Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Leading the Faithful: The Role of Religious Authorities in the Middle East Working Group I

Leading the Faithful: The Role of Religious Authorities in the Middle East Working Group I

On August 22-23, 2016, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held the first working group meeting under its research initiative on the topic of “Leading the Faithful: The Role of Religious Authorities in the Middle East.” During the course of the two days, scholars identified a number of key gaps in the literature on the position and role of religious leaders of different communities present in the Middle East, as well as broader themes relating to the issue of religious authority across the region as a whole.

The Working Group commenced with a discussion led by Dr. Reem Meshal on “The Crisis of Religious Authority in Egypt and the Arab Spring.” In particular, Meshal raised three current crises relating to the issue of religious authority in the Middle East that need further scrutiny: the crisis over who demonstrates legitimate religious authority in Sunni Islam, the crisis of revitalized sectarianism, and the crisis in the academy produced by limiting our understanding of religious orthodoxy via the secular critique. Meshal suggested that in Egypt it is challenging to identify a religious leader who hold a monopoly over authority over Sunni Islam. Many contending and oppositional sources, like Al Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood, claim to speak for Sunni Islam, but none can serve as sole authority over it. Recently, spreading sectarianism is another crisis that has produced most visible results in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and to an extent in Egypt and also points to a crisis in religious authority. Additionally, Meshal raised a question of whether we might be in the midst of a “third reformation period” of Islamic history where state actors and technocrats presume to speak for religion. Meshal stressed the need to question orthodoxy in a more nuanced and complex manner than what is provided by the secular critique, and to address it as a process that is constructed, rather than given.

Dr. Sajjad Rizvi moved the discussion forward by raising areas of inquiry related to “The Changing Marjaiyyat and Shiite Religious Authority in the Middle East.” Rizvi started his discussion with the impact of certain moments in the history of the Middle East on Shiite religious authority. He discussed the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and how it further established the idea that clerics possess authority; and the Iraq war of 2003, and how it raised the question of who is going to take over religious authority. Rizvi also discussed the structures of Islam in Shiite theology, and how they are more resilient than those of Sunni Islam. Rizvi followed this discussion by a series of questions that, he believes, are understudied. Amongst other interesting and original research questions Rizvi identified the following: how is a Marja produced now days? What are the impacts of social media, new media, new forms of communication on the role and relationship of the Marjayyat and believers? How are the financial flows and networks of the Marjas managed? And how has the militarization and militia-making changed the role of the Marjayyat? Additionally, Rizvi raised some very interesting points relating to the relationship amongst different Shiite clerics, as well as on the difference between traditional mode of religious authority, networks arranged around piety of particular figures and their philanthropic work, and contemporary figures that take on different and broader roles. Rizvi also questioned what impact class, ethnicity, and race play producing Shiite religious leadership, and whether a Marja could be produced outside of Najaf and Qom.

Robert Bianchi led a discussion on the topic of “Religious Authorities and the Politics of Hajj in the Middle East.” Bianchi raised four main themes that could benefit from extended study, and would add to the existing scholarship. First of all, Bianchi suggested that it is important to consider the implications of the changing demographic composition of Hajj pilgrims, who are no longer primarily for Arab states, but rather from Asia and elsewhere. This demographic change has had implications for power relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Muslim majority states. Secondly, Bianchi suggested that over the past few decades the management of Hajj has become increasingly internationalized with a number of other states and private sector actors involved in management and organization of the Hajj, and this also needs to be more closely examined. As a third area of research, Bianchi suggested studying Hajj as part of the global pilgrimage system, and from a comparative and complementary perspective. The Hajj has seldom been in comparison to other religious pilgrimage global as performed by devotees of other faiths, and it would be interesting to provide this new and comparative framing of Hajj. And finally Bianchi offered the suggestion of discussion to what extent there are possibilities for reinventing, reforming or re-imagining the Hajj, to make it both more practical as well as more inclusive.

Stephane Dudoignon led a session on Iran, focusing on the role of “Sunni Religious Leaders and Inter-Confessional Relations in Iran.” Dudoignon argued that the re-activation of historical memory of religious minority identity versus majority identity had cemented the complex interaction of interests between the Shiite and Sunni religious binary in Iran. Iran also provides an interesting case-study for examining what role local religious authorities play in a context where tribal identity and transnational affiliations also exist. Amongst other understudied areas of research on Iran, Dudoignon suggested the need to carry out a study of the Sunni ulama as a distinct power group within Iran, to deepen our understanding of the complex interaction between the Sunni and Shiite “universes,” to examine how Iranian religious authorities articulate or engage with ethnic, tribal, religious, and linguistic identity in Iran, and finally the role of Sunni clerics in secularizing Iran.

