Authority within Islam

Few people in the Islamic world bridge East and West, tradition and modernity like Abdal Hakim Murad. He studied and lectured at both Cambridge and Al-Azhar,[1] but also sat at the feet of Sufi shaykhs and gives regular spiritual lectures in his local mosque. He’s on the board of The Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics in Doha, but he also holds the position of Dean at the Cambridge Muslim College. He translated important classical works, but he’s also a regular contributor in the British media. From the start of our meeting, however, I was above all struck by the way he combined vast knowledge and intellectual sharpness with straightforward humbleness.

Because of his experiences and expertise, I specifically wanted to talk to Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad about the evolutions of authority within the global Ummah. As the old ‘centres of authority’ are either non-existent or lost the impact they once had, I hoped to learn from him which institutions or individuals are gradually becoming new points of reference. It became one of the most enlightening conversations of my life.

It is often claimed Islam has no institutionalized authority, but if we honestly look at history, we can see that there have, in fact, always been certain ‘centres of authority’. The first caliphs, the Al-Azhar University, the scholars of Damascus, the Ottoman Sultan . . . they have all been examples of concentrated authority. Today, however, it seems very difficult to find such centres or to assess the authority of the many different groups, institutions and individuals. Would you say, then, that today’s situation is an anomaly in the history of Islam?

If you have a religion with ethics, that religion will want its ethics reflected in the laws and, of course, you can’t have a legal system or courts without having some structural authority. Yet, in the early centuries, Islamic law was as decentred as it could possibly be. Each khadi[2] was de facto independent and there was no statutory legislation.

In the nineteenth century, however, the Ottomans had to reshape Islamic law into statutory law, because in order to create a stable trading environment for their European partners, they needed certain treaties and regulations. That led to the establishment of a juridical code called the ‘Mecelle’.

Nowadays, many Muslims assume that Islamic law has always been statutory but, in fact, it’s a kind of ‘Westernization’. In the age before the state got involved with legislation it was something that grew from the ground up. Even more so, originally, the ulama represented the Muslims against the deprivations of the state.

So historically, despite the oversimplifications, the structure of the religion and its authority have been detached from the structure and authority of the state. People often tend to think that in Islam, religion and politics are the same, while, in fact, there was probably a closer interlocking between religion and the state in many Christian states than in many Islamic parts of the world. In the traditional Catholic world, often the empire and the church were one institution, while the Islamic society knew the strange situation in which the scholars weren’t a part of the imperial bureaucracy. But once statutory law became the norm worldwide, it was impossible for the scholars to remain independent. If the state started to legislate – which it wasn’t supposed to do in Islamic law – either they could take the stance that the state just legislates on the basis of its own secular pragmatism or they could try to ‘reduce the damage’ by becoming state employees. That led to concepts like ‘the grand mufti[3] of a certain country or ‘the Islamic university’ of a certain state.

Nowadays, therefore, the ulama are often integrated into the state’s mechanisms. They have a hard job not becoming the state’s representatives, putting forward only those fatwas that the state approves. They’ve become a kind of ‘clerisy’ and are often seen as a part of a hypocritical bureaucracy. Hence, the crisis of authority the ‘establishment ulama’ finds itself in.

How, then, does this crisis of authority express itself in the contemporary Islamic world?

The situation the traditional ulama sees us as being in at the moment is a kind of ‘emergency mode’. In traditional sharia terminology, such a time of emergency is called ‘nawazil’. That’s the category you apply when there is a huge political misfortune, such as the expulsion of the Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula by the Spanish Inquisition. All kinds of new rulings come into place in such a period because if you followed the classical fiqh, you’d be killed. And since the models of many of our present societies are alien to the premises on which the traditional sharia rests, we are considered to be in such a nawazil period. For example, the traditional sharia assumes the existence of the extended family. So, when the wife is divorced, the husband wasn’t supposed to continually support her because others would take care of her. Nowadays, however, we get into situations where some people wouldn’t be looked after or cared for. So, what do you do when the basic assumptions that underlie the regulations aren’t prevalent anymore?

