Lessons From A Grand Ayatollah

A.A Khalid has contributed this post for PTH. The central message is: With Iijtihad, rationality and pluralism, Muslim societies can counter violent forms of religious fanaticism Raza Rumi

By now we would have all heard about in one way or another about the death of one of Iran’s leading dissident senior clerics, Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri. However, few will recognize some of the lessons that can be learnt from his career and religious thought. The story oft-repeated is that Montazeri was much loved by Khomeini designated to be his successor; he was one of the architects of the Revolution, propping up the theory of Vilayat-e-Faqih (Supreme Jurisprudent). But he fell out with Khomeini over issues of human right abuses and the draconian treatment of political opponents and prisoners.

Montazeri once described as ‘’the fruit of my life’’ by Khomeini is stripped of his position and put under house arrest for more than a decade. In the end Montazeri turns against the very thing he sought to establish. He opposes his own creation for what it has become. This perhaps showed the Grand Ayatollah’s intellectual integrity and moral courage, which is found lacking in many religious leaders across the Muslim World today.

Montazeri was the spiritual head, and one of the intellectual and religious leaders of the Green Movement. An inspirational figure that argued for democracy, a form of secularism compatible with religious sensibilities and greater human rights. He was the ruling regime’s worst nightmare; a cleric with such distinguished learning is not so easy to brush away. Montazeri’s religious and revolutionary credentials were impeccable, so he could never be accused of being a ‘’liberal agent’’ something which Muslim reformers face from their more conservative and radical co-religionists.

But the lesson to be learnt from this is to be careful for what you wish for. Montazeri campaigned passionately for an ‘’Islamic Revolution’’, but in the end he protested that the state:

“The System Has No Religious Merit”

http://www.qantara.de/webcom/show_article.php/_c-476/_nr-1196/i.html

Montazeri Fatwas:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2009/07/grand-ayatollah-montazeris-fatwa.html

His damming fatwa of the regime was one of the sharpest criticisms by a member of the clergy, and other clerics follow his example:

http://www.qantara.de/webcom/show_article.php/_c-476/_nr-1179/_p-1/i.html

The fact of the matter is that many clerical figures and religious intellectuals in Iran are now severely criticising the regime and calling for a reform of religious knowledge and encouraging rationalism within the Muslim faith. There are also calls for a secularism which is compatible with religious sensibilities, not because religion is deficient but because it is sacred and needs to be protected from the stain of power politics. Religion in the hands of those drunk with power debases religion, portraying it as a system of totalitarianism rather than a source of spiritual nourishment and ethical elevation.

The lesson not just for those in Iran but also for the whole Muslim World is to be careful for what you wish for. There are parties in Pakistan calling for an ‘’Islamic Revolution’’, but take heed of what is happening just across the border. Furthermore, the presence of courageous clerics and astute religious intellectuals in Iran such as the late Montazeri must make Pakistanis aware of the dearth of a sensible religious discourse in Pakistan. Within Pakistan there is a dearth of sensible and articulate religious personalities. Most indulge in demagoguery, are unlearned which is in complete contrast with the theoretical sophistication of the Iranian reformist clergy. The reformists in Iran may be politically over-powered but intellectually and religiously speaking they are on more solid ground:

http://www.qantara.de/webcom/show_article.php/_c-476/_nr-317/i.html

For Pakistanis this must be a wake up call, given the religious fanaticism and intolerance across some sections of society. Where are the Pakistani religious intellectuals calling for a union of faith and rationality, democracy and spirituality, human rights and compassion? With many religious leaders still thinking the Taliban are a conspiracy made up of outside agents, it just shows the inadequacies of the religious classes. Unable to articulate a coherent and pluralistic discourse, it creates a vacuum, which the Taliban and its supporters are only too happy to fill. Intellectuals are meant to channel the conscience of a people and of a nation, and in a religious society, religious intellectuals are best placed to carry out critique and dissent.

But perhaps the biggest lesson Pakistanis can learn from their neighbours is that a discourse of religious intellectualism, which emphasizes ijtihad (in the sense of an open intellectual pursuit, criticism and debate), rationality and pluralism, is the biggest weapon a society can possess against religious fanaticism. Without it bullets and rockets are useless, since it is not just terrorists and religious fanatacists we confront but their mutated and distorted religious ideology.

