Mullah is derived from the Arabic term “mawla,” which means “master.” The title is used mostly in Iran and in the Shia regions of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. In Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, it is used by both Sunnis and Shiites to refer to an Islamic teacher or scholar, or the leader of a mosque. Outside of these areas, the term is not widely used.
In central and south Asia, mullahs have also been military leaders and conquerors. But today “mullah” is generally understood to refer to local learned Islamic leaders. Mullahs are expected to be knowledgeable in the Quran, Hadith, and Sharia law. They often teach in mosque schools, called madrassas, and also lead prayers. The term is also used as a sign of respect for any educated Muslim religious man.
The term “mullah” is not used universally among Muslims. In Lebanon and Syria, mullahs are respected religious leaders who are trying to help their followers navigate their religious lives. In Syria, some respect mullahs who are trying to protect Islamic law while attempting to restore democracy and a civilized form of government.
Uniquely in Iran, the term “mullah” has come to have a derogatory meaning, indicating a low-level religious leader. It is somewhat of an insult used to mock those who make a show of their religiosity and portray themselves as devout by constantly referencing the Quran.
The term “mullah” is sometimes used to designate the entire class of people who uphold the traditional interpretation of Islam. Conservative mullahs are thus distinguished from more progressive Muslim scholars and leaders.
Mullahs often have distinct dress, consisting of a turban and long flowing robes. In Iran, mullahs wearing black turbans believe themselves to be direct descendants of Muhammad.