Iran’s high-ranking Shia clergy are the leaders of Islam in Iran and have tremendous power in the country’s political system. Throughout the 20th century, religious leaders received the term “Ayatollah.” Since the 1979 revolution, thousands of Iranian clerics have been given the title.

In this article, we will explain the role of the Shia clergy in Iran and explore the lives of the country’s most famous Ayatollahs.

What Is the Ayatollah?

Ayatollah is the honorary name given to Iran’s highest-ranking clergy of Shia Islam. The term came into use during the 20th century, especially during the 1940s. Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, thousands of clerics became Ayatollahs, as the term was frequently given to anyone that successfully passed through advanced Shia religious school.

The word Ayatollah translates to “Sign of God” or “Reflection of God.” The name is exclusively used by Shia Muslims in Iran and is not recognized by Sunni Muslims.

The term Ayatollah al-Uzma (also called Grand Ayatollah) translates to “Great Sign of God” and is given to the highest-ranking Ayatollahs by a group of Shia elders. This term was created due to a large number of Ayatollahs following the revolution.

How Does Someone Become an Ayatollah?

While clerics of other religions often conduct ceremonies when bestowing honorary titles, a cleric gains the title Ayatollah naturally by winning the support of elderly Shia clerics and everyday Iranian Muslims. When a religious student chooses to become an Ayatollah, they usually attend a seminary in Shia Islam’s holiest cities.

Along with Islamic studies, the student would study philosophy, science, and many other subjects. He would be expected to begin conducting lectures and writing texts on his own personal, informed interpretation of Islam throughout his studies.

As the student begins to build a following in the Iranian academic world, he is given the title of “Marja al-taqlid” or “source to follow.” After gaining a large number of loyal followers and winning the approval of elderly clerics, he is given the title of Ayatollah.

Ruhollah Khomeini

By far, the most famed Ayatollah in Iranian history is Ayatollah Khomeini. Ruhollah Khomeini was born in Central Iran in 1900 and became a Shia Islam religious scholar during the 1920s.

When British troops sent an occupying force to Iran in 1941, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was put in power as the Shah, Iran’s supreme leader. The Shah maintained very close ties with the West and allowed considerable Western economic influence in the country, especially in its oil supply.

In 1953 after the Shah lost in a democratic election, the U.S. and British secret services helped stage a coup that put the Shah back in power, largely to protect Western oil interests. This coup alienated many Iranians from the Shah, who they increasingly saw as a Western puppet.

Throughout the 1960s, the Shah also made many widespread reforms to westernize and secularize the country. This decision caused outrage among many of the country’s conservative Shia Islamists like Khomeini, who saw these changes as straying away from the traditional Islamic roots of Iran.

Khomeini increasingly criticized the Shah’s regime from his seminary in the city of Qom, as he advocated for an overthrow of the Shah to instate a conservative Islamic republic. He was arrested in 1963 for his critiques against the Shah, which made him a rallying figure for the growing opposition to the Shah’s regime.

After his arrest, he lived in exile in various other countries but continued to encourage the Iranian population to overthrow the Shah. While living in Iraq, he made many home recordings of his sermons and sent them to Iran, which was increasingly shared among radical university students.

Throughout the 1970s, protests and unrest grew throughout the country as the authoritarian policies of the Shah’s regime became increasingly unpopular. After several Iranian militaries mutinied, the Shah was forced to flee with his family to the U.S. in early 1979.

Ayatollah Khomeini was immediately brought from exile back into the country and became Iran’s supreme leader in a landslide election victory.

In November, radical Islamist students stormed Tehran’s U.S. embassy and held 52 Americans hostage. They demanded that the U.S. government send the Shah back to Iran to stand trial for his alleged crimes against the Iranian population.

Ayatollah Khomeini wholeheartedly supported these radical students, though the Shah would die months later from cancer in the summer of 1980. The hostages would eventually be released after 444 days in captivity.

