The Phenomenon of Scholarly Epithets

Question: What is your opinion regarding scholarly epithets such as ‘Ayatullah’ or ‘Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma’?

Originally written in Arabic by Shaykh Dr. Haider Hobbollah

Translated by Salim Salhab

The response: A study of the phenomenon of the scholarly epithets in the religious institution for Muslims can be conducted from a number of angles, the most apparent of which are two that I will concisely summarise:

1 – A quick glance at the historical development of the phenomenon of epithets

The first angle is the historical one – in the sense that we question when these lexicons became apparent. How were they disseminated? How did they develop? I will refer to this very briefly; because discussing the minutiae of this topic is beyond the scope of this piece.

What is known is that within the first four centuries after the Hijra, these epithets cannot be found except for perhaps in some rare instances. Rather, a revision of the early books of Rijāl and biographical entries, in addition to the works of ʿIlm al-Jarḥ wa al-Taʿdīl provide us with a different form of epithets and descriptions that were used. Generally speaking, in the majority of cases what is utilised takes place within an atmosphere of characterisation- and not in a manner of providing a title that comes prior to an individual’s name. For we find descriptions and epithets in the form of: Shaykh, al-ʿĀlim, al-Muḥaddith, al-Fāḍil, al-Thiqa, Jalīl al-Qadr, al-Qāḍī, Rafīʿ al-Manzila, al-Sharīf, Shaykh al-Aṣḥāb, Wajh al-Aṣḥāb, al-Raʾīs al-Aqdam, al-Muqaddam, Naqīb al-ʿUlamāʾ, Qāḍī al-Quḍāt, ʿAẓīm al-Manzila Fī al-Ṭāʾifa

The epithets used then are not utilised in the manner that they are today most of the time. Maybe this is because of the fact that the Arabs used to view teknonyms and epithets in another way. Since we find that they link an individual with an attribute that is either bodily, related to location, profession, tribe, relating to clan, religion, sect or something other than this. For example you will see individuals such as al-Jāḥiẓ, al-Akhfash, al-Aʿshā, al-Najjār, al-Ḥaddād, al-Warrāq, al-ʿAllāf, al-Baṣrī, al-Kūfī, al-Ṭāʾifī, al-Khurāsānī, al-Shāmī, al-Farsī, al-Baḥrānī, al-Makkī, al-Madanī or al-Madīnī, al-Maṣrī– and you will also see al-Shāfiʿī, al-Mālikī, al-Ḥanbalī, al-Ḥanafī, al-Shīʿī– in addition to al-Tamīmī, al-Asadī, al-Qurashī, al-Hāshimī, al-Umawī, al-ʿAlawī, al-Fāṭimī, al-Kindī, al-Thaqafī, al-ʿAbdī, al-Shaybānī, al-Azdī, al-Ṭarabulsī and other than this. Thus the epithets we see today are not in such a style, neither are they apparently related to one’s intellectual pursuits or their social position, the most that one will find [from that time] is a linkage of a person with their religious role in so that they would be termed: al-Qāriʾ, al-Khaṭīb, al-Wāʿiẓ, al-Muftī, al-Mujtahid, al-Faqīh, al-Muḥaddith, al-Faylusūf, al-Mutakallim, al-Akhbārī (meaning the historian), al-Nassāba and the like.

In the second half of the Second Abbasid Era, some epithets that were limited due to their purpose and were brief in nature began to appear for only a few specified individuals. The epithet ‘Ḥujjat al-Islām’ appeared, which perhaps was only specified for Abī Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505) and continued to be exclusive to him for centuries in the Sunni sphere. It appears that this epithet was not employed at all prior to al-Ghazālī, in likeness to the epithet ‘Imam al-Ḥaramayn’ that was exclusive to al-Juwaynī (d. 478) and the title ‘al-Muḥaqiq’ that became famous amongst the Imamiyya for Najm al-Dīn al-Ḥillī (d. 676). However, in any case- they remained limited for specific purposes and they never reached the degree of the epithets that came after them at all, in addition to their [non]-commonality. 

Epithets in the time of ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī

With the coming of ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī (d. 725) in the era of the Sultan Öljaitü, we find the employment of the epithet- al-ʿAllāma for him (and some utilised this epithet for Ibn Khaldūn too, but the issue requires historical enquiry of whether this was used for al-Ḥillī or Ibn Khaldūn first), this title until today has remained inseparable from al-Ḥillī when mentioned on its own, except that al-Ḥillī appeared to have a new title for which there is no historical preceder, which is Ayatullah Fī al-ʿĀlamīn, this remained exclusive to him for many centuries save for Sayyid Baḥr al-ʿUlūm- thereby remaining specific only for them until the end of the Qajar period.

It is indicated that there were epithets that became famous for certain personalities after their deaths, such as the title Amīn al-Islām which Shaykh al-Ṭabarsī became known by, the title Thiqat al-Islām that Shaykh al-Kulaynī became known by, the title Shaykh al-Ṣadūq that Ibn Babuwayh al-Qummī became known by, the title Fakhr al-Muḥaqiqīn that the son of ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī became known by, the title al-Shahīd al-Thānī that Shaykh Zayn al-Dīn al-Jubʿī became known by, the title al-Muḥaqiq al-Thānī that Shaykh al-Karakī became known by, the title al-Fāḍil that Shaykh al-Hindī al-Iṣfahānī became known by and Shaykh al-Tūnī in kind, the title Shaykh al-Ṭāʾifa that Shaykh Abī Jaʿfar al-Ṭūsī became known by- and many other examples are well-known.

The Development of the Phenomenon of Epithets in the Safavid Era

In the Safavid Era, new lexicons came about in addition to titles that were specific to certain religious ranks, such as Shaykh al-Islām, which was viewed as the highest religious position in the Safavid state. Some view that the term Shaykh al-Islām was employed at times prior to the Safavid era for figures such as Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Khwaja ʿAbdullah al-Anṣārī and Abī al-ʿAbbās al-Surkhusī- and it was used as an epithet for the Mutaṣawiffa in the Fourth and Fifth Hijrī Centuries.

The Safavid Era also introduced the titles and epithets: 1- al-Ṣadr or Ṣadr al-Ṣudūr 2- Mullābāshī, and others. We also witness descriptions and positions such as: 3- Mujtahid al-Zamān 4- Afḍal ʿUlamāʾ ʿAṣrihi 5- Khātim al-Mujtahidīn 6- Farīd ʿAṣrihi 7- Waḥīd Qarnihi 8- Raʾīs al-ʿUlamāʾ 9- ʿAllāmat al-ʿUlamāʾ 10- Dalīl al-Islām 11- Ḥujjat Allāh 12- Muʿtamad al-Islām 13- Thiqat al-Islām and others. With regards to these descriptions, there are others similar to them such as: 14- al-Muqaddas, which is the epithet that was used to refer to al-Muḥaqiq al-Ardabīlī. 15- Sulṭān al-ʿUlamāʾ 16- al-Mawlā or al-Mullā, this epithet has been employed to refer to Muḥaqiq al-Nārāqī, Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (another epithet used to refer to him was Ṣadr al-Mutaʾahilīn) and al-Fayḍ al-Kāshānī alongside others. In fact, during this era some of these epithets became common in the Sufi sphere, such as: 17- Khalīfat al-Khulafāʾ.1

The Qajar Period until Today – the Leaps Made in the Phenomenon of Epithets

The situation continued to develop in a manner that was quite dormant and limited, until the end of the Qajar period in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Thus during the final decades of the Qajar Period, there was an unprecedented chain of epithets that appeared which had priorly not been utilised in such a manner, since this was the first time that the epithet Ayatullah was used- after al-Ḥillī or Baḥr al-ʿUlūm and had transformed into one that was general and widespread during that time. In order so that there could be more differentiation, the epithets Ayatullah fī al-Warā, Ayatullah fī al-Anām, Ayatullah al-Aʿẓam and Ayatullah al-Muʿaẓam appeared. In relation to these epithets, further titles appeared such as: Ḥujjat al-Islām wa al-Muslimīn, Shams al-Wāʿiẓīn and Imam al-Millati wa al-Dīn and more…

However, the indicators reveal that these epithets declined to some extent, returning and [re-]appearing in strength from the Marjaʿiyyah, with both Sayyid al-Burūjurdī in Iran and Sayyid Muḥsin al-Ḥakīm in Iraq- this was in the middle of the twentieth century- as ʿAllāma Muḥammad Mahdī Shams al-Dīn says, where perhaps for the first time, the term Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma or Ayatullah al-Kubrā was utilised.

