The 3rd Generation Islam and the Plight of Ulama

Satoshi Ikeuchi, Professor, Religion and Global Security, University of Tokyo

Each time radical extremism rises, critics in the West asks why the Ulama can’t refute extremists and guide people to a more moderate interpretation.

Aren’t they doing their job?

I don’t suspect the Ulama’s diligence, but circumstances don’t permit them to fulfill their task.

Decisive factor behind is the change of media and the way of transmitting religious and authoritative texts.

In the pre-modern world, the Ulama maintained an almost complete monopoly on religious texts. Religious texts were transmitted basically by recitation by the Ulama. Manuscripts handwritten by scribes on parchment were expensive and rare, not accessible for most of the population. The media in the pre-modern times was the Ulama’s brains themselves. Apprentices listened to the master Ulama to recite religious texts and recollected them. Then the apprentices became masters themselves and recited the texts to the next generation apprentices. By word of mouths, religious texts and its authoritative interpretations were transmitted, generations after generations.

There was a huge gap between the Ulama and laypeople in their accessibility to the religious texts. That was the basis of authority of the Ulama.

This basis of authority was eroded twice in the modern and contemporary ages.

The first blow was made two centuries ago when the printing press was introduced to the Islamic world. In Egypt in 1820, the Amiriya Press was established in Bulaq in Cairo. Not only secular scientific educational books, religious texts and textbooks were printed and distributed.

Mass distribution of religious texts and interpretations may have given the Ulama tools to approach to a wider society, but their monopoly on texts was diminished. The Ulama’s traditional way of learning through recitation and memorization were replaced by the modern education of reading the mass-printed texts. Diligent students can read the entire compendium of religious texts and authoritative interpretations by themselves and refute the Ulama. It’s not a coincidence that most of the modern radical religious movements were advocated by elite students of secular education. We might call it the second generation of Islam.

Another blow was made at the turn of the 21st century. With the expansion of Internet and SNS, most of the basic religious texts are digitalized and uploaded on the world wide web, freely accessible to anyone. In this third generation Islam, even the least knowledgeable people can attack the Ulama, based on just one search and a few clicks.

The Ulama’s monopoly on religious texts were entirely gone and their ability to influence and convince laypeople has been severely curtailed.

It is inevitable that this decline of authority causes an enormous psychological upheaval in society.