Authorizing Islam in Europe

Peter Frank & Elena Arigita. The Muslim World. Volume 96, Issue 4. October 2006.

The study of Muslim religious authority in recent years has been increasingly attracting interest. This fact is both banal and surprising. It is banal since the issue of authority inevitably comes up in any study of how a religious tradition is reproduced, transmitted and imparted to the faithful. From this point of view, recent studies of Muslim authority are part of a long history of research conducted on this topic. Today, there are in addition well-known and powerful reasons that serve to heighten the interest in a study of authority and orienting it in specific ways, namely widespread political concerns with Islam and its incorporation into European states.

However, the increasing interest in authorities is also somewhat surprising, since, in studies of Islam, the current popularity of the topic contrasts with the relative elusiveness of the concept of authority. The use of the term “authority” is in fact almost routinely qualified by pointing out its inherent problematics, its instability, the fact that it is fragmented (fundamentally the result of continual negotiation) or quite simply in crisis. The equally frequent reminders that “there is no church in Islam” constitute another, more general restriction placed on the concept of authority in the domain of Islam.

These restrictions and qualifications are without a doubt grounded in careful research and reflection on the topic. But they also relate to the problematic assumption that authority (i.e. the probability that specific adherences to Islam find acceptance among its followers) is primarily embodied by Muslim authorities, understood here as discrete religious institutions or actors engaged in the authorization of Islam. This is indeed only one possible approach to the concept of authority and it could be argued that a more useful framing of research questions would be to refer to the “authorization of Islam.” Put differently, instead of carrying on the problematic assumption that the authorization of Islam depends importantly on religious authorities, the research focus should be broadened on processes of authorization which might imply a variety of factors and lead to very diverging outcomes in terms of authorities and religious institutions of authority. Such a processual framing perhaps more adequately reflects the often recognized weakness of authorities as well as the simple fact that it is not only Muslims who contribute to deciding what can be legitimated as Islamic. It requests us to specify who as well as what is doing the authorizing, but emphasizes the open-endedness of authorization processes, thus making it more likely to avoid the reification of authority. This special issue, which is comprised of eight articles, is a contribution to a study of Muslim authority inscribed within such a perspective. The approaches taken in these articles and the arguments presented vary and are sometimes in conflict, but read together, they consider Muslim authorities within the broader processes of authorization, which they are concerned with elucidating.

The issues discussed in this volume range from: the historical configuration of religious authority in Europe, the emergence of a secular Muslim subjectivity in relation to laicize and the history of colonialism, current state policies in Spain, England and France to promote specific Muslim institutions, the conflicting processes of authorization in Islam between believers and would-be-authorizers in Denmark, Germany and France, as well conceptualizations of authority by Muslim legal scholars, in both the past and the present.

The issue starts off with a wide-ranging contribution by Armando Salvatore that relates current scholarly debates on secularity in Europe to a genealogical study of conceptualizations of power and authority during the Enlightenment. Salvatore’s concern, which is with the possibilities for Islam to enter the public sphere in Europe, leads him to question the assumptions of a clear-cut institutional division of private and public spheres. In his attempt to contribute to the rediscovery of alternative genealogies of Europe’s modernity, he goes back to the writings of Spinoza and Vico. From them, he retrieves a “sense of ambivalence in the modern constitution of the relation between religion and politics, between the private and the public spheres” which was to be lost in later times. Salvatore’s discussion starts with a consideration of Spinoza’s formulation of a public religion, which emphasizes the processual subjection of religion to the res publica and the continual, conflicting reconstitution of the latter. He then proceeds to discuss Vico’s conceptualization of the public sphere as “the space where warm circles of solidarity fit into the cold circles of citizenship” and where the former, “based on ‘ties that bind’ (hence authority), are folded into [cold circles] governed by shared interest.” There is no talk here of a simple erasure of “traditional authority,” but of “changes in the modes of authority that lead to the emergence of a public sphere.” Salvatore insists on the role of the institutional regulation of religion, which tends to be ignored in conceptualizations of ‘religion’ and expresses doubts about the possibility of a “public civil religion” as defended by José Casanova. Instead, he stresses the importance of maintaining the “dynamics of agonic civility” and of raising the awareness that European models of secularity are neither a closed history nor necessarily fair to all religious traditions.

