The Ulama in Islam & in its History

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(Clearly the battle for Islam’s revival must begin by removing the ulama from the pedestal on which they have placed themselves. Their trade unions – the various Jamaat – fare badly election after election. The sources of their considerable funds are no secret. It is the passive acquiescence of the masses on which they bank and demonstrate their power by whipping up emotions and promoting strife. As Iqbal said: Deen-e-kafir, fikr tadbeero jihad/Deen-e-mullah fi sabibillah fasad”. (The unbeliever’s forte is reflection creativity and exertion / The mullah’s faith is in fostering strife in the name of God) – Author).

The ulama present a strange spectacle. There is no clergy in Islam; yet, barring a few honourable exceptions, the ulama have played a baleful role throughout history, either as collaborators of tyrannical regimes – right down to the era of Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan (1977-88) – or as strident opponents of any reform of Muslim law which was perverted by British rulers, improvement of the wretched plight of women, in the light of the principles of the sharia, and indifference to social and economic uplift.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad sums up their role, in his brilliant essay on the martyred mystic Sarmad: “The root of the matter is that in the eyes of Alamgir, Sarmad’s greatest crime was associating with Dara Shikoh. For this he wanted, under one pretext or another, to kill him. In Asia politics has always operated in the guise of religion. The veil of religion has covered up thousands of bloody political murders. When no other pretext was at hand, his indictment was based on the accusation of his moving about in nakedness, as being against the established Law. He was summoned before a qazi.

“Throughout the thirteen centuries of Islam the pen of the jurists has been an unsheathed sword and the blood of thousands of truthful persons stains their verdicts (fatava). From whichever angle you study the history of Islam, countless examples will illustrate how, whenever a ruler came to the point of shedding blood, the pen of a mufti and the sword of a general rendered him equal service. This was not confined to the Sufis and nobles, for those ‘ulama who were close to the seers of the mysteries of truth and reality also had to suffer misfortunes from the hands of the jurists and in the end obtained deliverance in giving their lives. Sarmad, too, was martyred by this same sword…” (Hayat-e-Sarmad; translated and analysed by Christian W. Troll in his essay Abul Kalam Azad’s Sarmad the Martyr; (Christopher Sheckle (ed.); Urdu and Muslim South Asia; School of Oriental and African Studies; 1989; pp. 123-4); italics mine throughout).

It is very important to note that the ulama, as a class, is a later excrescence. It did not exist at the dawn of the noble faith, Islam; nor did it exist during the halcyon days of the Khulafa-e-Rashidin (The Rightfully Guided Khalifas).

How did this come to pass, the rise of “custodians” of the faith devoid of any authority from the faith itself? Wilfred Cantwell Smith, asked “What about the ‘ulama’?” and proceeded to provide an instructive answer: “They too have emerged. There is a tendency, from which  some of us at least have found ourselves suffering, to take this concept for granted; to suppose that there are ‘ulama’ in Islam and that this is somehow “natural,” that they have always been there. Not so. … They emerge in Islamic history in consolidated form a good deal later than is usually supposed, and develop in the Muslim history of India as a formal and constituted class a very great deal later – and perhaps even, in certain significant senses, only in the modern period.” (The Ulama in Indian Politics in C.H. Philips (ed.) Politics and Society in India, p. 42).

Barbara Daly Metcalf’s authoritative work on the Deoband, (Islamic Revival in British India, 1860-1900, Princeton University Press, 1982) solves the riddle of the dichotomy between Islam and its practice. “There is no tradition of priesthood in Islam – no caste or family that has special power, no sacrament that sets some men apart from their fellows, no monasticism. Indeed, it has not been uncommon for people regarded as religious leaders to merge with the general population, often filling other occupational roles in society as well.  As Shah Waliyu’llah (1703-1762) explained, those who have religious knowledge, whether they acquire it by means of revelation or wisdom or visions, are recognized by others as having gifts of leadership and signs of grace, and are therefore obeyed – for this is the central requirement of Islam – in doing what is commanded and eschewing what is forbidden. Muslim may be predisposed to accord this authority to men descended from the Prophet or from some saintly lineage, or to those holding some judicial or educational bureaucratic post. But the true basis of authority – always waiting in the wings if not front stage – has been the standard of personal knowledge and its pious embodiment expected of men who are at once exemplars to their fellows and communal representatives to Muslims and to others….

