The Associated Press reports that Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr has gone back to his studies of Shiite law and jurisprudence in Najaf. He began work toward becoming an independent jurisprudent (mujtahid) in 2000 under the supervision of Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad (an Afghan grand ayatollah), AP says, but since 2003 his political duties have taken him away from his studies.
I should explain some things about how the system works. The study toward becoming a mujtahid or jurisprudent is not the same as becoming an ayatollah. An independent jurisprudent has the degrees (“permissions” from his teachers to teach the books he mastered with them). He can engage in independent legal thinking and is forbidden to blindly follow any other cleric– unlike the laity without a formal training in Shiite law, who are commanded to ‘emulate’ or obey implicitly the rulings of a trained religious jurisprudent.
You can be an independent jurisprudent without being an ayatollah. Muqtada probably does not really hold the rank of hujjatu’l-Islam, though many of his followers refer to him that way out of respect. Ayatollah, in turn, is a fairly senior rank you would reach after many years of teaching and writing. You have to produce a manual of ritual and legal practice for the laity, or Tawdih al-Masa’il (clarification of issues). You have to have a fair following among laypeople. And you have to enjoy the esteem of the already-existing ayatollahs. (It helps, but it is not a prerequisite, to be from a prominent clerical family or to be a putative descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, or Sayyid.)
Even if he finishes his studies and becomes a mujtahid or independent jurisprudent, Muqtada al-Sadr would under ordinary circumstances be many years away from becoming an ayatollah. It is not
even clear that Muqtada is capable of producing the kind of detailed scholarship that ordinarily is necessary to win the title of ayatollah. He does not have the reputation of deep scholar.
It may be that Muqtada’s political position will cause people to call him an ayatollah before he really earns the rank, but that will be a political effect, not an ordinary working of the religious hierarchy.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Muqtada’s rival who is much his senior in age, is much more likely to become an ayatollah in the next decade.
Above mere ‘ayatollah’ is the position of Grand Ayatollah. There are four persons with this rank in Najaf. There are a limited number of Grand Ayatollahs in the world. Since the rank is by popular acclamation, there are disputes about who has reached that level.