All Arab states have large, official Muslim religious establishments that give governments a major role in religious life. Through them, the state has a say over religious education, mosques, and religious broadcasting—turning official religious institutions into potent policy tools.
However, the complexity of the religious landscape means they are rarely mere regime mouthpieces and it can be difficult to steer them in a particular direction. The ministry sought to have a single, ministry-written Friday sermon delivered in all mosques throughout Egypt. Al-Azhar harshly criticized the move and soon gained the upper hand in the battle between the two powerful institutions.
The Egyptian state appeared to be battling itself in full public view over who was responsible for determining what preachers say from the pulpit.
It was a bewildering incident, touching on a controversial subject. State religious institutions in the Arab world provoke strong but contradictory evaluations, not merely in the countries where they operate but also throughout the world. Are they partners in the struggle to counter violent extremism, discredited regime mouthpieces, or incubators of radicalism?
All three of these descriptions contain a germ of truth. But above all, such institutions are sprawling bureaucracies that are hardly irrelevant to religious and political life, even as they are difficult to steer in any particular direction. Their authority is often contested by individuals and organizations outside of the state, but these bureaucracies are present in many different realms.
Generally loyal to existing regimes, they also show signs of autonomy. Normally hostile to radical forces, they are at best lumbering bulwarks against them. Those who follow politics in the Arab world are accustomed to encountering religion. Matters of faith seem closely connected with many political controversies.
Religion, in turn, has served as a rallying point for opposition groups and social movements as well. But focusing only on religion as it relates to personal faith and political opposition means overlooking other ways that it is woven into matters of governance in Arab states.
Ministries of education write religious textbooks, ministries of religious affairs administer mosques, state muftis offer interpretations of religious law, and courts of personal status guide husbands and wives as well as parents and children in how to conduct their interactions in an Islamic way. Yet while states structure religion in many diverse fashions, official religious establishments, such as Al-Azhar, have encountered a two-sided challenge in recent years.
Supporters of existing political orders view them as useful tools.
Official Islam in the Arab World: The Contest for Religious Authority
Arab regimes have sought to use the panoply of state religious institutions to cement their own rule. They have also come under international pressure to counter violent extremism through the religious institutions that they oversee. At the same time, official institutions are compelled by their religious publics to represent authentic voices of religious truth. A host of unofficial actors have shattered the monopoly over religious authority that religious officials had grown accustomed to enjoying.
In this environment, official religious establishments have retained significant influence but are unlikely to be able to wield it in any coherent fashion, whether to serve their own agendas or those seeking to use them for their own ends. Egypt and its religious institutions are particularly helpful in illustrating this reality, but other countries in the region also deserve consideration when examining the different patterns of behavior of their religious establishments.
It is not unusual for states to show an interest in religion. Almost all constitutions in the world make some reference to religion, mostly in a manner that accommodates religious beliefs and practices, while deeply shaping their structure.
Official religions are not uncommon in many countries, and state support for, and regulation of, religious institutions comes in many guises. What is unusual in the Arab world is not the public role of religion but the extent and range of that role.
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Some of the distinctive ways that relations between the state and religion are structured might be traceable from before the modern era to Islamic doctrine, the experience of the early community of believers, and core principles derived from sacred texts. But as the process of state formation began across the Arab world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in each place it developed differently.
As a consequence of this, official religious institutions evolved quite differently as well. In its particularities—and even in many of its most general features—this evolution was rooted substantially in the process of modern state formation. The commonalities among Arab states are straightforward. Most grant Islam official status, have institutions that offer advisory interpretations of Islamic law fatwas , administer religious endowments and charities, oversee mosques, and apply some version of Islamic family law.
State muftis are largely a nineteenth- and twentieth-century innovation. It was then that states began appointing such religious officials and establishing a designated bureaucracy for issuing legal interpretations, at times to replace or expand upon the Ottoman religious bureaucracy. Ministries of religious affairs and the nationalization of religious endowments awqaf and almsgiving zakat are rooted in modern history as well.
As complex bureaucratic states and legal apparatuses were established in the s and s, adjudicative, educational, training, and charitable functions—along with the regulation of public space, gatherings in mosques, and public broadcasting—resulted in state institutions active in religious spheres.
While family relations in the region had long been governed in part by Islamic legal teachings, the existence of a separate category of personal status law—perhaps the most essential element of Islamic law for many adherents today—simply did not exist before colonial rulers and independent states began marking off distinctive legislation and courts for family matters during the nineteenth century.
There is no doctrinal reason to claim that conducting marital relations in an Islamic manner is more important to God than trading goods in an Islamic way. However, as different state authorities introduced legal reforms in the modern era, marriage, divorce, and inheritance were areas in which they moved most carefully.
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They did so by creating a legal field of family affairs for which they took care to formulate rules in terms of older Islamic jurisprudence. In some places, the creation of Islamic law governing personal status was fostered by imperial powers, such as the French in Algeria, who were not anxious to involve themselves in such matters.
In other places, for example Egypt and Iraq, ambitious local rulers sought to assert a stronger role for the state and legislated personal status law. But even in this distinct field, there is quite significant regional variation in who writes the law, what it says, and who implements it. For instance in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which were never under Western imperial control, Islamic religious, or sharia, courts theoretically remain the courts of general jurisdiction today.
