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The Making of a Marjaʿ: Sīstānī and Shiʿi Religious Authority in the Contemporary Age

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Anyone considering the question of religious authority among the contemporary Shiʿa not least in Iraq will recognize the paramount significance of Ayatollah Sīstānī, described as the most important marjaʿ in the world. This paper examines the phenomenon of marjaʿiyya, considers how one becomes a marjaʿ, and traces the rise of Sīstānī to the pre-eminent position that he now holds and juxtaposes his model of leadership with other modern Shiʿi models of religious authority articulated by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and Bāqir al-Ṣadr in Iraq. Marjaʿiyya is a multivocal and in many ways a quintessentially modern institution that has proved to be highly resilient and adaptable in the face of challenges coming from globalizing modernity. In Iraq and in the region, Sīstānī has proven to be the most effective non-state wielder of authority and influence not just among believers but more widely in society and constitutes the most successful example of the Shiʿi marjaʿiyya in modern times.

Affiliations: 1: Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, Stocker Road, Exeter EX4 4ND, United Kingdom,


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