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The term mullah is primarily understood in the Muslim world as a term of respect for an educated religious man.
Training and duties
Ideally, a trained mullah will have studied Islamic traditions (hadith), and Islamic law (fiqh). Such figures often have memorized the Qur'an. 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 Shariah, i.e., Islamic law.
Mullahs have frequently been involved in politics, but only recently have they served in positions of power, since Islamists seized power in Iran in 1979. In Syria, political militant groups supported by the West have taken root. The Taliban enforced Islamism in Afghanistan.
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 Pakistan, 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 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".
Outside of Eastern Arabia, which has a long Shiite tradition and numerous Shiite minorities, the term is seldom used in other Arabic-speaking areas where its nearest equivalent is often shaykh (implying formal Islamic training), imam (prayer leader; not to be confused with the imams of the Shiite world), or ʿālim ("scholar", plural ʿulamāʾ). 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.
Until the 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 is sometimes used as a derogatory term for any Islamic cleric. In recent years, at least among Shia clerics, the term ruhani (spiritual) has been promoted as an alternative to mullah and akhoond, free of pejorative connotations.
- This article incorporates text from Chinese and Japanese repository of facts and events in science, history and art, relating to Eastern Asia, Volume 1, a publication from 1863 now in the public domain in the United States.
- Esposito, John (2004). The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. p. 214.
- Roy, Olivier (1994). The Failure of Political Islam. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 28–9. ISBN 0-674-29140-9.
- See for example: "Rabbinic Succession in Bukhara 1790–1930",
- Taheri, Amir (1985). The Spirit of Allah: Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution. Bethesda, Md.: Adler & Adler. p. 53. ISBN 0-917561-04-X.
- 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 2011-07-06. (Original from the University of Michigan)
- Momen, Moojan, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, Yale University Press, 1985, p. 203