Article by Barbara D. Metcalf
Farangi Mahall and Shah Waliyullah
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.
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. Muslims may be predisposed to accord this authority to men descended from the Prophet or from some saintly lineage, or to those holding some 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.
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