The Role of Islamic Scholars in Modern Society | Blog
Published: May 8, 2023 • Updated: October 20, 2023
Author: Dr. Usaama al-Azami
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
Contemporary Muslims often find themselves confronting a seeming paradox that has emerged in our times. They ask themselves what role, if any, the ulama—Islamic religious scholars—have to play in modern societies. This question may arise in a number of different contexts. Some may see Muslim communities functioning just fine without significant numbers of ulama. Their limited visibility may give the (mis)impression of their irrelevance. Others might feel that modern educated Muslims in search of divine guidance can simply pick up a good translation of the Qur’an or an authoritative collection of hadith, like Sahih Bukhari or Sahih Muslim, and thereby directly access divine guidance unmediated by any scholar. There may even be some who look down at the “so-called ulama” who they believe, not always without some justification, are poorly educated and have little to offer graduates from modern universities who enjoy considerable success in their worldly lives.
My paper explains that, contrary to the above views, there are actually very good, and arguably quite obvious, reasons that the ulama have historically been and will inevitably continue to be indispensable to Muslims. My answer draws on the Qur’an and Sunnah and the statements of scholars of the past to illustrate this point in several ways, before addressing some challenges Muslims face today in finding the sorts of scholars we need. I also reflect on how contemporary challenges first emerged; Muslims’ own responsibility in dealing with them; and what kinds of steps we should take, as local communities and as an ummah, to try and address these challenges.
“Heirs of the prophets”
As I elaborate in the full-length paper, there are often instances in which the interpretation of the Qur’an or the Sunnah needs to be undertaken by someone who is an expert, who understands the nuances of the Arabic language, and who possesses a holistic understanding of the message of Islam through its main scriptural sources.
Given that the Qur’an was revealed over a millennium ago in “a clear Arabic tongue,” it stands to reason that Muslims need to resort to scholarly experts of the ancient Arabic language to understand its message. Add to that the fact that there has been a long and illustrious tradition of scholarly reflection on the Qur’an and the Sunnah in Arabic and it becomes clear that we need to have dedicated specialists in this tradition to inform us about what we need to live as faithful Muslims today.
Finding reliable scholars
Allah says: “Ask those who know if you do not know,” a verse that scholars throughout history have understood to mean that scholarly expertise should be resorted to in moments of doubt.
Other questions this raises include our responsibility as a community to cultivate scholars through incentivising the formal study of Islam and through the recognition of the importance of Islamic scholarship as an enterprise that is essential to the well-being of our communities. Such scholars should be from both genders, and crucially, they need to reflect the very best talent of our communities. Only then will we start to have the kind of ulama that we so desperately need—dynamic individuals who can galvanize the best of our community to bring about good for society as a whole.
The ulama are an indispensable part of any project of Islamic revival. By raising awareness of the vitally important role they must play in our community’s faithful growth and development, each of us can contribute in a small way to the revival of a vibrant Islamic ummah, one that has been held back from contributing to humanity for far too long.
For more on this topic read the full paper Why We Need ʿUlamāʾ: Islamic Knowledge in a Secular Age