Zachary Wright and Usama Alony discussed “Personalized Religious Charisma in Jihadi Islamist Circles.” Wright started with a broad discussion on long-standing theological debates around leadership and authority amongst religious scholars of different Islamic schools of thought. Wright highlighted the importance of examining the development of doctrine in Salafi Jihadi circles. Following this, Alony spoke about variations in core ideologues of different Salafi religious authorities associated with different transnational movements. Based on qualitative research conducted in Syria in 2013 with interviews of a number of military leaders of various Jihadi movements in Syria, Alony provided details on who these Jihadi leaders are, where they come from, what their ideology is, and how they see themselves and their lives post-civil war Syria. Alony stated that based on his field research he would suggest that while religious leadership continues to be important, it is not the sole motivator for Jihadi militant groups in Syria. Wright and Alony suggested that it is important to address gaps in the scholarship on the religious authority and legitimacy of Daesh, and on the subject of charismatic leadership and different sources of religious authority in Salafi groups more broadly.

Leon Goldsmith, Albert de Jong, and Michael Leezenberg all provided focused case-studies on different, smaller religious communities in the Middle East. Leon Goldsmith provided a lot of insight on the topic of “Alawite Religious Leadership, the State, and Politics in the Levant.” In his discussion, Goldsmith suggested that it currently it is not clear whether religious leadership continues to be of real importance for Syrian Alawites and whether Alawite religious figures remain influential. It could be argued that decades of Ba’athism successfully coopted, dismantled, or significantly limited the authority of Alawite religious figures and limited their ability to influence decision-making for and by the community. In terms of broader gaps in our understanding, Goldsmith suggested that there was limited work on actually defining Alawite identity and whether Alawite religious leaders attempt to influence the formation and development of Alawite identity. Goldsmith also discussed the publication of the Alawite Declaration in April of this year, which could be considered an historic turning point as it attempted to dismiss previously existing notions of Alawite identity. Among other gaps in the literature Goldsmith stated that this project should attempt to provide further study on the following suggested topics: Alawite Religious Leadership in the Levant (who, where, what etc), the Importance and Influence of Alawite religious leadership on the Community, Alawite Religious Authority and State Co-optation in Syria and Turkey, and Fragmentation or Unity in Crisis: Current Status of Alawite Religious Leadership.

Albert de Jong led a discussion on a very understudied community in the Middle East about whom little is known, the Mandaeans. De Jong commenced his session on “Mandaean Tarmida, Mandaean Identity, and Religious Authorities in Iraq and Iran” by stating that there is very limited scholarship on Mandaeans in contemporary times, and what work does exist tends to be historical. As such there are multiple gaps and questions that need to be addressed. Among other areas to study de Jong identified two in particular worth exploring within this topic: the dissolution of religious diversity in the Middle East, and the death of a religion, or how does a religion die? Does it really die out or transform into something else? In both these topics multiple communities facing similar dilemmas could be incorporated into the discussion, the Mandaeans, Zorastrians, and Yezidis.  Michael Leezenberg concluded the working group with a discussion on “Shabak and Yezidi Religious Leaders and the Iraqi State.” Leezenberg started his discussion with questioning if Iraq is currently a full functioning “state.” During his presentation Leezenberg highlighted some interesting areas of original research that ought to be undertaken on Shabak and Yezidi religious leaders. Among other things he suggested that it was necessary to study how the recent spate of violent upheaval across the Middle East is affecting these communities, and in particular how the growing instability has shaped the leadership of these groups. Are there in fact even distinct religious leadership bodies for these groups that engage with state and non-state actors in Iraq?

The discussions reflected the significance of the role religious leaders play in the Middle East through their interactions with both sates and publics. They also revealed the extent to which this significant role is understudied in scholarship, especially in light of the developments that swept the region post the 2011 Arab uprisings. Through the aforediscussed topics, this research initiative addresses an increasingly important but largely understudied topic in Middle Eastern studies.

Participants and Discussants:

  • Usama Alony, Northwestern University in Qatar
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Robert Bianchi, Shanghai International Studies University
  • Albert de Jong, Leiden University
  • Stéphane Dudoignon, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRF)
  • Nazarbayev University of Astana, Kazakhstan
  • John Fahy, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Leon Goldsmith, Massey University and University of Otago, New Zealand
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Michiel Leezenberg, University of Amsterdam
  • Reem Meshal, Qatar University
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Sajjad Rizvi, University of Exeter
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Zachary Wright, Northwestern University in Qatar

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS