The term ‘Ulemaa (عُلَمَاءُ) is a plural correspondent of the singular ‘Aalim (عالم), that means “to know” or “have knowledge” about something. It has nothing to do with becoming an expert in a particular field as the word has evolved. What will be discussed is its usage in the religious sense.
Allaah aza wajal says,
وَمِنَ النَّاسِ وَالدَّوَابِّ وَالْأَنْعَامِ مُخْتَلِفٌ أَلْوَانُهُ كَذَٰلِكَ ۗ إِنَّمَا يَخْشَى اللَّهَ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ الْعُلَمَاءُ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ غَفُورٌ
And among people and moving creatures and grazing livestock are various colors similarly. Only those fear Allaah , from among His servants, who have the knowledge [al-Ulema]. Indeed, Allaah is Exalted in Might and Forgiving.
This ayah has been translated in different ways, including:
…Only those who fear Allaah, from among his servants/slaves, are knowledgeable ones…”
However, in Arabic it means only one thing, the second translation is the nearest to its correct meaning. It gives us two main characteristics of the real true Ulema:
1) They fear (خَشِي) Allaah aza wajal
2) They are from the servants of Allaah aza wajal.
That a person who fears Allaah, from the servants, are the ‘Ulema. Not the one who goes through universities, or a person who is given titles and studies under other so-called ‘Ulema. The true fear is in the heart and this is only known to Allaah aza wajal.
So the idea of calling people ‘Ulema just because they may have a mouthful of knowledge, or have memorized books, does not make them actual ‘Ulema with Allaah aza wajal. The ‘Aalim is a matter of the heart and it is unreasonable to give titles to people based on something that only Allaah knows about.
And realistically, many of the people who are looked as ‘Ulema, are the worst of human beings. They lie on Allaah aza wajal, they break up his Deen into sects, they innovated divisions disguised as schools of thought and made haraam into halaal and likewise, they fabricated reports to the Prophet, especially the fake ahadith about the virtues of scholars, self praise and amusement…and so many other things. They are also the ones to call each other Ulema, hiding behind the term with their bogus beliefs.
The proper term for a scholar is habr (حَبْر). It is usually used for a Jewish Rabbi, yet, it literally means “a scribe” or a “learned person.” The state of the heart is irrelevant and has no connection with fear or being a servant. Hence, it is more proper to call a scholar – habr, then it is to call them ‘Aalim, since the former is apparent and the later is hidden.
“The books of ahbar and their fatawa“
Just because someone may have studied for years and looks like a pious person, does not mean that they are fearing Allaah, or that they are saved from the fire. One major example are the hypocrites. Allaah aza wajal says regarding them:
وَإِذَا رَأَيْتَهُمْ تُعْجِبُكَ أَجْسَامُهُمْ ۖ وَإِن يَقُولُوا تَسْمَعْ لِقَوْلِهِمْ ۖ كَأَنَّهُمْ خُشُبٌ مُّسَنَّدَةٌ ۖ يَحْسَبُونَ كُلَّ صَيْحَةٍ عَلَيْهِمْ ۚ هُمُ الْعَدُوُّ فَاحْذَرْهُمْ ۚ قَاتَلَهُمُ اللَّهُ ۖ أَنَّىٰ يُؤْفَكُونَ
And when you see them, their bodies please you, and if they speak, you listen to their speech. [They are] as if they were pieces of wood propped up – they think that every shout is against them. They are the enemy, so beware of them. May Allaah destroy them; how are they deluded?
(Surah al-Munaafiqoon 63:4)
Allaah aza wajal tells us that the hypocrites bodies – or forms- may please us when we look at them, and we listen to them when they speak. They may be good looking, clean, and wear nice clothes. Their speech may be eloquent and full of poetry. Yet, Allaah calls them the enemies and warns us against them. So we must be careful not to be fooled by the “outer shell” of a person. Islaam is not people, it is only Qur’aan and authentically proven sayings of Allaah’s Messenger. Nothing else beyond these two sources is Deen.
A narration (with weakness in it) in Saheeh Muslim, Book of Governance, describes a questioning of several people, including a man who was called an ‘Aalim BY THE PEOPLE and praised for his knowledge and recitation of the Qur’aan. Yet, he was thrown into the Hell-fire. Please read the hadeeth carefully here.
حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى بْنُ حَبِيبٍ الْحَارِثِيُّ، حَدَّثَنَا خَالِدُ بْنُ الْحَارِثِ، حَدَّثَنَا ابْنُ جُرَيْجٍ، حَدَّثَنِي يُونُسُ بْنُ يُوسُفَ، عَنْ سُلَيْمَانَ بْنِ يَسَارٍ، قَالَ تَفَرَّقَ النَّاسُ عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ، فَقَالَ لَهُ نَاتِلُ أَهْلِ الشَّامِ أَيُّهَا الشَّيْخُ حَدِّثْنَا حَدِيثًا سَمِعْتَهُ مِنْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ نَعَمْ سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ “ إِنَّ أَوَّلَ النَّاسِ يُقْضَى يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ عَلَيْهِ رَجُلٌ اسْتُشْهِدَ فَأُتِيَ بِهِ فَعَرَّفَهُ نِعَمَهُ فَعَرَفَهَا قَالَ فَمَا عَمِلْتَ فِيهَا قَالَ قَاتَلْتُ فِيكَ حَتَّى اسْتُشْهِدْتُ . قَالَ كَذَبْتَ وَلَكِنَّكَ قَاتَلْتَ لأَنْ يُقَالَ جَرِيءٌ . فَقَدْ قِيلَ . ثُمَّ أُمِرَ بِهِ فَسُحِبَ عَلَى وَجْهِهِ حَتَّى أُلْقِيَ فِي النَّارِ وَرَجُلٌ تَعَلَّمَ الْعِلْمَ وَعَلَّمَهُ وَقَرَأَ الْقُرْآنَ فَأُتِيَ بِهِ فَعَرَّفَهُ نِعَمَهُ فَعَرَفَهَا قَالَ فَمَا عَمِلْتَ فِيهَا قَالَ تَعَلَّمْتُ الْعِلْمَ وَعَلَّمْتُهُ وَقَرَأْتُ فِيكَ الْقُرْآنَ . قَالَ كَذَبْتَ وَلَكِنَّكَ تَعَلَّمْتَ الْعِلْمَ لِيُقَالَ عَالِمٌ . وَقَرَأْتَ الْقُرْآنَ لِيُقَالَ هُوَ قَارِئٌ . فَقَدْ قِيلَ ثُمَّ أُمِرَ بِهِ فَسُحِبَ عَلَى وَجْهِهِ حَتَّى أُلْقِيَ فِي النَّارِ . وَرَجُلٌ وَسَّعَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَأَعْطَاهُ مِنْ أَصْنَافِ الْمَالِ كُلِّهِ فَأُتِيَ بِهِ فَعَرَّفَهُ نِعَمَهُ فَعَرَفَهَا قَالَ فَمَا عَمِلْتَ فِيهَا قَالَ مَا تَرَكْتُ مِنْ سَبِيلٍ تُحِبُّ أَنْ يُنْفَقَ فِيهَا إِلاَّ أَنْفَقْتُ فِيهَا لَكَ قَالَ كَذَبْتَ وَلَكِنَّكَ فَعَلْتَ لِيُقَالَ هُوَ جَوَادٌ . فَقَدْ قِيلَ ثُمَّ أُمِرَ بِهِ فَسُحِبَ عَلَى وَجْهِهِ ثُمَّ أُلْقِيَ فِي النَّارِ ”
It has been narrated on the authority of Sulaiman b. Yasar who said: