The state of Islamic leadership on the Continent has been described as a “deafening cacophony of voices.”

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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,[1] 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.”[2]


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.


The fragmented state of religious authority in Islam is particularly evident in Europe. As the debate about the training of Muslim leaders in France and Belgium demonstrates, the authority issue raises three questions: Who will train them? What authority will they have to do this? And who will guarantee the authority of the leaders thus trained? These questions will define the boundary-lines of contemporary Islam’s authority. As we will see, its fragmentation may be an advantage for aspiring leaders.



Shareholders and Stakeholders


In order adequately to capture the traits of the Muslim figures of authority, I would like to distinguish the “shareholders” (i.e. those traditionally vested with authority – imams and theologians) from the “stakeholders” (i.e. the managers, militants etc.).[3] Indeed, I consider it necessary to rethink the influence each category is having on the field of authority, especially as regards the stakeholders or new forms of authority.[4] The stakeholder theory – particularly as formulated by Donna E. Ray – permits a reconsideration of the part the non-traditional leaders are playing in the field of Muslim authority. It seems to me that this field of authority is a process in which the stakeholders are playing a role equal to that of the shareholders, if not actually more important; the field of Muslim authority is constantly shifting and, within it, the managers, the militants, the masters, the intellectuals and the experts are all competing with the imams and the theologians and/or collaborating with them.


Let us now look at the various actors’ roles more closely. The jurist-theologians accord themselves the role of “temple guardians”: they dispense fatwas and intervene in relation to ethical and theological questions touching the personal or collective life of Muslims. Taher Tujgani, in Belgium, and Zakaria Seddiki, in France, are examples of this theologian figure. The imams have a more technical function: they lead the prayers and preach. They can be automatons or autonomous imams with a religious knowledge that sets them apart from the rest of the community and, at times, from their competitors by virtue of their charisma and ability to negotiate between a community and the state (e.g. Franck Hensch). They can sometimes even be dissidents, adopting radical tones that bring them into conflict with the state or society (Sheikh Alami in Belgium, for example).


The stakeholders are more numerous. In the first place, there are the managers. These are currently assuming the function of organizer and theologian’s assistant. They protect the theologians’ aura and pronouncements and, at the same time, manipulate them. The Muslim Executive of Belgium (founded in 1994) is one example. Competing and/or collaborating with the activists, the managers may benefit from support in the embassies (e.g. Morocco, Algeria and Turkey). They control the theologians, the imams, the halal industry and education.


In these last two sectors, the activists assert the legitimacy of the action and compete with the managers. The activists can be divided into moderates and radicals. The former have free access to the public space and have received endorsement from the state and some of the political parties: the Muslim Brothers and the Islamic association, Millî Görüş, are examples of activists considered to be moderate. They operate in the contexts of youth and student organizations, Islamic feminism, the fight against Islamophobia, parallel education and charitable activities. The radical activists, on the other hand, are represented by the Salafis.



The Role of the Intellectuals


The fifth figure of authority is the Muslim intellectual. Here there is a need to distinguish between “insider” and “outsider” intellectuals. The former act from within the community, reinforcing its communalist and identity-based claims. Tariq Ramadan and Michaël Privot fall into this category. “Outsider” intellectuals do not share these claims. They go against the flow, proposing a liberal or secularized Islam. One may think of Chemsi Cheref-Khan in Belgium, or Malek Chebel, Fethi Benslama and Ghaleb Bencheikh in France.


The sixth figure of authority is the Sufi master. The Sufi way – as found in the Qadirriyya Boutchichiyya order operating in Brussels, Paris and Meddagh – asserts a spiritual legitimacy. This is the case with Sidi Lahcen Esdar, a master of this Moroccan spiritual way in Brussels.[5] The Sufis dedicate themselves to spirituality, music and religious education.


The list of Sunni authorities ends with the expert (also referred to as an Islamicist), who asserts a (frequently technical) religious competence. It is usually the figure of the Islamicist who intervenes with regard to the issue of radicalization, for example. It is sometimes difficult to draw the boundary-lines between the experts, the theologians and the intellectuals. Two types of expert can be identified: the critic-expert, who claims a religious knowledge in order to deconstruct the myths and Islamic ideologies (Rachid Benzine, in France, for example), and the lawyer-expert, engaged in constructing Islam’s apologia (Éric Geoffroy, for example). These different profiles oscillate between a discursive authority, the legitimacy of which is based on religious knowledge, and an activist authority that seeks legitimation through action.



