A mullah praying in Imamzadeh Hamzah, Tabriz, Iran

Mullah (/ˈmʌlə, ˈmʊlə, ˈmlə/; Persian: ملا, romanizedmullā, mollā) is an honorific title for Shia clergy and it is also an honorific title for a Muslim mosque leader.[1] The term is also sometimes used for a person who has higher education in Islamic theology and sharia law.

The title has also been used in some Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish communities in reference to the community's leadership, especially its religious leadership.[2]


The word mullah is derived from the Persian word mullā (Persian: ملا‎), itself being borrowed from Arabic word mawlā (Arabic: مَوْلَى), meaning "master" and "guardian", with mutation of the initial short vowels.[1]


Historical usage

Painting of a mullah (Muslim scholar) reading a book. Gouache by an Indian artist, c. 19th century

The term has also been used among Persian Jews, Bukharan Jews, Afghan Jews, and other Central Asian Jews to refer to the community's religious and/or secular leadership. In Kaifeng, China, the historic Chinese Jews who managed the synagogue were called "mullahs".[3]

Modern usage

It is the term commonly used for village or neighborhood mosque leaders, who may not have high levels of religious education, in large parts of the Muslim world, particularly Iran, Turkey, Caucasus, Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia,[4] Eastern Arabia, the Balkans and the Horn of Africa. In other regions a different term may be used, such as imam in the Maghreb.[4]

In Afghanistan and Pakistan the title is given to graduates of a madrasa or Islamic school, who are then able to become a mosque leader, a teacher at a religious school, a local judge in a village or town, or to perform religious rituals. A person who is still a student at a madrasa and yet to graduate is a talib. The Afghan Taliban was formed in 1994 by men who had graduated from, or at least attended, madrasas. They called themselves taliban, the plural of talib, or "students". Many of the leaders of the Taliban were titled Mullah, although not all had completed their madrasa education.[5] Someone who goes on to complete postgraduate religious education receives the higher title of Mawlawi.[6]

Mullah and its variation mulla have also degenerated into a derogatory term for a Muslim priest that connotes a semiliterate, backward, often bigoted village imam.[7][8][9][10][11][12][13]

In Iran,[14] until the early 20th century, the term mullah was used in Iranian seminaries to refer to low-level clergy who specialized in telling stories of Ashura, rather than teaching or issuing fatwas. However, in recent years, among Shia clerics, the term ruhani (spiritual) has been promoted as an alternative to mullah and akhoond, free of pejorative connotations.[15]

Training and duties

Ideally, a trained mullah will have studied the traditional Islamic sciences not limited to:

Some mullahs will specialise in certain fields after completing the above foundational studies. Common specialties are:

Such figures often have memorized the Quran and historically would memorise all the books they studied. However in the modern era they instead memorise the founding books of each field (sometimes in the form of poetry to aid memorisation).

Uneducated villagers may frequently classify 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. Three kinds of knowledge are applied most frequently in interpreting Islamic texts (i.e. the Quran, hadiths, etc.) for matters of Sharia, i.e., Islamic law.

Mullahs have frequently been involved in politics, but only recently have they served in positions of power, since Shia Islamists seized power in Iran in 1979.


Mullahs teaching children

The dress of a Mullah usually consists of a turban (Persian: عمامه ammāme), a long coat with sleeves and buttons, similar to a cassock (قبا qabā), and a long gown or cloak, open at the front (عبا abā). The aba is usually made either of brown wool or of black muslin. It is sleeveless but has holes through which the arms may be inserted. The turban is usually white, but those who claim descent from Muhammad traditionally wear a black turban.[16]

See also


  1. ^ a b Szczepanski, Kallie (16 October 2019). "Islamic Mullah". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 10 September 2021.
  2. ^ See for example: "Rabbinic Succession in Bukhara 1790–1930" Archived 7 May 2017 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Chinese and Japanese repository of facts and events in science, history and art, relating to Eastern Asia, Volume 1. Oxford: s.n. 1863. p. 48. Retrieved 6 July 2011. (Original from the University of Michigan)
  4. ^ a b Roy, Olivier (1994). The Failure of Political Islam. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 28–29. ISBN 0-674-29140-9.
  5. ^ Matinuddin, Kamal (1999). The Taliban Phenomenon: Afghanistan 1994–1997. OUP. pp. 15–16. ISBN 0195792742. Retrieved 18 September 2021.
  6. ^ Abdul Salam Zaeff (2010). My Life with the Taliban. C. Hurst. p. 302. ISBN 9781849040266. Retrieved 18 September 2021.
  7. ^ 1975, Area Handbook for Bangladesh, Page 117.
  8. ^ Sai Felicia Krishna-Hensel, Authoritarian and Populist Influences in the New Media Archived 2 November 2022 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ 1995, Religion and Society Archived 2 November 2022 at the Wayback Machine, Volume 42, Page 23.
  10. ^ Salman Shami, 2017, The Blasphemy Law Archived 2 November 2022 at the Wayback Machine.
  11. ^ Jeff Sahadeo, 2007, Russian Colonial Society in Tashkent 1865–1923 Archived 2 November 2022 at the Wayback Machine, Page 196-197.
  12. ^ Moinuddin Ahmed, 1990, Ulamā: the boon and bane of Islamic society, Page 89.
  13. ^ Pakistan Journal of History and Culture, Volumes 4–5, Page 25.
  14. ^ Algar 1987
  15. ^ Momen, Moojan, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, Yale University Press, 1985, p. 203
  16. ^ Seyyed Behzad Sa'adati-Nik Tarīkhche-ye Lebās-e Rūhānīat (The History of Clerical Dress) Archived 2 November 2022 at the Wayback Machine. Mehr News, 29 Tir 1394.