Who else has authority in the community?
by John Kaltner
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.
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
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.
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.
©2006 John Kaltner
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
Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).
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.