One of the biggest verdicts Montazeri passed was to call for the acceptance and recognition of the Baha’i (an offshoot similar to that of the Ahmedi faith which is seen as heretical by most mainstream Muslims) as Iranian citizens deserving of equal rights and responsibilities:

‘’They (the Baha’i) are the citizens of this country; they have the right of citizenship and to live in this country. Furthermore, they must benefit from the Islamic compassion which is stressed in Quran and by the religious authorities’’

Such a verdict issued by a Pakistani religious authority would seem impossible given the current climate.

In Iran there is a recognizable school of thought which can be termed as progressive and liberal yet solidly grounded in the religious tradition, indeed there is even an association of clerics in Iran called the Assembly of Qom Seminary Scholars and Researchers (also Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom), who are pro-reform and are critical of authoritarianism in the name of faith. A Pakistani equivalent is hard to find, and the reasons why Iran has a thriving discourse of religious reformism and liberalism while Pakistan lags behind is curious as both countries share some commonalities, is something which must require some introspection.

What’s more apart from a reformist faction of clerics Iran has religious intellectuals like AbdolKarim Soroush. Soroush in fact has a theory that the reason in Pakistan and indeed Afghanistan radical and puritanical ideologies seem to flourish is there because there is no discourse of ‘’religious intellectualism’’.

Until Pakistanis realise the need for a sensible and articulate religious discourse inspired by Montazeri and other clerics in Iran, the Taliban and the very ideology they represent will not easily go away. There also many lessons we can learn from this ‘’Good Ayatollah’’.

Until Pakistanis realise that it not the state which makes society religious, but rather the society which makes the state religious and that religious faith cannot be instituted and imposed by the State but rather must be allowed to grow freely like a beautiful rose free from coercion as the Quran emphasizes time and time again, Pakistanis will not be able to get past the multitude of distorted ‘’Islamic’’ ideologies plaguing Pakistani discourse.

15 Comments

Filed under Pakistan

15 responses to “Lessons From A Grand Ayatollah

  1. Straight Talker

    —-Edited, deleted for repeated same sectarian line in one comment after another.

    Mr. Straight talker/Rashid (among many other handles that you have assumed over the past year): Enough of your rant at PTH. You have nothing to add to discussions. Your comments have been censored before, but you stubbornly keep coming back chanting the same Lahori Ahmediyya rants that you have been chanting for a few months now. I will delete your comments completely from now on and will ask all other moderators to do the same, once they see you posting here under Straight Talker or any new identity you may want to assume. It takes just two to three comments to recognize you. (AZW – Moderator).

  2. P. Vengaayam

    While I can understand from the articles here that the Jamaat-e-islami has caused much trouble in Pakistan, they do not seem to be involved in banning yahoo, google, etc. from Pakistan, and neither are they involved in the drama of “protecting the freedom of speech of Hafiz Saeed, head of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-toiba”. So can someone on the ground in Pakistan please clarify: does this mean the Jamaat-e-islami has complete hold of the Pakistani Army and the Civilian establishment, since it is the army that is supposedly in control of Pakistan right now.

  3. A.A Khalid

    Is it the goal to make the state religious?

    Well I am not saying that this is a normative goal for any given state, but Islam in Pakistan is well observed, it is the majority religion and many people claim it informs their political thinking. If the majority of a country is religious then naturally the state will become religious through democratic forces, but if a state is agnostic then naturally French style secularism will emerge. I do believe there can be a compromise by the introducing ”soft secularism”, by establishing an institutional divide between the State and religious authority but nevertheless recognizing religion’s role in the public sphere.

    The two are different hence YLHs article misses the point, its necessary I feel to separate Religion from the State, but dividing Religion from politics is impossible in a religious society. It is also my contention that Jinnah urged for this objective (institutional secularism), rather than the subjective variety (eliminating religion’s role in the public sphere). There are different types of secularisms, and I feel YLH has ignored this crucial distinction. Jinnah was a secularist but not in the French tradition, more in line with the Lockean and American (Madisonian) traditions.