In her contribution, Elena Arigita examines precisely how the incorporation of Muslims into the structures of the state is based on the premise that, notwithstanding the Islamic legacy of Spain, historical models of relating religion, i.e., Church and state, are not open to negotiation or reshaping. In the case of Spain, where the relations between Muslims and the state have been institutionalized primarily through the creation of a representative body of Muslims, the Islamic Commission of Spain, which was set up prior to the agreement concluded in 1992 between Spain and representatives of its Muslim community, Muslims were to organize along the lines of the Catholic Church model. Arigita’s study shows how throughout the 15 years or so of its existence, this type of representation has been reshaped, from inside, above and below – through the effects of migration movements, intra-Islamic disputes, a multifarious engagement with Spain’s Islamic past and the impact of security policies after the Madrid bombings in 2003. While state initiatives are its starting point, the study ultimately highlights the limited power state authorities wield in their attempts to structure the community. The evolution of Spain’s Muslim leadership, as analyzed here, is a case of institutionalization that belies theories of “churchification” and, instead, provides evidence for the ongoing pluralization of the regulation of religion in Europe.

Ruth Mas, redirecting the focus to the contested definitions of what counts as ‘religious’ and, more precisely, as ‘Islamic,’ examines in her article the articulation of secular Muslim identities in France as a struggle with France’s prescriptions for secular liberal governance and the norms that govern the recognition as Muslims within it. The discourses examined here, articulated by a number of Franco-Maghrebi intellectuals in a series of petitions launched since 2003, are directed against the “foreclosure along religious lines” of Muslim subjectivities, argues the author. Resisting both the category of “practicing Muslim” and the association of Muslim with violence, the discourses of “secular Muslims” are an attempt to re-appropriate identities widely perceived today as contradictory. However, as Mas underlines, this attempt is conditioned by a specific, discursive historicity of the secular and, particularly, by “the discourse of exception surrounding the role of laïcité in the colonies.” The article explores how current debates in France on the supposedly positive role of colonialism condition the understanding of laïcité and contribute to rendering the “secular Muslim” a profoundly ambivalent concept. Mas considers the petitions by these intellectuals to rupture designations, by political discourses or Muslims, of what Islam and Muslims are, but she also shows how the “hegemonic and colonial consolidation of liberal secular values [ … ] continues to speak its violence” in the discourse of these secular Muslims. Mas concludes that the authorization of the “secular Muslim” and its critical de-essentializing role functions in relation to the processes of French imperialism presently invested in collapsing its history of violence.

The following two articles represent more ethnographic studies. Jeanette Jouili and Schirin Amir-Moazami study in their article how Muslim women in France and Germany relate to religious authority, defined here both as “leadership” and as “authoritative” discourse. Contrary to many studies that have emphasized the connection between knowledge acquisition and the democratization of authority structures, Jouili and Amir-Moazami broaden these more common perspectives by analyzing women’s widened access to Islamic knowledge in its relation to their “aim to cultivate a ‘pious self.’” While the authors thus acknowledge that women “at times” accede to new roles inside Muslim communities, they also point to the women’s “reaffirmation of established forms of religious authority.” However, this reaffirmation, it is argued here, cannot be understood correctly with an “exclusive and normatively biased focus on female empowerment.” Rather, Jouili and Amir-Moazami argue, it needs to be related to the “women’s aspiration to piety.” From this perspective, both submission to God’s authority and the “obedience towards personified authorities” are central to these women’s religiosities and to a certain degree is “unavoidable.”

