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 faith’s application. As a result, the ulama generally allow for a level of plurality but have defined the parameters within which interpretations could still remain acceptable.

Over the past century, Egypt’s educational institutions, including the Azhar, have seen their independence diminished, their resources depleted, and thus their standards deteriorated. This lack of rigorous religious education has even enabled ISIS to find recruits from among the student body, a subset of Egyptian society that should be the most immune to such radical thought.

Within classical Sunni Islam, there are four extant schools of law, three main approaches to theology, and a multitude of Sufi orders that emphasize Islam’s mystical aspects. Historically, the Azhari establishment, which follows classical Sunnism, has been highly pluralistic not only in recognizing the breadth of Sunnism as valid but also in what it would actually teach. In the twentieth century, there was even a brief attempt to incorporate Shiism, albeit under certain conditions, a step that would probably be impossible in today’s highly sectarian environment. Meanwhile, the Qarawiyyeen and the Kairouane recognize the validity of the entirety of the Sunni tradition but would typically teach only one rite of Sunni law to proficiency. It is the same for the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Dar al-Mustafa.

The typical Azhari approach to Sunni Islam (called the Azhari minhaj) touted another kind of openness as well—that human understanding and application of Islam will necessarily be shaped by circumstance. It’s an approach that predates the Azhar as the standard classical Sunni position, with the general point of Islamic practice being not to impose hardship but to facilitate the lives of believers. At the same time, historically speaking, interpretations and practices of Islam have been mediated via this peer-review system of respected and learned figures.

The classical Sunni ecumenical approach that the Azhar adopts has been at the heart of the Sunni cultural wars over the last 200 years. For example, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s purist Salafism (often known as Wahhabism), which began in the late 1700s, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s “modernist Salafism,” which has its roots in the early 1900s, were reactions to classical Sunnism, albeit in different ways. Purist Salafis not only reject ecumenism but also stress a literal reading of the religious texts and largely refuse to accept the established body of qualified interpretation. They are suspicious of what they regard as freewheeling interpretations and excessive flexibilities within the Azhari and classical Sunni minhaj. Modernist Salafis have other objections but are also distinct from the classical Sunnism of Azhar’s historical approach, which they tend to view as obscurantist in its scholasticism. In response, proponents of the historical Azhari tradition view both the purists and the modernists as simply having a poor command of the complexity of the Sunni tradition (or turath).

Muslim students walk inside the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Egypt, May 7, 2015.
Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

When it comes to Islamic authority, and its ability to fight extremism, however, many of these institutions suffer from a general decline in legitimacy. One example is the Azhar. Although it still commands a considerable degree of respect, it has trouble appearing independent from politics—especially among those who see it as a mouthpiece of the state. It did not help that in January, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made a speech in which he appeared to direct Azhari scholars to start a “religious revolution” to combat extremism.

Over the past century, Egypt’s educational institutions, including the Azhar, have seen their independence diminished, their resources depleted, and thus their standards deteriorated. The Azhari educational structure has been altered tremendously and for many reasons no longer produces as many highly trained, literate, and sophisticated scholars. Al-Azhar University, considered the preeminent Sunni religious school, is struggling to preserve its historical approach to the religious sciences among not just its students but also many of its faculty.

Further, the Azhari minhaj is not always passed on with the same level of refinement and comprehensiveness it once was. Indeed, it is often not taught at all—and that has massive ramifications for graduates. This lack of rigorous religious education has even enabled ISIS to find recruits from among the student body, a subset of Egyptian society that should be the most immune to such radical thought. A student from Al-Azhar University feeling any sympathy with ISIS is far more peculiar than a student from the Catholic Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome choosing life as a fiery Baptist preacher. But it can happen when religious educational standards suffer.

Along with educational standards, internal authority has also taken a nosedive. Although the Azhar still inspires respect in many quarters, the existing institution is often derided as politically co-opted and increasingly irrelevant, even by those within its own ranks. Much of the problem lies in the fact that the Azhar is essentially part of the Egyptian state. Its endowments have been nationalized, and therefore the institution is financially dependent on the government. Egyptian law governs its internal structure. Its current head, Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, was appointed by the ousted leader Hosni Mubarak (though the next head will be selected by the Higher Council of Ulama rather than the president). Although Sisi’s call for religious revolution, in other words, may have appeared frank and refreshing to some, it would have sounded all too familiar and commanding to those within the Azhar who are resentful of how the state challenges their autonomy.

Men pray and read the Koran at Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, May 8, 2014.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

The Azhar also lacks an authoritative voice. Tayeb is sometimes criticized within the institution as being isolated or aloof from other Azhar scholars. Azhar itself is also considerably more diverse. The faculty and student body now include Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and those with less regimented religious outlooks. This is quite different from how the Azhar used to be.

That plurality has created an ideological split among the faculty. Most members of the upper echelons of the Azhar tend to view the Muslim Brotherhood with condescension and suspicion—of using religion for political purposes, much the way a bookish theologian might regard a Bible-thumping politician in the United States. There are the more traditional Azhari scholars who promote the Azhari minhaj, along with those who do not. As a result, the Azhar does not speak with a single voice even to those who accept its authority.

When the establishment does try to speak with a single voice, it is usually an attempt to project authority without directly claiming it. Authority is further diminished when those who issue fatwa (pronounced judgments relating to religious teachings) are not trained jurists but specialize (not always successfully) in other religious fields. Still, the Azhar does believe that lay Egyptian Muslims should follow their scholars’ interpretations when understanding Islamic law, just as a person would see a doctor for medical needs, since understanding the intricacies of Islamic religious thought requires intensive training that not everyone can or does undertake.

With the Azhar institution caught between its sense of mission and the desires of the country’s political leadership, with its sometimes confusing plurality of voices and its traditional approach to the religious sciences, it has been unable to speak in a single, credible voice. And in the Muslim world today, where consumers of religious teachings have access to many more options than in the past, the result is that Islamic authority is real but fragmented. That division might, on the one hand, be seen as pluralistic and enriching, but it can also be confusing for lay believers and frustrating for specialized religious scholars.

As long as that fragmentation and misuse of religious authority remains, it will be difficult to move past what has already taken place—a plurality among Muslim religious scholars that ISIS is deviant and that its interpretations are willfully divergent from the tradition of classical Sunnism. But beyond ISIS, these issues around religious authority and education remain—and are likely to produce continued cacophony among many Sunni Muslims in the future.

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  • H. A. HELLYER is a nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy, Associate Fellow in Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, and Research Associate at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School.
  • NATHAN J. BROWN is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and a nonresident Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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