The fall of the caliphate[4] was another reason for considering the situation of emergency. Until the 1920s, less than a hundred years ago, every Sunni Muslim in the world had some dim idea that behind the diversity of Islam, there was ultimately a unifying principle: the Sultan and the Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman ulama. If you had a dispute in Sunni Islam over doctrine or sharia, theoretically, there was someone who could resolve it. It wasn’t binding, but it was authoritative because it came from the Shaykh al-Islam. This was eventually abolished by Atatürk and nothing has really stepped in to replace that.

In a way, the abolition of the caliphate certainly proved that the decentred nature of sharia most certainly remains a strength because destroying one part didn’t do much to the organism as a whole. So, the destruction of the caliphate certainly didn’t destroy Islam. Nonetheless, after a while, the unity of the community on the sensitive nawazil related issues becomes very doubtful and certain people started to base their fatwas too much on their immediate political circumstances or their psychological state. On the basis of the basic justification of nawazil fiqh – which is ‘to do what keeps you alive’ – they let slip the precision instruments of the classical Islamic jurisprudence. As such, they came up with things like suicide bombing, which is completely inconceivable in traditional Islamic sensibilities. We’re not even supposed to tattoo our bodies because it is sacrosanct, so forget about killing ourselves. But the idea of the Palestinians, for example, is that there is no caliph, that nobody in the world is going to help and that the injustices continue so that they can only reach for things that would normally not be justifiable. They see it as the only option instead of just letting the Israelis sit on their head forever.

So, in the absence of authority, we see pragmatism winning over morality?

Fundamentalism often coalesces with pragmatism because they do not see themselves bound by the tradition or the restraint ethos of that tradition. They’re thrown back on the scripture and their own psychic state and don’t consider the consensus of hundreds of years of cautious scholars. So, the angry man alone in a room with a scripture is, in a sense, more powerful than the scripture on its own. For the scripture in itself is quite tender, passive and vulnerable and can be twisted into serving any purpose – which is increasingly what we’re seeing.

If we look at the famous fatwa of Bin Laden against Jews and Crusaders, for instance, which authorizes every Muslim to kill any American combatant or non-combatant, it is phrased in a way that indicates that he had no idea what a traditional fatwa looks like. He doesn’t refer to any of the classical debates, to any of his predecessors or any consultation of the chain of narration. He just said: “They’re attacking us so we have to defend ourselves.” Then he quoted a Qur’anic verse that says we’re, indeed, allowed to defend ourselves, and from it deducted that we can, therefore, kill Americans.

It is baseless in terms of traditional Islamic argumentation, but all he had to do to spread his idea was to throw his fatwa on the Internet. This is something the traditional scholarship can’t really cope with because that scholarship is so non-hierarchical.

Do you think this situation will change?

As soon as things settle down and people stop panicking, as soon as the drones stop buzzing over our heads, it will become evident to the majority of the Muslims that hot-headed efforts of the narrowest interpretations don’t actually work in practice. It’s a messy thing that hasn’t really ‘delivered’ anywhere. Iran was the first place where it had a chance to prove itself, but Iran is one of the most secular places around when you look at the daily lives of people.[5]

The wiser heads will say that there is much to be gained from reconnecting to tradition and traditional scholarship. In some cases, however, it’s not really accessible. In Libya, for example, Gaddafi killed it off for forty years. There were some old scholars there, but reconnecting teenagers is really difficult for people in their seventies and eighties.

However, one of the huge advantages of the non-clerical model which Islam favours is that you’re not stuck when your local spiritual leader is completely uncongenial. You can simply go to another mosque. And I think part of the resilience of today’s Islam lies in the fact that they can go down the road to a different mosque and find someone else who does deal with their issues. The danger is, of course, that they might be following voices that pander to their insecurities rather than reassuring them that God is still in control of history.

Would you say then, like some do, that the crisis of authority leads to a crisis of Islam as a whole?

