Categorised | Columns, Commentary

Islamic authorities in crisis?

WHEN the National Fatwa Council issued two successive fatwas in late 2008 banning tomboys and yoga, outcry from the Malaysian public was palpable. Tomboys sneered, youth collectives protested, and Muslim yoga practitioners posed in defence.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the National Fatwa Council, and even Inspector General of Police (IGP) Tan Sri Musa Hassan all took it upon themselves to defend Islam. The underlying message behind their responses was unanimous — do not challenge the Islamic authorities. The irony that the minister and the IGP were themselves not Islamic religious authorities was lost on them.

Is there a crisis facing religious authorities in Islam?


Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (right) mingling at the MLT  (Pic courtesy of Asim Rehman)

I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting of the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT) in Doha, Qatar, from 16 to 19 Jan 2009. Organised by the American Society for Muslim Advancement (Asma), the meeting brought together more than 300 potential young Muslim leaders from the world.

One of the issues discussed at the conference was precisely whether there was a crisis in Islamic religious authority. The responses were not clear cut.

What constitutes authority?

The question of “authority” in Islam is interesting. Is the reference purely to religious authority, or also political authority, or is there no distinction between them in Islam?

Take for example the hudud debacle which erupted before the Kuala Terengganu by-election in January 2009. In this case, Umno’s Khairy Jamaluddin cornered PAS’s Datuk Husam Musa to advocate hudud legislation in Malaysia. Khairy’s own position was, he supported the current Barisan Nasional policy which does not include implementation of hudud.

But another politician, Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, however commented favourably on hudud.

Here’s the rub — neither Khairy, Husam, nor Anwar are religious authorities. They are politicians who have, to varying degrees, gained authority to speak on Islam in Malaysia.

That religious and political authority are often conflated in Muslim-majority nation states is a given, in a wide variety of circumstances. For example, Tunisia’s former Education Minister Mohamed Charfi writes in Islam and Liberty, “In Algeria, [...] under [Houari Boumedienne's] presidency, the imams of mosques received every Thursday the text of the sermon they had to deliver the following day before Friday prayers.” The imams were not allowed to change a single word.

Similar state regulations on Friday khutbahs exist in Malaysia.

Vulnerable Islamic authorities


The MLT logo (Pic courtesy of Asim Rehman)

Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi writes that this has been a recurring theme in Islamic history. Mernissi contends, however, that there was a clear distinction between who was a caliph, with political authority, and who was an imam, with religious authority.

The caliph could always also function as an imam, but the imam could not necessarily function as caliph. In fact, the imam sometimes played an oppositional role to the ruling caliph.

For example, Ibn Hanbal, after whom the Hanbali school of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam was named, was tortured by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mamun for taking a dissenting position on the nature of the Quran.

Imams were therefore vulnerable. In fact, as authoritarian as some caliphs were, even the institution of the caliphate was vulnerable. According to the Islamic conception of leadership, a caliph, or an imam, was only owed obedience if he (and it was overwhelmingly a “he”) was just.

In Islam and Democracy, Mernissi lists some of the various authorities in Islamic history who met with very violent ends. Consider this:

    The second caliph to succeed prophet Muhammad, Umar Ibn al-Khattab was stabbed to death in 644CE.

    Umar’s successor, Uthman Ibn Affan, was hacked to death with swords in 656CE.

    Uthman’s successor, Ali Ibn Abi Talib, was assassinated in 661CE by Islam’s first organised group of political terrorists, the Kharijites.

In other words, three out of four of the rightly-guided caliphs who succeeded Muhammad were killed, violently, by Muslims.

Contemporary Islamic authority

Mirroring the division in the Arab world over how to respond to the crisis in Gaza, the Doha MLT meeting I attended struggled with defining the role and responsibility of religious authority in Islam.


Plenary on new ideas and competing values; on screen: Scotland’s Osama Saeed (Pic courtesy of Osama Saeed)

Islamic scholar Yasir Qadhi from the US urged more Muslims to study the traditional Islamic sciences to become ulama in their own right.

