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Ayatollah (UK or US ; Persian: آيتالله ayatollah from Arabic: آية الله, āyatu allah "Sign of Allah") is a high-ranking title given to Usuli Twelver Shī‘ah clerics. Those who carry the title are experts in Islamic studies such as jurisprudence, ethics, and philosophy and usually teach in Islamic seminaries. The next lower clerical rank is Hojatoleslam wal-muslemin.
The name "ayatollah" originates from the Quran where the Shi'a, unlike the Sunni, interpret that human beings can also be regarded as signs of God, the literal translation of the title. 51:20–21 of the Quran states:
On the earth are signs (Ayat) for those of assured Faith,
As also in your own selves: Will ye not then see?
The title is currently granted to top Shia mujtahid, after completing sat'h and kharij studies in the hawza. By then the mujtahid would be able to issue his own edicts from the sources of Islamic religious laws: the Qur'an, the Sunnah, ijmāʻ, and 'aql ("intellect", rather than the Sunnī principle of qiyas). Most of the time this is attested by an issued certificate from his teachers. The ayatollah can then teach in hawzas (shia seminaries) according to his speciality, can act as a reference for their religious questions, and act as a judge. There is an important difference from Shi'a ayatollahs and "saints" in other religions: ayatollahs are not regarded as enlightened by God Himself, but by the Word of God.
There are a few women who are equal in ranking to the ayatollahs, and are known as Lady Mujtahideh. The most outstanding in recent history was Nosrat Amin, also known as Banu Isfahani, the Lady from Isfahan.  A current example of a Lady Mujtahideh is Zohreh Sefati. Historically, there have been several Mujtahidehs in Shi'ism, most famously the women in the family of Allama Hilli, as well as the Baraghani family of 19th century Qazvin.
Only a few of the most important ayatollah are accorded the rank of Grand Ayatollah (Ayatollah Uzma, "Great Sign of God"). This usually happens when the followers of one of the ayatollahs refer to him in many situations and ask him to publish his Juristic book in which he answers the vast majority of daily Muslim affairs. The book is called Resalah, which is usually a reinvention of the book Al-Urwatu l-Wuthqah, according to their knowledge of the most authentic Islamic sources and their application to current life.
There are around 70 living worldwide, including Ali Khamenei, Ali Sistani, Mohammad Yaqoobi, Hossein Vahid Khorasani, Makarem Shirazi, Yousef Sane'i, Malakouti, Haeri, and Sadiq Shirazi. Currently there are six grand ayatollahs in Najaf, Iraq, center of the Iraqi Shi'i seminaries or Hawzas; the most senior is Ali al-Sistani. Other grand ayatollahs based in Najaf include Mohammad Yaqoobi, Basir Najafi, Mohammad Saeed Al-Hakim and Mohammad Ishaq Al-Fayyad.
- See Mirjam Künkler and Roja Fazaeli, “The life of two mujtahidas: Female religious authority in 20th century Iran,” in Masooda Bano and Hilary Kalmbach (eds.) Women, Leadership and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority, Brill Publishers, 2011, 127-160.
- Official website at sefaty.net