Sunday, 8 October 2017

Contempory Religious Authority in the World of Islam

نحمده ونصلى ونسلم على رسوله الكريم
The following are several spheres that wield living religious leadership and authority among the Muslims;
1. State-controlled institutions like al-Azhar University
2. Independent institutions and schools of Ulema such as Deoband
3. Intellectuals and Western-educated professionals (Tariq Ramadan)
4. Televangelists and popular preachers on social media (Dr. Zakir Naik, Amr Khaled)
5. Sectarian Ulema (Twelver Shi’ite clergy based in Najaf and Qom; the Salafi scholarly community based in Medina)
6. Sufi mashayikh and spiritual guides
7. Organized groups particularly political ones (Muslim Brotherhood; the various Jama’aat)
I believe that, for the most part, all of these various spheres which have assumed the religious leadership and authority in the Muslim world are essentially corrupt or at the very least problematic, some more than others. The substance of the Islamic doctrine of ‘Finality of Prophethood’ is, in the words of ‘Allama’ Iqbal: “No spiritual surrender to any human being after Muhammad.”
The Prophet Muhammad was the final person sent as being deputized and authorized by God to speak on His behalf. While ‘prophet-like’ figures may come after him, such as the Messiah, Mahdi, Mujaddids, etc., none of them possess the authority to overrule the delegated divine authority of Prophet Muhammad , but are in fact subject to it, and their function is only to reaffirm that divine authority. Therefore, when I speak of the contemporary spheres of leadership and authority, I mean authority in the sense of interpreting the teachings of Islam. Some sects are bordering on rebellion against this fundamental doctrine of Finality of Prophethood, such as the Twelver Shi’a and certain extreme Sufis, who have relegated their Imams and Shaikhs to a position rivaling that of the Last and Final Prophet .
But the question of who should wield the position of greatest influence, living religious leadership of the community and authority to interpret and impart the teachings of Islam is a very critical one. At the most basic level, the Sunni tradition holds that the line of rightly-guided Caliphs who succeeded the Prophet after his death only wielded administrative and political authority, that is, in the realm of the executive and the judiciary in terms of running the affairs of the Muslim community. The Caliphs do not possess any religious authority to speak on behalf of Allah Most High, nor is their interpretation and understanding of the Religion necessarily authoritative in the sense of being the final word or unquestionable. The Salafi trend, however, emphasizes the collective authority of the Salaf, particularly the Prophet’s Companions (Allah be pleased with them) in terms of understanding and interpreting the teachings of Islam. In modern times, the Salafi trend tends to emphasize the authority of the Ulema of their sect, again collectively and not individually, in interpreting the teachings of Islam. Academic based quietist Salafism is therefore very much attached to a group of Ulema who are based in the Arab Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Gulf countries, Jordan and Yemen in particular).
The Imamiya Shi’a, as pointed to earlier, regard their 12 Imams as infallible guides and authorized to speak on behalf of Allah like Prophets, and have the final word to interpret the teachings of Islam based on their delegated divine authority. But what about the question of legislative authority? The standard Islamic belief is that the Prophet Muhammad was the final person to be delegated with authority to legislate and formulate the laws until Judgment Day. Hence, his Shari’a is final and perfect, not a jot of it can be abrogated or amended. But the Imamiya Shi’a have not plainly denied that their Imams have authority to legislate in the Religion. They in fact affirm that the Imams are delegated with both Takwini and Tashri’i (legislative) authority. Orthodox Islam, however, teaches that only the Angels are delegated with Takwini power and only Prophets can be delegated with Tashri’i (legislative) authority in the Religion.
Some extreme Sufis hold that their Shaikhs and Awliya possess Takwini and Tashri’i authority, though in the latter (Tashri’i) if they do not assent to that doctrine formally, at least practically based on their unquestionable blind obedience to their Shaikh or Murshid. Similarly, those Muqallideen who take their Taqlid to the extreme of obeying the Mujtahid and the Madhhab in a matter that plainly and unquestionably contravenes the Nass of the Quraan and Sunna.
Take the example of a heretical “Sufi” who does not hold that Salat is obligatory upon him anymore because supposedly he has reached a position of enlightenment that he is no longer bound by the Shari’a, or the modernist Sudanese thinker Mahmoud Taha who declared that all of the injunctions of the Medinese Verses of the Holy Qur’an were no longer applicable in this age. Such an approach to Islam is undoubtedly a repudiation of the substance contained within the idea of Finality of Prophethood, which Iqbal defined as: “No spiritual surrender to any human being after Muhammad.”
The Sunna and Hadith-rejecting groups such as the so-called ‘Ahl-al-Quraan’ or ‘Quraaniyyun’, in theory hold that the Revelation to the Prophet Muhammad is final and authoritative, and there can be no other delegated legislative authority in the Religion after it, but their problem is that they dispute with the Muslim mainstream as to what constitutes the divine Revelation in the first place, as they reject the Sunna and Hadith as sources of divine inspiration and therefore a source of divine legislation from Allah through the agency of His final Prophet .
In practical terms, many States in the Muslim world have also contravened the essence of Finality of Prophethood by legislating laws that are plainly contrary to the Shari’a of Prophet Muhammad , for example by declaring Khamr (hard drink and intoxicants) as Halal when it is in fact Haram, or by forbidding something Allah has made Halal, such as polygamy, etc. If the Constitution of such States proclaims that it is secular, that sovereignty rests with the people (and not Allah), or that Religion has no place in the affairs of the State, then understand that such a State has formally rejected the core Islamic doctrine of Finality of Prophethood: “No spiritual surrender to any human being after Muhammad”.
Coming back to those spheres of influence and living religious leadership which do not ascribe to themselves delegated legislative authority in the Religion, their corruption or shortcomings are in other matters. Much of the contemporary Ulema can be said to be afflicted with the tendency of making Religion a means of profit and personal earning. It is not necessarily due to personal and character flaws in the Ulema as individuals but rather an institutional shortcoming. Likewise, spiritual guides and leaders, such as many Sufi mashayikh, are making their religious activities and personality cults they have constructed around themselves, as well as their control over shrines as a means of profit and earning. This is the corruption of the traditional religious leadership in the contemporary Muslim world. In countries where the Ulema are employees of the State, the situation is arguably worse as their sincerity and objectivity is easily compromised. This is especially true of al-Azhar University, about which it is erroneously but often stated that it is the highest authority in the Sunni world. State-controlled Ulema issue Fatawa and teach an approach to Islam which is favorable to the interests of the State or the ruling class, without regard to whether such Fatawa are in accordance with the teachings of Islam.
As for the organized groups (Jama’aat) such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, a fundamental flaw with such groups is that leadership within that group is often times not based on level of piety or knowledge, but rather by amount of service to the cause of the group, especially financial service. So for example, if an extremely pious and knowledgable Muslim decided to join the organization one day, he would not be given a position of leadership over someone who is not known for piety and is ignorant, but who has a long history of service and involvement in the organization. In such groups, piety becomes defined more by service and involvement in the group. Of course, service is an act of piety in it of itself, but the mentality results in a kind of factionalism or Hizbiya, where the cause of the group becomes synonymous with the cause of Islam absolutely, leading to a very narrow practice of Islam at best (provided the cause of the group is Islamic in the first place). Registered members of the group have favorable treatment compared to those Muslims who are outside the group. Like the corruption of the Ulema and contemporary spiritual leaders, the salaried leadership of such groups are often times getting their bread and butter from their position, hence here too Religion becomes a means for profit and earning. Another problem with these Jamaa’at is they tend to gain control over the Mosque, and once they do so, actively seek to stifle out or not tolerate other voices, especially those which are critical of them. All manner of religious activity, so long as basic Islamic guidelines are observed within the reasonable confines and worshipers are not disturbed, has to be allowed in the Mosque and no administration or group has the right to prevent that. For example, if some Muslims, independent of the administration or group which is maintaining the Mosque, decide to have a study circle in the Mosque, they cannot be prevented from their religious activities by anyone.

