CRUCIBLE: Ulama and the Public Sphere (2)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/16 Nov) — The complexity of modern society has undoubtedly posed new and immense pressure on the ulama or “those who know.” Vested with Prophetic mandate and generally considered as gatekeepers of knowledge in the whole range of sciences in Islamic thought, the ulama are thus positioned to articulate varying concerns and issues faced by the ummah or Islamic community.

The pressure comes from many sources and has appeared in several periods of Islamic history. To say the least, pressures caused past ulama to respond as they left enormous reservoir of knowledge where they excelled in varying fields making them scholars, jurists, philosophers, scientists, polymath, reformers, and so on. Those periods were defined by varying historical, social, political, and economic conditions. In our time, modern society becomes so complex necessitating the ulama to broaden their understanding and to re-examine their fundamental assumptions particularly their role in public sphere. 

Readers of ayah

The ulama are exalted with their unwavering embrace of haq or truth.  The two verses we previously mentioned on Surah Fatir and Surah Su’arah regarding the identification ofulama as a collective and their role as readers of creation and revelations has been repeated a number of times in the Qur’an. In fact, Suratu l-ahqaf pinpoints to the same when it reads:

HM. The revelation of the Book is from God, the Exalted in Power, Full of Wisdom. We created not the Heavens and the Earth and all between them but for just ends and for a term appointed. But those who reject faith turn away from that whereof they are warned.

A simple paradigm may be advanced thus that the ulama’s quest is no less than the truth as they are positioned to articulate comprehensive knowledge embracing those contained in revelations and those that are manifested in nature or creation. With this context, on-going social development and challenges in modern society including scientific and technological innovation have to inevitably be part of ulama’s purview and understanding.

As we read Surah Su’arah regarding conditions of those peoples who were given the Books, the Qur’an identifies three grades of people with their varying appreciation of truth, namely: those who wrong their own souls (zaalemun li nafs); those who take the middle course (minhum muqtasidun alayh); and, those by God’s leave foremost in good deeds (minhum bi l-khayrat).

This shows that among the learned and informed or ulama, there are grades of their understanding about the truth. In other words, there is no monolithic entity that represents the voice of truth; there are varying groupings that may arise and would invariably articulate things quite differently, although they may agree on fundamentals and general principles.

We highlight this fact to emphasize that the tension in the Islamic world including the varied positions amongst ulama should not be purely taken negatively. This diversity should rather be understood in the context of multi-faceted dimensions in the way they see truth and its shadows. But the common denominator is that they are in quest to understand truth. Their loyalty must be to truth not to any entity like power and class in society. It is probably the reason why the ulama in many epochs of Islamic history played a persistent role: some would side with status quo, while others would take the cudgel to struggle against it. This polarity, as we mentioned, continue to become a common feature until our time. It is so because, as we said, knowledge has always positioned with certain ambiguity in relation to power.

This is almost the same in our time except that ulama are hardly able to cope understanding modernity and its attendant social complexity; at times, they even lead into confusion where ulama’s voices are oftentimes incoherent making it difficult to listen to them and who’s saying the right thing. To say the least, there is a need to be alert enough to understand such diversity of position and cacophony of voices in the frame of Unity and hierarchy of knowledge. Ulama are in the position to articulate issues that affect the ummah in light of such frame where they have to be equally informed on the rudiments of knowledge in various fields.

Political Islam and public sphere

There is no question, as mentioned, the role of ulama in Islamic thought. The increasing complexity of Muslim society prods them to engage in public sphere – a term that is quite popular in Political Science and Sociology that tries to highlight an area or space whereby varying sectors in society are empowered through discursive engagement (in this case through the ulama). In secular society, the public sphere is identified in both formal and informal institutions like coffee shops, markets and so on. It is considered critical in the formation of informed populace so that they become effective in shaping and influencing policies.