However, they have been assisted in Yemen through a body of legislated codes and in Saudi Arabia which remains resistant to codification through specialized quasi-judicial bodies that enforce regulations and decrees. Thus, the precise institutional arrangement has varied according to the timing, nature, and extent of state building, as well as the degree and makeup of external control.
Historical footprints have been left in an often unique set of structures and nomenclature in Arab countries, each of which has a different institutional map for official Islam.
Even where there are similarities between countries, there are also distinct arrangements. It has no real equivalent elsewhere in the Arab world. Many countries, in their turn, have official bodies responsible for religious research in which senior scholars are gathered. However, they take all sorts of forms.
The structures are not only diverse, they are also complex. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Egyptian state apparatus, which provides a particularly emblematic religious environment in the Arab world, is littered with imposing-sounding religious bureaucracies, some of which defy easy translation. Each of these has a particular history that sometimes requires an almost archeological sensibility to understand. The Office of the State Mufti, headed by an official often referred to as the Grand Mufti, was established at the end of the nineteenth century for reasons connected with legal reform, but also to emphasize autonomy from the Ottoman Empire.
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Al-Azhar was founded as a Shia mosque in the tenth century, but now presents itself as the preeminent Sunni authority in Egypt and even the entire Muslim world. The Supreme Islamic Council is actually not supreme, but an advisory body within the ministry of religious affairs. The Body of Senior Scholars is an older body within Al-Azhar that was resurrected in post Egypt by military decree to give the Al-Azhar leadership the autonomy it sought from a political process that at the time promised a rise in the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
There are clear patterns that emerge in this bureaucratic welter. In the Arab world, religious education is generally mandatory through secondary school. Mosques are licensed by the state and frequently treated as state property. The state also monitors sermons and certifies preachers, who are often provided with official guidance.
Most formal higher religious education occurs within state institutions. Charitable institutions and activities are regulated and sometimes directly administered by the state. The immersion of the state in religious affairs has helped create a landscape of institutional complexity throughout the region.
Official religious institutions have taken on a wide range of tasks, yet their intricacy has created overlapping authority and frequently hampered their aims. Official religious institutions play multiple roles throughout the Arab world. The array of religious duties taken on by the state has spawned a series of sprawling bureaucracies that do not always have the ability to act as parts of a coherent whole. Because official Islamic institutions developed as a consequence of, and in parallel to, the rise of the modern state, so too have they reflected the reality of expanding states.
This includes strengthening state control and supervision over a variety of religious activities, even if the power of the state is never absolute. Official institutions not only have to worry about each other with their overlapping responsibilities and claims to authority. Each of these religious bureaucracies also faces competition from outside the state apparatus, adding a further layer of complexity. This they do in two ways.
First, they regulate and frequently administer religious endowments often set up to support mosques, schools, or charitable causes. Indeed, in most countries of the region, those establishing a legally sanctioned endowment find themselves having to act through such a ministry. The consequences are not merely religiously significant, but also economically and fiscally so, with large amounts of real estate and other holdings donated for charitable purposes falling under state control.
Ministries in some countries have branched out from traditional endowments to engage in broader developmental projects designed to help the poor or unemployed, such as establishing producer cooperatives.
Second, almsgiving is often organized by ministries of religious affairs as well.
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In some countries, this function might be decentralized and run through local mosques, while in others there is a greater effort to engage in central oversight. The religious obligation to give alms, however, need not be fulfilled in an officially sanctioned setting, but is also permitted in less formal, private contexts.
State actors are caught between pious donors, some of whom are leery of the efficiency and rectitude of official structures, and security-minded officials, who have faced increasing international pressures to ensure that such funds are not used in ways that are politically unsafe such as supporting radical or violent groups.
Fatwas—scholarly interpretations of religious law on a particular question—are traditionally nonbinding. However, it is this very fact that can enhance their moral authority, as, ideally, they are vountarily sought out by the faithful and delivered by disinterested scholars without regard for the particular circumstances of a case.
Most states in the region have a mufti which in Arabic translates as a fatwa giver , whose opinions are sought by state actors needing guidance on questions of religious law. Unofficial scholars from a variety of orientations—whether Salafi, modernist, autodidact, feminist, literalist, or other sorts—have grown popular.
They use a variety of means to answer questions, including face-to-face interaction, talk shows, emails, and Facebook. The leading Shia scholar Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has a website where followers can submit questions on any matter of concern to them.
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The youthful Saudi Ahmad al-Shuqayri claims no particular religious knowledge, but gives ethical and religious exhortation and advice on television in an earnest, lively, open, and inspirational manner. In this competitive environment, officially designated muftis have sometimes established websites, staffed telephone hotlines, and appeared on broadcasts—running hard to stay in place and make themselves accessible.
Some states have sought to combat such fatwas because they often advance interpretations that are unusual or radical. For many top religious officials, the forest of fatwas simply confuses ordinary believers.
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Thus, fatwas from competing sources, which might seem a rarefied set of scholarly writings about the fine points of religious teachings, are actually part of an intensely political struggle about who should speak in the name of Islam. Religious education is a mandatory subject in official curricula throughout the Middle East. And with most educational systems highly centralized, the vast majority of students are taught versions of Islamic belief and practice codified in texts written within specialized structures of education ministries.