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For other uses, see Ulama (disambiguation).
Scholars at an Abbasid library. Maqamat of al-Hariri Illustration by Yahyá al-Wasiti, Baghdad 1237

Ulama (/ˈləˌmɑː/; Arabic: علماء‎‎ ʿUlamāʾ, singular عالِم ʿĀlim, "scholar", literally "the learned ones",[1] also spelled ulema; feminine: alimah (singular) and uluma (plural)) are "those recognized as scholars or authorities" in the "religious hierarchy" of the Islamic religious studies.[2][3][4] They are the guardians of legal and religious tradition in Islam. Often they are "Imams of important mosques, judges, teachers in the religious faculties of universities".[2] The term may also include the body of Muslim Islamic scholars trained in the whole body of Islamic law and in other Islamic disciplines; but it may also be used to include the village mullahs and imams on the lowest rungs of the ladder of Islamic scholarship,[citation needed] inasmuch as they correspond most closely to the class of the scribes or rabbis in Judaism.[5]

Most ulama specialize in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence; these are known as fuqaha or muftis), and are considered the arbiters of sharia law by mainstream Muslims (though the closeness of some ulama to rulers may prevent them from being universally accepted).[citation needed] Ulama may also include specialists in other areas such as muhaddith (concerned with the study of hadith) and mufassir (concerned with tafsir of the Quran).[3]


Ulama is the plural of the word ‌‍‘alīm, which is derived from the word ‘ilm, meaning "knowledge" or "the pursuit of knowledge". However, the term has gained a special meaning beyond the plural form of ‌‍‘alīm, and is commonly used to refer to that section of the Muslim community who are "considered to be intellectual and partly aristocratic."[6] Sources used in the development of Sharia (Islamic law) such as hadith (the specialty of muhaddith), Ijma (the consensus of the ulama on a legal issue),[7] and Qias (Measuring/Analogical reason), or for Shia ulama aql (intellect), are all the province of the ulama. At times in Muslim history the ulama have even served as an informal branch of government, countervailing the power of the ruling caliph or sultan. On the other hand, the term is no longer confined to the Arabic bounds and is now taken with a broader meaning: it may refer to learned scholars regardless of their religiosity.[8]

Functions and requirements

Islamic jurisprudence in the contemporary world is mainly composed of:

  • Hadith: reports of statements or actions of Muhammad, and
  • Tafseer: explanation and interpretations of the Qur'an.

In certain Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, where there are sharia courts, Islamic clergy become judges. Therefore, one of the jobs of ulama is the interpretation and maintenance of Islamic law in such places.

In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Islamic clergy fulfill the role of a counsel for the king. There are also jobs for them in various governmental institutions.

There are various jobs available for the Islamic clergy at mosques. These include: leading public prayers, preaching, and delivering sermons, especially at Friday prayers. Some have made missionary activities a lifelong activity.

One of the five fundamental sources of Sharia (Islamic law) for Sunni Muslims is ijma, i.e. the consensus of the ummah (Muslim community).[9] It is based on the hadith that "My community will never agree on error"[10][11] (and other evidence), with the Ulama representing the community.[7] The last source of the Sharia is ijtihad, or the use of "independent reasoning." It is to be exerted only by those with "thorough knowledge of theology, revealed texts and legal theory (usul al-fiqh); an exceptional capacity for legal reasoning", and a "thorough knowledge of Arabic"[12]—i.e., by ulama. It is used by Shia ulama and some Sunni. (Depending on the school of jurisprudence, the ulama exercising ijma and ijtihad may only be that of the first generation of Muslims or the first three generations of Muslims; or it may include contemporary jurists and scholars of the Muslim world.[citation needed])

Sunni fuqaha or muftis usually work within a tradition (madhhab) that starts with one of five classic jurists.

Some ulama are not associated with any particular school of jurisprudence. The Salafis and Ahl-i Hadith, for example, believe that it is necessary to derive rulings directly from the Qur'an and the Hadith (Prophetic Sunnah), but they still hold the classical jurists in high esteem and take lessons from their opinions.

