Ulama are religious experts. In sociological terms, they might be considered the Islamic clergy. Today they are at the center of a re-institutionalization project of Islam which several states are actively pursuing
Last update: 2022-04-22 09:57:12
Contrary to popular belief, there are many forms of religious authority within Islam. However, they are scarcely institutionalized and hierarchized, especially in the Sunni world. This article aims at clarifying the role and function of ulama, by retracing their history and showing their significance for the present. In fact, their voice is still influential both in Islamic countries and among European Muslims. While many predicted their end, they were able to adapt to the radical changes induced by technology and today they are at the center of a project of re-institutionalization of Islam actively pursued by several states.
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:
The ulama are the heirs of the prophets. The prophets have not left gold or silvers coins as a bequest, but knowledge (‘ilm). Whoever seizes it has taken a bountiful share.
To understand this brief text, two aspects must be taken into account: on one hand, for Islam, prophecy is the highest form of knowledge granted to humankind; on the other, prophecy is considered to end with the death of Muhammad in 632. In post-prophetic time, ulama enjoy a form of authority that derives from their status as “heirs of the prophets.” This strong characterization actually relativizes the usual claim that there is no clergy in Sunni Islam. Of course, theologically speaking every Muslim believer structures his/her own relationship directly with God. However, from a sociological and anthropological point of view, the ulama might be rightly seen as the exponents of the clerical class in Islam. The knowledge they possess endows them with an aura of sacredness, as a more or less tenuous reflection of prophecy.
Class of ulama, Bosnia, 1906
The class of the ulama has gradually come into being over the centuries, by virtue of one fundamental principle, i.e. the conviction that the believer coming after the prophetic age has no independent access to the Scriptures. Rather, he must insert himself into a chain of witnesses and masters that allows him to go back to the time of origin. This belief shapes the relationship the ulama have with the texts, the common believers and their teachers. However, its practical application has changed over time due to several technological transformations.
The first of these transformations was undoubtedly the transition “from the aural to the read”, which took place in the first two centuries after Muhammad. At the beginning and for almost a century, the only Islamic book was the Qur’an, which, according to the Islamic tradition, was committed to written form at the time of the Caliph ‘Uthmān (644-656), but which, as several scholars believe, may have been open to changes until the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705). In this very first phase, all knowledge was passed on orally, through teachers and masters. Since the Arabic alphabet was still very rudimentary, written documents were mostly meant for private use and, even in the case of the Qur’an, they essentially worked as a mnemonic supports for a well-known text. This situation presents striking parallels with Classical Greece, in particular the controversial issue of Plato’s unwritten doctrines, studied by Giovanni Reale.
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.
As far as religious knowledge is concerned, the introduction of paper forced ulama to accept the fact that the transmission of knowledge no longer took place exclusively orally, but also through books. In particular, and despite some reservations, ulama started to write down the prophetic traditions (hadīths) and by the end of the ninth century, they had specialized in the study of hadīth literature—which in the meantime was continually growing in size—and in other related sciences. The personal relationship between teacher and disciple did remain important, also because of the persistent ambiguity of the Arabic script. It is no coincidence that the concept of ‘studying’ is best rendered in classical Arabic as qara’a ‘alā, literally ‘to read under the supervision of somebody’, even though the practice of individual study grew in popularity over the centuries.
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. 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.
Simultaneously, the ulama began to dress in a distinctive way, an important clue in terms of the collective awareness of a social group. To sum up, by the Later Middle Period (1250-1500), the ulama could rely on a textual corpus, a training curriculum and specific ways of dressing. To complete their institutionalization, only the hierarchical dimension was missing, a step which was finalized under the Ottoman Empire.
Indeed, the Sublime Porte integrated the ulama within the imperial administration and established a formal hierarchy: on its top there was the Shaykh al-Islām (in Turkish Şeyhülislam), charged with the task of presiding over the religious administration of the Empire. His subordinate ulama specialized in various branches of state administration, with different names and functions. The Ottomans also established a hierarchy among the madrasas. The typical carrier for a successful student was to move from a provincial madrasa to one in Istanbul (unless he was already born in the capital, of course). After completing his studies, he would return to the province as a teacher and, if he kept on proving his talent, he would finally return to the capital as a professor.
Usually, most Ottoman ulama were also affiliated to a mystical brotherhood. Sufism, in fact, though initially mistrusted, was gradually integrated into the world of the ulama, at least in its orthodox version. Al-Ghazālī (1058-1111) played a central role in this process.
The Erosion of a Role
The courtyard of al-Azhar, 1900 (Ivan Bilibin)
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.
