Peace, one and all…
Authority, in a religious context, is an important and many-sided concept. Religious traditions are all ultimately faced with questions of authority, either as they form or once they mature. Such questions relate to the metaphysical world as much as to the physical world; to the here and now as much as to the eternal; to individuals and their concerns as much as to the structuring of religious communities. Some of these questions include:
- What is authority?
- Why is it important?
- If so, who should wield it?
- Who actually does?
- Upon what basis is this authority held?
- What happens when a community member fails to accept this authority?
- What authority, if any, does the individual have?
These are weighty questions and the answers we find to them shape and colour our understanding of particular traditions (and the cultures that give them life and manifestation in the world).
Authority is certainly an issue of central importance in the Islamic faith. We need only glance at the newspapers to see this. One of the key ‘debates’ (if this is an appropriate term) within contemporary Islam is intimately linked to authority. That is, al-Qaeda and its revisionist message attempts to pass itself off as authoritative, as based on an authentic reading of the Quran and Sunna. Authenticity, here, means I think the most accurate understanding of Islam, which is necessarily the most authoritative. I have no wish to debate with al-Qaeda’s position, as such – some readings are so utterly alien to the spirit of Islam as to be almost unrecognisable. I merely wish to highlight the continuing significance of these ‘discussions’ (although, if you are interested in such things, see the Amman Message and here for a thorough treatment).
What does interest me is the application of these questions. In other words, authority is like a chain or rope, extending downwards from Allah, through the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam), and then, eventually, on to me. I live and move and breathe under the shadow of God’s authority: all that I do, I do by God’s leave. Moreover, I freely place myself under the Prophet’s authority (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam), and thus strive to follow the sunna and the shariah.
As an individual, I have a certain amount of personal authority (whether this is justified or unjustified, legitimate or illegitimate, is of course a very different matter). This relates to my humanity, my masculinity, my job, education and role. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate/honest to say that it relates to perceptions of my authority. As an educator and a trainee chaplain, I am often forced to confront these somewhat uncomfortable issues directly. Thus, when teaching, I am reminded of the need to distinguish between the understandings of others and my own understandings (or between the objective and subjective, in other words). This particularly acute it seems in religious studies, where my own unfiltered opinions could lead students into all sorts of unhelpful areas. This also why I feel that reflecting upon these questions is absolutely essential, alongside an awareness of your own beliefs and values, and how they colour and impact upon your teaching. All unfiltered assumptions are bad here – regardless of how ‘true’, ‘right’ or ‘correct’ they may in reality be. The shape and feel of your position is irrelevant – it is the mere fact of presenting something as fact, when really it is an approximation or an opinion, that is problematic.
In the realm of chaplaincy, these questions are sharper still, and can have far more serious repercussions. Even during my own short career as a trainee Chaplain, I have often been asked for my opinions on a vast range of ‘religious’ matters. My broad sense at present (and this is very much a provisional reaction) would be to indicate diversity of opinion – that is, to lay out the choices available and then to step back. After all, the focus of chaplaincy is the other person and their lives, not my own unacknowledged thoughts, needs and desires.
When I have given my own opinions, I’ve been forced to confront a particularly difficult question: has the giving of this opinion unwittingly steered the person in an inappropriate direction? (Moreover, what is inappropriate?) Have I given them a subjective opinion (with all that this implies for hidden faults and desires), when I should given them sincere and honest nasiha (advice)?
By God, I do not know the answer to these searching questions. But, in all honesty, I think it is better to be asking them now, so that at least I might lay some of my own hidden motivations bare before I become an ear to listen to the words of others.
Wa huwa ala kulli shay’in qadir
And He (Allah) has power over all things