Wednesday, July 29, 2009

So you want to be an Ayatollah?

Becoming an ayatollah (literary "Sign of Allah") requires three cycles (halaqat) of scholarly training. The seminary student aims to reach the "age of responsibility," (qabl bulughi sin at-taklif), an intellectual-moral stage after which he is qualified to be an independent judge. Such a state of scholarly adulthood implies the ability to form opinion (rayi) on both spiritual and practical matters. There is no formal hierarchy among Shiite clerics, so graduate "degrees" come in the form of a letter, signed and stamped, acknowledging the mujtahid's permission (ijaza) to practice scholarly judgment (ijtihad). The letter affirms his maturity and integrity as a recognized scholar.

All this takes a minimum of 15 to 20 years, with each of the three cycles lasting nearly seven years. The first phase, the introduction (al-muqaddimat,) includes a study of rhetoric and logic. The second cycle, known as the externals (as-Sutuh), involves the study of major scholarly texts on Shiite jurisprudence and theology. The third stage of final discussion (dars al-Kharij) usually requires attending public lectures conducted under the supervision of a high-ranking scholar. The talks focus on specific themes within the vast array of theological discourses. It is at this final stage when the intellectual maturity of a student is recognized by his peers and instructor. During the weekly sessions, usually three to four hours a week, an outstanding student will be noticed for his scholarly abilities and declared a mujtahid.

Apparently, Sadr is somewhere at this final cycle of studies, attending tutorials (rather than lectures) under a high-ranking cleric, most likely an Arabic-speaking grand ayatollah with close-ties to Tehran.

The status of mujtahid, however, does not automatically entitle a Shiite scholar to become an ayatollah. First, the student will take on the post-graduate status of hujjatul-Islam, or defender of Islam. The boundary that separates a mid-ranking hujjatul-Islam from the higher-ranking ayatollah is usually a thin one, and changing circumstances or political situations can permit a junior mujtahid to rise in the ranks. In the early 1960s, for example, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was detained for his political activities by the shah, so Grand-Ayatollah Hossein Borujerdi, a traditional conservative cleric, granted Khomeini ayatollah status as a way to speed up his release. After the death of Khomeini in 1989, hujjatul-Islam Ali Khamenei succeeded his mentor and immediately became an ayatollah with the approval of a number of high-ranking clerics in Qom. (Foreign Policy)

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