Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies

Islamic Studies Program

Authority in Islam: The Dialectics of Fragmentation and Plurality

The fragmentation and diffusion of religious authority have been among the most fiercely contested phenomena among Muslims. They also have been among the least studied in the West. A cause for anxiety among the ‘ulamā’; a source of tension among nations, states, and communities; a catalyst for (usually, counterproductive) state involvement in religious affairs throughout the world, in places where Muslims are both minorities or the majority; a reason for pride – or dishonor – among individuals and families; and also one of the main sources of confusion for outside observers.

Through a series of international workshops we aim to assess and analyze the causes, spectrum, and consequences of (seemingly) increasingly diverse, decentralized and disjointed practices of religious authority in Muslim societies, both regionally and comparatively. Selected contributions from the workshops will be published in peer-reviewed books now under contract with Indiana University Press. The first workshop was convened at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., in March of 2017, with a geographic focus on Muslim Eurasia, a region that presentely includes roughly one-hundred million Muslims. The workshop featured 25 scholars from the United States, Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, whose work focused on Islam in Russia and Central Asia. Please visit the 2017 conference website for further details.


Religious authority – namely, the recognized capacity of an individual or an institution to sanction the undertaking of religious acts, both private and public [1] – affects many Muslims (and non-Muslims) in their everyday lives as well as in exceptional circumstances. Whether derived from culturally accepted traditions, from legal and bureaucratic norms, from charismatic or successful individuals, or from unique personal or communal experiences religious authority has an enormous impact on the behavior of Muslims everywhere.[2]

Recently, we seem to be under the perception of a growing fragmentation and decentralization of religious authority in the Muslim world. No particular locale or community appear to be unaffected by the phenomenon. Internet sites, videos, “social” media, TV programs, ad-hoc establishments, itinerant carriers of religious messages, everyone and anyone now seems to be able to cast himself or herself as an authority-wielding Muslim. While increasing decentralization has been always a component of any religion, developments in the recent couple of centuries may have hastened the process considerably.

In this context, it seems that the “crisis” of the scholars of Islam (‘ulamā’) has been given the most attention, particularly when the state constrains the scope of their functions and controls their juridical output. Intensifying appeals from the scholars, judges, imams, and leaders of official religious boards and organizations who are widely regarded as the guardians, transmitters and interpreters of religious knowledge, doctrine and law to regulate Islam (and, in essence, to reclaim their increasingly diminishing power) seem to fall on deaf ears. The ‘ulamā’s anxiety over the fragmentation of religious authority is particularly noticeable in their characterization of the trend in terms of fawḍā – namely, chaos or anarchy.[3]

Attempts to counter this phenomenon have been many and the reaction by ‘ulamā’ all over the world to – what amounts, practically – the defiance of their authority serve to exemplify how potent this issue has become.[4] The so-called 2005 Amman Message (Risālat Amān), for example, was a reaction to widespread “disobedience” concerning Muslim identity and the treatment of non-Muslims. One of the main issues of concern was the lack of control over who could issue legal opinions (fatwās) and what such opinions should entail.[5] Calls to regulate fatwās have been growing in lieu with what mainstream officials consider al-fatāwa al-shādhdhah (shādhdhah which ranges in meaning from isolated, uncommon, irregular or odd to even deviant or abnormal).[6]

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At the heart of this current debate stands what some scholars have termed a ‘Crisis of Authority’, stemming from Muslims’ reactions to constructions of ‘modernity’ and to the West, to the advent of new modes of knowledge transmission, including vernacularism, print culture, new media, and new and more immediate opportunities and challenges, in a process that has been going on for approximately two centuries.[7]

These assessments, however, offer only a partial view on the causes of the perceived fragmentation of authority in Islam. Indeed, the view of “fragmentation” in contemporary Islam originates from a discourse that takes states’ monopolies over the definition and exercise of religious authority as a given. It also posits the multiplicity, plurality, and diversity of religious authority as manifestations of (potential) opposition to the state. However, the pluralism of religious authority was not just a reaction to modernizing trends and authoritarian states for the diversity of religious authority predates, in fact, modernizing currents. Indeed, religious authority, as experienced by many, if not most of the Muslim practitioners, rests only partially in the hands of the state officials. In addition, we wish to emphasize that Muslims tend to view authority in flexible terms and beyond the legal sphere – e.g., a dream, an omen, an advice from a teacher or a respected member of the family, a blessing bestowed during a visit to a sacred tomb, etc. It is therefore our conviction that historicizing the manifestations and the many embodiments of authority should yield a better framework for understanding its significance in Islam, its developments and trajectories.