The notion of public sphere, while it is less of our concern is relevant how is it being conceived as a source of influencing power in light of phenomenon of Political Islam orSiyasa al-Islamiyyah that has evolved in many Muslim countries whose aim is toward social and political transformation. Yet, current trend shows that proponents of Political Islam are hardly able to make a difference given the entrenchment of Ancien Regime and the difficulty of deconstructing social and political institutions.

Proponents of Political Islam are those that try to mainstream their struggle by forming political parties and engaging civic activities, and so on. Yet, they could only go that far. In the same manner, those who go underground also have difficulty even shaping a new discourse, let alone engaging in social and political change. At times, they become isolated while the masses are alienated from their cause. Hence, their struggle hardly makes any substantive effect. Thus, the idea of empowering the ulama and their role in shaping the public sphere is important as they represent the proponent critical in shaping what Jürgen Habermas refers to as “discursive space.” Ulama, in this regard, should be able to articulate and empower every “spatial” unit of public sphere so that they become effective in engaging in social and political transformation.


If you look at the knowledge bearer in Muslim society these days, they are locked in a fierce debate; more so, that there are varying proponents of discourses which many times end up clashing with each other. The universal frame of knowledge where the ulama should supposedly be well informed and familiar has been distorted due to their varying claims and counter-claims. This point has never been well articulated in the work of Moaddel and Talattof when they tried to identify major thinkers who responded to the challenge faced by Muslim society in the 20th century.

On one side, one sees the like of Jamaluddin Al-Afghani; Ameer Ali; Muhammad Abduh; and, Allamah Shibli Nu’mani. They represent the voice of ulama that tries to identify Islam with modern development. On the other side, one sees the likes of Syed Qutb; Imam Khomenei; Abu A’la Mawdudi; Ali Shari’ati; Murtaza Muttahari, and few more. They articulated the need to return to the fundamentals of Islam and use these as a source of vigor in advancing the cause of the ummah. They invariably shaped the major themes of Islamic discourse in the 20th century onward.

Moaddel and Talattof in their “Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam” tried to make sense of such variety of ulama’s positions in addressing the ills of Muslim society. They write:

“The emergence of these issues was the result of ideological contentions in Islamic world that involved, in different periods, ideological groups such as the followers of the Enlightenment, secularists, Westernizers, Christian evangelicals, the ideologues connected to the bureaucratic-authoritarian states, liberal-nationalists, socialists and the orthodox ulama. These ideological contentions were of course related to broader social processes that involved the decline of the old social institution, the development of capitalism, state and class formation. The modernist or fundamentalist exposé is an Islamic resolution of these issues. In their efforts to formulate a distinctly Islamic response to the problems facing their communities, these thinkers could not and would not violate such core principles of Islam as God’s unity, the Qur’an being His word that descended to the people through Prophet Muhammad, and other fundamental religious dogma explicitly stated in the Qur’an (p. 3).”  

What Talattof and Moaddel are saying is that, the rise of the groups of ulama even if they come from lens or perspectives is their attempts to address the pressure faced by the ummah. However, if we may hasten to add, because their respective followers are hardly able to understand the basis of these perspectives they often are led to misunderstanding and conflict. This contributes in the tension and problem that the ummah is currently facing. In this regard, there is a need to re-align or deconstruct understanding so that one cannot simply be swayed just easily by particular or specific line of thought. Rather, there is a need to properly probe into the veracity of their discourses and see if these reflect the universal frame of truth that the Qur’an so provides.

Deconstructing tradition

Hossein Nasr in his work, “Islam in the Modern World” provides a general frame how to recapture the original function of ulama as readers of ayah or signs in creation and revelation as they contained the haq or truth. Nasr suggests the need to identify the true meaning of what he refers to as “tradition” and the need to appraise with its essential definition, as it is the starting point in avoiding division and schism among ulama.

