What is Marjaeya?

What do marjaeya and marja’ mean?

The marjaeya is a religious authority. A marja’ is a jurist who gives religious rulings based on Islamic teachings.

The word marja’ (Arabic: مَرْجَع) literally means “source”. This source may be a person, an entity, a system, or anything else. Islam regards a Marja’ is as a “source to follow”. It is a religious title given to a religious scholar of a high position who is capable of issuing verdicts (fatwa) based on an expert study of Islamic holy texts. The Marja’ acquires this level as a result of many years of scholarly research and advancement in matters of Islamic study, particularly Islamic practical laws.

The position of the marja’ is called marjaeya (Arabic: مَرْجَعِيَّة). The marjaeya is the highest religious authority amongst Muslims after the level of Imamate. The infallible Imams established this position after Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and it became an essential concept during the age of occultation of the twelfth Imam al-Mahdi (p) since 325 AH (940 AD). Expert scholars in the Islamic seminary (hawzah, Arabic: حَوْزَة) can recognize a marja’. They may recognize him through several different ways, such as by his teachings, his students’ levels, his books and works of research, or by the recognition of other jurists – including his teacher(s) – verbally or in a written document. At this stage, he is called a jurist (mujtahid, Arabic مُجْتَهِد), and believers may follow his rulings. Thus, he technically becomes a marja’, since Muslims started following his verdicts. To be certain of following the religion and God’s teachings properly during the occultation of Imam al-Mahdi (p), it is an obligation to follow the most knowledgeable jurist with a high level of piety. When the majority follows a marja’, he will be recognized as the highest marja’ (marja’ al-A’laa, Arabic: المرجع الأعلىin the Islamic world.

The main role of the marja’ during the occultation of the twelfth Imam al-Mahdi (p) is limited to the following:

1.      Teaching and enlightening:

The marja’ has the responsibilities of having a complete understanding of the mission of the religion of Islam, teaching it on different levels, and defending it by answering any type of question or critique. Seminaries throughout history show us the main foundation for this mission. For example, Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (p), (702-765 AD), had over nine hundred students, and every one of them was a teacher for a group of scholars in Kufa, Iraq. Another example is the late marja’ Sayyid Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei (1899-1992 AD), who had over one thousand students, and more than one hundred of them had attained the status of “jurist” from his school during his lifetime. This wealth of knowledge builds, sustains, and empowers the religious teachings of Islam and keeps it standing. It is the first of the marja’s priorities.

2.      Issuing rulings and judgments:

The marja’ is responsible for issuing verdict(s) pertaining to all matters of religion, such as prayer, fasting, charity, human rights, marriage, divorce, and death. The marja’ is also responsible for solving all types of disputes that may arise between any individuals or groups of his followers. His judgment is considered as the final word and must be fulfilled by all parties, without objection or rejection.  

3.      Being the authority:

The marja’ is responsible for leading and guiding his followers through his knowledge and verdicts along with his wisdom and high level of “piety”. There are various opinions and arguments about the limitations of the authority of the jurist and how far its reach should be. During the past thousand years, the majority of scholars and jurists who were knowledgeable in this subject matter believed that the qualified marja’ had the general authority on behalf of the twelfth Imam al-Mahdi (p) over all Muslims, regardless of race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, or geographic borders. It is essentially a spiritual relationship between the followers and their religious leader that covers all their religious needs, such as authority over orphans, authority over the unjust husband who does not fulfill his wife’s rights and abstains from divorcing her, authority over all charitable dues (such as khums, zakat, and sadaqa), and authority over public religious entities such as mosques. 

The power and influence of the marja’

The power and influence of the marja’ results from the following:

1.      The command from the infallible Imams (p) to the Muslims to follow their religious leaders in the Imams’ absence and whenever pious jurists give guidance, verdicts, and orders Muslims should consider them to be on behalf of the infallible Imams (p).

2.      The spiritual bond and relationship between jurists and their followers.

3.      Political and financial independence. Jurists, in Islamic Shia Muslim theological belief, cannot have an allegiance to any government. Likewise, from a financial perspective, the religious authority meets its needs through internal financial resources which are given by the followers as religious dues.  

