Home>Crisis of Authority, Crisis of Islam

Crisis of Authority, Crisis of Islam

May 2, 2011

Talks & Interviews

Francis Robinson


Francis Robinson, Sultan of Oman Fellow, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, and Professor of History of South Asia, Royal Holloway, University of London was invited to deliver a talk on the “Crisis of Authority, Crisis of Islam” at the CPPG on Thursday April 21, 2011.

Dr. Robinson opened his remarks by stating his thesis that there had been a growing crisis of Islamic authority in the past 200 years set in motion by European conquests of the Muslim world between 1800 and 1920. This crises had affected all aspects of Muslim society including the modes of wielding power, the system of justice, culture, values, literature and most importantly religious authority. From the outset, Islamic civilization was fashioned primarily through God’s revelation, the Quran to humankind through Prophet Muhammad. However, the process of interpretation had undergone massive transformation in the past 200 years such that authority of much of the past scholarship had been rejected while that of the traditional interpreters, the Ulema had been marginalized. Instead individual conscience and interpretation had gained significance leading to a crisis of authority as no one knew any longer of who spoke for Islam.

“Till 1800, religious authority, the capacity to produce authoritative interpretation and the permission to transmit great scholarly works of the past lay with the Ulema.”

Elaborating his argument, he began with the establishment and sustenance of authority in the Muslim world. The process began with the emergence of Muhammad, a charismatic prophet, and his successful assertion of authority in the Arab world. Quran was explicit about how Muhammad’s role as a messenger translated the omnipotence of Allah into the comprehensive authority of Muhammad. After Muhammad’s death, the succession to authority was bitterly contested as numerous groups differed over the method of achieving authoritative understanding of the revelation. Eventually a majority Sunni consensus emerged under the Abassid caliphate whereby religious authority came to be routinized in the role of Ulema, the learned men. The Ulema transmitted the essence of knowledge of the Quran and Hadith across generations through the transmission of skills to future Ulema such as Arabic grammar and syntax, jurisprudence and rhetoric to make this knowledge socially useful in the form of law. However, they did not retain an independent sphere of authority as the ruler always tried to subordinate their authority to his own purposes. Still, the Ulema were at the heart of shaping and sustaining Muslim society.

The Shia, the party of Muhammad’s son in law Ali who contested the leadership of the Muslim community with the first three elected Caliphs, came to argue that Irqam, the divine light which had blessed Muhammad, had flowed down through Ali and his bloodline making them Imams (leaders) of the Shia community. The transmitted comprehensive authority persisted in Shii Imams till the disappearance of the 12th Imam in 874 AD. This created the possibility of continued charisma in the form of representatives or reincarnations of the hidden Imam leading to greater flexibility in their jurisprudential tradition as compared to the Sunnis, as was demonstrated in the years of the Iranian revolution when Ayatullah Khomeini came to be called Imam Khomeini.

The authorities of interpretation were sustained among the Shia and Sunni Ulema till the 19th century through an oral tradition as the Prophet had transmitted God’s messages to his followers and when they were written down a few years after this death, it was only as an aid to memory and oral transmission. The Ulema followed a process of oral transmission to transfer knowledge to their students and once a student had successfully memorized the knowledge, they would be given permission (an “Ijaza”) to publish or transmit this knowledge. This authority of the orally transmitted Quran became evident when the Egyptian standard edition in 1920s was produced not from a study of variant manuscript versions but from a study of fourteen different traditions of recitation. Thus, the best way of getting to the truth, the most authoritative understanding of text was to listen to the author himself. So, Muslim scholars constantly traveled through the Islamic world till they could receive authoritative transmission of knowledge. When they could not get knowledge from the author himself, they strove to get it from a scholar whose chain of transmission from the original author (Isnaat) was considered most reliable. It was this preference which led to Ulema’s rejection of print for centuries because print undermined both the authority of person to person transmission as well as the Ulema’s monopoly of interpretation of religious knowledge.

Till 1800, religious authority, the capacity to produce authoritative interpretation and the permission to transmit great scholarly works of the past lay with the Ulema. However over the past 200 years, this system for the authoritative transmission of Islamic knowledge and its authoritative interpretation had broken down and increasingly each individual Muslim had come to assume responsibility for interpretation. Thus scholarly authority had become fragmented, old hierarchies had flattened and old interpreted disciplines sidelined. All kinds of new interpreters of the faith had come forward and new interpretations promulgated.

“… deeply felt loss of power precipitated a crisis of authority because it was understood as a Muslim failure, the failure of the Ulema and of them not being good enough Muslims.”

Robinson then proceeded to analyze the reasons for this change. The first source of this change was the Western conquest of the Muslim world between 1800 and 1920. For about 1200 years Islam was synonymous with power but by the 19th-20th century however, the Islamic world system was overwhelmed by Europe. The Indian subcontinent, home to nearly a third of the world’s Muslims was a case in point. Although India had enjoyed industrial and economic progress, the British policy showed an utter contempt for Indian learning, which also included sources of Muslim civilization. Grants made by Muslim rulers to support the scholarship and teaching of Ulema were abolished. Instead, new forms of knowledge had to be mastered to succeed in the world of Western dominance. Thus, able Indian Muslims went less to the great Muslim madrassas of Arabia and Egypt and more to London, Paris, Oxford or Cambridge. Power seeped away from the old Muslim heartlands of Delhi and Lucknow to the new European cities of the coast.

