Iran’s Dissident Sunni Cleric
Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the most outspoken Sunni cleric in Iran, has demanded an end to theocratic rule but rejected violence as a political tool to achieve it. “Governments should serve people, not torture them,” he told followers in January 2023. “No ruler on the earth has absolute authority.” He has called on Shiites and Sunnis across the Islamic world to unite against extremism using the “commonalities” in their respective sects. He has repeatedly called on Muslims to counter militant interpretations of Islam.
The cleric long advocated for gradual change within the framework of the Islamic Republic. After protests erupted in the fall of 2022, he demanded massive political reforms. Molavi Abdolhamid publicly urged the government to “listen to the voice of the people.” The constitution should be updated “in accordance with the conditions and needs of time,” he told followers. “Those who claim to implement the Islamic rulings should consider the conditions of the present age. Otherwise, they will not succeed.”
The views of Molavi Abdolhamid, who is rector of the Grand Makki Mosque in Sistan and Baluchistan, are a stark contrast to the militant Islamist groups—including Jundallah (“Soldiers of God”)—that have emerged in the province since the 2000s. In 2003, Jundallah launched an insurgency to establish an independent Baluch state. It has killed dozens of civilians and government officials in bombings. One of the group’s deadliest attacks was a twin suicide bombing near a mosque that killed at least 39 Shiite worshippers in 2010. Jundallah, which changed its name to Jaish ul Adl (“Army of Justice”) in 2012, has also kidnapped Iranian border guards.
In the past, Molavi Abdolhamid has mediated between the government and Sunni extremists. In 2014, he helped secure the release of four Iranian border guards kidnapped by Jaish al Adl, a role that garnered national attention. He brokered the deal by insisting that the group try to resolve its disputes with dialogue.
Yet the molavi, an honorific title for senior Sunni clerics, has also supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, which borders Sistan and Baluchistan. “Today’s Taliban are not the Taliban of 20 years ago,” he said after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. “They have gained experience and their worldview has changed.” But he later condemned the Taliban’s decision to ban female education. “The Taliban have a duty to respect women’s rights,” he said in November 2022.
Molavi Abdolhamid has had to walk a fine line as a double minority – a Sunni and an ethnic Baluch. Since the 1979 revolution, the central government has suppressed minority groups that sought autonomy. Among Iran’s 85 million people, only five to 10 percent are Sunni; the majority are Shiite. And just two to five percent of the population are ethnic Baluch, a fiercely independent people for centuries.
During the protests of 2022, his fiery sermons led thousands of ethnic Baluch to demand an end to the brutal government crackdown against protesters and equal rights for ethnic minorities, such as the Baluch and Kurds. Security forces killed more than 80 protesters after his sermon on Sept. 30, 2022. It became known as “Bloody Friday” and marked a turning point in the cleric’s interactions with the regime. Many reformists later echoed his calls for constitutional change.
In an attempt to limit his following, the government has banned the cleric from either domestic or international travel. But Molavi Abdolhamid’s broad support among the Sunni base in Sistan and Baluchistan has made him a complicated target for Tehran. “He has a stature that makes him almost untouchable for the regime,” Abbas Milani, an Iran expert at Stanford University, told The Washington Post in December 2022. The following is a rundown of his career and thoughts.
Early Life and Career
Molavi Abdolhamid was born in 1947 in Galougah in southeast Sistan and Baluchistan, the largest of Iran’s 31 provinces. He was educated in Pakistan. In 1971, he began teaching Islamic jurisprudence at the Darululoom in Zahedan, a Deobandi Seminary founded by his father-in-law, Molavi Abdolaziz Mullahzada.
Molavi Abdolhamid became the spiritual leader of the Sunnis in Baluchistan after his father-in-law’s death in 1987. He assumed leadership as head of the Grand Makki Mosque and rector of the Darululoom Seminary, which increased in political influence under his leadership. The timing was significant as sectarian divides deepened across the Middle East in the 1980s.
By 2007, the seminary’s provincial network had expanded to 4,000 mosques, 70 seminaries, and 120 madrasas attended by 20,000 students, including 5,000 women. Its influence extended beyond Iran, drawing influential Sunni scholars from across the region to lecture at the institution.
