The question of who speaks for Islam dates to its classical age, from the death of the Prophet in AD 632 to the end of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258. Traditionally, the ulama and the fuquha, the scholars of jurisprudence, were guardians of the Islamic faith and the leading authorities in religious matters. Their legitimacy rested largely on their partial independence from the state and their dual role of “representing the interests of the state to the laity and the interests of the laity to the state.”3 But, even in the classical age, there was no single source of religious authority for the entire Muslim world or even for the territories under the control of the caliphs of Islam. This was in stark contrast to the situation in Western Christendom where religious authority was concentrated in the Papacy until the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. The decentralization of religious authority in Islam emerged from the absence of a hierarchically organized clergy capable of acting as the fount of religious authority and scriptural interpretation. Consequently, religious authority in Islam has never been able to project itself as a rival to temporal authority in the way the Papacy has in Western civilization.
There was little attempt during the early centuries of Islam to impose a single body of interpretation, especially in matters of Islamic law. This is also suggested by the fact that there were hardly any wars of religion within the Muslim community, as opposed to the many conflicts within Western Christendom. Tolerance of both diversity within Islam and of other faiths was the rule rather than the exception in the classical period of Islam.
Five madhahib, or schools of Islamic jurisprudence (four Sunni, one Shia), were established within the first three centuries of the Islamic era.4 They were named after the outstanding jurists who were the founders of these schools — the Hanafi, the Shafii, the Maliki, the Hanbali, and the Jaafri. Traditionally, the followers of the four Sunni schools considered all the Sunni schools and their interpretations equally legitimate and valid for their respective followers. There was some tension—inspired more by politics than by religion — between them and the followers of the Jaafri school, to which the overwhelming majority of Shias belonged. It was not until 1959 that the head of Al–Azhar, Sunni Islam’s oldest and most renowned theological institution, issued a fatwa accepting the Jaafri madhab as the fifth school of Islamic jurisprudence on par with the four established Sunni schools.
This tradition of decentralization of religious authority and lack of significant tension among the various schools of jurisprudence helped the ulama retain a considerable degree of autonomy from the state, which they were thus less likely to confront or threaten. Simultaneously, the lack of centralized authority or hierarchy among the scholars of religion made it very difficult for temporal authorities to exercise control over them. Consequently, in practice, religious and temporal spheres came to be quite separate, with the leader in each realm following a policy of “live and let live.” Furthermore, the ulama normally exhorted their followers to accept established authority lest dissension lead to anarchy and the fragmentation of the ummah, the community of believers. As noted Near Eastern scholar L. Carl Brown writes, “Rather than a divine right of rule, Islam came to recognize a divinely sanctioned need for rule.”5
This did not mean that the state in classical Islam desisted from using religion to buttress its political legitimacy; still, the state was never very successful in intruding into the religious sphere. For their part, the ulama accepted the temporal rulers’ right to rule as long as the latter protected the lands of Islam, did not interfere with their Muslim subjects’ practice of the faith, and promoted, at least by word if not always by deed, Islamic law (shari’a). It was only in the 17th century, when the Ottoman Empire was at its zenith, that a concerted attempt was made by the state to incorporate the senior religious functionaries into the imperial bureaucracy.
The balance between the religious and political spheres shifted radically in modern times as Muslim states became powerful vis–à–vis the ulama in ways that were inconceivable two centuries ago. In most Muslim countries, the state now controls the private religious endowments, or awqaf, that formerly provided for the ulama. This is particularly the case in the Sunni Muslim countries, including Egypt, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and others. Such financial control by the state has greatly eroded the autonomy of those learned in religion. It has turned many ulama, from the most learned, the muftis— those with the right to pronounce religious edicts (fatwa)—to common prayer leaders in mosques, into state functionaries. The expansion of the state’s control can also be attributed to the reluctance of sovereign nation–states to function with the minimal religious control characteristic of the classical Muslim empires. As the “people” came to be seen as the source of political legitimacy in modern times, the state sought to control the people, including their religious leaders, in order to prevent challenges emerging from civil society.
The establishment ulama, those employed and supported financially by the state, face severe disincentives from expressing dissent, let alone actively opposing the regimes that pay their salaries. In the current era of mass political awareness, even in the least democratic countries, this relationship between the official clergy and unrepresentative regimes has severely diminished the popular authority of the state–appointed ulama and has proved conducive to the emergence of alternative groups seeking to speak on behalf of Islam.