Many ulama have left behind them only a lifetime of mediating disputes and giving sermons; their respectable contributions did not include authorship. Other ulama have been prolific authors, writing translations of the Quran or Quranic commentaries, studies of hadith, works of philosophy, religious admonition, etc. There are enormous bodies of religious literature that form not only the substance of the courses in Islamic seminaries, but inspirational reading for the ordinary Muslim. Most of this literature has not been translated into English, but remains in its original language (usually Arabic, Urdu, Persian, or Turkish). Some has been printed; some remains in manuscript form.

Traditional way of education

As Berkey (1992) has described in detail for the education in medieval Cairo,[13] unlike medieval Western universities, madrasas had no distinct curriculum, and did not issue diplomas. Madrasas were merely (sacred) places of learning, often located close to a mosque. They provided boarding and salaries to a limited number of teachers, and boarding for a number of students out of the revenue from religious endowments (waqf), allocated to a specific institution. Students did not associate themselves with a specific madrasa, but rather sought to join renowned teachers.[13] By tradition, a scholar who had completed his studies was approved by his teacher. At the teacher's individual discretion, the student was given the permission for independent reasoning (ijtihad) and for the issuing of legal opinions (fatwa). The official approval was known as the ijazat attadris wa 'l-ifttd ("license to teach and issue legal opinions").[14] Through time, this practice established a chain of teachers and pupils who became teachers in their own time.[15] Essentially, an unbroken chain of teachers ensured the authenticity of the teaching back to the Prophet Muhammad, a process called Isnād (Arabic: إسناد‎‎, "support").[16] Thus, biographical evaluation (Arabic: عِلْمُ الرِّجال‎, translit. `Ilm al-Rijāl‎), a process by which the narrators of hadith are evaluated, using both historic and religious knowledge, is regarded as the key to establishing the credibility of a doctrine.[17]

Political history of the ulama

Early Muslim communities

The formative period of Islamic jurisprudence stretches back to the time of the early Muslim communities. In this period, jurists were more concerned with pragmatic issues of authority and teaching than with theory.[18] Progress in theory began to develop with the coming of the early Muslim jurist Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi`i (767–820), who codified the basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence in his book ar-Risālah. The book details the four roots of law (Qur'an, Sunnah, ijma, and qiyas) while specifying that the primary Islamic texts (the Qur'an and the hadith) must be understood according to objective rules of interpretation derived from scientific study of the Arabic language.[19]

According to Feldman (2008), under many Muslim caliphate states and later states ruled by sultans, the ulama were regarded as the guardians of Islamic law and prevented the Caliph from dictating legal results, with the ruler and ulama forming a sort of "separation of powers" in government.[8] Laws were decided based on the Ijma (consensus) of the Ummah (community), which was most often represented by the legal scholars.[8] In many ways, classical Islamic law functioned like a constitutional law.[8]

Early modern Islamic empires

Ottoman imperial Sunni ulama

An Ottoman scholar.

During the Ottoman era the ulama "were perceived as the foremost element" among the constituents of the community, and often "took responsibilities in law, education, primary religious services and occasionally in bureaucracy" of the government. Traditionally, the term "ulama" was commonly applied to scholars who had "completed their madrasa training and gained an icazet (graduate degree)".[6]

After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the leaders and subjects of the Ottoman Empire became increasingly aware of its role as a great power of its time. This new self-awareness was associated with the idea to legitimise the new political role by means of religion. This goal was reached by linking the religious scholarship to the political system: Ottoman historians of the 15th and 16th century strived at comprehensively and selectively appropriating their own history,[citation needed] as can be seen in the works of Ibn Zunbul or Eyyûbî,[20] who described the deeds of the Ottoman sultans as if they had been idealised Islamic ghazi warriors.