… “The ‘ulama were typically linked to landholders, traders, and other influential people by class and marriage, and acted as legal officials for small communities. … The sixteenth century saw the creation of a new political stability in the Muslim world, stability unprecedented in its scope and duration. Three great empires – the Ottoman, the Safavid, and the Mughal – all agrarian-based and structurally similar, were then to rule from the Balkans to Bengal for over two hundred years. In each empire the role of the ‘ulma expanded as the respective bureaucracies expanded. The power of ‘ulma was, to be sure, severally circumscribed, for as in other periods of centralized imperial rule, the ‘ulama rendered in fact to become members of the bureaucracy of the state. Still it was they who were responsible for the education of the entire nobility; who staffed the various levels of the judiciary; and who oversaw the whole charitable establishment of the empire. Leading members of the ‘ulma ranged from those who acted as prayer leader at a town mosque to the most influential of courtiers. The intellectuals among them were sought out as adornments to the various entourages of the nobility. A career as ‘alim in this period was seen as a route to prestige, or, at least, to respectability.” (pp. 16-19).

In short, the ulama began as a class and as an adjunct of power. But having tasted derivative power the ulama sought exercise of original power in their own right; never for reform but always to buttress the status quo and their own self and power.

Few were truly erudite or creative. Their forte was knowledge, sometimes mastery, of the texts. They provide a total contrast to creative and erudite scholars of old and of modern times whose works these clerics seek to hide or belittle. One such scholar’s assessment of the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami Abul Ala Mawdudi, a politician of abounding ambition, is as devastating as it is accurate:

“Mawdudi, though not an ‘alim, was nevertheless a self-taught man of considerable intelligence and had sufficient knowledge of Arabic to have access to the classical Arabic literature of Islam. He was by no means an accurate or a profound scholar, but he was undoubtedly like a fresh wind in the stifling Islamic atmosphere created by the traditional madrasas, and he represented a definite advance over the ulema in that he had a working knowledge of English and read some works of Western writers. The lay-educated youth, fired by Iqbal’s message, became an almost automatic clientele of Mawdudi. But Mawdudi displays nowhere the larger and more profound vision of Islam’s role in the world. Being a journalist rather than a serious scholar, he wrote at great speed and with resultant superficiality in order to feed his eager young readers – and he wrote incessantly. He founded no educational institution and never suggested any syllabus for a reformed Islamic education. If this kind of development had taken place, his followers, through an enlightened and serious Islamic education, would have naturally become more independent-minded and could have led the way to the establishment of new educational institutions. But not one of Mawdudi’s followers ever became a serious student of Islam, the result being that, for the faithful, Mawdudi’s statements represented the last word on Islam – no matter how much and how blatantly he contradicted himself from time to time on such basic issues as economic policy or political theory.” (Islam & Modernity, The University of Chicago press, 1982; p. 116). He opposed the establishment of Pakistan; yet moved in to play a baleful role in Pakistan’s politics.

There is a sharp contrast between the Quran’s repeated admonitions to seek knowledge and to reflect and the ulama’s emphasis on adherence to old texts. Indeed the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself is enjoined to pray to Allah “O Lord! Increase my knowledge” (20:114).

Fazlur Rehman added “Whatever the reason, the stark contrast between the Qur’an and the medieval Muslim pursuits of knowledge is obvious. During approximately the past one hundred years, as the preceding two chapters show, Muslims have displayed an increasing awareness of reforming traditional education and integrating the old knowledge with the modern. But this development has been marred by certain important, indeed, fundamental weaknesses that it is essential to elucidate before we can look at the future with greater clarity and a more constructive outlook.” (ibid; pp. 135-6).

There is another aspect, besides which the distinguished Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal mentioned: “Asian Muslims tended to take the Koran literally, while Arabs were more inclined to interpret it. Reading the texts in their own language enabled Arabs to set it in historical context, keeping in mind observations by Arab religious authorities, but Asians were less able to look beyond it – partly because other works had not been translated into their languages, but more importantly because the Arabic language was the tongue of islam. Deprived of linguistic context the Koran inevitably takes on a slightly different character, forcing non-Arab readers to rely more on the texts than on the way the ideas are expressed.” (Illusions of Triumph; Harper Collins, 1991; p. 57).

The ulama reflected the intellectual decline in the Muslim world and, in turn, contributed to it. It was the ulama which “closed the gates of ijtihad”. The fatwa was but an expert of opinion by an alim, a learned man, to a mufti, the judge; rather like the expert opinion on foreign law admissible even under the Evidence Act, 1872. Over time the usurper made his fatwa an edict of binding force which very many of them sold for a consideration.

Intellectual decline in the Muslim World long preceded the onslaught of Western imperialism and the challenge of Western intellectual tradition. Two works on the ulama deserve particular mention; both by Muhammad Qasim Zaman. One is The Ulama in Contemporary Islam (Princeton University Press, 2002) and the other is Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age (Cambridge University Press 2012; Rs. 795). He recalls Iqbal’s retort to Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani of the Jamiatul Ulama-e-Hind : “formerly the half-Westernised educated Muslims were under the spell of Europe, now the cause has descended upon religious leaders .. circumstances have forced the present-day ulema to say things and interpret the Quran in a way which could never have been the intention of the prophet and the Quran” (Latif Ahmed Sherwani; Speeches Writings and Statements of Iqbal; Iqbal Academy; p. 260).

Zaman writes: “Most of the ‘ulama whose work we have considered in this book eschew a radical reform or rethinking of their tradition, however. A wholehearted recognition that the tradition requires major changes and that the ‘ulama ought to set themselves on the path of bringing those about has been rare. Yet the lack of such an acknowledgement (which itself represents a reasoned position and ought to be seen as such) has not precluded changes of varying significance. New ways of conceptualizing the shari’a, efforts to reach new audiences, new conceptions of religion and of the ‘ulama’s position in society and polity, and new roles of religious and political activism are, as we have seen in the preceding chapters, some of the many facets of change that continue to sweep through the world of the ‘ulama. Such changes are not the product of some grand blueprint for bringing them about; nor are they necessarily recognized as ‘changes.’ Many, indeed, are the paradoxical product of the ‘ulama’s very effort to conserve their tradition in a changing world. Whether or not they acknowledge this, such an effort necessarily entails continuous redefinition of themselves, their stances, and their intellectual resources.” (The Ulema in Contemporary Islam; pp. 186-87).

After citing some fatwas he asks “Why were the ulama of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century prepared to impose extreme hardship on Muslim individuals through their inflexibility?” (ibid; p. 28) Incidentally where was the need or religious sanction for the ulema to set up their own trade union, the Jamiet-e-Ulema? It could not have been to promote the faith. It was to promote their own interests, politically, within the community and as dalaals (bargainers) vis a vis the British.

They are wholly indifferent to pressing social and economic problems – uplift of the downtrodden, eradication of poverty, protection of women, etc. (Vide Zaman; Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age; pp. 178-81)).

In all major crises affecting Muslims of South Asia the ulama’s role has been deplorable. They bitterly opposed the establishment of the Aligarh College by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Three Maulavis, Imdad Ali, Muhammad Ali and Ali Baksh led the pack. “They procured fatwas (legal decisions) from ulema of various Indian cities and also from Mecca and Medina, declaring Sayyid Ahmad Khan, ‘officially,’ among other things, ‘the khalifah (representative) of the Devil himself who is intent upon leading Muslims astray,’ whose ‘perfidy is worse than that of the Jews and Christians.’ (Christian W. Troll; Sayyid Ahmad Khan; Vikas Publishing House, 1978, p. 21.).

The Mutiny of 1857 and its Aftermath revealed most of the ulama in their true colours. Some were honest and anti-colonial. The majority were not and their pro-British fatwas were set out in Hunter’s notorious book The Indian Musalmans (W.W. Hunter, 1871; pp. 206-210).

It was the Quixotic Khilafat agitation which gave the adventurers much fillip. P.C. Bamford, Deputy Director, Intelligence Bureau, Government of India wrote a careful Report on the movement. Those by successive Directors on the Communist movement are so scholarly that they are read as textbooks. (Histories of the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat Movements, Deep Publications; 1974). One fatwa opined that the war with Ottoman Turkey was political, not religious. It was denounced as having “been inspired by the Government”, as it probably was. A Mutafiqa (Joint) Fatwa adopted Gandhi’s edicts on non-cooperation (p. 162). A good many fatwas reek of casuistry reflecting the compulsions of gain, economic or other.

Iqbal had no hesitation in holding that the ulamas’ opinion be rejected. “I know the Ulema of Islam claim finality for the popular schools of Mohammedan Law, though they never found it possible to deny the theoretical possibility of a complete Ijtihad. I have tried to explain the causes which, in my opinion, determined this attitude of the Ulema; but since things have changed and the world of Islam is today confronted and affected by new forces set free by the extraordinary development of human thought in all its directions, I see no reason why this attitude should be maintained any longer. Did  the founders of our schools ever claim finality for their reasonings and interpretations? Never. The claim of the present generation of Muslim liberals to re-interpret the foundational legal principles, in the light of their own experience and the altered conditions of modern life, is, in my opinion, perfectly justified.” (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam; Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi; p. 168).

