Muslim religious scholars help devotees expand their knowledge and understanding of Islam—with the end goal of becoming closer to God. They are employed by colleges and universities, mosques, Islamic think tanks, Islamic schools of law, and Islamic cultural and community centers. In some settings, they act as teachers or professors to educate students about Islam or prepare aspiring imams for the ministry.
One of the most important duties of senior religious scholars (known as muftis) is to interpret Islamic, or sacred, law (known as Sharia). According to the Interfaith Alliance and the Religious Freedom Education Project of the First Amendment Center, “there are four principle sources of Sharia, which are accepted by consensus. They are (1) the Quran, Islamic sacred scripture, which Muslims believe God revealed to humanity through the Prophet Muhammad, (2) the Sunna (or Prophetic model of behavior recorded in a literature called the Hadith), (3) the consensus of religious scholars, and (4) analogy. Many regional and local customs are also accepted as a source of the Sharia when they are consistent with the general good.” When a legal issue arises, the scholar undertakes a process of legal interpretation (called fiqh, which means “understanding” in Arabic), and then, in cooperation with other scholars, issues a ruling or opinion with an explanation of how the decision was made. Scholars also may issue fatwas regarding developments in science or technology (e.g., Can a Muslim be involved in cloning?) and those pertaining to current world developments. In 2014, for example, 120 Muslim scholars from around the world issued an open letter to the “fighters and followers” of Islamic State denouncing them as un-Islamic. And in 2015, Muslim religious scholars called on the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to play an active role in combating climate change via its Islamic Declaration on Climate, which was adopted at an International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul, Turkey.