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Neutralize the Ulama

Islamists reject the needs for a Muslim Martin Luther. They contend that Shari'a law is God's law and that God's law is valid for all time, place, and peoples. Martin Luther’s revolution, they argue, was a reaction to the abuse inflicted by Catholic clergy upon Christians and, since Islam has no clergy class, a Muslim Martin Luther is not needed. It will be argued here that the ulama have become since the tenth century as intrusive in the daily life of Muslims as the Catholic clergy before the Lutheran revolution. The article will discuss how the ulama succeeded in capturing such influence and why they have been able to maintain their tight control over the faithful.


Development of the Prophetic Sunna

Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, it quickly became clear to Muslim rulers that Quranic law did not cover every aspect of life in the Arabian Desert, let alone the territories of the Romans and Persians, which they conquered soon after the Prophet’s death. The Quran deals primarily with personal status matters, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Of the 6,236 verses contained in the 114 Suras (chapters) of the Quran, only some 600 verses address legislative affairs. The vast majority of the rest is concerned with theological matters, religious duties, rituals, and recounting Biblical stories. Hitti put the legislative verses at around two hundred, mostly in the Medinese portion, and especially in Suras two and four (Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, 1970, 396-397). Coulson writes that "no more than approximately eighty verses deal with legal topics in the strictest sense of the term" (Noel J. Coulson, A History of Islamic Law, 1999, 12).


During Islam’s first two and half centuries, the ulama succeeded in making the Prophetic Sunna (purported sayings and actions of the Prophet) a source of law equal to the Quran. The ulama’s success was in spite of the fact that the Quran never made the Sunna a source of law, and despite God’s attestation that, as the word of God, the Quran contains everything mankind needs to know (the Quran, 6:38, 16:89). Abu Saiid Al-Khudari, a Hadith narrator with 1,170 Prophetic traditions to his credit, reportedly quoted the Prophet saying: “Do not write from me anything except the Quran and whoever has written anything from me other than the Quran should erase it” (Azami, Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature, 1977, 28). 


Muslim scholars argue that the actions and sayings of the Prophet reflected the general provisions of the Quran and gave guidance in matters on which the Quran was silent (Albert Hourani, History of the Arab Peoples, 1991, 67). Incorporating the attributed sayings and actions of the Prophet into Islamic Shari’a made the Prophet more than the deliverer of God’s message. He became “the divinely certified exemplar, whose practice itself had a revelatory status: it was through his personal words and acts, and only his, that the commands of the Quran could be legitimately interpreted” (Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Vol. 1. 1977, 328).

Adding the Sunna of the Prophet to the Quran expanded the narrow coverage of Quranic rules considerably. Expanding the coverage of the Quran has thrust the ulama class into the details of Muslims’ daily affairs. The ulama have become the teachers, the preachers, the muftis, the judges, and the court officials–generally the guardians over Muslims’ behavior and morality. This development effectively created a Muslim clergy class akin to Catholic clergy. In their success, the ulama enslaved Muslims.


The Making of the Ulama Class into a Clergy Class

Muslims argue that Islam distinguishes itself from Christianity on two counts. The first count is the direct relationship that God establishes with Muslims. The ulama are merely learned religious scholars, not intermediaries, or representatives of God on the Earth. By contrast, the Catholic clergy are representatives of Christ on the Earth (Mark 16: 15 and 17, and Matthew 18:18). The Quran condemns priests and rabbis (5:63, 9:31, 9:34). 

However, the Catholic clergy lost much of their control since the European Reformation of the sixteenth century. Protestantism stripped much of the Catholic priesthood of its control and abuse of power. In October 1517, Martin Luther revolted against the Catholic Church, the pope, and the clergy. Lutheran reforms denied the authority of the pope, broke the priests’ control over access to salvation, and created a new system of Christian doctrine. On the other hand, the ulama have managed for the past one thousand years to control not only the spiritual lives of Muslims, but also every detail of their temporal life.

It is true that the ulama class do not forgive sins as Catholic clergy do; though Orthodox and Protestant priests do not. Muslims do not need anyone to forgive their sins. They clear their own sins through prayer and other rituals. And, 

Devoid of intermediaries between God and man, Luther’s conception of the relationship between Christians and God became identical to the original conception of Islam regarding the relationship between Muslims and God. Interestingly, Christians, the followers of a religion based on priesthood, became less controlled by Christian clergy, while Muslims, the followers of a non-church-based religion, became controlled by the ulama.

