Iran’s Dissident Sunni Leader

In 2023, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, a leading Sunni cleric in Sistan and Baluchistan, gained national attention after calling for a new constitution and an end to theocratic rule. 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, under the Shiite dominated government. Molavi is an honorific title for senior Sunni clerics.

Molavi Abdolhamid
Molavi Abdolhamid

Molavi Abdolhamid has repeatedly reprimanded the regime for the mass arrests since protests erupted in September 2022 over the death of a young Kurdish woman. “If it were up to me, I would not imprison even one of these protesting women,” he said in December. The arrests and executions, he noted, have not solved the core flashpoints.

In two sermons in January, he urged the regime to “listen to the voice of the people if you want to solve the problems.” He urged negotiations with the protesters. “I say frankly that the judiciary, security, and military officials cannot solve the problems,” he said at Zahedan’s Grand Makki Mosque, where he is the rector. “Sit with friends, critics, and opponents. Neither Friday imams nor Ulama can solve the problems,” he said. “There is the need for thinkers.”

He also chastised the government for not substantially amending the constitution since the 1979 revolution. “Our constitution has not been fundamentally modified for 44 years. 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 Baluch in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan Province, have regularly held demonstrations after Molavi Abdolhamid’s sermons at Friday prayers. Security forces killed more than 80 protesters after one of his sermons on Sept. 30, 2022. It became known as “Bloody Friday” and marked a turning point in his interactions with the regime. Many reformists have since echoed his calls for constitutional change. 


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, and in 1970, he returned to Iran. In 1971, he began teaching Islamic jurisprudence at the Darululoom in Zahedan, a Deobandi Seminary founded by his father-in-law Molavi Abdolaziz Mullahzada.

Sistan and Baluchistan mapMolavi 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.

Sistan and Baluchistan became a center for Sunni teaching. 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 and Politics

As the leading local Sunni cleric, Molavi Abdolhamid has played a crucial role in mobilizing political support for local and national candidates. In 1997, Molavi Abdolhamid rallied the Sunni vote for the reformist presidential candidate Mohammad Khatami. In 2005, Abdolhamid 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, Molavi Abdolhamid again urged Sunni opposition to Ahmadinejad, a hardliner.

In 2013 and 2017, Abdolhamid backed Hassan Rouhani, a centrist who had the support of reformists. His support for Rouhani in 2013 was in the hope that Sunnis would “get their rights and constitutional liberties like freedom of speech, freedom to form political parties.”

Abdolhamid and Rouhani
Molavi Abdolhamid (left) and President Rouhani (right) in 2019

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.

His support was important to Rouhani’s success in Sunni regions in 2017. Rouhani won nearly 73 percent of the vote in Sistan and Baluchistan and over 70 percent in Kurdistan. Rouhani promised to defend the rights of Sunnis, although the hardline opposition undermined attempts to change government policies to protect minority rights. 

In 2021, Molavi urged Sunnis to vote for Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric, as the “last remaining hope for Sunnis.” He argued that Raisi’s status as a hardliner would remove the internal pressure that had limited Rouhani’s ability to protect minorities. Molavi Abdolhamid “has always supported reformist groups,” Mehdi Aminizade, an Iranian human rights activist, explained in an interview. Molavi’s support for Raisi “demonstrated political pragmatism” since he has long sought “for Sunnis to have religious freedom.”


Militant Islam

Molavi Abdolhamid has mediated cases involving radical groups and domestic terrorism. In 2014, he played a key role in securing the release of four Iranian border guards kidnapped by the militant group Jaish al Adl, which made him a national hero. “We convinced them that these [soldiers] should be freed,” said Molavi Abdolhamid. “We told them the new government in power is after dialogue and to come and try to solve your problems with them based on dialogue.”

He has repeatedly called on Muslims to counter extremist interpretations of Islam. “Shiite and Sunni Muslims can unite in their fight against terrorism using their commonalities,” he said in 2015. “This is the time for Muslim states to come together in order to end their differences and eliminate violence,” he said following an ISIS attack targeting the Iranian Parliament and the Mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini in 2017.

His past statements supporting the Taliban have led to criticism, however. “Today’s Taliban are not the Taliban of 20 years ago,” he stated after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. “They have gained experience and their worldview has changed.” At the same time, he condemned the Taliban’s decision to ban female education. “The Taliban have a duty to respect women’s rights,” he said in November 2022.


On Minorities

Since he became rector of Zahedan's Grand Makki Mosque in 1987, Abdolhamid has called for a “supra-religious and multiethnic Iran.” His political activism has centered on drawing attention to the oppression of religious and ethnic minorities, particularly the Baluch, who the central government has long feared would seek greater autonomy or even independence.

Baluchistan school
A rural school in Sistan and Baluchistan province

Iran’s government has done little to integrate the Baluch despite the constitutional guarantee of equal rights for ethnic minorities. In the 2016 census, literacy in Sistan and Baluchistan was only 76 percent, significantly less than the 93 percent in Tehran province. In 2018, life expectancy was the lowest of any of Iran’s 31 provinces. In 2021, some 70 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, which has exacerbated ethnic tensions. “Areas with large Baluchi populations were severely underdeveloped and had limited access to education, employment, health care, and housing,” the State Department said in its annual human rights report.

Separatist groups have cited discrimination and socioeconomic conditions as key grievances. Since 2002, the militant Islamist group Jundallah, or “Soldiers of God,” has waged an insurgency against the government.  “The only thing we ask of the Iranian government is to be citizens,” Jundallah founder Abdolmalek Rigi told al Arabiya, “We want to have the same rights as the Iranian Shiite people. That's it. We do not want discrimination between Sunnis and Shiites in this country.”