Today, following the last few decades we find many epithets present and widespread, such as:

1 – Faḍīlat

2 – Ḥujjat al-Islām – This is employed – especially in Iranian customs- in reference to the young students that have not reached a high intellectual post, in large contrast to the usage we find of the term with Abī Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī where it signified something extremely great, and it was not employed except for outstanding religious scholars. We find that the Iranian usage of the term today is for when the individual is a scholar and a virtuous person studying in the religious seminary but does not wear a turban, in the sense that he does not wear the religious garb- so it is as if the term Ḥujjat al-Islām wa al-Muslimīn is reserved for those who don the turban according to some conventions

 3 – Ḥujjat al-Islām wa al-Muslimīn

4- Ayatullah

5- Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma

6- Zaʿīm al-Ḥawza al-ʿIlmiyya

7- al-ʿAllāma – and this word is one that is applied in a diluted manner in the Arab sphere today, however in the Iranian sphere it is abbreviated for someone who is a master of differing sciences, so this person is of greater standing than another from this angle, for this reason they do not employ it for any scholar- even if they were a jurist, rather they use this term for those who are comprehensive in their knowledge such as ʿAllāma al-Ṭabāṭabāʾī, ʿAllāma Muḥammad Taqī al-Jaʿfarī or ʿAllāma al-Majlisī or others. The origin of the word in Arabic is a hyperbole (Ṣīgha al-Mubālagha) for someone who has plenty of knowledge, meaning that the person is very knowledgeable).

8- al-Samāḥa

9- al-Fāḍīl or al-Fuḍalāʾ

10- al-Muftī

11- al-Mujtahid al-Akbar

12- al-Marjiʿ

13- al-Marjiʿ al-Dīnī

14- al-Marjiʿ al-Dīnī al-Aʿlā

15- Nāʾib al-Imām

16- al-Imām

17- Ustādh al-Fuqahāʾ wa al-Mujtahidīn

18- Ustādh al-Kull Fī al-Kull

19- al-Qibla wa al-Kaʿba (These two epithets are used in Pakistan from what we have heard from the Pakistani scholars)

20- al-Ākhund and perhaps its origin is from the word Aqā Khuwānd, as more than one person has stated- such as Shaykh al-Muṭaharrī, meaning the chief of reading and studying, so whoever reads and studies is an Ākhund, and someone that has been titled this- i.e. Ākhund– to the point where it has almost become a mark of theirs, is al-Shaykh Muḥammad Kāẓim al-Khurāsānī, the writer of the famous work Kifāyat al-Uṣūl.

21- al-Awḥad, which is an epithet used for Shaykh al-Iḥsāʾī.

22- al-Waḥīd, which is an epithet that is known for Shaykh al-Bahbahānī

23- al-Mujaddid, which is an epithet employed for many such as al-Mujadid al-Shīrāzī or Shaykh Muḥammad Riḍā al-Muẓẓaffar.

24- Marjiʿ al-Muslimīn

25- al-Ḥujja

26- al-Faqīh al-Awraʿ

27- al-Sayyid al-Walī

28- al-Sayyid al-Qāʾid

29- Walī ʾAmr al-Muslimīn

30- al-Ustādh al-Aʿẓam wa al-ʿAllāma al-Afkham

31- al-ʿAlam wa al-Aʿlām

32- Sayyid al-Ṭāʾifa

33- Qudwat al-Fuqahāʾ wa Qudwat al-Mujtahidīn

34- Ayatullah Fī al-ʾAraḍīn

35- al-ʿĀlim al-Rabbānī wa al-Faqīh al-Ṣamadānī

36- Khātim al-Fuqahāʾ wa al-Uṣūliyyīn… and whoever revises this will find many of these epithets which differ in their commonality in contemporary times rolling off people’s tongues, found on book covers or disseminated via other means.

The mystics also have not distanced themselves from these descriptions, in their sphere they use many epithets such as Ṣadr al-Mutaʾahilīn, Quṭb Dāʾirat al-Imkān, Jāmiʿ al-Maʿqūl wa al-Manqūl, al-ʿĀrif al-Kāmil, al-Sālik al-Wāṣil, al-Ḥakīm al-Mutaʾalih, al-Ḥakīm al-Ilāhī, Khātim al-Awliyāʾ and many other such titles.

The Phenomenon of Epithets in the Sunni Sphere

The issue of these epithets is not restricted to the Shīʿa, rather Ahl al-Sunnah witnessed something of similar sorts. Since the time of al-Ghazālī, we find many epithets such as Burhān al-Milla wa al-Dīn, Shaykh al-Islām, Tāj al-Islām, Shams al-Dīn, al-Juhbudh, Muftī al-Diyār, Rashīd al-Dīn, ʿIzz al-Dīn, al-Imām, Sayf al-Dīn and many other [epithets] of this sort. This phenomenon was heightened to a large extent during the Ottoman period and of the large titles that were used are: al-Imām al-Aʿẓam, which was used to refer to Abī Ḥanīfah b. al-Nuʿmān (d. 150), and Aʿẓamiyya (being the most great) is attributed to him in Iraq today. What catches the eye is that the Ottomans employed the title al-Ṣadr al-Aʿẓam for the prime minister, knowing that the Imamiyya utilise the term al-Shaykh al-Aʿẓam intending it for Shaykh al-Anṣārī (d. 1281) who passed away in the Qajar Period. This is what I have read from some of the books of Ahl al-Sunnah regarding the chaos of epithets in the Sunni religious institution, and this can be found on some available websites.

There is also what pertains to epithets relating to Sāda (those of prophetic lineage): Mīr, Mirza, al-Sharīf, Amīr, al-Sayyid. Ṣādiq al-Ḥusaynī al-Ishkawarī has written a small book entitled Alqāb al-Sāda, in which he explicated the meanings and history of the epithets that we have mentioned, so one can return to this work. There are those [from Ahl al-Sunna] who are reserved in employing the epithet Sayyid or Sharīf for the Hashemite lineage, since there is a hierarchy that is implied by this which is not islamically desired. It is as if they view themselves as slaves to those Sāda and ʾUmarāʾ that have not necessarily taken their Siyāda via knowledge or good deeds, and they- being knowledge and good deeds- are a scale of differentiating people to Allah the Exalted, as the Qurʾan and honourable Sunnah have stated. Just how the phrase al-Sharīf is seen by some as a censure in the genealogy of the people, implying that they are not Shurafāʾ (honourable), this very reason is why certain people give preference to the usage of the epithet al-Hāshimī for those that attribute themselves to the Prophetic or Hashemite lineage. As a consequence they view that what we have done in creating these titles- despite the fact that it may have been done due to love for the Prophet or good intentions towards the regard of the Prophet and the Ahl al-Bayt– have removed us from the scale and firm foundations that Islam has established for building an Islamic society- even if we had become accustomed to this- whilst the norm has caused us to not feel the deplorability of what we enjoin and practice daily in addition to its opposition to the goals of the Islamic Sharīʿa.

The Role of Christianity and Turkish/Persian Culture in Regards to the Phenomenon of Epithets- a Few Perspectives

There is a view that ascribes these grandiose epithets to Iranian and Turkish culture, since we find that these opulent titles are not limited to the clergy in these two cultures. Rather, we find them used for political positions too- such as: al-Ṣadr al-Aʿẓam, al-Bāb al-ʿĀlī, al-Dawla al-ʿIliyya al-ʿUthmāniyya and the word Sāye Khuda (shadow of God) – or titles of this meaning that were utilised for the leaders of the state in Iran until the time of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. There are also those who view the issue to be strongly related to the influence of Christianity and the Christians in a bid to compete and imitate them when using phrases such as Ẓall Allāh, al-Ḥibr al-Aʿẓam, or Qadāsat al-Bābā and many such others- with this taking place after the end of the Crusade Wars. The epithets in the Christian religious institution have an ancient history to them and there are those who see it that the entry into the bazaar of epithets came as a consequence of those willing to outbid the Christians that had opened up to them in the last few centuries, until some viewed that the term Rūḥānī or Rūḥāniyyat which is used in Farsi to refer to a person of the clergy was possibly taken from the Christians- due to the established relationship between [an individual’s] spirituality and emancipation vis-a-vis the religious institution. So the word Rūḥānī in Farsi does not mean what we understand from the word today in the Arabic language- rather it means a member of the clergy, and this is a recent terminology that was not used to refer to the clergy one and a half centuries ago. Prior to that time, the term that was employed to refer to the clergy was ʿUlamāʾ or Ahl al-ʿIlm. However, looking at the spiritual tendencies within Christianity, it is possible that there may have been a degree of influence [from them] on the issue, but this requires a concentrated historical investigation- and with the aid of Allah, we will hint towards the words of Shaykh al-Muṭaharrī and Sayyid al-Beheshtī in this area.

The Phenomenon of Epithets – Between a Feature of Officiality and Conventional Description

Here, I must refer to the fact that the majority of these epithets are not granted in an official manner within the religious institution, rather they are conferred in a conventional manner in most cases. For there is no official documentation that is issued specifying that such person is [to be called] Ākhund, Marjaʿ Dīnī or Marjaʿ Dīnī Aʿlā alongside many other titles. Neither are there any official certificates that declare someone to have reached a marked stage on their academic journey in the religious and university institutions that are different from any other place in the world. In fact, the social conventions grant these privileges with [equivalent] power to the official administration sometimes and for this reason you find that it is possible to call a specific person Ayatullah whilst they do not deserve such an epithet in the first place, whilst the inverse case is also true.

