Books and Documents

Islamic Society (18 May 2020 NewAgeIslam.Com)

Should the Ulema Take Themselves Seriously?

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam


18 May 2020


A madrasa graduate, recently complained to me that the word ‘Mullah’ is derogatory and hence its usage should be avoided. He was particularly livid that even Muslims use the word without realising that they were ‘mocking at one of the most important constituents of Muslim society’. The proper usage, he told me, should be Ulama e Deen or simply Alim (the learned one). My friend, the madrasa graduate, recounted tales of valour and sacrifice that the Ulema have made to the Muslim cause throughout history. With some force, he told me, that the very word Ulema should inspire a feeling of awe and respect, especially from the Muslim community.


This sense of self-worth is certainly not unique but is shared by most who have a religious degree. Even the most useless of such ‘religious scholars’, who sell themselves for a pittance on television debates, take offence at being called a Mullah. Certainly, Islam prescribes no clergy, and according to most readings of Islam, there is no hierarchy amongst the believers. Then why is it that the Ulama think that they are better than other Muslims? What special abilities do they possess to warrant such a respect? More importantly, since when have they started taking themselves so seriously?


The perception that Ulama are somehow special is also prevalent within Muslim society and generally as rule, Muslims think that the Ulama are worthy of respect. I have heard many Muslims remarking that it is the role of the Ulama to guide the Muslim community and that Muslims should follow their advice.


That the Ulama have been respected throughout Muslim history is a piece of fiction. As a matter of fact, they have never been. Since the Islamic state fused within the person of the caliph both sacred and secular powers, there was no need for a separate existence of a class of clergy. It is true that Muslim monarchs kept an advisory council comprising of Ulama, but the decision to accept any advice was the sole prerogative of the monarchy and almost in all cases, the acceptance or rejection of such advices were based on political considerations. Within South Asia, some Ulama tried from time to time to persuade Muslim Kings to undertake religious conversion, but the Kings never took their advice seriously. On the contrary, those who went against the diktat of the King were promptly put behind bars or exiled. Elsewhere in the Islamic world, the story of was the same: if the Sultan disapproved of something, then the particular Alim was in deep trouble.


Further back in Islamic history, we see that the Ulama were made fun of by Muslims themselves. Philosophers like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd and even mystics like Ibn Arabi lambasted the Ulema for taking the religious text too literally. These philosophers claimed that the real essence of Islam is buried within layers of meaning and that only they (the philosophers) have access to that knowledge. They contended that the Ulama only skim the surface and boastfully proclaim that they have found the truth. We should also not forget the various Muslim poets who have lampooned the Ulama for their mindless insistence on rituals. Even a pragmatist Islamist, like Jamaluddin Afghani, was horrified to learn that despite the imminent English threat, the Indian Ulama continued to be obsessed with questions like what should be the appropriate length of the beard.


This contemporary self-praise of the Ulama therefore is a modern phenomenon and in India, at least, its architect seems to be Shah Waliullah. Sensing the imminent decline of Muslim power, he theorised that the Ulama become custodians of inner caliphate (BatiniKhilafah) as opposed to outer caliphate (Zahiri Khilafa) where they should surrender their authority to whatever form of government exists. Although they never had any influence within the outer caliphate ever, this formulation of Shah Waliullah crystallised with the establishment of Deoband madrasa. This institutionalizing of a fictitious idea gave an important role to the Ulama, something which was new in Muslim history. Deoband positioned itself neatly within the colonial binary of public and private wherein religion came to be regarded as a private matter. And the Ulema became the masters of this private realm in terms of guiding the community in religious matters and teaching them the correct Islamic behaviour in a context where Islam was no longer the master signifier. The Ulama would perhaps be very disappointed to learn that their new role as the guide and leader of Muslims is in fact a gift bestowed on them, not by Muslims, but by the Christian British.


The second important moment for the Ulama came when Gandhi hit upon the disastrous idea of drafting them within the freedom struggle through the Khilafat movement. It is during the Khilafat movement that the Ulema truly emerged as a class within Muslims. In Marxian terms, it was a class fully conscious of its role and interests within society. The Khilafat movement transformed some Ulama into household names since they were in the forefront of anti-British struggle. Without understanding the internal social structure of Muslims, the Congress, in its infantile wisdom, under the leadership of Gandhi, anointed the Ulama as leaders of Muslims. Till now, within the popular imagination of this country, the Ulama are treated as leaders of the Muslim community. Having tasted power for the first time during the Khilafat movement, the Ulama were hardly the one to give it up despite the abject failure of the movement. Out of work, the Ulama understood the power of Islam as a mobilizing force. The social and political networks forged during the Khilafat movement would eventually be used in developing a separatist consciousness amongst a section of Muslims.


My friend, the madrasa graduate, must realise that there is nothing in Islam which tells us to respect the Ulama or even follow their advice. That they have become important is a fact. But they have become so because of the coming together of certain historical contexts. Within a different context, the same category of people have also been blamed for much of the plight of Muslim community. There is definitely a reading of Islam which tells us that an Alim must be respected for his knowledge. A famous Hadis tells us that Muslims must strive to seek knowledge even if they have to go to China. But if the Ulama today are downright ignorant of even basic history and geography, then is it the Muslim community’s fault if they do not respect them?


Arshad Alam is a NewAgeIslam.com columnist


URL: https://newageislam.com/islamic-society/arshad-alam,-new-age-islam/should-the-ulema-take-themselves-seriously?/d/121884


New Age IslamIslam OnlineIslamic WebsiteAfrican Muslim NewsArab World NewsSouth Asia NewsIndian Muslim NewsWorld Muslim NewsWomen in IslamIslamic FeminismArab WomenWomen In ArabIslamophobia in AmericaMuslim Women in WestIslam Women and Feminism


  • When the word Ulama is used here I get confused. Ibn Rushd, Ibn Arabi are also counted among Ulama. 
    But who are these Ulama that were countered by Ibn Arabi? 

    By GGS - 5/27/2020 3:41:32 AM

  • I did not believe a Muslim can indulge in objective analysis of Mullah's grip on Indian muslims. Appreciate your insight and objective view which i am sorry to say does not exist in 99 percent of muslims.
    By Rohit - 5/24/2020 3:40:49 AM

  • Then why does the ordinary muslim resent interference in madrasa syllabus?
    By SatishB - 5/22/2020 7:15:55 AM

  • Aayina,
    Your gender is of no interest to anyone. People are not used to calling other humans "it", so they will call you "he" or "she". Just put up with it.

    By Ghulam Faruki - 5/21/2020 11:49:27 AM

  • I am gender less here on this form, please call,me it, but never him, or her also Man has torched  the world on the name of God, and is more arrogant than women so I have bit of hate towards godly men irrespective of particular religion.
    Look at the Women prime minister of the world they have put humans above the money, that is the proof that God is man( not women) made thing, in this century more women's are given chance to come in politics and they have prove world is better with them in power look at the most of men leaders.
    It's not necessary to know someone gender, I can be men or I can be women, important is truth.

    By Aayina - 5/20/2020 11:24:07 PM

  • "Clear literal meaning" means nothing more than "the meaning that Naseer sb. derives"! We have discussed this to shreds in the past. In any case it is good to see Naseer sb. back.
    By Ghulam Faruki - 5/20/2020 12:56:36 PM

  • Such brotherly comment from Aayina is a prrof of him having a loving heart. 
    Welcome back respected Naseer Saheb.

    By Ayaan Neyazi - 5/20/2020 5:51:24 AM

  • Welcome back Naseer Ahmed, long time have not seen you,
    My thoughts never match with yours but good to see you back, better remain present, even though their are differences and disagreement as long as NAI publish comments.
    Satire: We bit each other like snake so what after all in process evolution small trait of every animal is left, sometime we do bit, sometime we hug.

    By Aayina - 5/20/2020 4:17:37 AM

  • The segregation of religious and secular/scientific learning is recent and goes back only a few centuries. It was religion that earlier inspired all kinds of research/learning and the monasteries, Madrassas and the gurukuls/pathshalas were centres of learning of every kind. The monks/religious scholars were also chemists, physicians, surgeons, astronomers and philosophers. The laboratories were within the monasteries, madrassas etc.

