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Ulema ( , , singular: , , "scholar") refers to the educated class of Muslim legal scholars engaged in the several fields of Islamic studies. They are best known as the arbiters of shari‘a law. While the ulema are well versed in legal jurisprudence being Islamic lawyers, some of them also go on to specialize in other fields, such as philosophy, dialectical theology or Quranic hermeneutics or explanation. The fields studied, and the importance given them, will vary from tradition to tradition, or even from seminary to seminary

In a broader sense, the term ulema is used to describe the body of Muslim clergy who have completed several years of training and study of Islamic sciences, such as a mufti, qadi, faqih, or muhaddith. Some Muslims include under this term the village mullahs, imams, and maulvis—who have attained only the lowest rungs on the ladder of Islamic scholarship; other Muslims would say that clerics must meet higher standards to be considered ulema.



Ulama learned at Islamic religious schools called Medereses where they teach students about the science of Islam and other areas of study. It is believed in Islam that a well-rounded education is something every Muslim must acquire in order to understand God’s religion in its entirety. Ulema also hold seminars where they give lectures and speeches about the area of Islam in which they specialize.

Executive capacity

In contemporary times, the ulema are most powerful in the Shi'a tradition of Islam. Following the 1979 revolution in Iran, factions of the Iranianmarker Shia clergy, under the leadership of Khomeini, took control of the country. This was justified by Khomeini's doctrine of "Guardianship of the Jurists" (Wilayat-i Faqih).

Afghanistanmarker's Taliban regime was also headed by a mullah, Mullah Omar. However, in most countries, they are merely local power figures.


In certain Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, where there are sharia courts, Islamic clergy become judges. Therefore, a main job of ulema is the interpretation and maintenance of Islamic law in such countries.


In some countries like Saudi Arabia, Islamic clergy fulfill the role of a counsel for the king. There are also jobs for them in various governmental institutions.


There are various jobs available for the Islamic clergy at mosques, such as leading public prayers, preaching, and delivering sermons, especially at Friday prayers. Some have made missionary activities a lifelong activity such as the Tablighi Jamaatmarker group.


The ulema in most nations consider themselves to represent the ijma "consensus" of the Ummah "community of Muslims" (or to represent at least the scholarly or learned consensus). Many efforts to modernise Islam focus on the reintroduction of ijtihad and empowerment of the ummah to form their own ijma.


The ulema usually work within a tradition (madhhab) that starts with one of five classic jurists. A Sunni Muslim jurist usually belongs to one of the four main schools:

The Ja'fari school (Iranmarker, Iraqmarker, Bahrainmarker, and parts of Pakistanmarker and Afghanistanmarker) is the Shi'ii Twelver persuasion.

Some ulema are not associated with any school, for various reasons. These include believing that schools are too conservative and that the idea of ijtihad, the right to personal opinion, means that understanding of the Qur'an can change with the times.


The formative period of Islamic jurisprudence stretches back to the time of the early Muslim communities. In this period, jurists were more concerned with pragmatic issues of authority and teaching than with theory. Progress in theory happened with the coming of the early Muslim jurist Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi`i (767-820), who codified the basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence in his book ar-Risālah. The book details the four roots of law (Qur'an, Sunnah, ijma, and qiyas) while specifying that the primary Islamic texts (the Qur'an and the hadith) be understood according to objective rules of interpretation derived from scientific study of the Arabic language.

A number of important legal institutions were developed by Muslim jurists during the classical period of Islam, known as the Islamic Golden Age. One such institution was the Hawala, an early informal value transfer system, which is mentioned in texts of Islamic jurisprudence as early as the 8th century. Hawala itself later influenced the development of the agency in common law and in civil laws such as the aval in French law and the avallo in Italianmarker law. The earliest known lawsuits were described in the Ethics of the Physician by Ishaq bin Ali al-Rahwi (854–931) of al-Raha, Syriamarker, who describes it as part of an early medical peer review process, where the notes of a practicing Islamic physician were reviewed by peers and he/she could face a lawsuit from a maltreated patient if the reviews were negative. The Waqf in Islamic law, which developed during the 7th-9th centuries, bears a notable resemblance to the trusts in the English trust law. For example, every Waqf was required to have a waqif (founder), mutawillis (trustee), qadi (judge) and beneficiaries. The trust law developed in Englandmarker at the time of the Crusades, during the 12th and 13th centuries, was introduced by Crusaders who may have been influenced by the Waqf institutions they came across in the Middle East.

Several other fundamental common law institutions may have been adapted from similar legal institutions in Islamic law and jurisprudence, and introduced to England by the Normans after the Norman conquest of England and the Emirate of Sicily, and by Crusaders during the Crusades. In particular, the "royal English contract protected by the action of debt is identified with the Islamic Aqd, the English assize of novel disseisin is identified with the Islamic Istihqaq, and the English jury is identified with the Islamic Lafif." Other English legal institutions such as "the scholastic method, the license to teach," the "law schools known as Inns of Court in England and Madrasas in Islam" and the "European commenda" (Islamic Qirad) may have also originated from Islamic law. The methodology of legal precedence and reasoning by analogy (Qiyas) are also similar in both the Islamic and common law systems. These influences have led some scholars to suggest that Islamic law may have laid the foundations for "the common law as an integrated whole".