In the first place, the ulama lost their monopoly on education. As is well known, 1798 is the symbolic date of the Arab world’s encounter into modernity. The chief architect of this transformation was Muhammad ‘Alī, the military leader who took control of Egypt after Napoleon’s retreat. Of Albanian origin, he realized the need to import Western knowledge, at least military sciences, in order to successfully resist European armies. The first hypothesis was to have the ulama study modern sciences—as mentioned before, a scientific training was also contemplated in classic madrasas, although as an optional subject. However, this measure did not have the desired effects. The reformists therefore gradually became convinced of the need to create European-inspired universities and institutes. This gave birth to a dual pathway that remains in force even today in several Islamic countries: the madrasas are to train religious experts; modern universities are meant for other specializations. From the point of view of religious scholars, the problem was that the jobs guaranteed by modern universities proved to be much more profitable than those of the ulama were.
The turning point, at least for Egypt, was probably the creation of Cairo University in 1908 (at the time known as the Egyptian University) after some unsuccessful attempts to reform al-Azhar and the creation of a ‘mixed’ institute, Dār al-‘ulūm, in 1871, which contemplated a double formation, both Islamic and modern. Cairo University also hired in its faculty famous Western scholars such as Louis Massignon and the Italian orientalists Carlo Alfonso Nallino, David Santillana and Ignazio Guidi. The Egyptian writer Taha Hussein (1889-1973), one of the greatest Arab intellectuals of the twentieth century, in his autobiography recalls the profound impression that the new way of teaching produced in him, at the time young student in collision with al-Azhar and the world of the ulama.
Life in the University for me, as for other Egyptians, seemed like one continual celebration. […] It emancipated me from the confined, confused atmosphere of the Azhar […] into an ample, uninhibited milieu which allowed me to fill my lungs with fresh air on my way to and fro and likewise to fill my mind with open knowledge which did not bind me like the narrow structure of the Azhar professors in their lecturing, nor ruin my intelligence with qanqalahs (citations), and arguments about this and that, and endless equivocation. Nor was there that time-wasting business of parsing words, when parsing had no relevance whatsoever to the study in hand.
In the second place, the reform period saw the birth of non-Shariatic civil courts. The profession of Shariatic judge or qādī had historically been the most common employment for the ulama. From the nineteenth century onwards, however, the states began to promulgate modern codes, the Ottoman Majalla (1877) being the best-known example. Secular courts (nizamiyye) were established to apply the new codes, and such courts were entrusted to a judiciary of European formation, while the qādīs were left with family law alone, which was administered in religious courts. In this way, their prestige decreased greatly.
The combination of the two factors—the introduction of modern universities and the creation of non-Shariatic courts—led to the emergence of intellectuals outside the ulama class and in competition with them. One of the first examples is the activist Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838-1897), but the intensity of the dispute is well illustrated by the harsh words of the Syrian reformist al-Kawākibī (1855-1902):
Religious scholars are more worried about retaining their old privileges than supporting the necessary change. Nobody ignores their influence on public opinion, and also on certain politicians with whom they share the same interests. It is therefore imperative to strip them of any power, because they have no interest whatsoever in allowing people to think in a new way.
The words of Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), the main exponent of Islamic reformism in Egypt, are in no way softer. A former al-Azhar student, ‘Abduh strongly criticized the sclerosis of this institution:
If I have some smattering of true knowledge, I have acquired it only after spending ten years clearing al-Azhar’s filth out of my brain. And it is still not as clean as I would like it to be!
The ulama found themselves between a rock and a hard place, pressed on one side by the new intellectuals, more and more often trained in Western-type universities or directly in Europe, and on the other side by the emergence of Salafism.
The activist Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838-1897)
The new thinkers, such as Taha Hussein, were not necessarily anti-religious, but claimed a renewed approach to tradition, which would also take into account Western methodological achievements. This group also includes Islamist activists, such as Rashīd Ridā (1865-1935), a disciple of ‘Abduh, who through his influential periodical al-Manār used to lambast the ulama for their outdated knowledge and their political quietism. The same criticisms are found in Hasan al-Bannā (1906-1949), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and in the first Islamist militants. While in prison, the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) wrote In the shade of the Qur’an, a commentary dictated by his personal reading experience of the Islamic holy book. This disintermediation, which Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashīd Ridā had already partially tried in their Qur’anic commentary, clashed with the fundamental principle on which the authority of the ulama rested. Qutb went even further, directly attacking the clergy for its quietist and formalist attitude. Since the 1970s, however, the split between Islamist activists and traditional clergy has been partially bridged, as shown by the figure of Yūsuf al-Qaradāwī, who has an ulama background and at the same time is a major doctrinal reference for the Islamist galaxy.