Discursive Authority: Religious Knowledge and Capital


The question of authority in Islam does not only concern religious knowledge in the strict sense of the word. It also concerns a discursive legitimacy or, rather, the capacity – with the aid of a network and resources – to transform the study of certain texts (often compendia of a hundred or so pages) into a sanctified heritage (‘ilm). The authorization granted by sheikhs or colleagues (sometimes without any transparency) is more important than the number of texts studied, a mastery of the subject, a spirit of enquiry or the quality of the “scholar’s” memory.[6]


In Europe, the issue of religious knowledge is a huge one and its “interference” with discursive legitimacy can be detected immediately. Take the Salafi site, for example, which bears the title “3ilm char3i – The legislated knowledge taken from the Qur’an and the Sunna according to the understanding of our pious forebears.”[7] The site is particularly popular amongst the Madkhali Salafis,[8] who are pietistic traditionists, obedient to the Saudi state, anti-Islamist and against Jihadism. The site divides the “scholars” into two camps: those to be imitated (i.e. the Saudi traditionist circles) and those to be avoided (i.e. the ones the site warns against, including the political and jihadist Salafis, the independent Salafis, the Muslim Brothers, those following Sufism or the Tablīgh[9], the imam Rachid Abou Houdeyfa, Hassan Iquioussen [a member of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF)], Tariq Ramadan, ISIS, al-Qaeda and Shia Islam...) The warning is partly explained by the moral economy of legitimacy: the site attempts to devalue the capital value of rival authorities in order to eliminate the competition or at least weaken it.



Competing Forms of Knowledge


Three types of religious knowledge are contending for discursive authority in the Islamic field: knowledge acquired in the non-Islamic universities in France and Belgium and particularly in the departments of Arabic or Classical Islamic Studies; knowledge acquired in the Islamic Universities in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt etc.; and knowledge acquired in informal Islamic circles.


The knowledge acquired in the non-Islamic universities makes it possible to claim legitimacy as an Islamicist, a manager, an intellectual or a teacher. Such legitimacy remains limited, however, by virtue of the approach to learning taken in these non-Islamic places, where textual criticism is preferred to memorization or a mastery of religious rhetoric, secular networks are developed and the historical, philological and humanistic approaches are given pride of place. Michaël Privot is an example of this legitimacy: with a PhD in Modern Languages and Literature from the University of Liège, he defended a doctoral thesis entitled Al-Shahrazūrī’s Kitāb al-Rumūz: an Illuminationist Work? in 2007. By choosing Illuminationist mysticism (ishrāqī), Privot is automatically putting himself on the fringes of a field that is centred on traditional forms of knowledge.


Other young people will seek to make up for this legitimacy deficit by travelling and studying in Islamic universities or faculties, at al-Azhar in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia[10] or in Morocco. In this moral economy, the act of going to the sources is significant: young people are seeking the most “original” or “purest” product to sell in Europe. The travelling in itself devalues the training acquired in Belgium or France. Those who content themselves with the knowledge acquired at the European Institute for Human Science in France also fall into this category.


The third form of knowledge, acquired amongst traditionist or other Islamic circles, is certainly less prestigious than a qualification obtained at an Islamic university. This is nevertheless the most widespread mode of learning for theologians and imams. In this case, the number of subjects studied is limited (principally the Qur’an, the Sunna, theology and Muslim law) but practising daily as an imam or theologian gives access to the places of worship, the associations and ordinary Muslims. Furthermore, this traditional form of knowledge is endowed with a historical legitimacy: oral transmission, one of the Islamic experience’s founding myths. Rachid Haddach, a very popular speaker in Belgium, has no qualification either in Islamic Studies or in Muslim theology but has frequented some traditional scholars with whom he has studied basic Islamic texts. More specifically, he has studied Arabic and Hadīth science with Mohammed Toujgani [the imam at the al-Khalil mosque in Molenbeek], who then authorised him to hold courses and conferences.[11] In France, there is the case of Tareq Oubrou, the self-taught imam from Bordeaux. He trained in circles close to the Muslim Brothers, from whom he then distanced himself, evolving towards a reformist theology.



