Advantages and disadvantages of a central authority

(16 Posts)
crescentmoon Fri 05-Oct-12 17:51:34

in (sunni) Islam we have jurists, theologians, historians but we have no priesthood.

I have always seen our not having a religious hierarchy as a strength, making Islam more democratic and meritocratic. The tolerance for different Views established by the prophet (pbuh) is what stopped us from splitting into loads of sects as in other faiths. I love that pluralism within Islam, that heterodoxy. That tolerance for different methodologies.

I also think having a central religious leader attracted alot of non arabs Who accepted the rules of Islam but would have baulked at an Arab clergy or pope/ archbishop/chief rabbi.

we have no formal initiations into the ummah like the baptism/communion/bar mitzvah of Christianity/Judaism.
However until now What has held the ummah together despite no religious hierarchy is the Qur'an. And the hadith of the Holy prophet pbuh about keeping to the majority and also binding Muslims as a brotherhood. This made the ummah tend towards conservatism and orthopraxy. ours is based on correct practise through consensus Bottom up not hierarchy top down.

We have no mechanism for excommunication and it has now become a weakness to islam because of Combatting modern violent extremism.

The freedom to publish religious opinions without having them pass through a higher authority now means an extremist imam with little religious training in north west frontier province deems himself a grand jurist like a mufti. And the lack of hierarchy means a grand mufti of 30 years standing has no recognised authority over angry young men. Is it a deficiency or does the harm of establishing a central figure and authority worse?

crescentmoon Fri 05-Oct-12 17:56:30

Sorry posted the other thread without giving it a title any views and opinions please put on this one instead.

nightlurker Fri 05-Oct-12 22:10:49

I think this is an incredibly interesting topic. In Christianity, you have a variety of groups. You have the Catholics and the Mormons who believe that the leader of their church is God's representative on earth. Then, you have the protestants who spend years at school and are well educated on their beliefs, and lead a church based on intellect and study. In all cases, you have to accept a certain number of creeds. If you don't believe in the Nicene Creed, you would not last long as a Protestant. However, members could hold a fairly wide range of views on things not spelled out by the religion, and some ministers of the non-prophetic religions could openly accept many opinions.

Personally, my opinion is that you can't have a central leader for doctrine unless God chooses that leader. You could collectively choose a man to be your leader, but that would be "putting your trust in man". You could have a leader who is a moral leader only, and ensures that moral misconduct isn't allowed or perpetuated in the people he/she leads.

Honestly though, I don't know. I suspect violent groups would exist regardless, and would pick their own leaders. In Mormonism, there is a break off group that practices polygamy, and it's out of our hands. They don't recognize our authority any more than we recognize theirs.

nightlurker Fri 05-Oct-12 23:28:46

I could see value in a central authority, however, as opposed to a central religious figure (which I would deeply oppose unless he was called of God). A central authority (or group of people) would have to accept opinions for all credible sources. You would set up guidelines for those who wish to publish, and then let them publish as they believe. As an example, guidelines could require a minimum of 5 years as a leader and teacher, with several testimonials that the person has been an example of what is taught in the Qur'an. In every publication, you could require the credentials of the person be present, to ensure that the wiser leaders have more credibility. Moral misconduct and abuse would automatically remove a person from the group of publishers. Any opinions would be allowed provided that the person had shown that they were well educated and living the teachings of Muhammad.

My biggest concern with any central group is the introduction of corruption, which is spread more readily with a central authority. However, if you keep your base of writers wide enough and ensure that they all recognize that they are fallible and concede authority to God and the Qur'an, I think Islam could benefit from it.

sashh Sat 06-Oct-12 06:51:11

OK I'm going to show huge ignorance here OP. You said that there are no splits into sects but what about Shia?

crescentmoon Sat 06-Oct-12 08:33:37

hello sashh i began by talking about Sunni Islam in particular - had (sunni) in brackets - and said that we did not split into loads of sects as in other faiths. but i did not say that there are none at all.

Islam has 2 main sects the Sunni and the Shia. 85% of Muslims are Sunnis. as for the Shia they are the biggest sect in Islam and make up between 10-15% of Muslims.

this post is about the problem in Sunni Islam. for the shias there is a religious hierarchy and the shia rely on the guidance of clergymen and keeping such a structure has a big importance. where political and religious authority is vested in their most learned who emerge as spiritual leaders called ayatollahs.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayatollah#Rank

really appreciated reading your points nightlurker.

