Clerical Power in Islam

By Saad Hafiz

A central plank in the monotheistic faith of Islam is that every Muslim is his or her own priest, bound by only his or her own relationship with God. Yet, it is impossible to imagine Islam in the present day without the suffocating power of self-appointed priests. In the past, Islamic societies had accorded respect to the elite class of scholar-jurists, or ulema, as specialists in religious law, or shariah empowering them to issue fatwas (religious-legal opinions). But lately, the declining power of the ulema has been replaced by the expanding role of clerics (imams, mullahs, televangelists). Thus, barely qualified clerics – who previously only showed up for circumcisions, weddings and funerals – are now opining on social, political and economic issues. A minority are issuing fatwas justifying barbaric punishments or legitimizing terrorism as jihad. The masses that recognized the imams as keepers of the mosques, but rarely let them dictate how they practiced Islam at home, are overwhelmed by clerical power. Among other signs, fewer people are finding the courage to lampoon clerics for splitting hairs in texts while ignoring the real problems of society.

Clerics have also become deeply involved in political life in most Muslim societies. The resulting political manipulations, intrigues and abuses have diminished the role of Islam as a spiritual force. Clerics have become fixated on the maintenance of their power and lash out at anyone questioning their power or authority. They have capitalized on having the broadest social network in many countries, exerting their influence from the most remote village to the biggest cities. Moreover, the symbiotic relationship between the clerics and the state is used to exercise social and political control. It has perpetuated government authoritarianism, corruption and ineptitude. Some Muslim states have enhanced clerical power by delegating some state enforcement powers and by accommodating requests to regulate private behavior. Clerics have taken on the mantle to impose their version of Islam as a political, cultural and religious system.

Another problem is that Islam, especially in its fundamentalist form, tolerates no criticism of the clergy. Clerical omnipotence has remained largely unchallenged despite evidence that the fundamentalist clergy have done damage to the liberal and progressive character of Islam. Clerics have been known to interpret religious text literally, and refuse contextual reading of the texts as it can reduce the sacredness of the religion. They often refuse pluralism and relativism. Clerics also tend to monopolize the truth of religious interpretation. They tend to have an authoritarian outlook claiming to be the sole holders of ‘truth’, and maintain that their readings of religious texts are final and unchallengeable. Clerics interpret the Quran to revive patriarchy and its restrictive control of women to ensure male support. Some clerics have influenced fundamentalist movements correlated with fanaticism, exclusiveness, intolerance, radicalism, and militarism. Clerical Islam has ascended to become the most powerful interpretation of Islam.

There can be no easy rollback of the entrenched power held by the clergy in Muslim societies. The majority of clerics enjoy the fringe benefits of their growing political and social clout. Simply asking clerics to withdraw from politics and to avoid public activities, and to devote themselves to worship and education will not work. It will require a herculean effort to reignite religious intellectualism centering on liberal democratic interpretations of Islam to advance religious thought. The liberty of individual conscience including the freedom to differ and to be a dissenting voice will need to be re-established. In Islam this freedom has traditionally been sacrificed for the sake of achieving unity and solidarity. In an Islamic society, freedom and independence are given strict boundaries and limits, if not removed entirely, to prevent the unity of the community of believers from being undermined. Superstition, ignorance and traditions that do not pass the test of reason need to be challenged. A significant role can be played by moderate ulema in shaping the religious and social debate away from hardline clerics. Moderates will have to recapture the public debate on human rights, and the place and role of religion in society. The issues of secular education, faith, reason and compassion should be discussed in the light of the Quran, the Sunnah and the Hadith. Ulema that reject the idea of a Caliphate or any other kind of Islamic state and advocate a government of free choice will have to be encouraged and supported.

Ultimately, Muslims themselves will have to see the benefits of being free to develop into good and productive human beings and citizens without coercion by government and clerical authority. Muslims will have to reject the idea that society should be guided by clergymen who possess a unique knowledge. The state will have to play its part by stressing that the promotion of religion is not its concern and that the clergy do not determine state policy. The nexus between the clerics and the state should be directed towards solving community problems such as poverty, low literacy, and other social ills. Overall, Islam must find the moral and intellectual wherewithal to make it compatible with liberal democracy and tolerance. Failing that, Islam will continue to be exploited by extremists who endorse the establishment of puritanical theocracies, which will be to the detriment of all Muslims.

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