Influence on Politics
As the leading local Sunni cleric, Molavi Abdolhamid has played a crucial role in mobilizing political support for local and national candidates in Iran. In 1997, he rallied the Sunni vote for the reformist presidential candidate Mohammad Khatami. In 2005, he opposed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s run for president. He called for a government that “removes discrimination, satisfies ethnic minorities and impartially seeks the participation of all Iranians at the top levels of the administration.” During the 2009 presidential elections, he again urged Sunnis to oppose Ahmadinejad, a hardliner.
In 2013 and 2017, Abdolhamid backed Hassan Rouhani, a centrist supported by reformists, in the hope that Sunnis would “get their rights and constitutional liberties like freedom of speech, freedom to form political parties.” During the 2017 presidential election, Molavi Abdolhamid demanded changes in Iran’s constitution to allow non-Shiite citizens to run for president. “Division and segregation is not of interest to anyone, and the realization of the demands of the Sunni community and its legitimate rights are within the framework of unity, brotherhood and maintaining security,” he said.
Despite historically supporting reformist candidates, Molavi urged Sunnis in 2021 to vote for Ebrahim Raisi as the “last remaining hope for Sunnis.” He argued that Raisi’s status as a hardliner would remove the internal obstacles that had limited Rouhani’s ability to protect minorities. Molavi’s support for Raisi “demonstrated political pragmatism,” Mehdi Aminizade, an Iranian human rights activist, said in an interview.
Goals and Criticism
Molavi Abdolhamid has called for a “supra-religious and multiethnic Iran” since he became rector of Zahedan's Grand Makki Mosque in 1987. His political activism has centered on government oppression of religious and ethnic minorities. All Iranians, including Jews, Christians, Dervishes, and others “are living in our country and share a brotherhood with us,” he said. Despite a constitutional guarantee of equal rights, the predominantly Shiite government has done little to integrate the Baluch, who make up two to five percent of Iran’s population. It has closed and, in some cases, demolished Sunni mosques and seminaries. Many teachers in Baluchistan were Shiite. Persian was also the sole language of instruction, which disadvantaged Baluch who speak their own language.
After protests erupted in September 2022, Molavi Abdolhamid became increasingly critical of the regime, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi. “Mr. President! Our people voted for you in the most difficult circumstance when the election was boycotted by others. You got the votes of the people and did not answer their demands,” he declared after the massacre on September 30. “In this incident, you did not even console them.”
As demonstrations escalated across the country, he said that protesters had the right to “raise their voices.” His sermons in September and October called for national solidarity against the regime’s violence. In November, he was one of the first religious leaders to call for a national referendum—with international observers—to address the demands of protesters. “Officials, listen to the cry of the people,” he said. His demand for a referendum was subsequently echoed by Sunni leaders across Iran. He also condemned the judiciary’s imposition of the death penalty.
In a sermon on Dec. 25, 2022, Molavi Abdolhamid distinguished between “religion” and “religious government.” He attacked the theological underpinnings of Iran’s theocratic establishment. “If Islamic regimes in any part of the world make people hate religion, then this is a sin and a crime,” he said.
In January 2023, he declared, “People who are eighty and ninety years old cannot decide for the young.” Those who claim to implement the Islamic rulings “should consider the conditions of the present age. Otherwise, they will not succeed.” In a February sermon, he condemned the detention of political prisoners. “If I had any authority, I would not hold any political prisoners even for an hour.”
Even before his public criticism, the government had imposed restrictions, including a travel ban in 2017, on the Sunni cleric. “Encouraging and agitating youths against the sacred Islamic Republic of Iran may cost you dearly! This is the last warning!” the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) warned him in October 2022. Deputy Interior Minister Majid Mirahmadi blamed Molavi Abdolhamid for protests in the province.
The government, however, has been somewhat restrained to avoid fueling a backlash in Baluchistan. Khamenei directed security officials to disgrace Molavi Abdolhamid instead of arresting him, according to a leak by the hacktivist group “Black Reward” in November 2022. The recording indicated the regime’s concern over his influence. “We made a mistake about Abdolhamid,” Qasem Qoreyshi, the deputy commander of the Basij, said. “We originally eliminated tribal leaders in the region to give Abdolhamid more influence.”
Tehran has previously detained other Sunni clerics. In December 2021, Khamenei dismissed Molavi Hossein Gorgij in Golestan province and appointed Molavi Mashouf in his place. But Mashouf refused the appointment and was arrested by IRGC intelligence. In January 2023, security forces arrested Abdolmajid Moradzehi, an aide to Molavi Abdolhamid, and accused him of “manipulating public opinion” and “communicating on several occasions with foreign individuals and media outlets.”