I must also point out here, that these epithets today have become an integral part of diplomatic and ethical conventions in religious culture. In Iran for example, it could be understood by some that not mentioning the title Ayatullah for a religious scholar whilst writing a specific piece of research is a form of insult- the word Sayyid or Shaykh is not sufficient. Rather, one may find this among the non-clergy, for example- in some spheres if one said “Sharīʿatī”, without saying “al-Muʿallim Sharīʿatī” or “Doctor Sharīʿatī” this could be understood by some to be a form of negative bias or insinuation. This is also present in some non-Iranian spheres, for if someone said: “al-Sayyid al-Khumaynī”- some people may get sensitive, understanding from this that you may have a negative stance towards him; since what is expected from them is that you say “al-Imām al-Khumaynī”, in the same way if one were to say: “al-Khūʾī ruled such and such”, the people would become sensitive to the fact that the epithet has been dropped, viewing this to be a form of insult- and this has happened to me a number of times.

From another angle with regards to epithets, the suffix phrases after the names have also evolved and become varied, such as Dāma Ẓilluh, Mudda Ẓilluh, Dāma Ẓilluh al-ʿĀlī, Mudda Ẓilluh al-Wārif, Mudda Ẓilluh al-ʿĀlī, Zīda ʿIzzuh, Dāmat Barakātuh, Dāmat Ifāḍatuh, Dāmat Taʾyīdātuh or Mattaʿ Allāh al-Muslīmīn Bih, Ḥafiẓahu Allāh, Quddisa Sirruh or Aʿlā Allāh Maqāmuh, whilst in the times of old the phrases were: Raḥimahu Allāh, Riḍwān Allāh ʿAlayh or Raḍī Allāhu ʿAnh and phrases of this kind.

This is a concise overview regarding the historical trajectory of these epithets and during this opportunity I propose that some students in their upper stages of their religious or historical learning give due importance to this topic; so that they may historically outline this in detail in their Masters or Doctorate theses, so that this could be of great benefit in this field, for not much has been written save for a few small pieces- which have not reached such a level based off of the limitation of what I have personally seen, since my induction may be lacking.

2 – The Scholarly Epithets, Stances and Perspectives

The Second Angle: Which is the angle discussing the stance towards these epithets, their forms and their usages. When we want to investigate the stance [that should be taken] towards them, we will find ourselves between three foundational viewpoints in this regard:

2.1 – The View Forbidding Some of These Scholarly Epithets, the Harsh Stance

The First View: It is the view that does not appreciate the use of some of these descriptions- such as Ayatullah or Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma– rather, this view states that there is a legal, jurisprudential and religious issue in the use of these terms which could reach the state of Bidʿa (innovation) or an assault on the positions of the Prophets and Imams. This is a position that is rare and there are not many scholars or jurists that hold this view. However, we may see someone adopt this here or there in some way. The question remains: Are these epithets- Ayatullah or Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma or such other titles- favoured and permitted according to the religious law or is there a serious legal issue in their use?

What is known, disseminated and acted upon between many later jurists is that these epithets are legally permissible and that their usage is something that is Ḥalāl (permissible) in and of itself. There are also those who have mentioned that some religious sources of emulation have a legal issue in specific with the epithet Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma– though I have not been able to determine and investigate how true this claim is.

However, there is a view that objects to some of these epithets- in specific: Ayatullah, Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma and Ayatullah al-Kubrā but does not have an issue with all of them- and the reasoning for this objection is that these descriptions and epithets in the religious texts are utilised for the Ahl al-Bayt (upon them be peace). This is whilst the theft of these stations has taken place and has been attributed to other than them and this is something that has already taken place by both the Shīʿa and [Ahl al-]Sunnah. As for [Ahl al-]Sunnah, they took the titles al-Fārūq, Amīr al-Muʾminīn, al-Ṣiddīq, Sayf Allāh al-Maslūl, Sayyid al-ʿArab and other such epithets away from Imam ʿAlī. As for the Shīʿa then they took the title Ayatullah, Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma, Ayatullah al-Kubrā and Ḥujjat Allāh from Imam ʿAlī, Sayyida al-Zahrāʾ and the rest of the Imams (upon them all be peace).

The Relied-Upon Ḥadīth Forbidding Certain Scholarly Epithets, an Analysis and Investigation

The testifying piece of proof for this- for those of this opinion- are the narrations that have granted these epithets to the Ahl al-Bayt and the most important of them are:

The First Narration: Which is what has come in Duʿāʾ al-Iftitāḥ within a context of it describing Imam ʿAlī (upon him be peace): “Wa Āyatuka al-Kubrā wa al-Nabaʾ al-ʿAẓīm” (Iqbāl al-Aʿmāl, Ibn Ṭāwūs, Vol. 1, pg. 141), thus Ali is the Āya al-Kubrā, not today’s religious scholar of emulation.

However, resorting to this Ḥadīth/Duʿāʾ in order to derive a religious ruling that is of prohibition is unclear, for the fundamental source of this supplication (that includes this specific line) is Ibn Ṭāwūs (d. 664)- and we have not found it prior to him. The following has also been mentioned in the beginning of the text: “Of what we will mention from Duʿāʾ al-Iftitāḥ and other supplications that are to be repeated every night until the month of Falāḥ (Shawwāl), and from that is the supplication that Muḥammad b. Abī Qura [transmitted] with his chain of transmission [who] said: Abū al-Ghanāʾim, Muḥammad b. Muḥammad b. Muḥammad b. ʿAbdullah al-Ḥasanī narrated to me [who] said: Abū ʿAmr Muḥammad b. Naṣr al-Sakūnī (may Allah be pleased with him) reported to us, [who] said: I asked Abā Bakr, Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. ʿUthmān al-Baghdādī (may Allah’s mercy be upon him) to present the supplications of the month of Ramaḍān that his uncle Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. ʿUthmān b. Saʿīd al-ʿAmrī (may Allah be pleased with him and please him) used to supplicate with. So he presented to me a red bound-volume, so I scribed many supplications from it and it said about them: ‘And you supplicate with this Duʿāʾ in every night of the month of Ramaḍān, for supplication in this month is heard by the angels and they seek forgiveness for the doer’- and it is: Allāhumma Innī Aftatiḥu al-Thanāʾ Bi Ḥamdik…”.2

Perhaps this is due to the conclusion of some that came later and received this Duʿāʾ saying that it is from Imam al-Mahdi; since al-ʿAmrī is one of the ambassadors of Imam al-Mahdi, thus it must be that he took this supplication from him. It is for this reason that Duʿāʾ al-Iftitāḥ is attributed to Imam al-Mahdi in the later books mentioning that it was written by al-Qāʾim (upon him be peace). Except that the reality is that there is large room for discussion here, because even if it was extremely probable that al-ʿAmrī had taken it from the Imam, it is also extremely probable that it could be from his own supplications, or that it had come to him from a prior Imam with a chain of transmission that we don’t know, or that the supplication was narrated by one of the pious or allies of God without being a Prophet or Imam, thus the report would be Mursal (disconnected). Rather, it is not known whether this is a narration in the first place, for the transmitters did not highlight that he (i.e. al-ʿAmrī) had taken this from one of the Imams, [whilst] knowing that there are some in the chain of transmission whose trustworthiness has not been established, such as Abī Bakr, Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. ʿUthmān al-Baghdādī, known as Abī Bakr al-Baghdādī- for he is not deemed trustworthy- in fact he is not even mentioned in the books of Rijāl, in fact- it has even been said that there are narrations censuring him for claiming to be a Bāb [(i.e. an authorised deputy of the Imam)].

Yes, al-Shaykh al-Ṭūsī and others have narrated Duʿāʾ al-Iftitāḥ– in a Mursal (disconnected) fashion- or without a known or strong chain in Miṣbāḥ al-Mutahajjid, pg. 577-582; Tahdhīb al-Aḥkām, Vol. 3, pg. 110; al-Miṣbāḥ, al-Kafʿamī, pg. 580-581; al-Balad al-Amīn, pg. 194; al-Wāfī, al-Fayḍ al-Kāshānī, Vol. 11, pg. 408. However, all without the line which is being used as the piece of evidence here, rather what is says is: “Allāhumma Ṣalli ʿalā Amīr al-Muʾminīn wa Waṣī Rasūli Rabb al-ʿĀlamīn wa ʿalā al-Ṣiddīqa al-Ṭāhira Fāṭimata Sayyidata Nisāʾ al-ʿĀlamīn, wa Ṣalli ʿalā Ṣibṭay al-Raḥma wa Imāmay al-Hudā al-Ḥasani wa al-Ḥusayn Sayyiday Shabābi Ahl al-Jannah, wa Ṣalli ʿalā Aʾimmat al-Muslimīn Ḥujajuk ʿalā ʿIbādika wa ʾUmanāʾika fī Bilādik Ṣalātan Kathīratan Dāʾima…

I do not want to determine a position on Duʿāʾ al-Iftitāḥ here, even though establishing it to a degree where we can derive legal rulings or doctrinal positions is difficult. Rather, what concerns me is the sentence that is resorted to “Wa Āyatuka al-Kubrā wa al-Nabaʾ al-ʿAẓīm”. For it has not been reported anywhere save for Iqbāl al-Aʿmāl for Ibn Ṭāwūs- in fact the editors of the book Iqbāl al-Aʿmāl have mentioned that this sentence is not extant in some of the manuscripts of the work itself.3 Just as all of the sources and references for this supplication do not include this sentence within. As a consequence, there is no reliable way to ascertain this sentence from the perspective of its transmission, as a matter of fact- its non-existence in the rest of the sources for this Ḥadīth which include those that pre-date Ibn Ṭāwūs creates doubt since it’s possible that it was added to it or that Idrāj (interpolation) has taken place.

al-Muḥaqiq al-Tustarī has pointed out that the phrases of Duʿāʾ al-Iftitāḥ and the reliance of al-Mufīd on it both authenticate it4, although I haven’t been able to find the words of Shaykh al-Mufīd [stating this]. Yes, there are parts of Duʿāʾ al-Iftitāḥ that have been found in other narrations- such as in al-Kāfī and other works- some with reliable chains, such as the part [saying]: “Allāhumma Innā Narghabu Ilayka fi Dawlatin Karīma…”, but Duʿāʾ al-Iftitāḥ which includes the priorly mentioned sentence has not been found except by the transmission of Ibn Ṭāwūs, in consideration of some manuscripts of the work- which as you know- is unestablished.

