Religious Institutions

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Religious institutions are the visible and organized manifestations of practices and beliefs in particular social and historical contexts. Like human emotions and attitudes, religious beliefs and practices project outward onto the social and historical plan. They create identities and representations, and determine attitudes, emotions, and behavior. These manifestations and outward projections originate from beliefs and practices, but they are also limited by historical contexts. Geographical, social, and political considerations modify attitudes and practices. Religious institutions, then, take shape in relation to both religious impulses and contextual configurations. The following entry suggests some of the enduring and changing features of religious institutions in Islam in broad historical strokes.

Religious beliefs and practices have been noticeably expressed in key institutions constructed in uniquely different social and historical contexts. The caliphate as a universal political and social order was the key institution developed in the early period of Islam. This was followed by more clearly religious institutions like the school of law (madhhab) and Sufi order (tariqa). The modern period has witnessed the emergence of various forms of religious states together with the independent religious association in secular contexts.

Early Islam

The early period of Islamic history begins with the life of the prophet Muhammad and ends with the weakening of the Abbasid Empire. Following Marshall Hodgson, we can use the year 945 as a significant point in that history when the independence of the caliphate was finally shattered. A general of a regional power, the Buyids, occupied Baghdad and laid to rest the more than two hundred years of a universal political authority. The eventual failure notwithstanding, early Islam laid the foundation of the caliphate as a vital religious institution that moved and inspired Muslims. It is also an institution that has provided considerable inspiration for subsequent political and social movements in diverse cultural and historical contexts up to the present time. The caliphal order was the most important religious institution the Muslims created during this period. The word "order" is used to include the political system and ideas themselves, as well as the related notions of self, society, and others. Early Islam was a period of intense political conflicts, many of which raged particularly over the nature and shape of this political order and its related issues. At the same time, these conflicts and disagreements created opportunities for great creativity that inspired legal, theological, philosophical, and literary productions in support of one or the other conceptions of the political order.

Who must be the caliph? After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, one of the first questions that needed to be answered was that of his succession. Would it be someone close to him from the beginning? Would it mean the split of the Muslim community between its Meccan and Medinan followers? Or would it be someone from his family? Or would the community simply choose one among equals? In time, these political questions were answered in religious and theological terms. The history of religious ideas of early Islam revolves around questions and answers about the identity, nature, and authority of the caliphate.

One of the close associates of the prophet Muhammad, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, was selected as his immediate successor in a tense political context. Soon, members of the Prophet's own clan, the Banu Hashim, and their supporters claimed that they had been deprived of rightful leadership granted by the Prophet to ˓Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, and his legitimate successors. Thus emerged the first glimmer of a religio-political faction, the party of ˓Ali (Ar. Shi˓a), that developed into a full-fledged religious and theological group within Islam. Even though it remained a minority, and the various factions were hardly unanimous on the particular descendant of Ali as the rightful successor, the Shi a produced notions of legitimate and rightful leadership for religious leadership in general. The prophetically chosen one was divinely guided, and ready to go into battle against injustice and usurpation. Such a notion of a religious leader became the cornerstone of other religious groups and political parties. Mystical schools took on the notion of direct or indirect divine assistance, and leaders of political and religious movements followed the inspiration of its revolutionary apsects. In light of this particular discussion, such a notion of religious and political leadership is an important part of the religious institution of the caliphate of early Islam.

Another important aspect of this institution was the nature of the community and its boundaries. Shi˓ite protest against the reigning caliph sowed the seeds for a degree of elitism within the community of believers. The family of the Prophet would enjoy a level of recognition and respect above ordinary believers. However, the egalitarian message of earlier biblical religions found a profound resonance in Islam as well. The first group to raise this issue on the political sphere was the Khariji, who took a position diametrically opposed to the Shi˓a. For them, the political leader was an equal in the community of believers, and open to censure and removal if he failed to live by the teachings of the Qur˒an. According to traditional Muslim historiography, the Kharijis emerged precisely during the reign of the fourth caliph, ˓Ali, the first imam of the Shi˓a, when they rejected his compromising stand in war. They claimed that he had ignored a fundamental teaching of the Qur˒an by agreeing to negotiate with a usurper, and no longer deserved the allegiance of the Muslim community. The Kharijis developed another philosophy of revolution against authority. Unlike the Shi˓ite ideas, it harbored a radical egalitarianism.

Standing between the Shi˓a and the Khariji, other theological schools emerged to define the boundaries of Muslim identities. The first theological questions emerged directly from the issues raised by these early groups. Islamic theology, for example, asked to what extent the wrongdoing of a reigning caliph could be tolerated. From the Shi˓a point of view, the absence of a rightful imam was sufficient ground for launching a revolt against the caliph, while the Kharijis declared that any person guilty of a grave sin should be deposed. Against them, the Mu˓tazila argued that such a person did not automatically relinquish his faith and could not be summarily dismissed. But they said that such a person was suspended between belief and disbelief. The majority of the scholars gravitated toward a more accommodationist position, and argued that grave acts or sins by themselves do not declare a person a non-Muslim. The theological arguments were the first political arguments concerning the identity of the caliph, but it is quite clear that they contributed in no small part to the definition of a Muslim against disbelief. And the early theological debates among Muslims themselves and between Muslims and other religious groups in the Near East established the boundaries and identity of Islam and Muslims.

The identity of Muslims also raised the issue of the Arabs and Arabic. As Islam spread from Arabia and embraced many different cultures and traditions, it confronted the question of the relationship between Arabs and non-Arabs, and between Arab culture and local languages and cultures. The spread of Islamic power went hand in hand with Arabization. The first dynasty of Islam that followed the reign of ˓Ali, the Umayyads, played a leading role in ensuring that the Arab nature of the conquest and its new administration were not lost. Against this hegemony of Arab authority, the Islamic impulse favored a greater sense of egalitarianism between Arabs and non-Arabs. One of the main factors that supported the Abbasid revolution (750) against the Umayyads was the alliance between Arab and non-Arab forces. The victory of the Abbasids meant the victory for universalism in the house of Islam. But the position of the Arabs and Arabic was not abandoned. The Arabic language, as the language of divine revelation par excellence, took on an elevated position in society in general and in religious scholarship in particular, and became the lingua franca of aspiring religious teachers and scholars. The genius of the Arabs lay not so much in their intrinsic ethnic worth, but on the role and eminence of the Qur˒an and the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. Social movements that favored anti-Arab sentiments, like the Shu˓ubiyya, remained in the society, but could never dislodge the lofty status of the Arabic language as the language of revelation. Legal, exegetical, and philological studies emphasized the indispensability of Arabic even while keeping the door open to conversions.

The boundaries of the community against outsiders were more clearly drawn, even though not always consistently applied. The caliphate was justified on the basis of a universal and expanding empire that engaged the reigning superpowers of the day. The Sassanian Empire of the Persians fell early, and the Byzantine Empire was dislodged from its territories in Palestine and North Africa. The latter remained a major adversary and target until its capital, Constantinople, fell in 1453. A condition of war between the caliphate and other political orders was accepted as the norm, even though such a norm could be temporarily regulated by treaties. The relationship with other religions followed this political norm. The expanding caliphate tolerated no polytheistic religious communities. They had to abandon their religions, and accept Islam. In contrast, Christians and Jews were recognized as People of the Book and were tolerated in the caliphate order.

But still, the caliphate was a political institution driven by the interests of those who were able to command power. Various factions of Arab tribes played a dominant role in the balance of power during the Umayyad period and the early Abbasid period, and the history and success of conquest created significant opportunities for others. The religious character of the caliphate was reinforced by the ideological claims made by various parties, from the Shi˓as who declared their support for the divinely inspired leadership of the imams, to the Kharijis who lived by the letter of the Qur˒an. The religious element was reinforced through the development of a religious literature on the legacy of the Prophetic period. In particular, the compilation of the Qur˒an and the sayings of the Prophet and his associates provided the foundations for a religious discourse of power, authority, and community. As an institution, then, the political and religious elements of the caliphate were not so easily separated. And yet, in spite of the inseparability of the political from the religious, the production of a literary tradition provided the basis for the emergence of religious learning (˓ilm) and its prestige. Those who possessed this knowledge, the ulema, were distinct from those who wielded power and from the mass of followers, even though they did not always form a distinctive institution that bound them to each other on the public plain. Sometimes one gets the impression that, in the earliest period of conquest, those who wielded brute force disdained such men of learning. But the accumulation of scholarly tradition could not be ignored in the administration of justice, the bureaucracy, and in the general legitimization of the political order itself.

In the latter half of the Ummayad and the early part of the Abbasid caliphates, the accumulation of the teachings of the Prophet and the early Muslims began in the important towns and cities such as Medina, Mecca, Kufa, and Basra. The most well known of these teachings were from prominent individuals who later came to be associated with schools of law like Abu Hanifa (d. 767), Malik b. Anas (d. 796), Muhammad b. Idris al-Shafi˓i (d. 820), and Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 855). Their discussions on issues such as criminal justice, evidence, military warfare, and slavery provided the political and social foundations for the caliphate. At the same time, and of more lasting significance, they founded the basic framework for a religious way of life by defining and specifying the way in which to fulfill the religious duties in Islam. Theological discussions defined the boundaries of belief and membership, juridical discussions elaborated the performance of ritual practices, and mystical notions explored religious experience with the Divine.

Eventually, the apparatus of scholarship inscribed a distinct zone of authority that the caliphs and other political rulers could not access through the exercise of military means. One of the most interesting episodes in Abbasid history illustrates the limits of political authority against the authority of religious scholarship. In 833, the Abbasid caliph Ma˒mun instituted an inquisition (mihna) to force all notable scholars to accept the doctrine of the createdness of the Qur˒an as state policy. A celebrated and most popular teacher of hadith, Ahmad b. Hanbal, refused to embrace the doctrine. The state policy continued for some time after the death of Ma˒mun, but was finally rescinded by al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–861). The event reinforced the authority of the religious scholars and their role in society. Some have seen in this episode the divergence of political from religious authority in Islam.

The caliphate was a religious institution created and established in early Islam. It defined a religious order of power and authority that included the meaning of the self, community, and the Other. The history of the caliphate during this period indicates that the precise details of the order were determined by the historical exigencies of internal disputes, and conflict with the Other. The beginnings of the accumulation of the teachings of the Prophet, the Qur˒an, and the legacy of the earliest Muslim community provided the scholarly foundations for these conceptions, which by themselves were not always presented in one fully developed theory. In general, however, the caliphate bequeathed to Muslims the idea of a universal egalitarian community (umma) with a special place for the Arabic language and the family of the Prophet; an expanding political order and hegemony over Jews, Christians, and other recognized religious communities; complete dominance over polytheistic communities; and a religious authority based on knowledge of the revelations received by the prophet Muhammad.

The Middle Period

The universal caliphate faced daunting challenges from the outset, and finally collapsed as an effective political authority. The middle period refers to the time when the caliphs lost effective power to regional authorities until the modern period. One can also point to 1453 as a quasi midpoint of this period, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople and became the model of extensive, but not universal, Muslim empires until the emergence of nation-states. As challengers from religious and political groups were regular features of the caliphate, individual caliphs relied more and more on slave soldiers and generals for their personal rule and effective control. The Abbasid revolution unleashed the force of regional powers, particularly in the areas previously controlled by the Sassanian Empire. From the tenth century these regions witnessed the emergence of powerful governors and generals who wielded more power than the central government. In this same century, challenges to the universality of the institution also became apparent. A rival caliphate was established in the West by survivors of the Umayyad family who fled to North Africa and southern Spain. One of their descendants, ˓Abd al-Rahman III (912–961), declared himself a caliph in 929, challenging the theory of the single political authority of Baghdad. In contrast, the Shi˓a, in spite of their differences, were able to rise to prominence. The Buyids took effective control of Baghdad in 945, even though they did not completely replace the caliph with a recognized imam. But another Shi˓a movement was even more ambitious. The Fatimids, with the support of Berber clans in North Africa, lay claim to the universal caliphate from Spain to India. They occupied Cairo in 969 and went on to become the largest and longest surviving political order until the 1170s, when they were defeated by the Seljuks, another group of Turkish military adventurers. The dominance of regional powers, and direct religious challenges from the Shi˓a both helped to lay to rest the effective authority of the universal caliphate. The rival caliphates from both Sunni (Spanish Andalusian) and Shi˓ite (Buyid and Fatimid) claims shook the institution and myth of the single universal caliphate.

The religious elements developed during the early caliphate did not completely disappear, but they were transformed in the context of these new social and political experiences. The idea of a universal community of believers (umma) persisted through the political breakdown of the empire, but a political unity became impossible. The place and role of the Qur˒an and the prophet Muhammad reinforced this unity and this identity on social, religious, and commercial levels. Moreover, the foundation of the religious discourse during the caliphate was now employed in the production of new institutions. The juridical, theological, and mystical ideas that emerged during the late Umayyad and Abbasid periods were developed, and slowly produced institutions like the schools of law and theology, and mystical orders. It is precisely the latter institutions that were a dominant feature of the Middle Period of Islam. The caliphate gave way to more clearly definable religious institutions that expressed the emotions, attitudes, and behaviors of Muslims.

