Crisis of Authority in Islam

Islam is a religion of peace, President George W. Bush has declared. The
imam at the local mosque has likely offered the same assurance, as has
your Muslim neighbor or coworker. Yet many in the West remain suspicious
that Islam is not at all a peaceful faith, and that the conflict sparked
by the September 11 attacks is not just a war against terrorism but a
“clash of civilizations.”

It’s not hard to understand why. Osama bin Laden, who became the world’s
best-known Muslim during the 1990s, declared that there is no path open
to a believing Muslim except jihad, or holy war, against the United
States. Islamic authorities who refuse to join him, bin Laden said, are
betraying the faith. At the same time, the few prominent Muslims who
have disowned the terrorism perpetrated in Islam’s name on September 11
and actively affirmed its peaceful character have been drowned out by
the silence of the many others who have not, or who have in their
confusion failed to condemn unequivocally bin Laden’s acts.

This strange silence does not reflect the attitude of traditional Islam
but is a painful manifestation of a crisis of authority that has been
building within Islam for a century. It is this crisis that allowed bin
Laden, despite his lack of a formal religious education or an
authoritative religious position, to assume the role of spokesman for
the world’s Muslims. The crisis has undermined the traditional leaders
who should be in a position to disqualify or overrule a man who does not
speak—or act—for Islam.

Today’s crisis grows in part out of the structure of Islam itself—a
faith without denominations, hierarchies, and centralized institutions.
The absence of such structures has been a source of strength that has
permitted the faith to adapt to local conditions and win converts around
the world. But it is also a weakness that makes it difficult for Muslims
to come together and speak with one voice on important issues—to say
what is and what is not true Islam.

Islam’s structural weakness has been immeasurably magnified by a series
of historical forces that have gradually compromised the authority of
its traditional religious leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere. The
imams and muftis (legal scholars) who once shaped the worldviews of
ordinary Muslims and confidently articulated the meaning of the faith
have been overshadowed by more innovative and often radical figures with
much shallower roots in tradition. Hundreds of millions of ordinary
Muslims feel that they understand their religion perfectly well, and
that it provides no justification for the murderous crashing of
airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But until
Islam’s crisis of authority is resolved, these people will have no
voice, and public confusion about what Islam really stands for will

The crisis has three related historical causes: the marginalization of
traditional Muslim authorities over the past century and a half; the
rise of new authorities with inferior credentials but greater skill in
using print and, more recently, electronic media; and the spread of mass
literacy in the Muslim world, which made the challengers’ writings
accessible to vast new audiences.

The deepest roots of the crisis go back to the early 19th century, when
the Muslim world was forced to begin coming to grips with the challenge
of European imperialism. Governments in these countries responded by
embracing a variety of reforms based on European models. This response
began in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire (which both escaped the imperial
yoke) in the early 19th century; spread to Iran, Tunisia, and Morocco by
the end of the century; and was then embraced in many countries during
the era of decolonization after World War II. In subject
lands—including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Algeria, and West
Africa—European colonial governments imposed similar reforms from

Strongly influenced by the example of European anticlericalism, which
seemed to 19th century leaders in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire to be an
essential element in the making of European might, these leaders moved
to strip traditional Muslim religious authorities of their institutional
and financial power. Later, popular leaders such as Mustafa Kemal
AtatYrk (1881-1938) in Turkey and Hafez al-Assad (1928-2001) in Syria,
continued the attack in the name of secular nationalism. By secularism,
however, they meant not separation of church and state but suppression
of the church by the state.

For centuries, the traditional religious authorities had interpreted and
administered the law in Muslim lands. The reformers replaced Islamic
sharia with legal codes of European inspiration, and lawyers trained in
the new legal thinking took the place of religiously trained judges and
jurisconsults in new European-style courts.

The 19th century Egyptian and Ottoman reformers also established new
schools to train military officers and government officials. These elite
institutions, which were to serve as models for most mass school systems
in the Middle East after World War II, taught modern subjects such as
science and foreign languages—though, signicantly, little in the way of
liberal arts—and worked to instill a secular outlook in their students.
The traditional Islamic schools were discontinued, downgraded, or
stripped of funding.