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.
However, the deeper consequences came with the printing of the ‘yellow books’. This expression refers in Arabic to the classical religious texts. Being usually very voluminous, they were mostly printed on a cheap and thin type of paper, which would quickly turn yellow, hence their name. Philologists such as Ahmad Muhammad Shākir (1892-1958) accurately edited as many religious works as possible. Precisely thanks to the new availability of printed texts, the great hadīth expert Muhammad Nāsir al-Dīn al-Albānī (1914-1999), who was born in Scutari, Albania, but lived mostly between Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, was able to carry out his project of “purification and education” of the Islamic world: Purification of religious knowledge from all non-authentic sayings; and education of Muslims to act according to this rediscovered tradition. For decades, al-Albānī devoted himself to examining the collections of hadīths, evaluating one by one all the chains of transmitters. His work was extraordinarily successful and even today the expression sahhaha-hu al-Albānī (“al-Albānī considered it authentic”) is the best way to introduce an hadīth.
Finally, access to religious knowledge has widened, and this time exponentially, in the wake of the third technological revolution, i.e. digitalization. From the very beginning, many Muslim institutions have thrown themselves into this new field, publishing all kind of religious texts online. This is generally considered a commendable act, as it allows the sharing of knowledge among users, regardless of copyright restrictions.
The Salafi site “Ahl al-Hadeeth”
Thanks to the Internet, today religious knowledge is thus accessible practically everywhere, at any time and without mediation. The combination of these three aspects has negatively impacted on the ulama. The phenomenon is further exacerbated by the fact that the Web enables the creation of networks and thematic communities, such as ahlalhadeeth.com, a forum dedicated uniquely to the discussion on the authenticity of hadīths. Although the promise of recovering the age of origins made by these sites is illusory—14 centuries have passed since the age of Muhammad and his Companions—there is no doubt that their proposal is truly fascinating. We can even say that Salafi literalism brings to the extreme a trend that is present throughout Sunnism. Nevertheless, Salafism loses the Sunni capacity for mediation and compromise, because of its constant quest to define one and only one answer for every possible question.
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.
Egypt and Morocco embarked on a different path: instead of abandoning religious institutions to themselves, they decided to increase their control on them. Thus, in 1961, Nasser promulgated a law reforming al-Azhar, which transformed the ulama into state officials. This move brought them undeniable advantages, but also an evident subordination to political power.
Nasser, Sadat and the Shaykh al-Azhar al-Fahhām
Similarly, in Turkey, after a first ‘Jacobin’ anti-religious phase in the 1920s and 1930s, the state chose to intervene directly in the religious field through the Ministry of Religious Affairs and a series of teaching and research institutions.
The situation in Saudi Arabia is yet different: the clergy (Wahhabi, in this case) plays a fundamental role in legitimizing political power and continues to exercise a judicial function. The praxis is that Saudi ulama —except for exceptional cases—cannot openly criticize a measure taken by the political institutions. However, they can give ‘advice’ (nasīha) to the royals privately. This said, the recent reforms by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman have clearly shown where the ultimate decision-making power resides within the Kingdom.
Summarizing this long-lasting process, the Lebanese thinker Ridwan al-Sayyid describes the post-colonial situation in these terms: “With the exception of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, the Arab countries’ religious institutions have grown so weak that they have almost dissolved.”
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.
These authors frequently criticize contemporary Salafism, blaming it for a naive reading of tradition (“The hadīth books do not work as a telephone directory”, ‘Ali Gomaa), an ahistorical understanding of the beginnings of Islam (“Salafism is a blessed historical period, not an Islamic juridical school”, al-Būtī) and above all its contempt of traditional law schools. The abandonment of the madhhab would in fact be “the bridge to irreligion”, to quote the title of a famous pamphlet by Muhammad Ibn Zāhid al-Kawtharī (1879-1951), deputy of the last Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman Empire repaired to Cairo in order to escape the Kemalist persecution.
A distinctive feature of this neo-tradition rebirth is the creation of transnational networks, such as the Muslim Council of Elders, chaired by Ahmad al-Tayyeb, conceived to counter the Islamist-oriented International Union of Muslim Scholars led by Qaradāwī. What is also new is the tendency to organize large conferences, which often end with a final statement drafted in several languages: one of the first examples was the Amman Message of 2004, dedicated to the mutual recognition among the various currents of Islam, while one of the most recent cases was the Marrakesh Declaration on religious minorities in 2016. Also A Common Word, the letter that 138 Muslim scholars addressed to Benedict XVI in 2007, can be included in this new literary genre, which bears some resemblance to the growing proliferation of statements by ecclesial and supra-ecclesial bodies.