Mehmed the Conqueror (1432–1481) founded the sahn-ı şeman or "eight colleges", which served to educate islamic law scholars, using former Christian church buildings.[16] In his 2015 study on the "second formation of Islamic law",[21] Burak has shown in detail how the Ottoman state gradually imposed upon the traditional ulama a hierarchy of "official imperial scholars“, appointed and paid by the central government. From the conquest of the Mamluk Sultanate of Cairo in 1517 onwards, the Ottoman ulama set up their own interpretation of the Sunni Hanafi doctrine which then served as the official religious doctrine of the empire. In the Ottoman Empire, the formal acknowledgment by decree of the sultan became a prerequisite to issue fatwas. In the 17th century, the annalist al-Hamawi used the expression "sultanic mufti" (al-ifta' al-sultani) to delineate the difference between the officially appointed religious leaders and those who had followed the traditional way of education.[22][23] Other authors at that time called the Ottoman law scholars "Hanafi of Rūm [i.e., the Ottoman Empire]" (Rūmi ḫānāfi), "Scholars of Rūm“ (ʿulamā'-ı rūm) or "Scholars of the Ottoman Empire" (ʿulamā' al-dawla al-ʿUthmaniyyā).[24] The Shaykh al-Islām (Turkish: Şeyhülislam) in Istanbul became the highest-ranking Islamic scholar within, and head of the ulama throughout the empire.[22]

The ulama in the Ottoman Empire had a significant influence over politics because it was believed that secular institutions were all subordinate to Islamic law, the Sharia (Turkish: Şeriat). The ulama were responsible for interpreting the religious law, therefore they claimed that their power superseded that of the government.[25] Within the Ottoman hierarchy of ulama, the Shaykh al-Islām held the highest rank. He exerted his influence by issuing fatwas, his written interpretations of the sharia had authority over the entire Ottoman population. In the 16th century, as the support by the ulama of the sultan and the central government was essential for shaping the still-growing empire, the importance of the office rose, and its power increased. As members of the Ilmiye, the imperial scholars were part of the Ottoman elite class of the Askeri, and were exempt from any taxes.[26]

However, by approving scholars and appointing them to offices, over time the sultan gained considerable influence over the religious scholars, although he still, as a Muslim, had to submit to the Islamic law.[27] Even the Shaykh al-Islām was subordinate to the sultan; his position, like the ranks of the muftis, was described as a "service" (Turkish: hizmet) or „rank“ (Turkish: rütbe or paye), to which a candidate was appointed or elevated.[28][page needed] Sometimes, the sultans made use of their power: In 1633, Murad IV gave order to execute the Shaykh al-Islām Ahīzāde Ḥüseyin Efendi. In 1656, Shaykh al-Islām Ḥocazāde Mesʿud Efendi was sentenced to death by sultan Mehmed IV.[29]

According to Burak (2015), the Ottoman literature genre of the "rank order" (Turkish: tabaḳat, from Arabic: ṭabaqāt‎‎) and the "biografic lexicon" (Turkish: Eş-şakaiku’n, from Arabic: As-Shaqa'iq‎‎) compiled the biographies of scholars in such a way that a concise and coherent tradition was created of the doctrine and structure of the Ottoman imperial scholarship. During the 16th century, a row of ulama like the Shaykh al-Islām Kemālpaşazade (d. 1534), Aḥmād b. Muṣṭafā Taşköprüzāde (1494–1561), Kınalızāde ʿAli Çelebi (d. 1572) and Ali ben Bali (1527–1584)[30] established a seamless chain of tradition from Abu Hanifa to their own time. Explicitly, some authors stated that their work must not only be understood as the historiography of the Hanafi madhhab, but that it should be consulted in case of eventual disagreements within the school of law. This exemplifies his purpose to establish a canon of Hanafi law within the Ottoman imperial scholarship.[31] which modern Ottomanists termed the "Ottoman Islam".[32]

In the Ottoman Empire, the development of the Sunni Islam as an instrument for legitimising the Ottoman dynastic rule is closely linked to sultan Süleyman I and his kazasker and later Schaykh al-Islām Ebussuud Efendi. Ebussuud Efendi compiled an imperial book of law (kanunnāme), in which he construed[clarification needed] the Ottoman sultanic law from Islamic law according to the Hanafi madhhab.[33][page needed] Edicts based on an Islamic scholar's fatwa were not easily renounced, and had the potential to considerably strengthen a sultan's reign. Ebussuud also provided a reason why the government could own land, or could levy and increase taxes, as the government was responsible for the protection of the common goods of all Muslims.[34]