     A “new” religion inspired a fresh wave of learning and achievement in every field – art, architecture, science, military. Rome flourished after adopting Christianity. Islam turned Arabia, a land of little significance, into an imperial power defeating the two imperial powers of the day and establishing the greatest Empire till then in the shortest period and later establishing a culture of great learning in every field.

     Becoming dogmatic in one’s beliefs is a phenomenon which even the great Einstein was not immune from. Although he played a significant role in the development of Quantum Mechanics in the earliest period of development of this subject, later he resisted/rejected the growing evidence of the probabilistic nature of physics at the quantum level and this marked an end to his significant contributions to physics.

     A religion comprises a prophet/avatar with revelatory knowledge from God, the primary purpose of which is to help man better govern human relations for the greatest benefit to self and the society. With every “new scriptural” religion, mankind made great progress in every field. This process stopped when God had handed down all that was needed to guide mankind and without any “new” religion coming up, secular learning around a religion soon turned reactive defending the works of past greats and running down the bright youngsters with new discoveries which lead to the separation.

     The separation is not necessarily at the level of the individual. A person may be both religious and also at the cutting edge of science. He may go both to a place of worship and the lab. Such people are very few. The large majority of people these days, go to only one of these places, because religions are dominated by scholars stuck in the discredited knowledge of the world from a distant past, are shunned by those with a modern education. The one’s who undergo only religious education come across as “stupid” simply because their view of the world is defective. Their view of God is equally defective because God can only be known through His Creation and a defective knowledge of the world equally means a defective knowledge of God, His attributes and the religion. The scriptures speak of many of the natural phenomena in a direct language but man’s knowledge of the world at the time of the revelation, was different from the correct one, and therefore the earlier scholars took these verses to be metaphorical and interpreted them to make these conform to their world view, and the present day scholars, continue to follow their interpretations, rather than take the correct meaning from it, which is the direct literal meaning. The Aa’lim who is devoid of knowledge of the world is a dangerous Jahil, because he continues to ignore the clear literal meaning which is the correct one, and continues to be guided by fanciful interpretations of the past scholars.  Contrary to the claim of the old philosophers that the real essence of Islam is buried within layers of meaning, the correct meaning of any verse is the direct literal meaning as the Quran itself affirms.

     (18:1) Praise be to Allah, Who hath sent to His Servant the Book, and hath allowed therein no Crookedness: (He hath made it) Straight (and Clear).

    By Naseer Ahmed - 5/20/2020 12:56:59 AM

  • Truly worthy of praise.... idea and concept of Ulema needs such reflection and introspection!
    Beautifully discussed and analysed 🌟🌟

    By Meera - 5/18/2020 10:05:58 PM

  • @ G Faruki.
    Indeed that is so. Thank you
    Ulama are defined at 35:27, 28 unmistakably as polymaths, knowledgeable people who benefit mankind with their knowledge and in their humbleness.
    Unlike the so called maulanas and muftis the other elite class, gloating in their godly titles whom Muslim States and people, both almost worship.
    Thank you Mr Arshad Alam too.

    By Skepticles - 5/18/2020 7:09:29 PM

  • Since Islam is the religion of common sense, our common sense is our best guide. The best ulama are those who encourage us to think for ourselves. Anyone who is a literalistic slave of the scriptures is least suited to be an aalim.
    By Ghulam Faruki - 5/18/2020 12:12:03 PM

  • Just marvelous. Puts Mullas in their place. An incisive understanding of how independence movement catapulted them to social respect and visibility which they take as their birthday right. 
    By ZAFIR - 5/18/2020 11:02:41 AM

  • Very apt analysis of the Ulama and why they now demand to be revered by people
    By Mushtaq Sikander - 5/18/2020 7:28:57 AM

  • What the article describes is noteworthy and is well described.
    But, the word 'Mullah' although meaningless is used in a derogatory sense, so it better is not used.

    By Ayaan Neyazi - 5/18/2020 7:19:24 AM

Compose Your Comments here:
Email (Not to be published)
Fill the text
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the articles and comments are the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect that of NewAgeIslam.com.