The Practical Work of the Ulema

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By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)

It has become something of a fashion for people today to constantly criticize and even condemn the traditional madrasa-educated ulema. Not just non-Muslims but many Muslims themselves regard the ulema as obscurantist, hopelessly outdated and a major cause of Muslim backwardness. While I admit the limitations and weaknesses of our traditional ulema in general, I find their total rejection or condemnation very disheartening. After all, one of the most important services that the ulema provide is to transmit to the next generation the tradition of Islamic learning. Given the fact that the ulema remain the mainstay of this tradition, at least they should be given credit for this very valuable task that they continue to perform.

One often hears modern educated Muslim intellectuals lambast the ulema for all sorts of reasons, real as well as imaginary. But, I can confidently state that compared to the former, the ulemas social role has been much greater and more meaningful. The number of modern Muslim intellectuals in India of any note can be counted on ones finger tips. They have done almost nothing for the community. Indeed, they have little, if at all, to do with ordinary Muslimsthe impoverished Muslims who live in slums, ghettos and in villages across India. On the other hand, the vast majority of Muslim institutions and movements in India, in the past and in the present, have been launched and directed by madrasa-educated ulema, who have very strong organic links with the Muslim masses. Although one can indeed critique aspects of the style and functioning of these institutions and movements, it is impossible to deny the obvious fact that the contribution of the ulema in terms of social involvement with the Muslim masses far outweighs that of their Muslim intellectual critics.

This said, I must also point out the severe limitations of some of the work ulema groups have been engaged in. Vast and rapid social, economic, cultural and political changes at both the national and global levels urgently demand new solutions and answers, but these our ulema have been unable to come up with in a satisfactory manner. The basic reason is that, being confined largely to the four walls of their madrasas and interacting mainly with fellow ulema and their own followers, they simply are not sufficiently aware of these contemporary challenges. And then, lamentably, they tend to focus excessively on relatively minor matters, such as the details of jurisprudence or fiqh, or what in Urdu are called furui fiqhi masail, and the technicalities of theology, a wholly exhausted subject about which nothing new can now be written, while leaving out major matters of contemporary import. So, for instance, you have vast numbers of maulvis who pen tracts on what they believe is the appropriate length of a beard a Muslim man should keep or what sort of cap he should wear, and who repeat tired and un-ending sectarian polemical debates about whether or not the word ameen should be uttered loudly and so on. In contrast, if you do a survey you will find very few madrasa-trained ulema who can write anything new or creative on issues of major concern todayglobal warming, inter-faith dialogue, democracy and post-modernism, Third World debt or whatever.

Almost every single madrasa in India is associated with one or the other Muslim sect or maslak, and so the function of the madrasas today has been reduced to defending and propagating a particular sectarian version of Islam. For this purpose, while madrasa students are kept ignorant of major social changes and developments in the world around them, they are carefully groomed in the art of polemical warfare in order to rebut the arguments and claims of other Muslim sects. In some madrasas they even have separate departments for munazara or polemical debates of this sort. This approach only reinforces the narrow mind set of madrasa students, who are carefully trained in parroting arguments and counter-arguments about matters that have been in existence for hundreds of years without having been solved.

Another serious limitation is what I regard as the very narrow or limited approach of our madrasa-trained ulema in general to practical work, or what is called amali kaam in Urdu. They believe that their basic task is to establish madrasas, give fiery speeches and thereby spread Islamic knowledge. Of course running madrasas is a very important, indeed indispensable, task, particularly in a country like India, where Muslims are in a minority and face certain challenges to their religious identity. At the same time, I believe that a certain sort of narrow-mindedness or lack of courage has led the ulema to restrict themselves, by and large, simply to teaching in the madrasas. Today, almost all funds generated through zakat from the community goes to funding madrasas, although the Quran says that this money should also be spent on the poor, on orphans and travelers and so on. This means that social work of this sort is also a binding Islamic duty. Yet, it is striking to note how very few social work institutions for the indigent and the needy are actually run by Muslims, especially by the ulema, who see themselves as not just religious specialists but also as community leaders. Muslims are taught to believe that their zakat must go only or largely to madrasas alone, because, so they are given to understand, this would earn them more religious merit than giving zakat to a leprosy home, for instance, or a school for the blind. Sadly, the other forms of charity are not seen as practical work that can also earn Gods pleasure and religious merit to the same extent. I think the ulema are themselves responsible for creating this wrong understanding. This is an issue that has to be properly addressed.

Across India, a number of Christian, and, in lesser number, Hindu religious groups have set up institutions for helping the poor and the needy, seeing this as a manifestation of their faith. This is how they regard themselves as expressing their faith in action. For, as the saying goes, a tree is judged by its fruit. In contrast, the number of such institutions set up by Muslims, particularly the ulema, is miniscule. Is serving the needy not part of Islam? Should this not also be considered part of the practical work or amali kaam that Muslims, including the ulema, should be engaged in? Of course it should. In fact, Islam exhorts Muslims to help all deserving of help, not just Muslims alone. Yet, it is an indication of a deep-rooted insularity and narrow-mindedness of our ulema and other Muslim leaders that the few social welfare institutions they run are almost wholly exclusive only for Muslims alone. This, too, is an issue that needs to be debated and to be addressed by Muslim scholars, activists and the ulema.

Islamic teachings about social service, and the need for our ulema to be engaged in such service, are not something simply to be taught, preached, or written or lectured about. Rather, they have to be put into action. This is why I believe that, like many Christian seminaries, madrasas must also arrange for their students to be socially engaged and involved in helping people in neednot only by lecturing or educating them about religion, but also by providing them concrete help in their daily struggles for survival.

[Maulana Waris Mazhari, a graduate of the Dar ul-Ulum, Deoband, is the editor of the monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Ulum, the official organ of the Deoband Madrasas Graduates Association. Several of his writings are can be accessed on He can be contacted on Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Social Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore. He can be contacted on]

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