Sign of God. Honorific title in Twelver Shii Islam. Popularly assigned to outstanding legal scholars. General use of the title appeared in the late Qajar period in Iran. It is not used among Shiis of Lebanon, Pakistan, or India. Its use in Iraq is restricted to legal scholars of Iranian origin. An ayatollah must be a fully qualified mujtahid, serve as marja al-taqlid, and assert authority over peers and followers. The title became increasingly common in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly in postrevolutionary Iran, where it indicates hierarchical status. The leading Iranian ayatollah is known as ayatollah al-uzma, reflecting the temporal and spiritual power initially held by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
See also Marja al-Taqlid; Mujtahid; Shii Islam