The Proposed Series of Workshops

We envision a series of workshops, each focusing on a particular region – Muslim Eurasia (focusing on Russia and Central Asia), Africa (with an emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa), and South Asia – each with both methodological and comparative dimensions.

In each region – and then comparatively – we aim to assess the landscape of diverse Muslim authorities, identify types of authorities (institutional, communal, personal), their sources of legitimation, their modes of transmission (textual, scriptural, aural, visual, interactive), their connections to external (regional, national, global) centers or models of religiosity; as well as their relations with the state and among different dimensions or practitioners of authority. We engage not only the sources of authority but also responses to religious authority among Muslims.

Some guiding questions for our inquiries include: Has there been a growing localization of Muslim authority despite (or because of) ongoing efforts to centralize Muslim religious authority? What are the internal dynamics of the Muslim experiences in this region vis-à-vis religious authority? Is there – particularly in an era where “globalization” seems to set the frame of inquiry, where transportation to and communication with different parts of the world is so much easier, where the online/virtual component of our daily lives is so commanding – a reaction against centralized, supposedly legitimate authorities? Is the localization of authority initiated or dictated from above? Or has this always been the case and the localized dimension of Muslim authority is, simply, an ever-present, complementary dimension to the more ‘universal’ Muslim experience? What is the role of the Salafist challenges to the madhhabs and taqlid in producing the “free-for-all” manifesting itself now on various fronts?

We recognize that speaking of authority’s “fragmentation” or “diffusion” or “decentralization” raises different sets of problems in each case, and signals different sets of assumptions. We also recognize that speaking of any of them, however, suggests that authority was, once upon a time, whole, concentrated, and centralized. We argue that only by historicizing debates about religious authority and by distinguishing the reality of decentralized and multivalent authority prevailing through Muslim existence will we be able to understand the appearance of fragmentation against the backdrop of “globalization.” In other words, there are multiple kinds of decentralization; some were the rule through much of Muslim history, while another appears ironically significant because of contemporary expectations about the direction of “global change,” which in some circles means toward homogenization (or, foreign homogeneity, in some strands of thought), while precisely the opposite, perhaps, is happening. The time frame for our inquiry is from the mid-eighteenth century to the present.

[1] We are, of course, conscious that “authority” should not be conceptualized solely in terms of power relations and should be understood also “in contradistinction to both coercion by force and persuasion through arguments” (see Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?” in Between Past and Future, New York: Penguin, 1968).
[2] To understand more fully what we mean by ‘authority’ in Islam, consult Devin DeWeese, “Authority,” in Key Themes for the Study of Islam, edited by Jamal J. Elias (Oxford: Oneworld, 2010), 26-52. For an excellent survey of religious Authority in Islam see Asma Afsaruddin’s entry in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, 3rd edition (eds., K. Fleet, G. Krämer, D. Matringe, J. Nawas, and E. Rowson): "Authority, religious" (subscription to Brill Online required).
[3] See also in this regard, Michael Slackman's June 11, 2007, article in the New York Times: "A fatwa free-for-all in the Islamic world."
[4] See recent interviews and sermons by Mehmet Görmez, head of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı); Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar in Cairo; Muhammad Taqi Usmani, mufti and shikhul Islam of Pakistan and Chairman of the International Shariah Standard Council in Bahrain; Kyai al-Hajj Ali Musthafa Ya'qub, grand imam of the Istiqal mosque in Jakarta; Syed Ahmed Bukhari, Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid in Delhi, etc.
[5] Meetings along the Amman model continue until today, for example, in the gatherings of the Islamic Fiqh Academy (IFA), boasting a membership from 40 countries, from Brunei to Burkina Faso.
[6] Also the title of an influential 2010 book by the noted Egyptian theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
[7] See for example, Francis Robinson, “Crisis of Authority: Crisis of Islam?,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series 3, 19/3 (2009): 339-54.

Islamic Studies Program
Global and International Studies Building 2022
355 North Jordan Ave.
Bloomington, IN 47405-1105
Phone: 812-856-3977