The Second Narration: What has come regarding the recommended deeds and prayer on the Day of Ghadīr: “…Anta Rabbuna wa Muḥammad ʿAbduka wa Rasūlika Nabiyyinā, wa ʿalā Amīr al-Muʾminīn ʿAbduka aladhī Anʿamta bihi ʿAlaynā, wa Jaʿaltahu Āyatan li-Nabiyyika ʿalayhī al-Salām, wa Āyatuka al-Kubrā wa al-Nabaʾ al-ʿAẓīm aladhī Hum fīhi Mukhtalifūn wa ʿAnhū Masʾūlūn…5

However, this narration has a weak chain due to Muḥammad b. Mūsā al-Hamadānī whose weakness has been explicitly attested to by the Rijāl authorities, such as al-Ṣadūq, Ibn al-Walīd and the general Qummi populous- and Ibn al-Walīd used to say that this individual used to fabricate Ḥadīth. [It] also [has a weak chain due to] ʿAlī b. al-Ḥusayn (al-Ḥasan) al-ʿAbdī whose trustworthiness has not been established as explicitly stated by Sayyid al-Khūʾī 6, since there is no proof for his trustworthiness except utilising Tafsīr al-Qummī – if it is even established that it is him and not another individual.

The Third Narration: What has come in one of the Ziyārāt that is used to turn to Imam ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib: “al-Salāmu ʿalayka yā Waṣī al-Awṣiyāʾ, al-Salāmu ʿalayka yā ʿImād al-Atqiyāʾ, al-Salāmu ʿalayka yā Walī al-Awliyāʾ, al-Salāmu ʿalayka yā Sayyid (Khayr) al-Shuhadāʾ, al-Salāmu ʿalayka yā Āyatullah al-ʿUẓma…”.7 It has been narrated that this Ziyāra was taught to Muḥammad b. Muslim al-Thaqafī by Imam al-Ṣādiq.

Except that this Ziyāra has a weak chain, for in all of its sources there is no chain provided to Muḥammad b. Muslim, [thus] we do not know how the narration reaches him. Everyone begins the narration with the phrase: “And such and such has been narrated from al-Ṣādiq and that he taught this to Muḥammad b. Muslim”, this too makes us doubt that the transmitter of the narration was Muḥammad b. Muslim himself, for perhaps it is someone else narrating the fact that this was taught, otherwise the narration should have been described as: “And Muḥammad b. Muslim has narrated from Imam al-Ṣādiq that he taught him such and such”, which is something that we do not find in the sources of this narration.

The Fourth Narration: What is narrated from Imam ʿAlī (upon him be peace): “Mā (wa-lā) Li-llāhī Āyatun Aʿẓamu Minnī8, this narration negates the existence of an Āya that is Aʾẓam (greater) than Ali (upon him be peace). This narration has also come in the phrasing “Āyatun Akbaru Minnī” in a number of sources too9.

As for the narration that has come in the formula “Aʿẓamu Minnī”, then it is Mursal (disconnected) in all of its sources including Tafsīr Furāt al-Kūfī itself and the chain provided in that book is also weak. For in the chain; even if we ignore the fact that there is no proof deeming Furāt al-Kūfī trustworthy himself- since information about his personality is little and frugal- there exists the presence of Jaʿfar b. Muḥammad b. Mālik al-Fazārī, who is mentioned to be a fabricator and al-Najāshī has explicitly stated that he is weak in Ḥadīth, also narrating from Ibn al-Ghaḍāʾirī that al-Fazārī used to severely fabricate Ḥadīth and used to narrate from unknown individuals. He has also been weakened by Ibn Nūḥ, al-Ṣadūq, Ibn al-Walīd and others. al-Najāshī also stated his astonishment at the fact that his teacher narrated from him considering his condition [as a narrator], saying that he had heard that he was also of corrupt doctrine. al-Shaykh al-Ṭūsī despite deeming him trustworthy, stated that some have weakened him- and have said that he has narrated bewildering things about the birth of the Qāʾim10. Likewise, Muḥammad b. Ḥātim – and he is al-Qaṭṭān- is also present in the chain who has not been deemed trustworthy. As is also the case in another path provided by Furāt al-Kūfī where there is a Mahjūl (unknown) Muḥammad b. Ḥātim, in addition to a certain ‘Rajul’ (a man), making the report Mursal (disconnected). Also, there is Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Rāfiʿī who does not even possess a biographical entry and is Muhmal (unmentioned) – and it seems there are very few narrations for him, which the sum of could even be enumerated by one’s fingers. Moreover, al-Shaykh al-Namāzī said that they (i.e. the Rijāl authorities) have not mentioned him11, so the chain of transmission as consequence is extremely weak since there are a number of unknown narrators, fabricators and disconnection within it.

As for the narration that has come in the phrase “Akbaru Minnī”, it can be found in Mukhtaṣar Baṣāʾir al-Darajāt in a chain of transmission with Muḥammad b. Fuḍayl who is weakened and accused of Ghulū. This excerpt has been attributed to Imam al-Ṣādiq in agreement to what ʿAli b. Ibrāhīm has said in his Tafsīr, and perhaps there has been a degree of misunderstanding that has become common between the scholars- for this sentence’s attribution to Imam al-Ṣādiq is unknown. Maybe it is from ʿAli b. Ibrāhīm himself, since he says the following in the beginning of the Tafsīr of Surat Yūnus:

“{In the Name of Allāh, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful; Alif Lām Rāʾ; These are the verses of the Book, rich in wisdom.} He said: ‘Alif Lām Rāʾ– is a Ḥarf (Letter) of the Ḥurūf (Letters) of al-Ism al-Aʿẓam (the Greatest Name of Allāh) that are cut off in the Qurʾan, for if the Prophet or Imam gathered them together and supplicated by it, then they would be responded to.’ Then he said: ‘{Is it astonishing to people that We have sent revelation to a man from among themselves} meaning the Messenger of Allāh (upon him and his family be peace) {[saying:] Warn humanity and give good news to the believers that they will have an honourable status with their Lord.}’ He said: ‘my father thus narrated to me, from Ḥammād b. ʿĪsā, from Ibrāhīm b. ʿUmar al-Yamānī, from Abī ʿAbdillah (upon him be peace) regarding His Statement {they will have an honourable status with their Lord.} [Yūnus: 2] [who] said: ‘It is the Messenger of Allāh (upon him and his family be peace)’. His Statement: {Surely your Lord is Allah Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days, then established Himself on the Throne- until His Statement- there are truly signs for those mindful ˹of Him.} [Yūnus: 3-6] these are unambiguous- and His Statement: {Indeed, those who do not expect to meet Us} [Yūnus: 7] meaning- they do not believe in it {being pleased and content with this worldly life, and who are heedless of Our signs} He said: These verses are the Commander of the Faithful and the Imams (upon them be peace)- and the evidence for this are the words of the Commander of the Faithful (upon him be peace): ‘Mā Lillāhī Āyatun Akbaru Minnī’…” 12

The wording of this section seems to depict the chain of transmission to al-Ṣādiq (upon him be peace), but it is very possible that the narration ended at ‘It is the Messenger of Allāh’ and what remains of the exegesis is from ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm and not Imam al-Ṣādiq- so the narration here is from ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm from ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib in a Mursal (disconnected) fashion, which is not how some have understood it- since they viewed it to be of Ṣaḥīḥ (authentic) transmission above which is [a chain] deemed as reliable by the majority of scholars.

