Spiritual guidance for anyone seeking a path to God. explorefaith.org


Explore God's Love Explore Your Faith Explore the Church Explore Who We Are  

> What Do Our Neighbors Believe? > Authority Figures: Islam


Join our mailing list
Join our mailing list
Send this page to a friend

Support explorefaith.org

Give us your feedback


Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

Understanding Islam
Documentarian Anisa Mehdi on Terrorism, Politics and the Chance for Peace

Meeting Islam: A Guide for Christians



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
Who else has authority in the community?
by John Kaltner

Up to this point, we have concentrated primarily on authority in Islam as it pertains to ritual and worship. But other types of leadership are also found within the Muslim community, with two of the most important being intellectual authority and charismatic authority.

Intellectual authorities exert a tremendous amount of control over the lives of Muslims. Scholars who are trained in Islamic theology and related fields are the ones responsible for determining proper belief and appropriate behavior among members of the community. Islam is a religion of orthopraxy, or proper action, so how one lives one’s life and puts his or her faith into action has always been an important matter. Law is the discipline that is most concerned with regulating and monitoring human conduct, so it should come as so surprise that jurists and legal scholars have been among the most important authority figures in the faith.

Laws began to be established and codified in the early centuries of Islam, and by the ninth century BCE, four main schools of law named after their founders had been established: the Maliki school, the Hanbali school, the Shafi`i school, and the Hanafi school. These continue to be the dominant schools for Sunni Muslims into the present day, but Shi`a law operates under a different framework. The differences among the four are usually not very significant, but they are distinct enough that it is not uncommon for legal opinions to vary from school to school. A Muslim is free to consult a lawyer affiliated with any of the four schools in order to seek legal advice, which is then used in rendering a verdict or reaching a decision in the specific case.

The decision is usually handed down by a mufti, who is the individual responsible for issuing the formal legal verdict, or fatwa. In many Muslim countries, the government appoints one individual who functions as the Grand Mufti, or official head of the legal establishment. Sometimes a leader will act on his own to issue a fatwa that addresses some issue or concern that he considers to be particularly important. Because of the important roles played by muftis, judges, and lawyers in determining and enforcing Islamic law, these individuals possess a great deal of authority within the Muslim community. They exert influence on matters as far reaching as what Muslims should believe and as personal as the terms of inheritance within a particular family. They are considered to be the intelligentsia within Islamic societies, a status that is reflected in the term used to refer to the body of legal scholars as a whole—the ulama, or “learned ones.”

Another form of authority is of a more charismatic nature and is primarily associated with Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam that traces its roots back to the earliest days of the faith. Each of the many Sufi groups, often called brotherhoods, is organized around the teachings and practices of its founder. The members of the group commit themselves completely to the lifestyle and philosophy of their founder in a way similar to what occurs among members of Christian religious orders like the Franciscans. A basic premise of Sufism is that the individual must progress through a series of states and stages until finally reaching the goal of self-extinction and an experience of oneness with God.

To realize this objective, the individual Sufi must come under the authority of a master or sheikh, a member of the group who has successfully passed through the various stages. This spiritual leader, carrying on the tradition and charism of the founder, becomes the supreme authority figure for the student. A well-known proverb says that the relationship between the Sufi and the master must be like that between the corpse and the person who washes it in preparation for burial.

Founders of Sufi orders and other holy men and women often affect the lives of people far beyond their circle of disciples. These individuals are considered to be specially blessed by God, and places associated with them often become pilgrimage destinations for other Muslims, who will sometimes travel great distances to reap spiritual benefits from praying at their monasteries or tombs.

Stories and texts circulate about the lives of these holy people that often include examples of their teachings and descriptions of miracles they performed. Such accounts contribute to their status as authoritative figures whose lives should be emulated by others, but this area of Islamic spirituality is not without its controversies. Critics consider it to be a kind of veneration of saints that violates the spirit of Islam, and it is outlawed in a few Islamic countries. But the fact that these charismatic figures and the practices associated with them continue to thrive in many parts of the world demonstrates that this is an important part of Muslim popular religiosity.

Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


(Return to Top)


Send this article to a friend.

Home | Explore God's Love | Explore Your Faith | Explore the Church | Who We Are
Reflections | Stepping Stones | Oasis | Lifelines | Bulletin Board | Search |Contact Us |
Copyright ©1999-2007 explorefaith.org