Action and Legitimacy


Muslim activists claim a form of authority acquired by action[12] through Muslim associations. The latter militate, above all, in the fields of education, support for Palestine, the fight against Islamophobia etc. This is the case of the League of Muslims in Belgium, whose capital comes from organizing the Muslim Fair, the national Qur’an competition, conferences, seminars, activities during the month of Ramadan, summer camps and the short pilgrimage (‘umra). The social or associational action is modern in the sense that the form it takes is permitted by law and promoted by civil society in Belgium. Nevertheless, the fact that actors in search of legitimacy and a role in the Islamic moral economy have recourse to this mode of action produces the opposite effect, namely, communalism and an erosion of civil society. Action-based legitimacy allows a certain authority profile – the managers or political activists – to enter the field with an Islamic function. The number of associations is constantly increasing and the Islamic Not-for-profit Organisations testify to this logic of a segmentary and mimetic action: they are reinforcing the field of authority as they carve it up. The argument in favour of action-based legitimacy sets some theologians and imams against the activists: this is the famous debate between scholars and activists, the ulama versus the harakiyyūn. Having said that, it is also true that the activists have their own theologian-imams and some imams are also activists.[13] As far as the League of Muslims in Belgium is concerned, it opens its activities to authorities who generally belong to associations with which it has ideological or institutional ties and that are close to the Muslim Brothers’ leanings. The League periodically involves authoritative figures from outside these circles and with different Islamic ideologies, either hoping to co-opt them or counting on establishing interest-serving relations with them.


Action-based legitimacy is the most effective form of legitimacy in the Islamic moral economy: it raises funds for mosques, for schools, for the Rohingya people [a Muslim group being persecuted in Myanmar] etc. There is always a good reason for raising funds and thus putting oneself at the centre of the process of exchanging sanctified assets. The latter, in their turn, generate authority and benefits for those at the centre of the action. This is why this form of legitimation is the most contested. Someone who trains young students in Islamic Studies in Europe once told me that none of his students wanted to become imams or theologians when they finished their studies: they all wanted to be managers.[14]


This form of legitimacy inevitably leads to communalism because the action can only take place in a Muslim or prevalently Muslim context. Identity politics then appears alongside communalism, since activists can access Islamic legitimacy only if their action fosters the Islamic moral economy. This economy is not remotely interested in starting forms of civic action that free Muslims from their isolation or illusion of a Muslim identity. Activists have to appeal to Islam, in one way or another, in order to distinguish themselves from the civic action campaigns by adopting a line defined as virtuous action.[15]


Virtuous action is not political in the sense of civic participation in the polity but, rather, to the extent that it transforms a form of legitimacy and moral authority into a source of power in the city. Such action is geared towards protecting this ideal, religious-political-economic Islam and this parallel community/market or parallel city. The Islamic ideal of the good, charismatic life conforming to the Sunna, the Islamist movements’ holistic obsession and the tumultuous frenzy of the souk are all there at the same time. Islamism permits this moral economy that integrates life’s elements in a way that leads to the afterlife.


To secure this public’s fidelity, its desire for Islamic products must be kept alive by constantly immersing it in Islamicness or Islamic action, referred to as da‘wa or ‘amal in Islamist jargon. The constant, if not insistent, calls to make the donations on which this moral economy is based (donations that will then be redistributed, thereby generating other donations) serve to bring ordinary Muslims into the action. Those who donate money to be sent to Gaza or Myanmar will have established a connection with this country or these people. Through their gesture, they will become a part of the action as they wait for the symbolic return on the donation. It will therefore become necessary to keep the donors constantly informed about Gaza and Myanmar, if not actually to make the situation more dramatic than it really is, so as to obtain more funds from the average Muslim and thus turn him/her into a shareholder in this moral economy.



Reform Rhetoric


Another discourse that makes legitimation through action possible is the reform discourse. The theologians and imams are, by their very nature, conservative and the activists counterbalance their authority by riding the wave of reform rhetoric. In the European context, in the face of criticism of Islam (and of political Islam, in particular), reform and secularism become tools the activists can use to detach themselves from extremism, to break free from the overly rigid theologians and to extend a hand to non-Muslims. One can think of all the initiatives proposing Islam’s reform or the appearance of a reformed Islam in Europe. The example most covered by the media in this sense is the document entitled “Muslim Convergences of Belgium against radicalization and for citizenship”. This is an initiative taken by the organization “Empowering Belgian Muslims”, to which a hundred or so Muslim activists in Belgium subscribe[16] and in which Michaël Privot has played a leading part.


