Why do two people read the same text and arrive at different conclusions? What does it mean to follow scripture? What roles and limitations do scholars face when interpreting a text? What happens when scholarly interpretation seems to conflict with the apparent meaning of scripture? These questions occupied the minds of both Salafi and traditionalist scholars during the last two centuries and led to contentious debates between the two sides. I address these tensions in my forthcoming book Salafism and Traditionalism: Scholarly Authority in Modern Islam (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
In Islamic intellectual history, tradition always had an essential role in scriptural interpretation. In order to understand the disagreements that exist today between different groups claiming to represent authentic Islam, it is important to understand the historical place of scholarly tradition in Islamic history. Prior to the advent of modernity, the media apparatus as we know it in its modern form did not exist, and states lacked the ability to define religion across vast geographical regions. It was the ulama who defined and spoke on behalf of Islam. However, since the mid-nineteenth century, both state and lay intellectuals have emerged as other voices to challenge the role of the ulama. These lay intellectuals were not always trained in Islamic sciences, but their teachings resonated with Muslims seeking certainty or searching for an interpretation of Islam that conformed to modern sensibilities.
The political and religious context of the modern world facilitated the contestation of the authority of traditional ulama and thus the debate about who represents Islam took center stage. Colonization, modernization, and globalization all contributed to creating a plethora of religious movements claiming authenticity and contesting the authority of traditional ulama. Today, lay Muslims are presented with an overwhelming amount of information from different perspectives. Although the Muslim feminist, progressive, secularist, and Salafi movements are all distinct, they share an anti-clericalist approach to Islam. They view the ulama as backward and as a barrier that prevents the masses from identifying the “true” teachings of Islam. In their view, the ulama are the object of reform. While my book focuses on the tensions between purist Salafis and traditionalists, it has broader implications for the status of the ulama as the gatekeepers of Islamic knowledge.
Who are the Traditionalist Ulama?
In Islam, prophethood is the greatest station of knowledge. In a famous narration, the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: “The ulama are the heirs of the Prophets.” The idea that there is no official clergy is a common claim made about Sunni Islam; however, the ulama have historically played the role of those who interpreted God’s speech. The ulama were not authoritative because of who they were as individuals or because of their lineage, but because of their expertise in Islamic law and theology. They explained what scripture meant, issued fatwas, and played an important role in the application of Islamic law in premodern times. The idea that the ulama were merely religious professionals, or mosque clergy, is a modern phenomenon. In Islamic history, ulama were judges, market inspectors, scribes, prayer leaders, and educators of the public.
To become a member of this class of scholars, one had to undergo years of study and collecting licenses to teach (ijazas). The ulama have a close relationship with scripture and religious texts because they spend years memorizing, listening to, and interpreting them. How one learned religion, as well as who they studied with was extremely important. It was not sufficient for one to simply self-study, read books, or study with someone who was not an expert. The ulama wanted to ensure texts were not misunderstood. Therefore, they believed it was necessary to always study and read texts in the presence of an expert who could explain its correct meaning. Students were not allowed to teach a text without an ijaza because this was considered a form of malpractice. Hence, to become a religious authority one had to study with scholars and to teach one had to have a license from scholars. In this system, the ulama were trying to model themselves according to the Prophet’s pedagogical methods. Revealed scripture was never sent without a Prophet to explain it. Similarly, they maintained, every text needs a teacher to expound its meaning. In other words, the ulama believed that books of religious knowledge are important, but that there is a human element of knowledge that cannot be transmitted through books.
“…students were not allowed to teach a text without an ijaza because this was considered a form of malpractice. Hence, to become a religious authority one had to study with scholars and to teach one had to have a license from scholars. In this system, the ulama were trying to model themselves according to the Prophet’s pedagogical methods.”
In traditionalist circles, the pursuit of knowledge was not just academics nor was the study of the Islamic sciences a secular one. As heirs of the Prophets, they were expected to embody Prophetic character and mannerisms. Education at the hands of scholars who link themselves back to the earliest generations was an attempt to attain a portion of the Prophetic inheritance. Therefore, the ulama enjoy a certain esteem in Muslim communities because they are believed to collectively represent the knowledge and wisdom inherited from the Prophets.
The ulama tracing their knowledge back to the Prophet even manifested itself in the names they used for their closest students. They intentionally modeled their relationship with their students on that of the Prophet and his Companions. Similar to how the Prophet was a leader with Companions (sahaba), the leaders of different legal schools were called imams and their closest students were referred to as his Companions (ashab). The ulama attempted to replicate the Prophet–Companion/teacher–student mode of transmission in all of the Islamic sciences. This system continued for much of Islamic history, but the rise of modernity presented a number of challenges.
