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Religion and Society

Muslim Authority meets Europe. And Changes

The state of Islamic leadership on the Continent has been described as a “deafening cacophony of voices.” For decades, the various countries’ institutions have been struggling to find interlocutors from amongst an ever-increasing number of organized mosques, religious associations and imams who are either self-taught or tied to foreign nations. Whilst the European authorities find the top-level fragmentation problematic, it is nevertheless a resource for its actors

It is often said that Islam, and Sunni Islam in particular, has no central religious authority. Whilst accepting that figures of authority do exist in Islam, sociologists, anthropologists and Islamicists would all agree with this statement. Hence the thorny and increasingly relevant issue, for governments and local authorities, of identifying partners with whom to interact at an institutional level. If some go so far as to totally deny the existence of a religious authority in Islam, the authors of L’autorité religieuse et ses limites en terres d’Islam have maintained more recently that we are facing a “deafening cacophony of authority-claiming voices.” 

Two phenomena should be noted in this connection: authorization and fragmentation. Authorization indicates the process by which communities, states or groups authorize a person or body to act as a religious authority. Whilst the majority of Muslim states implement and more or less control processes of religious authorization, the Islam existing in Europe finds it hard to construct something similar or else proceeds in this direction only slowly and with difficulty. Authorization does not exclude a plurality of authorities, on the other hand. Fragmentation is often perceived to be as necessary to the Sunni framework as it is to the Shi‘ite one. It is for precisely this reason and as a result of this plurality and fragmentation that there is conflict between the various actors in the field of authority. As in all cultural and social dynamics, there are tensions, realignments, clashes and reciprocal acts of consolidation. [...]

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