February 13, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 456

Who Is Iran's Anti-Regime Sunni-Baloch Leader Molavi Abdolhamid?

February 13, 2023 | By Suzan Quitaz*
Iran | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 456

For the past five months of unrest, the largest Sunni Mosque in Iran, the Grand Makki Mosque – founded as part of the Jamiat Darul Uloom seminary – in Zahedan, the capital of Iran's Balochistan, has become the epicenter of resistance against the Islamic Republic. After every Friday prayer since the beginning of the uprising, thousands of people have marched through the streets of the city, chanting "Death to Khamenei," "Curse upon Khomeini," "Death to the Basijis," and "Death to the IRGC."[1] The protesters are the followers of Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, known as Molavi Abdolhamid,[2] Iran's most influential religious and social leader of the Sunni community in the Shi'ite-dominated Islamic Republic of Iran.[3]

Molavi Abdolhamid was born in 1947 in Galougah, in the Zahedan county, and became the imam of the Grand Makki Mosque in 1987, succeeding his father-in-law, Baluchi Sunni cleric leader and member of expert assembly Molavi Abdolaziz Mollazadeh, after his death.

Molavi Abdolhamid is known for being an outspoken cleric who dares to challenge the Ayatollah regime. He is a staunch supporter not only of the rights of the Baloch people, Iran's oppressed minority,[4] which has suffered for decades from systematic discrimination and persecution by the Islamic Republic, but of all the ethnicities that comprise Iran. On December 16, 2022, during a Friday sermon in Zahedan, Molavi Abdolhamid said: "This nation is experiencing hardships, so do not blame the people [for protesting]... People want freedom – freedom of speech, freedom to write, freedom of assembly, and freedom of thought."[5]

(Source: MEMRI)

"Almost Untouchable"

On September 30, 2022, the Islamic regime violently repressed the demonstrations of Baloch protesters, leading to what became known as the "Zahedan massacre," or "Bloody Friday," in which more than 90 people were killed. The regime's terrorism was aimed at quelling the protests and delivering a clear message to the Baloch people to stop the uprising. However, rather than cowering in fear, Molavi Abdolhamid used his Friday sermons at Makki Mosque to keep unleashing a barrage of attacks against the regime, denouncing its lack of legitimacy.

Faiz Baluch, a human rights activist and a member of the Free Balochistan Movement, explained that Molavi Abdolhamid is the only political voice inside the country that is having a political impact and that is becoming an inspiration for the push for regime change, as other opposition political parties are not allowed to voice their opinions.[6]

Molavi Abdolhamid is indeed posing a direct threat to the religious establishment in Iran. The platform of Friday prayers to deliver his speech is a blow to the Mullah regime, insofar as Friday prayers are typically used by the regime to promote its propaganda not to counter it. For this reason, Molavi Abdolhamid's sermons, which promote human rights inside the country, have earned the respect of millions of Iranians, including Shia Iranians and Iran's other religious minorities.

Undoubtedly, Molavi Abdolhamid constitutes a major and an unprecedented challenge for Tehran, a challenge over which the regime needs to tread very carefully if it is to avoid the sectarian violence seen in Iraq after the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Officials in Tehran are well aware that arresting Molavi Abdolhamid would have serious ramifications, as the impoverished Sunni-majority of Balochistan would strongly rise against the Shi'ite-led regime, leading to a revolt of the non-Shi'ite and non-Persian oppressed ethnic minorities that have faced decades of persecution and systemic policies of discrimination.

Iranian scholar Dr. Abbas Milani said that Molavi Abdolhamid has "a stature that makes him almost untouchable for the regime."[7] For this reason, the Islamic Republic is trying to put pressure on him. For example, his senior adviser Molavi Abdulmajid was arrested on January 30 and has been accused of "numerous communications with foreign people and media, and distorting public opinion."[8] However, Faiz Baluch stated that, for the Baloch people, arresting Molavi Abdolhamid represents a "red line," and, if the Islamic republic will cross it, things will get "much worse" for the regime.[9]

It is worth noting that, following the Zahedan massacre, Molavi Abdolhamid's office stated that people were about to take revenge with weapons, but Molavi Abdolhamid "prevented" "a great bloodshed in the region." He actually wanted the crisis to be resolved through peaceful means, by calling the authorities to "implement justice" and "try in court the murderers of the massacre." Molavi Abdolhamid's office also stressed that the imam of Zahedan does not believe in violence.[10]

Molavi Abdolhamid said: "The people have tolerated discrimination, inequality and pressures for about 44 years. Now people have demands and are tired of these problems. Be with the people. These are the Iranian people. We were massacred [on Bloody Friday], but after a few hours we announced that security should be maintained. We were killed, but did not kill anyone. Furthermore, we only said that those who were behind the massacre of people should be punished. The martyrs’ families said that we do not want blood money, but we want our right and dignity."[11]

The Regime Tries To Discredit Molavi Abdolhamid

Meanwhile, the Islamic republic is trying to discredit Molavi Abdolhamid, using mouthpiece media outlets to publish stories, such as the one saying that he was a Taliban supporter. Indeed, back in 2021, he said that people should not "pre-judge the Taliban," arguing that the group has changed.[12] On August 17, 2021, it was also reported that he defined the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan as a great victory against the "invading occupiers and the incompetent, inefficient and corrupt government," and congratulated the "Islamic Emirate."[13]

