Written by: Mohammad Fadel
The ulama grew powerful during the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258 C.E.). The Abbasid caliphs supported the scholars while relying on them to legitimate their rule. As a result, early versions of Islamic political thought tended to sanction existing regimes and discourage armed rebellion against the state. Yet the ulama sometimes served as advocates for popular grievances, and held that their status and piety as scholars derived from maintaining their independence from the state. This established a pattern for relationships between ulama and governments that continued for much of Islamic history. In the modern period, however, many Muslim governments have been relatively more successful compared to the pre-modern states in incorporating the ulama into the structure of the state.
The Sufis, Islamic mystics who seek inner knowledge of God, and the ulama at times enjoyed a mutual relationship. The ulama were known as the ulama al-zahir, or "scholars of the exoteric," specializing in formal knowledge acquired through intellectual effort. The Sufis were known as the ulama al-batin, or "scholars of the esoteric," specializing in inner knowledge acquired through the efforts of the heart. Theoretical Sufism was taught in the madrasahs, and Sufis acknowledged the legal authority of the ulama. Many ulama even chose to affiliate with a Sufi order in addition to an affiliation with a legal school. Those who combined formal scholarship with Sufism were called dhu al-janahayn, or "one who possesses two wings."
Although the ulama were primarily defined by their knowledge and erudition, they also performed a number of practical duties on behalf of the community. This is still the case in contemporary Islamic life. The various titles held by ulama relate to their practical functions, some of which are familiar to non-Muslim westerners. For example, a mullah is a learned man who has studied Islamic jurisprudence, and advocates for traditional interpretations. Mullahs teach in the madrasahs. A mufti is a scholar who interprets Islamic familial law, and issues legal opinions called fatwa in order to provide guidance to Muslims in new situations. In a practice dating to the Ottoman Empire, some governments in Sunni-majority countries appoint a senior mufti to the position of Grand Mufti.
Shi'i Islam has a clerical hierarchy. The highest-ranking ulama in the Shi'i tradition are called ayatollahs, ("signs of God") who lead the Shi'i community during the temporary absence of the hidden Imam. Individual Shi'i Muslims generally pick an ayatollah on whom they will rely for religious instruction, inspiration, and example. All individual Shi'a are required to follow the example of the marja-i taqlids ("source of emulation"). The marja-i taqlids are also called Grand Ayatollahs.