Mentioning the story of the Prophet-Priest Zechariah, Allah quotes him as saying:


وَإِنِّي خِفْتُ الْمَوَالِيَ مِن وَرَائِي وَكَانَتِ امْرَأَتِي عَاقِرًا فَهَبْ لِي مِن لَّدُنكَ وَلِيًّا ۝ يَرِثُنِي وَيَرِثُ مِنْ آلِ يَعْقُوبَ ۖ وَاجْعَلْهُ رَبِّ رَضِيًّا

And indeed, I fear the successors after me, and my wife has been barren, so give me from Yourself an heir, who will inherit me and inherit from the family of Jacob. And make him, my Lord, pleasing."

(Sura 19: 5-6)


In his explanation of this passage, Ibn Kathir writes in his Tafsir: “The reason for his fear was that he was afraid that the generation that would succeed him would be a wicked generation. Thus, he asked Allah for a son who would be a Prophet after him, who would guide them with his prophethood and that which was revealed to him. In response to this I would like to point out that he was not afraid of them inheriting his wealth. For a Prophet is too great in status, and too lofty in esteem to become remorseful over his wealth in this fashion. A Prophet would not disdain to leave his wealth to his successive relatives, and thus ask to have a son who would receive his inheritance instead of them. This is one angle of argument. The second argument is that Allah did not mention that he (Zakariyya) was wealthy. On the contrary, he was a carpenter who ate from the earnings of his own hand. This type of person usually does not have a mass of wealth. Amassing wealth is not something normal for Prophets, for verily, they are the most abstentious in matters of this worldly life.”


In other words, the Prophet and Priest of the Aaronide order, Zechariah (peace be upon him) supplicated to Allah to grant him a successor for the religious leadership of the community. He knew that the other contemporary religious leaders were corrupt and that anyone from among them who would inherit authority after him could potentially misguide the community. This is why, as the exegetes explain, Zechariah prayed that Allah raise up another Prophet after him to lead the community. Now a Prophet is not necessarily someone who is delegated with legislative authority in the Religion. In fact, most Prophets were not bringers of a divine Law, but instead acted upon the Shari’a of a previous Prophet. Most of the Israelite Prophets, for example, either followed the Laws of Abraham, or after Moses, the Mosaic Law, despite the fact that there were thousands of such Prophets. Neither Zechariah, nor the Prophet he had in mind as succeeding him, would be a prophet delegated with legislative authority, but would nevertheless guide the community upon the truth and be an example of legitimate and pure living religious leadership.


Therefore, for the contemporary Umma, it needs to pray for and seek out a “Prophet-like” figure who is in communion with Allah, i.e., a Saahib-al-Ilhaam and if such a leader emerges, by the Grace of Allah, the Umma should recognize him and look to him for contemporary leadership and guidance, even if he is opposed by the powerful spheres of influence on the religious scene such as the Ulema, the States, the political Jama’aat, or Western-educated “intellectuals”.

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