The Role of Ulama and Fuqaha (scholars) in Islam *

The Role of Ulama and Fuqaha (scholars) in Islam *

By Shaikh M. Nur Abdullah

I am grateful to THE AMERICAN MUSLIM for this opportunity to communicate with my brothers and sisters. I am responding to brother Prof. Jamal Elias’ article in the May/June 1991 issue “Women’s Rights and the Interpretation of Law”. Brother Elias raised many issued which need to be addressed; among them is THE ROLE OF THE ULAMA. He labeled Islamic scholars as “clergy” and claimed that to interpret the Qur’an, we should rely on the consensus of opinion of the community, not a narrow group of clergymen! He also claimed that there is nothing in the Qur’an which refers to a class of people above the normal Muslim: “The Quran does not mention the word ‘faqih’ or its plural ‘fuqaha’ meaning legal scholars, nor does the word ‘ulama’ appear anywhere in the sense of a person with religious learning”.

I would like to discuss the role of the ulama (scholars) in Islamic society based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

I do agree with brother Elias that we do not have a “clergy” in the sense defined by Medieval Christianity. In this sense, we as Muslims do not believe that any person has the religious authority to require others to submit to his interpretation. We do have Islamic scholars who are well versed in Qur’an and Sunnah and Shariah (specialists). About such people, Allah says: “O ye who believe, obey Allah and obey the messenger, and those charged with authority among you. If you differ in anything among yourselves refer it to Allah and His Messenger if you believe in Allah and the Last Day: that is best, and most suitable for the final determination.” 4:59.

The excellence of learned people (Ulama) in the Qur’an is manifest in: “Allah (Himself) proffers evidence: and so do the angels and all who are endowed with knowledge - that there is no deity save Him ... ” 3:16. Imam Ghazali commented on this Ayah by saying “See then, how Allah has mentioned Himself first, the angels second, then men endowed with knowledge third. In knowledge is honor, excellence, distinction and rank. And again, Allah says: “Allah will raise up to (suitable) rank (and degree) those of you who believe and who have been granted knowledge.” 58:11

In Surah al-Tawba where Jihad was declared as an obligation, Allah said that even in this circumstance there should be a group of people who should stay behind and study and teach - source people - ulama. The Qur’an called them “Li yata faqqahu fildeen.” ”...It is not desirable that all of the believers take the field in time of war: From within every group, in their midst. some shall refrain from going forth to war, and shall devote themselves instead to acquiring a deeper knowledge of the faith, and thus be able to teach their home-coming brethren, so that these too might guard themselves against evil.” 9:122

This ayah is very clear that there should be a class of people who devote themselves to study and who also teach what they have learned to others. We should not confuse ourselves with a false comparison between the existence of a class of religious scholars in Islam and the existence of a clergy as understood in Christianity. These are two different issues!

Of all of His servants, only such as are endowed with knowledge stand truly in awe of God; for they alone comprehend that verily, God is almighty, much-forgiving.” 35:28. The Qur’an uses the term here: Innama yakh sha Allah min ibadihi al ulama.

Our Prophet emphasized the excellence of the Ulama in many Hadith:

Abu Umama al Bahili reported that two persons were mentioned to the Messenger - one being “abid” (a devout worshipper, the other being “alim” (a scholar). The Prophet then said: “The superiority of a scholar (alim) over the devout (abid) is like my superiority over a worshipper or like that of the moon in the night when it is full over the rest of the stars, and truly the scholars arc the heirs of the Prophets, and truly the Prophets do not leave behind them gold or silver, they only leave knowledge as their heritage. So whosoever acquires knowledge acquires a huge fortune.” Transmitted by Ahmad, Abu Dawud and al Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah.

This hadith clearly emphasizes the position of the scholar in the Muslim community. The need for these scholars is more important “than air and water” as Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal said about his teacher,  Imam Shafi.

It is narrated by Tirmidhi that Ibn Abbas reported the Prophet as saying: “A single (faqih) scholar of religion is more formidable against a devil than a thousand devout persons”.
Our Prophet warned the Ummah that knowledge would be extinguished from the earth and that people would be misled by ignorant leaders and so-called scholars. Abdul-Allah b. Umar (ra) reported the Prophet saying: “Allah will not cause extinction of knowledge by taking it away from the servants, but He will cause extinction of knowledge by taking away the learned ones. When no learned man remains, the people will then take the illiterate as their leaders. They will seek religious verdicts from them and they will deliver those verdicts without knowledge and the people will go astray and lead each other into error.” Bukhari and Muslim.

The above makes it clear that the scholars in Islamic society are: 1) The learned people (ulama). 2) Those who lead people and who are followed by the people. 3) Those endowed with sound knowledge who will guide people to the right path. 4) Those who are necessary for the community’s benefit.

Today, the ummah is illiterate and many people act as Imams and Shaikhs without sound knowledge in Qur’an, Hadith, jurisprudence (usul al-Fiqh) and Ijma (consensus of opinion). When such unqualified people give religious verdicts, people are led astray. In order to save the ummah from this predicament, there must be ulama who spend their time in studying and who are SPECIALISTS, and the masses should seek their guidance and opinion on legal issues.

If you have a legal problem you consult a lawyer. If you have a medical problem you consult a physician. If your car is broken, you go to a mechanic to fix your car. You may not agree with their opinion, you may decide to obtain a second opinion, you may decide to get a different lawyer, doctor or mechanic. But, you know that you need these specialists, and you are not going to get a second opinion on a medical matter from an auto mechanic or ask a lawyer to look over your car. You might be able to pick up some law books and study them and attempt to represent yourself, but as the American expression goes “He who represents himself in a court of law has a fool for a client.”

I agree with brother Elias that everyone has the right to study Islamic Law from its sources and to come to a decision. However, to say that that personal decision is as authoritative as that of a specialist is another matter. When we seek the opinion of a physician we arc not saying that they are in a class above other people, but we respect their knowledge and we seek their help in their area of expertise, and we do give authority to their opinion because it is based on their having more knowledge in their field than a layman would normally have.

Religious knowledge is more serious than for example knowledge of how to fix a car or a table. The knowledge of what Allah wants from us and how to follow His law is the responsibility of every Muslim. But, if a Muslim does not have the necessary knowledge to make a decision in a specific instance, then he must ask the learned people - the ulama. If that makes them a class of learned people, it is not an evil class.

Their job is to help people to be closer to Allah.


Originally published in the print edition of

The American Muslim

November-December 1991 responding to an article by Jamal Elias.


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