The Printing Press, Modernity, and the Decline of the Ulama
Among the most important factors that led to the decline of the authority of traditional ulama was the onset of modernity, the introduction of the printing press, and the modern university system. The introduction of the printing press to the Muslim world destabilized the ulama’s monopoly on Islamic education and textual transmission. Prior to the printing press, one needed to consult scholars or scribes to have books written. Print made texts, and by extension, information, relatively accessible and the ulama could no longer be present to ensure these texts were not misinterpreted. Texts that previously required a scribe to copy by hand could now be printed quickly and inexpensively. This allowed lay Muslims to access works of religious knowledge on a much larger scale than before, and without the regulatory input of the ulama. Therefore, in its earliest stages, the ulama resisted the printing of any books in Arabic, though they showed more leniency towards printed books in other languages. Arabic, in their view, was the language of Islamic scholarship. Printing books in Arabic meant that they would be released from the structure of discipline and authority that governed the texts’ social impact and ensured their ethical reception.
“Prior to the printing press, one needed to consult scholars or scribes to have books written. Print made texts, and by extension, information, relatively accessible and the ulama could no longer be present to ensure these texts were not misinterpreted.”
Another element that led to the decline of the ulama was modernity, here referring to the broad intellectual, economic, political, and social transformation that started in the West and spread to the rest of the world. These transformations did not emerge organically from within the Muslim world, but were imposed through colonization. That such drastic changes could be imposed upon their society forced many Muslims to question why they fell behind the West, which was undeniably more advanced from a technological and economic perspective.
In answering this question, several modernist reformers such as Muhammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905) emerged, arguing that the ulama and their pedagogical methods were outdated and were part of the problem. These reformers pushed for a transformation of the educational systems of the Muslim world, resulting in the establishment of modern universities modeled after European institutions. This transformation further contributed to the destabilization of the ulama’s monopoly over Islamic education.
Another factor in the destabilization of the ulama’s monopoly lay in the transformation of the scholar-ruler dynamic. Starting from the 1800’s, the Muslim world was witness to profound changes in government. Court positions, which were previously the most common career destinations for Muslim scholars, now catered towards a different kind of legal expert, as Islamic law was gradually replaced with secular law. Many countries developed secular courts and judicial systems. Governments in Muslim majority countries restricted the role of the ulama to family courts, and the career prospects of the ulama dimmed. As a result, many young intellectuals pursued other career paths. Studying Islamic law became the domain of the underachievers. Students with low grades who could not get into medical, engineering, or business programs chose sharia. This led to a vicious cycle where the quality of training in Islamic law drastically decreased: in the universities, Islamic law was watered down and students often studied secondary works rather than primary sources. This resulted in a class of individuals who were not the most educated speaking on behalf of Islam. This not only undermined the authority of the ulama, but also removed the prestige they once enjoyed. Whereas previously ulama were held in high esteem, many in the Muslim world began looking down upon them for their often-uneducated opinions or decontextualized interpretations of Islamic scripture.
This was coupled by the emergence of religious movements in the Muslim world that were calling for reform. What these groups share is a view that the ulama were portrayed as barriers between the believers and God. They invited Muslims to rethink their religion in light of scripture, not through the words of the ulama. There were several such movements, but perhaps the one that posed the greatest threat to traditionalist ulama was the Salafi movement.
Salafism & Traditional Ulama
The printing press, modernity, and transformations in education had a serious effect on the manner in which the general Muslim population interacted with the texts and the ulama. Several movements emerged as alternatives to the traditional interpretation and authority of the ulama. Of these, perhaps the movement that posed the greatest threat to traditionalist ulama was the Salafi movement.
“Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999), was the twentieth century’s most influential Salafi scholar, and remains one of the most recognizable Salafi thinkers, due in part to his ability to present Salafism to non-Salafi’s in novel ways. Although Albani does not represent all of Salafism, he does typify a popular purist trend within the movement.”
Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999), was the twentieth century’s most influential Salafi scholar, and remains one of the most recognizable Salafi thinkers, due in part to his ability to present Salafism to non-Salafi’s in novel ways. Although Albani does not represent all of Salafism, he does typify a popular purist trend within the movement. He was a self-taught scholar who dedicated his life to what he deemed the purification of Islamic practice. Put simply, he wanted to fix what the ulama got wrong. Because books were readily available, Albani was able to comb through thousands of Prophetic traditions and reexamine their authenticity. In particular, he was looking to purge from Islam all foreign elements, he called his hadith project Taqrib al-Sunna Bayna Yaday al-Umma (Bringing the Sunna Nearer to the Community). The project, as the name suggests, was to not only free Islamic literature from weak hadith, but to make authentic hadith more accessible to common Muslims.
Albani’s purification project removed weak hadith from books of Islamic law, creed, and spirituality. He considered the Islamic legal schools (madhhabs) and Sufism to be riddled with incorrect opinions based on weak or fabricated hadith. Albani combined a commitment to reexamine legal issues with a rejection of blind following (taqlid) of the madhhabs. In his view, the madhhabs were not the vehicle for the preservation of the Prophet’s teachings, as those teachings are only found in hadith compilations. In order to know what the Prophet said or did Muslims must not refer to opinions of the ulama, but to the texts themselves. The Islamic legal schools, or the expert opinion of a scholar, must always be supported by reference to a verse from the Quran or an authentic saying of the Prophet. In Albani’s view, many of the popular opinions of the madhhabs go against the clear teachings of the Prophet. He condemned traditional ulama for ignoring or interpreting authentic hadith so that they conform with the position of their legal school.