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.
In principle, the ‘madhabites’ make constant reference to the turāth (‘tradition’). Since Islamic tradition is multi-faceted, this allows for nuanced positions on many problematic issues. However, tradition also contains statements that, if taken at face value, are very difficult to reconcile with contemporary sensitivity, for example in the field of religious freedom. In these cases, only a paradigm shift could really solve the issue. One can also think of some rules governing women’s condition, such as inheritance inequality. In this regard, al-Azhar strongly opposed the Tunisian reform project, and the Moroccan ulama clearly expressed their disagreement with similar proposals, to the point of urging the Islamic feminist Asma Lamrabet to resign. These simple examples show how wrong it is to apply to Muslim clerics (and actually to Muslims tout court) the “conservatives vs. reformists” interpretative scheme: ulama and Salafi are both socially conservative, but they justify their positions through two different knowledge structures.
A noteworthy ulema revival has been in the making over the past years. This rediscovery is due not only to endogenous reasons, but also and above all to exogenous factors: many Muslim states have concluded that leaving religion in the hands of transnational currents such as the Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood is extremely dangerous to them and have been busy refinancing and strengthening the ulama network. However, the clear state support to this operation makes both its strength and its weakness: its strength because it can count on vast resources, even at the media level; but also, and above all, its weakness because many perceive it as a top-down imposition.
Thus, the real issue for the future is whether important figures will emerge out of the ulama’s ranks, attracting a great following thanks to their personal charisma, rather than the support of state institutions. In any case, the history of this class of religious scholars is bound to continue.
Jacob Skovgaard-Petersen. Sailing in Stormy Waters. Ulama and Revolutions. “Oasis” 27 (2018), pp. 31-39.
Meir Hatina (ed.). Guardians of Faith in Modern Times: ‘Ulama’ in the Middle East. Leiden: Brill, 2009.
Muhammad Qasim Zaman. The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
Malika Zeghal. Gardiens de l’Islam : Les ulama d’al-Azhar dans l’Égypte contemporaine. Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1996.
 Hadīth transmitted by Abū Dawūd, al-Tirmidhī and Ibn Māja. Cf. for instance Jāmi‘ al-Tirmidhī, Kitāb al-‘ilm, bāb mā jā’ fī fadl al-fiqh ‘alā al-ʿibāda, n# 2682. “I—it is the Companion Abū l-Dardā’ who speaks here—heard the Messenger of God say: ‘Whoever travels a path seeking knowledge, God will place him on a path leading to Paradise. The angels lower their wings before the seekers of knowledge, pleased with what they are doing. The creatures in the heavens and earth ask forgiveness for the seekers of knowledge, even the sea monsters. The superiority of the scholar over the worshipper is like the superiority of the full moon over the other heavenly bodies. The ulama are the heirs of the prophets. The prophets have not left gold or silver coins as a bequest, but knowledge. Whoever seizes it has taken a bountiful share.’”
 Gregor Schoeler. The Genesis of Literature in Islam. From the Aural to the Read. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
 See for instance Plato. Dottrine non scritte. Edited by Giovanni Reale and Marie-Dominique Richard. Milano: Bompiani, 2008.
 Gregor Schoeler. The Genesis of Literature in Islam. From the Aural to the Read.
 Jonathan Brown. Hadith. Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009, pp. 44-45.
 This chronological articulation is inspired to Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, vol. 2. Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 1974.
 Cf. Robert Hefner and Muhammad Qasim Zaman (ed.). Schooling Islam. The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
 Taha Hussein. The Days. His Autobiography in Three Parts. Translated by E.H. Paxton, Hilary Wayment, Kenneth Cragg. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1997, pp. 277-278 (part III, chapter V).
 ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Kawākibī. al-A‘māl al-kāmila. Bayrūt: Markaz dirāsāt al-wahda al-‘arabiyya, 1995, p. 440. An excerpt of his most famous work, The Nature of Despotism, has been translated and published in “Oasis” 26 (2017), pp. 105-112.
 Cf. Sherif Younis. How ‘Abduh’s Caftan Brought Forth Today’s Islamic Ideologies. “Oasis” 21 (2015), pp. 14-23, here 17.
 Ridwan al-Sayyid. Fatwas as a Weapon against Fanaticism. “Oasis” 25 (2017), p. 53.