In a March 2016 article in The American Conservative, Patrick Buchanan restated the argument of Andrew McCarthy, the prosecutor of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (the infamous “Blind Sheikh” linked to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing). According to Buchanan and McCarthy, violent Muslim views like Rahman’s are perfectly supported by the Qur’an and hadith literature; they are not a distortion of Islam but a “coherent” interpretation of it. Buchanan asks: are we projecting our hopes of peace and tolerance onto a religious group that fundamentally justifies violence and hateful ideas? Are all Muslims who fight in groups like al-Shabab, ISIS, and Hezbollah misinterpreting their scriptures? Is “real” Islam truly peaceful?

While it would require several books to address all the issues he raises, Buchanan’s concerns are not mere fear-mongering. They are legitimate worries, but they are ill-informed. Buchanan is asking the wrong question, because he thinks the majority of the issues he raises are clearly addressed in the Qur’an and that the literal reading is the most truthful reading. Additionally, he grants more authority to the ulama (religious scholars) than is warranted, since Islamic religious authority does not operate in a Catholic manner. There is no Magisterium or catechism that tells Muslims how to live or think in a dogmatic sense.

To be considered a minimally practicing Muslim, at least for the Sunni majority, one must simply practice the five pillars (the shahada, the daily prayers, almsgiving, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca if able), and follow the few clear injunctions of the Qur’an (e.g., not drinking alcohol). A Muslim must also profess belief in five basic articles of belief; there is also a disputed sixth article regarding God’s preordainment and human responsibility.

Furthermore, shari‘a law is a nebulous, uncodified ideal of God’s law, not a precise reference book. It is composed of the Qur’an, the Sunna (i.e., the reported doings and sayings of Muhammad), scholarly consensus, and analogical reasoning, and it is interpreted into practice by fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Fiqh, however, is not infallible. It is an ongoing discussion of Muslim religious scholars and legal traditions engaged in a permanent debate over the interpretation of Islam in a highly fractured, worldwide community. Thus, beyond some basic actions and articles of faith, being a Sunni Muslim is rather flexible.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

But why is the scope of religious authority so limited in Sunni Islamic thought? Does this not cause problems when trying to determine moral and doctrinal teachings or interpret tricky passages of the Qur’an? Who, ultimately, speaks for Islam?

Consensus and the “Peaceful Spirit” of Islam

Historically, attempts began in the eighth century to resolve this conundrum and revolved around the issue of consensus, which we noted was a key component of determining the shari‘a. For most of Islam’s history, consensus has been defined as the universal consensus of the mujtahids (i.e., religious scholars qualified to perform independent exegesis). Yet even this has been heavily contested, even among the scholars of the classical age. Further distinctions were made between explicit and tacit consensus, with the former being binding and requiring that every mujtahid deliver an opinion on an issue, and the latter being less strong. The bar was set impossibly high for consensus to keep it from being abused and to give certainty when it was invoked.

The famous Abbasid scholar Shafi’i developed the first fully systematic articulation of consensus, though he was not the first to write about it. While he accepted the idea of consensus, Shafi’i was wary of it as a legal tool because of its ambiguities. Thus, he argued that only a clear and obvious proof from the Qur’an and/or Sunna would suffice to justify the concept of consensus in Islamic thought. Sura 4:115 is considered by many to be the best possible proof text, but both the renowned theologian al-Ghazali and Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti rejected such an interpretation as contrary to the manifest meaning of the verse in its context, which they saw as a mere warning not to disobey the Prophet. Other verses were offered, but no consensus developed around any of them, as they lacked clear wording, fell into circular logic, or could not refute claims that God simply praising His community of believers was not sufficient evidence that He had endowed them or the scholars with infallible authority.

The early debates surrounding consensus ended around the eleventh century when al-Ghazali addressed the famous hadith concerning consensus, in which Muhammad asserted that “my community shall never agree on an error.” Although al-Ghazali rejected the full authenticity of this hadith, he argued that the fact that so many scholars and sources had spoken of consensus should be evidence enough of its authoritativeness and legitimacy. Later scholars, especially in the West, attacked this hadith and position not only for linguistic flaws and questionable authenticity, but also because if consensus was so crucial a doctrine, God or Muhammad would surely have made it more explicit.

The debate over consensus restarted in a lively manner in the eighteenth century and has continued to the present, as modernists, reformists, and traditionalists argued over ways to revitalize Islam. Some, like Fazlur Rahman, saw consensus as a cocoon protecting outdated beliefs. Others, like Shah Wali Allah Dihlawi, a scholar under the Mughals, wanted to reformulate it to be more efficacious in effecting religious and social changes. Muhammad Iqbal, a famous Muslim scholar born in British India, even advocated creating a Muslim legislature of sorts to settle these issues. This suggestion has been thoroughly criticized for allowing too much subjectivity and for lacking support in the Qur’an and Sunna.

