Kaaree keh mulla meekoneh*
Mulla: An evolution
May 22, 2001
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 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
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
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
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..."