Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

What are some of the main Varieties of Islamic religious officials or specialists?

Islamic religious specialists are a large general class of people called ‘ulama (oolaMAA) meaning “those who possess knowledge” (7lm). An ‘alim (pronounced AAlim, commonly used singular of ‘ulama) is an individual who has done extensive study of the Qur’an, tafsir (exegetical commentary), and Hadith, for starters. Some become specialists in Qur’an recitation. One who memorizes the entire text and learns to “recite” it in an elaborate and demanding style called tajwid (pronounced tajWEED, “embellished, excellent”) is called a qari (pronounced KAAHree, “Professional Qur’an reciter”). Some religious scholars further specialize in religious jurisprudence (fiqh, “understanding”). Such a scholar is called a faqih (pronounced faKEEH), “one who understands deeply,” because he applies his intellect to plumb the depths of the fundamental religious sources in an effort to apply their principles to daily life. Some religious scholars routinely engage in the categorization of various acts according to their relative legal and moral acceptability. In that capacity the scholar is called a mufti (pronounced MUFtee), “one who issues a legal advisory called a fatwa” (pronounced FATwah). Specialists in the religious sciences often carry the honorific title of shaykh, “elder,” a term that was reserved for tribal leaders during pre-Islamic times. Spiritual guides of the various Sufi organizations called “orders” or “paths” (tariqa, pronounced taREEkah) also generally bear the title of shaykh or its Persian equivalent, pir (pronounced peer).


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