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Mullah/Mula/Molla ( , Judeo-Persian/Bukhori: מולא) is generally used to refer to a Muslim man, educated in Islamic theology and sacred law. The title, given to some Islamic clergy, is derived from the Arabic word mawla, meaning "vicar", "master" and "guardian". In large parts of the Muslim world, particularly Iranmarker, Bosniamarker, Afghanistanmarker, Turkeymarker, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, it is the name commonly given to local Islamic clerics or mosque leaders.

The title has also been used in some Jewish communities to refer to the community's leadership, especially religious leadership.

It is primarily understood in the Muslim world as a term of respect for a religiously educated man.

Training and duties

Ideally, a trained mullah will have studied Islamic traditions (hadith), and Islamic law (fiqh). They are often hafiz, i.e. have memorized the Qur'an. However, uneducated villagers often recognize a literate Muslim with a less than complete Islamic training as their "mullah" or religious cleric. Mullahs with varying levels of training lead prayers in mosques, deliver religious sermons, and perform religious ceremonies such as birth rites and funeral services. They also often teach in a type of Islamic school known as a madrasah. This triumvirate of knowledge is applied mostly in interpreting Islamic texts (i.e. the Quran, Hadiths, etc.) for matters of Shariah, i.e. Islamic law.


The term is most often applied to Shi'ite clerics, as Shi'a Islam is the predominant tradition in Iran. However, the term is very common in Urdu, spoken throughout Pakistanmarker, and it is used throughout the Indian subcontinent for any Muslim clergy, Sunni or Shi'a. Muslim clergy in Russiamarker and other former Soviet Republics are also referred to as mullahs, regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shi'a.

It has been used among Persian Jews, Bukharan Jews, Afghani Jews and other Central Asian Jews to refer to the community's religious and/or secular leadership.

The term is seldom used in Arabic-speaking areas, where its nearest equivalent is shaykh (implying formal Islamic training), imam (prayer leader; not to be confused with the Imams of the Shiite world), or `ālim (plural `ūlamā') (scholar; see ulema). In the Sunni world, the concept of "cleric" is of limited usefulness, as authority in the religious system is relatively decentralized.

The term is frequently used in English, although English-speaking Muslim clergy rarely call themselves mullahs. It was adopted from Urdu by the British rulers of India and subsequently came into more widespread use.

Mullahs have frequently been involved in politics, but only recently have they actually taken power. Islamists seized power in Iran in 1979, and later, in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Usage as a derogatory term


Until early 20th century, the term mullah was used in Iranian hawzas (seminaries) to refer to low-level clergy who specialized in telling stories of Ashura, rather than teaching or issuing fatwas. Today, the term mullah is sometimes used as a derogatory term for any Islamic cleric. It is common in Iran to refer to an ayatollah or other high level clerics, as a mullah, to ridicule his religious authority. In recent years, at least among Shia mullahs, the term ruhani (spiritual) has been promoted as an alternative to mullah and akhoond, free of pejorative connotations.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

In Afghanistan & Pakistanmarker, the word is used to refer to any person of religious orientation with whom secularists might not agree.

See also


  1. See for example: Rabbinic Succession in Bukhara 1790-1930,
  2. Momen, Moojan, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, Yale University Press, 1985, p.203

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