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Continuity and Change in Religious Authority among Sunni Arabs

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The gravitation of some disaffected young Muslims toward radical demagogues has raised questions in recent years about leadership in Muslim communities. While global media have made terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden household names, few can name even one religious authority who represents the Muslim majorities whose rejection of terrorism is reflected in global opinion polls. Who speaks for them? Is there a leadership crisis among Muslims? This paper argues that far from there being too few religious leaders among Arab Sunni Muslims, there are more than ever. As in earlier eras, epochal political upheaval has resulted in gradual evolution of perceptions of religious authority. Earlier eras saw the transition from prophetic to scholarly authority. In the modern era, charismatic community members have joined traditionally trained scholars in offering guidance for coping with an unprecedented range and rate of change. But two features stand out: Despite differences in education, traditional and modern leaders share essential terms of reference in their interpretations. And in the rejection of some interpretations as extreme and unacceptable, the community itself increasingly assumes the role of arbiters of religious authority. The article concludes that religious leadership today, therefore, reflects both continuity with inherited Islamic discourse, and change.

Affiliations: 1: Georgetown University, 3700 O Street NW, Washington DC 20057 USA,


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