This and its likes are testified to with what ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm has said in the second volume of his Tafsīr: “Muḥammad b. Salamah narrated to us [who] said: Muḥammad b. Jaʿfar narrated to us [who] said:

Yaḥyā b. Zakariyya al-Luʾluʾī, from ʿAlī b. Ḥassān, from ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Kathīr, from Abī ʿAbdillah (upon him be peace) regarding His Statement: “{Whoever comes with a good deed will be rewarded tenfold.}[al-Anʿām: 160] [and] said: ‘It is for the Muslims generally, and {a good deed} is Wilāya, so whoever did a good deed due to Ḥusna (i.e. Wilāya) then he will be rewarded tenfold- and if he does not have Wilāya whatever good deed he does will be raised in the Dunya and there is no goodness for him in the hereafter.’ ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm said regarding His Statement: {[Say:] Indeed, I have only been commanded to worship the Lord of this township} [al-Naml: 91] He said: ‘Mecca.’ {and to Him everything belongs}[al-Naml: 91] He said: ‘Allāh, the Mighty and Majestic.’ {And I am commanded to be one of those who [fully] submit [to Him]- until His Statement- He will show you His signs, and you will recognize them.}[al-Naml: 91-93] He said: ‘These verses are the Commander of the Faithful and the Imams (upon them be peace), if they were to return then their enemies would recognise them if they saw them. And the proof that these verses are the Imams is the statement of the Commander of the Faithful (upon him be peace): ‘Wallāhi Mā Lillāhī Ayatun Akbaru Minnī’ for if they return to the Dunya their enemies would recognise them if they saw them in the Dunya.” 13

So pay heed to the fact that the wording of the section shows that ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm narrates the report directly from Imam ʿAlī and that his words are detached from the above narration that was narrated from ʿAlī b. Ḥassān and then ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Kathīr- who are both the faces of the Ghulāt who are weakened among many of the scholars of Rijāl.

Yes, ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm in his Tafsīr 14 has said: “My father narrated to me, from al-Ḥusayn b. Khālid, from Abī al-Ḥasan al-Riḍā (upon him be peace) regarding His Statement: {What are they asking one another about?} [who] said: The Commander of the Faithful said: ‘Mā Lillāhī Ayatun Akbaru Minnī…” which is a narration on the apparent level, which is what al-Qummī indicated in the prior two places, however- al-Ḥusayn b. Khālid is in the chain of transmission and the intended individual is not al-Ḥusayn b. Abī al-ʿAlāʾ al-Khaffāf who has been deemed Thiqa (trustworthy) by some – even if I personally view him to not be Thiqa (trustworthy), since al-Khaffāf has been mentioned as being contemporaneous to al-Bāqir and al-Ṣādiq (upon them both be peace) and no-one has mentioned him as being in the time-period of al-Riḍā or that he narrated from him – even if you found it [to be the case] that his narration demonstrates that he lived until the time of al-Riḍā and was of those who were granted a long life- despite the fact that they have not mentioned that he was of those granted such a lifespan. So the preferred conclusion is that this person here is al-Ḥusayn b. Khālid al-Ṣayrafī whose trustworthiness has not been established. Since he has been mentioned as being in the time-period of Imam al-Riḍā in Rijāl al-Ṭūsī, in addition to the fact that proving their unity is difficult by agreement of more than one scholar of Rijāl – one can return to the books of Rijāl in order to revise the details. This is all going by the assumption of the authentication of the attribution of this Tafsīr to al-Qummī. As for those who doubt the correctness of the attribution, then there remains no meaning in taking from the narrations of this Tafsīr, which there is detail to – but its discussion is to be revised in its own place.

This narration has also been found in Yanābīʿ al-Mawadda for al-Qandūzī, Vol 2, pg. 402 in the following manner: “And from ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Kathīr [who] said: ‘I asked Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (upon him be peace) regarding His Statement: {What are they asking one another about? * About the great news * That over which they are in disagreement.}[al-Nabaʾ: 1-3] And I asked him about His Statement: {There the authority is [completely] for Allāh, the Truth.}[al-Kahf: 44]’ He said: ‘The Wilāya of the Commander of the Faithful ʿAlī (upon him be the peace of Allāh), he used to say: ‘Mā Lillāhī Nabaʾun Aʿẓamu Minnī, Wa Lā Lillāhī Ayatun Akbaru Minnī’. And the same [has been narrated] from al-Bāqir and al-Riḍā.” However, in the chain of transmission there is Irsāl (disconnection) as is very clear; since he did not mention a path to ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Kathīr, whilst knowing that ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Kathīr is of the individuals famous for Ghulū, who has been weakened by more than one of the scholars of Rijāl, so revise. What is eye-catching is that this sentence which is attributed to Imam ʿAlī has managed to find its way into the literature of the later mystics and philosophers too.15

Through this it is made apparent that the narration in the wording (Aʿẓamu Minnī or Akbaru Minnī) has not come through a strong chain, rather sometimes it has come without a chain and in other instances with the presence of weakened narrators within- in addition to the fact that it has come from those who are Muhmal (unmentioned) or Majhūl (of unknown condition)- and that it has come from secondary Ḥadīth sources, knowing that those who have been famously known for Ghulū are repeatedly found [in the chains] as we have hinted towards earlier.

What consolidates the critique of this Hadith is that in reality it trends towards a sort of relative Ghulū, for how could it be that ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (upon him be peace) is the greatest Aya of Allah and there is no one greater than him- whilst the Messenger of Allah Muḥammad b. ʿAbdullah is present in creation?! Is he greater than Muḥammad?! Is the scent of Ghulū not present in this Ḥadīth? Was ʿAlī more signifying of Allah than Muḥammad- premised on the exegesis of the verse being with regards to signification, guidance and proof? Was the constitution of his creation greater than the constitution of the creation of Muḥammad and the rest of things? Whilst Allah the Glorified says: {The creation of the heavens and the Earth is certainly greater than the creation of humankind, but most people do not know.} [Ghāfir: 57]? Thus the constitution of the heavens and the Earth is greater than the constitution of the people with regards to creation – whilst this Hadith wishes to say that the constitution of Ali’s creation (upon him be Allah’s peace) is greater than the constitution of everything – premised on the second possibility of the verse’s exegesis which is that it is referring to the creation and its ontology.

The Fifth Narration: The Report of al-Aṣbagh b. Nubata [who] said: “The Commander of the Faithful said: ‘I am the Caliph of the Messenger of Allah, his vizier and inheritor, I am the brother of the Messenger of Allah, his successor and his beloved one, I am true friend of the Messenger of Allah and his companion, I am the son of the paternal uncle of the Messenger of Allah and the husband of his daughter and the father of his children, I am the chief of the successors and the successor of the chief of the Prophets, I am al-Ḥujjah al-ʿUẓmā wa al-Āyat al-Kubrā (the Great Proof and the Great Sign) wa al-Mathal al-Aʿlā wa Bāb al-Nabī al-Muṣṭafā (and the Highest Example and the Gate of the Prophet), I am al-ʿUrwa al-Wuthqa (the firmest hand-hold), the speaker of piety, the trustee of Allah the Exalted who he has been mentioned to the people of the Dunya.’” 16

Another narration that is similar is a weak one as a consequence of al-Kābulī and because of Irsāl (disconnection) and other such issues17. Likewise, the report attributed to Jābir b. ʿAbdullah al-Anṣārī which is weak due to Irsāl (disconnection) and Rafʿ (the transmitter raising the report straight to the speaker) and other such problems18. What has also been found in some of the narrations of Ahl al-Sunna from Ibn ʿAbbās [is] that he said in the presence of Muʿāwiya b. Abī Sufyān that ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib is al-Dāʿiya Ilā al-Ḥujjah al-ʿUẓmā (the Caller to the Greatest Proof).19

The manner through which the conclusion is drawn from this narration is clear in relation to those that accept it. However, the narration’s chain is extremely withered, for there is more than one weakened, unknown and unmentioned individual within it. Such as ʿUbaydullah b. ʿAbdullah b. al-Dahqān the fabricator who has been weakened by the scholars of Rijāl, Sahl b. Ziyād whose trustworthiness has not been established according to many such as Sayyid al-Khūʾī – and that is what’s correct – and some others have weakened him, Durust b. Abī Manṣūr is disagreed upon and his trustworthiness has not been established according to me, Jaʿfar b. Muḥammad b. Bashshār is extremely Muhmal (unmentioned) and his trustworthiness is not established, al-Ḥusayn b. Ibrāhīm al-Muʾaddab according to many has no proof for his trustworthiness- of them being Sayyid al-Khūʾī- which is what is correct. Thus most of the narrators for this report are either Ḍaʿīf (weak), Muhmal (unmentioned), or Majhūl (of unknown condition), or differed upon.

Through this, it has been made apparent that the five narrations that may be utilised in order to forbid the employment of such epithets are Ḍaʿīf (weak) in their chain of transmission from more than one angle. In addition to coming from secondary works and containing many problems, filled with unmentioned, weakened or Majhūl individuals (narrators whose status is unknown), or they are Ghulāt or from narrators that are disagreed upon. Rather, some of these reports have problems in their contents as we have said earlier, thus acquiring a report of Ṣaḥīḥ (authentic) transmission or that is Mawthūq Bihī (a report that one can have confidence in) from these reports that are in such a condition is extremely difficult. Knowing that if we were to turn a blind eye to these problems- the question we will ask is: Does employing a description other than Āyatullah al-ʿUẓma– such as simply Āyatullah for example- on other than Imam ʿAlī become forbidden? For these narrations do not subsume this usage as is apparent. As for the usage of Āyatullah al-ʿUẓma, do these narrations forbid it? Are they inclusive of prohibition related to this word? If so, where is it? This is the state of some of the narrations that have been said to describe Sayyida al-Zahrāʾ as Āyatullah, or described the Imams as being Ḥujjat Allāh, or described the Imam being Kalimat Allah (the Word of Allah). For these narrations establish a description for the Imams, yet do not negate this description- even to a lower degree (i.e. dislikeness)- for other than them, lest forbidding the usage of these epithets for others. If the Imam was described as being the nephew of the Messenger of Allah’s paternal uncle, does this mean that we are not allowed to employ such a description for ʿAbdullah b. ʿAbbās or Jaʿfar al-Ṭayyār too?!

