Islam and Authoritarianism

Growing up in within a highly Islamic environment is definitely interesting. What is even more interesting is reflecting back on it when you are liberal and secular as I am now. The chuckle as I remember being taught all the rules of Islam.
  1. Enter the washroom with the left foot and leave with the right
  2. Never stand and pee
  3. What prayer to say before eating dinner or travelling
  4. Your pants should never be below the ankle
  5. When to pray and at exactly what time
  6. How to pronounce the Koran in Arabic exactly
  7. What foods are halal 
  8. How long a beard should be
  9. How much Zakat should be paid and on what does it apply
  10. Accounting for the time differential of sunset depending on the city you're in for Ramadaan
  11. ...
It is often funny trying to explain Islam to people who didn't grow up Muslim. It is not just some vague belief in God with some basic rules like don't drink and save sex for marriage. It is literally a rule book governing every aspect of your life. At least that is the case within the dominant Sunni Islam. It's basis is rather simple. Mohamed was described as the best example for mankind. Therefore, we should emulate him. So scholars comb through religious texts finding everything the prophet did and thus making a rule about it. It is just so hard to convey this concept to people not raised in the environment. Where standing and peeing is such a sin, your classmates will rat you out to a teacher, who would then hit you with a bamboo stick.

As a child, I didn't really think much of it. We went to Islamic school and our parents taught and maintained the rules later on. This was Islam. It's basis made sense and we had to follow it.  Yet, as I grew up, I questioned most of the rules. I was always a pretty intelligent kid, and things had to make sense to me. So when I read about slavery in Islam, I went to the Imam and he explained it wasn't really slavery... it was more like a prisoner of war. I accepted it. The more I read, the more questions I had. People would either excuse things or they would just tell me to accept the rulings of the scholars. I naturally found this pretty unacceptable.

Soon, I had to find my own interpretation of the scholars. I simply didn't agree with Islam on things like violence, status of women, the basis for hell, slavery, concubines, sex slaves, the myriad of rules, the status of homosexuals,  the perfection of the Sahabah... I won't go into it here, but you can read some of it here:
I read all the texts and the hadiths and the Tafsirs and came up with my own interpretations to make Islam acceptable to me.

What I didn't realize was just how different I was from most Muslims. Mind you, I'm not unique by any stretch of the imagination. Many people tried to interpret things. But there is still such a dominant part of Islam that says you should listen to the scholars and the community. You cannot question things.

At first, I blamed it on education. Many Muslims might have been uneducated so maybe they weren't up to it, but their educated children would. But as I grew up, I saw this wasn't the case. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and all kinds of highly educated professionals didn't display this need of questioning. The idea of asking why just wasn't on their mind. Some more than others of course.

There was something more to it than that.


As I reflect now on my past being a Muslim, I understand a lot more. It is clearer why huge swaths of the Muslim world lives under authoritarianism of one form or the other. Whether it is on national level, a community level, or the family level. Authoritarianism is there.

Don't get me wrong, authoritarianism exists in many areas, including other religions and other political views. I'm simply examining the contribution Islam makes to it as that is my up bringing. I'm by no means claiming it will always be like this or that it has always been like this. The practice of Islam has of course changed over the centuries and will continue to change. The same can be said of other religions. At one point the Catholic Church was Authoritarian.

Islam is Submission and Obedience

Islam as a religion is primarily about submission and obedience.
Despite the popular slogan, Islam does not mean peace, it means Submission.
More specifically, it means submission to the will of God.
Follow the rules and you enter paradise. Disobey and go burn in hell for eternity.
It's a pretty strong case to listen to the authority figure of God.

There is such a strong association with obendience and the law that Islam has its own jurisprudence based on the Islamic text. For the common folk, this typically comes to be known as Shariah. This is the primary focus of Islam where scholars try and create a rule from all the textual sources and it is your duty as a Muslim to obey these rules.

Now of course God is not here to tell us exactly what he wants us to do. Nonetheless, the idea of obeying the rules exactly, that there is a 'right' way to live is ingrained in us.

There is a very strong aspect of duty and obedience of a wife to her husband or a child to their parents.

