Creating a Protestant Islam?


A friend of mine, a politically liberal Muslim with little attachment to religion, has often accused the Muslim Brotherhood of seeking to create a Protestant type of Islam. It is a little difficult to catch the connections, as well as to tell if he believes such a transformation would be good or bad for Egypt. He certainly thinks Brotherhood control of this situation would be bad, but I’m less sure as concerns the greater idea.

This article in The Immanent Frame helps explain what might have been happening along these lines, before the overthrow of Morsi.

First, the context of Islam in Egypt:

In this respect, the law and court rulings do not recognize the existence of a congregation of Muslims who can worship—that is, engage in formal rites—outside the bounds of the state. This legal status seems to be a vestige of the Islamic caliphate (دولة المسلمين, “state of Muslims”), where the congregation of Muslims was conceived as a politico-religious entity, as it first took shape under the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad. While this conception often accrues to the power and advantage of Muslims in the aggregate, it restricts the religious freedom of Muslim groups or individuals who do not wish to align themselves to the political or religious orientation of the political authority.

Post-Morsi, the state has been working diligently to reassert control over the system of mosques, seeking to eliminate divergent Muslim Brotherhood voices. Incidentally, the article states Morsi’s government treated unorthodox voices similarly, continuing the policy of preventing Shi’ite or some extreme Sufi trends from operating local mosques.

But the Muslim Brotherhood also wanted to cement its control over mosques already within its influence, and gain control over mosques that were not. To do so it revived an old government practice of establishing boards to administer mosque affairs, appointed by the state, but with no influence on its religious discourse or choice of imam. The government started this program in the 1980s for the practical reason of its limited resources for direct control, but abandoned it altogether a decade later due to arising conflicts and competition.

When the Brotherhood government assumed control of the Ministry of Endowments, reviving the role of the mosque boards was on the agenda of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Brotherhood’s political arm. Minister Talaat Afifi issued a decree reconstituting the boards under the name “mosque development boards,” giving them prerogatives similar to those of the old boards. The boards still had no influence over religious and preaching activity, which remained the exclusive purview of the ministry, but, controversially, the boards were to be elected.

In doing so, the Brotherhood established a system in which they could not be accused of appointing their cronies to administer mosques, but instead take advantage of their powerful network through which ‘the people’ would exercise control. But, who are the constituent ‘people’?

But how to determine which Muslims possessed the right to vote in elections for this or that board? The official decree stipulated that “a general assembly of mosque patrons” be created from among registered residents of the neighborhood in which the mosque was located, as well as those who applied to the ministry-appointed imam to affirm that they were regular attendees and registered as members of the general assembly.

Of course this move created a great deal of controversy and opposition, notably from the existing system of imams who saw the risk of their power diminishing. But there was a great religious objection as well, not tied to politics:

The decree also raised the hackles of imams and scholars who believed that it would give rise to local “churches” in Islam; churches have a discrete membership and members have certain prerogatives.

The decision to elect mosque development boards did not resolve the problem or mitigate conflicts, but only inflamed them further, partly because the idea was grafted on to a centralized administrative order and partly because it ran up against the idea of “every mosque for every Muslim”—a central tenet of Islam—making it “every mosque for every Muslim in this neighborhood.”

Morsi’s government suspended the decision to elect boards, and after his overthrow even the appointed boards were dissolved and reconstituted with traditional Azhar scholars and local patrons opposed to the Brotherhood. Politics is a determining factor, certainly, but the philosophical decision seems to have been correct, or at least consistent with traditional reasoning:

There is a traditional Islamic discourse that takes pride in the fact that there is no central religious authority in Islam—no church, no priesthood, no clerical class to govern the religious (and certainly not political) lives of Muslims. This discourse is well grounded in doctrine and Islamic jurisprudence, which indeed contain no reference to the specific shape of Muslims’ religious communities or clerical prerogatives. Historical practice also holds no precedents.

But to return to the central question about whether or not such a Protestantizing of Islam would be ‘good’ for Egypt:

The problem is that Islamic doctrine, jurisprudence, and historical practice do, in fact, both assume and fundamentally rely on the existence of a single Muslim polity with authority over Muslims’ religious affairs and the religious scholar class. The alternative is to abandon the Muslim state for a modern nation-state that fully embraces the concept of citizenship, which would entail the disappearance of political authority over religious affairs and open the door to religious freedom. Otherwise, the modern state will continue to draw on this legacy of religious authority inherited from the caliphate.

In engineering its policies for managing Islam, the state proceeds from the belief that Muslims’ religious unity is part and parcel of preserving political unity and the patriotic line, and it legally suppresses any activity or attempt on the part of Muslim groups or individuals to freely worship outside the bounds of the centralized state administration or beyond the scope of a centralized, religious orthodoxy described as “proper religion.”

Here in Egypt the Coptic Orthodox Church behaves similarly. A Christian is at home, theoretically, in one church building as he is in another. A man appointed deacon may show up in any church, don his robe, and join in serving communion. There is the thought in Christianity that the priest should only serve this communion to one who is in good standing – requiring local relationships to know – but this does not seem to be practiced. Instead, the confessional relationship may occur with a priest from any church, diocese, or monastery. The judgment of receiving communion is usually left to the conscience of the believer.

In majority Christian lands where the Protestant Church is established in relationship with the government, perhaps there is a parallel as well. But in America as well as Egypt the pattern is toward local independence with varying levels of denominational cooperation. The multitude of Protestant denominations certainly contributes, which is a phenomena not generally mirrored in Islam.

But Islam exhibits great diversity, certainly cultural diversity in its many international expressions. What it does not generally do is sanction this diversity as an option for local communities of Muslims. Outside the Muslim world it certainly exists, as mosques are established for minorities along lines of freedom given to churches, and generally funded by the community or by donations from abroad. Such freedom, however, is not extended by many Muslim states to their majority Muslim populations. In this, it seems, they follow not necessarily the rule of Muhammad, but the ideal practice of the faith current during his time.

And perhaps they dare not do otherwise, for equally historical reasons. After Muhammad the early caliphal period and afterwards witnessed an explosion of Muslim diversity that nearly tore the nascent state apart. Many of these movements were political in orientation, no matter how much religious piety and practice played a role. It took all the skill of ‘the rightly guided caliphs’ to hold things together, and the task fell to later jurists to shape sharia so as to allow a degree of diversity to law schools while maintaining the overall unity of the faith. It also fell to later caliphs to secure the support of scholars to maintain legitimacy for their rule. These processes evidence elements of manipulation and duplicity alongside sincere devotion to faith, a legacy that continues in the mosque-state relationship to this day.

Can it be developed differently along Protestant lines? Should it be? Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood tried, and as in many of their efforts, failed. In a neutral environment, if such freedom existed, Muslim Brotherhood groups would gain control over certain mosques in certain neighborhoods – maybe many. But would the success of allowing full local control of mosques contribute to a greater climate of freedom, or simply initiate a religio-political anarchy that would tear government and society apart?

As with most experiments, all that awaits is the trying. Will Egypt, or similar nations succeeding the caliphal system, dare take the risk? Or is the very idea inimical to Islam altogether?

Please feel free to weigh in with your own ideas and experiences.

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