Shi'a state religion of Safavid Persia

Shaikh Ṣāfī ad-Dīn Isḥāq Ardabīlī (1252–1334) was the founder of the Safaviyya tariqa. Safi ad-Din's great-great grandson Ismail, who from 1501 onwards ruled over the Persian Empire, was the founder of the Safavid dynasty. Shah Ismail I proclaimed the Twelver Shi'a as the new Persian state religion. To propagate the Safavid faith, he invited ulama from Lebanon and Syria.[35][36] The royal family claimed descendency from Musa al-Kadhim, the Seventh Imam, in order to legitimize their rule. After the Persian defeat against the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Chaldiran (1514), the theocratic unity of religious and political power was challenged by the ulama. Ahmad ibn Muhammad Ardabili (d. 1585) claimed that shah Abbas I was only the steward of the imam, so that the ulama had the right to decide about the legitimacy of the stewardship. Later on, the Shi'ite ulama declared that only a mujtahid could become the legitimate steward of the Twelfth Imam.[citation needed]

19th century

A new Ottoman elite

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Ottoman ulama still retained their political influence. When sultan Selim III tried to reform the Ottoman army, the ulama opposed his plans, which they rejected as an apostasy from Islam. Consequently, his reform failed. However, Selims successor Mahmud II (r. 1808–1839) was more successful: He called the new troops, organised according to European models, by the name "Victorious army of Muhammad" (Asâkir-i Mansure-i Muhammediye). By doing so, he was able to overcome the accusation of apostasy and secure the ulama's support.[37] Mahmuds reforms created a new imperial elite class who spoke Western European languages and were knowledgeable of the Western European societies and their political systems. As the political and economic pressure increased on the Ottoman Empire in the course of the 19th century, this new elite carried on the sultan's reforms and helped initiating a new era of reform, the Tanzimat. In parallel, the political influence of the ulama was circumvented and reduced step by step. A ministry for religious endowments was created in order to control the finances of the vakıf. Thus, the ulama lost direct control over their finances, which significantly reduced their capacity to exert political influence.[37]

Orthodox Shi'a ulama in Iran

In Iran, the Persian Qajar dynasty, in particular Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (r. 1848–1896), whose reign paralleled that of the Ottoman sultans of the Tanzimat time, failed at obtaining central control over the ulama. The Shiite scholars retained their political influence on the Persian society. They also maintained unrestricted access to the financial resources from the religious endowments. In addition, the Islamic Zakat tax was paid to individual imams and not to state-sponsored tax collectors. Both their religious influence and their financial means allowed the Shiite ulama to act, at times, against the shah.[38] Thus, under the Qajar dynasty, the ulama provided a source of religious legitimacy and served as interpreters of religious law in a dual legal system where the state administered law based on custom (`urf).[39]

19th/20th century: Ulama and Muslim reform

Islah, Wahhabism and the Salafi Movement

Starting in the first half of the 19th century, direct contacts began and gradually increased between members of the ulama and modern Western Europe. The Egyptian alim Rifa'a al-Tahtawi (1801–1873) was amongst the first members of the ulama who travelled to Europe. As a religious counsellor to a delegation by the Egyptian khedive Muhammad Ali Pasha he stayed in Paris from 1826 to 1831. His report "The Extraction of Gold or an Overview of Paris" (Taḫlīṣ al-ibrīz fī talḫīṣ Bārīz) (1849) included some outlines of future reforms and potential improvements in his native country. Although al-Tahtawi had gone through the traditional education of an alim, his interest focused on modern French concepts of administration and economy. He only referred to Islam in order to emphasize that Muslims can adopt practical knowledge and insights from Europe. As such, at-Tahtawis report reflects the political efforts of Muhammad Ali Pasha, who did not intend to reform al-Azhar university, but aimed at building an independent educational system sponsored by his government.[40]

