Engaging Critically with Religious Authority in Islamic Education

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Over the past few years an increasing number of studies have attempted to examine the question of religious authority vis-à-vis developments in Europe’s Muslim communities. However, given the purported weakness of institutionalized religious authorities in Islam, these studies concentrate on specific types of religious actors and institutions, particularly on imams. While this actor-centered approach, which often equates authority with leadership, has been proven valuable, one wonders whether a more resolutely discursive perspective might also be productive, particularly in education. However, the literature on the nexus between religious authority and education is limited and unexplored. This chapter addresses this lacuna by examining the place of religious authority in Islamic education, focusing on how it is rendered as a school subject in the confessional teaching of Islam. It poses the following questions: How is religious authority constructed in Islamic education settings by teachers and through resources? What types of religious authority exist? On what bases is their authoritativeness predicated? How are debates among religious authorities framed? How does educational discourse on religious authority contribute to intellectual rigidness? Accordingly, this chapter is organized in three parts. The first defines “religious authority” and explores its relevance to education in general and to confessional religious education in particular, and how religious authorities in the Sunni tradition have been accommodated in Islamic education, arguing that these authorities are embraced with little deliberation with regard to requirements, characteristics, and responsibilities. Moreover, little attention is given to how they have been debated and changed throughout the history of Islam. The second part grabbles with ‘intellectual rigidness’ as both a manifestation of exaggeration in religious opinions (ghulū) and an inevitable reflection of the presence of religious authorities in Islamic education. It reveals how intellectual rigidness is established by approaching religious authority in ahistoric and non-discursive ways, highlighting how intellectual rigidness is inherently linked to the value of obedience (tā‘ah) and the epistemological constraints placed on innovation (tajdīd) and disagreement (ikhtilāf). The third part presents concluding thoughts on how to approach the idea of “correct religion” (al-dīn al-haqq), which functions as a type of morality that many religious authorities follow. It also suggests pedagogies that offer methods for engaging critically with Muslim religious authorities in Islamic education, while grounding these pedagogies in Sunni theology.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReligious Education
Subtitle of host publicationBetween Radicalism and Tolerance
EditorsEdnan Aslan, Margaret Rausch
Place of PublicationWiesbaden
PublisherSpringer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)978-3-658-21677-1
StatePublished - 2018


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