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Religious authority in British Islam

Dr Riyaz Timol describes religious authority in British Islam
© Cardiff University, Riyaz Timol

In this step, Dr Riyaz Timol describes religious authority in British Islam.

Dr Riyaz Timol is Research Associate at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. He leads the ‘Understanding British Imams’ project, a major study of British Imams and religious leadership.

Sunni Islam, followed by the majority of Muslims in Britain, is a decentralised religious tradition. This means that unlike the Catholic Church, for example, it has no single figure (the Pope) who has the authority to issue rulings on behalf of the faithful (the religious group). Rather, there is a learned body of trained specialists – known collectively as the ‘ulama (‘people of knowledge’) who speak on behalf of the religion.

Ulama can be both male and female and they gain popularity and respect within their communities based on their proficiency with core scriptural texts, such as the Qur’an or collections of Hadith, their perceived piety, and their ability to connect with the concerns of their (increasingly virtual) congregations. Some ‘ulama achieve international celebrity status like the American Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, the Pakistani Maulana Tariq Jamil, or the Egyptian Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

While ‘ulama is a broad umbrella term for Islamic religious scholars, there are those who specialise in certain roles. Imams, for example, lead daily prayers in mosques and deliver sermons to their congregations. Sufi shaykhs act as spiritual guides, helping disciples cultivate virtue and eliminate vice within their own personalities. Muftis scrutinise Islamic texts to develop non-binding rulings (fatwas) on issues as diverse as organ donation, calculating the direction of prayer on an aeroplane, or whether consuming minute quantities of alcohol is permitted for medicinal purposes. Ordinary Muslims may thus approach a range of different ‘ulama for help or guidance with a particular issue. Additionally, many have their favourite scholars they listen to online for motivation and inspiration.

In many Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey, the training and work of the ‘ulama is largely funded and organised by the government. Some countries support the office of a Grand Mufti who represents the highest religious authority. In the UK, however, Islam operates as a minority religion in the private sphere. The training and work of the ‘ulama is therefore self-governed and largely based on the internal dynamics of particular Muslim community groups. For this reason, religious authority is often influenced by models prevalent in the countries from which British Muslims originate. For example, numerous Islamic seminaries (dar al-ulooms) have been established in Britain to train future generations of Islamic leaders deriving from an educational model developed in South Asia.

Some of Britain’s most senior imams and ‘ulama were born overseas and migrated to the UK. They therefore may not be fluent in English or fully au fait with the cultural contexts or challenges facing young British Muslims or those experiencing mental health issues. They have nevertheless inspired a generation of British-born Islamic scholars, many of whom trained in British Islamic institutions, some of whom, after graduating from the seminary, have furthered their education by taking courses at UK colleges and universities. This includes those who today work as qualified counsellors, providing mental health support to British Muslims while incorporating a faith-based element. There are also a growing number of Muslim chaplains in the UK who provide pastoral care in universities, hospitals, and prisons.

Beyond the ‘ulama, religious authority and leadership has seen increasing diversification in recent decades in the UK Islamic community. A number of British Muslims have taken up positions within local and national governance, some of whom have acquired senior government positions, such as the current Mayor of London Rt. Hon. Sadiq Khan or Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. Others have succeeded in the public eye, such as Sir Mo Farah, CBE, Nadiya Hussain, MBE, or most recently, Liverpool footballer Mohamed Salah, and act as popular role models garnering followings among a wide cross-section of British society. British Muslims in senior positions within the media, such as Mehdi Hasan, often become influential spokespeople on behalf of the religion, and are frequently called upon to comment on current political or social issues.

Alongside this, a range of regional and national organisations have developed to ‘represent’ the interests of Muslim communities in civil society, often headed by those with skills derived from a variety of public service and charitable roles. The Muslim Council of Britain is the most prominent of these, having a national network of hundreds of affiliates, though newer organisations such as the British Board of Scholars and Imams represent a broad range of Islamic schools of thought, and work to develop theologically sound solutions to contemporary issues affecting Muslim life. Organisations such as the Muslim Youth Helpline also play an important role by providing a free and confidential listening service, delivered with cultural and faith sensitivity, for Muslims who may be upset, struggling or in distress.

© Cardiff University, Riyaz Timol
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