By Nathan Brown

The official Muslim religious establishments in Arab countries give governments a major role in religious life, but these institutions are rarely mere regime mouthpieces and can be difficult to steer in a particular direction.



It is not unusual for states to show an interest in religion. Almost all constitutions in the world make some reference to religion, mostly in a manner that accommodates religious beliefs and practices, while deeply shaping their structure. Official religions are not uncommon in many countries, and state support for, and regulation of, religious institutions comes in many guises.

What is unusual in the Arab world is not the public role of religion but the extent and range of that role. Some of the distinctive ways that relations between the state and religion are structured might be traceable from before the modern era to Islamic doctrine, the experience of the early community of believers, and core principles derived from sacred texts. But as the process of state formation began across the Arab world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in each place it developed differently.

As a consequence of this, official religious institutions evolved quite differently as well. In its particularities—and even in many of its most general features—this evolution was rooted substantially in the process of modern state formation. Indeed, state formation and the organization of religion have gone hand in hand, so that “modern religion in Muslim countries is positioned on the platform of the state.”

The commonalities among Arab states are straightforward. Most grant Islam official status, have institutions that offer advisory interpretations of Islamic law (fatwas), administer religious endowments and charities, oversee mosques, and apply some version of Islamic family law. State muftis are largely a nineteenth- and twentieth-century innovation. It was then that states began appointing such religious officials and establishing a designated bureaucracy for issuing legal interpretations, at times to replace or expand upon the Ottoman religious bureaucracy.

Ministries of religious affairs and the nationalization of religious endowments (awqaf) and almsgiving (zakat) are rooted in modern history as well. As complex bureaucratic states and legal apparatuses were established in the 1800s and 1900s, adjudicative, educational, training, and charitable functions—along with the regulation of public space, gatherings in mosques, and public broadcasting—resulted in state institutions active in religious spheres.

Western imperialist powers, seeking to rationalize the administration of states they controlled in the region, particularly between the two world wars in the twentieth century, also sought to regularize religion, sometimes by defining its scope.

While family relations in the region had long been governed in part by Islamic legal teachings, the existence of a separate category of personal status law—perhaps the most essential element of Islamic law for many adherents today—simply did not exist before colonial rulers and independent states began marking off distinctive legislation and courts for family matters during the nineteenth century.

There is no doctrinal reason to claim that conducting marital relations in an Islamic manner is more important to God than trading goods in an Islamic way. However, as different state authorities introduced legal reforms in the modern era, marriage, divorce, and inheritance were areas in which they moved most carefully. They did so by creating a legal field of family affairs for which they took care to formulate rules in terms of older Islamic jurisprudence.

In some places, the creation of Islamic law governing personal status was fostered by imperial powers, such as the French in Algeria, who were not anxious to involve themselves in such matters. In other places, for example Egypt and Iraq, ambitious local rulers sought to assert a stronger role for the state and legislated personal status law.

They drew on Islamic sources and scholarship to be sure, but still ordered courts to rule according to a written code of personal status rather than according to their own individual interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence.2

But even in this distinct field, there is quite significant regional variation in who writes the law, what it says, and who implements it. For instance in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which were never under Western imperial control, Islamic religious, or sharia, courts theoretically remain the courts of general jurisdiction today.

However, they have been assisted in Yemen through a body of legislated codes and in Saudi Arabia (which remains resistant to codification) through specialized quasi-judicial bodies that enforce regulations and decrees. Thus, the precise institutional arrangement has varied according to the timing, nature, and extent of state building, as well as the degree and makeup of external control.

Historical footprints have been left in an often unique set of structures and nomenclature in Arab countries, each of which has a different institutional map for official Islam. Even where there are similarities between countries, there are also distinct arrangements.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, an organization that is generally referred to as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) acts as what can be termed a religious police. It has no real equivalent elsewhere in the Arab world.

Many countries, in their turn, have official bodies responsible for religious research in which senior scholars are gathered. However, they take all sorts of forms. In Morocco, the council—known as the Supreme Council for Religious Knowledge (Al-Majlis al-‘Ilmi al-A‘la)—is headed by the king. In Egypt, a similar institution, the Body of Senior [Religious] Scholars, or Hay’at Kibar al-Ulama, names its own members.

The structures are not only diverse, they are also complex. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Egyptian state apparatus, which provides a particularly emblematic religious environment in the Arab world, is littered with imposing-sounding religious bureaucracies, some of which defy easy translation.

These include the Office of the State Mufti (Dar al-Iftaa al-Misriyyeh), the Office of the Sheikh al-Azhar, Al-Azhar University, the Supreme Islamic Council, the Body of Senior Scholars, the Islamic Research Academy (Majma‘ al-Buhuth al-Islamiyya), and the Fatwa Committee (Lajnat al-Fatwa).

Each of these has a particular history that sometimes requires an almost archeological sensibility to understand. The Office of the State Mufti, headed by an official often referred to as the Grand Mufti, was established at the end of the nineteenth century for reasons connected with legal reform, but also to emphasize autonomy from the Ottoman Empire.

Al-Azhar was founded as a Shia mosque in the tenth century, but now presents itself as the preeminent Sunni authority in Egypt and even the entire Muslim world. The Supreme Islamic Council is actually not supreme, but an advisory body within the ministry of religious affairs.

The Body of Senior Scholars is an older body within Al-Azhar that was resurrected in post-2011 Egypt by military decree to give the Al-Azhar leadership the autonomy it sought from a political process that at the time promised a rise in the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

There are clear patterns that emerge in this bureaucratic welter. In the Arab world, religious education is generally mandatory through secondary school. Mosques are licensed by the state and frequently treated as state property.

The state also monitors sermons and certifies preachers, who are often provided with official guidance. Most formal higher religious education occurs within state institutions. Charitable institutions and activities are regulated and sometimes directly administered by the state.

The immersion of the state in religious affairs has helped create a landscape of institutional complexity throughout the region. Official religious institutions have taken on a wide range of tasks, yet their intricacy has created overlapping authority and frequently hampered their aims.


To be continued …


Nathan Brown, Nonresident Senior Fellow – Middle East Program, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.




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