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ʿULAMĀʾ ("the learned"), the religious scholars of Islam, are the guardians, transmitters, and interpreters of its sciences, doctrines, and laws and the chief guarantors of continuity in the spiritual and intellectual history of the Islamic community. The term is a generic one and embraces all who have cultivated the religious disciplines or fulfilled certain practical functions such as judgeship. [See figure 1 for individual titles given to ʿulamāʾ.]

It is an axiom that the scholars are the heirs of the prophets; the emergence of the ʿulamāʾ as a distinct group had, therefore, to await the passing of the prophet Muammad and the completion of revelation. However, the Qurʾān itself indicates the necessity and excellence of a learned class, quite apart from extolling, in numerous verses, the virtue of knowledge (ʾilm ). The word ʿulamāʾ appears in sūrah 35:28, although obviously not in the precise sense later usage conferred on it, and the expressions "those well rooted in knowledge" (3:7), "the people of remembrance" (16:43), and "those who have been given knowledge" (58:11) have also been interpreted as referring to the ʿulamāʾ. Numerous utterances attributed to the Prophet define the purpose and status of the ʿulamāʾ: in addition to being "the heirs of the prophets," they are described as "the best of my community," "the trustees of the prophets" (in the sense of being repositories of the laws promulgated by the prophets), "the trustees of God over his creation," "the lamps of the earth" (in that through their knowledge they dissipate the darkness of ignorance), and "equivalent to the prophets of the children of Israel" (in stature and authority). The authenticity of some of these utterances has been questioned, but their content has shaped the self-image of the ʿulamāʾ and their role in Muslim society.

The antecedents of the learned class of Islam may perhaps be sought in the ahl al-uffah ("the people of the bench"), a group that customarily gathered outside the mosque in Medina for the cultivation of religious knowledge and from whom lines of transmission went forth to the great early authorities in Qur'anic exegesis, prophetic tradition, and law. Antecedents may be found also in certain individuals who excelled in a particular branch of learning (such as Ibn ʿAbbās, described by the Prophet as "the foremost of the exegetes"). It was not until the ninth century that a distinct class of learned men crystalized, bearing the title of ʿulamāʾ. This development went together with the elaboration and differentiation of the various branches of religious knowledge, with the vast expansion of the Islamic realm beyond the Arabian Peninsula, and with the accelerating conversion of non-Arab peoples to Islam (the high proportion of Iranians among the ʿulamāʾ of what has been called the formative period of Islamic thought cannot be overlooked). But the most important single impetus to the emergence of the ʿulamāʾ class was the desire of the Islamic community to codify the provisions of Islamic law, for the ʿulamāʾ were primarily concerned with law, of which other subjects were the virtual adjunct. Jurisprudence has remained the core of the ʿulamāʾ curriculum down to the present.

Various explanations have been offered for the emergence of the madrasah, the institution for the training and formation of the ʿulamāʾ, but once the madrasah appeared and spread throughout the Islamic world, it remained remarkably stable, and its resistance to change became one of the most important elements in the ability of the ʿulamāʾ to function as guarantors of continuity. The madrasah had a hierarchy of posts ranging from the mubtadiʾ, or beginning student, to the mudarris, or fully qualified professor of law; intermediate stages were the mutawassi ("intermediate"), the muntahī ("terminal"), the mufīd ("docent"), the muʿīd ("repetitor"), and the nāʾib mudarris ("deputy professor").

Two elements lay at the heart of the madrasah education: the study of texts and the personal relationship between student and teacher. Particularly from the eleventh century onward, when all major developments in the field of jurisprudence had been completed, it was texts rather than the subjects they treated that defined the madrasah syllabus. The text was made the object of assimilation, discussion, elaboration, commentary, and criticism, so that an important part of ʿulamāʾ writing came to consist of glosses and commentaries on curricular texts.

The relationship between teacher and student consisted of far more than the transmission of a fixed body of knowledge.

An entire worldview and distinct method of thought, as well as a sense of corporate identity, were also passed on. Accordingly, dealings between teachers and students were regulated by ethical and behavioral norms that were codified in a number of handbooks. These twin elements, the text and the teacher, were recorded in a document known variously as the sanad and the ijāzah, in which the competence of the student to teach various books was attested and the entire chain of authorities, to which his name was added as the most recent link, was enumerated.

Although the ʿulamāʾ were defined as a social unit by their cultivation and transmission of religious learning (together with the application of that learning in their own lives: ʿilm had always to be complemented by ʿamal, "practice"), they also exercised a variety of practical functions that made them indispensable to traditional society. Apart from preaching and leading congregational prayers in the mosque (a task that, outside the largest and most prestigious mosques, was often delegated to junior members of the class), they acted as judges, notarized and witnessed all important civil and commercial transactions, served as trustees for the estates of minors, and arbitrated popular disputes. All of these activities created a closeness between them and the rest of society (particularly the mercantile and artisan classes of the cities) that was singularly lacking in the relations of the state with its subjects.

Early ʿulamāʾ (like early ūfīs) appear not to have drawn salaries or charged fees for the functions they fulfilled, and down to the present some ʿulamāʾ, particularly in the countryside, have continued to earn their livelihood from the practice of a trade. But despite initial misgivings, it soon became normal for the ʿulamāʾ to charge fees for exercising notarial functions and issuing legal opinions (fatwās ) and to accept stipends from the endowments that were settled on the learned institutions. Because the stipends were not always generous, it was often necessary to supplement them with income from other sources; ʿulamāʾ biographies are replete with stories of material hardship. But certain ʿulamāʾ are recorded to have accumulated great wealth, particularly when religious learning and prestige became hereditary in some families.

Islamic political theory, especially as elaborated by the Sunnī segment of the community, quickly came to an accommodation with the dynasties (often of military origin) that seized rule over the Islamic lands from the tenth century on; rebellion was generally equated with irreligion. Despite this, the ʿulamāʾ sometimes acted as the spokesmen for popular grievances. In addition, there was the lasting conviction that the ʿulamāʾ should shun close association with the state and its officers in order to maintain the superior degree of piety that was meant to undergird their learning. A frequently quoted tradition made the successorship of the ʿulamāʾ to the prophets conditional on their "not associating with the sultan." Those who did associate were designated by the celebrated al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) as "scholars with worldly motivation" (ʿulamāʾ al-dunyā ) or "scholars of evil" ʿulamāʾ al-sūʾ ) by contrast with "scholars of otherworldly motivation" (ʿulamāʾ al-ākhirah ), that is, those who shunned such association. Tangential association with the state was, however, inevitable in the case of postsabove all, judgeshipsthat were at its disposal, and in Ottoman times the entire corps of ʿulamāʾ became in effect part of the state bureaucracy and thus lost its autonomy.

It is often supposed that a fundamental and consistent opposition existed between the ʿulamāʾ and the ūfīs, the other great class of religious specialists in Muslim society, and certainly cases of mutual hostility are to be encountered. The overall historical record suggests, however, that a symbiotic relationship existed between the ʿulamāʾ and the ūfīs: while the ʿulamāʾ cultivated ʿilm, formal knowledge acquired through mental exertion, the ūfīs pursued maʿrifah, inward knowledge resulting from the purification of the heart. The ʿulamāʾ were designated as "scholars of the exoteric" (ʿulamāʾ al-āhir ) and the ūfīs as "scholars of the esoteric" (ʿulamāʾ al-bāin ); the purview of religion was seen to include harmoniously the concerns of both groups. Theoretical ūfīsm was often taught in the madrasah s, and the ūfīs recognized the authority of the ʿulamāʾ in matters of law. From the fifteenth century onward, it was even common for many of the ʿulamāʾ, especially in India and the Ottoman empire, to be affiliated with one of the ūfī orders, often the Naqshbandiyah. One who combined formal scholarship with Sufism in this way would be designated as "the possessor of two wings" (dhū al-janāayn ).

In modern times, the authority of the ʿulamāʾ in Muslim society has generally declined. The increasing secularization of law and education has deprived them of many of their most important functions, so that in some cases they have become little more than state-supported dignitaries with purely cultic and ceremonial responsibilities; vigorous and ambitious minds have found little stimulus to join the ranks of the ʿulamāʾ. In addition, the emergence of Islamic movements that bypass the ʿulamāʾ and even criticize them for alleged failings, such as intellectual stagnation and political passivity, has undercut their standing with the believing masses. In some cases, however, the ʿulamāʾ have collaborated with these movements, as in late twentieth-century Syria, where prominent ʿulamāʾ were involved in the Muslim Brotherhood. Independent ʿulamāʾ ventures in politics with parties such as the Nahdatul Ulama in Indonesia and the Jamīʿat al-ʿUlamāʾ in Pakistan have not been notably successful. The case of Iran, where the ʿulamāʾ not only defied the secularizing bent of the state but led a revolution to victory and founded an Islamic republic, is an exception to the prevailing trend of diminishing influence, owing to a number of special factors such as the organizational autonomy of the Iranian ʿulamāʾ in the prerevolutionary period and the charismatic appeal of Imām Khomeini. It is nonetheless possible that the present current of Islamic renewal may ultimately enhance the prestige and position of the ʿulamāʾ in other countries.

See Also

Ijtihād; Madrasah; Mosque, article on History and Tradition; Qāī; Shaykh al-Islām.


There is no single work describing the origins, development, functions, and present status of the ʿulamāʾ. The formation of the madrasah and the salient features of the pedagogical tradition have, however, been expertly discussed in George Makdisi's The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh, 1981). Developments in the madrasah system under the Ottomans are the subject of Hüseyin Atay's Osmanlilarda yüksek din eğitimi (Istanbul, 1983). Among the many works delineating the ethical norms that surrounded the cultivation of learning mention may be made of Ibn Jamāʿah's Tadhkirat al-sāmiʿ wa-al-mutakallim fī adab al-ʿālim wa-al-mutaʿallim (Beirut, 1974). Relations between the ʿulamāʾ and the state, with particular reference to ʿulamāʾ defiance of injustice, have been surveyed by ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Badrī in Al-Islām bayn al-ʿulamāʾ wa-al-ukkām (Medina, 1966). The organization and functions of the Ottoman learned hierarchy are described by Ismail Hakkı Uzunçarşili in Osmanlı devletinin ilmiye teşkilâti, 2d ed. (Ankara, 1984). Two collective works that contain essays on the ʿulamāʾ in different periods and lands are The ʿUlamāʾ in Modern History, edited by Gabriel Baer (Jerusalem, 1971), and Scholars, Saints and Sufis, edited by Nikki R. Keddie (Berkeley, 1972). See also my study Religion and State in Iran, 17851906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period (Berkeley, 1969).

Hamid Algar (1987)