Leading From Everywhere

The History of Centralized Islamic Religious Authority

A man reads the Koran at al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, March 10, 2010. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

The rapid rise of Daesh (also known as the Islamic State or ISIS) has triggered a debate about how “Islamic” the group actually is and whether an Islamic religious authority can counter its extreme ideology. 

The consensus among Muslim religious scholars is that although ISIS draws on some Sunni Islamic references, its interpretations and applications of those references lie far outside an acceptable range.

When it comes to an authoritative figure or body that can counter ISIS, matters are much more complex. It is well-known that there is no overarching state or nonstate body, such as a church or set of religious figures, that interprets and imposes one set of Islamic teachings. That is, there is also no formal institution like the Vatican or other ecclesiastical body for Muslims.

Muslims circle the Kaaba and pray during their Umrah Mawlid al-Nabawi pilgrimage, at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, January 13, 2014. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

But for centuries, the Sunnis have viewed clusters of scholars—ulama (“learned ones”)—as holding religious authority. These ulama have often come together under institutional setups, which in turn have become accepted as the communal litmus test for what can or cannot be considered “Islamic.” Aware of their significance, states and political authorities have often attempted to bring religious institutions or personalities under their protective wings—and tried to sway them in the process.

There are a number of such institutions across the Sunni Muslim world. There is the Qarawiyyeen in Morocco, the Kairouane in Tunisia, the Nahdlatul Ulama network in Indonesia, and the Dar al-Mustafa or Ribat al-Tarim in the Hadramawt governorate of Yemen. But none of these currently match the supranational prestige of the Azhar in Egypt, established more than a thousand years ago by the Fatimid dynasty in Cairo.

In all cases, the authority of these institutions—more moral than political—rests on a century-old process comparable to academic peer review. The system emphasizes continuity but is open to evolution of the

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