The Munir Report provides a thorough exposure of the intellectual and moral hollowness of this priestly class. Even their definitions of a Muslim contradicted one another fiercely, rendering one person a kafir whom the other held to be a believer. (p. 218)

Things are no better in India. On 29 July 1993, a Quranic scholar, Chekannur P.K. Mohammed Abdul Hassan Moulavi, was lured away from his home by two men on the pretext of attending classes for the study of the Quran. He has not been seen or heard of since. The Moulavi wrote 17 books, an incomplete Malayalam translation of the Quran, and edited volumes of his journal Al-Buhran. He had received death threats for his writings which advocated reform of Muslim practices and revision of beliefs so as to accord with the Quran, in rejection of the dogmas introduced over the years.

In May 1992 a furore was raised in Patna over remarks by a highly respected scholar Dr. Abid Raza Bedar, Director of Khuda Baksh Library. Releasing a book entitled “Keynote of the Holy Quran”, he was reported to have said that the word Kafir (infidel) used in the Quran has been misinterpreted. This perfectly truthful statement was enough for one Rizwan Ahmed, editor of Azimabad Express, to write that “Dr. Bedar has brought himself in company with Salman Rushdie”.

The book Keynote of the Holy Quran was written by Prof. S. M. Mohsin, a former Professor of Psychology, who won high honours. It is an inspiring work based on Quranic verses. He opines, after quoting pertinent verses, that “a non-believer in Islam, as such, may not be dubbed as Kafir in the Quranic sense of the term, unless he seeks to undermine and suppress Islam and obstructs its observance and propagation”.

It would be wholly wrong to attribute this intolerance to the discriminatory treatment which has been the lot of Muslims since the partition. It goes back over a century to the days of Sir Syed Ahmad khan whose writings had a deep impact on Azad as well as Iqbal. Sir Syed suffered a lot at the hands of the mullah for his liberal interpretation of Islam. The Muslim University of Aligarh has yet to publish an English translation of its founder’s commentary on the Quran. A former Vice-Chancellor, when asked, expressed hesitation for fear of a hostile reaction. Will it find a publisher in Pakistan?

Partition and its consequences have undoubtedly aggravated the situation; not least because of the Sarkari Musalman, the classic Uncle Tom, who appeared in their train in politics, academia and elsewhere replacing the Khan Bahadurs of the Raj. Indifferent to Muslims’ plight, they cannot be expected to face the reactionary mullahs. They sail along merrily together, often. The task must be performed by those who expose injustices to Muslims, ventilate their grievances and have the moral courage, no less, to expose the fast creeping menace of mullahism in India. The disease has played havoc in Pakistan. Nor should they be deterred by fear of its exploitation by the RSS and the BJP whose record on free speech is worse than that of the mullah’s.

The roots go back far deeper and travel much father in the past than many would like to admit. Iqbal’s letter to Akbar Shah Mujibabadi traced those roots: “The influence of the professional [sic] Maulvis had greatly decreased owing to Sir Syed Ahmad khan’s movement. But the Khilafat Committee, for the sake of political fatwas, had restored their influence among Indian Muslims. This was a very big mistake which has, probably not yet been realized by any one.  I have had an experience of this recently. I had written an English essay on Ijtihad (Independent Judgement), which was read in a meeting here and, God willing, will be published, but some people called me Kafir.” (M. Sadiq : A History of Urdu Literature; Oxford University Press, p. 460).

The All India Muslim personal Law Board comprising the ulama mostly refuses to countenance reform. Bashiruddin Bukhari a prominent Muslim, asked the Board “in what way is the MPLB relevant to the community?” (The Milli Gazette, 16 July 2002).

There is a way out of the morass and it has been shown with much learning by Ziauddin Sardar. I do not apologise for quoting him in extenso. For, he explains why and how the ulama acquired the authority they did and how they can be divested of the power and the umma freed from the incubus. “Who should comment on and interpret the Qur’an? This seems like an innocuous question. The straightforward answer is that all those who read the Qur’an should be able to comment on its content and offer an understanding, however simple, of its verses. Reading is always an interpretative act; so those who read the Qur’an are also simultaneously interpreting it, at least for themselves if not others. But reading, and hence interpretation, is not just an act of engagement, an attempt at understanding and comprehension, but also an exercise in authority and power.

