There is no doubt that the ulema exercise considerable influence on Muslim society, although to claim, as some do, that Muslims are in the complete grip of the ulema is far from correct. Yet, it is true that no major change can take place in Muslim society by ignoring the ulema and their significance. Given the role that the ulema do play in shaping Muslim views and opinions, it is crucial to ask what the ulema can do in promoting better relations between different Muslim groups and between Muslims and others and also improving the conditions of Muslim societies.
In a country like India, where there are so many different religions and sects, the ulema must seek to promote awareness of Islamic teachings about peaceful coexistence and harmonious collective living. They must also expose and critique all sorts of negative tendencies and movements, including those that advocate extremism. Just across the border, in Pakistan, extremist groups claiming to speak in the name of Islam and unleashing untold terror have gained much strength in recent years. One reason for this is that the Pakistani ulema failed to condemn such groups when they arose. Had they openly spoken out against such deviant groups, the situation in that country may not have taken such a terrible turn.
To play a more positive social role, the ulema must also not restrict themselves to addressing only religious questions as narrowly conceived. They must also take an interest in social and economic issues, through writings, speeches and practical reform-oriented activities. For this, they need to be aware of such issues. If, for instance, unemployment or economic exploitation is rampant, if people are exploiting others in the name of religion, or if, as a result of an extremist and unwarranted understanding of the ‘rights of God’, the rights of other people are being ignored or legitimate ‘worldly’ concerns are neglected, the ulema should respond by clarifying matters in the light of authentic Islamic teachings.
A balanced society is one where ‘religious’ and ‘worldly’ matters are balanced. The ulema have an important role in helping to nurture such a society. They need to exhort Muslims to recognize the importance of excelling in various necessary ‘secular’ fields of knowledge in addition to those fields that are conventionally considered as ‘religious’. They need to explain to Muslims that being ‘religious’ is not simply about following certain rituals or displaying certain external features. They need to highlight the proper, comprehensive understanding of Islam, with God-consciousness and morality based on such God-consciousness infusing all aspects of life. They need to underscore the need for moral reform based on God-consciousness, for without that, a balanced society is simply impossible.
(Waris Mazhari is a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband. He did his Ph.D from the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and is presently teaching Islamic Studies at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. Several of his writings can be accessed on his blog:www.warismazhari.blogspot.com He can be contacted on email@example.com)