One feature that has remained constant in Muslim societies over the centuries has been the role of Ulema, or religious scholars. In modern Indian history, they played a pivotal part and have been subject to great scrutiny.
In pre-British India, religious education was a private enterprise and individual tutelage was the usual mode of the dissemination of religious knowledge. Most of the leading Ulema were attached to the courts of Sultans or Mughals. The seminaries or madrasas headed by them functioned as nurseries of producing jurists and bureaucrats who were selected to run the affairs of the state.
During the reign of the Mughals, a watershed change took place. Descendants of a courtier Qutbu’d Din, who was a key figure in compiling epochal Fatawa-e-Alamgiri, founded Farangi Mahal Ulema in Lucknow, considered to be the grandest and earliest seminary that prepared graduates for princely services.
The first principal of the madrasa established by the British – the Calcutta Madrasa – was a graduate of the Farangi Mahal.
Their most significant contribution of the Farangi Mahal was their systemization of the curriculum –Dars-i-Nizami– for religious education for all the seminaries in India. The syllabus continues to be taught to this day.
One more pivotal change came with the movement of Shah Waliullah Dehelvi who advocated for more social and political responsibilities for the Ulema as opposed to those of the Farangi Mahal. Waliullah’s popularity shifted the center of religious education from Lucknow to Delhi.
Waliullah’s successors had studied legal codes and drafted fatwas, which had previously served as the primary method of disseminating religious guidelines when the British were preparing to assume governmental control over India. Along with asserting the importance of the hadith in interpreting the shariah, Waliullah warned against blindly adhering to the laws of the past (taqlid). He advised seeking legal guidance from the Quran or Sunnah.
Thoughts of Waliullah travelled ahead and when the rebellion of 1857 shook the British Raj and it was subdued with force and the Mughal rule was buried in history, the revivalism of Waliullah and his successors became a prime target of the British forces. Historian William Dalrymple writes that Ulema and their adherents were arrested and punished by the British just like we see terror suspects being apprehended and eliminated today.
Fourteen hundred people were shot by British soldiers in Kuchah Chalan alone, where Shah Abdul Aziz (son of Waliullah) used to preach, according to Barbara Metcalf, the historian of British-era madrasas and Ulema.
Owing to efforts of reformist Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and British colonizer’s policy to counter any possibility of Islamic revivalism through Deoband-like seminaries, the Mohammed Anglo-Oriental College (later AMU) was founded in Aligarh and the institution sought to prepare Muslims independent of the influence of Ulema. This even led to a clash between conservatives and modernists and this schism hasn’t stopped splitting Muslim opinion in India even now.
Despite curbs from the British Raj, the Ulema played a crucial role in upholding the pride of their religion and their community through publications and public debate on religious issues. Their intellectual exercise peaked with the invention of print technology, multiplying the scale of the transmission of knowledge all over India. Publishing in local languages such as Urdu, instead of Arabic, was one of their effective strategies to establish authority.
The Ulema later opened more brave fronts against the British and they plunged into the freedom struggle with full force. A number of them laid down their lives fighting for independence. But, it’s a long chapter altogether.
They made Mahatma Gandhi their guide in the famous Khilafat Movement and a number of them rejected the two-nation theory and demanded a separate land for Muslims. They put their faith in the Congress and democracy. This faith, and also their idiosyncrasies, has painted them in bright and dark hues.
However, the Ulema who fought the British bravely and kept their edge despite heavy odds are now humbly submitting to the new wave of reforms. This is the beginning of a new chapter of history.