Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Is there a central teaching authority for Muslims?

No single individual or institution has universal authority over the global Islamic community. For Sunni Muslims the nearest approximation to centralized teaching authorities are religiously affiliated educational institutions in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, venerable and influential for very different reasons. Cairo’s Al-Azhar, founded in 972 by the Isma’ili (Sevener Shi’ite) Fatimid dynasty, has worn the mantle of religious prestige and authoritative conservatism since it was converted by Saladin and his dynasty (after 1171) for the task of defending the cause of Sunni Islam. In Saudi Arabia, educational institutions of Mecca and Medina have come to share in Al-Azhar’s prestige in modern times. Young men seeking careers in religious studies come from all over the world, looking forward to returning home with credentials from these institutions.

Nowadays, a senior jurist somewhere might on very rare occasions issue a legal advisory (fatwa) claiming universal force, so that every Muslim ought to abide by it. The Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, delivered an order that Salman Rushdie was liable to the death penalty for blasphemy, and Usama bin Ladin has called for a jihad against the United States. But rare claims of that sort do not have the binding authority of a centralized institution like the papacy. In various parts of the world, religious scholars join together for consultative purposes. In the United States, for example, a Council of Imams holds regular gatherings to discuss practical and pastoral problems that arise in local communities. Elsewhere, muftis in a given region sometimes submit their decisions to the further judgment of a “grand mufti,” who exercises jurisdiction in religious matters.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Religion Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App