Hayreddin Pasha (1822/3–1890) was an Ottoman Tunisian alim and statesman who reformed the administration and jurisdiction of the province. He was able to explain his ideas in French (Réformes nécessaires aux États musulmans – Necessary reforms of the Muslim states. Paris, 1868), which he had learned whilst representing his sovereign Ahmad Bey at the court of Napoleon III from 1852 to 1855. In contrast to al-Tahtawi, Hayreddin Pasha used the religious concept of the Muslim collective interest (maṣlaḥa) to make his point, thereby applying the idea of ijtihad to public affairs.[40]

Positions comparable to the Western Islamic ulama were also taken in the Eastern parts of the Islamic world by Syed Ahmad Khan, the pioneering Muslim modernist in South Asia, and Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī. The latter is regarded as the mentor of Pan-Islamism, but also as one of the founders of the political Islam and of the late 19th and 20th century Salafi movement.[40]

The Egyptian Grand Mufti Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905), who was granted the degree of 'Alim by al-Azhar university in 1877, was the first who used the term Islāh in order to denote political and religious reforms. Until 1887 he edited together with al-Afghānī the newspaper al-ʿUrwa al-Wuthqā ("The firm bond"). The gazette widely spread the pan-islamistic concept of Islam representing a religious bond which was believed to be stronger than nationality or language. From 1876 on, ʿAbduh edited the newspaper al-Ahrām. Since 1898, he also edited, together with Rashīd Ridā (1865–1935), the newspaper al-Manār ("The Beacon"),[note 1] in which he further developed his ideas. al-Manār appeared in print for almost 40 years and was read throughout the Islamic world.[40]

ʿAbduh understood Islah as a concept of "reform of mankind" (iṣlāḥ nauʿ al-insān).[41] In his works, he emphasized the special importance of a reform of the traditional madrasa system, which was taken to disadvantage by the parallel establishment of the secular, state-sponsored educational system in Egypt. He strove at reconciling the traditional and modern educational systems, thereby justifying from the point of view of Islam the introduction of modern institutions by the national state. He referred to the Islamic concept of the collective interest or common good of the Muslim community (maṣlaḥa), to which he accorded overarching importance (al-maṣlaḥa shar) in the interest of his fellow Muslims. The concept of islāh gained special relevance for the future, as it strives at understanding and justifying all aspects of modern life from the Islamic doctrine.[40]

After ʿAbduhs death in 1905 Rashīd Ridā continued editing "al-Manār" on his own. In 1924, he published a collection of writings by some ulama of Najd: Maǧmūʿat al-ḥadiṭ an-naǧdīya.[42] Thus, the teachings of the Yemeni alim Muhammad ash-Shawkani (1759–1839), which had already been discussed since the 1880s, gained greater publicity. Likewise, the writings of the Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328) came to attention again. Ibn Taymiyyah's doctrine provided a link between the wahhabiyya and parts of the salafiyya movements.[43] The theological differences between the two movements were altogether too large for a complete union of the two doctrines. However, the opening of the Salafi movement towards Wahhabism helped to reconcile the latter with the Islamic public after king Ibn Saud's invasion of the Hijaz in 1924. Central Arabian militia (Iḫwān) had occupied and looted the holy towns of Mecca and Medina, thereby destroying monuments which they considered pagan ("shirk"). Starting with the Pan-Islamic Congress in Mecca in 1926, the pro-Saudi movement developed into one of the most relevant currents of Islamic thought.[citation needed]

Muslim mass organizations

In 1912, the Muhammadiyah organization was founded in Yogyakarta,[44] which, together with Nahdlatul Ulama ("Reawakening of the ulama"), founded in 1926, form the two largest Muslim organizations in the world.[45] Since the 1930s, their religious boarding schools ("pesantren") also taught mathematics, natural sciences, English and history. Since the 1980, the Nahdlatul Ulama schools also offered degrees in economy, jurisdiction, paedagogical and medical sciences. In the 1990s, under their leader Abdurrahman Wahid, the organization adopted an anti-fundamentalistic doctrine, teaching democracy and pluralism.[46]

