Ulama The Arabic term ulama is the plural form of alim (learned). The ulama spend a considerable part of their life in acquisition and distribution of Islamic knowledge and practising it in their own life. Vast knowledge of different aspects of Islam is the main source of their strength and status. Theoretically, alims are the leaders of Muslim ummah. They are the explainers of Islamic law and ways of life. Like other Muslim countries of the world the ulama of Bangladesh are also a kind of social group or class.

As experts in theology the ulama enjoy a special status in Muslim society. They had an important role in the politics of Islamic state system. As per Islamic theology, a ruler can exercise his power over the Muslims only when he himself leads his life according to the tenets of Islam, and directs the society and the state in the path of Islam. Explaining Islamic law and monitoring the government's activities to ensure that they are run as per Islamic law were the main responsibility of the ulama. Different types of important and prestigious posts like quazi, mufti etc were fixed for the ulama.

The influence of ulama on Muslim society began to alleviate for the following causes: the winding up of Islamic state system, development of monarchy, rise of Khariji, Shia, Mutazila, Sunni (with four majhabs) and other groups and thoughts, the division of ulama into groups and sub-groups, conflict on material interest, establishment of colonies in Muslim majority countries by the European powers, increase of influence of western education and culture upon Muslim society, and a distance between religion and politics etc.

The vast majority of the people of Bangladesh are the followers of Islam. Once alims had enough influence on the Muslims of this country. The end of Muslim rule in the subcontinent including Bangladesh, increasing influence of western education and culture over local Muslims, creation of grouping among the ulama for adaptation of different views and ways, capturing Muslim leadership by western educated Muslim personalities etc, reduced the influence of ulama, but not vanished totally. Like other Muslim countries, the majority of Muslims of Bangladesh are pious, and so the ulama are still possessors of enough influence and dignity. The majority of Muslims of Bangladesh are Sunni and therefore, the ulama groups, sub-groups, classes and branches in the country are those of mainly the Sunni alims.

The Muslim sufis and saints played an important role in the emergence and expansion of Islam in Bangladesh. Victory of the Muslims in the subcontinent and in Bengal accelerated expansion of Islam in this region. During the Muslim rule, and after the establishment of colonial rule in Bengal and in the subcontinent, the ulama became more fragmented into groups and sub-groups in regards to different questions of religious explanation, relation between religion and politics, type of politics to be followed in protecting the interest of Islam and Muslim community, method of acquiring religious education etc. The ulama were also sharply divided on the question of anti-British movement and creation of Pakistan and India.

Like other parts of the subcontinent there are followers of six sufi tarikas (ways or systems) in Bangladesh. These are Chistiya tarika established by Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti (R), Suhrawardy tarika established by Shaykh Shahabuddin Suhrawardy (R), Qalandaria tarika established by Bu'ali Kalandar (R), Nakshbandia tarika established by Khwaja Bahauddin Nakshbandi (R), Qadiriah tarika established by Abdul Qader Gilani (R), and Mujaddedia tarika established by Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (R). The majority of the Muslims of Bangladesh, who are sunni, believe that the first four Khalifas of Islam are the rightful successors of Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (Sm). Almost all of the sunni Muslims of Bangladesh belong to Hanafi school of thought. Many Muslims of Bangladesh are the followers of pir or murshid (spiritual guide) and a large number of pirs and murshids are alims.

Teachings of the holy Quran and Arabic language always got preference in Islamic education and Muslim religious books are written in Arabic. Khanqas and maktabs of pirs and saints were the centres of primary religious education. Later, higher institutions for religious education or madrasas were set up. Persian was the main official language for a long time even after the British had expanded their colony in the subcontinent. After establishment of their political supremacy the British started to think about the education system of the subcontinent. They set up calcutta madrasa in 1780. fort william college was established in 1800. Persian was replaced by English as official language. Like other parts of the subcontinent Muslims of Bengal did not normally welcome British rule and English as the new medium of education. Muslims took the initiative to establish their own educational institutions based on Arabic, Urdu and Persian languages for the study of their religious belief, ideology, culture, heritage, and Islamic theology, etc. To fulfil these aims, Darul Ulum Deoband Madrasa was established in Uttar Pradesh (UP) in India in 1864. But conscious and modernist Muslim leaders felt that though the curriculum of Deoband was able to satisfy the needs of religious education, it was unable to meet the worldly demand of the Muslims. For acquiring the worldly knowledge by Muslim students, Nadwatul Ulama at Lucknow and Aligarh Muslim University were established in 1894 and 1920 respectively.

At the initial stage Muslim theology, Persian and Arabic languages were taught at Calcutta Madrasa while modern subjects like English, general science and some other were included in the curriculum later. In 1908, a group of alims who were conscious of the demands of the day introduced a special kind of madrasa named New Scheme Madrasa to familiarise the Muslim students with the religious knowledge, western languages and different branches of science and technology. The University of Dhaka opened the departments of Islamic Studies and Arabic for the higher education of the students graduating from these type of madrasas.

