The Ottoman Ulema

The word ulema, which is widely used in the Islamic world, is used to refer to community based scholars. Ottoman ulema had been a basic element of the state and the society, presenting progressive visions particularly during the formative and developing phases, despite all its deficiencies, creating dynamism in society.

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In the early periods of the Islamic civilization, the terms mufessir, muhaddis, and mutekellim were used for scholars in various Islamic fields instead of the term ulema. Afterwards particularly in the Ottoman period the title ulema gained the priority and a widespread usage. The word ulema, which is widely used in the Islamic world, is used to refer to community based scholars. Though ulema is a plural word for alim (scholar) deriving from the Arabic origin ilm (knowledge), the term has gained a special meaning and become a common name for that section of the community who are considered to be intellectuals and partly aristocratic. Ulema was perceived as the primary element among the constituents of the community in almost every period of the Ottomans, and thus put under various evaluations as a group arousing high expectations.

Ulema was applied as a common term for those scholars who completed their madrasa training, gained an icazet (graduation degree), and took responsibilities in law, education, primary religious services and occasionally in bureaucracy or devoted themselves personally to community services in the Ottoman polity.

The Ulema increasingly gained and consolidated its power until XVII century, when it then entered into a period of decadence due to reasons most of which were due to external developments. Subsequently, it found itself within the harsh milieu of daily politics.

Mobilized by the advice coming from intellectuals who had observed the rapid deterioration of the ulema due to the environment, official organizations spent great energy in order to reform and improve the ulema profession. In the XVII century starting with reform attempts, the ulema were supportive of the reform initiatives and even a reform pioneer, assuming heavy responsibilities in the restructuring of the state. Furthermore, some grand viziers protected the ulema and tried to improve its conditions during this century. However, starting with the XIX century the ulema suffered a big loss in its material-spiritual influence and power as an initial result of a partial transfer of education, then legal responsibilities of ulema to other groups, as well as by the establishment of the Ministry of Imperial Foundations, which delegated foundation administration and incomes from the ulema to the treasury.

All in all, the Ottoman u1ema, who were described above with their main characteristics, had been a basic element of the state and the society, presenting progressive visions particularly during the formative and developing phases, despite all its deficiencies, creating dynamism in society. That feature of the ulema had been reported in the publications of Western diplomats and voyagers clearly and in comparison to their own societies. The u1ema under investigation in this paper is the u1ema who usually had an education in Istanbul madrasas and had taken official responsibilities in different regions of the state. Though this section of ulema was the major part in society, there were, on the one hand, u1ema getting their education from famous and well-established madrasas in the Arabian provinces representing different traditions which remained out of the system of the Ottoman state; on the other hand, there were u1ema which were outside the Ottoman homeland but retained close ties to it. It is known that those u1ema visited the Ottoman homeland with diplomatic missions and from time to time participated in the scholarly debates. Those ulema schools of different backgrounds within the Ottoman world need a separate investigation.

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