Dar ul-Ulum Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, India

Darul Uloom Deoband, next to al-Azhar one of the most influential madrasas, was founded in the city of Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, in 1867. Initially, the intention of the school was to help Indian Muslims, who had become subjects of the British Empire after 1857, to lead their lives according to Islamic law. The Deobandi propagate a Sunni Islam of the Hanafi school, which was the most prevalent madhhab in South Asia. Still today, they aim at a revival of the Islamic society and education. Following the example of Deoband, thousands of madrasas were founded during the late 19th century which adopted the Deobandi way of studying fundamental texts of Islam and commenting on Quran and Hadith. By referring back to traditional Islamic scholars, the Deobandi School aims at defending the traditional Islamic madhhab, especially the Hanafi, against critcism which arose from other Islamic schools like the Ahl-i Hadith.[47] During the 1990s, the Afghan taliban also referred to the Deoband School.[48] Ashraf Ali Thanwi (1863–1943) is one of the most prominent teachers of Darul Uloom Deoband. Thanwi initiated and edited mulit-volume encyclopedic commentaries on the Quran. However, he was also able to reach out to a larger audience: His book Bahishti Zewar, which is still widely read in South Asia, as it details, amongst other topics, the proper conduct and beliefs for Muslim women.[49]

Ahl-i Hadith is a movement which emerged in North India in the mid-19th century. By rejecting taqlid (following legal precedent) and favoring ijtihad (independent legal reasoning) based on the foundational scriptures of Islam, they oppose the traditional madhhab and criticize their reliance on legal authorities other than the traditional texts.[50] The Ahl-i Hadith was the first organization which printed and spread the works of Muhammad ash-Shawkani, whose writings did also influence the doctrine of the Salafi movement in the Arab Middle East and world-wide.[51]

Ulama in the secular national states of the 20th century

In most countries, the classical institution of the madrasa as a place of teaching remained largely intact until the beginning of the 20th century. In the Western parts of the Islamic world, national states arose from the disintegration and partition of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The government of kemalist Turkey sought to distance the nation from the religious traditions and institutions of the Ottoman past.[52]

In Egypt, the establishment of a state-controlled educational system had already begun in the 1820s.[40] From 1961 onwards, Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to increase the state control over ancient Islamic institutions like al-Azhar university. The head of al-Azhar was – and still is – appointed directly by the president, and new faculties were created in this ancient Islamic institution.[53]

Initially giving rise to modernist reforms, up to a certain degree the state-sponsored faculties were able to retain their independence from government control. However, as Pierret has pointed out in detail for Syria,[54] in some countries the orthodox madrasa system remained largely intact, its decentralised organisation protecting it from state control. In fact, the government's attempt at controlling the religious education focussed largely on the academic institutions and neglected the traditional madrasas. By their continuing ability to provide social support and access to an educational alternative which was propagated as being more orthodox according to Islamic faith, the traditional ulama not only maintained their influence on large parts of the population, but actually increased their political influence and power.[54]

Republic of Turkey

In the kemalist Republic of Turkey, traditional Ottoman religious institutions were abolished like the Ottoman Caliphate, the office of the Shaykh ul-Islam, as well as the dervish brotherhoods. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Turkish: Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, or Diyanet) was created in 1924 by article 136 of the Constitution of Turkey by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey as a successor to the office of the Shaykh ul-Islam.[55] From 1925 onwards, the traditional dervish tekkes and Islamic schools were dissolved. Famous convents like the Tekke of the Mevlevi order in Konya were secularized and turned into museums.[56]


In Iran, contrary to many other Islamic countries, the Shi'a ulama had maintained their religious authority together with considerable sources of income by waqf endowments and the zakat tax. Thus, they maintained their ability to exert political pressure. Between 1905 and 1911, a coalition of ulama, bazaari, and some radical reformers incited the Persian Constitutional Revolution, which led to the establishment of the parliament (majlis) of Iran during the Qajar Dynasty.[57][58] The Islamic Revolution in Iran was led by a senior Shia cleric—the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—who established an Islamic Republic whose constitution calls for a cleric as the country's Supreme Ruler.


