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.


Mapping Official Islam

Official religious institutions play multiple roles throughout the Arab world. The array of religious duties taken on by the state has spawned a series of sprawling bureaucracies that do not always have the ability to act as parts of a coherent whole. Because official Islamic institutions developed as a consequence of, and in parallel to, the rise of the modern state, so too have they reflected the reality of expanding states. This includes strengthening state control and supervision over a variety of religious activities, even if the power of the state is never absolute.

The array of religious duties taken on by the state has spawned a series of sprawling bureaucracies that do not always have the ability to act as parts of a coherent whole.

Official institutions not only have to worry about each other with their overlapping responsibilities and claims to authority. Each of these religious bureaucracies also faces competition from outside the state apparatus, adding a further layer of complexity. In particular, religious institutions’ involvement in endowments and charity, advice and interpretation, education, prayer, family law, and broadcasting is noteworthy.

Endowments and Charity

Official religious actors—generally based in a given country’s ministry of religious affairs—play a vital part in overseeing charities. This they do in two ways. First, they regulate and frequently administer religious endowments often set up to support mosques, schools, or charitable causes. Indeed, in most countries of the region, those establishing a legally sanctioned endowment find themselves having to act through such a ministry. The consequences are not merely religiously significant, but also economically and fiscally so, with large amounts of real estate and other holdings donated for charitable purposes falling under state control. Ministries in some countries have branched out from traditional endowments to engage in broader developmental projects designed to help the poor or unemployed, such as establishing producer cooperatives.

Second, almsgiving is often organized by ministries of religious affairs as well. In some countries, this function might be decentralized and run through local mosques, while in others there is a greater effort to engage in central oversight. The religious obligation to give alms, however, need not be fulfilled in an officially sanctioned setting, but is also permitted in less formal, private contexts. State actors are caught between pious donors, some of whom are leery of the efficiency and rectitude of official structures, and security-minded officials, who have faced increasing international pressures to ensure that such funds are not used in ways that are politically unsafe (such as supporting radical or violent groups).

Advice and Interpretation

Fatwas—scholarly interpretations of religious law on a particular question—are traditionally nonbinding. However, it is this very fact that can enhance their moral authority, as, ideally, they are vountarily sought out by the faithful and delivered by disinterested scholars without regard for the particular circumstances of a case.3 Fatwas have emerged as a critical medium for arguing about religious issues, since they are the form in which scholars develop their interpretations most fully. Most states in the region have a mufti (which in Arabic translates as a fatwa giver), whose opinions are sought by state actors needing guidance on questions of religious law. But there is no way to compel believers to resort to official bodies or designated figures in search of such guidance.

Unofficial scholars from a variety of orientations—whether Salafi, modernist, autodidact, feminist, literalist, or other sorts—have grown popular. They use a variety of means to answer questions, including face-to-face interaction, talk shows, emails, and Facebook. The leading Shia scholar Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has a website where followers can submit questions on any matter of concern to them.4 The popular Al-Azhar scholar Salim Abdel Galil smiles compassionately through his Islamic legal guidance given in rapid succession to callers to his television program. The youthful Saudi Ahmad al-Shuqayri claims no particular religious knowledge, but gives ethical and religious exhortation and advice on television in an earnest, lively, open, and inspirational manner. In this competitive environment, officially designated muftis have sometimes established websites, staffed telephone hotlines, and appeared on broadcasts—running hard to stay in place and make themselves accessible.

Talk of “unregulated fatwas,” which are portrayed by religious authorities as being of poorer quality than those produced by official religious representatives, has intensified in official media in many Arab countries. Some states have sought to combat such fatwas because they often advance interpretations that are unusual or radical. For many top religious officials, the forest of fatwas simply confuses ordinary believers. Thus, fatwas from competing sources, which might seem a rarefied set of scholarly writings about the fine points of religious teachings, are actually part of an intensely political struggle about who should speak in the name of Islam.


Religious education is a mandatory subject in official curricula throughout the Middle East. And with most educational systems highly centralized, the vast majority of students are taught versions of Islamic belief and practice codified in texts written within specialized structures of education ministries. Some countries have separate networks of religious schools for children from especially religious families, such as those overseen by Al-Azhar in Egypt. When it comes to higher education, state institutions predominate over nonstate centers of learning. While there has been an increase in private universities, these generally do not tread on religious ground. That is why nonstate faculties of Islamic law or other religious subjects are few in number and small in terms of enrollment.

Yet the official monopoly is not complete. Non-Muslims are exempt from official instruction about Islam, and if believers of other religions are sufficient in number, the state may allow them their own parallel religious classes and books, sometimes organized and licensed by a given country’s ministry of education. States generally do not have a full monopoly over education—many countries also have a network of private schools, sometimes more prestigious than public ones. Such schools are generally required to hew to the official curriculum in all subjects, including religion, but some still manage to evade significant official supervision. Outside of schools, whether public or private, also stand less formal systems that offer lessons in mosques, churches, and study groups. Since the late twentieth century, these informal groupings seem to have grown in popularity, perhaps driven by the simultaneous spread of education and piety.

Prayer and Control of Mosques

When believers pray in the Arab world, the state often asserts its presence. Congregational Friday prayer, like some regular weekday prayers, occurs in mosques—or, if space is insufficient, in public spaces—that are regulated, licensed, managed, and monitored by the state. Ministries of religious affairs generally oversee the staffing, maintenance, and operation of mosques. At politically sensitive times, security agencies might lend a hand to observe preachers and watch those who gather outside of prayer time.

In theory, a ministry’s control over Muslim houses of worship is nearly complete, with many Arab governments not recognizing mosques that they do not oversee. But the ability of states to monitor, staff, and maintain all mosques varies considerably. Unofficial or unrecognized mosques (or those recognized but not effectively overseen) are common, especially in more populous, fiscally strapped countries in the region.

Personal Status Law

When religion offers guidance on family life, it often does so through state structures. (This is even true in the one Arab country that does not have an official religion, Lebanon; see box 1.) In most countries, personal status law is handled in courts that are simply a branch of the regular court system. However, in a few countries—such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine—a completely distinct (though still official) court system, or set of systems for recognized sects, deals with marriage, divorce, and inheritance. For Arabs wishing to have such matters officially recognized, there is no way to avoid the monopoly of state structures. The codification of religious law in the realm of personal status can be contentious. Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, for instance, have all seen public debates in recent decades often focusing on sensitive issues, such as the rights of women and the mechanisms of divorce.

This framework does not exclude unofficial actors, however, who may be sought out for mediation or arbitration, especially in family disputes. Courts and other official actors, such as prayer leaders in mosques, have sometimes recognized the need for unofficial or nonbinding mediation, and they have sometimes offered such services or sought training for their personnel in family counseling or mediation.

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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