The second half of the 20th century was marked by a considerable loss of authority and influence of the ulema in most Islamic states. Many secular Arab governments attempted to break the influence of the ulema after their rise to power. Religious institutions were nationalized and the system of waqf "religious donations", which constituted the classical source of income for the ulema, was abolished.

In 1961 the Egyptianmarker Nasser government put the Al-Azhar Universitymarker, one of the highest Islamic intellectual authorities, under the direct control of the state. "The Azharis were even put in army uniforms and had to parade under the command of army officers" (G. Keppel, Jihad). In Turkeymarker, the traditional dervish tekke and Islamic schools were dissolved and replaced by state-controlled religious schools in the 1950s and 1960s. After the independence of Algeriamarker, President Ahmed Ben Bella also deprived the Algerian ulema of their power.


Many ulema have left behind them only a lifetime of mediating disputes and giving sermons; their respectable contributions did not include authorship. Other ulema have been prolific authors, writing translations of the Qur'an or Quranic commentaries, studies of hadith, works of philosophy, religious admonition, etc. There are enormous bodies of religious literature that form not only the substance of the courses in Islamic seminaries, but inspirational reading for the ordinary Muslim. Most of this literature has not been translated into English, but remains in its original language (usually Arabic, Urdu, Persian, or Turkish). Some has been printed; some remains in manuscript form.

Ottoman Ulema

In order to become one of the Ulama in the Ottoman Empire, one had to have studied at a madrassa and be an expert in all the religious sciences, specializing in one or two specifics. In addition, the student had to have been tested and approved by higher ranking Ulama. Such assessment by experts gave the Ulema legitimacy in the eyes of the public, because it imitated the way the Caliphs after the death of the Prophet Muhammad were appointed. In 14th and 15th century Ottoman Empire, there were not many Madrassas, Ulama travelled to countries such as Persia, Egypt, etc to further their education. Upon the conquering of Istanbul however, the Sultan converted eight churches into madrassas and placed eight of the best Ulama as the heads.The Ulama in the Ottoman Empire had a large influence over politics because it was believed that secular institutions were all subordinate to religion; the Ulama were emblems of religious piety, therefore rendering them powerful over state affairs.Ulema worked as priest-like authorities who had the role of interpreting and enforcing Islamic Shariah law. These jobs were distributed amongst two types of Ulama: Muftis, who interpreted Shariah law and the Qadi, who enforced Shariah law.The Ottomans had a strict hierarchy of ulema where the Sheikh ul-Islam had the highest ranking. A Sheikh ul-Islam was chosen by a royal warrant amongst the Qadis of important cities. The Sheikh ul-Islam had the power to confirm new Sultans, however upon affirmation the Sultan had higher authority. The Sheikh ul-Islam issued fatwas, which were written interpretations of the Quran that had authority over the community. The Sheikh ul-Islam represented the law of Shariah and in the 16th century its importance rose which led to increased power. Sultan Murad appointed a Sufi, Yayha, as his Sheikh ul-Islam during this time which lead to violent disapproval. The objection to this appointment made obvious the amount of power the Sheikh ul-Islam had, since people were afraid he would alter the traditions and norms they were living under by issuing new fatwas.

See also


  1. Weiss (2002), pp.3,161
  2. Weiss (2002), p.162
  3. Ray Spier (2002), "The history of the peer-review process", Trends in Biotechnology 20 (8), p. 357-358 [357].
  4. Inalcik, Halil. 1973. "Learning, the Medrese, and the Ulemas." In the Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600. New YOrk: Praeger, pp. 167.
  5. Inalcik, Halil. 1973. "Learning, the Medrese, and the Ulemas." In the Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600. New York: Praeger, pp. 171.
  6. Zilfi, Madeline C. 1986. "The Kadizadelis: Discordan Revivalism in Seventeenth Century Istanbul." Journal of Near Easrern Studies 45 (4): 259.


Further reading

Inalcik, Halil. 1973. "Learning, the Medrese, and the Ulema." In The Ottoman Empire: The Classical AGe 1300-1600. New YOrk: Praeger, pp. 165–178.

Heyd. Uriel. "Some Aspects of The Ottoman Fetva." School of Oriental and African Studies Bulletin; 32 (1969), p.35-56.

Guidelines to the Jurisprudence of Ottoman Ulema --Mehmet Ipsirli

Tasar, Murat. "The Ottoman Ulema: their understanding of knowledge and scholarly contribution." The Turks. 3: Ottomans. Editors: Hasan Celâl Güzel, C.Cem Oğuz, Osman Karatay. Ankara: Yeni Türkiye, 2002, pp. 841–850.

Zilfi, Madeline C. 1986. "The Kadizadelis: Discordant Revivalism in Seventeenth Century Istanbul." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 45 (4): 251-269.

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