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4 - The Ulama: Pragmatism and Political Acquiescence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 April 2021

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Summary

Abstract

This chapter investigates the position of the ulama within the political system in Singapore. It interrogates the various cleavages amongst the ulama, the strategies they undertake to further causes which they deem important, the issues they shun, and the thought processes behind their decisions. The ulama, just like other actors, are pragmatic creatures, fully cognizant of the costs and benefits of their actions. Different ulama prioritize various goals, depending on their own worldviews and ranking of what is important to them. As a result, the ‘pragmatic alim’ is able to operate within the political opportunity structures in an attempt to maximize his/her gains, while being aware of what has to be given up in order to achieve those objectives.

Keywords: ulama, pragmatic, acquiescence, hijab, madrasah, Religious Rehabilitation Group

You will not find a single person in Singapore who considers himself to be part of the ulama. You need a deep level of knowledge of the Islamic tradition. At best, most of us are comfortable being called ustaz (religious teacher).

The statement quoted above was largely the sentiment of most, if not all, of those interviewed for this project, when I had indicated to them that I regarded them as being part of the ulama fraternity. For them, the term ulama was enormously significant and carried with it connotations of deep knowledge, stellar character and immense responsibility. No doubt, part of their reluctance is motivated by a sense of humility and knowing one's place within the Islamic tradition: it is quite unbecoming of righteous people to consider themselves as righteous, since an important part of the Islamic faith is the suppression of one's own ego. These religious teachers are well aware of the possibility of falling into such hubris. At the same time, they also recognize the responsibilities, and perhaps burdens, of the ulama. It is rare to see Muslim scholars who would readily and openly admit themselves to be an alim (singular of ulama), even if they may personally feel that they fulfil the requisites of being one.

This chapter investigates the position of the ulama within the political system in Singapore.

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Chapter
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Islam in a Secular State
Muslim Activism in Singapore
, pp. 103 - 160
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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