Muslim religious scholars.
The term ulama literally means those who possess knowledge (ilm ), particularly of Islam. The ulama emerged as the first interpreters of the Qurʾan and transmitters of hadith, the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad. These scholars also became the first to outline and elaborate the basic principles of Islamic law (shariʿa). The ulama were central to Islamic education in the premodern Middle East. They regulated instruction at all levels and were instrumental in the process of training Islamic scholars in madrasas (residential colleges), which were established by the eleventh century. These medieval institutions developed a rigorous curriculum centered around instruction in the law, training future jurists, theologians, and state functionaries. This system of higher education was the first in a series of successful attempts to link the ulama to political authority in the Islamic world. Members of the ulama might also participate in Islamic mysticism as members—even leaders—of organized Sufi fraternities.
The ulama are often defined as a class when in fact the socioeconomic status of their membership remained quite varied. Lawyers and judges were key members of the ulama ; their legal skills were critical to the regulation of Islamic society in social and commercial matters such as wills, marriage, and trade. The ulama also included theologians, prayer leaders, and teachers, many of whom continued to participate in the economy as traders or artisans. Until the mid-nineteenth century, state bureaucracies in the Middle East employed members of the ulama as tax collectors, scribes, secretaries, and market inspectors. The ulama formed a cultural elite and retained the admiration and respect of the Muslim masses because they, not the rulers, were perceived as the true guardians and interpreters of the Islamic faith. As long as the ulama remained independent of state control, they continued to represent a base of potential support or opposition to ruling elites.
The advent of secularism and nationalism in the Middle East aroused the resistance of the ulama, who, increasingly, were perceived as obstacles to modernism and reform. The traditional power of the Sunni ulama over law, education, and bureaucracy was stripped away in the nineteenth century throughout the Ottoman Empire and in Egypt. Confiscation of Waqf properties, the traditional means of economic support for the ulama, increased their reliance on government authority for economic maintenance and served to compromise the group's independent religious and political influence. In the late nineteenth century individual members of the ulama, such as Muhammad Abduh, directed their influence in educational and religious reform through Egypt's famed Sunni theological center alAzhar. More recent twentieth-century Islamic political movements in Egypt, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, successfully circumvented what was perceived as the compromised model of the traditional ulama.
The problem for the contemporary Sunni ulama rests in the definition and scope of their authority. Challenges to the sole Sunni legal authority of alAzhar have arisen in Saudi Arabia with its state-sponsored Permanent Council for Scientific Research and Legal Opinions. Hanbali jurists who issue fatawa (sing.: fatwa ) through this medium are able to affect much of the Arabic-speaking world through the power of electronic communication. The tendency toward such authoritarian discourses in the Sunni world has been challenged by individuals who wish to assert the egalitarian possibilities of a more accessible ulama. Sudanese President Hasan alTurabi has argued that the ulama should consist of all devout, educated Muslims, not only those strictly trained in legal and theological matters. Such populist assertions undermine premodern precedent and underscore the deep divide within Sunni Muslim society today over the definition of religious and legal authority. The continued power and legitimacy of the ulama as leaders for the Sunni Muslim majority worldwide remains a matter of heated debate.
In contrast, the role of the ulama in Shiʿite Iran has reached new heights of political and religious authority since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Under the weak Safavid and Qajar dynasties the strength of the ulama increased. Beginning in 1925, despite the Pahlavi regime's attempts at secular government and bringing the ulama under state control, the scholars remained a potentially potent source of opposition. The ulama assumed leadership in the organized resistance to the shah, which culminated in the 1979 revolution and the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Shiʿite ulama in Iran successfully utilized their religious prestige as the only legitimate interpreters of Islam as a revolutionary weapon against a modern secular government.
see also abduh, muhammad; azhar, al-; iranian revolution (1979); muslim brotherhood; shariʿa; shiʿism; sunni islam; waqf.
Abou el Fadl, Khaled. Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority, and Women. London: Oneworld Press, 2001.
Mottahedeh, Roy P. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. New York: Pantheon, 1985.
Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
denise a. spellberg