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The Proper Translation of the word ‘Ulama:’ Scholar or Jurist?

The Proper Translation of the word ‘Ulama:’ Scholar or Jurist?


I dont think you translated Ulama properly, you said it should be jurist instead of scholar. I speak Arabic and thats not right.

That’s a great question, actually. In the post that (I’m assuming) you’re referring to I made the distinction between Ulama as “jurists” instead of as “scholars.” However, I said that the Ulama were also “scholars,” but what I meant was that if we were to translate not just the word Ulama, but what their name functionally means relative to our current society is closer to a “jurist” than a “scholar.”

I mean, if we really wanted to translate the word Ulama, which is derived from the root Ulm, which generally means “knowledge,” then the Ulama are simply “People with knowledge.” I’m not sure how accurate a translation that would be. Also, it’d also be awk if we had to refer to them that way.

One of the big reasons why I make the distinction between “scholars” and “jurists” is because we forget that these Ulama were just, guys. I mean, people quote them and I honestly get uncomfortable in how people treat these scholars. They are not holy men, that’s the whole point of Islam, there are no “holy men,” there are just people and we’re all equal. I mean, the equality theme of Islam was one of the major contributions to Islam’s rapid spread from Arabia to France in roughly hundred years.

I digress, the major point I want you to take away is that we must understand that these people were not just normal people, who had to work, had to get married, and had kids who stressed them out, but that their actual role in their society was very different to how we are perceiving them to be.

These Ulama, were mostly like lawyers in America, and like lawyers in America, they can be a lot of things. Lots of people with law degrees teach, some work in the government (but not as lawyers), and others pursue higher office (Viziers, Ministers). Some of them were not very well-liked, some were accused of being the equivalent of a “corporate sell-out” and others were put in jail because they didn’t serve the Sultan or Khalifa (Caliph) as he wished.

So when I translated Ulama into “jurist” it was for a purpose, in that context, but many times I use “scholars” as well. I think it matters what the context is, but I just want people to stop romanticizing the scholars, because if you do, and then you meet one, casually, I worry that many Muslims will have this image of scholars as some sort of “holy men” who have no flaws.

Even more worrying is that I think this standard really discourages young Muslim men from entering into the study of Islam. I have found that Muslim women tend to be very diligent about studying Islam, even if they have a “past” (which I hate saying) but that’s something I admire in Muslim women.

The point is that I want to encourage young Muslims to study their religion, but to approach the study in an Islamic way. Today we are approaching the study of Islam by combining two different disciplines’ techniques. These disciplines are a (1) scientific, factual approach to Islam and (2) the faith-based theological approach of Christianity.

Christianity is a religion of faith. Islam is a religion of law. Judaism is also a religion of law. When you use the techniques of a religion of faith, you have inflexible premises that you have to maintain in order to validate and keep your faith secure. What do I mean? Let me give you this example:

The Qur’an refers to Prophet Yunus (Jonah) who was swallowed up by a whale. Scientifically, we know that it would be highly improbable (if not impossible) for a human being to be swallowed up by a whale. The scholars (see that?) that have taught me, as well as various tafseer, have referred to Yunus’ place in the whale as a metaphor for his spiritual state. Other scholars (again) reject that idea and insist that Yunus was indeed in a whale.

The point is that, within an Islamic framework, whether he was in the whale or not, the important point for our purposes is: “what did he do as a result of this state? What is the significance of this (instance) in our understanding of our faith and our incumbent actions?”

However, on the other hand, if you have a religion based on faith, then you must accept Yunus in the whale, as a premise, otherwise, how else can you have that faith? Your faith is the ultimate arbiter of your connection to God, not your actions, and this becomes problematic. So, using these sorts of “absolute” notions found in other religions is something that modern Muslims are doing, and they are hurting themselves.

To make matters worse, when these Alims, whether self-taught or not, approach Islamic sources, they do so in a scientific way. Now, I’m not anti-science, my father (a PhD in genetics) would smack me upside the head if I said that. However, using a simple “truth” and “not truth” binary to understand what “Islam says” about certain topics is very problematic. Those of you who are engineering, biology, and med students know that you have to use a very different approach when you are in a science class then if you are in liberal arts class.The same goes for the study of Islam.

Let me conclude, this excessively long post, with this: an argument has essentially two parts, the premise(s) and the conclusion. By utilizing the procedures I mentioned above, we are forcing ourselves to use a limited amount of premises and determining our conclusions before we have actually explored or understood the subject.

Insha Allah, I hope that I answered your question and that I have made it clear why I translated Ulama the way I did (in that context).

If you or anyone has any other questions, please do not hesitate to ask.

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