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Crisis of Authority: Crisis of Islam?1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 July 2009

Francis Robinson*
Royal Holloway, University of London


This essay examines the growing crisis of authority in the Muslim world of the past two hundred years. It is a crisis set in motion by the challenges of Western domination, intensified by those of globalisation, and exacerbated by Muslim attempts to resist them. It is a crisis which has pervaded all aspects of Muslim life, but one which has been felt particularly in the religious arena. Focussing initially on how authoritative religious knowledge was established and sustained down to c. 1800, the essay goes on to examine how this system broke down. It demonstrates the fragmentation of authority as new methods of interpretation emerge, as lay interpreters come forward to challenge the ʿulama, and as the individual human conscience comes to be given an increasingly important role. Consideration is also given to the growth of primary and higher education, the emergence of new electronic media, and the transnational movements of Muslims. The outcome has been the growth of a ‘spectacularly wild growth of interpretation’. It remains an open question as to whether this development is a cause for despair or a source of hope.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Asiatic Society 2009

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2 For a brief but excellent survey of issues and scholarship relating to religious authority and authorities see Gudrun Kramer and Sabine Schmidtke, ‘Introduction: Religious authority and religious authorities in Muslim societies. A critical overview’, in Kramer, Gudrun and Schmidtke, Sabine eds., Speaking for Islam: Religious Authorities in Muslim Societies (Leiden, 2006), pp. 114CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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36 For examples of these booklets see Robinson, Francis ed., Cambridge Illustrated History of Islam (Cambridge, 1996), p. 247Google Scholar.

37 Maimuna Haq, ‘From Piety to Romance: Islam-Oriented texts in Bangladesh’ in Eickelmann and Anderson, New Media, pp. 129–157.

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