However, in November 2022, Molavi Abdolhamid criticized the Taliban for preventing girls from going to school: "I would like to address the Taliban government: I have said in an interview that today the Taliban have changed their methods, and now they are different from the Taliban of 20 years ago; some have objected. I feel that the Taliban have changed their ways, but what I am worried about is that no one should stop women from education. Universities and secondary schools should be open for women... Which religion and Shari'a have prevented women from getting an education? This is the view of some narrow-minded people... Taliban! Open universities and schools for women. I recommend that universities should be open for female students before male students. Women are talented. They want to learn science and knowledge... The Taliban have a duty to respect women's rights."[14]

1979 Islamic Revolution

In the past, it was reported that Molavi Abdolhamid supported Reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), moderate conservative Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), and later supported ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi, in the latest 2021 presidential election.[15] However, in January 2023, Molavi Abdolhamid stated: "These days, Iranians [in the street] pursue the demands of the 1979 revolution. In 1979, people stood against tyranny and oppression, and fought for freedom, justice, and equality. They wanted to achieve their demands and absolute rights..."[16]

In December 2022, he said: "The survival of every political system and state [depends on] listening to and satisfying the voice of the people. The Islamic revolution of Iran will last as long as people want it to. The [1979] revolution won when people rose up and the scholars, academics, and merchants supported it. The Islamic Republic has not triumphed through a military coup and by force, but thanks to the support of the people. People wanted freedom, justice, and solving their economic problems. They wanted to determine their fate themselves." He then added: "No government can last without getting people satisfied. We believe that officials and state leaders should sit with the nation and meet the people's demands."

It would seem from his statements that Molavi Abdolhamid is not against the fall of the system of the Islamic republic but that he stands for a full reform of it. He said: "Unfortunately, our constitution has not been fundamentally modified for 44 years. The constitution should be updated in accordance with the conditions and needs of time. Those who claim to implement the Islamic rulings should consider the conditions of the present age."[17] Furthermore, referring probably to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is 83 years old, he said: "90- and 80-year-old people cannot decide for the youth."[18]

In another Friday sermon, he stated that "if justice and freedom are implemented, the system [can] remain for a hundred years or more." However, at the same time, he also stressed that "justice, freedom, and satisfaction of the people are more important than the Islamic state."[19]

On the 44th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Molavi Abdolhamid stated that the 1979 revolution went astray and must be corrected.[20] In a January sermon, he stressed: "The Iranian people stood together in the Revolution of 1979, and fought for their freedom and justice. [They revolted] to get their rights and to restore pride to Iran, and so that Iran's resources would only benefit our nation. Today, the people are shouting for the same things. They are shouting for justice. They are not asking for a lot. They do not want much, they want justice!"[21]

Calling For Referendum

Since the beginning of the uprising, Molavi Abdolhamid addressed in each Friday sermon hot topics, such as the rights of minorities in Iran. In response to the regime's brutal crackdown on Balochi people, Molavi Abdolhamid called upon the Iranian authorities to hold a referendum to determine what Iranians want.

On November 4, he said: "Hold a referendum with international observers. Officials, listen to the cry of the people. People have been in the streets for 50 days now; you cannot push them back by killing and imprisoning them, because they have seen blood and they have had their own killed. Hold a referendum and see what the people of Iran want, and with what kind of change they will be happy."[22]

It is worth noting that Molavi Abdolhamid has never advocated independence for Balochistan.[23] In the February 10, 2023 sermon for the 44th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, he said: "We do not want to talk much about ethnic and religious issues. Our priorities are national demands; issues that include the entire nation of Iran. All Iranians are citizens of Iran. All Iranians are brothers and sisters."[24] He then added: "Iranians are one and we are all Iranian citizens. All Iranians want equal rights. We are talking about the rights of all Iranians. We want the honour, dignity and pride of the Iranian nation... We want to maintain the territorial integrity of Iran."[25]

Sunnis And Shi'ites

Talking about religious sectarism, Molavi Abdolhamid stressed that the Iranian government should ensure that Shias and Sunnis enjoy equal rights, despite the fact that Sunnis have been "excluded from high posts like ministry, ambassadorial services, and other key positions."[26]

In August 2022, a month before the uprising, Molavi Abdolhamid called on the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the President Raisi, the judiciary and other bodies of the country to solve Sunnis' religious problems. He said: "Sunnis are present, more or less, in Iran's big and small cities and towns. Iran belongs to all Iranians; it does not belong only to Shi'ites, or to Sunnis, or to any specific ethnic community. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to build mosques in all Iranian cities; we complain about such negative behaviour. Mosques are houses of God. They are not houses of Shias or Sunnis. We request the authorities to allow us to build mosques in all the cities of Iran."[27]

