The Ulama in Contemporary Islam


Published by Princeton University Press

Author: Muhammad Qasim Zaman

Publishers: Princeton University Press

Pages: 293

By Asif Mahmood Basit

Qasim Zaman’s work, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam, appeared on the academic scene at a time when Islam was being understood and misunderstood afresh by the whole world in general and the West in particular. The atrocity of 9/11 was still fresh in the transnational memory of the world and the focus had drifted to the question, “Who is the authority on interpreting the Quran?”

It is this question that Zaman’s work addresses, and that too with great detail. The Ulema, or the Muslim clergy, have historically exercised this authority and it has been widely accepted by not only the general public but by Muslim rulers also. Courts of Muslim kings and Sultans would have Qazis who advise them on religious matters. Then came a time in the Muslim kingdoms when every matter started to fall under the umbrella of religion. This is where the absolute rule of the Ulema began to strengthen its foundations and buildings of all sorts were erected upon them.

There were schisms, there were divisions, there were sectarian hatreds but the Ulema always succeeded in maintaining their position of authority. How this was made possible is the fundamental question that Zaman attempts, successfully, to answer.

It is interesting to read how madrasahs function as the nursery of this “industry” and how it is managed (or manipulated) at a higher scale like the university levels; how the dars-e-nizami of madrasahs prepares one class and how the universities like the Al-Azhar provide intellectual stability to this authority.

Zaman, exploring the ever-expanding sphere of this authority of Ulema, sees how eventually everything is taken to fall under the Sharia and how, from this stance, the concept of an Islamic state emerges. Some of Zaman’s deliberations seem prophetic in the wake of the recent attempts of Ulema to impose the concept of IS or “Islamic State”.

The role of Ulema in Pakistan – a state formed in the name of Islam – is again a very interesting study as Zaman covers the socio-political role of Ulema in the lives of Muslims of the undivided India in the colonial days to the new self-styled roles assumed by them after the creation of Pakistan. It is in this discussion where Zaman tries to explore the roots of what the Western media likes to call, “Islamic” extremism. I present here a few passages from the book, which I, naturally and very fondly, have presented on many occasions:

“…in the ‘sectarian upbringing’ of several leaders of radical Sunnism in Pakistan, the Ahmadi controversy has played a considerable role. Anathematised by most Muslims for their belief that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1908), the founder of the Ahmadi community, was a prophet, the Ahmads have been the target of several campaigns of religious violence as well as of government persecution.” (p. 113)

“Many of the leading activists of the Sipa-i-Sihaba Pakistan, the militant Sunni organization … began their political careers agitating against the Ahmadis.” (p. 114)

“In a state that professes to be guided by the fundamental principles of Islam, the Ahmadi controversy has contributed to sectarian discourse by forcefully raising, and keeping alive, such questions as who a Muslim ‘really’ is (irrespective of one’s own claim in that regard) and what position a Muslim (and those who are not Muslim, or are not recognised as such) has in that state.

“The Jam‘iyyat al-‘Ulema-i-Islam has played a considerable role in Pakistan electoral as well as agitational politics; it participated in the anti-Ahmadi agitations in 1953 and again in 1974 …” (p 119)

Bhutto succumbed to this political pressure of the Ulema when deciding to declare the Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority. Little did he know that he would have to succumb to them in every matter; even losing his own sovereignty to this religio-political force. 

When the Pakistan’s ruling class surrendered their sanity before these “ulema”, Hazrat Mirza Nasir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IIIrh warned them that that genie of political power given to the Ulema would never go back in the lamp that it had emerged from. And it never did.

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