This is related to my other post

Submission to the Scholars and Texts

Islam of course was formed not just as a spiritual advance, but also as a political one and a practical one that dealt with many issues. Interpretation is needed. There became a need for scholars to interpret the text. Is an action Halal or not? What is permissible? These are all things Muslims worry about and the Internet is filled with such questions. Even before the internet, people took their questions to Imams or read books on what to do.

In these cases, the scholars word is taken as bond. This is also known as a Fatwa.
Interestingly, most of the work is actually based on scholars long dead. There is a strong adherence to dead scholars in Islam. The 4 main schools of Sunni Islam (Hanafi, Shafi, Malaki, Hanbali) are scholars who studied the texts and came up with the rules to live by. To this day, these remain the popular interpretations with other serious scholars simply following roughly the same steps.

While it is popular for many Muslims to believe that Islam is a personal relationship and we don't need a pope, there is in reality a very strong adherence to scholars within the Islamic fold. I personally found this very odd as growing up, we were always told how great Islam was that there was no church that could corrupt it. At the same time, at least the Church remained flexible on many topics. I personally found Muslim following of the 4 main schools of Islam to be like following a dead pope. It is perhaps even worse.

Not to mention, that anyone who tries to form their own views is still bound very strongly to the texts and authoritative opinions. For example, the idea that Mohamed was perfect and we should follow his every action is not something you would gain just by reading the Koran. It is an idea that remains unquestioned by even those Muslims seeking their own interpretation. Or the idea that the Koran is the final morality of mankind of eternity. Again, unquestioned even though you could simply read it as a bunch of rules for that specific time.

Even if one takes the Koran as the word of God and wishes their own interpretation, one still needs the context which is found in the Hadith. In these cases, one relies on the dead scholars of Bukhari and others. Their work unquestioned.

In these cases, you have a strong submission to dead scholars or ancient texts.


You also have the concept of Consensus or Ijma within Islam.That is to say the a valid part of Islamic jurisprudence is formed by the consensus of the scholars. This prevents vastly different opinions from taking root.

Submission to the Ruler

This is a very big one. As Islam was part spiritual and part empire, it makes a big deal about submission to the ruler. Even today, the idea of one community, one ummah, keeping your opinion to the concensus dominates the Islamic world.

Even if the leader is wrong, as long as he does not violate religious rights (prayer....) one must still obey him.

He (the Holy Prophet) said: Yes. I said: Will there be a good time after this bad time? He said: Yes. I said: Will there be a bad time after good time? He said: Yes. I said: How? Whereupon he said: There will be leaders who will not be led by my guidance and who will not adopt my ways? There will be among them men who will have the hearts of devils in the bodies of human beings. I said: What should I do. Messenger of Allah, if I (happen) to live in that time? He replied: You will listen to the Amir and carry out his orders; even if your back is flogged and your wealth is snatched, you should listen and obey. 
Sahih Muslim, Book 20 - 4554

 Narrated Abdullah: Allah's Apostle said to us, "You will see after me, selfishness (on the part of other people) and other matters that you will disapprove of." They asked, "What do you order us to do, O Allah's Apostle? (under such circumstances)?" He said, "Pay their rights to them (to the rulers) and ask your right from Allah." 

Bukhari (Book #88, Hadith #175)

You Cannot Question/Critisize

Of prime importance of course is the degree to which you cannot question the sources of authority in Islam.

You cannot question/critisize God's commands in the Koran.
You cannot question/critisize the texts of Islam.
You cannot question/critisize the scholars or community as they are learned in Islam and you are not.
You cannot question/critisize the rulings of the dead scholars.

You cannot question/critisize your ruler as he is right to rule.


Naturally, many people do question it as it is natural for people to question. But it is still very much frowned upon. The atmosphere of the Muslim community is to respect the authority and since Islam is so pervasive in its rules, life itself becomes about these rules. Where people question geared more towards micro managing these rules. They might choose one scholar to follow or another. They might just accept they sin. But they dare not question the right of an authority to tell them what to do and how to live.

And as the cartoon above talks about.
To find out who rules over you, simply find out who you cannot critisize.


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