Religious authority, state power and revolutions


Current events in Egypt, Syria and Tunisia – and before that in Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey – point to a great struggle between religious authorities and state powers. At play are various claimants to religious authority; states in pre- and post-colonial and pre- and post-nationalist periods; and the role of religious authorities in existing monarchies. The current back-and-forth arguments and personal attacks among religious scholars is a symptom of a bigger problem, the eroding stature, authority and role(Ar) of religious leaders across the board.

The scholars, despite being included, and contributing to unfolding events, have collectively been dragged into the political arena, an area they are ill-prepared or ill-qualified to respond to in clear and meaningful ways. And referencing classical texts only complicates the matter – for it brings history into the contemporary struggle without the prerequisite knowledge needed to examine the past. In this manner, the past becomes a tool for asserting claims to the contemporary.

The current conflicts and competing fatwas from Sunni religious authorities in response to events in Egypt and Syria, point to a deeper problem, the clear intellectual and institutional fragmentation witnessed among scholars (Ar) at the highest levels. 

What is clear is the loss of authority. Unfolding events are shaping the overall discourse with scholars of all stripes following and not leading. What is the role of the scholars? Should they give support to the removal of an elected president? Who can determine the public benefit? Does the role of a government-appointed mufti impact or diminish their fatwa? Who are the legitimate scholars and does a government appointment negate the validity of a legal opinion?

Decline of Sunni religious authority

These questions and many more are very critical, and if anything, point to the major crisis affecting the Sunni scholarly community, which stands in complete disarray and is incapable to respond effectively. This might be a new phenomenon to casual observers, but a closer look points to a steady decline in the scholars’ religious authority and its supplanting, early on, by the colonial state. The scholars’ authority was curtailed during the colonial period and confined into two spheres, personal status laws and inheritance laws. The consequence was a structural dumbing-down and fossilisation of the laws and those involved in it.

At the same time, in monarchies, a particular form of institutionalised religious traditionalism was constituted as a way to extend to the throne a form of religious legitimacy, while structurally keeping the scholars away from centres of power and influence.

Law is a by-product of social, political, economic and cultural imperatives, and legal opinions are issued when a real case emerges out of the interaction of the forces shaping society. Thus, Sunni legal prohibition on revolting against legal authority emerged in response to Othman’s and Ali’s tribulations – that witnessed a prolonged civil war and its historical legacy continues to choke much of the Muslim community to the present. However, what is significant is that the legal prohibition against revolting came after the fact and in an attempt to prevent future crises.

The prohibition and the logic behind it were very sound, and it was successful in maintaining social order as long as the authority of the scholars was intact and the state delegated to them dominion over the law and its articulation. The division of authority was upheld for the most part, with minor periods of disruption, until the early 19th century – but it completely collapsed in the 20th century. The loss of religious authority was complicated by the collapse of the Ottomans and the coming to an end of the classical and pre-modern conceptualisation of Islamic polity and the ushering-in of modern nation states in the Muslim world.

Many factors led to the demise of the scholars’ authority, but what is important is the emergence of contending religious forces, trends and non-state actors competing to fill the gap and reconstitute this lost authority.

Emergence of non-traditional actors

In the colonial states, tribal courts – very narrowly tailored forms of religious authority – were formed to control, confine and dominate. They were sanctioned so as to establish the superiority of “western” epistemology over that of backward, undynamic, and traditional Islamic legal norms, as well as making it possible for the colonisation project to advance without indigenous legal contestation. This structure gave birth to a particular form of institutionalised post-colonial religious authority that accepted the basic framework and legal demarcation without any challenge. This colonial epistemology was retained in the post-colonial period.

Other parts of the Muslim world responded by reconstituting authority by means of Sufism and utilising it as a means for the preservation of collective identity, as well as deploying its existing networks in challenging and resisting colonial expansion. In many parts of the Muslim world, Sufi tariqas were instrumental in the anti-colonial struggle and managed to preserve a particular notion of religious authority – even though it increasingly took on a more ceremonial outlook.

Yet other attempts at reconstituting authority focused on the reinterpretation of existing sources, and finding the problem of what was described at the time as blind imitation, and the inability of “traditional” scholars to deal with the emerging challenges confronting society. This movement gave birth to the Brotherhood, Jamaat-e-Islami and Tanzeem-e-Islami as a non-literalist modernist response, while, on the other end, the Salafi of the Wahhabi origins are modernist literalist in their approach. In both cases, it was an attempt at constituting the lost scholarly authority and its historical role in a partnership in running state affairs.

Modern nation states and religious authority

The modern nation states in the Muslim world have utilised the above forces, laying claim to religious authority at various times to bolster their own legitimacy – and in the process helping, on the one hand, to constitute a particular authority meeting its needs, while on the other, increasing the level of fragmentation and loss of real scholarly power.

In this sense, religious authority becomes a function of the modern nation state and is established as a national entity on a basis of national interest. The confiscation and removal of awqaf (religious endowments) as an independent funding source for scholars, and incorporating it into the centralised state budgetary process transformed the relationship between scholars and the state and their socio-political and economic status. In a short period of time, scholars, as a class, were transformed from elite role models, on a socio-economic basis, into an impoverished collective struggling for rations at the doorsteps of state welfare institutions or ministries of religious affairs. Furthermore, as resources diminished into a trickle, the resources in many centres became so lacking that the scholars were reduced to teaching a selection of texts intended to preserve and protect; rather than to educate, explore and think critically.

The calls for separating mosque and state have increased – but current events in the Muslim world have led to more explicit and stronger links between the two than was present just a few years back. As Shaykh Al-Azhar expressed his support for the ousting of President Morsi, what emerged was a wider debate on scholars’ authority and their role in contemporary political discourse. In critiquing the Brotherhood’s utilisation of Islam in the political space, the participation of Al-Azhar’s sheikh and the Coptic leadership only complicates the relationship between state and religion as well as the authority accrued from it.

More importantly, as the state engaged in suppressing opposition to the removal of the president, a further deployment of religious authority was needed to rationalise the taking of human lives – since state power was not sufficient to provide legitimacy.In doing so, the state once again reconstituted religious authority to support its programme, and at the same time furthered the fragmentation of religious authority beyond the fractured nature observed just a year ago.

The problem faced by some Sunni Muslims is rooted in the loss of scholarly authority and religious coherence at a very critical period in the history of the Muslim world. As scholars resort to soundbite debates on TV satellite networks, or from the top of moving trucks in demonstrations, the end result is a diminishment of the meaning of religion itself.

Religious scholars are the heirs of the prophets, and as they sink into the mud of political conflicts they will cause many to lose sight of the purpose and meaning contained in Islam as a living tradition. And if those looked upon to guide stand in disarray, then the future looks very bleak indeed.