Sunday 9th of May 2021
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Authority from a Shi‘ite Perspective

Dr Muhammad Legenhausen

In this paper I propose to describe the teachings of Shi'ite Islam about authority in a manner accessible to Catholic partners in dialogue. For this purpose, I will contrast Shi'ite views on these issues with those of Catholics, and those of Sunni theologians, and I will also mention a few of the differences of opinion on these matters among the various Shi'ite sects and Sufis.

To begin with, we need to clarify what is meant by authority. Needless to say, there is no concept in the Muslim intellectual traditions that is exactly equivalent to the concept of authority as understood by Christians. The differences between Shi'ite and Catholic thinking about what Catholics would describe as issues of authority, are likely to lead to misunderstandings if not directly addressed.

Authority is multifaceted. There is political authority, teaching authority, sacramental authority, spiritual authority, legal authority, and more; but it may be convenient to limit ourselves to these five facets of authority.

Next we can speak of de facto and de jure authority. Someone has de facto authority when he holds a position, and by virtue of holding that position is accorded authority. The person holding the position is able to carry out various activities that are not permitted to persons who do not hold the position. De facto authority may be challenged by those who claim that the person who holds the position does not do so legitimately. They claim that although the person holding the office may have de facto authority, the person lacks de jure authority.

Finally, we should speak of the ways in which authority is conferred, and its source or sources. Various sorts of authority are won by military strength, knowledge, appointment by God, popular approval, birth, wealth, and by other means. Of course, not all of the ways in which people gain positions of de facto authority are considered acceptable. Bribery is a means of gaining various sorts of de facto authority, but it is never a means of winning de jure authority.

After discussing the facets, propriety, and transfer of authority in a rather abstract fashion, we can turn to an examination of how Catholics and Shi'ites understand these issues.

Once we have examined authority, we will turn very briefly to the issue of tradition. Our approach to tradition will not, however, review the relevant concepts in all their generality, but only as they pertain to issues of authority.

Authority and Wilayah

There are various types of authority. Teachers have authority over their students. Employers have authority over their employees. Parents have authority over their children. None of these sorts of authority are absolute. Parents do not have authority to abuse their children. Authority is not mere liberty to command. The limits on authority are especially pronounced in Islam. All authority belongs ultimately to God, and different people exercise specific types of authority according to the responsibilities given to them. One who exercises authority may be required to use personal discretion, but discretion is always to be employed in order to carry out one's duties in the best possible way, and does not imply that one has a free hand to do whatever one wants.

If there is any absolute authority, it is the authority of God. (This sentence questions if there is any absolute authority…. How about: The only absolute authority is the authority of God. )Here, however, there is a difference between Shi'ite and Ash'arite views. Most Sunnite theologians accept an Ash'arite position, according to which all moral obligation derives from divine commands, and that since it does not make sense to speak of God commanding Himself, He is not constrained by any moral obligations. It would not be wrong for Him to command murder and stealing, but rather, if He commanded them, they would become morally obligatory. Shi'ites, on the other hand, along with the Mu'tazilites, hold that what we know by reason to be wrong, could never be commanded by God. The Ash'arites object that this seems to imply that reason—or the absolute moral values discerned by reason—has an authority above the authority of God. Heaven forbid! Shi'ites respond that this is a misunderstanding of the nature of authority. God cannot command what is wrong because He is essentially just, not because He is subservient to justice or reason, or because He lacks sufficient power to be unjust. God has absolute authority, not in the sense that He could command what is wrong, but that He does whatever He wills, and He necessarily wills what is just and what is better than justice, e.g., grace, because He is essentially just and merciful. The God of Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be with him and his progeny and with them all) is no Pater Liber.[1]

The absolute authority of God does not mean that God is at liberty to do evil, but neither does it imply that He is not at liberty. Likewise, the expertise of a craftsman does not mean that if the craftsman were to produce something unbefitting his skill, then he has the authority to do so because of his expertise. Neither does it imply that the craftsman who exercises his skill is not at liberty to make what he wants. God does whatever He wills, but His will is not arbitrary. God does whatever He wills, but His willing is never evil, because this would contradict His essence.

In Shi'ite sources, there is no general term for authority as it occurs in Western languages, used for the concepts of divine authority, scriptural authority, church authority, etc.. Occasionally, one who has the power of command is referred to by the word sulţān (from which comes the English “sultan”), malik (sovereign), mālik (owner, possessor), and hujjah. Among the Names of God mentioned in the Qur'ān, we find al-Malik (20:114), and Mālik al-Mulk (which has been translated as “Master of the Kingdom”, “Owner of All”, and “Master of all sovereignty”). There are no divine Names based on the roots of sulţān or hujjah, although reference to divine authority can be found in which such terms are employed. Other terms that are used to indicate divine authority are: al- Haqq (the Truth), al-Rabb (Lord), Dhê al-Jalāl (Possessor of Majesty), and a number of others, each of which repays study with a greater appreciation of the nature of divine authority in Islam. The notion of authority is closely related to that of obedience; so, we should also look at what the Qur'ān has to say about obedience and following in order to get a clearer picture of how authority is viewed in Islam.

Let's begin with sulţān. What is most characteristic of the use of this word in the Qur'ān is that it is used to condemn idolatry as unauthorized, in contrast to which the missions of the prophets are described as authorized.

The following verses may be grouped together because they all pertain to the condemnation of unauthorized idolatry [which is contrasted with the authorized message of monotheism (tawhid) brought through the prophets]. We could say that these verses indicate a negative concept of authority, in that they deny authority for idolatry. These verses are relevant to teaching authority, for they condemn false unauthorized religious teachings, and to sacramental authority, for they condemn unauthorized worship of false gods.

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