The authority for leadership arises from the Qur’an (Surah. 4:58-59), hadith and historical precedence. All Muslims will adhere to the belief in Allah and the finality of the Messengership of Muhammad (pbuh) and practice the five pillars of Islam.
However, the point of departure relates to the question of authority. For Sunnis, the sources of authority are the Qur’an, hadith, ijma and qiyas. Over the first four centuries of Islam a sophisticated and complex methodology was developed for an authentic understanding of these sources. This led to the emergence of four major schools of law or madhahibs – Hanafi, Shafi’i, Hanbali and Maliki. For the Shi’ah, the major school of law is the Ithna Ashari (Twelvers) or also known as the Jafari, named after Imam Jafar as-Sadiq. The legitimate interpreters of the Qur’an are the Imams, who are from the ahl al-Bayt, the family of the Prophet. The major groups from these are Jafaris, Ismailis and Zaydis.
Islam is Din, a whole way of life and provides Muslims with guidance permeating every aspect of human existence. The life and example of the Prophet provides the ideal for all Muslims to aim for and emulate. The whole purpose and aim is to develop a perpetual consciousness of Allah within the life of the individual, to remind one of the ephemeral nature of her existence and to cultivate a human personality that seeks the peace, compassion and harmony of all.
Following the passing away of the Prophet, the early Muslim community was confronted with the question of leadership of the Community. A large gathering of the companions selected Abu Bakr (r. 632-634 CE), a senior companion (sahaba) of the Prophet, following his death he was succeeded by Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634-644 CE), Uthman ibn Affan (r. 644-656 CE) and Ali ibn Abi Talib (r. 656-661 CE). These four are revered in Sunni Islam as the Calipha Rashidun (the Rightly Guided Caliphs). The assassination of Uthman led to a major rupture within the Islamic community, Mu’awiya’s (r.661-680) refusal to accept Ali’s leadership led to civil war and as a consequence resulted in the emergence of a group called Shi’ite Ali (the party of Ali). For the Shi’ah leadership was to be based upon the lineage to the Prophet’s family (ahl al-Bayt) and they too would appeal to the Qur’an and hadith for scriptural legitimacy. It was later that a fuller Shi’ah theology would develop the theory of the succession of twelve Imams (Ithna Ashari, Twelvers) and place Ali as the first Imam and the rightful successor to the Prophet and project back to the time of the Prophet’s passing away as the moment at which Ali was denied his rightful place as leader of the community.
Over the first three to four centuries of Islam, Muslim scholar-Jurists invented a sophisticated and complex discipline of Usul al-Fiqh, (Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence). This provided a sophisticated methodology for the deduction of the law from the four primary sources in Sunni Islam – Qur’an, Hadith, Ijma and Qiyas. In Sunni Islam therefore the practice is expressed through following one of the four major schools of Islamic Law (Madhahibs) that emerged during the first four centuries of Islam, these are the Hanafi, Maliki, Hanbali and Shafi’i. The major Shi’ah school of law is the Jafari.
The Madhahibs are a source of orthopraxis for the Muslims and therefore many of the classical books from the different schools of law are now available in English. This has in practice resulted in many English speaking Muslims seeking a return to the classical law manuals rather than the inherited forms of practice through Salafi or Wahhabi groups. In cases of family law, for example, divorce, Muslim men and women may utilize the services of a number of Shari’ah Councils that have emerged over the last four decades, these have enabled Muslim women a release from marriage which in some cases their husbands had refused to do. These Councils also provide significant mediation and conflict resolution assistance based within the framework of Shari’ah.
The major Sunni institution on the world stage that provides fatwas on contemporary issues, such as IVF, abortion, organ transplants, terrorism, etc. is the Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt. For the Shi’ah their guidance emanates from the leading Ayatollahs from the Middle East. One of the contemporary challenges for British Muslims is the absence of a central authority, for example, the Mufti of Great Britain, who could address issues concerning British Muslims.
Due to the nature of Authority in Islam, there is continuous intellectual debate and discussion, and certainly in Sunni Islam it is evaluated through the degree to which an Ijma (consensus) of the community of Scholars may emerge. In relation to politics, of course, the greatest abuse of authority has been perpetrated by extremist violent ideologues who have sought to attack the madhahibs as outdated. By cutting off the primary sources, Qur’an and Hadith from their traditional complex and sophisticated methodology of interpretation invented by scholar-jurists, the extremists have sought to appeal to the literalist reading of these sources to justify their violent political ideology. The Islamist groups in their various guises throughout the Islamic world have sought to use their ‘Islamist’ credentials to gain power and many are leading campaigns for social justice and delivery of essential services often in deprived areas.