“Albani published dozens of books in which he tried to provide Muslims with an alternative method of understanding Islam, one that was based on only authentic evidence, these books were based only on what he deemed to be authentic hadith. For example, one of his most famous books is Sifat Salat al-Nabi (The Prophet’s Prayer Described), which promises the reader that the book is based only on ‘pure’ sources.”
Albani published dozens of books in which he tried to provide Muslims with an alternative method of understanding Islam, one that was based on only authentic evidence, these books were based only on what he deemed to be authentic hadith. For example, one of his most famous books is Sifat Salat al-Nabi (The Prophet’s Prayer Described), which promises the reader that the book is based only on “pure” sources. He recognizes that much has been written on this topic within the Islamic legal schools but argues that all of these schools have some teachings that cannot be authentically attributed to the Prophet. Albani’s books became very popular because they appealed to Muslims who wanted to follow Islam in its most original and pristine form, free from the impact of fallible ulama. For example, in the 1980s many Salafi women in the West performed the prayer according to the Ḥanafī madhhab, but when Albani’s book became available in the 1990s they started praying according to the “authentic” Sunna.
Albani challenged the way the ulama presented Islam. Instead of relying on previous scholarly opinions or presenting the opinions of legal schools, he offered lay Muslims with a scripturally charged understanding of Islam. Because he was an expert hadith scholar he assured his readers that unlike the books of traditional ulama, each hadith in his books went through a rigorous process of authentication. This proved appealing to many who sought to practice an Islam that was free from human intervention. Furthermore, many young Muslims were attracted to the certainty and confidence they found in Albani. He dismissed other scholars’ opinions and refuted them not by citing other scholars, but by citing dozens of hadith.
“The writings and lectures of Albani against the madhhabs have made him one of the most influential personalities in this debate. Traditionalists were unnerved by Albani’s approach because it collapsed any division between the scholarly class and those with no religious training.”
In Albani’s view, there was only one correct understanding of Islam. He believed scripture is clear and speaks for itself while his detractors among the ulama believed texts to be more complicated and open to differences of opinion. This difference resulted in widely opposing views about how Muslims are to interpret scripture and who has the right to interpret it.
The writings and lectures of Albani against the madhhabs have made him one of the most influential personalities in this debate. Traditionalists were unnerved by Albani’s approach because it collapsed any division between the scholarly class and those with no religious training. In other words, if everyone is to approach the Qurʾān and Sunna directly then scholars are no longer the gatekeepers to “authentic” Islamic knowledge. For that reason, traditionalist scholars from Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, India, Pakistan, and Egypt all felt the need to refute him.
The debates between Salafis and traditional ulama have ramifications beyond scholarly circles. In fact, arguments about who can interpret Islamic law and who holds religious authority continuously take place in mosques and public settings throughout the Muslim world. The ideas of Salafism and traditionalism touch a particularly sensitive nerve in Muslim circles. Where a Muslim stands on this issue is often an indication of their larger approach toward scripture and Islamic legal tradition. The tensions between these two groups point to a larger religious phenomenon in contemporary Islam: the debate over textual interpretation so succinctly exemplified in the tension between Albani and the traditionalist ulama.
Emad Hamdeh is an Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies at Embry Riddle University. He works on Islamic intellectual history with a particular interest in debates about Islamic law and scripture in the modern Muslim world. He has published several articles on Salafism, hadith, and the madhhabs. His first book Salafism and Traditionalism: Scholarly Authority in Modern Islam (Cambridge University Press, 2021) focuses on the tensions between Salafis and Traditionalists in the 20th century. Hamdeh also serves as the editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on Islamic Reform.
 Muḥammad b. ʿĪsā al-Tirmidhī, Al-Jāmiʾ al-Kabīr Sunan al-Tirmidhī (Beirut: Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 1996), Bāb Al-ʿIlm, 4:414 no. 2682.
 George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981), 7.
 For further analysis, see Emad Hamdeh, “Shaykh Google as Ḥāfiẓ al-ʿAṣr: The Internet, Traditional ʿUlamā’, and Self Learning,” American Journal of Islam and Society, 37:1-2, (May 2020): 67-102.
 Charles Hirschkind, “Media and the Qurʾān,” in The Encyclopedia of the Quran, ed. Jane McAuliffe (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 342-343.
 Jonathan Brown, “Scripture in the Modern World: Quran and Hadith” in Kenney, Jeffrey T., and Moosa, Ebrahim, eds. Islam in the Modern World (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2013), 18-19.
 Muḥammad Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albani, Aṣl Ṣifat Ṣalāt al-Nabī Ṣalla Allāhu ʿAlay-hi wa Sallam Min al-Takbīr ilā al-Taslīm Kaʾanaka Tarā-hā (Riyadh: Maktabat al-Maʿārif, 2006), 15.
 Anabel Inge, The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman: Paths to Conversion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 35.