While Jouili and Amir-Moazami insist on the relevance of religious authorities for Muslim women, Tina Jensen’s study of converts to Islam in Denmark draws a radically different picture. The author insists on the seeming paradox inherent in the processes of conversion analyzed here. While Danish converts are attracted to Islam “as an authoritative tradition,” their religious lives are in fact “informed by privacy, individualism, autonomy, and eclecticism.” Jensen argues that this is the outcome of the fundamental predicament in which converts are caught, namely, the difficulty of affirming their identity publicly, on the one hand, and the problems they encounter in their attempts “to authoriz[e] and authenticatte] themselves as ‘Muslims’ in relation to the Muslim field,” on the other. The author highlights the similarities between Islam, as perceived by Danish converts, and the characteristics of new religious movements, notably the return to the whole to which believers aspire, in response to processes of fragmentation and individualization characteristic of modernity. However, as Jensen shows, the religious life of converts is characterized primarily by mobility and the shopping around between different Islamic milieus. Moreover, the converts’ aspirations to an authoritative tradition does not necessarily mean that they will be included in other already existing Muslim communities in Denmark. The author emphasizes instead the importance of informal networks and virtual space for converts. She also points, as an example of a “religious voluntary group” that builds on structural similarities in the religious life of converts and young Muslims, to institutes for Islamic studies, catering both to “second-generation” Muslims and converts.

In his article, Alexandre Caeiro examines transformations in the conceptualization of authority through a diachronic study of adab al-fatwa manuals. His study, ranging from medieval Damascus to contemporary France, seeks to situate practices of fatwa-giving in the changing “moral economy” of Muslim societies and communities. Conceptualizing the practice of fatwa-giving as an “Islamic discursive tradition,” Caeiro emphasizes both the subjectivity and reflexivity that are inherent in Islamic practices, and the “impetus towards self-reform” intrinsic to “traditional modes of reasoning.” The author argues that the focus on ifta manuals provides a link between “forms of religiosity and the structures which (re)produce authority,” constituting a particularly useful starting point for exploring authority in its relationality. Caeiro’s discussion of the “conceptual and institutional conditions” that condition the persuasiveness of Islamic discourses leads him to outline, notably via case studies of Ibn al-Salah al-Shahrazuri (1181-1245), Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi (1866-1914), Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s (b. 1926) and Tareq Oubrou (b. 1959), differences in the argumentation of fatwas, the relationship of muftis to the state, their positioning towards the use of the media, and implicit notions of individual agency.

The last two contributions bring us back to the starting point of the issue, namely, the complex relations between religion and politics in Europe and the diffuse nature of religious authority. In his study, Jonathan Birt traces the emergence of imams as the community’s new leaders and the process through which the necessary or desirable qualifications of these leaders have been defined by the government. Birt argues that in Britain, the role of the “good imam” has been circumscribed based on Anglican conceptions of “civic religion” that underlie the formation of a specific “opportunity space” for religious groups. After a study of the precedent of multifaith inner city regeneration policies in the 1990s, Birt analyzes the emergence of a new “opportunity space” for imams through counter-terrorist policies and attempts by authorities to reorganize Muslim leadership in function of counter-terrorist policies. While the author points out that government policies aim primarily at initiating a process of self-regulation in Muslim communities, the study nevertheless provides a powerful argument for the permeability of the secular and non-secular, in spite of “official discourse that upholds the rigidity of the public and the private sphere.”

A similar line of reflection is opened up by Frank Peter in his study of the Muslim field in France that has emerged during the last two decades or so. Peter analyzes how the intergenerational change in the French Muslim population and transformations in French policies regarding the incorporation of Islam have structured the competition between Muslim would-be-authorizers and their relationship to believers. Drawing on Bourdieu’s field theory, he analyzes religious authority in terms of changing combinations and definitions of religious and cultural capital, which in turn are linked to the structure of interfield relations. The study explores how different Muslim actors position themselves with regard to the increasing state support for an Islam, which is conceived of as a civil religion, and how their positioning correlates with specific views on ‘young Muslims’ and on the profile and qualifications of religious authorities. The article stresses that external influences on the Muslim field are importantly mediated by its internal structure, i.e., the distribution of capital and the different conceptualizations of the field’s boundaries that Muslim actors formulate through the varying emphasis they place on specific Islamic concepts, such as the universality of Islam or ijtihad. The picture that emerges from this article is of a field where the historical diffusion of authority and the field’s external reconfiguration allow a broad variety of actors to claim authority, but where the possibility of building a strong positon, i.e., authority, seems to be restricted.