Before elaborating on the religious institutions of the legal schools (madhhab) and the Sufi orders (tariqas), a brief note on the political situation is essential. In comparison with the caliphs, the governors and generals who wielded power in the Middle Period were less justified through religious theology. In light of the early conceptions of the caliphate, they would simply be regarded as usurpers. But scholarly articulation of the political order recognized and accepted the realpolitick on the ground, and provided some space and recognition for these adventurers. One of the most significant theorists to take up this task was the Baghdadian al-Mawardi (d. 1058), whose work on the caliphate has been widely acclaimed. He recognized the new realities of the political space, and tried to articulate justice as an organizing principle for public and private life. The new rulers may come to power by virtue of their strength, according to al-Mawardi, but they were duty-bound to uphold justice in their realms. The shari˓a, as elaborated by the religious scholars, played an important role in the administration of justice, apart from its more significant role of outlining more personal religious duties. Al-Mawardi emphasized the requirement for justice in their political behavior (siyasa). Such theories did not always temper the political ambitions of the men of power, but they provided a new model of political life.

In light of such a broad justification, the generals and rulers often obtained support from one of the schools of law, theology, or mystical orders. Buyid support for Shi˓ite teachings was followed by a series of Sunni-inclined rulers. The Seljukid and Ayyubid rulers were prominent examples who promoted Sunni Islamic thought and life. In this period, perhaps as a result of their lesser religious roles, the generals were more inclined to shore their regimes with the support of religious tendencies. They supported the building of schools for legal and theological groups, and also embarked upon extensive architectural projects of mosques, mausoleums, and Sufi lodges. Mottahedeh's analysis has suggested that support for the religious projects was not motivated only by insecurity, or deep religious feelings and convictions. He argued that in this period the system of land grants (iqta˓) to governors and soldiers made this the most important means of acquiring and cultivating land. In this context, pious endowments (waqf) made by wealthy and political elites created a relatively autonomous space that escaped these land grants, and were therefore favored by wealthy patrons of religious life in general, and religious institutions in particular. Through the waqf then, religious practices were granted a degree of autonomy and independence in a period of often-great military conflict.

As mentioned already, Islamic juridical thought originated early during the caliphate. Shi˓ite imams and other teachers started outlining rules and conditions for the performance of personal religious duties and the application of public law. During the Middle Period, the elaboration and articulation of legal theory and practices continued. But now distinct identities emerged around prominent scholars and their students. In Sunni Islam, the Middle Period witnessed the consolidation of four legal schools, linking themselves to Abu Hanifa, Malik b. Anas, al-Shafi˓i, and Ahmad b. Hanbal. Genealogies of students linking the founders were formulated, founding texts and commentaries identified, more or less coherent theories outlined, and positions were founded against others. Makdisi has shown how the practice of commentaries and notation on earlier works played a leading role in the development of consensus within each of the schools. The schools were in no small measure supported by the foundation of the madrasa, a school established to teach one or another school of law. The first to introduce the madrasa as an institution for teaching were the Shi˓a, but it quickly became a distinct way of consolidating and promoting the teachings of Sunni schools as well. The madrasa did not replace the networks around individual teachers, but provided a basis for their further consolidation. In Sunni Islam, then, the four schools of law took their shape during the Middle Period. It was also this period that saw the consolidation of Shi ism as a rival scholarly vision of Islam, as the foundation of a complete political order, or as a school of law, theology, and mysticism.

In addition to the schools of law, this period also witnessed the emergence of Sufi orders (tariqas). Like the schools of law, the earliest ideas on mystical life had also emerged in the early caliphate. With the Middle Period, Sufi ideas were similarly consolidated. Compendia were compiled, biographies (or hagiographies) were collected of the early Sufis, and then, in the twelfth century, the first order was developed around the teachings of ˓Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166) of Baghdad. A highly respected and popular preacher, al-Jilani introduced a large number of people to the simple insights of Sufi experience. His order has become the most widespread in the Muslim world, and many others have followed it in form. The orders in general grew out of the strong relationship between a Sufi teacher and his disciple, and the additional rites prescribed to experience God through remembrance (dhikr).

