1.A high-ranking Shiite religious authority regarded as worthy of imitation in matters of religious law and interpretation.
2.Used as a title for such a leader.
lit. Sign of God
Ayatollah is a high rank given to major Shi'a clerics. The word means 'sign of God', and those who carry the title are experts in Islamic studies such as jurisprudence, ethics, philosophy and mysticism, and usually teach in schools (hawza) of Islamic sciences. The next lower clerical rank is Hojat-ol-Islam ("authority on Islam").
The rank is granted by consensus, rather than ceremonially: an esteemed religious scholar who has earned the respect and admiration of his teachers for his knowledge and behavior after completing his Hawza studies. By then he would be able to issue his own edicts from the sources of religious laws (Quran, Sunna, Ijma'e, Aql). Most of the time this is attested by an issued certificate from his teachers. This Ayatollah then can teach in religious Hawza according to his speciality and can act as a reference for their religious questions and as a judge.
Only a few of the most important Ayatollahs are accorded the rank of Grand Ayatollah (ayat ullahi 'l-`udhma, "great sign of God"), or Marja al-taqlid ("reference for emulation"). This usually happens when the followers of one of the ayatollahs refer to him in many situations and ask hi...