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Ayatollah (from the Arabic: آية الله (āyatu allah), meaning "Sign of Allah") is a term for someone with a great deal of learning in the Shi'a branch of Islam. All that it implies is a great deal of study and knowledge of doctrine and of the sacred writings of Shi'ism. Ayatollahs have the power to issue edicts on matters of interpretation, as well as to teach and to act as judges.
In Shi'ite Islamic nations, the ayatollahs are the supreme arbiters of power. For example, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor of Khomeini, is the "Supreme Leader" of Iran. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has some influence over economic policy, but he does not command the army, nor the internal security forces, and his influence over foreign policy remains subject to the approval of Khamenei.
In Islam generally, a mujtahid is an Islamic scholar who is competent to interpret divine law (sharia) in practical situations using ijtihad (independent thought). The equivalent rank for a woman is mujtahida, though given the… nature of fundamentalist Islam, it is not often seen.
- Mehdi Khalaji, Iran's Leaders Emphasize Limitations of the Nuclear Agreement. Washington Institute, 25 November 2013.