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Religious Authorities in Islam

The figures who speak for Muslims

Michele Brignone | 03 April 2017
The leaders of the Egyptian religious establishment

It is often said that Islam has no religious authority. The truth is, the figures having this role are numerous, but they are poorly institutionalized and, above all, are not organized hierarchically. This is also demonstrated by the many terms that are used to define the religious experts (Ulamas, imams, sheikh…). This guide aims to give some clarity on the topic.

Imām: Literally “guide”, he is the head of the Islamic community. Historically, it is the oldest term used by Muslims to designate Muhammad’s first successors, along with amīr al-mu’minīn (“commander of the faithful”), a title which the king of Morocco still uses.

Within a Sunni context, this term became synonymous to caliph, which ended up being used more prevalently. According to the classic definition of the jurist Abū l-Hasan al-Māwardī (d. 1058) “the Imamate is established to succeed prophethood as a means of safeguarding religion and managing worldly affairs”. The imām must therefore preserve the religious message revealed to Muhammad and oversee the administration of the community. The tasks that the Sunni jurists appoint to him include administration of justice, fortification of the borders, conducting the jihad against Islam’s opponents, collecting the loot and appointing governors for the provinces. Theoretically, in order to legitimately assume the role of imām, one must be invested by the community through its representatives, since no one can claim an inherent right to the imamate. The candidate also cannot have any physical defect, he has to be fair, have the necessary expertise to interpret the law, have the skills needed to govern, must be equipped with strength and courage to lead the jihad and must also belong to the Quraysh tribe, from which Muhammad came too. Actually, very often jurists had to waive one or more of these criteria. For this reason, Muslims believe that after the era of the first four caliphs, called “rightly-guided”, and with a few other exceptions, the imamate ended up degenerating, becoming a mere monarchical power (mulk). Moreover, since the tenth century, the real power has no longer been exercised by the imām, but by sultans and emirs (military commanders). For this reason too, in the Sunni world, the authority ends up shifting from the figure of the caliph/imām to the community as a whole, and in particular to those who hold religious knowledge, the ‘ulama’. By the way, it is likely that the first imāms/caliphs had wider and more deeply religious prerogatives than the ones theorized by the ‘ulamā’, who reasoned on the Abbasid caliphate’s model (VIII-XIII century).
In more general terms, for the Sunnis imām is also whoever leads prayer. The term is also used as a title of honor for some very authoritative ‘ulamā’, for instance the founders of the four recognized law schools.

The situation is different among the Shiites, for whom the imām is not only the temporal leader of the community, but he also holds a religious charisma, which makes him the living and infallible interpreter of revelation, often taking a metaphysical dimension (“Imām of light”). Moreover, according to Shiites, the imamate is not conferred by nomination, but it is the prerogative of Muhammad’s descendants, starting from his cousin and son-in-law, ‘Alī. Shia Islam itself is divided into several streams, each with its own chain of imāms. According to the Twelver Shia (Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia), which represents the majority group, twelve imāms succeeded Muhammad. The last of them would have been concealed in 874 A.D. and will return at the end of time to restore justice. According to Ismaili Shia, the seventh imam, whom they identified in Isma‘il ibn Ja‘far, inaugurates a new prophetic cycle that transcends historical religions. According to Zaydis, now especially widespread in Yemen, the imām is not infallible and can be chosen from any descendant of ‘Ali, through his two sons Hasan and Husayn.

Caliph: Literally “successor, vicar”, it is synonymous to imām as leader of the community for the Sunnis. In the Qur’anic verses where the term is used (2,20 and 38,26), the caliph (khalīfa in Arabic) refers to Adam and David, in both cases as vicars of God on earth. Some among the first caliphs understood their function in this very sense. However, according to the ‘ulamā’, the term is to be understood exclusively in the sense of khalīfat rasūl Allāh, “vicar of God’s Messenger” (and not “vicar of God”), meaning temporal leader of the community, with no particular religious charisma. In modern times, the caliphate has come to designate the political project of a universal Islamic state, based on the application of sharī‘a.

‘Ālim (pl. ‘Ulamā’): Literally “the one who knows”, the wise one. The term refers to religious sciences scholars: theology, Quranic exegesis, hadīth (prophetic sayings) and especially law (fiqh). It is this knowledge, combined with personal piety, that confers to the ‘ulamā’ special authority as guardians and interpreters of the religious tradition. One of Muhammad’s sayings makes them the “inheritors of the prophets”. However, they are not an institutionalized body, although historically they show a strong group identity. In the early centuries of Islam, they were organized independently from any political power, although many of them took on official roles at court or in the administration. However, their prestige was also based on the critical distance they could maintain from the rulers. In the Ottoman Empire, they were integrated within the administration and given a hierarchical structure, on top of which was the Sheikh al-Islam (in Turkish Şeyhülislam), who had the task of presiding over the Empire’s religious administration. The incorporation of the ‘ulamā’ and their administrative organization within state structures still remains in many modern and contemporary Muslim countries. Also, in the modern era the authority of the ‘ulamā’ has been challenged by the presence of new Muslim intellectuals, both of Islamist and modernist orientation, who have often criticized the religious scholars for their excessive proximity to political power and their inability to renew traditional knowledge in order to fit the needs of modern life. However, although transformed, the role of the ‘ulamā’ has not disappeared. In recent decades, many of them have given life to new associations and institutions, often of a transnational nature, such as the International Union of Muslim Scholars (founded and chaired by Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi), or the Muslim Council of Elders (chaired by Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, grand imam of al-Azhar).

Sheikh: It literally means “old”, “elderly” and it is the title with which tribal authorities are designated in the Arabic world.
In the context of Sufi spirituality, the sheikh is the master of a mystical path. The one who plays this role is also sometimes called murshid (guide). Historically, many ‘ulamā’ were also Sufi sheikhs, which helped them increase their religious and social prestige. In Persian language Islam, the equivalent of sheikh is pīr.
More generally, sheikh is also the title with which one addresses an ‘ālim, in particular if he plays an institutional role, as Sheikh al-Azhar, the guide of Cairo’s important scholarly center, or, in the Ottoman Empire, Şeyhülislam (see above, ‘ālim).

Faqīh: He is an ‘ālim who is expert of fiqh, i.e. law. The faqīh who is especially well versed in his science can be a mujtahid, that is, he can practice ijtihād, the interpretative effort based on personal reasoning by which, in the absence of an explicit provision contained in the Qur’an or in the prophetic tradition, the jurist expresses an opinion or makes a judgment. The jurist who, instead, follows the opinion of another scholar without resorting to personal reasoning is a muqallid, that is, one who practices taqlīd, imitation.

Qādī: Is the judge. In pre-modern times, qādī was the one who applied religious law and therefore had to be an ‘ālim. As an official representative, the qādī theoretically was a delegate of the caliph, the original holder of all the powers of the Muslim community. At the apex of the judicial structure of the state was the Qādī al-qudāt (“the judge of the judges”), who presided over the administration of justice. With the end of the Abbasid Caliphate and the political fragmentation of the Muslim community, every kingdom or sultanate established his own Qādī al-qudāt, an institution that was adopted by the Ottoman Empire too. In modern times, with the downsizing of the religious jurisdiction in favor of civil courts, the functions of the religious qādī have been greatly reduced.

Muftī: Is an ‘ālim who can issue fatwas, i.e. legal opinions on specific points of law. The most authoritative muftīs played an important role in the formation of Islamic law, because the collections of their fatwas were used as law manuals. According to the classical doctrine, in order to exercise the muftī function, one must be gifted with personal integrity and with the knowledge necessary to practice ijtihād, ie. the ability to reach a solution to a particular juridical problem by exercising personal reasoning. As early as the seventh century, muftīs were integrated into the state’s structure, which was designating qualified jurists to carry out this task. In the Ottoman Empire too, the function of muftī was institutionalized and entrusted to the highest offices of the religious structure. In modern and contemporary times, many states have an official muftī. In these cases, very often the muftī is not confined to provide legal opinions, but he is the highest religious dignitary of the state. A recent phenomenon is that of the issuing of fatwa by institutions independent from the states, such as the European Council for Fatwa, or by specialized websites.

