What Is a Mullah?

Islamic Teachers and Religious Scholars

Old man praying in the Sultan Ahmed mosque
Daniel Candal Getty Images

Mullah is the name given to teachers or scholars of Islamic learning or the leaders of mosques. The term is usually a mark of respect but can also be used in a derogatory manner and is primarily used in Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In Arabic-speaking lands, an Islamic cleric is called an "imam" or "Shayk" instead.

"Mullah" is derived from the Arabic term "mawla," which means "master" or "the one in charge." Throughout Southern Asia's history, these rulers of Arabic descent have led cultural revolutions and religious war alike.

However, a mullah is general a local Islamic leader, although sometimes they rise to national prominence.

Usage in Modern Culture

Most often, Mullah refers to Islamic scholars well-versed in the sacred law of the Quran, however, in  Central and East Asia, the term mullah is used on a local level to refer to mosque leaders and scholars as a sign of respect. 

Iran is a unique case in that it uses the term in a pejorative manner, referring to low-level clerics as mullahs because the term derives from Shiite Islam wherein the Quran casually mentions mullah multiple times throughout its pages while Shia Islam is the dominant religion of the country. Instead, clergymen and religious leaders use alternative terms to refer to their most respected members of the faith. 

In most senses, though, the term has disappeared from modern usage except to mock those who are overly devout in their religious pursuits — a sort of insult for reading the Quran too much and assuming oneself the Mullah referred to in the sacred text.

Respected Scholars

Still, there is some respect behind the name mullah — at least for those who regard those well versed in religious texts as mullahs. In these cases, the astute scholar must have a firm understanding of all things Islam — especially as it pertains to contemporary society wherein the hadith (traditions) and fiqh (law) are equally important.

Oftentimes, those considered to be mullah will have memorized the Quran and all of its important teachings and lessons — though often times throughout history uneducated common folk would misname visiting clerics mullahs because of their vast knowledge (comparatively) of the religion.

Mullahs can also be considered teachers and political leaders. As teachers, mullahs share their knowledge of religious texts in schools called madrasas in matters of Shariah law. They have also served in positions of power, such is the case with Iran after the Islamic State took control in 1979.

In Syria, Mullahs play an important role in the ongoing conflict between rival Islamic groups and foreign adversaries alike, valuing the protection of Islamic law while staving off Islamic extremists and attempting to restore a democracy or civilized form of government to the war-torn nation.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is a Mullah?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 19, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-mullah-195356. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2017, July 19). What Is a Mullah? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-mullah-195356 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is a Mullah?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-mullah-195356 (accessed January 17, 2018).