In a broader sense, the term ulema is used to describe the body of Muslim clergy who have completed several years of training and study of Islamic sciences, such as a mufti, qadi, faqih, or muhaddith. Some Muslims include under this term the village mullahs, imams, and maulvis—who have attained only the lowest rungs on the ladder of Islamic scholarship; other Muslims would say that clerics must meet higher standards to be considered ulema.
Ulema teach at Islamic religious schools called Medereses where they teach students about the science of Islam and other areas of study. It is believed in Islam that a well-rounded education is something every Muslim must acquire in order to understand God’s religion in its entirety. Ulema also hold seminars where they give lectures and speeches about the area of Islam in which they specialize.
In contemporary times, the ulema are most powerful in the Shi'a tradition of Islam. Following the 1979 revolution in Iran, factions of the Iranian Shia clergy, under the leadership of Khomeini, took control of the country. This was justified by Khomeini's doctrine of "Guardianship of the Jurists" (Wilayat-i Faqih).
Afghanistan's Taliban regime was also headed by a mullah, Mullah Omar. However, in most countries, they are merely local power figures.
Ulemas not only have influence over social and religious spheres but they are also deeply involved in politics and have power over courses of action in such fields. In the Islamic State of Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, mullahs have directly coordinated military operations. This is in keeping with Islamic traditions, as Muhammad and his successors were military commanders themselves.
Role in judicature
In certain Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, where there are sharia courts, Islamic clergy become judges. Therefore, a main job of ulema is the interpretation and maintenance of Islamic law in such countries.
In some countries like Saudi Arabia, Islamic clergy fulfill the role of a counsel for the king. There are also jobs for them in various governmental institutions.
There are various jobs available for the Islamic clergy at mosques, such as leading public prayers, preaching, and delivering sermons, especially at Friday prayers. Some have made missionary activities a lifelong activity such as the Tablighi Jamaat group.
Role of the ulema in the ummah
The ulema in most nations consider themselves to represent the ijma "consensus" of the Ummah "community of Muslims" (or to represent at least the scholarly or learned consensus). Many efforts to modernise Islam focus on the reintroduction of ijtihad and empowerment of the ummah to form their own ijma.
Ulema as authors
Many ulema have left behind them only a lifetime of mediating disputes and giving sermons; their respectable contributions did not include authorship. Other ulema have been prolific authors, writing translations of the Qur'an or Quranic commentaries, studies of hadith, works of philosophy, religious admonition, etc. There are enormous bodies of religious literature that form not only the substance of the courses in Islamic seminaries, but inspirational reading for the ordinary Muslim. Most of this literature has not been translated into English, but remains in its original language (usually Arabic, Urdu, Persian, or Turkish). Some has been printed; some remains in manuscript form.