As a consequence, if the true meaning was intended by these epithets then this would be akin to lying and counterfeiting, for such a scholar of emulation and their likes are not Āyatullah al-ʿUẓma (the Great Sign of Allah) certainly. As for if these epithets were morphed- as their possessors say- to nothing but a lexical term that is intended to signify the grand status of this certain scholar and his preceding-ness over the people of his time then there is no objection, since everyone knows that this or that scholar is not the grandest Āyatullah absolutely in existence. So then what is the proof for forbidding this as long as this does not necessitate lying and does not repeal the fact that this description is established for Imam ʿAlī (upon him be peace)? Yes, the attribution of these titles and their usage on the clergy to the Sharʿ (Islamic Legislation) is itself legislatively incorrect, for the Islamic Sharīʿa has not been found to say that the clergy are to be described with any such description due to their status other than the description al-ʿĀlim (the scholar) and its likes. Thus the statement that these epithets are part of the religious system is a clear Bidʿa (innovation) according to my estimation- and I don’t believe anyone has said such a thing- and attributing it to the religion is not permissible ever. Indeed, Shaykh Murtaḍā al-Muṭaharrī indicated towards the non-attribution of these epithets entirely [to the religion] in some of his words.20

Perhaps due to what we have generally said, the majority [of the scholars] have not issued edicts that have explicitly forbidden them in a clear cut manner- and even if one of the jurists had taken such a stance then their number is very little. As a consequence, there is no legal issue in the origin of using these epithets and their likes for a specific individual- with the condition that this doesn’t necessitate lying or another legal issue. This is from the jurisprudential, legislative perspective on the topic and what has been mentioned from this angle in terms of the claim that there is a legal issue in the utilising of some of these titles is unclear.

2.2 – The View Accepting the Absolute Use of the Scholarly Epithets, the Tolerant Stance

The Second View: Which is the one that does not view any obstacle in employing the use of these titles, rather sometimes they praise their usage, viewing that these phrases befit the scholars, urging the glorification of the scholars of emulation and jurists with these descriptions. This perspective is not sensitive at all to any of these epithets regardless of their differences, viewing that there is no need to bring this topic up- and perhaps this is the majority view in the religious circles today… it views that these titles are something natural, which are normal terminologies that indicate the rank of a certain individual from a scholarly respect. Just as there are descriptions, epithets or degrees that are used by the people in the world for different specialities – such as a teacher, a doctor, a tutor, a person who has a degree, an interviewer, a teacher assistant, a professor, a engineer, a chemist, a physicist and other titles. In the same way there are descriptions in the religious scholarly circles, such as Ayatullah– which is a title for someone who has reached the level of Ijtihād, or Āyatullah al-ʿUẓma– which is a title for someone who has reached a level of possessing religious emulation, or al-Fāḍil– which is used for someone who has completed the first stages [of religious learning] and has a specific nearness to the level of partial Ijtihād for example. Thus why must we become sensitive to such epithets so long as they remain basic terminologies that humans use to describe different degrees and levels in the religious scholarly atmosphere, especially when there is no legalistic problem in their usage?!

2.3 – The View of Reservation Which Does Not Prohibit the Use of Some Scholarly Epithets, the Middle View

The Third View: Which is the view that does not accept the claim of prohibition in the use of these epithets, so it is subsumed under what we have previously mentioned- however, it does not accept the manner in which the second view deals and treats the issue. For it practises restraint with some of these epithets- and certainly not all of them- not due to a thought process that is rooted in legalistic considerations, but rather due to a problem related to reservations on an ethical, cultural or collective conscious level- and this is the perspective I prefer personally.

However, before I reveal my position on this issue and support the third position in a limited manner- there is no harm in conducting a quick tour of some of these positions and the steps taken by some of the scholars or thinkers that have been cast in order to prepare the expounding of my own thoughts in regards to this view.

A) The Position of Sayyid al-Shahīd Muḥammad al-Ḥusaynī al-Beheshtī

Al-Shahīd Sayyid Muḥammad al-Ḥusaynī al-Beheshtī (may Allah have mercy upon him) discusses the idea of a religious chief that is secluded from their society, viewing that every individual- irregardless of their status in Islamic society- that is a prisoner to these epithets, complimentary titles, honorifics and protocols is far-removed from Islam. It is upon us to not create epithets for ourselves so that we do not promote a race between us in acquiring these titles. At the very least, it is to be assumed of a scholar like myself to not be imprisoned by the ideas of these epithets, so woe to the orator that sits on the pulpit whilst there is a prominent scholar of emulation amongst those present- and the orator does not describe him with the term Āyatullah al-ʿUẓma. Yes, if the orator also did not say al-ʿUẓma then oh what woe… What sort of situation is this?! What sort of Islamic environment is the one that we witness?! When the religious scholar is a prisoner to the epithets Āyatullah or Āyatullah al-ʿUẓma, then is it possible for me to combat these honorifics that are present in the other sectors of different societies?! 21

Al-Sayyid al-Beheshtī (may Allah have mercy upon him) goes to an even further extent, since he views that in Islam there is no class that is termed as the clergy. And that he does not like the term Rūḥānī or Rūḥāniyyat, rather- he simply prefers the term the scholars of Islam in their place.22. Consequently, there is no clergy class that exists in Islam, rather this is of the pollutants related to the clergy that have come from other religions, which we ourselves have become influenced by- of them being this idea of a clergy class in the first place. For in our time, a scholar is known through his garb and not by his knowledge or piety- their clothing is the basis of belonging to the religious scholars. The misdeeds of a turbaned individual is accepted by all, whereas the good deeds of a person who does not don the turban are deemed to be from the goodness of religious scholars. If the people were to gather for prayer, then they would not put forward the non-turbaned individual who in reality precedes the turbaned individual in knowledge and piety! They assume that the leader of the congregational prayer must be a turbaned individual… which is something that has no basis in Islam. Rather, any person who revises the religious texts of this religion will know that the turban, religious garb and the issue of clothing is one that is not mandated for the clergy in Islam – in fact the Sharʿ (Islamic Legislation) does not know anything termed ‘the prevention of granting the scholars of the religion their rights as a consequence of them not possessing a turban.’ The religious garb is nothing other than a [societal] norm and it is not a religious matter.23

Beheshtī (may his rank be raised) in his works expresses a high degree of sensitivity in the face of the norms and conventions that have frequently been deemed to be of the foundations of religiosity according to the Muslim masses. He discusses real issues that we continue to witness until today, yes- until today in more than one place in the religious seminary- I do not wish to mention names- where the non-turbaned person is not given an equal monthly stipend that a turbaned individual is given, even if they are of the same academic rank! Today, there are also those who view that it may be insulting to let the non-turbaned individual lead the congregational prayer over the turbaned individual! Whilst Islam does not differentiate between the people, especially when the individual that does not wear a turban could be much more knowledgeable than the turbaned individual who has been chosen to lead the prayer. In reality, many people express a great degree of sensitivity if some of their epithets are dropped- and we have witnessed real incidents pertaining to this subject, however it is not the occasion to narrate them- in fact, it could be impermissible to do so. And Shaykh Yaḥyā Kabīr, one of the teachers of philosophy at the University of Tehran has narrated to me that he heard from Sayyid Beheshtī (may Allah have mercy upon him) saying that there is a necessity to keep some of the students of knowledge without a turban, even if it were 20% of them. The reason for that- according to this transmission from Sayyid Beheshtī- is that if the image of the turban in one of the future days were to dissipate, then the individuals that do not wear a turban would be able to act in a manner that is better and easier; so long as there is no guarantee of damage of the religion itself.

