Graduate Student Workshop—Islamic Authority Figures in Changing Contexts

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Islamic authority structures are often presented as inherently rigid and unchanging, even though both historical and contemporary evidence suggests otherwise. Like all vibrant religious traditions, the ability to adapt to changing contexts and to remain relevant to believers in light of the everyday issues they face has been critical to the persistence of orthodox Islamic authority.

This workshop brought together PhD students and early career post-doctoral researchers interested in how Islamic authority structures respond to change; how they build legitimacy in new contexts; and in which contexts and to what extent they can deviate from established Islamic discourse without losing the popular legitimacy to speak as an authority on Islam.

The focus was on understanding two distinct but related processes: how Islamic authority figures respond to demands for change, in order to stay relevant; and how they justify controversial shifts in their own positions — which might have an element of political expediency — to their followers.

The workshop used the term ‘Islamic authority figure’ loosely: this could include the ulama, Islamic preachers, or leaders of Muslim political parties.

Speakers were asked to cover some of the following questions:

  • What tools of Islamic reasoning are employed by Islamic authority figures to justify a shift in position, or to build a consensus around a new discourse?
  • In the case of shifting political positions, how is legitimacy for the new position developed in the eyes of the followers?
  • When responding to demands from the followers for a more liberal interpretation, how is consensus built among Islamic scholars to allow these new concessions?
  • What are the most popular platforms and spaces, whether real or virtual, where these discussions and interactions take place?
  • How anxious are Islamic authority figures about losing their following if they shift positions?
  • What factors do they take into account when deciding how far can they push their new position?

The workshop was led by John Bowen, Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor at the Department of Anthropology at Washington University in St Louis. It offered participants the chance to receive individual feedback on their research from John Bowen, Masooda Bano and Dietrich Reetz, as well as the chance to meet fellow doctoral students from across the UK, who are working on similar areas.