CRUCIBLE: Ulama and Public Sphere (1)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 21 Oct) – Last Saturday, I was invited by groups of interfaith organizations to discuss a topic: “Positive Role of Religion on Culture and society.” It was a privilege to be able to highlight a general purview of Islam’s optimism about life, man and the world s/he lives in amid vociferations of violence in many parts of the world today. The highlight of the forum was the organization of a council of religious leaders in the country. There was unanimous decision from different interfaith groups in attendance to organize the said council.

On hindsight, I thought of past experience of Muslim organizations and ulama (religious scholars) and how they were made to involve in inter-faith works. It could be said, in fact, the history of ulama in inter-religious dialogue in the Philippines is quite recent. Prominent of which was how the ulama were organized in the ’70s through the initiatives of the government to bring them into Philippine body politic with support from some Catholic and Christian organizations worldwide.

We view the invitation on Muslim religious leaders as an attempt to reach out anew by other interfaith groups; and hence, could mean a recognition of the role that Islam and Muslim religious leaders play part on advocacies on peace, good governance, environment, human rights, conflict resolution, and so on.

Unique tension

My other concern is the unique tension in Muslim community relative to the role of ulama in public sphere. For instance, just a few weeks ago we saw how a foreign Muslim religious scholar was deported or denied entry as an undesirable alien because of his alleged connection to some radical groups, notwithstanding the seeming constriction of space where some ulama would be able to play their role with news of their disappearance in the south. In international scene, we also witnessed the tension of one of the most influential groups like the Ikhwanu l-muslimeen or Muslim Brotherhood that had been dislodged from Egypt where they had to scramble to such places like Qatar. Because of pressure from other Arab states, Qatar had to break ties with Muslim Brotherhood leaders and asked them to seek asylum in other countries. Quite recently, a known Shi’a theologian in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to death because of his alleged sectarian involvement with certain support from other countries.

These are just examples how ulama are perceived and invariably treated depending on social context and historical circumstances they are in; more so, that the tension created is attached to question of power or the relation of ulama vis-à-vis authority where there could be changing or contending roles among them. On one side, ulama could legitimize status quo. On other side, some of them could pose as threat against status quo. These and many others reflect the rather precarious position of ulama today. With this background, we ask: who are today’s ulama and what is their role in the public sphere?

Established role

To begin with, the position of ulama in Muslim society has been known and firmly established. No less than the hadith (saying) of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) reified that role with the saying: “the ulama are the successors of the Prophets.” Hence, when we read Islamic history, the role of ulama has been critical in shaping Muslim society even as we said that they have to contend their location vis-à-vis power. In fact, many of them, became patrons of sultans, dynasties and empires; as many of them, too, were harassed and executed where they became voice of dissents and leaders of opposition against authority.

In its generic sense, the term ulama is the plural of Arabic word alim or a person who knows. In Islamic tradition, ulama become a distinct class, albeit religious ones in society. Their influence developed invariably in different communities in many parts of the world. For obvious reason, the influence of ulama was very much felt in the Arab world after the death of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in the 6th century and grew subsequently in the inner periphery of dar al-Islam or Islamic world. Whereas those in distant lands like Africa, Central Asia, India, China, and Southeast Asia, the influence of ulama as a distinct class happened many centuries later while in many other distant areas they were felt relatively late.

Before the waves of Arab missionaries and Muslim scholars in those lands and continents, there were already established notion or groupings of people “who know” in many areas that later became part of the Muslim world. Many of such areas were still traceable with their indigenous, yet still popular labels of people identified to be holders of knowledge. In Indonesia, for instance, such popular terms are still present among the kiyayi, those who are known holder of knowledge particularly mystical ones; the abangan or those who are involved in understanding of certain knowledge; the priyayi or santri, those identified as closer to our today’s notion of ulama.

In the Philippines, our notion or understanding of ulama is fairly recent since the establishment of madaris (Islamic schools) as vehicle of Arabic language-based education started simply in the 1940s and ’50s onward, although there were already Islamic missionaries that arrived much earlier. In other words, the religious class we call these days ulama did not exist that time. What we knew of were persons identified with such terms like guru (teacher) pandita (religious man) imam (religious leader) pakil (poor; supplicant) and few others. These latter labels are mixed Hindu and Buddhist terminologies that intermingled with terms related to Islamic thought in subsequent centuries like imampakil (i.e., faqeer) and so on.

