Is There a Religious Hierarchy in Islam?

Islam calls upon all its followers to seek guidance from the Qur’an and the Sunnah and to employ reason in order to reflect on their teachings exploring the treasures they contain. Thus, seeking knowledge has been significantly recommended and urged.

Naturally, not all Muslims will be able to be scholars and well-versed in the sharia. Like any other sort of knowledge, this requires dedication and special readiness. The rank of scholarship is open for all and is not confined to a special group or race. Any person who can acquire sharia knowledge through its proper channels and methodology can be a scholar in sharia. It is by virtue of faith and knowledge that a Muslim gains ranks in this world and in the Hereafter: (Allah will exalt those of you who believe, and those who are given knowledge, in high degrees; and Allah is All-Aware of what you do.) (Al-Mujadilah 58:11)

Sharia scholars, by virtue of their knowledge, have to take the responsibility of guiding the Ummah; enjoining the good and forbidding the evil without being vulnerable to the influence of those in authority.

On the other hand, lay people have to listen and refer to them as interpreters of the divine guidance, not as people who hold the keys to Paradise and Hellfire.

Sheikh Hatem Mohammad Al-Haj Aly, professor of Fiqh, said:

Muslim scholars do not claim to receive inspiration. They use evidence from the revelation (the Qur’an, which is Allah’s last revelation, and the Sunnah, which is the traditions of the last Prophet) and rational proofs. The one who can better substantiate his claims with evidence is the one whose opinion Muslims are required to follow. The consensus of the Muslim scholars is, however, considered evidence, since Almighty Allah has protected the nation from agreeing on falsehood. Consensus is only attainable regarding matters that are very clear, such as the prohibition of wine and other intoxicants.

To become an imam, you will need to be the most learned in the religion among your people. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “The imam of a people should be the one who is most versed in the Book of Allah; if they are equal in their recital then, the one who is most knowledgeable of the Sunnah; if they are equal in the Sunnah then, it is the one who migrated first; if they are equal in that, then the eldest.” (Reported by Muslim)

Thus, being an imam is a position that is acquired through knowledge and dedication. There are various ways to acquire knowledge. You may learn in the traditional way under reputable scholars or join an Islamic university, such as Al-Azhar, in Cairo, Egypt, the Islamic University in Madinah, Saudi Arabia, Islamabad, Pakistan or Malaysia and so on.

After you finish your degree, you do not automatically become an imam until the congregation feels that you are qualified and chooses you to lead them in Prayers. Many scholars are not imams (they do not lead the people in Prayers): some because they do not have the talents, and others, because they are busy with other jobs, including teaching.

Within the “clergy” you ascend in recognition by others through your services and publications; however, there is no hierarchy. In addition, there are religious councils, mostly called fiqh assemblies, which discuss legal matters that require the concerted efforts of many scholars and experts in various fields (for example, if they discuss cloning, they invite physicians and scientists to the discussion).

Contemporary states often hire scholars to handle legal edicts (fatwas) of importance; and that is the reality, not the ideal system, in which scholars should be independent from the state. Throughout Islamic history, scholars have taken an independent position from the rulers, and at times an oppositional one. Muslim scholars, in general, have never sided with the state against the people, or the values of the religion. Bearing in mind that every rule has exceptions, the exceptions in these cases would be individual deviations.

The result of not having an ordained priesthood is overwhelmingly positive, even though, at times it seems to have negative consequences.

One of the positive consequences is the intellectual freedom it affords, because no one speaks on behalf of Almighty Allah.

In addition, the lack of ordained priesthood protects the religion from being under the control of a few elite clergy. Hence, the clergy are more likely to be exploited by the rulers if the “ultimate truth” was thought to be possessed by the upper cast.

The clergy is not immune from criticism and being faulted, as was, and may still be, the case with other religions. They are accountable and answerable to their congregation. Any member of the congregation may contest the position of the imam and all they need to do is to present their evidence from the revelation or through reasoning. In fact, it was reported that a woman stood in the masjid and contested the position of `Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the second caliph in the middle of his speech, and he did but accept her position and recede from his own.

The lack of distinction between “men of God” and “men of this world” in Islam, where all are supposed to be of this world serving the cause of Allah, protected the religion from being regarded by the public as property of the clergy.

All Muslims feel they are responsible for the religion, which belongs to them, not someone else. This is also more conducive to equality and the absence of a barrier between the so-called clergy and the public.

Muslim scholars are part of the public which aspires to attain more knowledge in order to become scholars.

Sectarianism is present in all religions; however, the Muslims` record in dealing with this matter is better than many others. For example, different Muslim sects along with so many other religions were able to peacefully coexist in the Middle East while the Crusaders were moving to crush the heretics in France .

Also, the thirty-year war was harvesting the lives of thousands of Europeans who were fighting a religiously-motivated war between different Christian sects, namely, Catholics and Protestants.

This does not mean that Muslims never fought against one another, but when they did it was mostly politically motivated. Even the violence that is now taking place between Sunnis and Shi`as in Iraq is obviously politically motivated.

On the other hand, the Muslims must respect their scholars and follow the learned people to avoid chaos and misinterpreting the religion.

Unfortunately, the many decades or centuries during which Muslims were being occupied by imperial entities, did to some extent, and mainly through the work of the occupiers, undermine the authority of scholars in many parts of the Muslim world, and led to a semblance of anarchy. Yet, this is – in sha’ Allah – a brief stage that is necessary for the nation to undergo prior to the emergence of the better system, in which scholars will maintain their independence from rulers. This is necessary for the public to trust them (and that does not mean there are no scholars trusted by the public nowadays) and continue the heritage of intellectual freedom and positive discourse, where religious authority belongs to evidence, not the clergy.