Another traditional element that lost prominence in19th century Muslim
society due to the opposition of reformist governments was the
ubiquitous Sufi brotherhoods—mass religious organizations that held out
the promise of a mystical union with God. The secular leaders of the
modernizing nations feared that the Sufi sheiks, with their otherworldly
perspectives and intellectual independence, might become a significant
source of resistance to reform. But the decline of Sufism left a
spiritual vacuum that nationalist zeal ultimately fell far short of

In many parts of the Islamic world after 1800, governments took control
of the financial endowments that mosques, seminaries, and other
religious institutions had amassed over the years from the contributions
of the faithful. Many of these endowments were considerable, and in
Egypt, Iran, and other countries had had the effect of gradually
concentrating a significant share of the national wealth under religious
control. Confiscating this resource, as Egypt did early in the 19th
century, or centralizing its administration in a government ministry,
the later Ottoman practice, put financial control in the hands of the
state. Mosque officials, teachers, and others employed in many religious
institutions now were subject to government pressure.

This slow but persistent assault on the foundations of religious
authority diminished the stature and influence of traditional religious
leaders in public life. Many ordinary Muslims grew to distrust the
pronouncements of their religious leaders. Were their views shaped by
religious conscience and learning, or by the need to curry favor with
the government officials who controlled their purse strings? By the
1930s the sun clearly was setting on the old authorities.

Even as governments in the Middle East and elsewhere were hammering at
the sources of traditional religious authority, a powerful technological
revolution struck a second blow. Printing technology, which had begun to
transform European society in the 15th century, had its first impact in
the Islamic religious world only in the second half of the 19th century
(though government and the technical fields were affected somewhat
earlier). For centuries, the lines of religious authority within Islam
had been formed by personal links between teachers and their disciples.
Now this traditional mode of preserving, refining, and transmitting
ideas faced competition from writers, editors, and publishers with
little or no formal religious training and few ties to established
teachers. They became authorities simply by virtue of putting their
words into print. A Muslim in Egypt could become a devoted follower of a
writer in Pakistan without ever meeting him or anyone else who had met

Al-Manar (The Minaret), a magazine published in Cairo by Rashid Rida
between 1898 and 1935, provides a typical example of how this new trade
in religious ideas worked. Rida had studied in both an Ottoman state
school with a “modern” curriculum and an Islamic school, but he wielded
his influence as a writer and editor. In the pages of Al-Manar, thousands
of Muslims around the world first encountered the modernist ideas of
Rida’s mentor, Muhammad Abduh, an advocate of Islam’s compatibility with
modern science and of greater independence in Muslim thought. But Rida
soon took the magazine in another direction, advocating Arab nationalism
and eventually embracing the religious conservatism of Saudi Arabia.

By tradition, a Muslim teacher’s authority rested on his mastery of many
centuries of legal, theological, and ethical thought. But as lawyers,
doctors, economists, sociologists, engineers, and educators spewed forth
articles, pamphlets, and books on the Islamic condition, this ancient
view lost force. After World War II, the most popular, innovative, and
inspiring thinkers in the Islamic world boasted secular rather than
religious educational backgrounds. (This is still the case. Bin Laden,
for example, was trained as an engineer; his associate Ayman al-Zawahiri
was a surgeon; and their ideological predecessor Sayyid Qutb was an
Egyptian schoolteacher.)

Because radio and television were under strict government control in
most Muslim countries, these new thinkers expounded their ideas in
print—at least until the advent of audio- and videocassettes made other
mediums possible. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran brought
worldwide prominence not only to Ayatollah Khomeini, an authority of the
old type who used books and audiotapes to spread his views, but also to
the sociologist Ali Shariati, whose writings and spellbinding oratory
galvanized Iran’s university students, and the economist Abolhasan Bani
Sadr, who was elected president of the new Islamic Republic in 1981. In
Sudan, lawyers Mahmoud Muhammad Taha and Hasan Turabi gained large
followings; the philosophers Hasan Hanafi in Egypt, and Muhammad Arkoun
in Algeria both propounded influential interpretations of Islam.

The new thinkers of the past half-century have offered a wide variety of
ideas. Some have called for a return to life as it was lived in
Muhammad’s time (though they often disagree about what seventh-century
life was like) and disparaged the teachings of scholars from later
centuries. Others have joined bin Laden in preaching terrorist violence
as the solution to Islam’s problems. Still others, such as Rashid
Ghannushi in Tunisia and Abbassi al-Madani in Algeria, have called for
the creation of Islamic political parties and for their open competition
with other parties in free and democratic elections. In Iran, President
Muhammad Khatami leads a powerful, democratically oriented reform

It is also true, however, that some of the leaders who capitalized on
the new media to build large followings were both extremists and
formally trained religious figures. Khomeini is the most obvious
example; Egypt’s Sheik Umar Abdurrahman, who is languishing in an
American prison since being convicted for his role in the 1993 World
Trade Center bombing, is another.

