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Mullah (Arabic: ملا, Turkish: Molla) is generally used to refer to a Muslim man or woman, educated in Islamic theology and sacred law. The title, given to some Islamic clergy, is derived from the Arabic word مَوْلَى mawlā, meaning "vicar," "master" and "guardian." In large parts of the Muslim world, particularly Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Eastern Arabia, Turkey and the Balkans, Central Asia, the Horn of Africa and South Asia, it is the name commonly given to local Islamic clerics or mosque leaders.
It is primarily understood in the Muslim world as a term of respect for an educated man.
Ideally, a trained mullah will have studied Islamic traditions (hadith), and Islamic law (fiqh). They are often huffaz, 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. These three kinds of knowledge are applied mostly in interpreting Islamic texts (i.e. the Quran, Hadiths, etc.) for matters of Shariah, i.e., Islamic law.
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.
It has 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, as well, 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.
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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 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 cleric as a mullah, to ridicule his religious authority. In recent years, at least among Shia mullahs, the term ruhani (spiritual) has been promoted as an alternative to mullah and akhoond, free of pejorative connotations.