"Personally, my opinion is that you can't have a central leader for doctrine unless God chooses that leader. You could collectively choose a man to be your leader, but that would be "putting your trust in man". You could have a leader who is a moral leader only, and ensures that moral misconduct isn't allowed or perpetuated in the people he/she leads."

the Ayatollah (Sign of God) religious leader in Shia Islam is given a significance and chosen through the type of process like the pope is in Catholic Christianity.

have to go out now but your second post was also very interesting. again i think the imams who issue religious edicts in shia islam have to go through that type of compulsory training, for the Sunnis it was a long century old tradition and convention which the pandora's box that wahhabi islam opened has now destroyed.

crescentmoon Sat 06-Oct-12 08:35:43

*centuries old tradition not century old tradition sorry.

alexpolismum Sat 06-Oct-12 13:29:14

I was intrigued by this discussion, as a complete "outsider".

Personally, I think that both positions have their good points and their drawbacks. A central figure such as the pope for Catholics does give you an authority to turn to, a point of reference, a final say on what doctrine is, perhaps helps to build a cohesive community. It also facilitates change, as the pope can dictate change, as with the Second Vatican Council. It means that everyone isn't deciding on their own interpretation, everyone has the same set of beliefs, there can be no doubt as to what something is supposed to mean.

On the other hand, it could result in inflexibility, which may turn believers away. It is, as crescentmoon says, undemocratic (is democracy necessary in religion? Perhaps this is another point entirely!). I am unsure whether or not it stifles free speech - I think not in today's world, although certainly so in the past, with blacklisted authors, etc. Although the pope can facilitate change, he may also stifle it and prevent it from taking place.

Very interesting to think about.

I am curious about one thing - the reference to the limited number of sects in Islam. I know little about it. I thought it was much like Christianity, where there are three main branches - Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. The Protestant branch has a large number of subdivisions. There are other groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons, which are not accepted as Christians by most of the others (obviously they would disagree).

I had a little search to see what I could find out about Islam. It seems a similar set up, with Sunni and Shia being the main branches, and various subdivisions of those, with Ahmadiya Islam being at times accepted and at times not by other Muslims. I even found an article saying that there were 73 divisions in Islam. This seems to contradict what crescent moon has said, although I appreciate that such articles may be misleading.

crescentmoon Sun 07-Oct-12 10:08:12

really appreciated your post alexpolismum.

this is the strength and weakness of sunni islam...

imams in islam are not members of a clergy, they are not ordained, they do not have to go through a set academic path as rabbis do in Judaism. there is no common imam school or imam training, and prayers in a mosque can be lead by anyone, who when they step forward become the 'imam' for the congregation.

islam.about.com/od/prayer/tp/Imam.htm

An imam has no religious authority, higher or special position in a religious sense. Their opinions might be found valuable to their congregation because of their knowledge on religious matters, but an imam's view of a religious matter is in no sense binding, infallible or absolute like the Catholic Church. neither upon muslims in their locale, let alone muslims from other locales/ regions/ countries etc.

a funeral may be led by a person who is not an imam, a marriage may be conducted by a person who is not an imam (normally a judge or a jurist of islamic law).

a hafiz is someone who has memorised the whole Qur'an and nearly all imams appointed by mosques are hafiz. to become a hafiz is a rigourous programme through teachers who give a certification at the end but many hafiz do not become imams. and a hafiz/ memoriser does not mean he can make legal judgements - only that they have memorised the whole Quran word for word in its entirety.

an alim is a scholar who has studied advanced islamic academic disciplines at an Islamic university or madrasah jami`ah. most people prefer their imams to be alims/ scholars as well but many scholars do not play a prominent role in the lives of Sunni muslims unlike scholars in Shia islam.

a faqih is a scholar with a specialty in fiqh or jurisprudence
A qadi is a judge in an Islamic court.
A mufti is a scholar who has completed an advanced course of study which qualifies him to issue judicial opinions or fatawah.

But an alim, a faqih, a qadi, a mufti are all merely law professors, judges and lawyers; not priests. like imams their opinions are in no sense binding, infallible or absolute like the Catholic Church.

the closest sunni muslims have to the pastoral care that Christian clerics provide is the murshid ("guide"), a master of the spiritual sciences and disciplines known as tasawuf or Sufism. Sufi guides are sometimes called sheikhs or marabouts. they are traditionally appointed by their predecessors, in an unbroken teaching lineage reaching back to Muhammad (pbuh) himself. this lineal succession of Sufi guides is the nearest approach within Islam to the concept of Christian ordination and apostolic succession, but the similarity is superficial. a murshid is not a priest but merely a teacher of Sufi philosophy; they do not have any special or higher position than any other Muslim.

crescentmoon Sun 07-Oct-12 10:34:18

your mentioning alexpolis that a plus point for a central leader is they could facilitate change was very interesting. this is often a complaint by both liberal muslims and extreme muslims of traditional orthodox sunni islam - that it doesnt facilitate easy change.

though in theory there is no binding authority the focus is on orthopraxy not orthodoxy. and that orthopraxy is based on the 4 sunni schools of legal jurists: the hanafi, the shafiee, the maliki and the hanbali. these are not sects but schools of methodology, based on the differences of opinion in the companions of the Prophet (pbuh) and early scholars in interpreting islamic rules.

.nearly all south and central asians, the balkans, the levant, are hanafis.
.north africans, west africans are malikis.
.east africans, the yemen, islands in the indian ocean and south east asian muslims (malays, indonesians) are Shaafiees.
.the arabian peninsula hanbalis.

an important discipline in sunni islam was ijtihad - independent sharia rulings through ones own logic and understanding. this website lists the differences between the qualifications required of a Sunni Mujtahid compared to a Shia mujtahid.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ijtihad

the event some modern muslims decry is the closing of the door to ijtihad in the 10th century CE....

"hence a consensus gradually established itself to the effect that from that time onwards no one could be deemed to have the necessary qualifications for independent reasoning in religious law, and that all future activity would have to be confined to the explanation, application, and, at the most, interpretation of the doctrine as it had been laid down once and for all."[5]

this consensus allows for wide variety within the sunni larger majority but also has perhaps stifled 'new' interpretations of sharia law. the stifling also spread to other secular spheres inadvertently - including science which Muslim civilisation made many advances and had many affiliations with. for that effect alone i often wonder if it worth that door psychologically closing in order to counter extremism in religion or outlandish philosophy?

because it is that consensus that the majority of muslims fall back on in rejecting the violent extremists. but that holding to the majority was IMPLICIT. once the psychological break happened away from orthodox islam, there was no other mechanism to keep violent extremism in line, either to deal with them, ostracise them or eliminate them.

crescentmoon Sun 07-Oct-12 11:00:17

as for sects, i think the conservative number of sects in Christianity is 41000 and the population of Christians 2.2 billion according to the Study for Global Christianity. i have read a couple of times on these threads that Christianity has as many as 120 000 sects, but i looked up the most conservative. so when i mentioned the low number of sects in islam for a religion of 1.4 billion it was in comparison to Christianity.

i had a look at the list of the 73 on that ahmadi muslim website and i really didnt recognise most of them. i would say the majority shia have the ayatollah, the ismailis have the Aga Khan, the ahmadis have the khalifatul masih, not many others i can name off the top of my head.

this wiki page has an overview of the different branches and schools in islam some of those branches are distinct sects and some are different methodoligies.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_schools_and_branches

i said the shia were the largest sect after sunni islam but not that they were the only other sect. many of those on the page of 73 sects seem to be based on scholars rather than on groups - perhaps someone who has more knowledge of islamic history could guess what they are related to?

the shia have the ayatollah, the ismailis have the Aga Khan, the ahmadis have the khalifatul masih, they are characterised by a religious hierarchy not found in sunni islam. perhaps some would say sunni islam has sufi to the left and wahabi to the right and the mainstream orthodox right in the middle?

i think the equivalent of the christian Nicene creed for importance are the 5 pillars of Islam which are taught from one end of the muslim world to the other. to declare there is no god except the One God and that muhammad (pbuh) is the messenger of God is the first pillar - the easiest part really but the basis upon the next 4 pillars.
2nd is the 5 daily prayers,
3rd pillar is the 2.5 per cent charity tax,
4th is fasting in ramadan
and 5th is the pilgrimage to Hajj.

Sunnis and Shias share those pillars and the belief and practise of those 5 is widespread. on top of that we have 6 articles of faith:

to believe in God,
God's angels,
God's books: the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospel, the Qur'an,
God's messengers,
the day of judgement,
divine destiny

those beliefs are also shared by sunni and shia muslims though perhaps the shia do not call it the 6 articles of faith. then on top of that there are a few widely recognised and followed obligations and prohibitions based on the 10 commandments of Moses and islamic rules on clean living laid down by Muhammad (pbuh). only halal meat, no alcohol, no gambling, no drugs, no eating of swine - those 5 are the most common and widely followed.

muslims vary a whole lot between themselves but perhaps those are the reasons why some people see islam as monolithic.

alexpolismum Sun 07-Oct-12 20:12:51

Thankyou for your clarifications, crescentmoon.

I think that what is viewed as a strength and what as a weakness can vary according to perspective. You have said in your post above that an imam needs to have no formal training. Obviously, there are a lot of variations in what people believe constitutes appropriate training in other faiths, as far as I am aware, for example, Catholic priests study for longer than most others in Christianity.

On the one hand, the fact that anyone (including women?) can become an imam sounds good. Very democratic, very inclusive. It means that many opinions can be voiced. Perhaps you see this as a great strength. On the other hand, it does mean that there is no guarantee that people will have properly understood the text they are preaching about, and it does open the way for extremist interpretations to easily be given a platform. I am not sure whether or not it is a strength for many, possibly ill-informed, opinions to be heard over doctrine and interpretation. I tend towards the opinion that it is better for people to study first, have a deep and clear understanding, and then preach.

Someone on another thread told me that the Quran states that it is a "clear book" or a "clear text". If this is indeed the case, then perhaps this has coloured the Muslim perspective - why would you need to spend a long time studying something that is so clear? And perhaps it was clearer in its early days, but as time moved on, language moved on, etc, the need for study and interpretation emerged, but Muslim thinking stayed rooted.

Incidentally, on the matter of the enormous number of Christian sects you quoted, I am no expert, but I expect that a large number of those are just congregations. Many Christians do not affiliate themselves with one of the main groups, but just set up a church and see themselves just as Christian. I doubt they would see themselves as separate sects. Just to clarify, however, I am not a Christian, this is just what I think is most likely.

I would also like to ask you about one point in your list of the central tenets, or pillars, of Islam. (not directly on the topic of the thread, sorry, I know!) You said that one is the hajj pilgrimage. Is there any recognised timeframe that this is supposed to take place in? Or can it be at any time? And is there any dispensation for poorer Muslims who cannot afford to make the trip?

And what do you mean by "divine destiny"?

peacefuloptimist Mon 08-Oct-12 16:50:13

Hi Alexpolismum.

With regards to your questions about hajj do you mean timeframe in the year or time frame in your life?

There is a specific time of the year in which people perform the hajj. It is in the first 9 days of the Islamic month Dhul Hijjah. If you make the pilgrimage at any other time of year it is not considered 'Hajj' so you havent fulfilled that pillar but it is considered a minor pilgrimage (called umrah) which you are still rewarded for.

There is no specific time in your life that you should perform hajj. Many muslims tend to leave the performance of the hajj until they are much older but obviously you can not gurantee how long you will live for so if you have the money to go on hajj you really should do it as soon as you can. Another thing is if you leave the hajj until you are older sometimes it can be more difficult for you to perform because of the physical demands of performing the rituals. For example my husband, my mum and I went last year and at times you are walking relatively long distances (not marathons but lets say sometimes you can be walking for an hour or even longer) which can be a lot harder for somebody older (we saw a few elderly people struggling) then it is for someone in their prime. Dealing with the crowds can also be more distressing for those who are weaker due to age, health or general frailty.

In general all muslim scholars agree that those who are too poor or too sick to perform hajj are exempted from the obligation of performing it. Sometimes wealthy muslims will 'sponsor' the hajj of poorer muslims where they pay for them to go and cover all their costs/needs. In this way they share the reward without detracting from the person performing hajj but you really should have performed the hajj first (as it is an obligation on you first) before you start sending other people on hajj. Some people also believe you can appoint somebody to perform the hajj on your behalf (there is a difference of opnion on this point I think) but again that person needs to have completed the hajj for themselves first. All muslims are obligated to go on hajj at least once after that you can go as many times as you like or never again if you like. I met one woman when I went on hajj who had been on hajj nine times consecutively. The amazing thing was that she was in her 70s and had travelled on her own (with a tour group but without any family or friends from home). She was quite tough. I think she had been able to go so many times because she had several kids who each took turns to pay for their mum to go on hajj every year. It was really sweet actually.

Divine destiny is basically your destiny or fate. We believe that certain things about your life are decided before you are even born for example when and how you will die, whether you will be rich or poor, happy or sad, who you will marry, whether you will have kids etc. The good and the bad things in life are both controlled by and destined for you by God.

peacefuloptimist Mon 08-Oct-12 16:52:40

*appoint somebody to perform the hajj for you if you are too sick to go

crescentmoon Tue 09-Oct-12 07:48:26

funny you mentioned female imams. in new york a few years ago a female scholar called Amina Wadud,

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amina_Wadud

caused alot of controversy by leading a mixed congregation of men and women in prayer. it has always been acceptable to have a female imam for a female only group - most sunnis have no issues with that - but she went further and practised Ijtihad based on hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) to make it justifiable for leading men in prayer as well. it was radical because rather than following judgements based on the 4 schools of sunni methodology she made a fatawa saying it was justified and acceptable according to Quran and Sunnah. i wonder what other sisters would think ?

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_as_imams

defuse Tue 09-Oct-12 21:43:26

I thought it was unacceptable as she should have led women only in prayer, but i guess she wanted to cause controversy, so there u have it.

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