Earlier indigenous terminologies are quite rich. For instance, amongst Maguindanao and Maranaw, the maungangen, those who possess wisdom and knowledge or mala-i katao is a popular term that time; while terms common among Tausug, Sama, and Yakan like halul akkal (ahlu l-aql or people of reasons) bayan buddiman and panday pandikal, with the latter two impressing as possessors of knowledge and wisdom, statesmanship, ingenuity, cleverness are shared with other Malays in Southeast Asia. To say the least, the popularity of term ulama and its growth as an institution developed invariably in many communities. Their influence was felt relatively late in areas like southern Philippines.

All these show that knowledge, whatever its origin, type and form, and how indigenous it may have grown in different areas and period, is universal. Each community could develop its own concept, class and institution shaping people’s understanding about things. Islamic thought of knowledge or ilm that grew in different areas did not necessarily start over a clean slate. Simply put, ulama’s formation or introduction of Islamic knowledge created new frame in people’s understanding. It supplanted and effaced gradually, albeit not easily, previous thought and worldviews of peoples. The ulama became then the harbinger of new knowledge even as they portray in various degree as authority in religious sphere of Islam. This view provides a historical background into the development and influence of ulama in the country.

Spheres of knowledge

Before addressing the question about the role of ulama in public sphere, it is important to note that knowledge is highly emphasized in the Qur’an. The word ilm and those who know or ulama are prominently mentioned in different places of the Holy Qur’an. More specifically, the term ulama as a collective is mentioned twice – one in Surah Fatir and the other one in Surah Su’arah – highlighting specific functions or characteristics of ulama. The verses in Surah Fatir read:

“And so amongst men and crawling creatures and cattle are they of various colors. Those truly fear God, among His servants, who have knowledge: for God is Exalted, Oft-Forgiving (28).”

In Surah Su’arah, the term ulama refers to a group of people amongst the children of Israel. It reads: “Is it a sign to them that the learned of the children of Israel know it (as true) (32)?”

If we read quite clearly the two verses, the one in Surah Fatir is mentioned corollary to concept of creation referring to men and crawling creatures of “various colors” (mukhtalafun alwanuhu) and the term ulama is mentioned as those who fear God and have knowledge.

Incidentally, Surah Fatiris a chapter of the Qur’an that speaks of “Originator of creation” or the role of Angels in creation. And few verses after verse 28, Surah Fatir speaks of three types of people identified as “servants of God” with various inclinations or orientations. The Qur’an says:

“Then we have given the Book for inheritance to such of our servants as We have chosen: But there are among them some who wrong their own souls; some who follow a middle course; and some who, by God’s leave, foremost in Good deeds; that is the highest grace (32).”

In the tafsir (exegesis) of Ibn Kathir taken from narration of Ibn Abbas, Sufyan at-Tawri, Abu Hayyan at-Taymi, Hassan al-Basri, the notion of ulama refers to those who are fervent believers or followers of Allah (SWT) even as they are fully aware of hudud or limits and faraid or obligatory duties in Islam. Whereas the concept of ulama mentioned in Surah Su’arah is identified in the context of traditions of prophets and how revelation had been sent to them including those learned class of the children of Israel as shown in the verse we read earlier.

To say the least, the position of ulama has been fully established in Islamic tradition. From the foregoing, it could be said that ulama’s understanding of things ought to embrace both realms of knowledge – those that are contained in the revelation and those that are expressed or manifested in creation. That is why when we read or follow the works of classical, medieval, and modern scholars, ilm or epistemology of knowledge has always been primary topics in the treatises of Hassan al-Basri, Imam al-Ghazali, Muhammad Iqbal, and so on and so forth.

Thus, the tradition of ulama or those who know owing to their breadth or realms of knowledge become very much different from those traditional notions and institutions prior to the impact of Islam in many communities. As they represent another class in society, the role of ulama has become ambiguous relative to power since, in many instances, their articulation and position would either support or go against authority.

This is, in our view, what makes the role of ulama critical, at times, controversial in society. With new context and challenges the Muslim world faces today, the ulama play an even more crucial role. Their grasp of knowledge allows them to take position that is supposedly comprehensive different from other sectors and other social classes. Their role in public sphere is quite unique because, as they stand as an institution by themselves, they could be prone to be perceived either as friend or foe depending on the position they take. Their ever-changing and contrasting role relative to power has been repeatedly shown in many phases of Muslim history.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A slightly revised khutbah delivered on 17 October 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.]