The issues addressed in this blog are dealt with in far greater detail in a full-length paper on the same topic, which can be read here.
Contemporary Muslims often find themselves confronting a seeming paradox that has emerged in our times. They ask themselves what role, if any, the ulama—Islamic religious scholars—have to play in modern societies. This question may arise in a number of different contexts. Some may see Muslim communities functioning just fine without significant numbers of ulama. Their limited visibility may give the (mis)impression of their irrelevance. Others might feel that modern educated Muslims in search of divine guidance can simply pick up a good translation of the Qur’an or an authoritative collection of hadith, like Sahih Bukhari or Sahih Muslim, and thereby directly access divine guidance unmediated by any scholar. There may even be some who look down at the “so-called ulama” who they believe, not always without some justification, are poorly educated and have little to offer graduates from modern universities who enjoy considerable success in their worldly lives.
My paper explains that, contrary to the above views, there are actually very good, and arguably quite obvious, reasons that the ulama have historically been and will inevitably continue to be indispensable to Muslims. My answer draws on the Qur’an and Sunnah and the statements of scholars of the past to illustrate this point in several ways, before addressing some challenges Muslims face today in finding the sorts of scholars we need. I also reflect on how contemporary challenges first emerged; Muslims’ own responsibility in dealing with them; and what kinds of steps we should take, as local communities and as an ummah, to try and address these challenges.
“Heirs of the prophets”
One dimension of the need for ulama is highlighted by the Prophet ﷺ in his statement that “the ulama are the heirs of the prophets.” In particular, he ﷺ highlighted that the task of prophets was the convey knowledge, and that this is a role that the scholars would undertake after a prophet passes. Naturally, the ulama of our community—the standard bearers of Islam—refer to this hadith when highlighting their role as transmitters of sound Islamic teachings. This role is especially important because any area of knowledge has its experts who should be consulted if there is any confusion.
As I elaborate in the full-length paper, there are often instances in which the interpretation of the Qur’an or the Sunnah needs to be undertaken by someone who is an expert, who understands the nuances of the Arabic language, and who possesses a holistic understanding of the message of Islam through its main scriptural sources.
Oddly enough, the questioning of the need for ulama in modernity occurs in a context in which our dependency on expertise is perhaps the greatest in any time in human history given the complexities of modern life. Whether it is the scientific expertise that runs our devices, or the complex legal norms that govern our existence in modern societies, we are entirely attuned to the notion of expertise. However, part of the secularist prejudice of the modern contexts many of us live in is the suggestion that religious knowledge is not also a form of expertise. This is little more than a “secularist prejudice” as I have just labeled it—something even some secular philosophers will confess in their moments of candor.
Given that the Qur’an was revealed over a millennium ago in “a clear Arabic tongue,” it stands to reason that Muslims need to resort to scholarly experts of the ancient Arabic language to understand its message. Add to that the fact that there has been a long and illustrious tradition of scholarly reflection on the Qur’an and the Sunnah in Arabic and it becomes clear that we need to have dedicated specialists in this tradition to inform us about what we need to live as faithful Muslims today.
Finding reliable scholars
The Qur’an advocates that scholars’ expertise is sought in questions of doubt.
Allah says: “Ask those who know if you do not know,” a verse that scholars throughout history have understood to mean that scholarly expertise should be resorted to in moments of doubt.
Yet, this also means that we need to recognize reliable scholars and distinguish between them and those who may claim to be scholars but would not be recognized as such by other scholars. As I note in the full-length paper, there are ways that can be used to recognize a genuine scholar, and such discernment is essential in our communities.
Other questions this raises include our responsibility as a community to cultivate scholars through incentivising the formal study of Islam and through the recognition of the importance of Islamic scholarship as an enterprise that is essential to the well-being of our communities. Such scholars should be from both genders, and crucially, they need to reflect the very best talent of our communities. Only then will we start to have the kind of ulama that we so desperately need—dynamic individuals who can galvanize the best of our community to bring about good for society as a whole.
The ulama are an indispensable part of any project of Islamic revival. By raising awareness of the vitally important role they must play in our community’s faithful growth and development, each of us can contribute in a small way to the revival of a vibrant Islamic ummah, one that has been held back from contributing to humanity for far too long.
For more on this topic read the full paper Why We Need ʿUlamāʾ: Islamic Knowledge in a Secular Age