Khomeini was named in Western media “The Ayatollah,” as he was seen as the leading figure of anti-Western conservative Islamism in the Middle East. Iran was declared the Islamic Republic, and conservative Shia Islam increasingly became an inescapable part of daily Iranian life.

Many strict Islamic laws were instituted, such as the requirement that women wear veils in public. Thousands of Iranians that critiqued the new regime were imprisoned and executed. While the Iranian population had high hopes that Khomeini would be a more democratic leader, many found the new government just as oppressive as the one it replaced.

The government heavily funded Shia religious seminaries, and Islamic studies became a more frequent career path for young Iranians. Many scholars have pointed out that the term “Ayatollah” became less venerable and distinguished in Iran following the 1979 revolution, as nearly all high-ranking clergy were given the title.

Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari

Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari saved Ruhollah Khomeini from the Shah’s firing squad by giving him the title of Grand Ayatollah. Despite this, the two would maintain a very adversarial relationship following the 1979 revolution.

Shariatmadari believed that religious clerics should be kept out of government positions and opposed the authoritarian government of Khomeini. He also heavily criticized the taking of hostages in Tehran in 1979.

In 1982 he was arrested by Khomeini’s government in an alleged attempt to assassinate the supreme leader. This assassination plot would never be proven, and many believe that the regime manufactured this plot. He was placed in house unrest until he died in 1986.

Hossein Ali Montazeri

Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was a key figure in Ruhollah Khomeini’s inner circle leading up to the revolution. While Khomeini was in exile, Montazeri played a vital role in relaying his sermons and messages back to Iran. Throughout the 1970s, despite being imprisoned and exiled several times by the Shah’s regime, Montazeri built a loyal following throughout the country.

After the revolution, Montazeri helped write the constitution for the new Islamic republic. By 1985 Montazeri was designated as the successor to Khomeini. However, this designation was stripped from him when he publicly declared in 1988 that many of the human rights abuses carried out by the Islamic government were worse than the shahs.

Iranians have often championed Montazeri as a hero for speaking out against the human rights violations of the Islamic government.

Ali Khamenei

When Ali Khamenei became the supreme leader of Iran in 1989, he was bestowed with the title of Ayatollah upon taking office, as it was a requirement of being Iran’s supreme leader. While he was a leading established figure in the 1979 revolution, he had minimal experience as an academic, religious scholar.

Khamenei was an advocate for removing Western influence from Iran and strengthened the power of both the supreme leader and president, largely to ensure that foreign influences could not infiltrate the Iranian government.

Throughout the 21st century, Khamenei has become openly antagonistic against the United States and Israel. A 2015 nuclear arms agreement, which would limit Iran’s creation of nuclear weaponry, has become a focal point of strained Iranian-U.S. relations.

Khamenei’s government has often been condemned for funding military groups like Hezbollah throughout the Middle East that oppose U.S. influence in the region.

Since 1989, a significant portion of the country’s population has increasingly become secularized throughout Khamenei’s reign as a supreme leader, especially among younger generations of Iranians.

It is caused by years of disillusionment from the strict conservative Islamic laws of the regime. However, most Iranians have to keep this distancing from Islam private out of fear of the government and social pressures.


We have covered many aspects of the role of the Ayatollah in Iran. Let’s review the main ideas:

  • The word “Ayatollah” translates to “reflection of God” and is only officially recognized by the Shia Muslims of Iran.
  • The term Ayatollah is bestowed upon the highest-ranking clergy of Iran.
  • Since the 1979 revolution, the title has been given out liberally, as it is often given to anyone who successfully passes through advanced theological education and gains a loyal following.
  • Ruhollah Khomeini is the most famous Ayatollah in Iranian history, as he was the leading figure in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Since the 1980s, the term Ayatollah has increasingly lost its distinguished reverence that was once bestowed upon a chosen few. However, the thousands of Ayatollahs of Iran still have great power in the country’s religious and political order.

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