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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

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Does Islam have a clergy?

Islam does not have an ordained clergy or representatives of a church hierarchy in the way that Christianity does. Any Muslim can lead the prayer or officiate at a wedding or burial. In fact, however, historically certain functions came to be filled by a class that took on distinctive forms of dress and authority that are clergy-like. A variety of roles have come to be played by religious scholars and leaders.

In early Islam, pious Muslims from many walks of life also led prayer or became scholars of the Quran and Islamic sciences, but over time many turned these activities into a profession. Every mosque has an imam, respected in the community, the one who “stands in front” to lead the prayer and delivers the Friday sermon. In smaller congregations, various members take turns in performing this role. Larger communities have a full-time imam, the chief official who performs the many functions that a priest or rabbi might perform: leading a ritual prayer, administering the mosque or Islamic center or school as well as community activities, visiting the sick, and instructing young people preparing to marry, etc.

Scholars of the Quran, Islamic law, and theology (who are called ulama, meaning “the learned”) came to represent a permanent class of religious scholars often distinguished in society by their form of dress. They claimed a primary role as the protectors and authoritative interpreters of Islam. Many titles exist for Islamic religious scholars, reflecting their functions in interpreting Islam, some in theology, others in law. Among the ulama, mujtahid is a special title for one who is qualified to interpret Islamic law (using ijtihad, or independent reasoning). A mufti is a specialist in Islamic law competent to deliver a fatwa, a legal interpretation or judgment. In Sufism (Islamic mysticism), a Sufi master (pir) functions as spiritual leader of his followers.

In Sunni Islam, many governments have created the position of Grand Mufti, or senior religious leader. In Shii Islam (the Twelver, or Ithna Ashari, sect), a hierarchy of religious leaders evolved, at whose apex were Grand Ayatollahs.

In modern times, Islamic reformers include not only the ulama but also educated laity who combine a knowledge of Islam and modern sciences. Today the laity shares with the ulama the role of interpreters of Islam.

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