The final element in the making of today’s crisis was the decision by
the newly independent states of the post-World War II era to pursue
compulsory education and mass literacy. The young Muslims who came of
age in the developing world during the 1960s thus had the tools to read
what the new authorities were writing. Because their schooling included
minimum exposure to the traditional religious curriculum and texts-and
in many cases admonitions by their government teachers not to put too
much stock in religious scholarship—they did not feel obliged to follow
the dictates of the old authorities. And they appreciated the
contemporary vocabulary and viewpoints of the new Islamic writers. So
long as nationalism offered them the promise of a better future, they
remained loyal to their political leaders and governments. But when the
nationalists’ dreams failed and the future dimmed, as it did in most
Muslim countries during the 1970s, people looked elsewhere for hope and
inspiration, and they didn’t have to look far.

Traditional Islam is far from dead. Many Muslims still stand firmly by
the legal opinions (fatwas) and moral guidance of traditionally educated
muftis and the orthodox teachings of the imams at their local mosques.
But the momentum seems to be with the new authorities. This has created
an unusual dynamic within the Muslim world. While the new authorities
seldom defer to the old, the old feel compelled to endorse some of their
rivalss ideas in order to seem up to date and retain influence. The
locus of debate thus has been steadily shifting in favor of the new

Local imams and other religious officials are also dependent (in a way
their rivals usually are not) on their national government. They are
caught in a three-way squeeze between government interests, their
religious training, and the popular teachings of their rivals. This
helps explain the strange silence that has prevailed since September 11.
Some traditional religious figures have chosen to say nothing. Some have
tacitly admitted the evil of terrorism while denying that Islam and
Muslims had anything to do with the attacks. Some have resorted to
anti-American rhetoric. And some have condemned the terrorist acts but
stopped short of recognizing and condemning the instigators.

This failure of the traditional leadership has left Muslims everywhere
in a quandary. They know what their faith means to them, and they think
this meaning should be obvious to everyone. They do not pray five times
a day, fast during Ramadan, make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and live
modest, peaceful, hard-working lives for the secret purpose of
destroying Western civilization and slaughtering Americans. They find
the association of such violent ideas with their religion odious and
preposterous—and threatening if they happen to live in the United
States. Yet nobody seems to speak for them.

This is not to suggest that giving voice to the feelings of ordinary
Muslims would somehow release a hidden reservoir of support for
America’s global preeminence and its policies in the Middle East and
other regions. Many, if not most, Muslims are highly critical of these
policies. Those with the strongest anti-American feelings applauded the
events of September 11 and praised bin Laden for launching them—even,
in some cases, while shuddering at the thought of living in a world
governed by his religious vision. But these supporters of terror, though
prominently featured on television, do not represent the Muslim
majority. Indeed, a good number of the Muslim world’s apologists for
terror are not themselves religious people.

In any event, opposition to U.S. policies is hardly restricted to the
Islamic world. No one should mistake political views for religious
ones—millions of non-Muslims (including some Americans) voice similar
criticisms of the United States. For Americans to want Muslims to
repudiate terrorism and disown its authors is reasonable. To want them
to agree wholeheartedly with everything America does in the world is

What Muslims lack in this moment of crisis is a clear, decisive, and
unequivocal religious authority able to declare that the killing of
innocents by terrorist attacks is contrary to Islam and to explain how
Muslims can stand firmly against terrorism without seeming to embrace
the United States and its policies. When authority itself is in
question, the middle gives way.

History suggests that Islam will overcome its current crisis of
authority, just as it has overcome a number of other crises in its past.
The first of these arose soon after the prophet Muhammad’s death in A.D.
632. Later in the seventh century, as the generation that had personally
known Muhammad died off, the Muslim community split over several issues,
particularly the proper line of succession to the caliphate that had
been established after Muhammad´s death. (It was from this crisis that
the Sunni-Shiite split grew.) Civil wars erupted. The crisis of
authority was temporarily resolved by the consolidation of a military
state, the Umayyad Caliphate, and the suppression of dissent. The
caliphate shifted the seat of power from Medina, in Arabia, to Damascus,
and quickly extended its rule over a vast empire that stretched from
Spain in the west to what is now Pakistan in the east.

