Closer Look: The Role Of Ulema

Ulema are considered as inheritors of the prophets. Ulema themselves explain their exalted position by saying that this is so because prophets didn’t leave behind any wealth except wealth of knowledge and ulema as a group have over fourteen hundred years preserving and propagating this prophetic knowledge. But what has been the role of Ulema in recent years?

If we go back hundred years, we will find a very active ulema group, active in politics and social activities. In fact, it was the Khilafat Movement that gave birth to India’s independence dreams. Till independence, we find ulema guiding and helping the community and the country in different spheres of life.

Flash forward to present times and you will see ulema who are related to each other through blood and marriages are fighting among themselves for their piece of Jamiat, to control Darul Uloom Deoband, or to gain some political benefits. All this is going on when just a few years ago Sachar Committee report put numbers on Muslims’ socio-economic backwardness.

Imam sahib of Kotla Jami Masjid.

Though no authentic information is available but it is safe to assume that thousands of madrasas produce at least tens of thousands of graduates every year. In recent years, some new sectors have opened up but still most end up serving as imams in mosques, teaching in other madrasas or starting their own maktabs. In all these cases, they live and work among the community and some ulema rightly point out that they are more connected to the people than Muslim intellectuals. But then I failed to understand how is that even after spending large part of their day among Muslims and some of the poorest one they are unable to comprehend their problems?

How is it that imam of a masjid do not see that Muslims are going through difficult financial condition or most of them are illiterate or that there are no good schools, hospitals, and other civic amenities around his masjid? I have seen lot of imams of small times mosques having a very good relations with local Muslim elites to secure regular funding so why not for other purposes that will benefit the community?

I can’t say that “modern educated” Muslims has better track record in helping their community but I will blame madrasa education for failing to develop critical thinking among its students. Modern discoveries and lot of literature (in science, social science, etc.) is not accessible to them and I am not sure how many can benefit even if it becomes accessible.

There are very few madrasa graduates that are able to get to modern universities like JNU, JMI, and AMU but madrasa authorities, instead of being proud of their alumni who have made a mark for themselves in the secular world, look down upon them as the ones who abandoned the mission.

Now, someone should tell me what is the mission? If Muslims position has deteriorated in the last 60 years then why can’t we blame our “ulema hazraat” for having an ostrich mentality?

To the “modern-educated” Muslims, my message is simple- if you don’t engage with the community, then don’t blame ulema for taking active role in social services and politics. They are doing the best they can given their limited world view.

What we need is actually an equal partnership between ulema and the “modern-educated “both balancing out each other’s skewed world and Islamic view and learning from each other.

Muslim Decline And Responsibilities Of Ulema

By Maulana Waris Mazhari,

The fact of Muslim decline on almost all fronts is one that most Muslims themselves would readily concede. The moral distinctions that once characterised the early Muslims are no more, and the only thing that distinguishes them from others are external markers of religious or communal identity. The ulema once provided moral leadership to Muslim society, playing a central role in its formation and reformation. They were meant to be the true guides of the community, in accordance with the well-known saying of the Prophet Muhammad: ‘The ulema are the inheritors of the prophets’ (al-ulemao warasat al-anbiya). Throughout their history, the Muslim masses have always looked at the ulema to guide them. However, at times when rulers succeeded in co-opting sections of the ulema to justify their oppressive rule, they failed, as a class, to fulfill the duty entrusted to them by the Prophet. This also happened when sections of the ulema fell prey to worldly blandishments and temptations and strayed from the straight path. It cannot be denied, however, that in the early period of Islam the majority of the ulema remained determinedly on the right path and fulfilled their social responsibilities.

Today, the crucial question of what role the ulema should play in the reform of Muslim society remains hotly-debated and is as yet unresolved. In this regard, it is crucial that the ulema turn within and seriously introspect to see how far they have been able to live up to their responsibilities vis-à-vis the wider society.

The ulema have a greater role to play in social reform than other sections of Muslim society and, hence, the need for them to introspect is perhaps greater. After all, according to the Quran and the Hadith, the ulema have been accorded a more important role precisely because of the responsibilities with regard to social affairs that have been entrusted to them. If they shirk these responsibilities they cannot remain in their position and will inevitably be critiqued and even condemned by others, as is common today. The ulema claim that they have been given the role of guiding and leading the Muslim community, and so, if they do not do so in an appropriate manner it is obvious they will lose their relevance and popular support. In countries such as India, the majority of the ulema are economically dependent on the Muslim masses. This further requires that the ulema remain accountable to the latter in terms of fulfilling the roles required of them.

It is undoubtedly true that, in general, the ulema have played, and continue to play, a central role in promoting moral consciousness and religious awareness among the Muslim masses. At the same time, it is also true that, by and large, the ulema have not really lived up to the roles expected of them. Gradually, the ulema in most countries have withdrawn from social affairs. Lacking the appropriate skills and attributes of proper leadership, they are gradually losing the support of the Muslim masses. The ulema regard this as ‘deviation’ and as an ‘un-Islamic’ tendency, while the Muslim masses see the ulema as being concerned solely with rituals and external markers of religious identity and as no different, in terms of morals, from them. Indeed, many ‘ordinary’ Muslims even view the ulema as responsible for a host of ills, including of seeking to provide sanction to heinous sins through sophistry and trickery and wrong interpretations of the religious scriptures.

Two basic pillars of social reform are education and morality. The Quran refers to these two in the following verse:

‘Our Lord! Send amongst them a Messenger of their own, who shall rehearse Thy Signs to them and instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom, and purify them: for Thou art the Exalted in might, the Wise’ (2: 129).

There are different aspects of education, one of which is the transmission of the tradition of Islamic knowledge from one generation to the next. This task has been admirably undertaken by our ulema, who have set up a vast number of madrasas and other Islamic institutions for this purpose.

Another aspect of education is the intellectual formation and development of the community. This is also a task for the ulema, but, particularly after the departure of the British from India in 1947, they have almost wholly ignored it. It does not need to be stressed how crucial the intellectual development of a community is in its overall civilisational progress. A community that fails to keep up at the intellectual level with changing conditions and to keep up with other communities on the intellectual plane will inevitably be pushed to the margins of history. It was the task of the ulema to intellectually train the Muslim community by developing appropriate responses, from within the broader Islamic paradigm, to the changing demands and conditions of the times so as to enable Muslims to progress in an Islamically appropriate manner. Lamentably, however, they have failed to take up this crucial responsibility.

Morality is the underlying spirit and basis of religion. Promoting morality was the main objective of the mission of the prophets. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have remarked: ‘I have been sent to establish the pinnacle of morality’ (bohithto li uttamima husn al-akhlaq). In this regard, it can be said without any hesitation that the ulema have completely ignored the need for the moral development of the Muslim community on several fronts, and the baneful consequences of this, in terms of woeful moral standards, are fully in evidence, among both madrasa-educated Muslims as well as those who have studied in secular institutions. Indeed, so shocking is this lamentable state of affairs that managers of madrasas, who are meant to be the champions of morality, are known to grossly exploit the teachers and staff employed in their institutions, who are their fellow ulema, and, caring nothing for democracy, exercise a dictatorial control over community institutions, treating them as their own private properties. They splurge the money entrusted to them by the community on setting up massive buildings and lavish mosques or squander this money on useless things just for show and fame while caring nothing for the desperately poor people who live in their vicinity. How, then, can people accept to accord such ulema the lofty position of ‘preachers of morality’? Many of the institutions run by the ulema are torn by strife and internal conflict, and characterised by lack of transparency and rules, corruption, nepotism and gross inefficiency. Given this, how can the ulema expect to be respected by the masses? How can the masses consider them as their moral guides?

The basis of social reformation is the moral development of the members of a society. If those who claim to be the custodians or enforcers of morality, as the ulema see themselves, are themselves corrupt, to expect and hope for the community to develop is mere wishful thinking.

Another major drawback of our ulema is their marked tendency to ignore the demands of morality and the true spirit of religion in matters related to relations with other communities. Often, communal prejudices overshadow the demands for morality and justice. Let me explain this with the help of a single case. In 2007, some Hindu policemen deployed in Jamia Nagar, a Muslim-dominated locality in New Delhi, were alleged to have disrespected the Quran. On hearing this, a huge crowd of Muslims gathered at the police station and set it on fire. Several police posts in the vicinity were also attacked. Later, every sensible Islamic scholar learned that the whole incident was the handiwork of some rabble-rousing Muslim elements, and that the policemen had not deliberately treated the Quran with disrespect, as was alleged. However, I myself heard numerous ulema who are supposedly highly respected in Muslim circles saying that while the fault was actually that of the inflamed Muslim youth and not of the policemen, out of political compulsions they must support the former.

This is a brazen case of narrow communal prejudice, so sternly condemned by the Prophet Muhammad, triumphing over morality and justice. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in most matters related to the community, our attitude is deeply coloured by this sort of communal prejudice. One can cite almost no cases in which our ulema have, in such matters involving Muslims and people of other faiths, abided by the demands of justice, morality and impartiality and have condemned the wrongful actions of their co-religionists.

The ulema claim to be concerned about the reform of Muslim society and often issue statements to that effect. However, their vision of reform is extremely limited—confined simply to purging Muslim society of non-Muslim influences. In actual fact, social reform is far more comprehensive than that. It concerns a channelization of energies at both the individual as well as collective levels for the welfare and progress of all sections of society and for overall peace and justice.

Certain other aspects of the social roles and responsibilities of the ulema, and their negligence thereof, must also be noted. For instance, sections of the ulema are now seeking to play a more prominent role in politics. An unfortunate aspect of this is that all sorts of ulema are now entering the political field, including many who lack the capacity for proper leadership, and some who are corrupt and for whom politics is simply a means to feather their own nests. This has, quite naturally, led to greater confusion and conflict, with many of these ulema indulging in immoral politics that thrive on communal conflict and strife.

Many ulema rather unrealistically expect Muslim society to reform itself simply by delivering long harangues about the need to abide by the laws of the shariah. Clearly, this is inadequate and, indeed, impossible. One cannot expect to change people’s behaviour simply by delivering fatwas on all sorts of matters. The only thing that can be done in this regard is to clarify the shariah position on various issues to those people who are willing to abide by the rules of theshariah. People cannot be forced against their will to do what the shariah expects of them. If the ulema seriously wish that in all matters people abide by the shariah, there is no alternative to gradually working for their intellectual and moral reform. For this, the ulema must be far-sighted, basing their actions and programmes on the future, rather than simply harping on the past. It is not enough for them to constantly dwell, as a means to exhort people to follow the right path, on how wonderful their predecessors were. Rather, their focus must be on the future, and Muslims must be made aware that if they fail to reform they will face a miserable future. This means that the ulema must live in the present, rather than in the past, and must plan for the future. In addition, the ulema must realize that this task is not for them alone to bear, and that they must share this with other sections of Muslim society, with whom they must work in tandem in a mutually respectful and meaningful manner.

In this regard, the issue of reforms in the madrasas, where the ulema are trained, assumes particular urgency. In the past, and even today, many social reformers among the Muslims were produced in the madrasas. The time has now come for the madrasas, particularly the larger ones, to set up specialized departments or centres for social work through which they can train their students, would-be ulema, to engage in social work and activism once they graduate.

Imams of mosques, who have close and daily interaction with the Muslim masses, have a crucial role to play in this task of social reform. Lamentably, however, untrained imams, far from doing anything positive in this regard, often become the cause of greater strife and division among the people. It is thus essential that the imams of mosques be given proper training for their additional role as community leaders. Perhaps the centres of social work that I have suggested that madrasas set up can provide them with the requisite skills. In addition, other Muslim institutions could develop and conduct courses for this purpose.

It is clear—and most Muslims themselves will admit this—that although Muslim society is today desperately in need of reform, the pace of such reform is extremely slow. Among the many reasons for this is the wrong and completely misplaced belief shared by many ulema that, as compared to other communities, Muslims are morally and intellectually much better off. Needless to say, this belief is based on a completely false and illusory sense of reality. The sooner the ulema realize this the better it would be—for themselves and for the Muslims in general.


(Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Graduates’ Association of the Deoband madrasa. He can be contacted on

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore)

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India Madrasa

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