The second count Muslims raise to distinguishes Islam from Christianity is that, unlike Christian churches, the ulama class has no central authority to organize and control. While it is true that the Islamic ulama have no central worldwide authority, they have became organized on a country-by-country basis in governmental bureaucracies. They are employed in the ministries of education, ministries of Islamic endowments (awkaf), councils for Islamic jurisprudence (or some similar offices), and Shari’a courts systems. Doctrinally too, the Sunni ulama, in guarding and defending traditional dogma from innovation, have, for a thousand years, been effectively acting as a central authority preventing doctrinal change. Under Shiism, a Marjaa Taqlid (meaning reference for emulation), in his individual capacity as a representative of the Hidden Imam, exercises absolute authority over his followers. The Khomeini wilayat al-faqih construction in Iran created a formal religious and temporal central authority for Shi’ism in Iran.


Indoctrinating the Faithful

Wrapping God’s law and dogma tightly around the body of Muslims, the ulama created for themselves financially lucrative careers, political influence, and high social standing. Today, from mosques, newspapers, radio, and television the ulama vocally threaten those who fail to heed their guidance with the wrath of God, eternal damnation, and hell’s fire.  
Palace ulama help their benefactors maintain non-representative dictatorial rule. On every turn, supporting ulama proclaim that blind obedience to the Muslim ruler is a form of piety. They remind the populace of the Quranic order in 4:59: “Obey God and obey God’s messenger and obey those of authority among you.” They hammer-in the Prophet’s reported saying, according to Sahih Muslim’s collection: “He who obeys me obeys God; he who disobeys me, disobeys God. He who obeys the ruler, obeys me; he who disobeys the ruler, disobeys me.” The belief in predestination, a central part of the Islamic creed, makes tyrannical Arab rule appears as if it were ordained by the inviolate will of God.

The masses seek ulama’s guidance on every imaginable worldly and spiritual matter, from personal hygiene, diet, and healthy living, to good manner, family affairs, and religious rituals. The airwaves and newspapers are filled with questions on whether, for example, it is permissible to have a tattoo, colour one’s hair, wear a gold ring or a silk garment, or what to eat, how to greet a guest, and what to say to a person who sneezes, etc…


On public issues, prominent ulama issue a bewildering array of fatwa’s (religious rulings). Here are a few. A former dean of the Shari’a faculty at Sunni Islam’s oldest and most famous university, Al-Azhar, issued a fatwa in January 2006 declaring that being completely naked during the act of coitus annuls the marriage. The imam of Islam’s holiest mosque in Mecca, Dr. A.R. Al-Sudais, preached in November, 2006 that the drought that hit Saudi Arabia in the winter of 2006 was caused by the proliferation of sin, specifically, dealing in usury, bribery, lying, dishonesty, and violating God’s rules. In May 2007 the dean of the Hadith (Prophetic sayings) faculty, also at the Al-Azhar University, opined that as a way to avoid breaking the Islamic rule that forbids the genders from being alone together, a woman may breastfeed her male co-worker a total of five times. In Islamic tradition, breast-feeding of a woman’s non-biological child establishes a certain maternal relation between the woman and the child that allows the woman to show her face and hair in the presence of the child when he reaches adulthood. In July 2010, a member of Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, Abdulaziz Najjar, opined that women are prohibited from wearing tight jeans because men might become sexually aroused. In December 2010, Muhammad Al-Bouti, a Syrian cleric, declared that the drought affecting Syria that winter was due to, among others, the airing of an objectionable television-show during the previous month of Ramadan. To bring rain, a special rain prayer was performed throughout Syria's mosques on December 10, 2010 as directed by the Syrian President.


Suppression of Free Expression

Blasphemy laws suppress criticism of ulama’s teaching. Recent court convictions in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan are apt to mention. In 1993, Islamist lawyers asked the courts to rule that Cairo University professor Nasr Abu Zeid was an apostate, because of his controversial interpretation of Quranic teachings. The petitioners argued that, as an apostate, Abu Zeid should not be allowed to remain married to a Muslim woman in a Muslim country. The petitioners demanded that Professor Abu Zeid be forced to divorce his wife. An appellate court in June 1995 gave the plaintiffs standing to pursue their suit, after a lower court threw out the suit. In August 1995, the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest court of appeal, supported the ruling against Abu Zeid. Professor Abu Zeid and his wife fled Egypt. In November 2005, a Saudi court sentenced a teacher, Mohammed Al-Harbi, to 750 lashes and forty months in prison for “trying to sow doubt in a student’s creed.” Human Rights Watch says Mr. Al-Harbi discussed Christianity, Judaism, and the dangers of terrorism with students and posted signs against terrorism around his school. He also reportedly encouraged his students to analyze differences between the Quran and the Sunna. Mr. Al-Harbi was found guilty of promoting “dubious ideologies” and “preventing students from going to wash for prayer.” On March 14, 2008, Sheikh Abdul-Rahman Al-Barrak, a leading Saudi cleric, issued a fatwa that two Saudi writers should be tried for apostasy for their “heretical articles” and put to death if they do not repent. Barrak was responding to recent articles in Al-Riyadh newspaper that questioned the Sunni Muslim view in Saudi Arabia that Christians and Jews should be considered unbelievers. In Sudan, an article considered offensive to the Prophet in the Al-Wifaq newspaper in 2005 led a Sudanese court to close the publication for three months. On August 6, 2006, Islamists decapitated Al-Wifaq’s editor. On October 2, 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to end his criticism of Saudi policies on the pages of the Washington Post newspaper in the US.