In His Own Words: On Extremism
Jan. 19, 2023: “I would like to advise those who intend to enforce Islamic laws through military operations and weapons to choose peaceful political channels...No one should kill people in the name of jihad in Islamic and non-Islamic countries. They can serve Islam by forming political parties. They should present their formula for the implementation of Sharia law. If people like this formula and conception, they will vote for it, and if the people do not want it, no one has the right to rule over the people by force of sword.”
Sept. 12, 2021: “Unfortunately, extremism has spread in the world today and some Muslims have become involved in it…All Muslims, including scholars, academics and experts, should respect and follow the Koran and the Sunnah. All should avoid extremism. The Noble Koran advises Muslims to observe justice, even for their enemies.
Jul. 16, 2018: “A deadly suicide attack took the lives of more than 120 people near the capital of Baluchistan province of Pakistan…Targeting unarmed civilians is not acceptable in any religion or law. I condemn such outrageous acts of extremists.”
Jul. 24, 2017: “Extremists always strive to add fuel to the fire of sectarian disputes as their interests are in sectarian clashes. Attacks on places of worship are against the Islamic Sharia, wisdom, and common sense. I strongly condemn the attack on the mosque of Shia brothers in Qatif, Saudi Arabia.”
On Iran’s theocratic rule
Feb. 26, 2023: “If you cannot serve the people, move aside and let others serve the nation… Instead of imprisoning people, free them and see what they say. Listen to the voices of critics and opponents.”
Feb. 19, 2023: “We believe that the only solution to the current crisis is to follow the path of the majority. No one should force their opinion or political program on another… Respecting the will of the majority is the best way to end violence. Imprisonment and suppression are not the way.”
Jan. 21, 2023: “People who are eighty- and ninety-years-old cannot decide for the young. Unfortunately, our constitution has not been fundamentally modified in 44 years. The constitution should be updated in accordance with the conditions and needs of time. Those who claim to implement Islamic rulings should consider the conditions of the present age. Otherwise, they will not succeed. Islam and the Koran have a high capacity.”
Jan. 15, 2023: “Negotiate with people. I say frankly that the judiciary, security, and military officials cannot solve the problems. Rather, you must adopt the right policies. Sit with friends, critics, and opponents.”
Jan. 7, 2023: “Governments should serve people, not torture them. The ruler has no right to arrogance. A ruler who treats people with compassion and humility is the representative of God almighty. No ruler on the earth has absolute authority.”
Dec. 25, 2022: “No government can last without the people’s satisfaction. We believe that officials and the state leaders should sit with the nation and meet their demands.”
Nov. 26, 2022: “Tyranny will spread if the authorities ban criticism and do not listen to the people. I am sorry that some people believe that authorities should not be criticized at all. Officials are responsible. Their performance must be in accordance with the divine law and the law of the country... No one is above the law. If the officials had accepted criticism in the past, our situation would not be like this today.”
Oct. 22, 2022: “Mr. President! Our people voted for you in the most difficult circumstance when the  election was boycotted by others. You got the votes of the people and did not answer their demands.”
Jul. 31, 2019: “Lack of due freedoms--such as freedom of speech, formation of parties, associations, intolerance of constructive criticisms and legal freedom--are among the most important domestic crises…. Release of political prisoners, lifting the house arrest of opposition candidates in the 2009 presidential election, listening to people’s demands, and negotiating with the opposition can help us to get rid of these crises.”
Feb. 28, 2018: “During the recent protests, some people said this regime was not capable of amending its ways and should be changed. Others say that the regime can be reformed by changing some of its strategies. I prefer the second option.”
Jul. 7, 2008: “We accept the government’s supervision and obey the honorable supreme leader, but we cannot put our religious affairs under your control…or under the control of any government. We are not afraid of prison…We are not afraid of death.”
Support for Protests
Jan. 21, 2023: “I would like to advise the authorities to show mercy for young people and not disappoint them. The young generation is full of hopes and has so many desires to build their future. They protest for a good and a brighter future. Their aspirations should be met.”
Jan. 6, 2023: “You have put [protesters] in prison, executed them, and the problem was not solved with these executions, imprisonments, and heavy sentencing … Listen to the voice of the people if you want to solve the problems.”
