I was wondering whether or not anyone could shed any light on what the various titles used for Ulema in the Subcontinent such as Maulvi, Maulana, etc., really mean and whether or not there are agreed upon standards that one must meet before having the title conferred upon them, or do different madrassas, schools, governments, etc. have different standards. Also, are their any equivalent titles/certifications for ulema in the Arab lands?
The using of various titles for the scholars (ulama) in the Indian Subcontinent is merely something that is customary and widespread in those lands. The titles are not based upon any injunction or ruling of Shariah. As such, titles used for scholars may vary from one place to another and from one era to another.
For example: The title “Mawlana” which literally means “our master” is normally used for an individual who graduates from a traditional Islamic institution (madrasa) known as a Dar al-Uloom, for example… The student normally concludes his course in these Dar al-Ulooms with the study of at least the six major books of Hadith (kutub al-sittah) with the chain (isnad) that goes back to the authors of the books and consequently to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace).
As stated earlier that linguistically “Mawlana” means “our master”. It is a term that is used in order to respect someone, such as a religious scholar.
This term is also used in the Arab world out of regard for a respectable person, not necessarily a religious scholar. During my stay in Syria and Jordan, many times I heard the Arabs say: “Ya Mawlana” (O our master) or “Ya Sayyidi” (O our leader).
Sayyiduna Ali (Allah ennoble his face and be pleased with him) said:
“Whoever teaches me even a word, he is my master. If he so desires, he may free me and if he wishes he may take service from me.” (Ta’lim al-Muta’allim)
Thus, this term is only used in order to respect someone, and due to the fact that religious scholars deserve the utmost respect, they are given this title. This also signifies that one does not need to be a scholar in order to be described with this title, for it is merely a word of respect. However, if the term is customarily used in a place for recognized scholars, then it would not be permissible to give that title to other than scholars.
Therefore, if one was to call a non-scholar with the title of “Mawlana” in an area where this term is not exclusively recognized for scholars (such as in many Arab countries), then it would be perfectly okay. However, to use this term for non-scholars in the Indian subcontinent would not be permissible due to deception.
Also, it is not necessary for one to graduate from a traditional Dar al-Uloom in order to be described with this title. However, what is necessary is that the one given this title must learn and study by other recognized scholars, whether in an organized institution or privately.
There are also other titles that are used in the Indian Subcontinent. For example: A’lim (the knowledgeable), Mawlavi (my master) and Shaykh are all used for the one who graduates from a traditional Dar al-Uloom.
“Mufti” literally means the one who answers questions, and in the Indian Subcontinent it refers to a person who after graduating from the A’lim course, specializes in the field of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and giving religious verdicts (fatwa) under the supervision of recognized experienced Muftis. It is only a customary term for anyone who takes up the course of specialization in Islamic jurisprudence, thus the term may differ from the understanding of the Arab world.
The term “Shaykh al-Hadith” normally refers to a person who is appointed and honoured to teach the most authentic book after the book of Allah “Sahih al-Bukhari”. This again is a term that is customary in the Indian Subcontinent and may differ from other Islamic countries and societies.
In conclusion, the different titles given to the scholars in the Indian Subcontinent are merely customary, thus they may differ in application from other Islamic societies and cultures.
And Allah knows best
[Mufti] Muhammad ibn Adam
Leicester , UK