For Molavi Abdolhamid, the regime’s systemic discrimination stemmed from the lack of minority representation in government institutions. Tehran wanted to “eliminate the name and identity of Baluchistan and to weaken it” as it has done to other ethnic regions, he warned in July 2021. 

The predominantly Shiite government has repeatedly suppressed minority identities. It has closed and, in some cases, demolished Sunni mosques and seminaries. Most elementary and high school teachers in Sunni areas of Baluchistan are reportedly Shiite. Persian is also the sole language of instruction, which disadvantages Baluch who speak their own language.

“Members of minority ethnicities and religious groups in pretrial detention face more severe physical punishment, including torture, than other prisoners, regardless of the type of crime of which they were accused,” the State Department reported in 2021. Human Rights Watch said minority activists were “regularly arrested and prosecuted on arbitrary national security charges in trials that grossly fall short of international standards.” Speaking on this discrimination, Molavi Abulhamid commented that “All should have equal rights and opportunities.” All Iranians, including Jews, Christians, Dervishes, and others “are living in our country and share a brotherhood with us.”

As a result, Baluch separatists have reportedly won some support from outside Iran. Tehran has accused the United States, Britain, Israel, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia of supporting Baluch separatists. Jundallah has used its bases in neighboring Pakistan to launch attacks across the 560-mile border. 


Molavi Abdolhamid and the 2022-2023 Protests

The protests that erupted in September 2022 after the death of Mahsa Amini, an ethnic Kurd, highlighted the tensions between Tehran and ethnic minorities. Security forces disproportionately targeted protesters in Kurdistan and Sistan and Baluchistan. The Bloody Friday massacre of over 80 protesters in Zahedan marked a major turning point in how Molavi addressed the regime.

Molavi Abdolhamid criticisms grew increasingly sharp and directly targeted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President 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. In this incident, you did not even console them,” he declared after the massacre on September 30. “We expected those who got votes from our people in the past would at least condemn this crime.”

As protests escalated, Molavi Abdolhamid emphasized the need for “fundamental changes in the country,” stating that protesters “have the right to protest and raise their voices.” His sermons in September and October emphasized the need for national solidarity against the regime’s violence. He condemned the judiciary’s imposition of the death penalty. “Our people do not agree with execution, and all these people are the owners of this country. In these executions, families who lose their guardians or loved ones are very sad and worried. The people of Iran believe in dialogue and negotiation,” he said.

In November, he was one of the first religious figures to call for a national referendum addressing protesters’ demands. “Hold a referendum with international observers. Officials, listen to the cry of the people,” said Molavi Abdolhamid in a sermon. His demand for a referendum was subsequently echoed by Sunni leaders across Iran. Imams in Kurdistan province issued a video statement in late November calling for a referendum and an end to violence against protesters. Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister and presidential candidate, joined Molavi Abdolhamid’s call for a free constitutional referendum in early February.  

In a sermon on Dec. 25, 2022, Molavi Abdolhamid called for a distinction between “religion” and “religious government,” attacking the theological underpinnings of the theocratic establishment. “Officials should pay attention to this. If I make the people hate religion through my actions, then this is an unforgivable sin, and if the authorities and Muslim scholars of Shiites and Sunnis, and Islamic regimes in any part of the world, make people hate religion, then this is a sin and a crime,” he said.

In January, 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.”


Regime Response

Even before his criticisms of Tehran’s handling of the 2022-2023 protests, the government imposed restrictions, including a travel ban in 2017, on Molavi Abdolhamid. “Mr. Abdolhamid, encouraging and agitating youths against the sacred Islamic Republic of Iran may cost you dearly! This is the last warning!” the IRGC warned in October 2022. In December, Tehran appointed a former IRGC commander as governor of Sistan and Baluchistan province to signal that the government was not interested in compromising with protesters. Deputy Interior Minister Majid Mirahmadi blamed Molavi Abdolhamid for protests in the province. “If there were no provocative remarks in the sermons, we would have seen peace in Zahedan,“ he said.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei

The national police commander appointed a new provincial police chief, Doustali Jalilian, in Sistan and Baluchistan in February 2023. The move further reflected Tehran’s lack of interest in appeasing protesters. “We don't allow anyone to cross our red line because such [protests] stop the moving train of development,” said Jalilian

The government, however, has been somewhat restrained to avoid fueling a backlash in Baluchistan. Khamenei directed security officials to disgrace 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, deputy commander of the Basij, said. “We first 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, a Sunni cleric in Golestan Province, and appointed Molavi Mashouf in his place. But Molavi 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.”

But Molavi Abdolhamid’s broad support among the Sunni base has made him a more complicated target for Tehran. “He has a stature that makes him almost untouchable for the regime,” Abbas Milani, an Iran expert at Stanford, told The Washington Post in December 2022.


In His Own Words: 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.”

Abdolhamid Molavi
Molavi Abdolhamid

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 [2021] 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.”


On 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 [2021] 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 Dar Al Ulum 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.”


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.” 



Aaron Boehm is a research analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace. 


Photo Credits: Molavi Abdolhamid via Tasnim News Agency (CC BY 4.0); Molavi Abdolhamid and Rouhani via IRNA (CC BY 4.0); Rural school by Mahin Mohammadzadeh for Tasnim News Agency (CC BY 4.0); Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons