AskDefine | Define ulema

Dictionary Definition

ulema n : the body of mullahs (Muslim scholars trained in Islam and Islamic law) who are the interpreters of Islam's sciences and doctrines and laws and the chief guarantors of continuity in the spiritual and intellectual history of the Islamic community [syn: ulama]

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative spellings


From Arabic (‘ulamā’), plural of (‘ālim) ‘learned one’.


  • /ˈʊləmə/, /ˈu:lɪmə/, /u:ləˈmɑ:/


ulema (only in plural or taken as collective plural)
  1. The guardians of legal and religious tradition in Islam; clerics.
    • 2000, For the time being, the faithful must follow their own consciences and learn to distinguish good from evil by themselves, instead of relying on the ulema. — Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God (Harper 2004, p. 131)

Extensive Definition

Ulema (, , singular: , , "scholar") (The people of Islamic Knowledge) refers to the educated class of Muslim legal scholars engaged in the several fields of Islamic studies. They are best known as the arbiters of shari‘a law. While the ulema are well versed in legal jurisprudence being Islamic lawyers, some of them also go on to specialize in other sciences, such as philosophy, dialectical theology or Quranic hermeneutics or explanation. The fields studied, and the importance given them, will vary from tradition to tradition, or even from seminary to seminary.
In a broader sense, the term ulema is used to describe the body of Muslim clergy who have completed several years of training and study of Islamic sciences, such as a mufti, qadi, faqih, or muhaddith. Some Muslims include under this term the village mullahs, imams, and maulvis—who have attained only the lowest rungs on the ladder of Islamic scholarship; other Muslims would say that clerics must meet higher standards to be considered ulema.



Islamic clergy teach at Islamic religious schools and Islamic seminaries, as in Iran, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries.

Executive capacity

The ulema are most powerful in the Shi'a tradition of Islam. Following the 1979 revolution in Iran, factions of the Iranian Shia clergy, under the leadership of Khomeini, took control of the country. This was justified by Khomeini's doctrine of "Guardianship of the Jurists" (Wilayat-i Faqih).
Afghanistan's Taliban regime was also headed by a mullah, Mullah Omar. However, in most countries, they are merely local power figures.

Military commanders

In the Islamic State of Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, mullahs have directly coordinated military operations. This is in keeping with Islamic traditions, as Muhammad and his successors were military commanders themselves.

Role in judicature

In certain Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, where there are sharia courts, Islamic clergy become judges. Therefore, a main job of ulema is the interpretation and maintenance of Islamic law in such countries.

Advisory role

In some countries like Saudi Arabia, Islamic clergy fulfills the role of a counsel for the king. There are also jobs for them in various governmental institutions.


There are various jobs available for the Islamic clergy at mosques, such as leading public prayers, preaching, and delivering sermons, especially at Friday prayers.
Some Ulema have made Dawah a lifelong activity, as have the Tablighi Jamaat group; here is a list of famous Da'i.


The ulema usually work within a tradition (madhhab) that starts with one of five classic jurists. A Sunni Muslim jurist usually belongs to one of the four main schools:
The Ja'fari school (Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan) is usually associated with the Muslims of Shi'ii persuasion.
Some ulema are not associated with any school, for various reasons. These include believing that schools are too conservative and that the idea of ijtihad, the right to personal opinion, means that understanding of the Qur'an can change with the times.


The formative period of Islamic jurisprudence stretches back to the time of the early Muslim communities. In this period, jurists were more concerned with pragmatic issues of authority and teaching than with theory. Progress in theory happened with the coming of the early Muslim jurist Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi`i (767-820), who codified the basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence in his book ar-Risālah. The book details the four roots of law (Qur'an, Sunnah, ijma, and qiyas) while specifying that the primary Islamic texts (the Qur'an and the hadith) be understood according to objective rules of interpretation derived from scientific study of the Arabic language.
A number of important legal institutions were developed by Muslim jurists during the classical period of Islam, known as the Islamic Golden Age. One such institution was the Hawala, an early informal value transfer system, which is mentioned in texts of Islamic jurisprudence as early as the 8th century. Hawala itself later influenced the development of the agency in common law and in civil laws such as the aval in French law and the avallo in Italian law. The earliest known lawsuits were described in the Ethics of the Physician by Ishaq bin Ali al-Rahwi (854–931) of al-Raha, Syria, who describes it as part of an early medical peer review process, where the notes of a practicing Islamic physician were reviewed by peers and he/she could face a lawsuit from a maltreated patient if the reviews were negative. The Waqf in Islamic law, which developed during the 7th-9th centuries, bears a notable resemblance to the trusts in the English trust law. For example, every Waqf was required to have a waqif (founder), mutawillis (trustee), qadi (judge) and beneficiaries. The trust law developed in England at the time of the Crusades, during the 12th and 13th centuries, was introduced by Crusaders who may have been influenced by the Waqf institutions they came across in the Middle East.
Several other fundamental common law instutitions may have been adapted from similar legal instututions in Islamic law and jurisprudence, and introduced to England by the Normans after the Norman conquest of England and the Emirate of Sicily, and by Crusaders during the Crusades. In particular, the "royal English contract protected by the action of debt is identified with the Islamic Aqd, the English assize of novel disseisin is identified with the Islamic Istihqaq, and the English jury is identified with the Islamic Lafif." Other English legal institutions such as "the scholastic method, the license to teach," the "law schools known as Inns of Court in England and Madrasas in Islam" and the "European commenda" (Islamic Qirad) may have also originated from Islamic law. These influences have led some scholars to suggest that Islamic law may have laid the foundations for "the common law as an integrated whole".
The second half of the 20th century was marked by a considerable loss of authority and influence of the ulema in most Islamic states. Many secular Arab governments attempted to break the influence of the ulema after their rise to power. Religious institutions were nationalized and the system of waqf "religious donations", which constituted the classical source of income for the ulema, was abolished.
In 1961 the Egyptian Nasser government put the Al-Azhar University, one of the highest Islamic intellectual authorities, under the direct control of the state. "The Azharis were even put in army uniforms and had to parade under the command of army officers" (G. Keppel, Jihad). In Turkey, the traditional dervish tekkes and Islamic schools were dissolved and replaced by state-controlled religious schools in the 1950s and 1960s. After the independence of Algeria, President Ahmed Ben Bella also deprived the Algerian ulema of their power.

Role of the ulema in the ummah

The ulema in most nations consider themselves to represent the ijma "consensus" of the Ummah "community of Muslims" (or to represent at least the scholarly or learned consensus). Many efforts to modernise Islam focus on the reintroduction of ijtihad and empowerment of the ummah to form their own ijma.

Ulema as authors

Many ulema have left behind them only a lifetime of mediating disputes and giving sermons; their respectible contributions did not include authorship. Other ulema have been prolific authors, writing translations of the Qur'an or Quranic commentaries, studies of hadith, works of philosophy, religious admonition, etc. There are enormous bodies of religious literature that form not only the substance of the courses in Islamic seminaries, but inspirational reading for the ordinary Muslim. Most of this literature has not been translated into English, but remains in its original language (usually Arabic, Urdu, Persian, or Turkish). Some has been printed; some remains in manuscript form.



External links

ulema in Catalan: Ulema
ulema in German: Ulama
ulema in Estonian: Ulama
ulema in Spanish: Ulema
ulema in Esperanto: Ulema
ulema in Basque: Ulema
ulema in French: Ouléma
ulema in Korean: 울레마
ulema in Indonesian: Ulama
ulema in Italian: Ulema
ulema in Hebrew: עולמא
ulema in Malay (macrolanguage): Ulama
ulema in Dutch: Oelema
ulema in Japanese: ウラマー
ulema in Polish: Ulem
ulema in Portuguese: Ulema
ulema in Turkish: Ulema
ulema in Chinese: 阿訇
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1