“In Muslim history and tradition, that power has been the sole preserve of a particular class of people. The prerogative of interpreting the Qur’an has been limited to those with ‘legitimate’ authority: those who have been schooled in various Qur’anic sciences, who have followed the traditional disciplines and curriculum, and have reached the position of an ‘alim, or a recognisable religious scholar. These scholars also served as the custodians of a long, cherished tradition that provided a continuous connection with the historical narrative of Islam as a fixed, unchanging dogma, law and morality – an additional source of their power and prestige. I believe this tradition turned the Qur’an, the fundamental source of moral guidance for all Muslims, into a closed book for the vast majority of believers; and had serious consequences for the evolution of Muslim thought and culture. …

“It is a standard boast of many Muslims that Islam has no priestly hierarchy. The Qur’an does not sanction a particular class of people, such as Christian priests, who are ordained to minister Divine worship, administer the sacrament, give absolution, forgive sins, and otherwise act as intermediary between God and humans. This is the theory; but in reality this is both an untenable and a deceitful position – a deceit that Muslims have been perpetuating for centuries. For the ulama are de facto priests of Islam and act as such; in deed, they even dress as a priestly class. By reserving the right of interpreting the Qur’an, they act  as intermediaries between the Word of God and the ordinary believer. Worse: in some cases, the interpretation of the ulama of a particular school, for example the Hanafi School of Thought, is actually placed at par with the Quar’an itself. So the ulama have the same authority as the Qur’an and speak with the voice of God. We thus find ourselves in a situation where the text of the Qur’an and its interpretation are collapsed into a single discourse; criticism of the ulama and their interpretation then becomes criticism of the text of the Qur’an itself, and any attempt at new interpretation automatically becomes a violation of the Sacred Book. Total domination – of the Qur’an, its interpretation and religious knowledge – is thus clearly and cleverly maintained. …

“To maintain their domination of who could interpret the Qur’an and how it can be read, the ulama used a number of tactics. They reduced the Qur’anic concept of ‘ilm, which refers to all kinds of knowledge, to mean only religious knowledge; and then went on to suggest that those with religious knowledge are superior to those who did not have this knowledge. They reduced the Islamic concept of ijma; which means consensus of all people, to mean only the consensus of a few privileged religious scholars – and, through a long and arduous process, closed the ‘gates of ijtihad’, or new interpretation. Indeed, during the fifteenth century, the religious scholars even stopped the spread of printing in the Muslim world. For centuries, printing was prohibited in Muslim societies because religious scholars feared that copies of the Qur’an would become commonplace, leading to the Muslim masses not just reading but interpreting the Holy Text. The consequences of these developments have been nothing short of catastrophic for Muslim societies.

“For ordinary Muslims too, the hegemony of the ulama has been devastating. The believer is reduced to an empty vessel into which religious knowledge is poured, to be accepted unquestioningly. We are simply told what the Qur’an says or means. We can present questions to warranted scholars and follow the answers given. To challenge the traditional opinions of this elite body is not only presumptuous, but also an indication of a weakness of faith, creed and belief and nefarious intentions, since without their special educational preparation no sensible thought or understanding is possible. Hence, most Muslims actually fear engaging with the Qur’an directly, thinking they lack the basic qualifications, and would therefore make serious errors of judgment and interpretation. If they read the Qur’an at all, they read it with utmost caution and a mountain of classical commentaries, or through the eyes of a contemporary but classically trained scholar, with their own minds and critical faculties firmly in check. Thus, concerned, thinking and dedicated Muslims are disenfranchised from engaging in earnest and reasoned debate with the Qur’an. …

“In contemporary times it is not so important for you to have committed thousands of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to memory, or to have learned the canonical legal text by rote. They are easily available in print, digital form and online; if one needs to refer to them they can be accessed easily.” (Reading the Quran; Hurst & Co. Ltd., London; 2011; pp. 31-33). There is another source which provides relief – books by scholars like himself. Clearly the battle for Islam’s revival must begin by removing the ulama from the pedestal on which they have placed themselves. Their trade unions – the various Jamaat – fare badly election after election. The sources of their considerable funds are no secret. It is the passive acquiescence of the masses on which they bank and demonstrate their power by whipping up emotions and promoting strife. As Iqbal said : Deen-e-kafir, fikr tadbeero jihad/Deen-e-mullah fi sabibillah fasad” (The unbeliever’s forte is reflection creativity and exertion / The mullah’s faith is in fostering strife in the name of God).

[*] The author is an eminent Indian scholar and expert on constitutional issues.