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Kaaree keh mulla meekoneh*
Mulla: An evolution

May 22, 2001
The Iranian

I was traveling with my uncle by bus to Shiraz. As is usually the case, the bus stopped in the holy city of Qom for the passengers to purchase some of the city's famous sweets. As we were standing outside the store with my uncle, I asked him "Is Qom famous mostly for its sohans?" My uncle moved his head in the direction of a mulla passing by and said with disdain: "No, it's mostly famous for producing these."

I was not very surprised by my uncle's comment. I don't come from a very religious nor very anti-religious family. Like most middle-class Iranians, my family was a mixture of both sentiments: Never disrespectful towards Islam or its prophet, quite disdainful towards its contemporary messengers, the mullas.

The word "mulla" (also molla, mullah) has layers of meaning that traverse both time and class. While initially in the medieval Perso-Indian Islamic world it indicated "any Muslim scholar who has acquired a certain degree of religious education and the aptitude to communicate it" the term now mostly refers to the clergy "drawn from the lower and middle strata of society."(Encyclopedia of Islam - EI)

Historically, a mulla was one who could read but not write, while a mirza meant someone who could both read and write. In modern Persian, mulla has taken on more of a pejorative meaning especially when uttered by the middle to upper classes. As it is the lower stratum of the clergies that is in most contact with mardum, their traditions and their superstitions, and in charge of educating its youth, it is of little surprise that in the wake of Iran's entry to the modern era, they came to be seen as perpetuators and benefactors of the "masses"' ignorance.

It is likely also that since they were exempt from military service and not only received a stipend from the government but also from the people themselves, they eventually became unpopular in the public's mind. Slowly the popular image of the mulla and the preacher came to be that of a sex-craved, deceitful, greedy, and narrow-minded man who used his religious status for obtaining worldly good.

This can be seen both in various Persian expressions and in historical and literary portrayals of this class of the clergy. Expressions such as mulla loghati (pedantic or nit-picker), jeeb-e mulla (having pockets as big as mullas, i.e. to be greedy), and the images of the mulla in popular literature such as Shahr-e Qesseh, are but a few more contemporary examples.

By the 19th century, the expression "mollabazi" meant "trickery or stratagem of a molla" (EI) meaning religious and legal "quibbling" of the mullas to not violate the letter of the shari'a while disregarding it in spirit. In the 1887-1888 travelogue A Year Amongst the Persians, the great scholar E. G. Browne writes "I have had occasion to allude to the unrighteous quibbles whereby the mullas, while keeping the letter, contravene the spirit of the law." He then proceeds to give examples of mullas developing schemes aimed at benefiting the most from their religious position.

For example, Browne quotes the following from a certain Mulla Yusuf of Kirman: "As for the Tithes (khums, literally 'fifths'), they should be paid to poor Seyyids or descendants of the Prophet. And how do you suppose they [mullas] manage to save their money and salve their consciences at the same time? Why, they place the amount of the money which they ought to give in a jar and pour treacle (shireh) over it; then they offer this jar to a poor Seyyid (without, of course, letting him know about the money which it contains), and, when he has accepted it, buy it back from him for two or three krans! Or else they offer him one tuman on condition that he signs a receipt for fifty." (p. 507)

A mulla, depending on the context, meant either an educated man or an ignorant one. A wonderful example of this duality of meaning can be found in two different uses of a popular Persian saying: How easy to become a mulla, how hard to become a human being. The original meaning of this expression was that it was easy becoming literate, but hard becoming a human, i.e. humanity is above and beyond education and not something to be learned. In popular usage, this saying has come to mean that a mulla can easily become a mulla but being a human being is something out of their league.

An expression of this can be found in Rustam al-Tavarikh, an entertaining history of Iran in the late 18th century written by Mohammad Hashem Asef also known as Rustam al-Hukama. In one section, the author pits the two meanings of mulla against each other within the framework of a story about Shiraz' most famous and highly literate prostitute. Her name was Mulla Fatemeh, here the term mulla designating an educated woman. The author gives many examples of her oratory skills, including one where she entertains Karim Khan Zand with poetry that makes him weep, after which he kisses her on the lips and fills her mouth with pearls (It is nice to know at least he wasn't a prude.)

One day, Mulla Fatemeh is confronted by a "virtuous mulla" [mulla-yi fazeli] who says to her "you with all your understanding, knowledge and perfection, a hundred pities that you are committing sin," to which she responds "Oh you stupid fool! A thousand pities that you ate wheat bread [nan-e gandum] for years, became a mulla but didn't become a human being. Me and those like me, we undertake all Islamic rituals and don't shirk from committing a good deed."

In addition to being deceitful fools, mullas in popular and literary productions were portrayed as having a large and usually indecent sexual appetite, and the lengths they would go to for procuring sex became fodder for popular tales.

Mohammad Ali Jamalzadah, a modernist Iranian fiction writer, in his story "Molla Qorban Ali's complaint" focuses on some of these aspects of the mulla's appetite for sex. The Molla Qorban Ali of the story is a preacher and dirge-singer. As a young boy he "became the servant of a man from Isfahan who recited the Passion of Husayn and eventually began to recite my own." He cannot read nor write but he has been "blessed with a good memory and a quick mind so that I just have to hear a recital once or twice before I can repeat it."

