Shi'i Islam has a clerical hierarchy. The highest-ranking ulama in the Shi'i tradition are called ayatollahs, ("signs of God") who lead the Shi'i community during the temporary absence of the hidden Imam. Individual Shi'i Muslims generally pick an ayatollah on whom they will rely for religious instruction, inspiration, and example. All individual Shi'a are required to follow the example of the marja-i taqlids ("source of emulation"). The marja-i taqlids are also called Grand Ayatollahs.
In the 19th century, the western colonial powers (Britain and France) set up western institutions of government, law, and education in traditionally Islamic lands. The authority and activities of the ulama were restricted to "religious" matters as defined by the secular colonial governments, such as rituals associated with birth, death, and marriage as well as mosque administration. In some areas, the anti-colonial resistance was led by the ulama, most famously in Iran. In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini emerged as the supreme leader in the wake of the Iranian revolution. Iran is now an Islamic state, and the Shi'i ulama control the government and legal system.
In the mid-20th century, as countries won their independence from colonial powers, they built schools based on western models. These schools have graduated new generations of scholars, educated in Quran and the religious sciences outside the traditional madrasahs. The traditional ulama and the new scholars often disagree on a number of important issues, such as questions of culture, government, international relations, and the status of women. In most areas, the influence of the traditional ulama declined in the colonial and post-colonial eras. The reformist efforts of the Islamic revivalists may reverse that decline in some areas, especially in places where the ulama have again acted as a channel for popular grievances.
1. Who is allowed to lead ritual within Islam?
2. What is an Imam?
3. Who were the ulama? How did colonialism affect their influence?