    Just see the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies on the issue of Islam and Democracy in Pakistan, it is a revealing read.

    What has happened in Pakistan as the article by YLH has not been entirely true and is not the full picture.

    Yes an authoratarian and regressive religiosity has been exerting great influence, but the historically secular institute of the Army (pre Zia and pre Afghanistan) has also retarded the country’s political development. Pakistan has moved between both mosque and military.

    Furthermore, Pakistanis have never voted for religious parties en masse, hence holding the religious parties responsible for political failures is questionable from an empirical basis.

    If society makes the state religious through democratic processes than we will see a religiosity and a political theology which is if not liberal will be at least pragmatic and rational since democratic discourse is about compromise, debate and deliberation.

    This is indeed what is happening in Iran with the reform movement and the divide among the clergy in terms of reformist and conservative.

    Hence through the democratic discourse the religiosity of the people will become a democratic religiosity which treasures freedom as a friend of faith and liberty as a gift of God.

    I think the fact religion in Pakistan is not debated and deliberated frankly and thoroughly in the public sphere and is monpolized by a few factions is a great failure.

    The fact liberals shun the potential transformative effects of evolving and creating a liberal religiosity is shocking and opens up a vacuum for conservatives.

    This has been the failure, to not build on Jinnah’s vision by indigenizing his discourse and grounding his political thought into a more substantive religiosity.

  4. A.A Khalid

    It is one to thing to blame the Ulama and indeed they are worthy of this blame, but where is the counter discourse? Where is the liberal religious alternative? Where is our Montazeri? Where are our progressive theologians? Where are our enlightened jurists and scholars?

    Where is the discourse of a liberal, democratic public Islam? Where is the liberal political theology?

    The reason people follow the ulema in religion is because there is simply no alternative, be it at the grassroots level, social discourse, media outlets or in popular literature. Where is the choice that people can make to move away from the ulema? Where are the alternatives?

  5. Tilsim

    @ AA Khalid

    In Pakistan, in my view it’s more difficulty to have a counter religious discourse (liberal religous alternative) then to be avowedly secular in Pakistan. The possibility of violence is much greater.

    It strikes me that Montazeri had authority and was a political beast through his association with Khomeini. In Pakistan, reformist scholars such as Javed Ghamdi or Fazlur Rahman have been promoted by the State at one point or another but they did not have institutional authority and were not active politically. So, yes we probably have not had a Montazeri after perhaps say Iqbal (I use these comparisons very losely).

    That said, even then the Mullahs went for the jugulars of Fazlur Rahman and Javed Ghamdi and threats of violence followed. They had to leave the country and the State did not protect them.

    If our State does not want to get lost to fundamentalism, it has to fight back. Otherwise for decades now, the fundamentalists are continuing to penetrate every organ of the State because they know the Pakistani public will not vote them in. Some think it may be too late (for the moderates in the State to fight back) but I think it can still go either way as the public are reacting to terrorism and the reality of Taliban Islam.

  6. A.A Khalid

    Thank you AG3L.

    As far as Majaad Nawaaz is concerned I have great respect for his work and great admiration for his courage. However, there can be serious disagreements with some parts of his work but on the whole the type of discourse he offers must be seen as an improvement because at least you can have a discussion and a debate.

    Tilsim:

    Of course I totally agree in Pakistan it is difficult to be a religious liberal than to be totally secular (almost an ambivalent agnostic attitude is even easier than to be a religious liberal).

    I agree on your commentary on the cases of Ghamidi and Rahman. Rahman especially is a giant in the discourse of Islamic reformism, and in the far east in Indonesia and Malaysia his influence and his work have had a lasting effect, it is a shame because of intimidations and death threats he could not have as a big an impact in his own country.

    I do wonder if the State could promote a more liberal religiosity? Surely if the State tries to enforce and coercively establish a religiosity be it liberal or conservative it is authoratarian? I mean perhaps the State can take actions in terms of the madrassahs and the religious education of the country, but it would be an awesome challenge.