Then there is the “ummatic” action (i.e. action aiming at creating the “umma”), represented inter alia by the Islamic and Cultural Centre of Belgium. This centre has very considerable resources available for making a moral economy of giving really function in Belgium and “ummatizing” young Belgian Muslims. It stands out for the services it can offer by virtue of the donations received: training courses, organizing conversions, services linked to alms-giving and the hearing-impaired, psychological counselling, a library, weddings etc. The centre defines its objectives as follows:


To offer material and moral aid to the poor and needy, guarantee that new converts are accompanied in their faith, propose a social mediation service to families living in conflict and offer a chaplaincy service by organizing visits to prisoners and the hospitalized and proposing a counselling service for them.


The centre is therefore gaining a foothold as a moral economy capable of generating a robust demand to which it responds with an equally robust offer. It can also boast its management of two Islamic institutes offering training in French and Arabic. In Belgium, it is hard to compete with this centre that can send students on scholarships to the Institute of Preachers in Mecca.[17]


In France, this kind of activist authority is embodied by the UOIF, the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, which is close to the Muslim Brothers. It plays both on a well-structured network reaching over most of the French territory and on the organization of conferences (for formulating and harmonizing the various ideological discourses), of Qur’an memorization competitions and of annual meetings at Bourget, near Paris.


The fragmentation of the Muslim field of authority in Europe is a resource to its actors. Indeed, it permits the mosques, associations and interpretative sub-communities to multiply. Division sometimes increases strength and the fact of not having a clear answer to the question “Who is the person in charge?” probably has its own raison d’être, namely, allowing the field to extend still further.


 The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation 

[1] Israr Hasan, Conflict within Islam: Expressing Religion through Politics (iUniverse Inc., Bloomington [IN], 2011), p. xix.

[2] Nathalie Clayer, Alexandre Papas and Benoît Fliche, L’autorité religieuse et ses limites en terres d’Islam : approches historiques et anthropologiques (Brill, Leiden, 2013), p. 2.

[3] Donna E. Ray et al.: “Refining Normative Stakeholder Theory,” Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion 11 (2014), pp. 331-356.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Felice Dassetto, L’iris et le croissant. Bruxelles et l’islam au défi de la co-inclusion (Presses universitaires de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, 2013), p. 176.

[6] Dale F. Eickelman, Who Gets the Past? The Changing Face of Islamic Authority and Religious Knowledge, in Peter Meusburger, Gregory Derek and Laura Suarsana (Eds), Geographies of Knowledge and Power (Springer, Dordrecht, 2015), pp. 135-145. See, also, Robert W. Hefner and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Schooling Islam. The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2007), and Peter Mandaville’s contribution on Islamic education in Great Britain (pp. 224-243), in particular.


[8] This is a current of Salafism born at the beginning of the 1990s around the figure and writings of the Saudi scholar, Rabī‘ Ibn Hādī ‘Umayr al-Madkhalī (b. 1931). The Madkhalists reject the political activism of the Islamists and jihadists in order to concentrate on the doctrinal and cultural aspects [Ed.].

[9] The Tablīgh is a pietist Islamic movement that was born in India in the 1920s and then spread throughout the world [Ed.].

[10] Note that dozens of young Belgian Muslims have frequented or are frequenting the Islamic University of Medina. As Farquhar demonstrates, this university co-opts “migrant” teachers (from amongst the Muslim Brothers, in particular), in order to export Wahhabism and Islamist ideology. See Michael Farquhar, “Saudi Petrodollars, Spiritual Capital, and the Islamic University of Medina: A Wahhabi Missionary Project in Transnational Perspective,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 47 (2015), pp. 701-721.

[11] See for Rachid Haddach’s curriculum.

[12] As regards action-based legitimacy, see Felice Dassetto, La construction de l’islam européen (L’Harmattan, Paris, 1996), p. 150.

[13] Solenne Jouanneau, “« Ne pas perdre la foi dans l’imamat ». Comment se maintiennent les « vocations » d’imams bénévoles en France,” Sociétés contemporaines 84 (2011), pp. 103-125.

[14] Personal communication.

[15] Sarah Ben Néfissa, “Citoyenneté et participation en Egypte : l’action vertueuse selon la Gam‘iyya Shar‘iyya,” Monde Arabe Maghreb-Machrek 167 (2000), pp.14-24.



To cite this article

Printed version:
Abdessamad Belhaj, “Muslim Authority meets Europe. And Changes”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 79-89.

Online version:
Abdessamad Belhaj, “Muslim Authority meets Europe. And Changes”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2017, URL: