|Just days after he was flushed out of his hideout in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Al Zarqawi issued a statement that, read between the lines, amounts to a death threat against religious scholars who happen to disagree with him.
"You have let us down in the darkest circumstances and handed us over to the enemy," he said in his taped message.
"Hundreds of thousands of the sons of the Ummah [Islamic nation] are being slaughtered at the hands of the infidels because of your silence."
Even before the Al Zarqawi tape was made public, unknown gunmen had killed two prominent Sunni religious scholars. Shaikh Ghalib Ali Al Zuhairi was killed as he left a mosque in Muqdadiyah, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
A day earlier Shaikh Faidh Mohammad Ameen Al Faidhi was assassinated in the northern city of Mosul. Al Zarqawi's group has been responsible for dozens of bombings and beheadings of foreign hostages. But is it now targeting Islamic religious scholars?
The Al Zarqawi tape represents a change in the way radical Islamists have perceived the role of the religious scholars or "ulema". Initially, militants, including Osama Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al Zawahiri, insisted on having their actions sanctioned by one or more ulema.
This was in line with an old Islamic tradition under which any move that might affect society in some way must be authorised with reference to the text of the Quran and the Hadith. That tradition gave the ulema immense influence in political, cultural and even economic domains.
History is full of examples of the ulema flexing their spiritual muscles. A fatwa issued by an ayatollah in Najaf, Iraq, banning the cultivation, sale and production of tobacco in the 1880s made the whole of Iran smoke-free overnight.
The constitutional revolutions that shook Turkey and Iran in the early part of the 20th century succeeded in ending absolute monarchy only after the ulema endorsed the introduction of a parliamentary system.
Because Islam does not recognise an organised priesthood and church-like hierarchies, the question of who has the authority to interpret the Quran and the Hadith and issue fatwas has always been a subject of heated debate.
In some cases the ulema became part of the state's civil service. The king or the caliph would issue decrees appointing the scholars who would, in turn, issue fatwas to endorse his decisions.
That system led to the emergence of two distinct castes of ulema: one attached to the state, and the other cast in a more or less adversarial role vis-à-vis the temporal authority.
In time various centres of theological study emerged as veritable sources of religious authority. In Africa there were major centres in Timbuktu, Mali, Fez, Morocco, Qairawan, Tunisia, and, above all, Al Azhar in Cairo, Egypt.
In the Middle East the most important centres were in Madinah and Damascus, for Sunni Muslims, and in Najaf and Qom for Shiites. Several centres also emerged in the Indian subcontinent, although none achieved the prominence of those in the Islamic heartland.
Syllabus varies from centre to centre
Joining the select ranks of the independent ulema was no easy task. Typically a candidate would start his studies at the age of four or five, learning the shorter Shuras of the Quran by heart.
Then would follow a lengthy cycle of studies that could last as long as 40 years before the talib (the seeker) could be recognised as a mujtahid or someone qualified to issue fatwas.
The syllabus would vary from centre to centre. But most would include history, philosophy, linguistics, law, mathematics, and logic, among other subjects.
But even then those who had the authority to issue fatwas did so sparingly. In many cases, the ulema preferred to keep the debate open, allowing for a rich variety of views and opinions.
In the past few decades, however, the increasing use of Islam as a political ideology rather than a religious faith, and an instrument for seeking power has led to the perversion of the role of the ulema. To begin with the number of those entering the market as ulema has risen to unprecedented levels.
In Iran alone the army of the ulema consist of over 350,000 men. In Pakistan some 600,000 young men and boys are being trained as future members of the ulema.
Over the past decade millions of others have graduated from various schools and universities in the Muslim world, especially the Arab countries.
Needless to say the quality of education in most cases is doubtful to say the least. In many Arab countries almost anyone who could read the Quran may now pretend to be one of the ulema and authorised to issue fatwas.
Hardly a day passes without some petition signed by large numbers of self-styled ulema appearing on the internet or being posted in the mosques and bazaars.
The media in general and television in particular have contributed to this inflation in the number of ulema. Journalists often think they need someone with a beard and some kind of theological headgear for an interview.
The inflationary trend in the number of so-called scholars and the increased politicisation of theological education have led to the marginalisation of the small number of well-trained and genuine ulema in almost all Muslim countries.
The true ulema never appear on satellite television; nor do they have time to issue daily fatwas about the course of events in Fallujah.
Qualifying as an Islamic scholar today is harder than any other time. The would-be ulema need to master Arabic to absorb the Quran and the Hadith. But they also need to know Persian to read the essential texts of Islamic philosophy and literature.
Further they must also learn Turkish to have access to over 1,000 years of Ottoman Sharia jurisprudence that is as rich and varied as English common law.
The aspiring ulema also need to know English, and perhaps even French and German, to have direct access to the tremendous amount of work that is done in Islamic studies in Europe and the United States.
Right now there is not a single centre inside the Muslim world where such facilities are offered to aspirant ulema. But the debate over who the ulema are and what role they can play in this age of globalisation is just beginning.
Some radicals, including Bin Laden, have given up on the ulema and, growing their own beards a bit longer, claim the right to issue their own fatwas. This kind of self-service fatwa, however, is already discredited in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of Muslims.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian journalist and author based in Europe, he's a member of Benador Associates and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org