By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
18 May 2020
A madrasa graduate, recently complained to me that the word ‘Mullah’ is derogatory and hence its usage should be avoided. He was particularly livid that even Muslims use the word without realising that they were ‘mocking at one of the most important constituents of Muslim society’. The proper usage, he told me, should be Ulama e Deen or simply Alim (the learned one). My friend, the madrasa graduate, recounted tales of valour and sacrifice that the Ulema have made to the Muslim cause throughout history. With some force, he told me, that the very word Ulema should inspire a feeling of awe and respect, especially from the Muslim community.
This sense of self-worth is certainly not unique but is shared by most who have a religious degree. Even the most useless of such ‘religious scholars’, who sell themselves for a pittance on television debates, take offence at being called a Mullah. Certainly, Islam prescribes no clergy, and according to most readings of Islam, there is no hierarchy amongst the believers. Then why is it that the Ulama think that they are better than other Muslims? What special abilities do they possess to warrant such a respect? More importantly, since when have they started taking themselves so seriously?
The perception that Ulama are somehow special is also prevalent within Muslim society and generally as rule, Muslims think that the Ulama are worthy of respect. I have heard many Muslims remarking that it is the role of the Ulama to guide the Muslim community and that Muslims should follow their advice.
That the Ulama have been respected throughout Muslim history is a piece of fiction. As a matter of fact, they have never been. Since the Islamic state fused within the person of the caliph both sacred and secular powers, there was no need for a separate existence of a class of clergy. It is true that Muslim monarchs kept an advisory council comprising of Ulama, but the decision to accept any advice was the sole prerogative of the monarchy and almost in all cases, the acceptance or rejection of such advices were based on political considerations. Within South Asia, some Ulama tried from time to time to persuade Muslim Kings to undertake religious conversion, but the Kings never took their advice seriously. On the contrary, those who went against the diktat of the King were promptly put behind bars or exiled. Elsewhere in the Islamic world, the story of was the same: if the Sultan disapproved of something, then the particular Alim was in deep trouble.
Further back in Islamic history, we see that the Ulama were made fun of by Muslims themselves. Philosophers like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd and even mystics like Ibn Arabi lambasted the Ulema for taking the religious text too literally. These philosophers claimed that the real essence of Islam is buried within layers of meaning and that only they (the philosophers) have access to that knowledge. They contended that the Ulama only skim the surface and boastfully proclaim that they have found the truth. We should also not forget the various Muslim poets who have lampooned the Ulama for their mindless insistence on rituals. Even a pragmatist Islamist, like Jamaluddin Afghani, was horrified to learn that despite the imminent English threat, the Indian Ulama continued to be obsessed with questions like what should be the appropriate length of the beard.
This contemporary self-praise of the Ulama therefore is a modern phenomenon and in India, at least, its architect seems to be Shah Waliullah. Sensing the imminent decline of Muslim power, he theorised that the Ulama become custodians of inner caliphate (BatiniKhilafah) as opposed to outer caliphate (Zahiri Khilafa) where they should surrender their authority to whatever form of government exists. Although they never had any influence within the outer caliphate ever, this formulation of Shah Waliullah crystallised with the establishment of Deoband madrasa. This institutionalizing of a fictitious idea gave an important role to the Ulama, something which was new in Muslim history. Deoband positioned itself neatly within the colonial binary of public and private wherein religion came to be regarded as a private matter. And the Ulema became the masters of this private realm in terms of guiding the community in religious matters and teaching them the correct Islamic behaviour in a context where Islam was no longer the master signifier. The Ulama would perhaps be very disappointed to learn that their new role as the guide and leader of Muslims is in fact a gift bestowed on them, not by Muslims, but by the Christian British.
The second important moment for the Ulama came when Gandhi hit upon the disastrous idea of drafting them within the freedom struggle through the Khilafat movement. It is during the Khilafat movement that the Ulema truly emerged as a class within Muslims. In Marxian terms, it was a class fully conscious of its role and interests within society. The Khilafat movement transformed some Ulama into household names since they were in the forefront of anti-British struggle. Without understanding the internal social structure of Muslims, the Congress, in its infantile wisdom, under the leadership of Gandhi, anointed the Ulama as leaders of Muslims. Till now, within the popular imagination of this country, the Ulama are treated as leaders of the Muslim community. Having tasted power for the first time during the Khilafat movement, the Ulama were hardly the one to give it up despite the abject failure of the movement. Out of work, the Ulama understood the power of Islam as a mobilizing force. The social and political networks forged during the Khilafat movement would eventually be used in developing a separatist consciousness amongst a section of Muslims.
My friend, the madrasa graduate, must realise that there is nothing in Islam which tells us to respect the Ulama or even follow their advice. That they have become important is a fact. But they have become so because of the coming together of certain historical contexts. Within a different context, the same category of people have also been blamed for much of the plight of Muslim community. There is definitely a reading of Islam which tells us that an Alim must be respected for his knowledge. A famous Hadis tells us that Muslims must strive to seek knowledge even if they have to go to China. But if the Ulama today are downright ignorant of even basic history and geography, then is it the Muslim community’s fault if they do not respect them?
Arshad Alam is a NewAgeIslam.com columnist