Previously, in March 2022, reminding them that Sunnis voted for Raisi, Molavi Abdolhamid asked the government to fulfil its promises toward the Sunni community. He then said: "The Sunnis do not want others to decide about their religious affairs. The government has the right to monitor, not to interfere. Sunnis should have full freedom in the construction of mosques. Officials should not interfere in their religious affairs. Security police should not interfere in the matters of mosques and prayer houses."[28]

In a recent December 2, 2022 sermon, he stressed: "For 44 years, we have suffered from discrimination, inequality, and pressure... But now, the people are making demands... The entire Iranian people have suffered from discrimination... We want our country to be safe. We want our country to be united. We said that there are no Shi'ites and Sunnis. There are no ethnic groups. We are all Iranians. We are all the same, from the Zoroastrians to the dervishes... All the religions, practices, and tendencies... Even the Bahá'ís. They, too, are human beings and belong to Iran. They have rights. Their rights must be protected. The rights of all of the Iranians who live here and belong to Iran must be protected."[29]

Political Prisoners

On the December 16, 2022 sermon in Zahedan, Molavi Abdolhamid called on the regime to release the political prisoners from the recent uprising. He said that the verdict of moharebeh (i.e., war against God) should not warrant the death penalty, which should be reserved only for people who have killed others.

He said: "This nation is experiencing hardships, so do not blame them [for protesting]. If you want, I can swear that they are experiencing hardships. People want freedom – freedom of speech, freedom to write, freedom of assembly, and freedom of thought... Do not be hard on them, since they are mostly very young, even children. Free these young boys and girls. Do not accuse them of moharebeh. Even if you [convict] someone of war against God, it should not carry a sentence of execution. The youth should not be killed, especially those young protesters who did not kill anyone. The best interpretation of the [Quranic] verse is that a person who killed another could be ultimately killed, [but] not someone who did not kill anyone. After all, we cannot take a life of a person who did not kill anyone."[30]

He then called for the release of Dr. Hamid Ghare-Hassanlou, a 52-year-old radiologist, who was sentenced to death in a trial for the murder of a Basij member.[31] It is worth noting that the death sentences for Hamid Ghare-Hassanlou was "revoked due to a flaw in the investigation."[32]

Molavi Abdolhamid also stressed that issuing "moharebeh" sentences to protestors is a "misunderstanding of the holy Qur'an." He stressed that a "protester" is not a "moharib" (someone waging war against God) and called on the government to amend the laws that allows to sentence demonstrators on charges of "moharebeh." "Do not charge protestors as 'moharib.' The nation has tolerated you for 44 years, and now you have to tolerate them; let them protest. The protestors are our compatriots, and they have problems. Perhaps you may not know about their problems, but in fact, they have them. Opponents and critics should be tolerated, this is very important... We should bear harsh criticisms; this suggestion to tolerate critics is not just for the governments and rulers, but also for the scholars, tribal elders, elites, women, and men. Do not imprison opponents, but talk to them and if they are wrong, convince them, but if they are right, respect them. Even if an American or an Israeli says the truth, we must accept it."[33]

Relations With Israel

Recently, Molavi Abdolhamid tackled also the topic of relations with Israel. On January 27, 2023 sermon in Zahedan, he said: "The Iranian people believe that there should be de-escalation of tensions in our foreign relations and foreign policy. The people want Iran to be a peace-seeking country, not a warmongering country... The Iranian people also want peace in Palestine. They believe that the Israeli government and the Palestinian people should make peace, and that the Palestinians should have an independent government. There should be two separate governments. It is not that only the Palestinians should have their own state, and get to rule their land. Israel, too, should have its own separate state."[34]


Molavi Abdolhamid's statements are a serious challenge for the leaders of the Islamic republic, as he is considered as an important "moderate" voice in Iran not only by Sunnis. As the uprising continues, his messages have become stronger and less appeasing to the central government. Recently, Molavi Abdolhamid clearly stated: "The Iranian people, inside and outside the country, have reached the conclusion that the current situation is unbearable, and changes should be made. It is wise for the state to surrender to the will of the people, in order to prevent more casualties and a societal collapse."[35]

*Suzan Quitaz is a Kurdish-Swedish journalist and researcher on Middle Eastern affairs.



[4] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 438, The Islamic Republic Of Iran's 'Slow Motion' Genocide Of The Balochi People, December 15, 2022

[6] Interview with Faiz Baluch, London, February 7, 2023.

[7], December 2, 2022.

[8], February 1, 2023.

[9] Interview with Faiz Baluch, London, February 7, 2023.

[10], January 17, 2023.

[11], December 3, 2022.

[12], October 31, 2021.

[13], August 24, 2021.

[14], November 2022.

[15], November 25, 2022.

[16], January 29, 2023.

[17], January 21, 2023.

[18], January 21, 2023.

[19], December 25, 2022.

[20], February 11, 2023.

[22], November 4, 2022.

[23] Interview with Faiz Baluch, London, February 7, 2023.

[24], February 11, 2023.

[25], February 11, 2023.


[27], August 20, 2022.

[28], March 10, 2022.

[32] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 447, The Execution Of Kurds By The Islamic Republic Of Iran, January 12, 2023.

[33], December 3, 2022.

[35], December 27, 2022.

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