Dec. 9, 2022: “Executions in Iran have no precedent in Islam in any period. [Similar executions] did not take place during the time of the Prophet [Mohammed] or during the four senior Caliphs who succeeded him.”
Nov. 4, 2022: “Hold a referendum and see what changes people want and accept the wishes of the people. The current policies have reached a dead end… This constitution was approved 43 years ago, and those who compiled it have all left and another generation has come. This law should also be changed and updated.”
Oct. 3, 2022: “These people should not be treated in such a way that dozens were killed or injured in just a few hours…It is against Islam and the country’s laws. Some officials want to blame other people…while there is clear and obvious evidence that the military forces committed an injustice…The blood of these people should not be wasted… Those who killed our people unjustly should be brought to court and be punished.”
On Prison Sentences and Executions
Feb. 19, 2023: “If I had any authority, I would not hold any political prisoners even for an hour.”
Feb. 11, 2023: “Release political prisoners, and the prisoners of the recent protests. This is what the people of Iran demand.”
Feb. 3, 2023: “Islam teaches us that prisoners should be treated well. The prisoner should not be beaten and treated brutally. No prisoner should be tortured to force confessions. Whether the prisoner is a woman or a man, their respect and dignity should be protected because they are human beings.”
Feb. 3, 2023: “I am against execution and I believe that executions…are not in the interest of the system and society.”
On Discrimination against Sunnis
Jan. 14, 2023: “Discrimination is the biggest problem that we, the people of Iran, have suffered for the past 43 years… We participated in the  presidential elections, but they did not answer our demands after the elections. Unwritten policies in Iran have led to discrimination against Sunnis for decades..”
Dec. 30, 2022: “The new generation of Baha'is are not former Muslims who can return to Islam. They were born non-Muslims and cannot be charged with apostasy.”
Dec. 21, 2022: “The government discriminates against Sunnis, and they are barred from holding any important positions in the armed forces and the judicial system…Officers beat our people mercilessly.”
Oct. 3, 2022: “For forty-three years we have said that Sunnis should be employed in [Iran’s] military and police forces. If there were Sunni personnel in the security forces and police, we may not have witnessed such a great loss.”
Aug. 23, 2022: “The Sunnis of Iran have expectations and demands from President Raisi that must be met. Sunni citizens must be employed in all official positions, as Shiites are, in the provincial capitals and in the capital.”
Jul. 30, 2021: “Our people believe that the plan is not to develop Baluchistan, but rather to eliminate the name and identity of Baluchistan and to weaken [the government] did in other ethnic regions.”
On Women’s Rights
Feb. 11, 2023: “As Iranian citizens, women have equal rights.”
Jan. 19, 2023: “Let me give a brief advice to the Afghan government. The Taliban know that we criticize them. They should provide grounds for women to get education. The Taliban made jihad against the foreign occupiers in the most difficult circumstances, and we asked God almighty to help them…Our support for the jihad of Afghanistan was only spiritual.”
Dec. 31, 2022: “Women have been isolated in Iran and their rights, which are equal to men, have not been respected. If Iranian women’s needs were met, and they enjoyed their due rights and status, they would follow your commands themselves and there would be no need for morality police.”
Dec. 30, 2022: “I am surprised that women are taken and put in prison for protesting and chanting. If it were up to me, I would not imprison even one of these protesting women.”
Dec. 25, 2022: “Women’s education is the demand of all scholars of the Islamic world. Women are the wealth of the nation. I would like to tell the neighboring country of Afghanistan and ask the leadership of the Islamic Emirate of this country to open the doors of its educational centers soon. It is not only the demand of Europeans and Americans, but also the demand of all scholars of the Muslim world.”
Nov. 14, 2017: “Women should be given their rights. We have a free hostel for female students here [at Darululoom Zahedan] for girls from rural areas. I think women should seek knowledge and get an education… We should engage with women and utilize their capabilities. We recommended that Mr. Rouhani employ Sunni and women ministers in his cabinet. Such acts will change the view of the world about us.”
Aug. 9, 2017: “According to Sharia law, there is no problem with the participation of women in higher posts.”
About the Author
Aaron Boehm was a research assistant with the Woodrow Wilson Center in 2022. At the time, he was a master’s student at Harvard University, studying Middle Eastern Studies with a focus on North Africa. He was an associate editor with Harvard’s Journal of Middle Eastern Policy and Politics. Aaron received his BA in Arabic and history from the University of Edinburgh in 2021.
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