More recent articulations of consensus have tried to tie it to an interpretive framework that seeks to emphasize the guiding, peaceful “spirit” of Islam. However, the way in which one determines this vague “spirit” relies on contested assumptions about which Qur’anic verses are clear and which are esoteric. Mohammad Hashim Kamali, a prominent lay Islamic scholar of Afghani descent, for instance, reformulates Shafi’i’s position to include both the scholars and the broader community of Muslims in deciding what is authoritative by consensus, yet he does not address the classical criticisms of Shafi’i’s theory. At times, Kamali relies on a vague epistemology of induction to determine the spirit of the shari‘a, and he passes over the critical role educational indoctrination will play in making the general community enlightened so that it makes the “correct” interpretations. Such efforts also tend to ignore questions of how to define worthy religious scholars, how they will be elected, and how to assess the validity of their decisions.

Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, a scholar at Zaytuna College, however, acknowledges all these problems, and he argues that consensus cannot be the criterion for determining the bedrock principles of Islam, and that only “matters known from the religion by immediate necessity” are certain—that is, those elements we mentioned at the beginning concerning basic actions, prohibitions, and articles of faith. Sadly, the argument falls short, since it does not address many other moral issues on which disagreement abounds, such as suicide bombing, violent jihad, organ donation to non-Muslims, the rights of women and minorities, and the relationship between Islam and politics, to name just a few.

Where Should We Look for Answers about Islam?

If the theory of consensus lies in such a state of disarray and uncertainty, what does this mean for Muslims and non-Muslims today who seek definitive answers about who speaks for Islam?

One of the most prominent modern attempts to address the devolution of authority is the European Council of Fatwa and Research (ECFR), a transnational organization founded in 1997 that has the notable Egyptian Yusuf ‘Abd Allah al-Qaradawi as chairman. The ECFR seeks to provide Muslims with a unified array of religious advice. And although the ECFR claims that it does not seek to compete with other growing fatwa councils, it routinely asserts its own superiority. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has also tried to create a united front of religious opinions masquerading as authoritative, such as its 2014 open letter condemning ISIS’s al-Baghdadi, a letter signed by one hundred and twenty-six lay and religious Muslim scholars. Outside the West, Al-Azhar University in Cairo has also been an influential institutional player in defining Islam, although its objectivity has regularly been tainted by governmental interference.

Western governments have also tried to create concrete Islamic authorities to represent Muslims, such as Austria’s aborted 2014 Qur’an law and Germany’s failed 1993 attempt to recreate the old Ottoman position of the Sheikhülislam. None of these institutions has reduced the influence of individual lay or religious scholars. Often, religious authority derives primarily from the “social consensus” formed around individual scholars—even within an institution—and their own ability to market their knowledge and reputation as a sign of authority. Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss Muslim intellectual, is one such popular scholar. He wants to discard consensus and build up “a true frame of reference” using reason to determine Islamic universals and specific moral teachings, since the Qur’an provides very few clear passages by his own admission.

For many of these reformers, education is critical. By indoctrinating Muslims in a specific mode of thinking and understanding of Islam through the study of “first-rate works” (who determines these is not specified), a broad consensus is generated. However, it is one that hides the fact that it lacks any guarantee of truth, since it operates without divine sanction and is able to be changed as the community desires. It skips over the classical problems in formulating consensus by teaching Muslims to interpret the Qur’an and Sunna in a specific manner. Still, the plan might work in reality due to the ability of humans to live in contradiction and to miss the fact that their claims concerning what Islam definitively says are severely limited.

Even if they avoid the classical terminology for fear of resurrecting old debates, all of the solutions proposed here are attempts at achieving consensus by other names, either by pseudo-institutionalizing it or by indoctrinating the majority of Muslims through education. The hope is that this “true frame of reference” will become normalized through the slow attrition of time as the “true” Islam, while major deviations from this educated norm are labeled un-Islamic.

Yet, as we have seen, this hope is tenuous in the absence of a definitive proof text or infallible authority to settle disagreement. In terms of the future of Islam, this reality means that—try as they might—Muslims will not be able to definitively reject the actions of all radical and militant interpretations of Islam. Their own religious tradition and contemporary scholars have essentially neutralized any power consensus had to make definitive statements beyond a few basic Islamic tenets and principles.

For those with a comparative eye, this should not be surprising. Sunni Islam is currently following a path well trod by Judaism—and Protestantism, to a lesser extent—though historical factors have protected the ulama so far from becoming as decentralized and powerless as the rabbinate. Consensuses concerning what Islam says will come and go, deriving their authority and (relative) definitiveness not from any divine sanction, but from the mechanics of human power, scholarly popularity, persuasiveness, and the normalization of certain modes of thinking through education and the dispersion of knowledge via electronic and print media.

Arguing about what an elusive, singular Islam says definitively, whether such arguments come from people like Buchanan or institutions like CAIR, is a fool’s errand. Muslims and non-Muslims must take a more decentralized approach to understanding religious authority in its complexity if they are to better understand the ambiguities and paradoxes of the relationship between violence and Islam today.