowledge than all his peers in this or that area. There could be some differentiations of ijtihad-practicing clerics in the elements and characteristics of their ijtihad approach, etc.”  

By his argument, he   eliminates the idea of guardianship. If the jurist does not have  jurisprudential mastership over  a matter and if the characteristics of  mastership are not met, then  it is impermissible for the jurist to declare his guardianship and custodianship over the public, let alone over  other jurists.

Yet, Marja Kamal al-Haydari argues that popularity does not prove authority over a matter and neither is it proof of jurisprudential mastership. He also criticized  picking fixed criteria for determining jurisprudential mastership. There are tens of thousands of clerics and hundreds of marjas, and it is impossible for the people of expertise and reliable jurists to track the intellectual works  of such a huge number of clerics and judge their theses.

  1. Background of  Honorific Tiles Offered to Shiite Clerics

Before the Safavid era, the titles granted to clerics were not a proof of  their position. Titles did not have the role they have today.  There  were titles like Hojjat (the authority) or Allamah (polymath), al-Muhaqiq (researcher).  During the Safavid era, titles indicating  an official status began to emerge after the creation of  official religious institutions such as Shaykh al-Islām, Sadr ul-Sodoor (chief justice) etc.

But the present-day hierarchy of  religious titles appeared at the end of the Qajar dynasty, specifically in the first quarter of the 20th century. Terms like “ayatollah” and “grand ayatollah” and  “hojatoleslam” began to emerge. Then their use declined until the middle of the 20th century and  they powerfully resurfaced under the marjas Muhsin al-Hakim (1889-1970) in Najaf and Hossein Borujerdi (1875-1961) in Qom.

Each of the mentioned titles have a specific meaning and a jurist can only progress to a higher title if he meets certain conditions. The title “Sheikh” is mostly given to all those who work in the religious sciences. Sometimes it is given to senior clerics. The title “grand ayatollah” is given to  ijtihad-practicing clerics. He is also called a “marja.” “Hojjat” is a title given to the clerics  who  have not reached the rank of ijtihad-practicing clerics but are close to it. It is also given to  ijtihad-practicing cleric on other occasions. Yet, the title Hojatoleslam wal-Muslimin”  is given to the mentioned group of clerics.  “Head of Hawza” ( head of the seminary)  is a title given to the marja whose authority is endorsed by all the Shiite seminaries worldwide. The title “Thiqat al-Islam”is given to a cleric who is  revered.  Sometimes it is given to the narrator, veteran transmitter of hadith or to  seminary students based on their  knowledge of some sciences.  The title “Supreme Marja” is given to the marja who has the  largest number of taqlid clerics worldwide and runs  a religious seminary. This marja is usually among the most senior marjas.

 Many reformist Shiite clerics have criticized the mentioned tiles as they have led  to rivalry, politicization and exploitation.  This politicization was apparent when  semiofficial media  agencies deliberately referred to  Ebrahim Raisi as “ayatollah.”

2. Ebrahim Raisi and the Title of Ayatollah

Even though Ebrahim Raisi has not reached the level of  an ijtihad-practicing cleric in Qom or Mashhad, Iranian media  agencies aligned with the “conservatives” referred to him as “ayatollah.” Some voices have justified this title, arguing that he had accomplished his jurisprudential career in Tehran, and in addition, they have  differentiated between  government-affiliated ijtihad-practicing clerics and  seminary-affiliated ones. The chief justice  is a member of the Assembly of Experts, so it stands to reason that he is an ijtihad-practicing cleric and  he is  a mujtahid even if he  is not affiliated with the religious seminary;  he was approved by the Guardian Council as a mujtahid in 2006. He was endorsed during the Assembly of Experts’ election. This justification is profoundly misleading because it means that  a jurist can  only be appointed as a judge or a chief justice when he reaches the rank of mujtahid. But Raisi did not meet these conditions.  

Moreover, if we accept that this justification is true, Raisi should be given another title other than “ayatollah” since it is a seminary-related title. He does not recognize the seminary-designated leadership,  as a result he sought approval from the government, not from the religious seminary.   He receives the mujtahid ranking  from the government but uses the seminary-approved title, which is logically unacceptable.

3. The Creation of Marja

Looking  back, we  find that Khomeini (1902-1989)  was not the number one cleric in Qom the night the Iranian revolution succeeded in 1979. But there were other powerful clerics such as Ayatollah Shariatmadari (1906-1986), Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani (1899-1993) and Shahab ud‑Din Mar’ashi Najafi (1897-1991).  However, Khomeini’s revolutionary charisma and effectiveness led him to become the sole religious and political leader.

Marja Ayatollah Shariatmadari was the highest religious authority in Iran, and he was in charge of running the religious seminary along with his colleagues Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani and Shahab ud‑Din Mar’ashi Najafi.  Furthermore, he was engaged in politics and advocated a  civilian and constitutional state unlike his two colleagues. Therefore, the pro-Velayat-e Faqih political authority rushed to intervene and placed him under house arrest. It also arrested some of his students, and raided his office, clearing the way for Khomeini to lead the religious and political marjas. The same happened with cleric Mohammad al-Shirazi and other multiple senior marjas.

After the demise of Khomeini in 1989, politics again began to influence  the qualification of marjas. The Iranian government threw its weight behind Khamenei who did not reach the level of ijtihad at that time. The government backed him, and allowed him to control  both religious and political authorities.