Such brutalities are assaults against human dignity and intelligence. 

The Effect of the Ulama on the Fall of the Arab and the Ottoman Empires

Notwithstanding the difficulties inherent in periodizations, over the long sweep of Islamic history, two major phases are discernible. The first is the age of Islamic enlightenment. The second is the age of Islamic stagnation.

Phase I- The Age of Islamic Enlightenment

This phase covers the period from the start of the Prophetic mission in 610 until around the end of the third Islamic century, when the door to individual philosophical reasoning to interpret the Quran and the Sunna and to form new religious opinions (ijtihad) was shut to Sunni Muslims. During this phase, the Islamic creed was in the process of development, the ulama were divided, and their influence was still weak. Consequently, intellectual debate was vibrant and philosophical reasoning robust.

During Phase I, literate Arabs were able to read the philosophical works of Aristotle, the leading neo-Platonic commentators, and most of the medical writings of Galen, and Persian and Indian scientific works (Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, 1970, 306-307). Within less than two centuries, more discoveries were made “than in many centuries previously either from Nile to Oxus or in the Mediterranean lands” (Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Vol. 1, 1974, 413). This knowledge, along with the use of Arabic numerals, which the western world uses today, was transferred to Europe via the Arabs in Spain and Sicily. The transfer helped spur the European Renaissance of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
During this phase, Greek philosophy influenced rationalist thinking. In the mid-700s, Greek Christianity in Syria led to religio-philosophical schools. Influenced by St. John of Damascus, the Qadarite School advocated free will and opposed the concept of predestination. About the same time, the great Mu’tazilite School placed reason above revelation, argued that the Quran was created, and advocated man’s free will. Mu’tazilisim survived for about three centuries and during the reign of Caliph Al-Mamoun (813-833) it became the official doctrine of the Abbasid state. By around the mid-900s, however, the spectacular movement of Mu’tazilisim lost out and its advocates were persecuted.

Mu’tazilisim was supplanted by the deterministic and authoritarian theology of the orthodox scholar Abulhassan Al-Ash’ari (d. 935). Al-Ash’ari advocated strict adherence to the literal meaning of the Quran without speculation or conjectural explanations. He rejected all notions of causality, eliminating the right of further interpretation of the Quran and the Sunna, or of forming a new religious opinion. Al-Ash’ari’s ideas smothered intellectual curiosity, and his thought contributed to what later became Sunni Islam. Ever since that time, expressing any idea that contravenes or so much as questions the established dogma has meant imprisonment and persecution. The end of intellectual freedom has dealt a severe blow to Muslim fortunes over the past ten centuries until the present day. During the first phase, Shi’ism also evolved. Shi’ites developed their own Hadith collections. Scores of passionate extremist sects arose, pledging loyalty to Ali and to his descendants.

The era of Muslims’ enlightenment was concurrent with the Middle Ages, an era of European darkness under a dictatorial church. During this period, Islam’s armies conquered parts of Europe and threatened the rest of the Christian continent. Arab forces reached as far as the French Pyrenees in 732, ruled Sicily for two centuries, and dominated parts of Spain until the late fifteenth century.

Phase II – The Age of Islamic Stagnation

This era covers the last one thousand years or so, from the time when the gates of ijtihad were shut to the present. During this phase, the Islamic creed matured and the ulama dominated Sunni life. Later, after the Arab Empire was destroyed by the Mongols in 1258, the Ottoman sultans allowed the ulama class a prominent official role in their empire. The qadi (Islamic judge), for example, became one of the three most important officials in Ottoman provincial hierarchy, alongside the commander of the military force (janissary) and the governor.
During this phase, the Mongols came from the east in 1258 and destroyed the Arab Empire. In 1918, the Europeans (Britain, France, Italy, and Russia) came from the west and the north and destroyed Islam’s second empire, that of the Ottoman Turks.

