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A mullah (from the Arabic word mawlā, meaning "master" or "lord") technically means a learned person with public functions of teaching and preaching in the community. As a title indicating religious education and the ability to communicate to the public, it applies to both men and women who undertake this function. In Iran it is also used for Jewish and Zoroastrian sages. Customarily it applies to men of religious learning who wear a turban, notwithstanding their religious affiliation. This connection with learning and teaching is connoted in a number of Persian compound verbs, such as mullāh raftan, meaning "to go to school" or "to learn a lesson," and mullāh shudan, "to become learned."

Although the title is commonly used by both the Persian-speaking Sunni and the Shīʿī communities for their religious functionaries, in the Shīʿite context, mullah denotes a kind of clergy whose functions include presiding at all those public acts that, according to the Sharīʿa (Islamic law), require some kind of religious expertise and representational responsibilities—acts such as marriage ceremonies, funerals, and other social transactions involving two or more parties. Depending on the political-social status of the religious institution at different times in Iranian history, the term also sometimes carries a derogatory connotation when it refers to popular preachers, also known as akhund, whose religious knowledge is limited to basic teachings about certain devotional acts and whose main function is to recount the stories of the suffering (taʿziya) of the Shīʿite imams. Both during the Constitutional Revolution in 1905 and the Islamic Revolution in 1978–1979 in Iran, the term "mullah" was applied to religious reactionaries who were seen as opposed to modernization through secularization of Muslim society. Shīʿite mullahs have continued to play a leading role in the social and political transformation of Shīʿite communities in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Historically, members of the religious class in Muslim communities were drawn from wealthy families, who could afford to educate their sons to become jurist-theologians (ʿulamā). The classical works on the Qur'an exegesis, traditions, and jurisprudence were produced by these scholars, of whom some were given the title of mullah as a mark of respect for their learning. In modern times, mullahs are usually drawn from the lower and middle strata of society. After completing their early education in Qur'an schools (maktab) in their villages, these students, known as ṭullāb, between the ages of eleven and fifteen years, migrate to larger centers of religious learning (madrasa) in holy cities such as Mashhad or Qumm in Iran or Najaf in Iraq, where they pursue a set introductory curriculum in Arabic grammar, syntax, rhetoric, and logic on a personal, tutorial basis. The more advanced students are introduced to literary disciplines and dialectical theology (kalām). Students spend an average of three to five years at this introductory stage. The second stage of their education begins with the study of juridical terminology and texts. Depending on a student's intellectual and linguistic preparation, this stage requires from three to six years. It is only after successful completion of this second stage that a student begins to attend graduate lectures (dars-i khārij) given by prominent jurist-consults (mujtahid). The entire course of study takes some fifteen to twenty years. Very few among these ṭullāb finish the entire course to earn the title of mujtahid and thereby receive the permission (ijāza) to formulate independent opinions in matters of law. Whether one attains that high level of legal-theological education or not, once a person adopts the title of mullah it carries with it certain privileges in the community of the faithful. Under different Muslim dynasties some occupations were reserved for the mullah in civil and religious administration. In Iran mullahs were exempt from military service.

In the North American context, the Shīʿite mullah prefers to be called imam, the title usually adopted by the Sunni leaders of prayer. With his distinguished clothing (a cloak and a turban) and physical appearance in the otherwise unfriendly secular environment, a mullah/imam has become a symbol of Muslim religiosity for the majority of religious-minded Shīʿites, who follow him and through him emulate the grand ayatollah, the marjaʿ al-taqlīd (the source of emulation), whom he represents in the community, collecting pious donations on behalf of the ayatollah and managing the community's religious affairs. He is also the source of stability in the fast-changing world of believers in a pluralistic environment.

See alsoImam; Islam; Qu'ran.


Mallat, Chibli. The Renewal of Islamic Law: MuhammadBaqer as-Sadr, Najaf and Shiʿi International. 1993.

Mottahedeh, Roy P. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religionand Politics in Iran. 1985.

Nafīsī, 'Alī Akbar. Farhang-i Nafīsī. 1343.

Sachedina, Abdulaziz A. The Just Ruler in Shiʿite Islam:The Comprehensive Authority of the Jurist in ImamiteJurisprudence. 1998.

Abdulaziz A. Sachedina

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