B) The Position of al-Shahīd al-Shaykh Murtaḍā al-Muṭahharī:

al-Shaykh al-Shahīd Murtaḍā al-Muṭahharī (may Allah’s pleasure be upon him) views that there is nothing in Islam but the title al-ʿĀlim (the scholar), so even the words al-Shaykh, al-Mulla, al-Ākhund or al-Rūḥānī do not exist in Islam. And in the first four centuries after the Hijra the word that was used was al-ʿĀlim. Then in the 4th Century AH, we begin to see a change in epithets and titles, even after this change- this was exclusive to extremely great personalities- so the term Shaykh was used for al-Shaykh al-Ṭūsī in jurisprudence, for Ibn Sīnā in philosophy, for al-Jurjānī in matters of literature and language and for al-Saʿdī al-Shīrāzī in poetry. Then it suddenly began to be employed by every student of the religious sciences – likewise, this was the case for Ākhund or Mullā. For these were terms that had not been known to people until the ten centuries after the honourable Prophet had been sent. As for Rūḥānī– then this is an extremely new term that appeared precisely at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is a word that has been derived from the Christians who differentiate between matter and the soul, viewing the religion to be a matter specific to the soul only, whilst Islam does not view this to be the case… Yes, there is no title in Islam that is specific to the religious scholars and there is no specific garb for them- there are also no specific duties for them on a societal level- for Ṣalāṭ al-Mayyit, officiating marriages or divorces, supplicating for a child upon their birth, leading the congregational prayers, conducting Istikhāra and other deeds are not specific to the religious clergy, rather- they are for whoever is capable of doing them or for those who manifest the correct Islamic etiquettes.24

C) The Attempts of al-Shaykh Behjat and al-Sayyid al-Ṣadr and others

The son of Shaykh Behjat (may Allah have mercy upon him) narrates from his father that he used to reject the utilisation of the epithet Āyatullah– and his Risāla ʿAmaliyya has been published 117 times without his name being mentioned at all in seven of the editions, as for the remainder of the editions- which are 110- then he did not accept for his name to be mentioned with any title other than al-ʿAbd (the slave).25 And al-Shaykh Muḥammadī Rayshahrī, the one who transmits these words says that he doesn’t dare describe one of the jurists or scholars of emulation with the epithet Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma and suffices with using Ayatullah. This is whilst he is knowing – as he says – of the fact that these epithets are relative – and that no-one intends to infringe the status of the Commander of the Faithful (upon him be peace). 26 Also, al-Sayyid Muḥammad Taqī al-Qummī placed the phrase Aqal al-ʿIbād al-Hāj (The lowest of the slaves, the Hāj) on the cover of his large jurisprudential work Mabānī Minhāj al-Ṣāliḥīn.

It is also known of al-Sayyid al-Shahīd Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr to have been insisting on the non-placement of any epithet for himself on any of his books, of them being his Risāla ʿAmaliyya that demonstrates him being a source of religious emulation. Just as what al-Shaykh al-Qadīrī transmitted from Imam Khumaynī, when his own Risāla ʿAmaliyya was published in Najaf he requested that any epithets be dropped from the cover. In addition to the removal of the title Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma from the official website for al-Sayyid ʿAlī al-Ḥusaynī al-Sīstānī (may Allah preserve him) on the internet. Many of the believers understood from this step that this is a form of humility of his eminence, viewing this in a positive light. There are also a host of stories about certain personalities here and there that are like what we have mentioned, demonstrating the rejection of these epithets or refraining from them due to humbleness or a specific legal stance towards them.

D) al-Shaykh Muḥammad Jawād Mughniyya and a Famous Critical Position

al-Shaykh Muḥammad Jawād Mughniyya mocks the phenomenon we see today in regards to these epithets, launching a famous frontal assault on some of the societal phenomenons regarding the clergy in his two books: Huna wa Hunāk and Ṣafaḥāt li-Waqt al-Farāgh, one can revise them- we will not prolong its discussion.

This, in addition to the circulation of the rejection of some of the contemporary Ikhbāriyyīn with regards to these titles, viewing that the cause of such a phenomenon are the Uṣūliyyīn and according to them- these are of the inventions of the Uṣūliyyīn in Iraq and Iran.

E) The Researcher ʿAlī Ḥarb, A Secondary Critique: The Grandeur of the Epithets and Fragility of Ideas

The famous researcher ʿAlī Ḥarb- in some of his official articles views that the phenomenon of the ever-increasing grandeur of these epithets in the Arabic Islamic world is a consequence of the fragility of people’s ideas and that the term al-Mufakkir al-Kabīr (the Great Thinker) or even just the term al-Mufakkir (the Thinker) may have been overused, rather it has began to build barriers between the acclaimed thinker and others- almost as if other individuals do not think.

Our Chosen Position Regarding the Current Phenomenon of Scholarly Epithets

After presenting these examples and instances- and my presentation has not been as thorough as possible, we must determine our stance with regards to these phenomena that are related to these epithets and titles, which can be mentioned in quick points:

Firstly: There is no doubt that these epithets in their entirety- including the title of al-ʿĀlim and its likes – do not exist in reliable religious texts. Consequently, attributing these epithets to Islamic Legislation is incorrect. Just as how any epithet can comprise of a lie and someone can intend to use this term- such as the title Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma in its general true meaning when it is employed for a specific Mujtahid, for it is incorrect. Rather, the one that is using the term may make it ambiguous in a lying or fraudulent manner. This would also be the case if the utilisation of this term informs people of something, yet this informing itself is untrue- such as a person being described as a Doctor yet never having been to university, or to say that he is Ayatullah whilst not having completed the stage of Suṭūh for example. So these descriptions at times could entail a form of lying, misconstruing or such things. Thus we must be wary of all of these titles and scenarios; so that the human being does not fall into a legalistic or ethical issue. Just as how if a non-usage of these descriptions entailed a degree of rudeness then this would also be incorrect, it could even be deemed impermissible if it necessitated insult. As for if the non-usage of these epithets were to be a consequence of the person’s non-conviction of them or along those lines, then in this circumstance this is not unethical- and it is upon the passionate supporters of these epithets to explain their conviction of it to them.

Secondly: What is to be demanded is the establishment of organised formulations for the epithet movement in the midst of the religious institution and other places. Just how there is a teaching assistant, teacher, assistant, professor and others… They are titles that at the end of the day are granted in an organised legal manner, even if we have seen instances where some people have unfortunately played with them. In kind, it is also demanded of the religious seminaries to have formalised the specific criteria that allow a person to reach a certain rank in clear terms, so that this does not become a matter that is reduced into unordered relativity, with the most prominent example of this being epithets such as: al-Fāḍil, Ayatullah, Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma or al-Mujtahid and others… For if there are official protocols which are assumed by all and are highly-neutral in nature, which confer specific descriptions that depict a person’s qualifications in an accurate manner, then we would not have witnessed the chaos that we see today at times, although this is a matter that I view to be quite difficult to fulfil in the foreseeable and near future. However, it is an idea that I put forward so that it may be discussed and not more than that- whilst my aim is to work to prevent these epithets from being stolen by those who do not deserve them.

Thirdly: The epithets that people possess differ, for there are titles that simply are descriptions such as: Religious scholar, physicist, chemist, pharmacist, doctor, carpenter, builder, president, minister, schoolteacher, lecturer, assistant, headteacher, receptionist, administrator, activist, coach, player, director, producer, actor, politician and… These epithets in and of themselves have no issue as long as they clash with a religious or ethical notion in a certain circumstance as we have highlighted earlier; because these descriptions are derived – generally- based on the nature of the job of their possessors. The schoolteacher is someone who practices the profession of teaching, thus he is a schoolteacher- and thereby these descriptions would be something very normal whilst not carrying any negative or unrealistic meaning. This is what most people and societal conventions work around too and they do not feel that any additional meaning is carried by this term other than the nature of the work carried out by its practitioner, finding it to be fit for its possessor generally.

Except that there is another strain of epithets that carry a greater meaning than simply being an Ism Faʿil (Noun of Agency) or a professional title derived from a job. This form of epithet generally is not vague in nature and so that we do not detract too much we’ll mention an example: al-Mufakkir or al-Mufakkir al-Kabīr, if this word was simply understood in the manner that an Ism Faʿil (Noun of Agency) is, then it would be employed for all people. However, in this case it is not taken as such, rather it is trying to indicate to a high degree of thought that differentiates this individual from others, this degree though is not specified and is vague- thus there are no regulations in place that specify when someone is deserving of this description. Which is what allows it to be stolen or for someone to impersonate themselves as one. This type of attribute carries an extra value within it for its possessor within greater society that could transcend the person’s true natural capacity, so what is demanded here is a high degree of strictness [in employing this term]. Indeed, we have seen that in recent times the frequent usage of such epithets for individuals that perhaps have written a book or two on a particular issue here or there. I call towards a high degree of strictness in terms of using such titles that create a large gap between the people and the possessors of these epithets- as ʿAlī Ḥarb has said- which is a vague gap that may leave a negative effect on societal practice.

If we’re to refer to epithets of the religious clergy, particularly the ones that we have discussed in the Safavid period, followed by the Qajar period – the most prominent of them being the titles Ayatullah or Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma– then we would find this matter to be more clear. The problem of these epithets- in addition to their vagueness and a lack of a clear yardstick that organises what they mean or when they are conferred- is not the fact that you are coining a terminological expression, for this is your right- coin any term you desire and it is up to any scholarly institution to do such a thing. Rather, the primary issue with this form of epithet is the psychological impact from it that general society will have to bear. For during the times of the Prophets, Imams and successors they possessed simple titles during their daily life that they were deserving of. The people would call them and discuss with them using reasonable titles and they would not demand from the people to do more than that. Then today, these epithets come along relating a personality to Allah- suddenly transforming this individual into the Shadow of Allah on Earth, becoming His Grand Sign and Great Proof; such descriptions instill awe and dread in the conscience of others – even if they are accustomed to them – especially the general public. This is because these do not simply describe a scientific reality or actuality, even if it was said that this is the intended meaning- in fact its subtleties and psychological connotations demonstrate a divine dimension in this person. I have priorly published a story that I heard from our teacher, the scholar of emulation al-Sayyid Maḥmūd al-Hāshimī al-Shahrūdī (may Allah protect him) who told me that an individual in the time of al-Sayyid Muḥsin al-Ḥakīm (may Allah’s pleasure be upon him) was so in awe of the greatness of al-Sayyid Muḥsin al-Ḥakīm that this caused the term Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma to not be sufficient for him, so he addressed him [in a written manner] with the phrase: “To Allāhu al-ʿUlamāʾ (the God of the Scholars) Sayyid Muḥsin al-Ḥakīm”!!