    I think it has been seen the State cannot really have an impact by supporting certain progressive scholars. Instead the State needs to take a more grass roots approach in establishing an alternative discourse. State sponsored religious teaching is fraught with hazards as it can be seen in Egypt, where the State controls the religious discourse totally not even allowing dissent.

    Its a delicate task for the State to play, I agree it is time for the State to do something about the increasingly regressive nature of the religious discourse. Perhaps redefining structures of religious authority and education in a gradual fashion, and to embark on a modernization process.

    We just have to be careful that in allowing the State to fight of the beasts extremism and fundamentalism it does not create another in the form of authoratarianism.

  7. Tilsim

    @AA Khalid

    I have an equal dislike and fear of a State sponsored version of Islam but it seems to be a model with a lot of historic and contemporary precedence.

    The first thing the State has to do is to provide protection to the likes of Ghamdi or Rahman who do not have privately armed armies of violent supporters.

    Secondly I agree that it has to reform religious education in the State sector to at least allow for the possibility that different people can have different approaches to Islam (or any other religion) and that these differences are worthy of further understanding and tolerance (if we can’t get to respect).

    As for religious authority, I think people should be able to chose their own. However it should be criminal for that religious authority to spread hatred about the ideas of others. It should be criminal for it to be armed.

  8. A.A Khalid

    @ Tilsim

    Hmm.. historically in Sunni Islam at least in most contemporary renderings of the history of religious authority it has been the case religious authority and its associative institutions maintained a degree of autonomy from political institutions.

    But I do agree with your subsequent comments.

    The question is who far and how expansive should the role of the State be in order to maintain a balance between civility (rooting out extremism) and avoiding authoratarianism.

    In terms of religious authority, yes there should be some element of democratic contestation, to shed pre modern hierachrical models. And yes in the case of Pakistan, they should be demilitarised.

  9. Tilsim

    “Hmm.. historically in Sunni Islam at least in most contemporary renderings of the history of religious authority it has been the case religious authority and its associative institutions maintained a degree of autonomy from political institutions. ”

    For Sunni Islam, I was thinking in particular of Saudi Arabia – the State sponsors Wahabi interpretation of Islam. In Turkey, the State sanctions Imams and Friday khutbas (sermons). The degree of autonomy and authority of religious institutions per se (whether State sponsored or not) of course varies widely.

  10. A.A Khalid

    Attaturk’s enforced and rather authoratarian approach to secularism and the Wahabbis are unprecedented constructs of fusing or subordinating religious authority to political authorities.

    Indeed the Wahabbi movement of the 18th-19th century and Attaturk after the abolition of the Caliphate movement show the pardigmatic shift in conceptions of religious and political authority, form the pre-modern period.

  11. OMLK

    Note to moderator:

    In the interest of fairness may I ask that the posts by straight shooter etc. may not be labelled as “Lahori Ahmediyya Rants”. Doing this, I am afraid, paints an entire community (already severly persecuted) in a negative light based on the diatribe of one person.

  12. Tilsim

    @AA Khalid

    On another thread, I referenced this article on the diffuse nature of religious authority. I thought that you might find it interesting:

    “The nature of religious authority is not a settled thing in Islam. Here is a quote from an article published in the Boston Globe by a Reza Aslan
    who is a scholar of religions and the author of “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam” (Random House).

    “To be sure, unlike Christianity, Islam has never had anything like a “Muslim pope” or a “Muslim Vatican. Religious authority in Islam is not centralized within a single individual or institution; rather, it is scattered among a host of exceedingly powerful clerical institutions and schools of law.

    This authority, it must be understood, is self-conferred, not divinely ordained. Like a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim cleric is a scholar, not a priest. His judgment on a particular issue is respected and followed not because it carries the authority of God, but because the cleric’s scholarship is supposed to grant him deeper insight into what God desires of humanity. Consequently, for 1,400 years Islam’s clerical institutions have managed to maintain their monopoly over religious interpretation by maintaining a monopoly over religious learning.

