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I The 'Ulama in Transition: The Eighteenth Century What about the 'ulama'} They, too, have emerged. There is a tendency, from which some of us at least have found ourselves suffering, to take this concept for granted; to suppose that there are 'ulama' in Islam and that this is somehow "natural," that they have always been there. Not so. ... They emerge in Islamic history in consolidated form a good deal later than is usually supposed, and develop in the Muslim history of India as a formal and constituted class a very great deal later—and perhaps even, in certain significant senses, only in the modern period.—Wilfred Cantwell Smith1 THE role of the religious leader in Islam is at once loosely defined and centrally important. There is no tradition of priesthood in Islam—no caste or family that has special power, no sacrament that sets some men apart from their fellows, no monasticism. Indeed, it has not been uncommon for people regarded as religious leaders to merge with the general population, often filling other occupational roles in society as well. As Shah Waliyu'llah (1703-1762) explained , those who have religious knowledge, whether they acquire it by means of revelation or wisdom or visions, are recognized by others as having gifts of leadership and signs of grace, and are therefore obeyed—for this is the central requirement of Islam—in doing what is commanded and eschewing what is forbidden.2 Muslims may be predisposed to accord this authority to men descended from the Prophet or from some saintly lineage, or to those holding some 1. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, "The 'Ulama' in Indian Politics," in C. H. Philips, ed., Politics and Society in India (London, 1963), p. 42. 2. From the Hujjatu'llahu'l-Balighah, quoted in Muhammad Mujeeb, The Indian Muslims (London, 1967), p. 279. 16 Eighteenth Century judicial or educational bureaucratic post. But the true basis of authority—always waiting in the wings if not front stage— has been the standard of personal knowledge and its pious embodiment expected of men who are at once exemplars to their fellows and communal representatives to Muslims and to others. There were of course, people who had such knowledge from the beginning of Islam, starting with the Companions of the Prophet. But it was only after the decline of the 'Abbasid Empire in the tenth century, when power was often wielded by new converts to the faith, that explicit classes of religious leaders emerged. There were, generally speaking, two kinds of religious specialists: the Sufis, who engaged in meditative disciplines and sought direct knowledge of religious truths; and the 'ulama, who knew the scholarly traditions of the faith and, above all, the injunctions of the Law. These categories usually overlapped, and a man was known as Sufi or 'alim on the basis of which of the two kinds of interdependent knowledge he emphasized . Both 'ulama and Sufis acted at times as foci for revolutionary movements, but more often gave their support to any ruler who maintained order and provided a stable framework for the continuation of Muslim social and religious life.3 Such allegiance, however guarded, was often troublesome, for Muslims have cherished the ideal of organizing all aspects of life in accordance with the same religious values. The shari'at or Law embodied a comprehensive way of life. Nonetheless, compromise was regarded as inevitable. To their followers, the religious leadership could then act as guides and guardians of the traditions of the community whatever the qualities of the political leadership . To the rulers, they served as spokesmen for local interests.4 The 'ulama were typically linked to landholders, traders, and other influential people by class and marriage, 3. See Peter Hardy, "The Muslim Ruler in India," in William Theodore de Bary, ed., Sources of Indian Tradition (New York, 1958), pp. 463ff. 4. See Ira M. Lapidus, Muslim Cities in the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1967), for a detailed study of the role of the 'ulama in Muslim social and political life. 17 TJlama in Transition and acted as legal officials for small communities. When they held formal appointments, they were influential but often suspect, dismissed as the 'ulama-yi zahir, the externalist 'ulama who cared only for form and letter, or even as the 'ulama-yi su, the evil 'ulama. Some Sufis, too, were condemned for subordinating religious values to those of political interests. The pious among them sought to be personally true to their faith and argued the necessity of...


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