Not most Mullahs, but the most influential high-ranking ones in Iran are titled as “Seyed”. They appoint themselves as the male “descendants of the Prophet Muhammad”. In Arabic, Seyed literally means mister or sir. For the Shiite Muslims, it is both an exalted and religious title. As clergymen or Mullahs, Seyeds wrap a black turban around the head in order to become their all-out advantage. Sheiks, another category of Mullahs with no lineage to the Prophet, wear white turban.
Who are Seyeds?
1-Some of Seyeds are the offshoots of the Islamic hordes that occupied Iran from the 7th to 9th century.
2-Some of Seyeds have been recruited by the Safavid Dynasty in the 16th century from the neighbouring Arabic countries like Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, and Iraq to corroborate the sect of Shiism in iran.
3- A bigger number of Seyeds are not the “descendants of the Prophet”, but fake Seyeds using the self-titled Seyed with a black or green turban for their best interests. In fact, the exaggerated numbers of Seyeds in Iran cannot be demographically true.
As planned, turbaned Seyeds were used under the Sadavids to facilitate the task for the promotion of Shiism as the Sate Religion. After the genocide, Shah Esmai'l Safavid, the founder of the dynasty, honoured himself the higher Seyed and the representative of the highest Seyed of Shiites, "Imam Mahdi who is gone in the occultation a thousand years ago and is expected by Shiites to reappear to lead the Islamic justice on Earth.
The messianic belief in Mahdi was exploited to enhance motivation on the obedience as a religious task to the king. In this context, the king becomes a demigod, what all Shiite kings from the Safavid dynasty all the way up to the late Shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, pretended to be a God’s hand-picked representative of the Shiite Islam and a shadow of God on Earth.
It is under the Safavids that the culture of mourning appeared in Iran and largely served Seyeds to underpin their caste. “Ashoura” is the day that the third Shiite Imam, Imam Hussein, Seyed-al-Shoada (Seyed of Martyrs), became a martyred saint, killed by Yazid, the Umayyad Caliph in 680. Many centuries after the event, its martyrdom took an odd dimension, seeding a psyche of revenge, hate, violence, and obscurantism against “infidels” and implicitly the values of pre-Islamic of Iran.
The Shiite devotion to the martyred Imam Hussein coupled with a culture of a self-sacrificial piety that brainwashed millions of Iranians to the extent of aggressively keeping away from modernity and democracy. This eschatological culture solidified the status of Mullahs especially that of the privileged Seyeds in our society. At the time the religion in the West yields the place at the Renaissance and Inquisitionist Dark Ages were pushed back, Shiite dynasties spread these Shiite ceremonies.
Under the Qadjars (1786-1925), new hysterical ceremonies emerged. It is about Ta'ziyeh that is inspired by the events of the day of the Ashoura whose impression is too strong in the Shiite mentality. The Ta'ziyeh is a theatrical representation of these events, accompanied by laments and narrations of mourning for the “Seyed of Martyrs”, Imam Hussein and thus increased sympathy for the caste of Seyeds. Although, these narrations and whining are of history-tales elaborated by Shiite Mullahs, indeed Seyeds were created as legends and folk heroes.
Under the Qadjars, one testifies a gradual domination of the caste of Seyeds. With their black or sometimes green turbans, Seyeds were exponentially polluted under the Dynasties of Safavid, Qadjar, Pahlavi, and of course the Islamic regime. As mentioned, their disproportionate propagation shows that a big majority of them must be the opportunist impostors who slipped through to the rank of the Prophet's “descendants” to take any advantage.
The clergy increased their power under the Qadjar dynasty that followed to the Safavids, also under the last Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1925-1979). The Shiite jurisprudents allowed Mullahs to have access to a great budget called Khoms, only fur Seyeds, and Zakat, for the Mullahs and the poor -- these are religious taxes on fifth and one tenth of Muslims’ incomes and are collected by Mullahs.
Only, under a sixteen- year of the Reza Shah's reign and Nader shah Afshar’s, the Mullahs relatively lost their political influence. This short period aside, the influence of the Mullahs has been growing since the imposition of Shiite sect by the Safavids.
Finally, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Seyed Ruhollah Khomeini urged for the institution of an Islamic regime in 1979. The advent of Khomeini’s regime has been deemed as the third invasion of Islam, after that of the 7th and 16th century upon Iran. Khomeini’s leadership is called "Velayat e Faqih" that means he is both religious and absolute political leader with the total monopolisation of the powers.
Shortly after Seyed Ruhhollah Khomeini assumed power in 1979, his titles became loftier. He was not only referred to as “Na’ebi-e Imam” (Deputy to the Twelfth Imam or Mahdi), but he was titled as “Imam”, implicitly means Mahdi himself. With the advent of the Islamic regime, an old contradiction of Shiism with the monarchy was finally solved so that the representative of Mahdi is not a “non-turbaned” king, but a Mullah, preferably a turbaned Seyed who is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. It started by Seyed Ayatollah Rouhallah al-Moussavi al-Khomeini and since his dead in 1988, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenehi took his place. The reign of Royal House since the Shiite Safavid dynasty was finally converted into “Vali-e-Faghie”, the Supreme Leader.
It is important to avoid any prejudice towards all Iranian Seyeds who are not clergymen, but happened to be born as Seyed. They are not forcibly close to the anti-Iranian Islamic regime. Many of them do not truly believe in Islam or at least are secular and have proved patriotic duty to defend their country against enemy of Iran. While we have great men with the title of Seyed or “Mirza” (maternal descent to the Prophet), turbaned Seyeds remain the most influential caste in Iran.