    That is no longer the case. The last century has witnessed dramatic increases in literacy and education throughout the Arab and Muslim world, giving both Muslim men and women unprecedented access to new ideas and sources of knowledge. The result has been a steady erosion in the religious authority of Islam’s traditional clerical institutions. After all, most Muslims no longer need go to a mosque to hear the words of God; they can experience the Koran for themselves, in their own homes, among their own friends, and increasingly, in their own languages.

    Over the last century, the Koran has been translated into more languages than in the 14 centuries previous. Until recently, some 90 percent of the world’s Muslims, for whom Arabic is not a primary language, had to depend on their clerical leaders to define the meaning and message of the Koran. Now, as more and more Muslim laity, and especially Muslim women, are studying the Koran for themselves, they are increasingly brushing aside centuries of traditionalist, male-dominated, and often misogynistic, clerical interpretation in favor of a highly individualized and more gender-neutral reading of Islam. By seizing the power of interpretation from the iron grip of the clerical institutions, these individuals are not only actively reinterpreting Islam according to their own evolving needs, they are shaping the future of this rapidly expanding and deeply fractured faith.

    To see how this radical “individualization” of the Muslim world is affecting traditional notions of religious authority, one only need visit the magnificent city of Cairo, the cultural capital of the Muslim world. For more than a millennium, Cairo’s famed Al-Azhar University has served as the center of Islamic scholarship. Within its hallowed walls, generations of male scriptural scholars (the ulama) have labored to construct a comprehensive code of conduct, called the shariah, meant to regulate every aspect of the believer’s life. There was a time when Muslims from all over the world consulted Al-Azhar’s revered scholars about everything from how to pray properly to how to properly dispose of fingernail clippings. No longer.

    Today, if a Muslim wants legal or spiritual advice on how to live a righteous life, he or she is just as likely to pass over the antiquated scholarship of Al-Azhar for the televised broadcasts of the wildly popular Egyptian televangelist Amr Khaled, who is not a cleric and who has never studied Islam or Islamic law in any official capacity. Nevertheless, through his weekly television program, in which he dispenses his sage advice on religious and legal matters to tens of millions of Muslims throughout the world-from Detroit to Jakarta-Amr Khaled has utterly usurped the role traditionally reserved for Islam’s clerical class.

    And he is not alone. The Internet-whose role in the Islamic Reformation clearly parallels that of the printing press in the Christian Reformation-has now made it possible for many Muslims to draw upon the opinions of not only their own clerical leaders, but also of a host of Muslim activists and academics who are propounding fresh and innovative interpretations of Islam.

    Fifty years ago, if a Muslim in, say, Malaysia, wanted a legal ruling on a disputed topic, he had access only to the religious opinion of his neighborhood cleric, whose word, at least to his followers, was essentially law. Now, that Muslim can troll the vast databases of fatwa-online.com or Islamonline.net, both of which provide ready-made fatwas on every question imaginable. He can send an e-mail to Amr Khaled (amrkhaled.net), or to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (sistani.org), or to any number of Muslim scholars-clerics and nonclerics alike-who are more than happy to spread their influence beyond their local communities. And because no centralized religious authority exists in Islam to determine whose opinion is sound and whose is not, Muslims can simply follow whichever fatwa they like best.

    Welcome to the Islamic Reformation.

    Of course, much as the Christian Reformation ushered in multiple, often conflicting, and sometimes baffling interpretations of Christianity, so has the Islamic Reformation created a number of wildly divergent and competing interpretations of Islam. Perhaps it is inevitable that, as religious authority passes from institutions to individuals, there will be men and women whose radical reinterpretations of religion will be fueled by their extreme social and political agendas.

    It is in this sense that Osama bin Laden can be viewed as one of the Islamic Reformation’s most influential figures. In fact, generations from now, when historians look back on this tumultuous time, they may compare bin Laden not to Lenin or Hitler, but rather to the so-called reformation radicals of Christianity-men like Thomas Muntzer, Jacob Hutter, Hans Hut, or even Martin Luther-who pushed the principle of religious individualism and militant anticlericalism to its terrifying limits.

    Like his 16th-century Christian counterparts, bin Laden is concerned above all else with the purification of his own religion. Al-Qaeda is, after all, a puritanical movement whose members consider themselves the only true believers, and believe all other Muslims are hypocrites, impostors, and apostates who must be convinced of their folly or abandoned to their horrible fate.

    Bin Laden has shown he is willing to use any means necessary to purify Islam of what he considers to be its adulteration at the hands of the clerical establishment. While his tactics are immoral and horrifying, his justification for the use of violence is not so different than that used by reformation radicals like Martin Luther, who defended the massacre of his Protestant opponents by claiming that “in such a war, it is Christian and an act of love to strangle the enemies confidently, to rob, to burn, and do all that is harmful until they are overcome.”

    But what most connects bin Laden and the Reformation radicals of the 16th century is his deliberate attempt to seize for himself the powers traditionally reserved for the institutional authorities of his religion. Luther challenged the papacy’s right to be the sole interpreter of the Scripture; bin Laden challenges the right of the clerical establishment to be the sole interpreters of Islamic law. That is why he repeatedly issues his own fatwas, despite the fact that, as the Amman declaration sought to remind Muslims, only a cleric affiliated with one of Islam’s recognized schools of law has the authority to do so.

    Even more striking is bin Laden’s fundamental reinterpretation of the Koranic concept of jihad. What was once considered a collective duty waged solely under the command of a qualified clerical authority, has, in bin Laden’s hands, become a radically individualistic and violent obligation totally divorced from any institutional power. In short, bin Laden’s vision of Islam is one that is devoid of institutional control, where anyone can issue a fatwa and anyone can declare jihad.

    It is this conscious recasting of religious authority that has made bin Laden so appealing to those Muslims, especially in Europe, whose sense of social, economic, or religious alienation from their own communities make them yearn for alternative sources of leadership. In his speeches and writings, bin Laden warns these disaffected Muslims not to listen to their own clerics, whom he considers incapable of addressing their needs. In fact, he claims that following the leadership of these “takfiri,” or “apostate” clerical authorities (by which he means those who disagree with his interpretation of Islam), is “tantamount to worshipping [them] rather than God.” He then defiantly takes upon himself the duty traditionally reserved for Islam’s clerical class of “enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.”

    It is a clever manipulative trick: convince Muslims to stop obeying their clerical authorities, while taking upon yourself their traditional clerical duties.

    The struggle to define religious faith, as we know from Christian history, can be a chaotic and bloody affair. And the Islamic Reformation has some way to go before it is resolved. It may be too early to speculate how much bin Laden’s radical individualism will influence Islam in the coming years. But it is important to note that bin Laden’s voice is but one among the chorus of voices clamoring to define the Islamic Reformation.

    There are millions of individuals who, by seizing powers of interpretation for themselves, are developing new and innovative interpretations of Islam: some promoting peace and tolerance, others promoting bigotry and puritanism. Who will win this war for the future of the Islamic faith remains to be seen. But once begun, the struggle cannot be stopped.”

  13. Tilsim

    @AA Khalid

    On another thread, I referenced this article on the diffuse and evolving nature of religious ideas/ authority for modern day Muslims. I thought that you might find it interesting:

    “The nature of religious authority is not a settled thing in Islam. Here is a quote from an article published in the Boston Globe by a Reza Aslan
    who is a scholar of religions and the author of “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam” (Random House).

    “To be sure, unlike Christianity, Islam has never had anything like a “Muslim pope” or a “Muslim Vatican. Religious authority in Islam is not centralized within a single individual or institution; rather, it is scattered among a host of exceedingly powerful clerical institutions and schools of law.

    This authority, it must be understood, is self-conferred, not divinely ordained. Like a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim cleric is a scholar, not a priest. His judgment on a particular issue is respected and followed not because it carries the authority of God, but because the cleric’s scholarship is supposed to grant him deeper insight into what God desires of humanity. Consequently, for 1,400 years Islam’s clerical institutions have managed to maintain their monopoly over religious interpretation by maintaining a monopoly over religious learning.

    That is no longer the case. The last century has witnessed dramatic increases in literacy and education throughout the Arab and Muslim world, giving both Muslim men and women unprecedented access to new ideas and sources of knowledge. The result has been a steady erosion in the religious authority of Islam’s traditional clerical institutions. After all, most Muslims no longer need go to a mosque to hear the words of God; they can experience the Koran for themselves, in their own homes, among their own friends, and increasingly, in their own languages.

    Over the last century, the Koran has been translated into more languages than in the 14 centuries previous. Until recently, some 90 percent of the world’s Muslims, for whom Arabic is not a primary language, had to depend on their clerical leaders to define the meaning and message of the Koran. Now, as more and more Muslim laity, and especially Muslim women, are studying the Koran for themselves, they are increasingly brushing aside centuries of traditionalist, male-dominated, and often misogynistic, clerical interpretation in favor of a highly individualized and more gender-neutral reading of Islam. By seizing the power of interpretation from the iron grip of the clerical institutions, these individuals are not only actively reinterpreting Islam according to their own evolving needs, they are shaping the future of this rapidly expanding and deeply fractured faith.

    To see how this radical “individualization” of the Muslim world is affecting traditional notions of religious authority, one only need visit the magnificent city of Cairo, the cultural capital of the Muslim world. For more than a millennium, Cairo’s famed Al-Azhar University has served as the center of Islamic scholarship. Within its hallowed walls, generations of male scriptural scholars (the ulama) have labored to construct a comprehensive code of conduct, called the shariah, meant to regulate every aspect of the believer’s life. There was a time when Muslims from all over the world consulted Al-Azhar’s revered scholars about everything from how to pray properly to how to properly dispose of fingernail clippings. No longer.

    Today, if a Muslim wants legal or spiritual advice on how to live a righteous life, he or she is just as likely to pass over the antiquated scholarship of Al-Azhar for the televised broadcasts of the wildly popular Egyptian televangelist Amr Khaled, who is not a cleric and who has never studied Islam or Islamic law in any official capacity. Nevertheless, through his weekly television program, in which he dispenses his sage advice on religious and legal matters to tens of millions of Muslims throughout the world-from Detroit to Jakarta-Amr Khaled has utterly usurped the role traditionally reserved for Islam’s clerical class.

    And he is not alone. The Internet-whose role in the Islamic Reformation clearly parallels that of the printing press in the Christian Reformation-has now made it possible for many Muslims to draw upon the opinions of not only their own clerical leaders, but also of a host of Muslim activists and academics who are propounding fresh and innovative interpretations of Islam.

    Fifty years ago, if a Muslim in, say, Malaysia, wanted a legal ruling on a disputed topic, he had access only to the religious opinion of his neighborhood cleric, whose word, at least to his followers, was essentially law. Now, that Muslim can troll the vast databases of fatwa-online.com or Islamonline.net, both of which provide ready-made fatwas on every question imaginable. He can send an e-mail to Amr Khaled (amrkhaled.net), or to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (sistani.org), or to any number of Muslim scholars-clerics and nonclerics alike-who are more than happy to spread their influence beyond their local communities. And because no centralized religious authority exists in Islam to determine whose opinion is sound and whose is not, Muslims can simply follow whichever fatwa they like best.

    Welcome to the Islamic Reformation.

    Of course, much as the Christian Reformation ushered in multiple, often conflicting, and sometimes baffling interpretations of Christianity, so has the Islamic Reformation created a number of wildly divergent and competing interpretations of Islam. Perhaps it is inevitable that, as religious authority passes from institutions to individuals, there will be men and women whose radical reinterpretations of religion will be fueled by their extreme social and political agendas.

    It is in this sense that Osama bin Laden can be viewed as one of the Islamic Reformation’s most influential figures. In fact, generations from now, when historians look back on this tumultuous time, they may compare bin Laden not to Lenin or Hitler, but rather to the so-called reformation radicals of Christianity-men like Thomas Muntzer, Jacob Hutter, Hans Hut, or even Martin Luther-who pushed the principle of religious individualism and militant anticlericalism to its terrifying limits.

    Like his 16th-century Christian counterparts, bin Laden is concerned above all else with the purification of his own religion. Al-Qaeda is, after all, a puritanical movement whose members consider themselves the only true believers, and believe all other Muslims are hypocrites, impostors, and apostates who must be convinced of their folly or abandoned to their horrible fate.

    Bin Laden has shown he is willing to use any means necessary to purify Islam of what he considers to be its adulteration at the hands of the clerical establishment. While his tactics are immoral and horrifying, his justification for the use of violence is not so different than that used by reformation radicals like Martin Luther, who defended the massacre of his Protestant opponents by claiming that “in such a war, it is Christian and an act of love to strangle the enemies confidently, to rob, to burn, and do all that is harmful until they are overcome.”

    But what most connects bin Laden and the Reformation radicals of the 16th century is his deliberate attempt to seize for himself the powers traditionally reserved for the institutional authorities of his religion. Luther challenged the papacy’s right to be the sole interpreter of the Scripture; bin Laden challenges the right of the clerical establishment to be the sole interpreters of Islamic law. That is why he repeatedly issues his own fatwas, despite the fact that, as the Amman declaration sought to remind Muslims, only a cleric affiliated with one of Islam’s recognized schools of law has the authority to do so.

    Even more striking is bin Laden’s fundamental reinterpretation of the Koranic concept of jihad. What was once considered a collective duty waged solely under the command of a qualified clerical authority, has, in bin Laden’s hands, become a radically individualistic and violent obligation totally divorced from any institutional power. In short, bin Laden’s vision of Islam is one that is devoid of institutional control, where anyone can issue a fatwa and anyone can declare jihad.

    It is this conscious recasting of religious authority that has made bin Laden so appealing to those Muslims, especially in Europe, whose sense of social, economic, or religious alienation from their own communities make them yearn for alternative sources of leadership. In his speeches and writings, bin Laden warns these disaffected Muslims not to listen to their own clerics, whom he considers incapable of addressing their needs. In fact, he claims that following the leadership of these “takfiri,” or “apostate” clerical authorities (by which he means those who disagree with his interpretation of Islam), is “tantamount to worshipping [them] rather than God.” He then defiantly takes upon himself the duty traditionally reserved for Islam’s clerical class of “enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.”

    It is a clever manipulative trick: convince Muslims to stop obeying their clerical authorities, while taking upon yourself their traditional clerical duties.

    The struggle to define religious faith, as we know from Christian history, can be a chaotic and bloody affair. And the Islamic Reformation has some way to go before it is resolved. It may be too early to speculate how much bin Laden’s radical individualism will influence Islam in the coming years. But it is important to note that bin Laden’s voice is but one among the chorus of voices clamoring to define the Islamic Reformation.

    There are millions of individuals who, by seizing powers of interpretation for themselves, are developing new and innovative interpretations of Islam: some promoting peace and tolerance, others promoting bigotry and puritanism. Who will win this war for the future of the Islamic faith remains to be seen. But once begun, the struggle cannot be stopped.”

  14. A.A Khalid

    @Tilsim

    Thank you for the article. I am already familiar with Aslan’s work. Incidentally, I do share his notion that there is an ”Islamic Reformation”.

    I think the notions of religious authority in modern Islam are evolving, and the best cases are that of Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Indeed I will point to you Muhammad Qasim Zaman’s seminal work, the Ulama in Contemporary Islam.

    His analysis I feel is stronger and more robust than Aslan’s by focusing on the relationship between clerical and non-clerical activists. Its more detailed and tracks the historical and socio-political contexts in which the Ulama operate in. It focuses on different pockets of clerical activity whether in the political, scholarly or social domains. Also the various conceptions of the ”religious tradition” by the Ulama is fascinating.

    Particularly Zaman’s analysis of the ambivalent attitude towards Islamic law in terms of codification, and the fierce defence of the exclusivisity of the religious sphere the Ulama pride themselves on from modernists and reformists is intriguing.

    Please see this sample chapter of his book (the Introduction):
    http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i7383.html

    And a preview on google books:
    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ibLMDNq-6zsC&dq=ulama+in+contemporary+Islam&printsec=frontcover&source=bn&hl=en&ei=bXMrTMLkJ4r5OYrZ2LID&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false

  15. Tilsim

    @ AA Khalid

    Thank you. I will surely look these up.