Khamenei  was not in a jurisprudential or seminary position that  qualified him to become the guardian jurist — a position that requires a cleric to be ranked at the level of “ayatollah.” However, Khamenei at the time ranked at the level of “hojatoleslam”   while there were many marjas who were “ayatollahs.”  However, Hojatoleslam Hashemi Rafsanjani (1934-2017) — the most powerful man at that time — believed that handing the leadership over to  Khamenei would help in sidelining  the deposed powerful deputy supreme leader Hussein-Ali Montazeri who was sacked shortly before the death of Khomeini.  

 He also believed that Khamenei’s ascent to the position of the supreme leader would help in maintaining the interests of his  camp at that time. Perhaps Rafsanjani also believed that it would be easier to control Khamenei from behind the scenes  given his political and administrative skills and his helping hand in  securing Khamenei’s position. He then thought  about paving the way for a power sharing arrangement; he himself taking over  the presidency — a position which  was enhanced following the constitutional amendments of 1989 — and Khamenei would take over  the supreme leader position.

The aforementioned interpretation  is based on scholars from Shiite seminaries;  for example:  Hani Fahs, a prominent Shiite scholar (1946-2014) — supported this argument.  Fahs said: “Although Khamenei did not meet the requirements of the position at that time, he was different from present-day Khamenei. He was cultured and acquainted with the world’s cultural products. And the cultural dimension was given precedence by him over the jurisprudential dimension. His jurisprudential ijtihad and his qualification for guardianship is not something that cannot be questioned. But it is a narrative promoted by Rafsanjani — the principal pragmatist.”

He  added that Khomeini said: “Khamenei is qualified for leadership, but some remained suspicious of the origin of his ijtihad level.” Therefore,  to render legal the marja status of Khamenei, constitutional provisions  were manipulated in the well-known constitutional amendments in 1989.

Khamenei did not agree merely to be Iran’s  political leader. But he   attempted — via his tools —to hijack the religious marjaya. He made many maneuvers to achieve this end. For example, following the death of  Khomeini, Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani remained the head of the religious marjaya — and he  was the third among three clerics who ran the affairs of the marjaya after the death of Hossein Borujerdi in 1961. But he was far less engaged in politics, unlike his colleague Shariatmadari. He was  not engaged in politics and opposed  the guardianship of the jurist theory. However,  this benefited the Iranian government because he did not become an active  opponent of the political system’s policies from within the religious seminary. The leaders of the Islamic Republic at that time had two options. First, to appoint  a cleric who  was loyal to the republic but lacked taqlid credentials. Second, allow  a cleric from outside the political system’s circle to take over the position. The second option, according to Linda S. Walbridge, posed a danger, given the ability of the individual  who is acknowledged  as a marja to oppose the policies of the government with  relative immunity.

The government depended on the element of time. Time was needed to vacate the landscape of  senior marjas and create the conditions for Khamenei to be accepted  as the religious and political leader. Indeed, after the demise of Golpaygani in 1993, the government threw its weight behind Ayatollah Mohammad Ali al-Araki (1894-1994) — the then elderly cleric. He was easy to control given his age and loyalty  to the pollical system. One year after the death of Golpaygani, Araki died in 1994. At that time, the government felt that the time was appropriate to  nominate Khamenei for  the rank of  supreme marja, combining the religious establishment with government leadership. The Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom issued a statement on December 12, 1994, in which they mentioned the names of jurists who met the conditions to be supreme marja,  including Ali Khamenei.

In parallel, the  government intervened using security means. By 1995, those appointed to  government positions were  asked about their favorite taqlid cleric, and the ultimate answer  undoubtedly  was Khamenei.

According to Linda S. Walbridge in her book “The Most Learned of the Shi’a: The Institution of the Marja’ Taqlid,” the government has its own methods to punish the followers who support a  marja, who is   not endorsed by it.  

This answers the following jurisprudential and  philosophical question: who chooses the guardian jurist? Perhaps the veteran clerics speak flatteringly or manipulate the Iranian Constitution politically and pragmatically. But one of the  junior clerics  answered this question  innocently and frankly, saying: “The Kalashnikov,” meaning that force is the principal factor in determining who will become the supreme leader. Whoever possesses power can impose his decisions.

Hence, the Iranian government today wants to avoid all  the problems that happened when Khamenei took over from  Khomeini. Therefore, we can understand the reason as to why Raisi has been given the title of “ayatollah.”

Media agencies referring to Raisi as “ayatollah” is not an accident.  But it comes in the context of possibly preparing the ground for him to succeed  the current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — Raisi is the most powerful candidate to succeed him, especially if there are no surprises during his presidency, whether at home or regionally. Raisi is one of the figures who is accepted by the old guard, the IRGC and the supporters of the political system.  

He is a powerful figure with huge clout and has occupied senior positions over the past years. Adding the title “ayatollah” is in fact a repetition of what happened in the past with  Khamenei.


It can be said that we are  heading towards a phase in which marjas are created, with their legitimacy cemented at the expense of the long-held seminary tradition of determining jurists’ ascension to the position of marja. But at the same time, engineering the qualification of marjas and redrawing the  leadership of the religious seminary in a way that suits the political system and its religious interpretation may give rise to independent marjas and result in the public shunning  the official religious establishment. Therefore, the government seeks to curb the rise of independent clerics by using multiple strategies, which has resulted in the creation of other problems as the landscape is devoid of  rational and independent influential marjas. The problems that have arisen include atheism and growing frustration among the youth regarding political and social reforms. But it seems that the government believes that such phenomena are less harmful to  its interests than the emergence of independent marjas and the noticeable divergence between the government and the religious seminary.

Editorial Team