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Hosseini Nassab at the Islamic Shia Ithna-Asheri Jamaat centre in Toronto on March 30, 2010.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

What does it take to become Grand Ayatollah these days? Just ask Seyed Reza Hosseini Nassab.

The controversial Toronto cleric has put his name up for consideration, hoping to be one of seven or eight legal heavyweights, or marjas, in the Shia world. "People are telling me that he's declared himself a marja," says Mashal Kara, a Shia community activist and University of Toronto graduate student. "There's a procedure. It's kind of like getting a degree. You can't just wake up one morning and call yourself a marja."

The stakes for his constituency are not small: people who follow a false or uncredentialed marja do not get credit for their prayers. It is as if their dreams, hopes and faith were in the hands of a rogue postman. Next to the Koran, the Prophet and the imams, the marja occupies the highest position in the life of his people, bestowing him the authority to issue rulings that can have the effect of Koranic law for his fellow 150-200 million co-religionists. But the nature of Mr. Hosseini Nassab's higher calling has divided the city's Shia population.

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As his critics see it, one can't just proclaim oneself one of the most powerful jurists in the Muslim world and leave it at that. The requirements must be clearly stated somewhere, even if it is in complex Arabic. Surely Shia scholars are trying to resolve the issue.

Few, if any, Shiites find fault with his scholarship. Instead, it might be his brazenness.

Mr. Hosseini Nassab presents an unusual quandary in the Shia world. Syed Muhammad Rizvi, who runs the Islamic Shia Ithna-Asheri Jama'at of Toronto, an organization which includes Canada's largest mosque, called the situation unprecedented. "I have no way of predicting an outcome because I have nothing to compare it to in all my years living in this city."

Despite Mr. Hosseini Nassab's numerous accomplishments and ardent supporters, detractors say that if this 49-year-old thinker and author wants the title, he should be in Qom, the philosophical hotbed of Shiism from which Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini launched the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Or why not Najaf, the Iraqi home of the venerated Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani? The idea of someone with such major religious aspirations west of the Mediterranean eludes them.

Recently, at a mosque near Bayview and Steeles, Mr. Hosseini Nassab said that he prefers to live in Toronto, which has the highest concentration of Muslims (5 per cent) and the second-largest Iranian community in North America.

If he lived in Qom, he says, he'd be singly devoted to a seminary and its students. But he left Qom a long time ago, he says, and here he has greater freedom to write books - he has written 50 - and tend to his pastoral work; preparing his lectures requires only four or five hours per week.

His followers tend to be conservative, sometimes wealthy new arrivals from Iran. Ten academics from around the city regularly attend, he says. Any questions directed his way are about culture, ethics, family, school, and social ills.

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"In Qom, I cannot help people more than here," says Mr. Hosseini Nassab, who also speaks Persian, Arabic and some German. "But here in Canada, you face not only the students but also the normal people."

Plus, the seemingly low-key thinker adds ruefully, "I don't want to live in Iran."

In conversation, he repeatedly identifies himself as a "clergyman," nothing grander, but admits to defining himself as a marja.

The cardinal rule for being anointed Grand Ayatollah is that there is no single or true path to success. One cannot formally apply. Grandstanding might hinder one's chances. Typically, one graduates to the level of a very high-ranking scholar, or mujtahid (who may call himself ayatollah), before publishing a resalah, or a set of rulings.

An ayatollah is a surrogate or proxy for a superior, who is a grand ayatollah. The grand ayatollah, on the other hand, in turn draws on his followers' emulation.

Now, Hosseini Nassab, a 49-year-old father of two, is being asked to prove that he has permission from a superior to think for himself. "Regarding all the marjas, there is a debate - in and out of the theology centre, in the East or the West," he says.

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Until the 1960s, the Shia world rarely had more than one marja at a time. But when Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile and conceiving alternatives to the Shah's regime, he adapted the idea that Persia's traditionally apolitical clerics should have much greater power. The resulting concept of vilayat-e faqih - "rule of the jurists" - brought the clerics of Qom into political power.

Ayatollah Fadlallah of Lebanon, Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf, Iraq, and Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, are the three most popular marjas in Canada these days. Mr. Hosseini Nassab's following is tough to gauge, though one observer ventured it to be in the modest range of 1,000 people.

The son of a farmer born near Yazd, Iran, Mr. Hosseini Nassab first got a glimpse of this august power in 1976, arriving in Qom at the cusp of the student-driven revolution that overthrew the shah. Going there was not a difficult decision.

"I wanted to be a teacher and lecturer when I was a child," he said. During those heady times, he insists, he kept an open mind. People asked, "How do you go to different marjas with different politics?" And he said, "'Because I am seeking knowledge, not politics."

Asked if he was a revolutionary at that time, Mr. Hosseini Nassab says, recalling missiles flying into the city of shrines during the Iran-Iraq war, "I was a student at that time."

"I was going to different teachers with different directions, which is why I don't have a particular direction myself," he says.

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The very same education brought him to Toronto in 1989, where the Iranians - many of them exiles - had no one to lead Ashura, an intense and sometimes bloody commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussain, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. So he stepped in.

He stayed for several months and returned to Qom with thoughts of moving here.

Perhaps portentously, Grand Ayatollah Jaffer Sobhani, with whom he had collaborated on his first book, The Shia Responds, warned that leaving Qom would hurt his career, and may even be forbidden by Islamic law. But, in his view, Qom had enough clergymen. He was invited back to take up a permanent position, he says, and after 15-year run in Qom he decided to take up residence here, and went on to found Islamic centres in Windsor, Toronto and Ottawa.

About five years ago, he wrote his resalah, a list of rulings for potentials followers. It begins on the subject of authority, and how to know who to follow. It addresses a wide range of issues, from dealing with differing kinds of doubt during prayer to a ruling on blood transfusions, which in his view are permissible to treat disease or save a life, "whether it is the blood of a Muslim or an infidel, a man or a woman." Even bathroom etiquette is addressed. One may not point any of his orifices in Mecca's direction.

In 2007, Ayatollah had appeared alongside his name in public notices. In 2009, the title Grand Ayatollah appeared on his website.

The local response in Toronto has been skeptical. Sayed Mohammad Baqri, leader of the Council of Islamic Guidance in Pickering, and the first of this generation of Shia leaders to relocate here, in 1979, spoke out. During a lecture that did not name names, Mr. Baqri mentioned to a crowd of hundreds that Canada has no marja. To become a marja, he later added, you have to study in Qom or Najaf for 15 or 20 years. Only the mujtahid in Najaf and Qom can proclaim a marja.

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The controversy lit up the popular forum shiachat.com. Participants debated a certificate awarded to Hosseini Nassab in Qom in 1991 calling him "one of the outstanding instructors of this school," and debated the merits of the handwritten letters from Mr. al-Sistani and other marjas that authorized Nassab to collect taxes for good works - common among local clerics. Several websites emerged in the winter warning of "facts of a false claim."

In October, a letter signed by several leading scholars in Toronto and Montreal was addressed to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, arguably the greatest authority in Shia Islam today. "The only way we, clerics, have been introduced to emerging Grand Ayatollahs, was through Hawzas [Islamic schools]and other Grand Ayatollahs," it reads in translation. Among several complaints, it alleges that he paid search engines to display his educational qualifications in headlines.

But endorsements materialized as well. A Facebook group of scholars from Qom included Hosseini Nassab on a list of 11 highly prominent marjas. As one man in attendance at Hosseini Nassab's mosque said, "He is a marja, but he is not famous."

The father of two boys who drives a 1999 Camry, the Grand Ayatollah - if you will - points out that Mr. al-Sistani also had doubters until recently. But he also recognizes that a resalah does not a marja make. A marja also has followers.

"My duty was to write the resalah. Their duty is to study and choose the most qualified," he says. People should read his books, he says.

Unprompted, Mr. Hosseini Nassab leans in and alludes to rumours that higher authorities had been consulted. An index finger uncrooks. He speaks slowly. "There was a question to the other marjas," he said. "But there was no answer." And for an instant, one almost glimpses an angry man.

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