But both legal schools and Sufi orders exemplified the chief religious institutions in this period. Both the school of law (madhhab) and Sufi order (tariqa) became complementary ways of being a Muslim in the Middle Period. Not every Muslim would belong to a Sufi order as they would adopt a school or a jurist, but Sufism became a prevalent badge of identity as well. The legal school and tariqa were the prominent institutions that gave shape to religious life in the Middle Period. Both assumed the presence of a political authority that supported Islamic law, even though not always very consistently. But the legal schools and the orders gave shape to the religious spheres that were created in the early caliphate.

Modern Period

The next major transformation of religious institutions occurred with the impact of Western (European) hegemony. The armies of the generals and the sultans first lost to the Europeans on the battlefields, followed by direct occupation and widespread cultural and political influence. This latest period of Islamic history has also spawned its unique institutions, continuing from the past in some sense and inventing new features in the new political contexts.

In the central lands of Islam (the Ottoman sultanate, Iran, and Egypt) the modern period witnessed an intense conflict between the political rulers and the ulema. The former wanted to modernize the state and society as quickly as possible in order to emulate and compete with the Western powers that were defeating them on the battlefields, while the latter regarded most of these changes as a direct threat to their own positions in society and to Islam as a way of life. In the nineteenth century, individual religious scholars supported some aspects of modernization, and promoted some form of reformist interpretation of Islam. But the ulema as a class of scholars lost their unique place in the new political orders. Sometimes they were violently suppressed in the process, and the pious foundations over which they maintained control and through which they enjoyed some independence were confiscated or nationalized. In varying degrees, what emerged in the modern period was a political space occupied entirely by generals, rulers, and later politicians.

In this context, the state in Islamic society was transformed into a powerful entity that controlled all aspects of life, including religion. Religion, in this case Islam, became an instrument to bring about change and modernization, and to keep the incumbents in power. With its long history of religious politics, the new state could employ symbols and instruments to further its goals. And yet the new state was neither a continuation of the caliphate nor the military sultanates of the Middle Period. The new state accepted the rights, privileges, boundaries, and limitations of a modern state, and, like other modern states, it used religion for its particular political purposes. The new state could be a monarchy based on the prestige of the family of the Prophet (Jordan and Morocco) or a revivalist religious movement (Saudi Arabia), a socialist or capitalist one-party state (Iraq, Syria, and Egypt), or a secular republic based on universal suffrage (Turkey). In spite of their diversity, the acceptance of the modern state system, and the instrumentalization of Islam for legitimacy, united them.

In the second half of the twentieth century, most of the states witnessed opposition movements that demanded a greater degree of Islamization. But the opposing positions have not been based so much on the absence of religion in the modern states, but on their inappropriate practice and interpretation. So, the demand for an Islamic state to replace the older modern state is based on a more complete adoption of Islamic teachings in both the state and society. In particular, there is a demand that the shari˓a developed by the legal schools in the Middle Period play a central and dominant role in the legal systems of the new states. But the central idea of the modern state is not rejected, and the greater degree of instrumentalization of religion in the state is not questioned. By and large, the idea of the Islamic state is a marriage between the modern state and the sultanates of the Middle Period. The modern Muslim state, advocating a greater or lesser degree of Islamization, is a unique religious institution. It is neither completely free from the influence of traditional Islamic patterns and institutions, the caliphate and the legal schools, nor from modern notions of state. So far the first and most successful of such states has been the Islamic Republic of Iran (established 1979).

But the modern period has also given rise to a different kind of religious institution in Islam. Such institutions are a product of secular states, and are most clearly noticeable in countries of minority Muslim contexts such as India, Africa south of the Sahara, and more recently Europe and America. In the secular context, religion is relatively free from direct state influence, and vice versa. In such conditions, Muslims have established anew or transformed their mosques, schools, pious endowments, and burial grounds into more independent religious institutions. The development of these institutions has been closely tied with local historical contexts, but has drawn on resources and patterns of autonomy in the Middle Period of Islam. More recently, with the emergence of new technologies of communication (the radio, Internet, and satellite), such independent institutions have proliferated. Once their role in secular pluralist societies is identified, they become easily recognized in Muslim majority countries as well. Such institutions are not always easily visible in majority Muslim states, but they play an important role in the practice of Muslims. Only the political control and monopoly of Islam in the modern state prevents their explosive proliferation.

See alsoArabic Language ; Empires: Abbasid ; Empires: Sassanian ; Empires: Umayyad ; Ibadat ; Identity, Muslim ; Islam and Islamic ; Khirqah ; Khutba ; Masjid ; Material Culture .


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Abdulkader Tayob

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