The term in Islam meaning the community of learned men.
The direct translation would be ‘the ones possessing knowledge’. Ulama is a plural term, and the singular can be both ¢alīm (long i) and ¢ālim (long a), where both can be translated with ‘learned, knowing man’. ¢ālim is the most frequently used of the two.
Normally ulama is used for the group of men with religious education and religiously related professions. Ulama is the group of men expressing the true content of Islam towards both the people and the rulers. Men belonging to ulama have education in the Koran, the Sunna, and Sharia.
The ulama has considerable power in many Muslim countries, but its influence on society often depends on how strong the secular authorities are. In most cases, the ulama cooperates with the rulers and plays often the role of defending, or silently accepting, the government’s politics.
The ulama has a great influence on most Muslims, but this influence is easily destroyed when the ulama loses its credibility. The credibility of the ulama depends very much on their level of independence; if there is too much cooperation with the rulers, people will turn away from the ulama to find their religious guidance somewhere else, resulting in an ulama without power.
An ulama that does not cooperate at all with the governments will face suppression and economic difficulties. There are cases where the ulama has overthrown the governments, as happened in 1979 in Iran.
The growth of modern state structures in the Muslim world has weakened the ulama. While the ulama under weak rulers practiced many activities normally connected to a state, f.x. the juridical ones, the modern state have limited the range of activities of the ulama. Because of this, modern ulama are more than ever spiritual leaders.