Even Al–Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most esteemed institution of theological learning, has seen its authority questioned in recent years owing to its close ties to the Egyptian government. The world’s oldest university, Al–Azhar (“The Brilliant”) was founded in Cairo by the Shia Fatimid dynasty in 972 for the purpose of propagating the Fatimid’s brand of Ismaili Shiism. Over time, however, Al–Azhar came to be identified primarily with Sunni Islam, due to the subsequent influence of Sunni practice in Egypt.
Since its founding, Al–Azhar has been renowned as a center of academic debate, discussion, and learning. Although the university’s ulama have generally followed a religious mandate, Al–Azhar has at times been at the forefront of political struggle, such as during the anticolonialist movements against Napoleon’s French armies at the turn of the 19th century as well as against the British in 1919. Despite occasional forays into the political sphere, Al–Azhar was able to maintain a large degree of independence from the state, as it drew its financial resources from awqaf. This changed, however, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized Al–Azhar in 1961. The state assumed the authority to appoint Al Azhar’s Grand Sheikh and created civil servants out of its ulama. Since Nasser, Egyptian presidents including Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak have increasingly relied on Al–Azhar to garner public approval for policy decisions, most notably for the Camp David Accords in 1987 and the Persian Gulf War in 1990.
By the same token, Al–Azhar has been able to substantially expand its role in public life. In recent years, Al–Azhar officials have become involved in regulating many spheres of Egyptian life, from the content of books, television, and other media, to policy issues such as whether or not sexual education should be taught in schools.
Al–Azhar’s moral authority, however, has been questioned by an increasingly skeptical populace that views the state–employed ulama as tools in the government’s battle against Islamists and extremists.6 Contradictory fatwas have further diminished Al–Azhar’s credibility. In August 2003, for example, Azhari Sheikh Nabawi El–Esh banned recognition of the Iraqi Governing Council; several days later, following a well–publicized meeting with the American Ambassador in Cairo, Grand Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi then reversed this judgment. In his rejection of El–Esh’s fatwa, Tantawi declared that “no Egyptian cleric has the right to pass verdicts on the affairs of another country.”7 Not only did Tantawi’s reversal incite outrage among those who viewed his decision as a direct result of American intervention, but he also brought into question Al–Azhar’s jurisdiction by proclaiming that Azheri ulama had no right to rule on Iraqi affairs.
In light of Tantawi’s assertion, it is ironic that Al–Azhar may enjoy its greatest influence beyond Egypt’s borders. Al–Azhar remains a preeminent voice in the Muslim world, particularly through its education of students and future clerics from more than 50 countries. As Barbara Rosewicz wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Poor Islamic countries beg for its missionaries and rich Arab ones hire its sheikhs to run their own Islamic universities. Al–Azhar graduates fill the clergy, courts, and government ministries all over the Middle East—with the exception of Shiite Iran.”8
While state–sponsored ulama like those of Al–Azhar may increasingly be seen as “puppets,” especially by frustrated and politically aware youth, a growing distinction is apparent between establishment and nonestablishment ulama. Nonestablishment ulama, i.e., those not affiliated with the state, such as the Al–Azhar–educated Sheikh Yusuf al–Qaradawi, have recently achieved unprecedented levels of popularity. Al–Qaradawi has become a household name across the Arab world through his weekly appearance on the religious show Al Shari’a wa Al Hayat (Islamic Law and Life), broadcast on the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera, as well as through his Web site (qaradawi.net).
Although the decline of the establishment ulama’s authority intensified after the end of colonialism, the process actually began in the middle of the 19th century when the print revolution sparked a dramatic increase in literacy rates in many Muslim countries. As the scholar of Islamic studies Carl Ernst has argued, a situation had been created in the Muslim world by the middle of the 20th century that was analogous to the Reformation period in Christian Europe. Lay literate Muslims, not trained in the religious sciences (and, therefore, largely unfamiliar with the accumulated traditions of Islamic theology and jurisprudence and the tools required to interpret them), now had direct access to the sacred texts of Islam and the principal sources of Islamic law, the Qur’an and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet. Access to these texts both in the original Arabic and in translation had a revolutionary impact across the Muslim world. Thus began a process of scripturalism, or literal interpretation of the sacred texts, among certain groups of literate Muslims, paving the way for (what has been called in the context of the Reformation in Western Christianity) “the priesthood of the individual.” Literal interpretation of sacred texts without adequate reference to context created a situation where “fundamentalism” could thrive among some Muslim thinkers and activists.9