Canadian scholar Seemi Bushra Ghazi, however, said that we miss important nuances in Islam’s conception of authority when we neglect artists, Sufism, and intellectuals.

UK rights advocate Nadeem Kazmi asserted that ordinary Muslims lose credibility when we do not challenge injustices and stupidity espoused by Islamic authorities. He referred specifically to the Saudi Arabian fatwa condoning marriage with girls as young as 10.

What was evident was also the divide between Muslims living in Western secular democracies, and Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries. Muslim journalists from Egypt, in particular, pointed out that Western Muslims at least had access to secular police, courts and legislatures to defend their fundamental liberties.

Egypt’s supposedly “secular”, “elected” regime, on the other hand, often uses an array of Islamic discourses, restrictive legislation, and excessive use of force to silence democratic, secular, and fundamentalist Islamist voices.

Evolution, not crisis


The relationship between the religious authority and
practicing Muslims is one of call-and-response

What was evident in observing the 300-odd Muslims at the Doha meeting is how the concept of “authority” is tied to several other terms and concepts which are muddy, at best, and emotionally contested, at worst. Positioning Islamic authority against such broad concepts as “Islamic law”, “secular state”, “Islamic state”, and “the West”, is reductive and unhelpful.

There are as many repressive “secular” governments as there are “Islamic” ones. There is also a lot of common ground between “Western” concepts of human rights and “Islamic” concepts of dignity and justice.

Besides, traditional structures of Islamic authority are being reshaped due to technological advancements. Blogs, YouTube, mobile devices — these are all used by Islamic authorities, both self-styled and official, and ordinary Muslims, to renegotiate and recast the discourse on Islam.

Perhaps a more useful way of looking at it is that religious authority in Islam is not in crisis, and it never has been — it has merely been evolving, and continues to.

Nahdatul Ulama’s Nur Hidayat says, “For example, you can test the relevance of the fatwas from Majlis Ulama Indonesia. If they are relevant to people’s lives, the majority will follow.”

If the fatwas do not make sense, or are perceived as too government-linked, the majority will disobey, and that will be the end of the fatwa’s legitimacy.

Thus, there is no actual crisis in Islamic religious authority, according to Nur Hidayat. Rather, the relationship between the religious authority and practicing Muslims is one of call-and-response.

Nevertheless, virtually all the participants at the Doha meeting appreciated Nur Hidayat’s charming disclaimer, “But I have no authority to talk about religious authority.”

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3 Responses to “Islamic authorities in crisis?”

  1. Karcy says:

    This is confusing. I was told by a Muslim apologist once that there are no “authorities” in Islam a la the Catholic church. That automatically nulls the very idea of having religious authorities — if you know your religion, you are an authority.

  2. Sabic says:

    Religion is a false creation of men. It is used to shackle the peoples’ mind and distort their potentials. Every religion keeps us from experiencing the reality of our oneness and teaches us of separation. What if something very important that religious men taught us about God is inaccurate? Do we have the courage to challenge and question them? Most people are not willing to unload the burden of their commitments of their religion to remove the chains that binds them.

    Most of us do not like to admit to having made any mistake, especially a mistake upon which our entire society is based. It seems easier to ignore the mistake than to recognise it and rebuild a society. Lets’ face it – our mistake is to acknowledge organised religions. Religious people are acting like gods on earth by telling others on how they should conduct a life in this world. They are in the true sense, God’s competitors. Allow me to quote from the Quran:

    “Say, if there were any other gods besides Him, as they claim, they would have competed with Him for authority.” (Quran 17 Verse 42)

    As far as God is concerned, He is the only authority in the heaven and on earth. He needs no one to represent Him on this earth in whatever brand names.

  3. NurulHuda says:

    So why do we need the fatwa council in the first place? They ban smoking. But look around you, people still smoke. They are not being charge by the syariah court. Why?


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