Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

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

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

On February 12-13, 2017, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held its second working group under the research initiative on “Leading the Faithful: The Role of Religious Authorities in the Middle East.” Over the course of two days, working group participants presented a number of draft papers investigating the dynamics, the position of, and the role played by religious leaders of assorted religious communities present in the Middle East. While some of the papers provide nuanced historical depth when tracing the role of religious leaders, others cast their attention to the role of religious leadership during more recent times, particularly in the wake of increasing confessional and sectarian civil conflict seen in the wars in Iraq and Syria. The draft papers focused on a number of specific themes and case studies, and together provide an examination on the following areas: the role of Sunni authority from a historical perspective; the evolution of the marja and Shi’i religious leadership in the Middle East; the role of Sufi religious leaders and orders in the Middle East today; the evolution of leadership and authority over the Hajj; the conditions of the Alawite community and the role of the Alawi Sheikhs in Syria in the current context; and case studies on the religious leadership of the Mandaean, the Yezidi, and the Shabak religious communities.

The opening session of the meeting was devoted to discussing Professor Tamara Sonn’s paper on the topic of “Who Speaks for the Umma? Sunni Authority and Religious Leadership in the Contemporary Middle East.” In her paper, Sonn suggested that there is no single source of Sunni religious leadership in the contemporary Middle East. Due to political and demographic changes over the past century, Sunni religious leadership is in a state of transition. Traditional nodes of religious authority have been called into question, and are themselves evolving. As well, non-traditional sources of authority are emerging and, in some cases, have become sufficiently institutionalized to supplant traditional authorities. Sonn briefly described traditional sources of religious authority in Sunni Islam. She also provided an overview of political and demographic developments that called traditional authorities into question. In addition, Sonn surveyed representative examples of both reformed traditional authorities and emerging non-traditional religious leaders in the Sunni Middle East. Finally, she concluded with some observations about long-term trends in Sunni authority and religious leadership in general.

Following on from the discussion on the role of authority and religious leadership for the Sunni community, Sajjad Rizvi presented his paper on Shi’i leadership and the making of a marja, focusing on the role of Sīstānī and Shi’i Religious authority in the Twitter Age. In his paper, Rizvi considers the question of how one becomes a marja, particularly in reference to the authority of that marja. Rizvi focused his discussion on an examination of Sīstānī, and the shift and development of the marja in the form of the “Sīstānī model” in the age of social media. Rizvi argues that globalization has both increased the power and reach of the marājiʿ; but yet, ironically, made their significance more local. The increasing consensus of the political role of the marājiʿ is clear in Qum, Najaf and beyond. Rizvi also claims that the recent developments in Iraq have shown that the theory of the authority of the jurist (wilāyat al-faqīh) is no longer just Iranian, nor does the support for it signal a disloyal support for the Iranian state and its jurisdiction. What is properly Iranian and Iraqi in the contemporary world cannot be so easily compartmentalized; this further complicates the question of the role of “Iran” in Iraq. A study of the marāji’ demonstrates that there is more than one conception ofmarja’iyya and of the ḥawza, as well as multiple claimants and potential centers of power for the marāji’. In other words, Rizvi argues that the marja’iyya is traditional and local as well as dynamic and transnational, quietest and conservative as well as politically engaged and reforming. Finally, Rizvi unpacks whether the marja’iyya will survive.

Mark Sedgwick led a working group discussion on his paper that examines Sufi religious leaders and orders in the Middle East today. Sedgwick’s paper studies the basis and nature of the primarily esoteric, person-centered authority of the Sufi shaykh in the context of the ṭarīqa (Sufi Order), and Sufi doctrine. Sedgewick in his paper raises the interesting point about the inverse relationship between the power of the shaykh and the size of the ṭarīqa. The smaller the order over which he asserts leadership, the more direct and over-riding is the authority of the shaykh. The larger the order, the more diffuse and limited is the authority of the shaykh. In addition, Sedgewick also examines the foundation and nature of the primarily exoteric, scripture–centered authority of the Sufi shaykh beyond the ṭarīqa, which includes the social influences of the person-centered authority. Sedgewick argues that this sort of authority diminished during the twentieth century. Sedgwick’s paper concludes with an exploration of more recent developments, particularly the political promotion of Sufism by some states, such as Morocco, as an alternative to other forms of “radical” Islam.

In his presentation, Robert Bianchi focused the discussion on “Religious Authorities and Reimagining the Hajj.” Bianchi argued that the Saudi data leave little doubt that the quality of care for Hajjis varies enormously depending on several key factors which policy makers and religious leaders must address with greater honesty and determination. Year in and year out, the most vulnerable pilgrim populations are poor people, women, and children from across Africa and Asia as well as foreign workers, refugees, and illegal migrants living in Saudi Arabia. Most of the current proposals for Hajj reform ignore these high-risk groups. Saudi planners focus on promoting year-round pilgrimage to boost tourism revenues and high-end infrastructure. In most other countries, government-run Hajj agencies are busy cutting market-sharing deals with private business cartels and their political patrons. The combined effect of these policies is to weaken what remains of already inadequate regulations that are vital to the protection of all Hajjis.  Meanwhile, support is also growing for more sweeping proposals to reimagine and reinvent the Hajj instead of fine-tuning the status quo. Some of these reforms are particularly likely to test the ingenuity and influence of religious leaders from all backgrounds because they challenge longstanding custom.

Leon Goldsmith presented his paper on “The ‘Alawī Sheikhs of Religion: A Brief Introduction.” He argues that the ‘Alawī religious leadership has always lacked structure or explicit roles, but nonetheless, filled an important function in the social milieu at local levels. The ‘Alawī mashayikh would cooperate to mediate among individuals and with other groups at times of danger or tension such as in 1936, 1973 and possibly in 2016 as indicated by the unverified Declaration of an Identity Reform. He also claimed that pressures were exerted on the sect to conform to mainstream religious identities, whether Sunni or Shi’i, throughout the twentieth century from both inside Syria and at the regional level. Moreover, Goldsmith claimed that the Ba’th/al-Asad regime has coopted ‘Alawī religious leadership as an instrument of regime maintenance since 1982. The effect of this has been to further divide religious leadership between the traditional and regime-appointed mashayikh. The appointment of regime loyalists as religious sheikhs has seen the standard of sheikhs deteriorate and they have lost respect and independent status in their communities. Finally, the growing corruption and opportunism creeping into the ‘Alawī religious class at the expense of the traditional sheikhs bode poorly for the future of religious leadership as a positive agent for political transformation and stability in Syria.

Albert de Jong shifted the discussion to pseudo-Islamic sects in his presentation on “Kings on Earth, Angels Beyond: Spiritual Elite Communities in the Contemporary Middle East.” de Jong argues that within the mosaic of religious communities of the pre-modern and modern Middle East, there is a wide range of religious communities that predated the rise of Islam alongside a cluster of communities that decidedly came into being after the Islamic conquests, in various distinct geographical, religious, and social contexts. de Jong questions how wholly distinct religious communities have not only survived, but also almost continually increased in the Middle East. He credits their survival and expansion to the organizations of these religious groups, and the role of their leaders. de Jong suggested two fundamental patterns of the social and religious organization that have contributed to the survival and growth of these religious groups: endogamy; and the characteristic division of the community into a small section of specialists in whom knowledge of the tradition is vested, and a large majority who do not (need to) know much about their religion.

Michael Leezenberg presented the last paper of the working group that examines the transformations in the leadership of minority religious communities in Northern Iraq: the Yezidis, Shabak, and Assyrians in Northern Iraq. In his paper, Leezenberg discusses these three religious communities that in some ways have shared the same fate, that of to some degree being at the mercy of their geography, a geography that has left them ensnared by ongoing conflict which has only accelerated over the past three decades. While these communities were certainly vulnerable even during the Baathist years, in post-Saddam Iraq their conditions have grown much more precarious status. Most recently they have suffered by becoming a target for violence directed at them by ISIS. In his paper Leezenberg traces the at times converging and at other times diverging trajectories of these groups, focusing particularly on the role of their religious leaders and how they have dealt with crises and conflict at different points in the bloody history of the region. 


Participants and Discussants:

  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Robert Bianchi, Shanghai International Studies University
  • Albert de Jong, Leiden University
  • Leon Goldsmith, University of Otago, New Zealand
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Michiel Leezenberg, University of Amsterdam
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Sajjad Rizvi, University of Exeter
  • Mark Sedgwick, Aarhus University, Denmark
  • Tamara Sonn, Georgetown University
  • Jackie Starbird, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS