Ulama or Clergy?

Clergy 1

Clergy 1 (Photo credit: celesteh)

multaqo Ulama 1

multaqo Ulama 1 (Photo credit: abi hasan)

Ulama or Clergy?

Ulama or clergy? Meaning, what actually is ulama?

We are all aware that ulama (from Arabic ‘ulama, sing. ‘alim) is a traditionally Islamic term and consequently no precise rendering can be found in other languages or cultures. The English translation most commonly accepted for ulama is ‘clergy’ or ‘cleric.’ But is it really so? We do know that clergy is mainly referring to anything related to the Church, i.e. Christianity. So accepting uncritically that ulama actually bears the same meaning as clergy is like accepting Islam as an equal of Christianity or of any other religion. The fact is it’s not! (But regarding what Islam is, is another story)

‘Ulama comes from the root word ‘ilm, or ‘knowledge’ in general, which in itself constitutes linguistically of the roots ‘ayn-lam-mim. These roots are derived from ‘alamah, meaning “a mark, sign, or token, by which a thing or person is known; a cognizance, or a bandage; a characteristic; an indication; a symptom.” Hence, ma’lam (plu. ma’alim) which means “sign of the way” or “that by which one guides oneself or  by which oneself is guided”. Similarly, ‘alam also signifies “a way mark for guidance (see E. W. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon, s.v. ‘ilm).” The ones with ‘ilm are, thus, called ‘ulama. In the Qur’an, surah Fatir (35), verse 28, Allah states that ‘ulama are only those amongst the pious whose knowledge enable them to be fearful (taqwa) of Him.

“And of men and beasts and cattle there are various colours likewise. Those of His servants only who are possessed of knowledge fear Allah. Surely Allah is Mighty, Forgiving.” *

So, taqwa is the main characteristic of ‘ulama. Other characteristics that set ‘ulama apart from clergy are:

1) knowledge (resulting in taqwa), for by definition, ‘ulama is men of knowledge who fears Allah whereas clergy (man of religion or rijal al-din) means a group of people ordained to perform pastoral or sacerdotal functions in a Christian church, or the official or sacerdotal class of a non-Christian religion (see Miriam-Webster’s Dictionary, clergy, cleric) and are vested with so called ‘divine authority’ (al-haqq al-ilahi);

2) in terms of quantity, ‘ulama is not limited and open to anyone able to acquire ‘ilm (that is, knowledge resulting in taqwa), while clergy is not for they are selected and has exclusivity to the positions;

3) ‘ulama does not only refer to acquiring religious knowledge as it is commonly perceived contemporarily, but also to other science or discipline deemed ‘secular’ or non-religious (a sadly dualistic perspective indeed!) such as math, chemistry, history, psychology, etc (no wonder many, if not all, classical ulamas – especially during the height of Islamic civilization – are polymaths!) while clergy deals with only Church or religious matters;

4) in terms of function, ‘ulama is the progeny (warathat) of the prophets (anbiya’) with the only difference being they are not ‘sin-free’ (ma’shum) as are prophets and, unlike prophets, are unable to establish direct communication with God;

Lastly, 5) clergy are measured by their ‘holiness’ while ‘ulama are by their sound mind and logic of argument; so, ‘ulama are not recognized due to their ‘holiness’ or divine stature but by the knowledge they posses (see Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam: an Exposition of the Fundamental Elements of the Worldview of Islam, and Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud, The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas: an Exposition of the Original Concept of Islamization).

Interestingly enough Miriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines ulama, or ulema, as 1) (pl in constr) the body of mullahs, and 2) mullah. And ‘mullah’ is defined as an educated Muslim trained in traditional religious law and doctrine and usu. holding an official post. It states that the word ulama was first recorded to be used as early as 1688, originating from the Arabic ‘ulama; while ‘mullah’ as early as 1613, from the Arabic ‘mawla’.

Islam does not recognize hierarchy in terms of ‘knowledge of religion’ as that of clergy in Christianity or other religions. So, what of ‘ustadz’ or ‘imam’ or ‘syaikh’? Besides ‘imam’ which actually simply means ‘leader’, they are but popular terms referring to those deemed ‘more knowledgeable’ in usually religious matters and similar in meaning with ‘teacher’ or ‘professor’. Though they may also be taken for ulama, whether or not that is the case depends entirely on how they best fit the characteristics. But none of them are stated by Allah in the way ulama is.

It is wise to always be aware that there is not always one on one translation of a word or expression from one language to another, especially when it deals with certain concept or epistemology. Our beloved prophet points this is out when he says that when a person speaks Arabic fluently then he is an Arab. In other words, in terms of ‘ethnicity’ tongue is what actually defines who you are and not really so much as blood. For a language is very much related to and a part of a culture and civilization.

Now we know where and how ‘some’ Muslims abusively used mullah to refer to ‘ulama and to mean ‘clergy’ as if Islam recognizes such position!

Wallaahu a’lam!

Taken from:



*) http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Holy_Qur%27an_%28Maulana_Muhammad_Ali%29/35._The_Originator

February 11, 2010


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