A greater part of Bangladesh ulama is seen to be divided into different groups on the issue of religious and other aspects of education. Madrasa education of Bangladesh are mainly divided into two parts on the issues such as syllabus, acceptance or rejection of government approval and grants, methods of running educational institutions etc. One of the groups is approved and recognised by the government. The others are free from government influence and are run with financial assistance of the pious Muslims. The government-approved madrasas are known as government madrasas, and madrasas that are free from direct government influence are known as qaumi madrasa (also known as Darse Nizami). In Bangladesh these two types of madrasas are prominent though there exist other types of madrasas.

Muslim ulama initiated a resistance movement against British rule in the subcontinent. Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) of Delhi is regarded as the pioneer of this movement. His son Shah Abdul Aziz (1746-1823) declared British India as darul harb (abode of war) and inspired the Muslims to take part in jihad (holy war for the cause of religion) to abolish the British rule. Like elsewhere in the subcontinent, alims of Bengal also actively took part in that movement. They contributed to the movement of haji shariatullah (1779-1840) and Nisar Ali titu mir (1782-1831), who were the followers of Syed Ahmad, to bring an end to the British rule and resist the anti-tenant activities of zamindars.

Although the first revolt for independence in 1857 was a failure, it encouraged a part of conscious ulama of the subcontinent to change their strategy of anti-British movement. Some renowned ulama opined for adopting the policy of cooperation with the British for the time being to protect the interest of the Muslims. A section of the alims was also in favour of co-operating with the majority Hindu community that extended a support to the British rulers. Ulama of this view took the initiative to form the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind in 1919. A good number of alims of Bengal, specially the alims who studied at Deoband Madrasa, started to work for organising the anti-British movement with the cooperation of the indian national congress (1885). However, a section of the ulama who were the followers of Deoband were not in favour of keeping touches with the Congress. Many renowned pro-Deoband ulama opined in favour of movement through muslim league (1906). On the other hand, a group of ulama who were known as Berelvi ulama started to oppose the views of Deobandi ulama regarding religion and politics. They were non-political in general and relied on supernatural powers of pirs and saints. A party named Jamat-i-Islami Hind, which opposed the idea of geography oriented nationalism of Congress and Muslim League, was formed in 1941 under the leadership of Maulana Syed Abul Ala Maududi (1903-79). Only a few ulama were directly involved in the politics of Congress and Muslim League.

Like other parts of the subcontinent the ulama of Bengal also became divided into many groups regarding various issues of politics. They differed in many policy issues such as religious conservatism, extreme opposition of British rule, cooperation with National Congress for the success of the anti-British movement, coordination of Islam and modernity, abandoning the blind anti-British opposition or extending support to the British for the interest of the Muslims, rendering support to Muslim League instead of Congress to protect the interest of Islam and the Muslims, and opposition to Islamic revivalism and geographic nationalism.

After the partition of India in 1947, ulama organisations of undivided India were renamed under the new political reality. The ulama who opposed the creation of Pakistan started concentrating their efforts in establishing Islamic ideology and expanding their influence in the new state. Majority of the ulama residing in India accepted the line realising the reality of a Hindu majority state. In Pakistan, ulama dominated political organisations such as the Nezam-e-Islam had come to prominence. Some alims and pirs became influential in Pakistan politics though they were not involved in organisational activities. In spite of the difference between the ulama of East and West Pakistan on many issues, they held common views on making Pakistan an Islamic state. Due to this reason, the government of Pakistan had to adopt the policy of following Islamic ideology.

After independence, Bangladesh adopted secularism as a state policy with a view to separating religion from politics. Prohibition was also imposed on religion based politics. The embargo on religion based politics was withdrawn in 1977, and later, the alims floated many organisations with different names.

A section of ulama of Bangladesh is directly involved in tabligh movement. Although the ulama from Deoband pioneered the Tablig movement in Delhi, alims from other groups of Bangladesh later joined in this movement. The non-political Islamic movement of Tablig is popular in Bangladesh even to many having modern education. Ever since the conquest of Bengal by the Muslims, alims known as pir, darvish and awlia have significant influence on Muslims of this region. Followers of an individual pir usually belong to a common banner, although they may not form any particular organisation.

There are thousands of mosques and several types of madrasas in Bangladesh. Dhaka is called the city of mosques. Thousands of alims work as imam and muazzins in mosques and as teachers in madrasas. Almost all types and levels of modern educational institutions employ alims to teach religious subjects or to conduct religious programmes. The activities of Islamic Foundation are spread all over the country. Alims are involved with this institution in different ways. The post of Muslim marriage registrar, better known as quazi, is absolutely reserved for the alims. So, it is found that the ulama community is still involved in different ways with the majority of the Muslim population in Bangladesh. Despite the division of the ulama of the country into different groups, they still hold influence and honour in the society. [Hasan Mohammad]