Authorized Interpreters of Islamic Law – The Shīʽa View

19 Pages Posted: 7 Sep 2017 Last revised: 15 Feb 2020

See all articles by Katariina Simonen

Katariina Simonen

University of Helsinki - Faculty of Law

Date Written: March 1, 2017


The question of who is authorized to interpret Islamic law is a difficult one due to the plurality of different schools of Islamic jurisprudence, each of which allocates the authority very differently. Yet, any dialogue in matters of Islamic law requires the correct interlocutors to be identified. This topic is as under-researched in Western legal and security-policy studies as it is important.

This study attempts to identify the correct interlocutors in legal matters under Twelver Shīʽism, which is the state religion in Iran. In terms of its legal history, such authority has developed into a hierarchical, yet pluralistic system of legal authority since the end of the 18th century, with the victory of the so-called Ușūlī school of jurisprudence and the emergence of grand jurists (marājiʽ-i taqlīd). The process of designating absolute authority continues informally, but a key prerogative is superior knowledge of Islamic law and religion.

Such grand jurists have, at times, exercised great influence over the ruling Shāhs. Other times, they have preferred to remain teachers in religious schools. An important change took place with the 1979 Islamic Revolution, through which the guardianship of the jurist (vilāyat-i faqīh) was crystallized in the Iranian constitution. Since then, grand jurists have had to accommodate another religious and political authority, the guardian jurist or supreme leader (valī-yi faqīh). To date, the division of authority between the guardian jurist and grand jurists remains unresolved. The future will depend on the strength of the requirements developed by the Ușūlī school regarding superiority in learning for any attribution of authority.

Keywords: Islamic Law, Grand Jurists, Supreme Leader, Allocation of Authority

Suggested Citation

Simonen, Katariina, Authorized Interpreters of Islamic Law – The Shīʽa View (March 1, 2017). Max Planck Institute for European Legal History Research Paper Series No. 2017-04, Available at SSRN: or

Katariina Simonen (Contact Author)

University of Helsinki - Faculty of Law ( email )

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