In the middle of the ninth century, as the conversion of non-Arab
peoples brought into Islam people bearing the traditions of
Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Greek philosophy,
Islam again entered a period of uncertainty. The caliphate had passed
into the hands of the Abbasids, so named because they claimed descent
from the Prophet’s uncle Abbas. The caliphate, its seat now in Baghdad,
flourished—this period was in many ways the apex of Arab civilization.
But when a new religious challenge arose, the caliph’s resort to force
failed. Against him was arrayed a new class of religious scholars who
maintained that Muslims should follow the tradition of the prophet
Muhammad, as preserved in a multitude of sayings and anecdotes, rather
than the dictates of a caliph in Baghdad. Today’s declining Islamic
authorities date the beginnings of their power to this confrontation.
Under the leadership of the scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal and others who
followed him, it was eventually agreed that Muslims would look to a
consensus of scholars—in theory, throughout the Muslim lands, but in
practice within each locality—for guidance on how to live moral lives.
(Ahmad ibn Hanbal himself was founder of one of the four main schools of
Islamic law within the Sunni tradition.)

A fresh crisis of authority arose, however, as it became evident that
the sayings of the Prophet were too numerous and internally
contradictory for all of them to be true. A new group of scholars set
out to establish rules for determining which sayings were most likely to
be true, and they gradually collected the most reliable of them into
books. Nevertheless, several centuries elapsed before these books of
“sound” traditions won recognition as the sole authoritative guides to
Muslim behavior.

The key to this recognition was the spread during the 12th and 13th
centuries of madrasas, Islamic seminaries that had first appeared in
Iran in the 10th century. Institutions such as al-Azhar in Cairo, the
Zaituna Mosque in Tunis, the Qarawiyin Madrasa in Fez, and clusters of
seminaries in Mecca and in Ottoman Istanbul and Bursa gained particular
eminence. The madrasas adopted the authoritative compilations of
prophetic traditions as a fundamental part of their curricula, along
with instruction in the Koran and the Arabic language. Other collections
were gradually forgotten. The Muslim religious schools of today, whether
grand edifices like al-Azhar and the Shiite seminaries at Qum in Iran,
or the myriad humble madrasas of Pakistan and pesantrens of Indonesia,
have roots in the resolution of this crisis of authority that arose more
than 800 years ago.

Even as the madrasas were being established, a new upheaval was
beginning. It grew out of the feeling of many common people—including
those in late-converting rural areas of the Middle East and more
recently Islamized lands in West Africa, the Balkans, and Central,
South, and Southeast Asia—that Islam had become too legalistic and
impersonal under the guidance of the scholars and madrasas. Religious
practice, these Muslims felt, had become a matter of obeying the sharia
and little else. The rise of Sufi brotherhoods beginning in the 13th
century was a response to this popular demand for a more intense
spiritual and communal life. Born in the Middle East, Sufism spread
quickly throughout the Muslim world. The Sufis made room for music,
dancing, chanting, and other manifestations of devotion that were not
permitted in the mosque. But Sufi practices did not supersede
conventional worship; the sheiks who led the Sufi brotherhoods provided
religious guidance that paralleled rather than opposed the authority
exercised by the established scholars and seminaries.

One can see in this capsule history of Islamic religious development a
demonstration of the fact that a faith with no central institution for
determining what is good or bad practice is bound to experience periodic
crises of authority. But this history also demonstrates that the Muslim
religious community has overcome every crisis it has confronted.

How will it overcome this one? There is no way to rebuild religious
authority on the old foundations. The modern state, the modern media,
and the modern citizen must be part of any solution. Islam’s history
suggests that any new institutions that grow out of the current crisis
will not supplant those already in place. Seminaries will continue to
impart to their students a mastery of fundamental legal and interpretive
texts, and their graduates will continue to issue weighty legal
opinions. Because Muslims retain a historical memory of being unified
under a caliphate—a powerful state predicated on Islamic teachings—the
dream of Islamic political unity will not disappear.

Any response to the current crisis must appeal to the many Muslims whose
spiritual, moral, and intellectual needs have not been met by the
faith’s traditional institutions. Fortunately, the violent, totalitarian
philosophy of bin Laden and his allies represents only one of the
possible responses. Others are more promising.

Throughout the Muslim world organizations modeled (consciously or
unconsciously) on the ancient Sufi brotherhoods but expounding
this-worldly interpretations of Islam have been able to attract
thousands of members. (A revival of Sufism itself seems to be underway
in Iran, Central Asia, and other areas.) In some ways resembling
political parties, but dedicated as well to the pursuit of social
welfare programs, these fraternal organizations often present themselves
as prototypes of a modern, nonclerical form of Islamic government. The
Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, and
the Hezbollah (Party of God) in Lebanon differ widely in their
interpretations of Islam, but they share a willingness to exist in a
modern political world of participatory institutions. The Islamic
Salvation Front actually triumphed in the first round of Algeria’s 1991
parliamentary elections and failed to take power only because the
Algerian military stepped in. The country has been convulsed by violence
ever since.

