Authority – not to be confused with power – is an anthropological constant and no culture, to the extent that it is also tradition, can do without it

This article was published in Oasis 25. Read the table of contents

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Were there to be no religious authority in Islam (as it is often said), this edition of Oasis quite simply ought not to exist: 144 blank pages and many apologies to our readers for having chosen the wrong subject. The fact that we had to battle more than usual with space restrictions demonstrates that this is not the case. Authority – not to be confused with power – is an anthropological constant and no culture, to the extent that it is also tradition (i.e. the consigning of a living past), can do without it. What Islam does not have – or has to a lesser degree – is a hierarchy; and yet caution is necessary even here.

Religious authority is always, to some extent, linked to the sacredness that surrounds and identifies it. Following the tracks of the one, we inevitably run into the other. And so cherchez la sacralité (look after the sacredness) – rather than la femme and her veil that are generating so much discussion nowadays – is the empirical, but not empiricist, criterion for solving the enigma of “who speaks for Muslims”.

For the Shi‘ites, matters are relatively simple. Sacredness resides in the person of ‘Alī and his descendants, the imams, the word being here used in the charged, original sense of “divine guide”: nothing to do with the imam at the mosque just round the corner. In the Classics section, the selection of passages from the most important collection of Shi‘ite hadīths clearly illustrates the superhuman characteristics of this figure whose authority, as Rainer Brunner shows, was gradually transferred to the ulama, the scholars of Law. Thus a genuine clergy was established. Its teaching authority remained informal for a long time, until it was finally organized around the marja‘iyya, an institution that is currently undergoing a profound metamorphosis, triggered partly by the Iranian revolution in 1979.

The issue is also quite clear for the Sufis. Sacredness or, rather, sanctity, resides in certain masters, reveals itself principally in miracles and gives rise to a hierarchy that interacts with temporal powers in various ways. It is not by chance that the Sufis have come to talk of a “hidden state” countering a “visible state”, as Souad al-Hakim illustrates. And it is not a matter of a few eccentrics: Sufi brotherhoods have millions of followers nowadays.

For the Sunnis – not that the Sufis are not Sunni – matters seem to become a little more complicated. Sacredness resides in a Book, the Qur’an, and in a Model, the Prophet of Islam: thus not in a human figure who is a contemporary of believers (as the Shi‘ite imam originally was) but in a corpus of Scriptures. A diarchy therefore intervenes to bridge the gap between the text and the present. On the one hand, there is the ruler (first the caliph, then the sultan and, nowadays, the president of the Republic) and, on the other, an informal group of scholars: the ulama, once again. Asma Afsaruddin’s article shows how, for at least a part of the earliest exegesis, it was precisely the scholars who were alluded to in the Qur’anic verse “Obey God, and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you” (Q 4:59).

Even if it is debatable whether the “diarchic” model constituted the Sunni community’s original position, as Afsaruddin argues, or whether it gradually emerged from the crisis of the Abbasid caliphate, the two poles of authority thus identified – rulers and the ulama – remain characterized by their mutual insufficiency. The sovereign needs the legitimacy that the ulama confer on him but the ulama are not an organized body and cannot survive without a relationship with the existing political authority. In the Classics section, the delicate balance between these two components is pondered over by the great Juwaynī – the first Islamic thinker to have asked himself what might come after the caliphate. And not in 1924, when the Ottoman one was abolished, but round about the year 1000: a sign that the problem is not new and that, above all, Islamic thought has numerous intellectual weapons to oppose to ISIS’s pseudo-caliphate. 

And nowadays? Three articles discuss religious authority in contemporary Sunni Islam. Taking the issue of fatwas as his starting point, Ridwan al-Sayyid reflects on the “widespread sensation amongst the ulama that they are no longer interesting or useful” and on the “loss of perception of [their] mission.” Al-Sayyid nevertheless lists three exceptions (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco) and to two of these are dedicated, respectively, the articles by Raihan Ismail, on the Wahhabi ulama, and Michele Brignone, on the role of the al-Azhar mosque-university in contemporary Egypt and its attempt to credit itself as the world reference for Sunni Islam. This unprecedented development has not obliterated the plurality of orientations existing inside al-Azhar, however, as is evidenced by the vexed matter of the document on the renewal of religious discourse that we are proposing: prepared by a group of ulama and Egyptian intellectuals, it has so far not gained sufficient consensus to be officially circulated.

The plunge into the world of the ulama that these articles offer must not obscure the fact that this group has always been internally divided and is now facing competition from various rival currents (reformist intellectuals, representatives of political Islam, Salafis …) all fighting each other but united in their rejection of the cardinal principle of Sunni scholarship, namely, the need to be inserted into a chain of authority in order to be able to access the founding texts. The result is a polyphony of voices that is particularly evident in the European context and the source of more than one concern for institutions as they seek reliable interlocutors.

If Abdessamad Belhaj’s article examines the Belgian and French contexts and distinguishes seven figures of authority, Rolla Scolari’s reportage tells the story of Germany, where a novel element has been added: the state’s direct intervention in the training of future religious leaders through the founding of Islamic theology centres. It is precisely a comparison with the rest of this edition that demonstrates how this type of state intervention, if kept within the confines of that distinction between the religious and the political spheres that is a non-negotiable achievement for the modern West, is not at all alien to the Islamic tradition. It is hard to see why what (once again) al-Sayyid writes in relation to the Middle East should not also hold for Europe: “States have every interest in having strong religious institutions capable of carrying out wide-reaching religious reforms and generating a new religious discourse that can restore peace and trust within society.”

The problem is, rather, that it is not enough for the liberal State to have this interest for it to succeed in creating the religious institutions it needs: Böckenförde’s dilemma holds true also for Muslims[1] And, on the other hand, the state’s support is not enough for Muslim leaders to gain accreditation with the community of believers.

The way out of this conundrum was shown by Pope Francis during his visit to Egypt. On the one hand, the Pope drew the political authorities’ attention to the task of “condemn[ing] and vanquish[ing] all violence and terrorism” and, on the other, he reminded the religious leaders that, “we are called to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the ‘absolutizing’ of selfishness than on authentic openness to the Absolute” because “the only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity. Any other fanaticism does not come from God and is not pleasing to him.”

Only on this double condition will the state perform its task of serving peace and will religious authority be able to be authentically authoritative and fruitful.

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]“The liberal secular state lives on premises that it cannot itself guarantee” (Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, Staat, Gesellschaft, Freiheit, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1976, p. 60; English translation State, Society, and Liberty: Studies in Political Theory and Constitutional Law, Berg, New York, 1991).

To cite this article

Printed version:
Martino Diez, “In Search of a Leader”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 7-9.

Online version:
Martino Diez, “In Search of a Leader”, Oasis [online], published on 20th September 2016, URL: