Recalling the Historic Adversarial Relations Between Islamic Scholars and the State

Last week one of the world’s pre-eminent religious freedom organizations, Forum18, came out with an article on the latest whereabouts of Turkmenistan’s former Grand Mufti, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah. As the article pointed out, Nasrullah is an Islamic religious scholar who used to be a loyalist of the brutal regime of the now-deceased Saparmurat Niyazov (also known as “Turkmenbashi”). His case and that of Rafiq Qori Kamoluddin in Uzbekistan, point to a pattern of control and persecution of Muslim scholars and educational institutions by the central authority of the state. This pattern is not recent, nor is it geographically limited to Central Asia, but has persisted throughout most of the Muslim world since the early history of Islam.

The state, although run by fellow Muslims, has always feared the existence of financially, politically and intellectually independent religious scholars. Rather respecting the freedom scholars, the central authority either tried to co-opt, intimidate and/or eliminate them. Since their emergence as an integral part of a pre-modern faith-based civil society, religious scholars have always – at least in theory – acted as a barrier to tyranny and as arbiters of justice. All four founders of the major Sunni legal schools of thought, Abu Hanifa, Malik bin Anas, Muhammad Idris bin Al-Shafi and Ahmad bin Hanbal (may God have mercy on them) were all threatened with violence, tortured and or killed on the authority of the Caliphs in power at the time. Arguably, the origins and early development of the Sunni-Shi’a split are also due to statist interference in the lives of religious scholars – the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (may God have mercy on him) and the sustained persecution of the early Shi’a community were also on the orders of Sunni Caliphs.

In spite of attempts to limit the political and intellectual influence of religious scholars, they were able to flourish under a decentralized political system. They also established financial endowments (awqaf) that maintained monetary independence from the state. It was not until roughly two historical “waves” of foreign invasion and colonialism hit the Muslim world that the state gained the upper hand against religious scholars. The first wave came in the early 1200s to early 1300s when invasions (PDF) by the Mongols, the Crusaders and Timur destroyed Muslim traditional structures of civil society and scholastic learning. Although Muslim societies rebuilt themselves, the recovery was never complete.

The second wave began in the late 1700s with the beginning of European colonization (i.e. the British colonial administration of South Asia and Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt) and continues today with the existence of the modern Muslim authoritarian nation-state. These religious scholars and their supporting institutions were hotbeds of resistance to the military encroachment of the European powers and domestic tyranny. However all of their armed movements were put down and as a result they were treated very harshly by the victorious powers. The era of European colonialism bore witness to the dissolution and/or marginalization of Islamic institutions and scholars. The pattern of destruction and co-optation established by their colonial and Caliphate/Sultanate predecessors was merely perpetuated by post-colonial authoritarian dictatorships (which the United States and other Western nations continue to support). Today it is not uncommon to see scholars and their supporting institutions (Al-Azhar University being one of the more famous cases) in a Muslim nation directly under government control, turning independently funded and independent-thinking religious scholars into paid employees of the state.

The results, of course, have been absolutely disastrous. These institutions, which were once guardians of Islamic orthodoxy, and the driving force behind successfully marginalizing extremist messages, have been dismantled. Now that the modern Muslim nation-state has centralized itself to an unprecedented degree and controls these scholarly individuals and institutions, they no longer have credibility. With the loss of their independence, they are now seen as puppets of the government. As a result, a vacuum of religious authority has emerged, which Islamist movements – moderate and radical, violent and non-violent – are attempting to fill. Violent organizations that claim religious legitimacy and declare opposition to the tyranny of the state (like Al-Qaeda) have the religious and political space to flourish.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, is a stark contrast to these results because it values the independence of its religious scholars and institutions. Not only do Indonesia’s independent scholars play an important role in preventing and reversing religious extremism, they have also played an extremely important role in its civil society development by acting as one of the main forces for establishing and maintaining its democratic political system. It is no surprise that civil society organizations such as the International Crisis Group and United States Institute of Peace advocate for the political independence of Muslim religious scholars. However, political independence is not enough. Muslim civil society organizations should also assist in the financial independence of these institutions and individuals.

I would conclude by noting that Libertarian ideas of government and foreign policy would apply well in the Muslim world. Centuries of foreign military intervention and support for dictatorships, as well as the emergence of extremely powerful central governments have been absolutely detrimental to Muslims. Muslims flourish when their state is not pervasively interfering in their public and private lives, other nations are not occupying their lands, and their religion can freely and creatively play an active role in civil society.


Alejandro Beutel is program assistant for the Minaret of Freedom Institute with expertise in religious freedom, democratization and security issues.

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