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Topics in Islam: Religious Authority in Modern Islam

Religious Studies 3622 - Fall 2020

Among the many profound changes that have occurred in the Muslim World since the nineteenth century, one of the most transformative is that which academics popularly term the "crisis of religious authority." According to the academic narrative, as modern nation states emerged in the nineteenth century they created vast bureaucracies, universal compulsory education systems, new judicial structures, and other institutions. One of the key consequences of these changes was the marginalization of the Muslim scholarly elite, the ulama, who up until that time had enjoyed almost unparalleled authority to define Islamic social norms for the masses, dispense justice through the courts, educate the elites, and so on. Mass education, increased access to Islamic texts, and new technologies of disruption such as the internet have allowed new actors ranging from fundamentalists to feminists to emerge and challenge the Muslim scholarly elite's monopoly on the authoritative interpretation of Islam. Today, the so-called crisis of religious authority in Islam is cited as a cause for all manner of developments ranging from terrorism to increased gender equality. However, there has never been an institutionalized clerical hierarchy in Islam, and religious authority is not simply 'had' or claimed in a straightforward manner. Instead, in different times and places different actors have reworked traditional modes of claiming authority and taken advantage of new technologies to promote their own interpretations of Islamic texts and norms as authoritative while challenging the claims of others. Our approach to exploring religious authority in Islam and its modern crisis will be both thematic and chronological. We will consider how the Muslim scholarly elite, the ulama, have historically laid claim to be the authoritative voices of Islam, and how they have responded to new challenges. We will then consider how the modern state and new developments have produced new actors who have sought to p

Section 01

Topics in Islam
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