Who are the real ulama?

It would be a gross injustice to undermine, let alone to deny altogether, their place and role in the Muslim community.

ULAMA (plural for alim) is an Islamic term, which literally means “the men of knowledge”.

There is no need to ask who they are unless the person asking does not know what knowledge is. If that is the case, what he should be asking then is: what is knowledge?

A person who does not know what knowledge is will not be able to tell the difference between a scholar and a pretender. He might be deceived by the external appearance of someone who claims to be a scholar, while knowledge in reality is the attribute of the soul.

According to the Quran and the prophetic tradition, the ulama are the heirs of the Prophet, and they are the truly fearful of God among His servants. Being the heirs of the Prophets, they inherit the teachings of the Prophets, preserve those teachings, and convey them to the rest of mankind.

In every generation they are the ones who protect the prophetic knowledge from alteration, corruption and false interpretations. Without them, true Islam would have been non-existent.

Knowing their true contribution to the religion of Islam, it would be a gross injustice to undermine, let alone to deny altogether the place and the role of the ulama in the Muslim community. By “injustice” we mean a state of being where things are not placed in their proper places.

The Quranic term for injustice is “darkness” (zulm), because in the dark one cannot see things. If one were asked to put a thing in its proper place while one is in the dark, one would not be able to do it.

Injustice is a state of the soul, caused by the ignorance of the right and proper place of things. But there is something that is worse than ignorance; it is a state called “confusion”, which is caused by an error in knowledge.

Ignorance, by which we mean the absence of knowledge, is relatively easier to remedy, by imparting knowledge.

A confused person, however, is more difficult to deal with, because he is not simply ignorant. He does know some truths, yet what he thinks he knows is in reality a mixture of truth and falsehood, and it is a condition that he either does not realise, or, worse, refuses to admit.

A person who is in this state of mind is prone to making all sorts of erroneous judgements. Just imagine when society in general is either ignorant or confused, how would it be possible to recognise the true ulama from the false ones, and not to be deceived by the impostors?

Yes, there are, indeed, false ulama, just as there are false prophets. The false ulama are by definition not the men of knowledge, so they are not real ulama.

So, when people who are actually not ulama are being placed in the position of ulama, a great injustice has been done, and it means something must have really gone wrong with society to have allowed it to happen.

It means society has become ignorant or confused about the right and proper place, resulting in wrong people being appointed to lead them in intellectual matters.

The false ulama would not be able to lead society to the right path because they themselves do not belong to the path. Instead, they prefer the path of worldliness, where power, wealth and dominion are the ultimate aim.

How could such a person be trusted and relied upon? Trusting and following their advice would only perpetuate more injustice and corruption.

This is the predicament of Muslim society today, and they will remain in that condition as long as they do not realise and admit its true cause. The longer they take to wake up and realise their true problem, the bigger the damage they would have to sustain and the deeper the problem would become.

The emergence of the false ulama is indicative of a profound intellectual crisis, so the remedy should also be intellectual by nature. But it would not be easy because the great majority of the Muslims today including the learned among them have not truly recognised the cause of the problem and its devastating effects.

If they do not think that all this while they have been misguided by the false ulama, they would not bother to remove them. If they do, they would have responded enthusiastically to the call to re-educating themselves, because that is the only way ignorance and confusion could be eliminated and with that the false ulama.

The true ulama will not simply appear from nowhere and begin to demand the return of their rightful place. That is not how it would happen.

They will only take their place and play their role when society begins to recognise and acknowledge them. It means society must facilitate the emergence of true ulama, and that would be possible only when true knowledge becomes widespread and ignorance and confusion are no longer rampant.

That is the natural order of affairs. Guidance does not simply come to those who are not worthy of it.

The true ulama are the bearers of divine guidance, which is what we mean by true knowledge, also known as wisdom and light. Their presence means the presence of Divine mercy on mankind, and their absence means the absence of it.

Unless we prove that we deserve them, they will not be there for us.

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Md. Asham Ahmad

Merupakan Felo Kanan di Pusat Kajian Syariah, Undang-undang & Politik, Institut Kefahaman Islam (IKIM). Mendapat ijazah Sarjana (MA) dalam Pemikiran Islam dari Institut Antarabangsa Pemikiran Islam dan Tamadun (ISTAC) di bawah bimbingan YM Tan Sri Prof.Dr Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas

One thought on “Who are the real ulama?

  • November 23, 2015 at 11:41 am


    Dear Md Asham Ahmad,

    Few quick questions:

    1) Who, in your opinion, in the context of Malaysia is/are the real ulama(s)? Are you able to name a few?

    2) Do you, personally or professionally, think those “men of knowledge” who join politics or incline to any political party can be referred to as ulama?

    3) We have a local elected/appointed as the Vice President of the International Union of Muslim Scholars; is he recognized locally? Are we benefiting from this appointment?

    Thank you for your attention.



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