Maulana (Arabic script مولانا, alternative transcription mawlānā) is an Arabic word literally meaning "our lord" or "our master" (defined in the Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic as "a form of address to a sovereign").
It is used as a title, mostly in Central Asia and in the Indian subcontinent, preceding the name of respected Muslim religious leaders, in particular graduates of religious institutions, e.g. a madrassa or a darul uloom, or scholars who have studied under other Islamic scholars.
In Iran and Turkey the word normally refers to Rumi (Persian pronunciation Mowlana) (Turkish pronunciation "Mevlana").
This word has been borrowed into the Swahili language, where it is used also as a title of respect for revered members of a community, religious or secular, roughly equivalent to the English "Sir". In some circles it is used to refer to Ron Karenga, the Afro-American activist.
In the mostly Muslim region of West Africa, the root has been proposed as a source for the words Mallam (Hausa language) and Maame (Wolof language), which are used to denote Islamic scholars, or in areas practising folk Islam or folk magic, a local shaman. Among the Hausas the word "Mallam" is additionally used as equivalent of English "Mr". A more likely explanation for this word (and for the Swahili "mwalimu") is the Arabic word "mu'allim" (معلم), which in Moroccan Arabic is pronounced "m'allam." This word means teacher or "master" in a Qur'anic school.
(See also Marabout.)
In the Central Asian and South Asian (Indian Subcontinent) context, where "Mullah" does not carry a formal sense, Maulana is often the word of choice for addressing or referring to Muslim religious scholars that are respected, while Mullah is used often derogatorily for people the speaker considers to be more rabble-rousers than scholars.
Although the words Maulvi and Maulana are interchanged in the Indian Subcontinent as a title of respect, Maulana is more often associated with formal qualification following study at a Madrassa or Darul Uloom and Maulvi is usually more a general title for religious figures. In Bangladesh, in the government Aliyah madrassa system, Maulvi is also associated with formal degrees for those who have passed the course of Maulvi (basic), Maulvi Alim (intermediate) or Maulvi Fazil (advanced).
In past, some people have objected to the use of 'Maula' and hence 'Maulana' as a title referring to humans, believing that 'Maula' should exclusively be used to refer to God.
Shia and Sunnis of India & Pakistan who also very often use the title, reject this objection on two grounds. First, Maula is not a name of God. Second, they cite a hadith of the prophet: "Man kuntu maulah fa haza Aliyyun Maulah" (Ali is a Maula of whom I am a Maula). So it can be used for a human being.
Surat Al-Baqarah of the Qur'an ends with the ayah or verse containing: "Anta maulana fansurnaa 'alal kawm al kafireen" (Al-Baqarah:286) This verse is used as part of Du'a or supplication by Muslims. When a Muslim says this they are calling Allah their maulana. Many Muslims believe that because this ayah has us stating that Allah is our maulana, that turning around and saying anyone else is our maulana is an attempt to elevate that person to Allah's level.
A rebuttal to this argument is that it's narrated in the Quran that Yusuf said 'innahu rabbi', in verse 23 of surah 12, meaning 'he is my lord' to refer to Aziz who was a protector for him. Of course, Yusuf was not equating Aziz's status with that of God's, and in the same light, one does not equate the status of a maulana with that of God's by using the title maulana. Furthermore it is stated in the Qur'an that the righteous amongst the Believers can be called Maula. "If ye two turn in repentance to Him, your hearts are indeed so inclined; but if ye back up each other against him, truly Allah is his Protector(Maula), and Gabriel, and (every) righteous one among those who believe― and furthermore, the angels― will back (him) up." Surah At-Tahrim (66:4)