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Religious Scholars

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Religious Scholars

    Unlike Christianity, Islam has no formal, ordained clergy. It does, however, recognize a wide range of religious scholars who go by various titles, including imam, ayatollah, mullah, and mufti. As a group, Islamic religious scholars are known as the ulama, meaning “men of knowledge.” The ulama once played a central role in Islamic law, government, and religious life. Although their influence declined during the colonial period, they have become a significant force in the modern Islamic world.

    In the early days of Islam, Muslims required no special training or status to perform religious rituals. Almost anyone familiar with a particular rite could perform it. Knowledgeable members of a mosque served as imams, leading prayers, delivering sermons, and teaching the basics of the Qur'an and Islamic law. They also presided over weddings and funerals. In small communities, different members of the congregation still take turns fulfilling the role of imam. Large congregations, however, typically recognize one individual as the imam. This person plans community activities, administers schools or Islamic centers, visits the sick, and prepares couples for their weddings, in addition to his duties in the mosque.

    The different titles given to Islamic religious scholars are generally honorary and do not represent a formal rank or office. An ayatollah, for example, is an outstanding legal scholar whom some groups of Shi'i Muslims look to as a role model or source of inspiration. Mullah refers to one who has studied religious law, teaches in a religious school, or otherwise actively supports a traditional interpretation of Islam. A mufti interprets Islamic law and issues opinions called fatwas, which guide Muslim actions in various situations. Some governments formally appoint Grand Muftis, who serve as the leading clerics of the state. Scholars called mujtahids also work to interpret law, but use a special process—itjihad (independent reasoning)—to determine how best to apply the Qur'an and hadith to current situations.

    The ulama became a powerful force in Islamic society during the Abbasid caliphate ( 750 – 1258 ). The Abbasid rulers sought to legitimize their rule by identifying themselves closely with Islam and supporting the growth of the ulama. The first formal schools of Islamic law were established by the ulama shortly before the Abbasids came to power. The ulama eventually became a separate class, distinguishing themselves mainly by their dress. Each alim (religious leader) served as an expert in theology, Islamic tradition, or law.

    Until the colonial period, the ulama formed the educated elite in Islamic society. Their control over education and the courts enabled them to shape society, not just for their generation, but for those that came later. The ulama received their educations in madrasahs, or institutions of religious learning. In the early 1800s, however, Western colonial powers set up their own systems of government, law, and education in Muslim lands, restricting the activity of the ulama to religious matters. After achieving independence in the mid-1900s, many Islamic countries established schools based on Western models. These institutions produced a generation of scholars who do not belong to the traditional ulama. The ulama and these scholars often disagree on issues such as the status of women and the nature of Islamic government.

    During the colonial period, the ulama in some Muslim countries led the resistance to Western rule. This movement reached its peak in Iran, where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led a Shi'i revolt that overthrew the secular government of Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979 . Since then, Iran has existed as an Islamic state, with Shi'i religious scholars in control of the government and legal system. Religious scholars also play an important role in Saudi Arabia, where shari'ah governs all aspects of Muslim life. See also Fatwa; Imam; Iran; Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi; Madrasah; Saudi Arabia.

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