In his study on "Religion and state in Syria" (2013),[59] Pierret pointed out how the training of Syria's ulama gradually became more institutionalised, based upon the traditional madrasa system: In 1920, the madrasa of the Khusruwiyah Mosque complex (which was to be destroyed in 2014 during the Syrian Civil War) introduced an entrance exam and a stable curriculum for its Islamic seminary. Graduates were issued a diploma carrying the name of the institution, which bore the signatures of all teachers, signifying individual ijazah. In 1947, courses also included natural sciences and foreign languages. In 1947, the the state-run "Faculty of Sharia" was initiated in Damascus by Kamil al-Qassab (1853–1954), a former student of Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905) in Cairo. Until 1954, all Syrian ulama aiming at higher degrees had to join Al-Azhar University in Cairo. In 1954, however, Syria's first higher faculty of sharia was founded by members of the modernist wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its curriculum, which included economy and the "current situation of the Muslim world“, according to Pierret, "anticipated the 1961 modernist reform of al-Azhar by Nasser". In 1972, the curriculum of the state-run "Sharia high schools" was reformed again, thus providing access for their students to all faculties of Syrian high schools.[60]

According to Pierret (2015), the Ba'ath Party coup of 1963 brought about a weakening of the state-controlled sharia high schools by the secular government. Many teachers of the Damascus faculty of sharia were forced into exile during the 1960s. Attempts of the regime during the 1980s at changing the curricula of the faculty and create a new "Ba'athist ulama" failed. The faculty, maintaining their ability to recruit competent teachers, was able to resist the political pressure. Consequently, the Syrian government prohibited the faculty to grant doctorates until 1998, and delayed the establishment of another faculty in Aleppo until 2006.[61]

Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq

In 1961, Gamal Abdel Nasser put the Al-Azhar University under the direct control of the state. "Azharis were given military uniforms and found themselves marching in step under the orders of army officers."[62] After the independence of Algeria, President Ahmed Ben Bella also deprived the Algerian ulama of their power. Baathist repression in Iraq led to a drop of enrollment in the Shia holy cities of Iraq from 12,000 students in the early 1900s to only 600 scholars and students in 1977.[63]


When in the 1980s and 1990s the inner-Islamic conflict escalated in Pakistan between Sunnite and Shiite sectarians, Islamic organizations represented the religious and political frontiers, and spread their ideas in the madrasas which they sponsored. Graduates (talib) from North Pakistani madrasas like "Mullah" Mohammed Omar played a role in the establishment of the Afghan Taliban regime as well as in the development of the radical Islamic terrorism.[64] Under the pressure of Islamic terrorism, the traditional Islamic educational system together with their ulama came into general disregard within the Western world.[65]

Islamic revival and the origin of extremism

Quran studies class in the Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore

Islam, unlike Christianity, does not know a centralised process of ordination of its clergy. The traditional way of education and training relied largely on personal relationships between a teacher and his students. Whenever Islamic national governments tried to influence their regional ulama, they did so by controlling their income, or by establishing state-controlled schools and high schools. Traditional madrasas, representing merely decentralised "places of learning" and not institutions comparable to Western universities, often remained beyond state control. Whenever the state failed to control the resources of the madrasas, e.g., by controlling the income from religious endowments, or collecting Muslim taxes on behalf of the clergy, the ulama also retained the independence of their teaching. In particular, this held to be true in the Arabian provinces of the Ottoman Empire and the Arabian national states which arose out of the empire after the First World War.

For many people living in the poorer Islamic countries of today, especially those without natural resources like petroleum, the madrasa system, privately sponsored by foreign aid and not or insufficiently controlled by the state, often constitutes their only access to some form of education and social rise.[66] Saudi Arabian humanitarian organizations use the madrasas they sponsor to spread their wahhabitic doctrine,[67] whilst Shiite madrasas are frequently influenced by the Islamic Republic of Iran.[68] The Islamic revival originated largely from institutions which were financially independent from the state, and beyond its control. This led to a resurgence of the social and political influence of the traditional ulama in at least some countries.[69] Insufficient state control over the educational institutions and the frequently insufficient qualification of the teachers remain an issue, as does the ideologic indoctrination and the future professional perspectives of the graduates.[70]