Minister of Awqāf: He is a figure born in modern times, when the Awqāf, i.e. pious foundations, were confiscated by the states, which have thus taken over the administration of a vast network of mosques and teaching centers previously run autonomously. The Minister of Awqāf therefore serves as Minister of Religious Affairs. Rather than a real authority in himself, he is a high official, which nevertheless governs the operation of a consistent structure of institutions and religious personnel.

Khatīb: In pre-Islamic Arabia, he was the one in the tribe who spoke with authority. With the advent of Islam, he has remained a figure that will appeal to Muslims authoritatively. He is in fact the one who proclaims the khutba (sermon) during communal prayer on Fridays and on other special occasions, such as during the month of Ramadan.

Dāʿī: Literally “the one who invites” (to the faith), the preacher. Historically, it has referred to the major propagandists of dissident Muslim groups, particularly in a Shiite environment. Among the Ismailis, the Dāʿī were the representatives of the imām and formed a real religious hierarchy. It is from the preaching of some of them that different movements and sects were born, such as, in the Middle East, the Druze and Alawites (formerly known as nusayrī).
More recently the term Da‘i (or the equivalent dā‘iyya) is used in a more general sense, even in a Sunni environment, to indicate the preachers who, through satellite television and the new media are creating a new Islamic internationalism. Some of these preachers are also ‘ulamā’, but often the two figures do not coincide, a sign that the traditional religious knowledge is no longer the only source of authority. Among the first and most well-known protagonists of this new form of religious communication is Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi. Today, these preachers have multiplied and have become extremely popular.

Mullah: A term deriving from the Arabic mawlā ( “lord, guardian”), in the Turkish-Iranian world is the equivalent of the ‘ālim, but can have an even more general meaning and indicate any figure who holds a religious knowledge or charism (for example, the famous mystic Rūmī is known as Mawlā-nā, “our mawlā”). In the Shia religious hierarchy, it indicates a low-ranking scholar, i.e. lacking the title of mujtahid (interpreter).

Marjaʿ al-taqlīd (“source of imitation”): In a Twelver Shi’a environment, he is a scholar who is a model to be emulated for virtue and wisdom. The figure of Marjaʿ al-taqlīd has been established relatively recently (mid-nineteenth century), but has its roots in the dispute on the practice of ijtihād (the effort of interpretation) and the role of the mujtahid (jurist entitled to practice the ijtihād). This dispute originated at the time of the concealment of the twelfth imām, in the ninth century, when the faithful faced the problem of how to practice their faith in the absence of the supreme leader, who was also the living interpreter of revelation.
According to some, the contents of the Shari’a are defined by the imāms’ traditions. According to others, the rules of Shari'a can also be derived through the interpretive effort of some particularly qualified ‘ulamā’, which partially fill the void left by the imām.
In the nineteenth century, the institutionalization of the Marja‘iyya inaugurates the obligation for the common faithful to follow the teachings of a mujtahid, imitating his conduct. The mujtahid receives the title of Āyatollāh (literally “sign of God”). For about a century, the dignity of Marjaʿ al-taqlīd is concentrated in one person, the most eminent among the mujtahid. At the death of Ayatollah Burūjirdī in 1961, the Marja‘iyya has been fragmented into different personalities, each linked to a particular teaching center (Qom, Najaf, Mashhad, Tehran), while minor mujtahid are also recognized as Marja‘. In addition, with the rise of Khomeini and the Iranian revolution, the Marja‘ has assumed a clear political dimension, so that in the Islamic Republic of Iran the figure of the Supreme Leader is created. From this moment the various marja‘ are also distinguished by the position they assume with respect to the Khomeinian turn and the doctrine of wilāyat al-faqīh, according to which, in absence of the imām, the jurist (faqīh) claims for himself the political prerogatives, thus anticipating the eschatological age.

[This article was translated from the original in Italian]

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