Let me digress a lit bit on this score.   At the core, Islamic thought is divided into at least three areas or domains. One is theology. This is the area of usu l-din (fundamentals of religion), shar’iah (Islamic law) and so on. The other one is philosophy. This is where speculative thought and doctrines and logical reasoning in kalam or scholasticism and falsafah or philosophy and many other thoughts are discussed. The third is tasawwuf or sufism, an area that is beyond the two strands mentioned as it involves unveiling or kashf, a domain of intuitive knowledge and spiritual experience.

What happened is that, as ulama become too focused with their own “boxes” or areas, they lost tract of the universality and the inter-connectedness of knowledge where they are led to rely on each strand divorced from other fields or domains in Islamic thought. Oftentimes, this carving and digging inside into their own “school” leads into misunderstanding and conflict with those in other “boxes.” What Nasr is saying is the need to grapple the major domains and strands altogether as a way to address the onslaught of “modernism” and “fundamentalism” so that ulama are able to recapture the original frame of universality and unity of Islamic thought. In this light, Nasr has to be creative in the way he defines “tradition” as:

“both sacred as revealed to humanity through revelation and the unfolding and development of the sacred message in the history of the particular human community for which it was destine; it implies both horizontal continuity with the Origin and a vertical connection that relates each moment in the development of the life of any single tradition to the Meta-historical Transcendent Reality.”       

Nasr constructs a new definition of tradition that would capture the variety of strands of Islamic thought, as it is the way it is viewed to encompass the Unity and hierarchy of knowledge in Islam. This means, for Nasr, tradition is not simply that little domain of culture that is transferred from one generation to another in certain society.

Rather, Nasr conceives:

“tradition which needs to be defined universally now precisely because of the onslaught of modernism and more recently the appearance upon the scene of that caricature of tradition called “fundamentalism,” is at once al-din, understood in the widest sense of the word, a sense that embraces all aspects of religion and its ramifications; al-sunnah, or that which, based upon sacred models has become tradition as this word is usually understood; and, al-silsilah, or the chain that links each period, episode, or stage of life and thought in the traditional world to the Origin as one seen so clearly in Sufism, which represents most of the esoteric and mystical dimension of Islam.” 

This redefinition of tradition by Hossein Nasr might even elicit reaction from groups and sects and schools since the ideas and terms he mentioned are already considered bid’ahor innovation.  Unless and until they transcend their myopia and parochialism, the ulamawill miss playing a critical and significant role not only as gatekeepers of Islamic thought, most importantly, in shaping the public sphere.

Hossein Nasr continues:

“Tradition, therefore, is like a tree, the roots of which are sunk through revelation in the Divine Nature and the trunk and branches of which have grown over the ages. At the heart of the tree of tradition resides religion, and the sap of this tree consists of that grace, orbarakah, that, originating with the revelation, makes possible the continuity of the life of the tree. Tradition implies the sacred, the eternal, the immutable Truth; the perennial wisdom as well as the continuous application of its immutable principles to various conditions of space and time (p. 4).”

This perspective of Nasr provides a definition that tries to reconstruct Islamic thought away from segregated and atomistic character that has contributed into the division and schism in the ummah and has seriously affected the critical role of ulama in shaping the public sphere. In our view thus, the imperative is to return to the universal teaching of Islam and reflect on the universal message of this teaching in the discourse and orientation of ulama.

This way, ulama would not simply represent as another class in society. They could not be easily pulled by various forces be they State or otherwise. They would be able to recapture their role as proponent of community that is ummah wasat or “nation justly balance” as they make themselves as “witness among mankind” or shuhada ala n-nas. If they will not embrace such role, then they would loss their social relevance. They could easily be subjected to morass of power and intrigues. They could not raise their voice during critical times. And they would loss their connection to the masses. The community would look for another class of leaders away from the ulama as they would be relegated into the sideline. In reconstructing such role, there is a need to redefine their discourses that reflect universal frame of truth and comprehensiveness of knowledge.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. This piece is a slightly revised khutbah delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies on 07 November 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].