About the Religious Authority

Priorities of the Religious Authority in the Time of Occultation

Based on the important role the religious authority plays in the time of Imam Mahdi’s occultation, there are a set of priorities that the religious authority must attend to in order to preserve this entity and the accompanying trust and responsibilities. In the present time, the most important of these priorities are:

1. Educating the seminary faculty

The importance of the religious authority and its respective role is primarily underscored by the presence of [and the need for] jurists. Jurisprudential acuity is only achieved after many years of studying, teaching, researching, discussing, and debating various religious topics within the seminary. Hence, it is necessary for the jurist to give his full attention to those measures that secure and strengthen the Islamic seminary and preserve its knowledge, teachers, and students so that its scholarly movement and perpetual yield of jurists remains uninterrupted, which is crucial because they have been assigned the responsibility of carrying the religion. It has been narrated that Imam Ali bin Musa al-Rida (p) said, “The jurist (faqih) is the one who imparts to others his goodness, saves them from their enemies, spreads God’s bounty upon them, and becomes the intermediary by which they gain God’s pleasure. And it is said to the jurist [on the Day of Judgement], ‘O’ you who have sheltered the orphans of the family of Muhammad (pbuh&hp), and the one who has been a guide for those who love and follow them, stand and intercede for anyone who has gained or learned from you.” He does so and then enters Paradise with thousands of servants [of God] who either learned his knowledge, learned from those who learned from him, or those who learned from them, up until the Day of Judgement. Thus, witness how much he has earned in return for what he achieved between the worlds (i.e., this world and the next).[1]

2. Propagating the true religion

Presenting the true religion in its purest, unblemished, and most authentic form, which  conforms to human nature in every way, is one of the most important priorities of the religious authority. This is achieved by utilizing various means of spreading knowledge and awareness, including efforts aimed at debunking suspicious claims [about Islam], refuting any attempts to slander the faith, and by supporting believers who are less firm [in their faith] and are in constant need of an authentic source that points out the truth to them. It has been narrated from Imam al-Sadiq (p) that he has said, “The scholar must reveal and spread his knowledge if  innovations appear, because if he does not, the light of faith will be plundered [by those who seek to corrupt it].”[2] The Imam also said “The scholars amongst our Shia are like stationed guards who protect against Satan and his minions who harbor hatred for the Ahl al-Bayt (p). They prevent them from targeting and assaulting Shia who are weak [in faith]. Therefore, those of our Shia who takes this upon themselves is better than those who fought the Romans, the Ottomans, and the Khazars a thousand and thousand times, because the former are protecting the religion of our lovers while the latter are only defending their bodies (i.e., personal interests).”[3]

3. Supervising the affairs and interests of Muslims

One of the priorities of the jurists who have assumed a position of authority is to monitor the condition and situation of Muslims, the state of their countries, their interests, and contending with those who wish evil upon Islam, the well-being of the Muslims, and their countries. As such, they assume the responsibility of providing advice, guidance, and direction in various social and political matters, and even have to resort to intervening and confronting if necessary, as was the case in the Iraqi constitution and elections.[4] Similar instances of when the religious authority took such positions and issued a ruling concerning the protection of Muslims, their interests, and their lands include the Tobacco Protest in 1890 in Iran[5], the Iraqi revolt of 1920[6], and the fight against ISIS in 2014 in Iraq[7].

4. Preserving the Islamic seminary’s autonomy

Maintaining the Islamic Seminary’s independence in [religious] decision-making and  ensuring its immunity from the influence of any government or external authority, no matter the pressure and threat, is another priority of the religious authority. During the period of occultation, the trustworthy jurists have been subjected to various types of constraint, abuse, displacement, exile, prison, torture, humiliation, and even murder. They always bravely stood their ground, never gave up, and protected this legacy so Islam, its immense heritage, the valuable traditions that have been passed down, and its true teachings remain preserved. Looking back at the history of the religious authority, we see that it contributed and sacrificed [immeasurably] , and suffered deprivation and scarcity in resources and support, and faced various policies of marginalization, exclusion, and oppression. Yet, after all these years, we still see this entity working at its best, serving its cause in the loftiest of manners. This proves to us that it must be under God’s watch, and under Imam Mahdi’s care and prayers. Otherwise such an entity would not be able to continue under these conditions.

5. Preserving the independence of the economic decisions made by the seminary

The jurists place a high importance on the seminary’s economic independence, no matter the resulting financial hardship, scarcity, and difficult circumstances. These trustworthy jurists abstain from accepting any gifts from governments, civil authorities, or foreign entities. They rely entirely on the religious dues given to them by the believers who seek to discharge their religious obligations by paying zakat, khums, and other types of religious dues. Thus, the seminary remains free from any outside influence and pressure.