The Ottoman Empire’s existence (1280-1918) coincided with the five centuries during which Western Europe experienced the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. By the early 1500s, the European Renaissance and Martin Luther’s revolution planted the seeds of the modern age in Europe. The church was separated from the European state, and the individual was liberated from the dogmatic “dos” and “don’ts” of the clergy. This separation removed the rigid boundaries that the church had imposed on European imagination for the previous thousand years.

Removing the church’s control was among the factors that led to the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s. The Industrial Revolution propelled Europe’s success and military might to previously unknown levels. This revolution changed the balance of power between Islam and Christendom. The era of European reformation and enlightenment coincided with the Muslim era of stagnation. The effect of the shift in the balance of power becomes apparent in the striking difference in the performance of the Muslim armies in the fifteenth century and the sixteenth centuries. While the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453 with relative ease, they failed to take Vienna in 1529, and again in 1683, marking a turning point in Islam’s confrontation with Europe.

During the Ottoman stagnation, free thought was stifled, intellectual curiosity smothered, and innovation discouraged, undoubtedly to accord with the Prophet’s reported rejection of all things innovative. Three centuries after the printing press was introduced in Europe, the Ottoman ulama still considered printing in Arabic and Turkish to be an undesirable innovation. Bernard Lewis wrote:

"Seyh-ul-Islam Abdullah Efendi was persuaded to issue a fatwa authorizing the printing of books in Turkish on subjects other than religion. The printing of the Koran, of books on Koranic exegesis, traditions, theology, and holy law was excluded as unthinkable . . . Finally, on July 5, 1727, an Imperial Ferman [meaning edict, or decree] was issued, giving permission for the establishment of a Turkish press" (Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, 1961, 51).


However, fifteen years later, in 1742, the press was closed, not to be reopened until forty-two years later in 1784. The long delay in introducing the printing press into Ottoman life was symptomatic of the rigidity that slowed Ottoman progress at a time when Europe was charging ahead with great inventions. That the long delay was due to the technical difficulties arising from the fact that Arabic letters are generally not written separately but joined to each other to form words is an apologist rhetoric.

In the 1800s, the Ottomans, starting with Sultan Mahmut II (1808-1839) and his successor son, Sultan Abdulmecit (1839-1861), tried to copy certain secular reforms from Europe, but it was too late. It is almost impossible to graft Western culture onto a rigid Eastern Islamic culture. Eventually, Europe destroyed the Ottoman Empire and dominated the Muslim world.

The Need for Government Led Religious Reforms

The ulama’s hold on Muslims is the worst form of slavery. Rigid and unchanging Shari’a laws will continue to bind Muslims to seventh century laws and dogma of the Arabian Desert. Muslims can learn from the Christian experience. Europe and the West dominated the world, not because of Christianity, but in spite of Christianity. Had it not been for separating Christianity from the European state, for ending the tyranny of the church’s clergy, the industrial revolution might not have happened when it did and Western modernity might not have become what we see today.


Unless the ulama’s control is ended, the Arab and Muslim peoples will subsist in a trap of stagnating poverty and ignorance—the object of exploitation by the developed world. To join the ranks of the modern world is to separate Islam from the state. This does not mean, however, relegating the religious commitments of individuals a secondary role. The relationship between God and man is a personal matter and must be respected. What is advocated here is the development of modern laws and judicial systems to replace Shari’a laws and courts systems. 

What would a release from the ulama’s control achieve? Release from the ulama’s control would free Muslims from the debilitating demagoguery of the belief in predestination, in fate, superstition, and psychotic explanations of the evil eye and the machinations of angels and djinn. Release from the ulama’s hold would lead to instituting modern laws; in particular, personal status laws. Modern laws would grant women legal rights equal to those of Muslim men. Release from the ulama’s grip would also mean examining the historicity of the Quran and the Hadith without the fear of prosecution under blasphemy laws.


Where does religious reform in Arab countries stand today? The answer differs from one country to another. It ranges from Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, where seventh century desert laws still dominate, to Tunisia, which achieved impressive progress toward separating Islam from city hall.

Tunisia, a Good Model to Emulate

Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, who held office from July 25, 1957 until November 7, 1987, was the most avowedly secularist leader in the Arab world. To Bourguiba, Islam represented the past; modernity represented the future. Bourguiba implemented a genuine program of secularization and modernization, abolishing Shari’a courts and polygamy. He reformed education and banned the headscarf for women. The Program on Governance in the Arab Region of the United Nations Development Program states:

"The Tunisian government has sought to develop a new phase of Islamic thinking (ijtihad) distinct from the Islamic law in other Muslim countries. This new thinking has included reforms to create gender equality in the areas of marriage, divorce, child custody, and women’s social autonomy. The latest round of reforms in 1993 brought Tunisian Law in accordance with international human rights standards".


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