How much knowledge does one need before they can gain the title of being an Alim or Alima? Or do they just need to be interested in Islam and study the deen?
How much knowledge does one need before they can gain the title of being an Alim or Alima?
A muslim is some-one who believes in the Islamic faith; this however does not make them an alim. Similarly someone who believes in Christianity believes in Jesus and the Christian faith but this does not make them a theologian. Finally some-one who believes in science in getting true knowledge about this world is not neccessarily a scientist who is trained to do so.
An alim, plural ulema and feminine Alimah means essentially an Islamic Scholar. In its narrow sense it refers to scholars of Islamic Jurispudence (fiqh); they are known as mufti (interpretation of sharia), qadi (*enforcement of sharia), or faqih. in the broader sense it refers to those who have studied a broad range of essentially islamic disciplines for several years, for example the hadith for example the muhaddith.
They represent the Ijmah, or Islamic consensus of the Ummah on religous issues; this does not mean that there can be no disputes - far from it - but they should be aware of what counts as the main consensual opinion, of other dissenting views and their objections.
The Ulema in its broadest sense are seen what in the Western world are called intellectuals. In the early Islam, similar intellectuals were known as mufessir, muhaddis and mutekellim; It was only with the rise of the Ottoman Empire that the term ulema (derived from the ilm - knowledge) become widely adopted. It was
applied as a common term for those scholars who completed their madrasa training, gained an icazet (graduation degree), and took responsibilities in law, education, primary religious services and occasionally in bureaucracy or devoted themselves personally to community services in the Ottoman polity.
Or do they just need to be interested in Islam and study the deen?
Its not enough to be interested in Islam - for example there are Scholars and historians who are interested in Islam but are remain attached to their own faith - for example Henry Corbin, who was a Catholic but who was admired for his knowledge and understanding of Islam by the Islamic Philosopher, Seyyid Nasr.
There is a tradition of Ulema that are self-taught; and thus this is also possible; and to be encouraged.
In the Arabic language, an Alim is someone who has knowledge about a certain matter.
It doesn't mean scholar in English nor does a person need to be an expert in any field in order to be called an Alim in the Arabic language.
A person who has some knowledge about mechanics is an Alim of mechanics, a person who has knowledge about medicine is an Alim of medicine etc... It can be applied to anyone linguistically.
Now when it comes to Islam, Allah clearly tells us who's an Alim. In Surah Fatir 35:28, Allah says =
"...Indeed those (who) fear Allah from among His slaves have knowledge (ulema)..."
Notice Allah doesn't say Ulema fear Allah. He said "indeed those (who) fear Allah..." Innamaa yakhshaAllaha
Ulema is the plural of Alim. So Allah is saying that in order to be from the Ulema, we have to =
1) Fear Allah 2) Be from his servants.
Whoever has fulfilled these two criteria are from the knowledgeable or Ulema.
It makes no difference how much Quran you have memorized or how many hadiths you know. In Islam, fear of Allah is what matters.
There's no such thing as an Alim course nor should we go around calling people Alim.
Only Allah knows who truly are Ulema because fear of Allah is in the heart.
An excellent question with some excellent answers. I only want to address the implication that the claim of being Alim/Alima from self-education rather than a more "peer-reviewed" setting such as an accredited university of course can be of equal value. As with any knowledge, peer review is an essential component in verifying the quality of one's knowledge. To add this element to one who is self-taught, it's important to share and discuss one's knowledge and ideas with others who also have knowledge in order to confirm its value and contribution.
If, for example, a Muslim studied the Quran every day but without discussing this with anyone, especially without a deep understanding of the Arabic language, his knowledge would not qualify him as an Alim. It is rather the sharing and discussion of what he has learned or thought, hopefully refining what he learned on his own, that could help him reach the point of being an Alim. And this is a perennially ongoing process. From Surat Yusuf 12:76: "We raise in degrees whom We will, but over every possessor of knowledge is one [more] knowledgeable."
(The last relevant part of the aya only quoted.)
Most true Muslim scholars, out of humility and reverence for Allah and deen al-Islam, do not claim to be Alim(a) as a title, knowing how much knowledge they have yet to obtain.