Islamic Wisdom: Religious Leader Ulama

Nor Silver Nor Gold:

Ulama (‘ulāmā’) is an Arabic word that derives from ‘ilm, ‘knowledge’. The ulama are therefore etymologically the scholars or more precisely the experts in Islamic religious sciences. Perhaps the best way to define them is through a famous hadīth, a tradition attributed to the prophet of Islam:

Bosnia, 1906.jpgClass of ulama, Bosnia, 1906

The Introduction of Paper:

The Muslim expansion towards Central Asia and China produced a first radical change. After the battle on the Talas River (751), Muslims learned the secret of papermaking from Chinese war prisoners. This invention rapidly spread through the territories of the Abbasid caliphate and replaced the most common writing materials available in the Middle East: parchment, which ensured long-term preservation but was very expensive as it was made from animal skins, and papyrus, which was available in Egypt at a low price, but was exposed to quick deterioration. The introduction of paper, with its balanced cost-resistance ratio, made Arab culture a “book civilization.” It was a real revolution, as illustrated in a fascinating way by Gregor Schoeler.[4]

The Development of a Curriculum:

Eleventh century constituted a second turning point. Nizām al-Mulk (1018–1092), the powerful vizier of the Seljuq Empire, promoted a series of reforms aimed at giving new impetus to the study of tradition, or Sunna, in an anti-Shiite function. Accordingly, he created institutions explicitly charged with this task, the madrasas or (religious) schools. Until then, the training of the ulama had taken place informally, through circles of students gathered in a mosque around a teacher. The creation of the madrasa resulted into an institutionalization of education, with a gradual development of programs and textbooks. In particular, the madrasa curriculum focused on the Qur’an (recitation, exegesis, textual variants …), hadīth, law, Arabic language and theology (kalām) with the possible addition of profane disciplines. Over time, the practice of issuing a license after the completion of studies (ijāza ‘āmma, ‘general authorization’) was also standardized, thus essentially formalizing the role of teacher.[5] Alongside newly formed realities, among which the nizāmiyya madrasa in Baghdad stands out for its importance, also some already existing centers such as al-Azhar in Cairo or the Qarawiyyīn in Fez adopted the madrasa structure, thereby assuming their present-day physiognomy of mosque-universities.

The Erosion of a Role:

At the beginning of the twentieth century — as Ivan Bilibin’s painting suggests — the role and power of the ulama remained seemingly intact. All the characteristics of the social body described so far are indeed well represented in the painting, which depicts the courtyard of the mosque of al-Azhar, brimming with people studying books, dressed in a special way, following a course etc.…Everything seems frozen. Nevertheless, from 1800 onwards, Arab-Islamic societies underwent profound changes, which resulted, among many other things, into the erosion of the role of ulama. The crisis that affected the Islamic clergy was due to two reasons and manifested itself mainly in two aspects.

Il cortile dell’Azhar (1900), Ivan BilibinThe courtyard of al-Azhar, 1900 (Ivan Bilibin)
The activist Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838–1897)

The Yellow Books:

In order to understand the nature of the other movement attacking the ulama world, i.e. Salafism, it is necessary to take a step back to the moment of the introduction in the Islamic world of another technological innovation: the printing press. Although the news of this invention had spread relatively early in the central lands of Islam, for centuries Muslims maintained an attitude of distrust towards it. While the first printing works opened their doors in Lebanon and Syria between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to serve the needs of local Christian communities, massive introduction among Muslims only occurred in nineteenth century. In 1820–1821 the aforementioned Khedive of Egypt Muhammad ‘Alī ordered the opening of a printing shop in Bulaq, which at the time was a suburb of Cairo. Initially it was entrusted with the printing of the official Egyptian journal and of translated scientific books; gradually however it started to work on religious texts as well, until in 1924 an edition of the Qur’an was produced in Cairo with the participation of numerous local ulama. There was great fear that a printed edition could introduce even minimal errors in the Islamic sacred text, considered to be the literal word of God. Instead, the 1924 Cairo commission succeeded in producing an irreproachable edition, which from that moment on became the prototype for countless subsequent reproductions. Its success, however, had the involuntary effect of making one of the Qur’anic readings dominant over all other variants; such result, largely unwanted, already bespeaks the simplification effect induced by the new technological revolution.

The Salafi site “Ahl al-Hadeeth”

The Reaction of the States:

In fact, the ulama regression had already started well before the Internet. For example, in Iraq, Syria, Tunisia and Algeria, the leaders of the decolonization phase, not lastly because of the cultural environment of the time (Marxism, thesis of the inevitable secularization etc.), had arrived at the conclusion that the ulama’s battle was lost before it began. Saddam voluntarily let the religious institutions fall apart; the Baathist Syria took an officially secular position; in Tunisia the Zaytuna University, a traditional center of Islamic knowledge, lost much of its importance; the Algerian leaders preferred to devote themselves to a form of ‘Arab socialism’ in which Islam was still present, but essentially as a storage of values to draw on according to the needs of the moment.

Nasser, Sadat and the Shaykh al-Azhar al-Fahhām:


From the 1960s onwards, many scholars were induced, just like political leaders, to prophesy the end of the ulama. However, such prophecy, like many others relating to the Islamic world, has not come true. Today we are rather witnessing a rebirth of neo-traditional thought, which aims at recovering the ulama’s legal and theological method, in order to address contemporary issues without endorsing the pure literalism of Salafis and at the same time without resorting to Islamist political activism. Within this trend, we could place a number of religious personalities, which we could call, drawing from the Arabic language, ‘madhabite’, i.e. belonging to a madhhab or juridical school. In Egypt, for example, two figures very close to the power like the Shaykh al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyeb and ‘Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of the Republic until 2013, are madhabite. The struggle for supremacy between ulama and their competitors might even turn into a bloody fight, as evidenced by the end of al-Būtī (1929–2013). The former dean of the sharīʿa department in Damascus and a well-known exponent of neo-traditionalism, al-Būtī was killed in an attack in 2013 for his open support to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Other famous ulama of madhabite orientation are Ahmad ‘Abbādī, leader of the Moroccan ulama, and Abdallāh Ibn Bayyah, a Mauritanian scholar with a Sufi profile, recently appointed to lead the UAE’s Fatwa Council.

‘Ali Gomaa:

Some Open Questions:

The fact that traditional and neo-traditional ulama are often very critical of Salafism, and in particular Jihadi Salafism, does not imply that they are the panacea of all ills. Of course, the official ulama refuse the practice of takfīr (‘accusation of disbelief’), adopt a generally anti-terrorist discourse, do not ask, unlike political Islam, for the return of the caliphate or a modern version of it, and usually accept the principle of citizenship. All these positions are enough to make them quite popular in the current context. However, they hold extremely conservative positions on many other issues.

Further Readings:

Jacob Skovgaard-Petersen. Sailing in Stormy Waters. Ulama and Revolutions. “Oasis” 27 (2018), pp. 31–39.



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Raja Muhammad Mustansar Javaid

Raja Muhammad Mustansar Javaid

Writer | network engineer | Traveler | Biker | Polyglot. I’m so deep even the ocean gets jealous