He narrates the story of his life from a prison cell: A married dirge singer, Molla Qorban Ali, falls in love with the neighbor's young daughter who's been ill and who he's been asked to pray for. He falls ill himself because of her beauty and becomes incapable of continuing life. One night the neighbor comes to his door asking for prayers as his daughter is sick yet again. He prays for her but this time, she dies and the mulla is given money to pray for her dead body lying in the mosque.

He sees her corpse and "determined to see her face just once more, without thinking or hesitating, I drew back the veil, I bent over, bringing my mouth toward hers, and automatically closing my eyes I pressed my lips against those withered blossom-like lips." He ends up in prison. The story draws on the various well-known dirges and expressions of the trade to reveal at times the idiocy and at time the hypocrisy of the mulla.

What lies behind the evolution of the mulla from someone who can read to a hypocritical and depraved man is the trajectory of Iranian history. One's first historical instinct, which tends to always be of the short-term memory kind, will point to events in the 20th century to explain the degradation of the mulla image.

In our current historical imagination, the failure of "democratic" moments in modern Iranian history is ascribed fully or partially to the resistance of traditional religious forces: Sheykh Fazlollah Nuri vs. Constitutional Revolution, Ayatollah Kashani vs. Mossadegh, the 1979 Revolution, and the current Khatami era. This reading of history itself is rooted in the way modernity and modernist thought has developed in Iran from the mid-19th century onwards, reaching its most effective peak in the Constitutional Revolution.

Not surprisingly, on the level of words, if not deeds, Iran's turn of the century reformers pitted many of their arguments against a notion of tradition that was deemed to be backwards. A modern man and woman, newly minted citizens, were all that their traditional counterparts were not.

The Constitutional Revolution press is replete with articles on the dos and don'ts of this modern identity. Even love was recast and redefined. They demonized this other, this "traditonal" other that it was attempting to get away from and what better way than to attribute to it all that you now reject: Empty education of the maktab kind, non-scientific (and thus) ineffective remedies, homosexuality, vulgar language, depraved sexual behavior.

This is not to say that the image of a foolish mulla was the product of Iranian modernity. Such images exist in Persian literature, the foolish bookish mulla serving as the backdrop on which usually the wisdom of Sufi ideas is revealed. But there seems to be a qualitative difference. The foolish mulla of modernist literature is almost always of the lower classes, and unlike the Sufi tales, it is not his "type" of knowledge that is rejected, it is his entire being that is ridiculed, deemed backwards, without any redeeming qualities. He and his entire environment, people who go to him for advice, dirges, prayers, men and women of a certain class, become the modernists' bogey man, their straw figure to knock down and claim their entry into the modern world.

It is against this backdrop that Seyyed Reza Mir-Karimi's latest film, Under the Moonlight [Zir-e Nur-e Mah], becomes such a breath of fresh air. Under the Moonlight -- winner of this year's Cannes Critics' Week Grand Prix -- chronicles the days and doubts of Seyyed Hasan, a quiet, introspective talabeh (seminary student) who as his graduation day from the seminary approaches wonders about the relevance of wearing the clergy's cloak and turban.

Throughout the film Mir-Karimi presents us with different "types" of mullas, some of them similar to the types of characterizations mentioned above but without the vehemence of that type of literature. In a funny scene, we see the kind, not very bright, head of the seminary chide Seyyed Hasan for his refusal to graduate while his assistant hands him a cell phone, telling him to press the blue button to start a call and the red to finish it. Once he is done talking to Seyyed Hasan, who listens impassively, the mulla gets up, newly discovered cell phone on his ear.

He also portrays another familiar type: The mulla so stuck on form, he forgets the content. A young talabeh, who provides the best moments of comedy in the film, is constantly asking questions of no substance of his more mature colleagues whose approach to their religious education is more laid back.

In one of the funny early scenes, as Seyyed Hasan and his roommate are about to eat fried eggs for dinner, he comes, asks them what the prayers are for that evening -- They respond Juwshan-e Kabir, three times, just to pull his leg but he falls for it -- and then while apologizing profusely, he asks them isn't it makruh (discouraged) to eat plain eggs at night? In answer to which the roommate takes a jar of tomato sauce, pours it on the eggs, and says: Well, here, now it's not plain anymore.

The difference here may be that while critical, Mir-Karimi is forgiving and unwilling to reject a part of his/our society in order to construct his own identity, a process with which his protagonist flirts and eventually makes a decision about.

The most poignant scene in the film is when Seyyed Hasan runs into the seminary's secretary who now, outside the grounds, is wearing a suit and not his aba va ammameh (robe and turban). Seyyed Hasan and Mir-Karimi's look at this man, ashamed of his own identity, is not of condemnation but inquisition: What would make you hate yourself so? The mulla, himself painfully ashamed, in whispered tones tells the young talabeh that he just got tired of people's looks and comments.

Once, he says, as he was waiting for a cab, a driver yelled out of his car window "What happened, they ran out of Mercedes Benz' before they got to you?"

Under the Moonlight can be seen as a journey of discovery or re-discovery. The protagonist, through a series of events that leads him out of the seminary and into the world of people much less fortunate than him, comes to a decision about his own fate. But in some ways, it can also be seen as an attempt by a filmmaker, a man engaged in the most modern of arts, to come to terms with parts of his society and culture that has traditionally been rejected by Iran's literati.

* From Bijan Mofid's Shahr-e Qesseh, meaning "What the mulla does..."

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