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Islam’s Crisis of Authority

Will Islam find and acknowledge a legitimate authority for the present day?

February 7, 2006

Will Islam find and acknowledge a legitimate authority for the present day?

The imam of the local mosque is the last word for many, but others follow the advice they glean from pamphlets, magazines, radio preachers and Internet sites.

For everyone who heeds the prescriptions of a government-appointed dignitary, there is someone else who considers all dignitaries sell outs to the regime.

Group gurus tell their followers what to think, while noted intellectuals cast aspersions on all groups and sects.

Resolving this crisis of authority will take several generations. After all, socio-religious developments tend to play out over decades and centuries.

From the death of the Prophet onward, Muslims who wanted to know what was expected of them religiously did not look to the government. They followed instead the practices of their local community as transmitted from generation to generation in written or oral form.

Alternatively, they sought pastoral instruction from religious scholars and saintly individuals. Sometimes, these were government officials — but usually not. In most times and places, the prevailing political institutions had little interest in or control over these sources of guidance.

Diversity exists in every religious tradition, but diversity has been particularly pronounced in Islam. This does not mean, however, that individual Muslims necessarily consider their faith to be marked by great diversity.

To the contrary, uncertainty about what is authoritative can foster a tenacious adherence to practices and beliefs that specific communities consider to be the truest version of Islam. When there is no church acting as guardian of the faith, after all, the duty falls to the individual believer.

In the past, lack of contact between the Islam of the law courts and seminaries and edge communities in various regions resulted in some communities becoming strongly devoted to interpretations of Islam that differed a great deal from the legalistic norm.

Two things separate the edges of today from those of the past: The speed and ease of communication and the disappearance or devaluation of institutions conferring of religious authority.

For the first time in history, Muslims from every land and condition — a preacher in Harlem, a terrorist in Mombasa, a political party leader in Kuala Lumpur, a feminist in Marrakesh — can access a worldwide audience as easily as traditional authorities like a Shaikh al-Azhar in Cairo, an ayatollah in Najaf or a royally appointed mufti in Riyadh.

Moreover, the devaluation of the old authorities by the modernizing regimes of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the creation of mass youth literacy by these same governments, have led many Muslims on the edge to believe that they are free to choose whatever brand of Islam best suits their circumstances.

Of course, Muslims of conservative bent still declare that Islam can only be authoritatively defined by officially empowered qadis, muftis and ulama.

But others contend that Islam is whatever they and their friends believe it to be on the basis of the teachings of the person whose writings, audiotapes and videotapes they find most convincing.

The resolution of this crisis of authority will depend less on ideas than on institutions, and in particular on institutions that convince large segments of the Muslim community that a semblance of spiritual order has returned.

A free market in religious belief is a mixed blessing. At best, at a time when war clouds are gathering, voices of religious hatred are gaining a hearing, and millions of Muslims are struggling to raise their families in countries that are sinking deeper and deeper into poverty and disorder.

People who turn to religion for spiritual and moral sustenance, and for the comfort that comes from living within a caring and supportive religious community, prefer assurance to debate in the delineation of the right path. At the present moment, the paths are many, but assurance based on recognized authority is in short supply.

Though some students of the Islamic Republic of Iran consider its effort to combine religion with government an abject failure, others consider it a fascinating experiment in implementing democracy in an Islamic religious state.

Most would agree that constitution writers boldly came to grips with the problem of institutionalizing religious authority in the person of the “governing religious jurist,” otherwise known as yali faqih. To date, no parallel has emerged in the Sunni world.

The widespread loss of trust in the old authorities and their institutions has resulted in hundreds of acts of ijtihad embodied in fatwas, otherwise known as legal opinions, or less formal declarations, but no way of telling which of them should be followed.

Moreover, many of these new pronouncements have been made by individuals whose religious credentials would have been laughed at in the 18th century. Thus, ordinary Muslims are understandably uncertain as to where true authority lies.

Judging from history, Sunni Islam will surely not continue indefinitely under the current radical breakdown in its structure of authority. The issues are clear for both Sunnis and Shi’ites: New ways must be found to credential and empower religious authorities. Ordinary believers must he persuaded to follow the decisions of those authorities.

And people with inadequate credentials must be accorded a lesser standing. Getting ordinary Muslims to accept a new authority structure, however, will depend on whether that structure is responsive to today’s moral, political and social problems.