What does this story show, regardless of its specific details? It demonstrates that the writer of the letter could not think of anything greater than Ayatullah al-ʿUẓma other than Allah Himself. In his subconscious he linked this scholar of emulation to Allah, thus is it possible to even establish intellectual freedoms in an atmosphere of this kind? Will the students of religion have the capacity to reveal- at a minimal level- their creative potential in front of such personalities, or will they live in a state of psychological intimidation due to them? Is it even demanded to present the clergy in such a manner in the first place, or are they simply normal humans that practise Ijtihād who can hit the mark and can make mistakes? Is it upon the Ummah to pardon their [religious] movement and also upon them to pardon the movement of the Ummah? Is the culture of deification [such as] Ṣadr al-Mutaʾahilīn, Ayatullah, al-Ḥakīm al-Ilāhī, al-Ḥakīm al-Mutaʾalih, Ustādh al-Bashar, al- ʿAql al-Ḥādī ʿAshar and Jāmiʿ al-Maʿqūl wa al-Manqūl a culture that is loved by the religion or is a humanistic culture loved by Allah despite it not being infallible?

The presenting of religious chiefs as being the Shadow of Allah on Earth, speaking on behalf of Allah; causing society to think they are above criticism, or that they conceive things that no-one else can conceive, or that they have a private rope that is extended to them from the Heavens to the Earth, which are all accompanied by these deifying descriptions which are according to my estimation exceeding one describing them with the word Imām; because the word Imām as understood from the general Islamic context is the one that is put forward from amongst their peers. Whilst it is understood from these [prior terms] that they are connected directly to Allah the Exalted and the good-hearted lay people consequently feel that these scholars are entrenched or close to infallibility (and we have seen attempts to coin terms that endeavour to establish a degree of infallibility for some of the allies of Allah who are not infallible, such as the phrase ‘Minor Infallibility’ or ‘Acquired Infallibility’ and others)… In my humble opinion the presentation of the clergy in this manner results in damage to the Maqāṣid (goals) that have been set down by the religion with regards to interpersonal relations, thus the religious history and literature are entirely far removed from this path.

Also, the phrase Khātim (Seal) of the Jurists, Mujtahidīn and Saints and so on, contains a lot of exaggeration whilst also suggesting that the horizon of thought has come to an end- and we have heard some discuss the end of jurisprudence after Sayyid al-Khūʾī, even some in Qum said: “There will never be someone more knowledgeable than Sayyid al-Khūʾī”, and even if this person’s words were hyperbolic- this language does not help create an inventive atmosphere within the religious institution that is always required regardless of need- just how any other scholarly institution requires this.

The matter is not regarding the linguistic meaning of the term Ayatullah, for either it is in the meaning of an Āya Takwīniyya, and all of creation is such- or an Āya in the meaning that it signifies God and every preacher for the sake of Allah is a Āya for Allah in this case even if they were not to be a religious scholar. The matter is with regards to the connoted meanings that are accompanied with these descriptions, which we do not find expresses the religion’s general orientation and neither does it preserve the safety of people’s relationships with the scholars. Hence, we do not prohibit these epithets, neither do we oppose them- but we proscribe caution in using them- viewing that it is better to use realistic titles that do not connote such deification such as the phrase al-Marjiʿ, al-Marjiʿ al-Dīnī, al-Faqīh, al-Mujtahid, al-Mufassir, al-Muḥaddith, al-Faylusūf, al-Mutakallim, al-Lughawī, al-Qāḍī, al-Muftī and other such descriptions that preserve the sanctity of these individuals on the one hand, whilst on the other hand giving them their deserved status, without creating danger on a societal, cultural, psychological or collective conscious level.

There is also another issue with these descriptions, which is that how does the one that accepts [these titles] deal with the issue? For if one seriously accepts such a thing, then that would mean this person has a high degree of narcissism, perhaps they have fallen into arrogance and self-grandeur, which are great ethical sources of devastation that one must pay heed to. For this reason, one must reflect with themselves and imagine whether or not they would become annoyed if someone did not address them with such a description? And why would they be annoyed? What is the real reason behind my annoyance? Is there not a seeming level of grandeur and greatness that is created by these descriptions, which caused Shaykh Behjat and others to trade them for the word al-ʿAbd (the slave); since they view that these descriptions are juxtaposed to humbleness that is expressed as servitude to Allah the Exalted?

In conclusion, I call for us to turn over the page of the past and establish a new stage with regards to this issue. I call for the abandonment of this culture of epithets that have come to us from the Safavid and then Ottoman periods, which was then followed by the Qajar period until today. A complete abandonment, as much as we can- even if this was done in a gradual manner, replacing them with epithets that are more realistic and humble. Whilst also preserving the necessary respect and great appreciation for these scholars in this time, may Allah have mercy upon those of them who have preceded us and preserve the remaining ones, indeed He is a Protector that is near.


  1. More about the ranks and epithets in the Safavid Era and their development – see: Dar ‘Arseh-ye Dīn wa Farhang wa Siyāsat, vol. 1, pg. 191-250; and Muqaddameh-ī bar Munāsabāt-i Dīn wa Dawlat Dar Īran ‘Asr-e Ṣafawī, by Hāṣhim Āqājarī, pg. 599-604.
  2. Iqbāl al-Aʿmāl, Vol. 1, pg. 138
  3. See: Iqbāl al-Aʿmāl, the most recent issue, published and edited by Daftare Tablighāt, Iran, Edition 1, 1415 AH, Vol. 1, pg. 148, footnote 5
  4. See: Qāmūs al-Rijāl, Vol. 9, pg. 72
  5. See: Miṣbāḥ al-Mutahajjid, al-Ṭūsī, pg. 750; Tahdhīb al-Aḥkām, Vol. 3, pg. 146; al-Mazār, al-Mufīd, pg. 94; al-Mazār, al-Mashhadī, pg. 249 and more…
  6. See: Muʿjam Rijāl al-Ḥadīth, Volume 11, pg. 106
  7. See: al-Mazār, al-Mashhadī, pg. 206; Iqbāl al-Aʿmāl, Vol. 3, pg. 130-131; al-Mazār, al-Shahīd al-Awwal, pg. 90
  8. See: Mukhtaṣar Baṣāʾir al-Darajāt, pg. 44; Tafsīr Furāt al-Kūfī, pg. 533-534; Shawāhid al-Tanzīl, al-Ḥasakānī, Vol. 2, pg. 417)
  9. See: Mukhtaṣar Baṣāʾir al-Darajāt, pg. 96-97; Manāqib Āl Abī Ṭālib, Vol. 2, pg. 294
  10. See their statements in: Muʿjam Rijāl al-Ḥadīth, Volume 5, pg. 87-88
  11. See: Mustadrak ʿIlm Rijāl al-Ḥadīth, Volume 1, pg. 436
  12. See: Tafsīr al-Qummī, Vol. 1, pg. 308-309.
  13. See: Tafsīr al-Qummī, Vol. 2, pg. 131-132
  14. See: Tafsīr al-Qummī, Vol. 2, pg. 401
  15. See: al-Mulla Hādī al-Sabzawārī, Sharḥ Mathnawī, Vol. 1, pg. 92, 389
  16. See: Shaykh al-Ṣadūq, al-Amālī, pg. 92
  17. See: Dalāʾil al-Imamah, pg. 210; Faraj al-Mahmūm, pg. 111; al-ʿAqd al-Naḍīd wa al-Durr al-Farīd, pg. 38
  18. See: Nawādir al-Muʿjizāt, pg. 42; ʿUyūn al-Muʿjizāt, pg. 31-32
  19. See: al-Ṭābarānī, al-Muʿjam al-Kabīr, Vol. 10, pg. 240; al-Qandūzī, Yanābīʿ al-Mawadda li-Dhiwī al-Qurbā, Vol. 2, pg. 171
  20. See: Muṭaharrī, Majmūʿat Āthār, Vol. 29, pg. 552
  21. See: Beheshtī, Bāyed-hā wa Nabāyed-ha, Amr beh Ma’rūf wa Nahī az Munkar az Dīdgāh-e Qurān, pg. 33.
  22. See: Beheshtī, Ittiḥādīyeh Anjuman-hāye Islāmī Dānishjūyān dar Urūbā, pg. 134
  23. See: Beheshtī, Wilāyat-e Rahbarī wa Rūḥānīyat, pg. 377, 385, 387-388, 390-391
  24. See: Muṭahharī, Majmūʿat Āthār (Majmūʿat al-Aʿmāl al-Kāmila), Vol. 29, pg. 552-555
  25. See: Muḥammadī Rayshahrī, Zamzame ʿIrfān, pg. 272.
  26. Ibid., pg. 14