No one can safely predict whether the participation of such groups in an
electoral system would further the spread of democracy or simply give
them a platform for preaching noxious doctrines. Hezbollah leader Sheik
Muhammad Fadlallah, for example, has embraced the concept of a secular,
multiparty political system in Lebanon, even at the cost of alienating
some of the support within Iran for his Shiite group. But Hezbollah
originally rose to prominence in Lebanon through violence during the
country’s years of civil war (and it has continued its campaign against
Israel). Still, the fact that such groups formally advocate
participatory governing institutions—and that the Islamic Republic of
Iran has developed such institutions—does give reason for hope.

Another set of possibilities for change within Islam is provided by
educational and research institutions that exist independently of both
traditional seminaries and formal government educational systems. These
institutions provide venues for modern Muslim intellectuals to develop
new ideas about contemporary issues. They are as likely to be found in
London, Paris, and Washington as in Cairo and Istanbul—London’s
Institute of Islamic Political Thought and the Institute of Islamic and
Arabic Sciences in America, outside Washington, D.C., are leading
examples—and the thinkers they host often provide valuable guidance for
the growing population of Muslims living outside the Muslim world.

In some Muslim countries, governments now sponsor educational
institutions devoted to teaching about Islam from the perspective of the
contemporary world. The Institutes of Higher Islamic Studies in
Indonesia are a notable example. Some of these institutes may soon
become full-fledged universities offering both religious and secular

Iran may seem an unlikely quarter in which to look for encouragement,
but it too may provide some clues to the future direction of Islam.
There, an avowedly Islamic state is pursuing a unique experiment
integrating elections and other modern political elements into an
Islamic framework of government. Though Iran may prove to be the first
and only enduring Islamic republic, the intellectual trends that have
developed there, sometimes to the dismay of conservative religious
leaders with seminary backgrounds, encourage Muslims to think that a
lively intellectual life and engagement with worldwide currents of
thought can survive and flourish in a religious environment. Iran
remains far from a model republic, but the trajectory that has taken it
from being a country bent on the export of revolution to one with a
sizable electoral majority favoring liberalization is encouraging.

Finally, another source of innovation may be the substantial numbers of
secular Muslims who—contrary to the Western stereotype—live not only
outside the traditional boundaries of the Islamic world but within them.
Secular Muslim thinkers have been elaborating the idea of turath
(heritage) as a point of intersection between the past and a present in
which the particulars of religious law and practice seem irrelevant. In
engaging the “modern” Muslim intellectuals, these secularists are
striving to create legitimacy for non-observant forms of Islam.

Although these modernizers within contemporary Islam seem to work at
cross purposes as much as they work in concert, some sort of fusion
among them seems the most likely route to resolving today’s crisis of
authority. There is little possibility that nonobservant Muslim
intellectuals, ideologues of Islamic political parties, thinkers
attached to centers and institutes, and teachers in government-sponsored
religious schools will ever see eye to eye on everything. But in the
past, discord within Islam was often resolved when Muslim leaders agreed
to respect divergent views while recognizing a common interest in the
welfare of the global Muslim community. Muhammad himself declared, in
one of his most often-cited sayings, “The difference of opinion in my
community is a divine mercy.”

But more immediate action is needed than the development of long-term
concord within Islam. The ugly alternative is a “clash of civilizations”
like the one envisioned by Harvard University political scientist Samuel
Huntington and echoed in the propaganda of bin Laden and other
extremists. Polarizing the world between Islam and the West would serve
the interest of the people who fly airliners into skyscrapers; it would
spell tragedy for everybody else. Even if Islam’s uncertain authorities,
new and old, cannot agree on issues that might imply support for
American foreign policy, they should be able to recognize an oncoming
catastrophe and take measures to avoid it.

Islam’s leaders must act. The heads of Islamic centers and institutes
around the world, along with leading Muslim intellectuals of every
persuasion, must clarify the meaning of their faith. Non-Muslims in the
United States and other countries are eager for signs of leadership in
the Muslim world. They await an affirmation that the vision of a
peaceful, fraternal world embodied in Islam’s past and in the hearts of
most ordinary Muslims still guides the people who claim to speak in
Islam’s name. The crisis of September 11 can be the crucible in which
the tools for resolving Islam’s own crisis of authority are forged. The
lessons of the past encourage hope that Islam will find a path out of
its confusion of voices. We listen with hope in our hearts.

Originally published in The Wilson Quarterly Winter, 2002.  Reprinted in The American Muslim with permission of the author.  Richard W. Bulliet is Professor of History at Columbia University and has a book forthcoming titled “Islamo-Christian Civilization.”