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What Leadership for Muslims

"We need a mature and courageous Muslim leadership, capable of proposing another way of living the faith"

"In the fight against radicalism, the action of public authorities is not enough [...].There is also, and above all, a question of ideas, of world visions. Here the important issue of the emergence of a mature and courageous Muslim leadership comes into play: a leadership capable of arguing and counter-arguing not only with the radical forms of discourse but also regarding Muslim thinking more generally and one that may prove capable of proposing another way of living the faith”.



Felice Dassetto, The Molenbeek Effect: the Facts beyond the Myth, «Oasis» 24 (2016), p. 90



In the previous projects Understanding Hybridization, Governing Change (2014-2015), and Not an Era of Change, but a Change of Era (2016), the Oasis Foundation investigated the evolution of the way of thinking and living the faith by Christians and Muslims within the unprecedented context of intersection of worldviews, typical of globalized societies. At the end of these investigations, it became clear that one of the factors that will determine the relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the years to come, in the various fields of their interaction, will be the quality and the orientation of religious authorities. In other words, within the swirling change taking place, Islam is no longer the undisputed reference point of traditional societies, but rather it is the object of contention among various rival movements (cf. Oasis no. 21). It becomes crucial, then, to understand who can speak in the name of Islam and which titles they may offer to justify, for example, their own interpretation of relations with non-Muslims (Oasis 22), the Qur’an itself (Oasis 23) and relations with European societies (Oasis 24). This question no longer concerns only Muslim-majority societies, but Europe and Italy too, where nowadays quite significant Muslim communities, both from a demographic point of view and from a cultural one, live. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the demand for effective interlocutors and representatives comes back constantly in the public debate of the various European countries, regardless of the model they theoretically are based on. Let us mention just a few recent events, to show how the problem is perceived: in August 2016, the news in France of the creation, alongside the already existing Council of the Muslim Faith, of a “Foundation for Islam in France”. Already since 2010, Germany launched five departments of Islamic studies, aimed at preparing a new generation of Muslim leaders, and similar experiments have started to take form also in Britain (Cambridge Islamic College). Finally, in the Balkans the experience of an organized representation for the Muslim community has a more than a century-long experience, which goes back to the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empire’s last phase. In Italy, despite several appeals and statements, the initiatives on this matter are still at an early stage, although we have taken some important steps. Authority: a radical question for the religious experience The theme of leadership is not just limited to a legal and sociological dimension, and as a purely organizational question -“let us put together a Muslim representation”-, thus creating the risk of a strong interference from institutions in order to create an Islam à la carte, has so far proved ineffective. The reason is simple: the issue of authority intercepts a radical question proper of religious experiences of all time: who can speak in the name of God? Alternatively, even better: how does God speak to me today? This question is deeper than the hierarchical organizational requirement that follows it, and should always be kept in mind in order to avoid a purely functionalist approach. In the first years of Islam, for example, the theme of authority, which was the origin of the rift between Sunnis and Shiites, found its exemplification in a lapidary quote: «Whoever dies without having recognized his own imam [his own guide], dies a pagan». In other words, recognizing the correct leader decides for the Muslim believer of his future fate.



The new research project



In light of these considerations, Oasis launched with the support of Fondazione Cariplo the new project In Search of a Leader. Authority in Contemporary Islam, which, through the work of an interdisciplinary research team, aims to address the issue of Islamic leadership in Europe by intersecting two levels:




  1. Background: How religious authority works in Islam;

  3. Focus: The case of Europe. Who European Muslims follow in forming their religious opinions, and how and to what extent this representative can become an interlocutor for the institutions.



According to Oasis, it is only through the intersection of these two levels that it will be possible to remove the issue of leadership from tactical and shortsighted logics, making it a fruitful place of consideration, even an inter-religious one. The articles and the content offered here are the starting point of this new project. Through our Facebook page, Twitter account, website, newsletter and our public events, you will be able to keep up to date with future developments.



Few Starting Questions



Background: Foundations of Religious Authority in Islam




  • It is often said that Islam (Sunni) lacks a religious institution. Is it true? Or rather, does it lack a religious hierarchy? But, if it lacks a hierarchy, how do they form a consensus on an authoritative figure? How does the one who wants to speak “in the name of God” legitimate himself?

  • Who are the ulama, where and how are they formed? Who are their actual followers? What relationship do they have with the new thinkers of Islam (modernists and Islamists)? How do they relate to the Salafis?

  • How did the concept of the imām develop in Shia Islam?

  • The understanding of authority in Sufism, which lays on a chain of witnesses, is alternative or complementary to the world of the ulama?

  • Has Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate proclamation prompted a new reflection on the theme of religious authority?



Focus: Islamic leadership in Europe today




  • Who do European Muslims follow?

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the attempts to institutionalize European Islam promoted by several European countries (France, Germany, United Kingdom…)?

  • Can the Balkan institutionalization experience (Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania…) be replicated elsewhere?

  • How effective are the “counter-narrative” programs promoted by some governments?

  • What is being done by the European Union?

  • What has worked and what has not worked in the various “roundtables on Italian Islam” promoted so far?

  • Is a department of Islamic theology conceivable in Italy?