The merit of the decentred model is to be seen in the fact that in spite of the talk of ‘the crisis of Islam’ or ‘what went wrong with Islam’, many mosques are still crowded until overflowing. Despite the decrepitude of the structures, the collapse of traditional Islamic education in many places, people still want Islam, even in those places that the West had declared secular.

I think it actually makes many people in the West feel a bit uneasy. Sociologists said it was impossible since ‘liberated’ people were supposed to want secularism. Yet, even though the Tunisian government for fifty years deliberately tried to squeeze religion out of the Tunisian soul, as soon as they get the chance, they vote for whoever has the longest beard or quotes the Qur’an. And we can give more examples. In a country like Turkey, which was very strong in promoting secularism, mosques are still full. In Europe as well, Muslim minorities are still pretty resistant to many secularizing tendencies.

We have even come to the point where it becomes difficult to claim that Christianity is still the default religion. There are churches everywhere, but there is nothing much going on inside them. Many people are either in the shopping malls or in the mosques.

I, therefore, don’t accept there is a crisis of Islam. Actually, I think Islam is the great religious success story of modernity . . . despite itself. Ultimately, you judge a religion and the validity of its truth claims on the basis of whether it is still appealing to people or not. And people keep converting to Islam.

The Islamic leadership, however, isn’t ready at all to assume that position. Their discourse, theology or vision of history isn’t prepared for it. They are still in their nawazil mode of ‘what’s the latest headline and how do we panic next?’ The cartoons, Israel, terror . . . it’s all boiling, but the reality on the ground is that something is in fact working.

You say Islam is the big success story of modernity but, at the same time, the debates which bring everything to the ‘boiling point’ are often about the friction between certain tenets of modernity – like secularism – and the way Islam tries to position itself within society.

Much, indeed, depends on how the Western world will respond to the unexpected collapse of the default religion. Not so much in the US but certainly in Europe, because in Europe, the sense is now that the host society is not ahl al-kitab.[6] That is to say, the people in Europe aren’t seen any longer as ‘people of the book’, Christian or Jewish, but just as hedonistic. That makes it harder to continue the discourse in traditional Islamic categories. It also makes the conversation generally more difficult because very often secularity finds it very hard to develop a language to deal with religious people. The Catholic Church finds ways of talking to Muslims – sometimes it gets it wrong, but there’s common ground there – but it’s really hard to converse with this sort of ‘Darwinian fundamentalism’ of the belief in the selfish gene.

It may well be that, as with the Jewish marginalization, this will secure the distinctiveness and survival of the Muslim communities. A benign neglect would quite quickly bring about assimilation, but a sense that the mainstream doesn’t like certain people makes it easier for those people to retreat in their own values. They wonder why they should integrate into a society that doesn’t like them.

I have the feeling that many of the young people who find themselves right in the middle of the debates on identity, culture, religion and society don’t go to the traditional ulama, their mosques or the institutions of their community for advice. Instead they seem to turn to inspirational speakers like Tariq Ramadan, Amr Khaled, Hamza Yussuf, Zakir Naiq and many others who often draw big crowds. I’m not trying to assess their specific teachings or personalities here, but could it be said, in general, that such people are becoming somewhat new authoritative figures?

I don’t know. The penetration of their substantive ideas in the normative Muslim communities is very hard to map. It’s hard to see out there that there are mosques that ‘follow’ them or that there are organizations, websites and magazines that step in their line.

If you look at the younger generation in the UK, most of them still associate themselves with the traditional scholars of the subcontinent. They’re fiercely loyal. The number of Muslims who can detach themselves from their own religious upbringing and who are interested in something different with a more international character is probably very small – in the UK, perhaps forty to fifty thousand all together. Some of them might attach themselves to certain charismatic speakers, and those speakers can become big stars, so to speak, but there are also others who think the solution is a Salafi[7] alternative, which has the advantages of being well funded and of having a strong presence on the Internet. And the Salafis can, of course, do what they like because of the close ties the British government has with Saudi Arabia.

Is there a bit of a gap, then, between the traditional scholarship and the ‘inspirational speakers’ or the leaders of certain movements? And shouldn’t that gap somehow be bridged?

There are many facets to it. A. We live in a time where everything is changing fast. B. Many scholars aren’t subsidized like they used to be in the past. C. The responsibilities to master the traditional mechanisms of Islamic law require an immense amount of memorization, patience and wisdom. D. They need to meaningfully understand the modern world and the place of the religious community within it. As such, it is extremely difficult for young Muslims to master all of this.

So, the scholarship becomes a bit divided between scholars who are westernized but don’t know the sharia as they should, and traditional scholars who are often very cautious about expressing any views at all about modernity.

When I came to you, I had somehow hoped to find out more about where the new ‘centres of authority’ could be found in contemporary Islam. Yet, I have the feeling that you think it’s all quite uncertain, that they are everywhere and nowhere at the moment.

Religion, as you know, is very hard to predict. So, when anybody asks: “Where is it going?” I would have to answer: “God only knows.” The current situation would have been unguessable twenty years ago.

And where do you place yourself in all of it?

I’m simply an academic of Cambridge and I try my best to be involved in various projects on the local as well as the international level, but it would surprise me that many Muslims in the UK have ever heard of me. I guess they know my brother, Henry Winter, a lot better since he’s a famous sports journalist.

Quite a modest answer, considering your standing among the international ulama.[8] Your position might even surprise certain people since you’re an English convert who places himself within the Sufi tradition. Yet, you’re not the first highly respected scholar I spoke to whose teachers have been Sufis so, by now, I’ve come to the conclusion that Sufism isn’t at all such a ‘marginalized’ aspect of Islam as people often claim.

That’s true. If you look at the Ottoman Empire, for example, nobody ever was ‘against’ Sufism. This concept of Islam being anti-Sufi is there because of Saudi puritanism, but that’s a very recent evolution. And even Saudi Arabia is full of Sufis. In Medina, I went to some of the biggest Sufi gatherings you can imagine.

Above all, it’s important to remember that it’s not so much about Sufism itself. Sufism is just a name. The ultimate proof of the religion is the saints. They are the miraculous expressions of divine love, and it’s through them that we come to know the Prophet.

The Prophet isn’t just the theory. He has always been a living part of Islam. He was a fully realized, fully alert, God-send human being who was at the centre of his society and miraculously transformed that society. And after he died, he became the living heart of Muslim piety and most certainly the centre of Sufism. That takes people some time to learn, because in the West, they often see Islam as a regression to some ‘Moses-style’ religion, but that whole letter-spirit dichotomy doesn’t make sense to us. Of course we need letters, because we need boundaries in our lives, we need rules and we need rituals, but there has to be spirit as well. And that spirit is what the Prophet is. He is the sharia, the ethical boundaries, but also the mi’raj, the spiritual ascension.

The saint in Islam is, therefore, the one who shows you the greatness of the Prophet because his life meticulously conforms to the last detail of the sunnah[9] out of total love and surrender. The self is gone and only the Prophetic form remains. The dignity, the ancient wisdom, the selflessness, the love for others . . . you see it in the Prophet and you see it in the saint.

Did you meet many people who you would call saints like that?

Sure, but they don’t always show up the way you’d want it. Sometimes they’re very scary. Sometimes they beat you up because that’s what you need and deserve. They take a stick and hit you until the rubbish comes out.

The Western seeker has this mystical ‘George Harrison idea’ of a white-haired sage in a cabin in the Himalayas who gives you a bit of advice that makes you feel really spiritual and enlightened. But that’s not the reality of it. The reality is a lot of fasting, tears, shedding blood, being hit . . . The function of the teacher is to beat you. The word ‘guru’ in Sanskrit actually means ‘heavy’, but many seekers do not want that. They want light and smooth spirituality with nice incense and chanting. True saints, however, sometimes tell you all about yourself. You see them two minutes a year and they can tell you: “You’ve done this and that while you should do that and this.” They leave you flabbergasted as to how they knew; you go away and you’re completely shattered and ruined, but it does help you spiritually advance. And then they go on and help another thousand people.

What do you think is the reason that they are so capable of helping people to spiritually advance?

The saints remind us of the fact that religion is not about doing stuff for the sake of treats after death, but that it’s about consciousness and remembrance now and in every moment. They remind us that it’s about constantly being in God. In the saints you see the royal qualities and incredible dignity that such a consciousness brings about. Just being with them makes you kind of reconfigure yourself completely.

So, when you see them, you discover what love is really all about. Our culture sings about love endlessly because it actually doesn’t have any of it. It became the basis of our society but it’s a kind of coitus interruptus: the slogan of ‘love is all you need’ is everywhere on the covers of magazines, in music and soap operas, but it’s not really there. People need it, they have the yearning, but nothing is giving it to them so they’re sort of endlessly trying new things. I see it with my students as well. Their girlfriends dump them and they try again and again . . . but, basically, you can love anybody. If you’re not so fussy about it, you can marry anybody as long as you let God constrain you on the rubbish.

A saint is beyond that sort of narrow-minded egocentrism and shows us what real divine love is about.

Could I conclude, then, that the true spiritual authorities in Islam, according to you, are the saints?

Like I often say: “If you have not seen the saint, you have not seen the sunnah.”


[1] Al-Azhar is an important Egyptian University in Cairo. It was founded around 970 AD and is, therefore, one of the very first universities in the world. Until today it’s one of the most important academic strongholds in the Muslim world.

[2] A khadi is a Muslim judge.

[3] A mufti is an Islamic scholar who is an interpreter of sharia and, thus, an expounder of fiqh.

[4] A caliphate is an Islamic sovereign polity led by a caliph. The successions of Muslim empires that have existed in the Muslim world are, therefore, usually described as caliphates. The Ottoman Empire was the last caliphate and was abolished by Atatürk in 1924. The caliphate that was proclaimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014 wasn’t recognized by the great majority of Muslims and, as such, cannot be properly considered a real caliphate.

[5] Mosque attendance, for example, is very low in Iran. It’s one of those facts that easily surprises people, but the percentage of people who goes to the mosque on a weekly basis in Iran is one of the lowest in the Muslim world. Friday prayers and sermons are attended by very few people.

[6] The term ‘ahl al-kitab’, which is literally translated as ‘people of the book’, designates non-Muslim adherents to faiths which have a revealed scripture. The Qur’an mentions Jews, Sabians and Christians as three types of adherents, though it does not say these are the only ones. The concept should, therefore, not by definition be limited to these three.

[7] Salafism is a particular movement within Islam that strictly focusses on the first sources of Islam. Therefore, its practices are based solely on the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet and his companions. In fact, the term ‘salafi’ takes its name from the word ‘salaf’, which means ‘predecessors’ or ‘ancestors’ and is used to identify the earliest Muslims. Salafis, thus, try to conform as much as possible to the life of those earliest Muslims. Yet, in itself, the Salafi movement is a very modern and reactionary movement that denounces many other aspects of the Islamic tradition that were built up during the centuries as unlawful innovations.

[8] Abdal Hakim Murad has consistently been included in the “500 Most Influential Muslims” list published by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre of Jordan. In 2012, he was ranked the 50th most influential.

[9] The ‘lifestyle’ of the Muslim. Literally it means ‘tradition’. It is the Islamic way of life prescribed as normative for Muslims on the basis of the Prophet’s example in the way he spoke, acted and behaved.


Abdal Hakim has written many historic treatises, translations (of Al Ghazali for example) and spiritual works. One of his latest books is Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions. For more infor on the Cambridge Muslim College, where Murad is the Dean, see www.cambridgemuslimcollege.ac.uk.

I also discussed the topic of ‘Free will’ with Abdal Hakim Murad and I spoke with him about the way he was brought into Islam. You can download those two texts here and here.

Read more interviews like this in the Halal Monk book.
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