Skip to main content

In Iran, religious titles lie at heart of political games

Despite pushback from senior figures such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the politicization of clerical ranks in Iran continues unabated.

In Iran, the robing ceremony of Ahmad Khomeini, the great-grandson of Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has stirred some debate about the Shiite clergy. The traditional ceremony where he was given his turban comes against the backdrop of a process in which clerical titles in the country have increasingly come to be driven by political rather than scholarly considerations, with virtually all factions, parties and groups using ranks in the Shiite theological hierarchy for their own political purposes. But has it always been like this in Iran?

Before engaging in the debate on the politicization of clerical titles, it is perhaps best to explain their origins. In broad terms, Shiite clerics fall under five categories: Seqat al-Islam, Hujjat al-Islam, Hujjat-al-Islam wal-Muslemin, Ayatollah and Ayatollah al-Uzma.

Before the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979), titles like Ayatollah or Seqat-al-Islam were used chiefly as honorifics, albeit rarely and only with reference to a limited number of prominent Islamic scholars. For instance, Muhammad ibn Ya'qub al-Kulayni (864-941) was a well-known Shiite scholar and hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) collector. His important hadith collection Kitab al-Kafi, which is respected by both Sunnis and Shiites, earned him the honorific Seqat al-Islam, which means “Trusted by Islam.” Indeed, to this day, Islamic scholars commonly refer to Kulayni when mentioning the term Seqat al-Islam. There is also the example of Iranian-born Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali, one of the most prominent philosophers, jurists and mystics of Sunni Islam. He was often referred to as Hujjat al-Islam, which means “Proof of Islam.”

From the Qajar era (1794-1925) until the early Pahlavi period, many great scholars and high-ranking clerics in Iran were still referred to with simple titles, including the honorific “Sheikh,” which is used to refer to clerics who are not descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

In 1921, Sheikh Abdolkarim Haeri Yazdi, a high-ranking teacher in the holy Iraqi city of Karbala who had established a successful seminary in the central Iranian city of Arak, established the Qom Seminary. Known as the “Founder Ayatollah,” he organized seminary affairs, including standardizing courses and ranks. Clerical titles have since gradually been employed to designate scholarly achievements. Of note, the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was one of Haeri Yazdi’s students.

Today, theological students at Iran’s seminaries have to pass various courses to obtain respective titles. For instance, beginners and those who are studying what is referred to as “initial” courses are bestowed with the honorific Seqat al-Islam, albeit it is rarely used in contemporary Iran. Hujjat al-Islam is used to refer to clerics who have passed the grade known as “Sath” and enter “Khawrej,” in which studies of advanced jurisprudence (ijtihad) are initiated. The clerical rank Ayatollah, which means “Sign of God,” is bestowed on those who have passed the “Khawrej,” namely Islamic jurists (mujtahid). Lastly, there is the highest rank of Ayatollah al-Uzma (“Grand Ayatollah”), who can issue fatwas (religious edicts) to execute Islamic law.

In the decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, both Reformists and conservatives in Iran have each sought to take advantage of these titles to belittle or promote their respective leaders’ status in society. For instance, hard-liners often referred to former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as Hujjat al-Islam before his death in early 2017, while the Reformists, moderates and pragmatic conservatives referred to him as an Ayatollah. Rafsanjani, a two-time president, was the figurehead of the moderate camp in Iran and respected by Reformists, especially in later years.

Even now, Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, who has come under attack since questioning the results of the disputed 2009 presidential election, is now referred to as a Sheikh by hard-liners, a method used simply to humiliate him. However, the Reformists use the same playbook — and especially in retaliation.

Senior titles such as Ayatollah are on occasion given to clerics who are either appointed to top religious positions or set to run for office. This trend has mostly been seen among hard-line and conservative figures. For instance, prior to the 2017 presidential election, conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi was initially referred to as Hujjat al-Islam, but gradually, hard-line media such as Tasnim News Agency and Fars News Agency started referring to him as “Ayatollah.” The process of this apparent promotion in his rank, beyond his candidacy for office, was initiated with his appointment in March 2016 as the custodian of the holy shrine of Imam Reza in the northeastern city of Mashhad. This office entails control of Astan-e Quds Razavi, one of the wealthiest foundations in Iran. As the consensus conservative candidate in the 2017 elections, Raisi garnered more than 16 million votes but was defeated by incumbent Hassan Rouhani, who obtained more than 23 million votes.

The politicization of clerical titles, including their use to either humiliate foes or launch careers, has not taken place without controversy. Indeed, these practices have been objected to by grand ayatollahs such as Vahid Khorasani and the late Abdul-Karim Mousavi Ardebili. To symbolically combat this trend and competition among clerics, a number of grand ayatollahs, including Ali al-Sistani, have ordered their offices to remove the words “Grand Ayatollah” from their names on their Persian websites. While these measures have been lauded, they have clearly failed to stop the tendency to play with clerical titles. Indeed, to end the politicization of scholarly ranks, there will need to be a decisive and firm decision by the Qom Seminary and a collective position of grand ayatollahs against their misuse.

Despite the negative implications of these practices, they do appear to benefit one group in particular: journalists and political analysts. To understand which particular cleric a faction or political camp seeks to nominate for an election — whether it be for the presidency or the Assembly of Experts, or even internal party polls — one merely needs to review the speed of progression in clerical ranks of an individual and the manner in which those ranks are achieved.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

The Middle East in your inbox Insights in your inbox.

Deepen your knowledge of the Middle East

Trend Reports

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (4th R) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (3rd L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on February 22, 2019. (Photo by HOW HWEE YOUNG / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images)

From roads to routers: The future of China-Middle East connectivity

A general view shows the solar plant in Uyayna, north of Riyadh, on March 29, 2018. - On March 27, Saudi announced a deal with Japan's SoftBank to build the world's biggest solar plant. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

Regulations on Middle East renewable energy industry starting to take shape

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial