Written by: Mohammad Fadel
Islam does not have an ordained clergy with authority over rites and rituals. Any Muslim with sufficient knowledge may lead prayers or perform rituals such as weddings or funerals. In the early years of Islam, learned members of the mosque led the prayers and gave the Friday sermon. They were called imams—literally, those who stand in front. They also taught the basics of Quran and family law, and led the prayers at weddings and funerals. In some places, this job is still done without stipend and shared by several members of the mosque congregation, but in the larger mosques, a full-time imam performs all these duties, and in addition administers schools and Islamic centers, visits the sick, and helps engaged couples prepare for their weddings.
Learned men were engaged in Quranic interpretation and legal discussions from the earliest days of the community in Medina. By the 9th century, a professional class of religious scholars had emerged, known as the ulama (singular, alim), or "people of knowledge." (Imam is used synonymously with alim.) As a distinct social class, the ulama were defined by their roles as scholars and teachers of the Quran, shariah, jurisprudence, family law, and theology (kalaam). The ulama controlled the schools (madrasahs) and courts, which allowed them to exercise profound influence over society both in their own times and in future generations. The ulama today lead the religious life of the Islamic community (ummah). They have a variety of different duties and specializations, but together they share the responsibility of maintaining continuity in the spiritual and intellectual life of the ummah.
In the last two centuries, the influence of the ulama has declined in most parts of the world primarily because majority Muslim countries are oppressive dictatorships and only allow for state-appointed ulama. Muslims in western lands are just beginning the process of creating seminaries for training male and female imams. As such their local and national religious leaders most often tend to be the most popular male and female preachers who have distinguished themselves by their culturally contextualized knowledge of Islam and their public display of piety.