Muslim leaders denounce extremism
Recent summit in mecca tackles tainted image of islam
BEIRUT: Many questions have been asked as of late regarding the level of authority and autonomy imams and Muslim clerics have over their community through the mosque, especially during Friday prayers. The Organization of Muslim States held a conference in Saudi Arabia earlier this month to deal with the rise of religious fundamentalism, among other issues concerning the tainting of Islam's international image.
Sheikh Abdo-Nasser Jabri, the director of the Institution of Islamic Studies in Beirut, said the conference came in response to repeated American calls to Muslim countries to rein in clerics who allegedly promote terrorism and preach hatred.
"This is not the first time that colonial powers try to control Islam through interfering in reshaping its doctrine and practices," he said.
Heads of state and Muslim scholars convened in the holy city of Mecca to address the challenges facing Islam.
One such issue was how to prevent the spread of extremism through mosques and other religious platforms and to discourage religious doctrine that promotes hate and causes rifts between Muslim populations themselves, in addition to non-Muslims.
As a means by which to control clerics and their sermons, the secular authorities decided to reshape their Islamic Endowment departments, the government bodies which determine funding and regulations for a state's religious institutions, a move encouraged by several Western states.
"After establishing secular states following World War I, in lieu of the Ottoman Empire, the old colonialists empowered these new governments through Islamic Endowments in order to subjugate clerics and pressure them to follow their new rulers," Jabri said.
"Reshaping the role and the administration of the endowments was one of the main decisive steps aimed at diminishing the influence of Islam over its followers," he added.
Jabri explained the main purpose of these measures was to prevent Islam from playing any political or social role in Muslim societies.
However, the Shiite sect has always been the exception to this rule.
Sheikh Abdel-Amir Qabalan, vice president of the Higher Shiite Council, said: "Historically, Shiite institutions were never under state control, even when the state was devoted to Islam."
"Moreover, the colonial powers did not fear the Shiites, thinking they would never pose a serious threat to their control," he added.
Following the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Khomeini refused to turn Shiite endowments over to the state.
The Shiite doctrine allows each religious authority to establish their institutions independently from state interference.
"In Lebanon," Qabalan said, "the official Shiite Endowment is far less powerful than the institutions run by private authorities, such as [Hizbullah Secretary General] Sayyed Hussein Fadlallah, Hizbullah or other groups and individuals."
While the Higher Council appoints sheikhs and imams to certain mosques, its financial support is limited, Qabalan said. "The local community provides for the imam."
"It is obvious; the Shiite religious authority cannot impose control in the presence of stronger blocs and groups," he added.
Qabalan believes clerics should not interfere in politics as such.
"I always include political comments in my Friday speeches, "he said, "but I do not take sides with one political party or the other. We must defend the interests of the entire nation."
Controlling clerics has proven a difficult task, according to Jabri.
"Nevertheless, some countries have accomplished certain progress in that direction," he said.
"Prior to the Islamic conference, many states had already started to take measures to establish power over undesirable practices at mosques and religious schools," he added.
Typically, regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan tend to exercise more control over their religious institutions than less authoritarian states.
In Lebanon, for example, the government wields marginal control over religious authorities through a council of Cabinet ministers, which appoints a grand mufti under whom a committee of religious figures administers the Islamic Endowments and appoints imams and scholars.
"According to most religious authorities and scholars," Jabri said, "Muslim doctrine opposes dictating how imams and religious leaders perform their duties, thus allowing them a wide margin of freedom as long as they remain within the general framework of Islamic teachings.
"Currently, the official institution of Dar al-Iftaa, headed by the grand mufti, controls 90 percent of the mosques and religious schools in Beirut. Outside Beirut however, Dar al-Iftaa has only minor control over a few religious establishments," he added.
Bekaa Mufti Sheikh Khalil Meis said: "Although Dar al-Iftaa appoints the various imams and pays their salaries, the institution has no authority over their political and doctrinal teachings."
As an example of this autonomy, Meis explained he had helped Salafi Sheikh Adnan Amama to reinstate his school and mosque in Majdal Anjar.
However, Qabalan insisted the state and religious authorities must not tolerate any Muslim group that calls for internal strife between Muslim sects, or between Muslims and their Christian partners in Lebanon.
Many view the recent rise among the Salafi sect, which calls for the elimination of its enemies, as a threat to both security and the image of Islam.
Jabri agreed, calling on all religious leaders to condemn extremist movements and to restrict their actions.
"However," he said, "We should be careful not to confuse standing steadfast in defending Islamic values against colonial schemes and aggression. The U.S. and other Western countries always confuse our resistance with terrorism."
According to Jabri, "The more the mufti shows his resistance to the will of the secular authority, the more loyalty he gets from common Muslim believers.
"Adversely, rebellion or departure from the central religious authority heightens as a mufti distances himself from the people's religious affairs."
As of late, Jabri noted "Sunni clerics and groups are more inclined to reject the idea of the secular state controlling their religious affairs and properties."
Following the Shiite example, Sunni groups, political movements and religious individuals began to construct private houses of worship, which gradually evolved into major mosques through continued expansion.
Contrary to the wishes of the official religious authorities, these groups refused to hand over these institutions to authorities, instead forming private endowments and committees to administer them.