The Religious Authority’s Approach to Dealing with Public Affairs

Based on the aforementioned significance of the religious authority, its role, and its priorities, it is clear that it operates with a specific approach in dealing with public affairs in order to preserve fairness, wisdom, and rationality in all its decisions. The features of this approach are as follows:

  1. The religious authority adheres to a rational method in examining the de facto circumstances, diagnosing the issue at hand, formulating a solution, and finally, implementing a plan and taking a certain position.[8]
  2. Peaceful coexistence of people from different sects of Islam, such as Sunnis and Shia, and with people of different religions.[9]
  3. Respect for the country’s agencies and institutions that have been formed by the people. This applies to the military, security apparatus, political entities, and social and administrative branches.[10] This includes prohibiting the usurpation of property and violation of the law of the land.[11]
  4. The view that the Shia must integrate in the land in which they live. This means they allow the lawmakers of their country to appropriately manage their affairs without interfering except if asked to do so or  if they deem it necessary based on their circumstances.[12] In fact, in some non-Muslim countries, and for the sake of the greater Muslim good, Muslims may be required to take political positions, affiliate with parties, and join ministries and parliaments. Such decisions must [only] be taken after experts have analyzed the situation of the Muslims therein and confirmed the need for Muslim involvement for some benefit.[13]
  5. To not get involved in the details of politics and leave its administration to political specialists and experts. Rather, the only pretext for getting involved in crucial matters that concern the nation as a whole is the inability of the political powers to solve the problems or provide solutions for them.[14]

Responsibility of the believers towards the jurists, the seminary, and the religious authority during the time of occultation.

The believers have a number of responsibilities and duties they must fulfill in order to achieve the lofty goals that foster their honor and status by protecting the religion  God has sent through his prophets and messengers to keep them on the straight path. This complements the sacrifices of the jurists and their vigilance over the interests of Islam and Muslims. Hence, the religious authority recommends a number of things, including:

  1. Opponents have realized the importance, position, and role that the religious authority plays, particularly the religious authority in Najaf. Moreover, they know that the religious authorities in the holy cities of Qom and Najaf have maintained a harmonious relationship, which is something they do not want.[15] They also know the religious authority’s role in clarifying the purpose and application of Islamic laws, educating people, and guiding them to the righteous path of religion. As such, the purpose behind such various campaigns, which are continuous and unabating, and are intensively trying to smear and taint Shiism, becomes evident. The aim is to overthrow or disable the religious authority and sever the people from the scholars, thus making it easier to defeat Shiism.[16]
  2. One of the most important ways that the opponents of Shiism are trying to achieve this goal is by targeting the seminary of the holy city of Najaf and tainting its significance in the Shia community and the Islamic world. The seminary of the holy city of Najaf has a special status because it has been the stronghold and the source of religious knowledge and heritage for more than a thousand years. There is not a single religious scholar who is not indebted, either directly or indirectly, to the seminary of Najaf. Therefore, it is constantly targeted by enemies because they know that destroying it means eradicating the past, the present, and the future of Shiism.[17]
  3. The necessity of staying vigilant and cautious to the propaganda, rumors, and allegations that are spread and circulated by enemies. These are usually presented in various subtle, yet appealing ways, and must be recognized so one does not fall in the trap of believing in and spreading them. It is necessary to be aware, pay attention, and refer to the pious scholars to verify and be certain of everything that is said about them and this ancient seminary in order to uncover the true facts and not get involved in matters that diminish its rights and its reputation.[18]
  4. The believers must always defend the religious authority, and not just because a particular scholar should be defended, but rather because of the importance of the religious authority as an immutable and public institution.[19] Defending the religious authority means defending the religion and the sect, because the source of its strength is a group of current and active religious authority that is intimately familiar with the era and culture it is in, and knows how to navigate and guide the people as needed. [20]

[1]. Al-Tabarasi, al-Ihtijaj, vol.1, p.9.

[2]. Al-Tabarasi, al-Ghayba, vol.1, p.88.

[3]. Al-Tabrasi, al-Ihtijaj, vol.2, p.5.

[4]13. A fatwa was issued on 20 of Rabi al-Akhir 1424 AH following the decision of the occupation forces to select and assign a permanent constitution for Iraq, which ended the temporary government and assigned a new, permanent government based on that constitution. When the religious authority noticed the seriousness of the situation and saw how this decision would legitimize putting the law of the country in the hands of foreigners, which in turn would allow for the confiscation of the rights and resources of the people of Iraq, it issued a famous fatwa on that day. That fatwa declared that this decision was not religiously permissible and emphasized that writing of the constitution should be undertaken by the Iraqis and must then be presented to the Iraqi people for ratification. See here for more information regarding what followed: www.sistani.org/arabic/archive/273

[5]14. In 1890, Nasir al-Din Shah signed an agreement to limit the Iranian tobacco trade to a British company for fifty years. Accordingly, the right to buy and sell tobacco and any related products was taken from the Iranian people, 20% of whom worked in that sector, and was given to Britain instead. The agreement faced overwhelming national opposition from religious scholars, who considered it a threat to their country’s future independence. A number of scholars tried to persuade the Shah to reconsider the agreement, but to no avail. So, the scholars, led by Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, went to the great religious authority of the time, Mirza Muhammad Hassan al-Shirazi, who was residing in Samarra, and explained the matter to him to find a solution.  Ayatollah Shaykh al-Shirazi initially sent several letters to the Shah asking him to cancel the agreement and stop its continuation, but the Shah rejected these demands. When Shaykh al-Shirazi gave up on convincing the Shah, he issued his famous fatwa and prohibited tobacco, stating, “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful: today, the use of tobacco in any way is considered a form of fighting the Imam of our time, may God hasten his reappearance”. The Iranians adhered to the fatwa and destroyed all ways of consuming tobacco, such as hookahs and other ways of using it. Moreover, all the tobacco shops closed. When the Shah failed to keep his deal and achieve his objective, which led to violence and aggression, the Shah was forced to  annul the agreement with the British company after paying a fine of half a million gold liras.

[6]15. After months of British occupation of Iraq and the escalation of the people’s resistance in many areas of Iraq, especially Baghdad, the revolutionaries were joined by a large number of scholars and great jurists. They united and convened a historic meeting on the night of the middle of Sha’ban 1338 AH (April 21, 1920 CE) in the presence and under the leadership of the religious authority Ayatollah Shaykh Mirza al-Shirazi. He blessed their efforts and authorized them to fight to defend the country and the people, advising them to protect them, their wealth, and the honor of all sects and ethnicities alike. The people’s revolution set out to fight the British forces and severely defeated them. The British had to surrender and give up to the existing government of Iraq that ruled.  The strange thing is that Shaykh Shirazi passed away on the thirteenth of Dhul-Hijjah of the same year as a result of being poisoned. He was buried in Karbala, but the people were stunned and confused.

[7]16. Following the terrorist ISIS invasion of the city of Mosul and occupation of vast areas in western Iraq, the religious authority in Najaf, representing Sayyid al-Sistani, confronted the situation and issued a famous fatwa, which was announced during the Friday prayer sermon in the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussain (p) in Karbala by his representative on the 5th of Sha’ban 14 AH. The fatwa stated, “The nature of the situation and the dangers facing Iraq and its people at the present time requires defending the country, its people, and the honor of its citizens. This defense is considered an obligation upon a sufficient number of citizens as is needed to fulfill the task (wajib kifai). Hence, the citizens who are able to pick up arms and fight the terrorists in defense of their country, their people, and their sanctities, must volunteer to join the army and defense forces to achieve this sacred objective.” Source: [https://www.sistani.org/arabic/archive/24918]. This fatwa led to thousands of people to volunteer to support and strengthen the defense forces and the Iraqi army to confront ISIS. Victory was achieved by completely eradicating them and was officially declared on the twenty-sixth of Rabi’ al-Awwal in the year 1439 AH. Source: [https://www.sistani.org/Arabic/archive/25876]

[8]17. 13 Shawwal 1425 AH, from a confirmed and documented discourse by His Eminence to some scholars during a visit.

[9]18. 12 Muharram 1441 AH ( September 12, 2019) https://www.sistani.org/files-new/Archeives/1441h/12-9-2019.pdf

[10]19. 12 Muharram 1441 AH (September 12, 2019) https://www.sistani.org/files-new/Archeives/1441h/12-9-2019.pdf

[11]20. 27 Ramadan 1418 AH, from the Sayyid’s book Al-fiqh li al-mughtaribin (A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West), p.167 and onward. https://www.sistani.org/arabic/book/17/960

[12]21. 12 Muharram 1441 AH (September 12, 2019) https://www.sistani.org/files-new/Archeives/1441h/12-9-2019.pdf

[13]22. 27 Ramadan 1418, from the Sayyid’s book Al-fiqh li al-mughtaribin (A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West), p.171. https://www.sistani.org/arabic/book/17/960

[14]23. 12 Muharram 1441 AH (September 12, 2019) https://www.sistani.org/files-new/Archeives/1441h/12-9-2019.pdf

[15]24. 13 Shawwal 1435 AH, from a confirmed and documented discourse by His Eminence to some scholars during a visit

[16]25.Sunday, 22 Jumada al-Ula 1435 AH, from a confirmed and documented discourse by His Eminence to some scholars during a visit.

[17]26. Ibid.

[18]27. Ibid

[19]28. Ibid

[20]29. 13 Shawwal 1435 AH, from a confirmed and documented discourse by His Eminence to some scholars during a visit.