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Islamic Ideology (16 Jan 2017 NewAgeIslam.Com)

On the Self Acquired Importance of the Ulema

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

17 January 2017

The often lazy display in understanding the complexity of the Muslim situation can be found today in the Indian media, particularly television. Whether there is a discussion on education, health, politics or gender, we find that the Muslim is represented by some Alim, who pontificates on every given issue as if they are experts of all that is going on within the Muslim society. One is flabbergasted to hear some Maulvis giving his views in areas where the person has no expertise. But the more important point perhaps is why does the electronic media think that the Ulema represent Indian Muslims? Is it just their ignorance or is there some deep structure in their unconscious which makes them believe that Muslims can best be represented through the Ulema?

It is not just the media which gives them such importance, but even average Muslims themselves hold them in high regard. In matters especially concerning those of religion, their views are taken seriously and even adhered to by scores of Muslims. Some Muslims even regard them as leaders of the community and thus they are listened to carefully in matters of politics and a certain kind of leadership role is expected from them. Even if such Muslims are in a minority, it is generally observed that when a Maulana speaks up on some issue, everyone listens in rapt attention and there is hardly any questioning of the position taken by that particular Alim.

As part of myth making, the Ulema would let us believe that they were important since the beginning of Islam. But things were not always this good for the Ulema. Indeed in the early years of Islam, they hardly existed as a class. The ‘golden age’ of Islam tells us that there was always a tension between the Ulema and the philosophers. The latter did not take them seriously and at times publicly lambasted them for their limited understanding of how the world works. To make matters worse, there were poets whose favourite pastime was ridiculing the Ulema for the incoherence of their thoughts. Moreover, philosophers were Aalim in their own right: no one could accuse Ibn Sina or IbnRushd for not knowing religion. Indeed, in their own worlds there was hardly a distinction between the pursuit of religious and material knowledge. They excelled in both and looked down on the Ulema who were pre-occupied with the other world without understanding how the present world worked and manifested the glory of Allah. And then of course there were the Sufis, having mass following, who championed the cause of batini (inner) khilafah and lampooned the Ulema for their limited understanding of religion, often accusing them of inventing newer interpretations of Islam for the benefit of the King.

Despite such a healthy scepticism against the Ulema, how is it that today they have come to occupy the imagination of the Muslims and others? In the Indian context, part of the answer lies in the movement for protecting the Khilafat which was launched in 1919. For the Congress, it was an attempt to bring Muslims closer to the organization on an emotive issue. But this was perhaps for the first time, that the Ulema had an organization of their own: the Khilafat Conference. History tells us that this Conference hardly achieved anything: the issue itself was lost when the Turkish people revolted and abolished the caliphate itself. But the Ulema had tasted something different: it was no longer the issue of the caliphate but the discovery that Islam could be used to mobilize Muslims. And there has been no looking back since. With the passage of time, this consciousness among the Ulema has only grown.

Today most of them do not operate individually as was the traditional arrangement of power. But they are part of some organization and derive their strength by being part of that collective. Almost all maslaks have their own organization and there are deep doctrinal differences between them but they get united as a class whenever a need arises. The recent bonhomie between the Bareilvis and Deobandis is a recent example. The issue at hand is not a rational argument for or against triple Talaq. The issue at the core is: who gets to interpret and define what Islam is? The Ulema as a class are unwilling to let go of their power to define and represent Islam despite causing pain and humiliation to millions of Muslim women.

One is often left wondering whether the current politics of the Ulema resembles the workings of a de facto church, something which has no sanction in Islam historically or even theologically.


Arshad Alam is a NewAgeIslam.com columnist

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/islamic-ideology/arshad-alam,-new-age-islam/on-the-self-acquired-importance-of-the-ulema/d/109741

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  • The ulema—religion-operatives and pseudo authorities on everything have not acquired importance without the consent of the majority average followers, who mainly became Muslims by sunn sunn kar musulman huey (sunnis ?). “…but even average Muslims themselves hold them in high regard. In matters especially concerning those of religion,…” as you rightly say. It is they who in the first place have placed them on the religious pedestal and handed them “importance” on the plate. Who would look such a gift horse in the mouth?

    To all, Islam is supposed to be a religion therefore it must have a priesthood class, the guides.

    Actual case to illustrate this. In a so called enlightened Urdu speaking group at a dinner party there were five people who were  all named ‘Daaktar Saab’. Some PhDs and some medicos. The topic turned to whether or not Kangaroo meat is halal, allowed to eat?

    After lengthy, passionate and fruitless discussion it was finally agreed—“must obtain a fatwa from a mufti or maulaanaa”! Not once was any reference made to Quran; let alone question the titles of mufti and maulaanaa!

    So yes, it has become a CHURCH!!

    By Rashid samnakay - 2/2/2017 7:48:06 AM

  • Arshad ji,
    Your article provides refreshingly critical outlook on the institution of Ulema. 

    By Meera - 1/19/2017 10:14:57 PM

  • The ulema are the scamsters and their followers are the suckers.

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 1/17/2017 1:39:18 PM

  • There is no reason to “wonder”. The Ulema ARE the clergy, clever operatives and traders (2-79) of the CHURCHES.

    It is the followers who are the dumb sheep to even call them Ulema; not knowing who are the people with knowledge-I’lm and are the Ulema-scholars referred to in Quran:-

    35:27,28- ……those of His obedient servants, the Ulema, who possess KNOWLEDGE (of workings of the Universal phenomena) humble before God (fearing wrong doing). Surely God is mighty and forgiving.

    By No Wonder - 1/17/2017 2:27:20 AM

  • those that are engaged in the study of unicorns can never find common ground.
    By hats off! - 1/17/2017 1:56:28 AM

  • The Ulema have always been bigots. Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, the king of all bigots, was a contemporary of Akbar who was the most secular of all the Muslim rulers.

    The rulers, the administrators and the jurists, were mostly secular in their outlook and ignored the bigoted ulema.

    The poets ridiculed the ulema openly. The measure of the general level of religious tolerance under Muslim rule can be gauged not by the works of the religious scholars but from the poetry and literature of the period. Urdu literature and poetry is completely free from religious bigotry. You will find plenty of poetry ridiculing the Mullahs but not a single verse ridiculing any other religion but only verses in their praise.

    By Naseer Ahmed - 1/17/2017 1:26:47 AM

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