The term ayatollah did not exist 110 years ago! It is a relatively new concept.
The title `Ayatollah` was actually introduced at the time of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905 to honor those clerical leaders who signed the constitution. The term is a creation of Iran’s democratic movement!
Because of its relatively new status within Shia Islam, there remains substantial debate about the role of Ayatollahs; and precisely what they are supposed to represent.
A look through several generations of clerics in seminaries shows significant differences in viewpoints and practical approaches. When young Ruhollah Khomeini urged his mentor Ayatollah Husain Borujerdi, to oppose the Shah more openly. Broujerdi rejected his idea. He believed in the “separation” of religion from politics and state , even though he was Khomeini’s senior in rank. However just before his death Hossein Boroujerdi (d. 1961), expressed his opposition to the Shah’s plans for land reform and women’s enfranchisement. Ayatollah Ghomi Tabatabaii issued a fatwa for killing Ahmad Kasravi. Khomeini remained silent till his seniors Ayatollah Haeri or Ayatollah Boroujerdi’s, were alive.
Then he was promoted to the status of a Grand marjaa and started his activism and established his Islamic Republic eventually. Am ong Khomeini’s students, there were notable clerics whose ideas were not compatible with their mentor. As examples of the prototypes of his students one can mention Morteza Motahhari, Mohammad Beheshti and Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi. Criticizing Mesbah Yazdi and Haghani school Beheshti said: “Controversial and provocative positions that are coupled with violence, in my opinion…will have the reverse effect. Such positions remind many individuals of the wielding of threats of excommunication that you have read about in history concerning the age of the Inquisition, the ideas of the Church, and the middle Ages”. Morteza Motahhari, the most notable student of Khomeini, was widely known as the main theoretician of Iranian revolution (next to Ali Shariati).
After the revolution in February 1979, and the subsequent liquidation of the liberal and secular-leftist groups, two principal ideological camps became dominant in Iranian politics, the “conservatives” (fundamentalists) and the “radicals” (neo-fundamentalists).
The radicals’ following of Khomeini of the revolution rather than his incumbency of the office of the Supreme Jurist (Vali-eFaqih) or his theocratic vision of the “Islamic Government.” Today, Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi clearly rejects Khomeini’s “Islamic Republic” and supports the idea of “Islamic government” where the votes of people have no value.
Neo-fundamentalists believe that supreme leader is holy and infallible and the role of people and elections are merely to discover the leader. However the legitimacy of the leader comes from God and not the people, something that the ancients were made to believe like the Egyptian Pharaohs or Roman Caesars like Nero or Caligula who viewed themselves equal to God. The advocates of this stream of Islamic fundamentalism would ridicule Roman and Egyptian civilization as “Dark Ages” but would not mind in toeing the line of some of the ancient tyrants in regarding their leaders as equal to God, while blissfully oblivious that Islam believes in one and only God and regard all men and women on earth to be equal to one another.
There are currently about 20 Ayatollahs residing in several countries including Iraq, and Lebanon. Among those 20 Ayatollahs there is actually a huge disparity of view points regarding the role of a senior cleric, and the very role of clerical institutions in the political fabric of a nation. And there is a spectrum of roles from simply acting as senior educators in seminaries to taking on quasi-holy status equal to Go d.
To sum it up, there is NO established basis within Islam or the Quran for the actual role of an Ayatollah. An “Ayatollah” is an institutional fabrication to serve functional roles deemed necessary by the ambitions of a cleric and his followers within a seminary or within the nation the clerics operates in.
Ironically, it was the very democratic movement that the clerics have quashed that established their legitimacy and the very concept of an Ayatollah to begin with i.e. to give Iranian democracy a wide spectrum of support from all sectors of society including the religious establishment.
Also Ironically, while Iranians took to the streets and toppled the Shah’s regime and provided the clerics with power and money (from Iranian Oil), it now appears that another strategic goal of the clerics is to actually subvert Iranian nationality in favor of a wider Islamic identity i.e. translate their status as Iranians into a larger wider ranging role within the Middle East (using Iranian resources) i.e. make the Iranian language more Arabic, destroy symbols of Iranian heritage (ancient monuments[Pasargad], and ancient celebrations [chahar shanbeh souri])…and gain greater powers on the backs of Iranians.
Thus Iranians are being subverted by the very clerics they placed in power.