The outcome was a pervading sorrow of the passing of Muslim greatness. The psychological response to this loss of power of the Muslim civilization led to the expression of anger in the Khilafat movement when the Ottoman Empire was dismembered almost a century before the Salman Rushdie or the cartoon crises. This deeply felt loss of power precipitated a crisis of authority because it was understood as a Muslim failure, the failure of the Ulema and of them not being good enough Muslims. The crisis of authority was further exacerbated by the responses of Ulema and other Muslims as they grappled with the changed situation. Firstly, a number of Ulema began to shred the old basis of authority by rejecting much of past scholarship. Shah Waliullah, and later Sir Syed Ahmed Khan were among notable scholars who rejected classical scholarship. By mid 20th century, groups of Indian Muslims had become increasingly selective about where to derive authority from. Secondly, in response to missionary activity and Western secular system of education in the 19th century, the Ulema began to use print to translate the Quran, Hadith and classical scholarship into vernacular languages along with expanding the Madrassa system to build a constituency in Muslim society. Thus attacking the heart of authority, the oral person to person transmission. Thirdly, the reforming Ulema began to develop what some have called a “Protestant or Willed Islam”, attacking all ideas of intercession such as shrines and even Sufism, endeavored to develop and inform the individual human conscience as the force to fashion a Muslim society in the absence of Islamic political power. This put new emphasis on personal engagement with text in languages that people could understand, and printed for wide availability to cater for increased literacy. Print played its role in making text widely available which was combined with the growth in literacy.

“… individual conscience and interpretation had gained significance leading to a crisis of authority as no one knew any longer of who spoke for Islam.”

As consequences, emerged lay interpreters who frequently drew inspiration from West and Muslims who felt empowered by a personal sense of responsibility to make God’s revelation live on earth. These were modern Muslims as envisaged by Muhammad Iqbal, the leading 20th century Muslim philosopher. His idea of man as God’s caliph or successor on earth was taken up by reformers, Ulema and others across the Muslim world. Thus, by mid twentieth century, the authority of Ulema was fragmented and less central to the working of Muslim society. Instead, a new type of Muslim began to emerge who might note what the Ulema or the Islamist said but would engage with the text personally, form own conclusions and pursue own conscience.

“…Ulema had become just one among the many voices clamoring to be heard and the Muslim world had returned to the interpretative anarchy that marked its initial years.”

Robinson then articulated that several developments had further led to the fragmentation of religious authority in the second half of the 20th century. First, as the newly independent Muslim states (eg. Pakistan, Indonesia & others) got engaged in the Cold War and then with global capitalism, ordinary Muslims understood their elites’ deep engagement with political and economic interests of the outside forces. As the Ulema were paid functionaries in many Muslim states, their authority suffered as it was exercised within the context of Western domination. Second, the growth of mass education and literacy stimulated the mass development of print media so the context in which authority operated became very different from that of 50 years ago. Third, the growth of new media including audio and video cassettes, CDs, television and the internet democratized knowledge. Lastly, transnational movements of people also undermined authority.

Thus now, the Ulema had become just one among the many voices clamoring to be heard and the Muslim world had returned to the interpretative anarchy that marked its initial years leading to new problems as well as encouraging possibilities. One problematic outcome was the lack of authoritative religious leadership to counter those who wanted to serve their faith through extreme violence and terror. While encouraging was that the relative opening of space had and would lead to new interpretations, which may in time have authority. Elaborating, he gave examples of Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, Professor of law at UCLA, who had produced powerful arguments for democracy, pluralism and gender equality from within the Islamic intellectual jurisprudential tradition, and Amina Wadud, an African American Islamic scholar, who had led a mixed prayer congregation in 2005 and was part of a movement of women scholars to unpick and shred the traditional patriarchal interpretation of Quran.

In conclusion, he dwelled on whether this crisis of religious authority translated into a crisis of Islam. He argued that although the crisis allowed some interpretations which were against the spirit of the faith, still it may be the makings of modern Islam and Muslim societies as it empowered millions of Muslims as individual believers, trustees, successors and caliphs of God to engage with the text and exercise their consciences. He emphasized that an understanding of this crisis provided insight into the problems of contemporary Muslim world and also offered hope for the future as out of this religious change, there lay prospects for future social and political developments.

The talk was followed by a question answer session. Responding to a question regarding Muslim rulers’ use of Ulema for political purposes, he said that it started very early on and both in Baghdad and Damascus, the state took enormous interest in engaging with the Ulema. But throughout Muslim history, there had been tensions between the rulers and the Ulema, who in theory acknowledged only the authority of God. He stated that a great change had taken place in the relationship between an individual and the sovereign God, as opposed to the relationship between a state and the sovereign God.