Modern challenges

Some opinions from within the Muslim world have criticized the lack of scientific training of the ulama, and argued that those proficient in the sciences should qualify for this title.[71] In Egypt, the Al-Azhar University has begun to introduce scientific and practical subjects in its traditional theological colleges to help the ulama face the challenges of the modern world. N. Hanif states:

A religious hierarchy on the defensive against nationalists, secularists, modernists, apologists fundamentalists and romantics, and, possibly even in the bad books of the government of the day, trained only to transmit traditional knowledge in a parrot-like fashion is not likely to use its influence with the broad masses for the promotion of a modern approach to social and political life.[4]


  • Guy Burak (2015). The second formation of Islamic Law. The Hanafi School in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-107-09027-9. 
  • Robert W. Hefner, Muhammad Qasim Zaman (Ed.) (2007). Schooling Islam: The culture and politics of modern Muslim education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-12933-4. 
  • Thomas Pierret (2013). Religion and state in Syria. The Sunni ulama from coup to revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9-781-1076-0990-7. 
  • Muhammad Qasim Zaman (2002). The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-09680-5. 

See also

Further reading

  • Bein, Amit. Ottoman Ulema, Turkish Republic: Agents of Change and Guardians of Tradition (2011) Amazon.com
  • Hatina, Meir. Ulama, Politics, and the Public Sphere: An Egyptian Perspective (2010). ISBN 978-1-60781-032-2
  • Heyd. Uriel. "Some Aspects of The Ottoman Fetva." School of Oriental and African Studies Bulletin; 32 (1969), p. 35–56.
  • Inalcik, Halil. 1973. "Learning, the Medrese, and the Ulema." In The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300–1600. New York: Praeger, pp. 165–178.
  • Mehmet, Ipsirli, Guidelines to the Jurisprudence of Ottoman Ulema
  • Rabithah Ma'ahid Islamiyah Biografi Ulama of Indonesia
  • Tasar, Murat. "The Ottoman Ulema: their understanding of knowledge and scholarly contribution." The Turks. 3: Ottomans. Editors: Hasan Celâl Güzel, C.Cem Oğuz, Osman Karatay. Ankara: Yeni Türkiye, 2002, pp. 841–850.
  • Zilfi, Madeline C. 1986. "The Kadizadelis: Discordant Revivalism in Seventeenth Century Istanbul." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 45 (4): 251–269.



  1. ^ not to be confused with the television station Al-Manar


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  2. ^ a b Glassé, Cyril; Smith, Huston (2001). The New Encyclopedia of Islam. Rowman Altamira. p. 461. Retrieved 9 September 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Böwering, Gerhard; Crone, Patricia (2013). The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought. Princeton University Press. p. 547. Retrieved 9 September 2015. 
  4. ^ a b Hanif̉, N. Islam and Modernity. p. 318. 
  5. ^ At least one author (Sudanese Islamist Hasan al-Turabi) includes those informally trained in religion, insisting that because "all knowledge is divine and religious, a chemist, an engineer, and economist, or a jurist are all ulama." (source: Böwering, Gerhard; Crone, Patricia (2013). The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought. Princeton University Press. p. 547. Retrieved 9 September 2015. )
  6. ^ a b Mehmet, Ipsirli (May 2004). "The Ottoman Ulema (Scholars)" (PDF). muslim heritage. Retrieved 10 September 2015. 
  7. ^ a b Guillaume, Alfred (1954,1956). Islam (2nd (Revised) ed.). Penguin. p. 100.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  8. ^ a b c d Noah Feldman (March 16, 2008). "Why Shariah?". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-05. 
  9. ^ Guillaume, Alfred (1954, 1956). Islam (2nd (Revised) ed.). Penguin. p. 103.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  10. ^ Narrated by al-Tirmidhi (4:2167), ibn Majah (2:1303), Abu Dawood, and others with slightly different wordings.
  12. ^ Esposito, John. "Ijtihad". The Islamic World: Past and Present. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Retrieved April 28, 2013. 
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