The Study of the Ulama’


A review of “A Cultural Elite: The Role and Status of the Ulama’ in Islamic Society” in Stephen R. Humphreys, Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry, Princeton: 1991.

written by Muhammad Latif Fauzi

Humphreys, in the Chapter VIII, starts his explanation with raising a fundamental question, which is the main discussion of “A Cultural Elite: The Role and Status of The Ulama’ in Islamic Society”, who and what are the ulama’? This chapter focuses mainly on how ulama’ is defined and written in the scholar point of view. Humphreys confesses that the term of ulama’ seems so complex and elusive simply. This discussion demands special attention to the social historian because of two positions of the ulama’; they write not only the bulk of the prose texts and their natural tend to talk about themselves and their own concerns, but also a scientific-literary genre writing, which is then called by the biographical dictionary.

The biographical dictionary appears very early in the development of Islamic historical writing. There were three extant works compiled in the middle years of the 3rd/9th century (see p. 188). Even though the authenticity of information on the Companions is doubtful, these works give solid biographical data. Then, by the late of 4th/9th century, some dictionaries appeared. They tended to focus on religious scholars, hadith transmitter, faqihs, Qur’an-reciters, etc. It was from the 6th/12th century, Persian was widely used for lives of Sufis and poets, not only Arabic.

The method and approach of writing the biography of ulama’ is so varied. Ibn al-Abbar looks ulama’ as one member in a collectivity. For instance, he wrote on al-Ghafiqi by describing the full genealogy, comprising six generations, the culture and family, the educational background, the time-series construction, the profile of intellectual activity, and the typical career pattern. Another approach of writing is reconstructing the social milieu and the development of personality, such Henri Laoust work on Ibn Taymiyya. Another one is through looking the personal political experience as a fundamental element of the thought of ulama’. To mention one example is Makdisi’s work on Ibn Aqil as an intersection for the religious, political, and intellectual cross-currents of his epoch. The other is the spiritual biographical approach, as Louis Massignon wrote on al-Hallaj.
Apart form the aforementioned approaches, Humphreys emphasizes necessary things in the study of ulama’. First, it is needed to define who the ulama’ are and how they are linked to other groups in society. Second, the religious and educational institutions within which the ulama’ functioned. Finally, the comprehensive and coherent view of the social order within which the ulama’ embedded, and of which their activities had meaning and value.
Giving such critique to Makdisi’s account as formalist rather than functionalist, Humphreys states that it is one among important works on the ulama’ in their institutional side. Makdisi deals with the educational system in the 5th/11th centuries and later centuries. It was Munir-ud-Din Ahmed who well documented technical terms and the organization of education in the early centuries. However, the most successful efforts, according to Humphreys, to comprehend the ulama’ as part of a broader socio-political order are the work of Ira M. Lapidus and Jean-Claude Garcin, which are urban, comparative, functionalist, and qualitative studies. Whereas an early quantitative essay on the ulama’ is the work of Hayyim J. Cohen  and Carl F. Petry.

Finally, in the end of writing, Humphreys notes that either qualitative or quantitative analysis are important in study of  the ulama’. Then, it is necessary, for the future, to deal with the ulama’ as members of a whole socio-cultural system and to determine the totality of the social and cultural relations into which they entered. Unfortunately, in my opinion, Humphreys does not explain further a method of study of the ulama’ that can be technically and practically used by the students today.


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