AskDefine | Define mullah

Dictionary Definition

Mullah n : a Muslim trained in the doctrine and law of Islam; the head of a mosque [syn: Mollah, Mulla]

User Contributed Dictionary



From Turkish molla, Persian , from Arabic (mawla), ‘vicar’, ‘guardian’.



A Muslim religious scholar and teacher

Extensive Definition

Mullah (Persian: ملا) is a title given to some Islamic clergy, coming from the Arabic word mawla, meaning both 'vicar' and 'guardian.' In large parts of the Muslim world, particularly Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, it is the name commonly given to local Islamic clerics or mosque leaders.
Depending on the circumstances it can be either a term of respect (a learned man) or abuse (a bigot and fanatic).

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 (ie. the Quran, Hadiths, etc.) for matters of Shariah, ie Islamic law. Mullah's are often shown in western media as being extreme; it can be agreed that every muslim differs in the strenuousness of his/her practice, and belief in the teachings of Islam.


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

Afghanistan & Pakistan

In Afghanistan, it is referred to any person of religious orientation with whom secularists might not agree.


See also

mullah in Bulgarian: Молла
mullah in Danish: Mullah
mullah in German: Molla
mullah in Estonian: Mulla
mullah in Modern Greek (1453-): Μουλάς
mullah in Spanish: Mulá
mullah in Esperanto: Mulao
mullah in French: Mollah
mullah in Galician: Mulá
mullah in Indonesian: Mullah
mullah in Hebrew: מולא
mullah in Dutch: Mullah
mullah in Norwegian: Mulla
mullah in Polish: Mułła
mullah in Portuguese: Mulá
mullah in Russian: Мулла
mullah in Slovenian: Mula (naziv)
mullah in Serbian: Мула
mullah in Finnish: Mullah
mullah in Swedish: Mulla
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