FEW weeks before the conflict in Marawi City happened, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) have convened a group of ulama (a body of Muslim scholars recognized as having specialist knowledge of Islamic sacred law and theology) for a three-day summit to discuss their role as Muslim scholars and religious leaders to combat terrorism. One of the keynote speaker in the summit, the ARMM Governor said “terrorist use inappropriate interpretations of Islamic principles to strengthen their cause and encourage the commission of vicious acts”. The summit was timely and needed in our country today, but what happened to the ulama’s religious authority on the Muslims in Mindanao?

In one of our sessions in the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), we invited Sheikh Abdulrahman Abuhurayra Udasan, grand mufti of the Bangsamoro, to be our resource person in discussing Islam, Sharia, and issues about religious violent extremism. According to him, “there should be a distinction between the normative teaching on Islam that is based on the glorious Qur’an and the cultural practices of the Muslims which may or may not be consistent with the normative teaching of Islam.” He added, “Islam means peace and this can automatically counter terrorism and (violent) extremism, because peace in Islam is a key of association not isolation; it is a key of accommodation not marginalization.” If Islam means peace, and this was clearly explained by the Grand Mufti, then why do the terrorist groups in Marawi City claimed that what they are doing are in the name of Islam?

Most non-Muslims often complain that it is difficult to understand whether Islam endorses or condemns violent extremism or terrorism, such as hostage-taking, beheading an innocent civilian and suicide bombings. They complain because these terrorist groups also use the Holy Qur'an, Hadith, and Sunna of the Prophet (SAW) to justify their violent and terror attacks.

We then ask the question, who gives the authority for these terror groups to attack civilians and kill innocent people in the name of Islam? In answering this question, we need to understand present context of religious authority in Islamic faith.

The process and method for generating and defining authority is crucial in any religious, and political movements. This authority can either be formal or informal. This is crucial because it defines for people what is official, formal, binding, and what ought to be followed.

Today or what scholars describe as modern era, the Ummah (Muslim community) have suffered a crisis of authority that manifests in the global problem of violent religious extremism.

For us to understand this problem, we may refer the works of Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, one of the world’s leading authorities on Islamic law and Islam. He is also a prominent scholar in the field of human rights, and author of the book, “The Great Theft: Islam torn between Extremism and Moderation (2005)”. In this book he explained the roots of the problem regarding religious authority in Islam.

His book explains, "The reality is that in the modern age, there are many contradictory claims made in Islam’s name, and when it comes to Islamic law, the response one gets about any particular issue depends on whom one asks. This reality was keenly felt after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but it has been evident in numerous controversies, such as the Salman Rushdie affair, the practices of the Taliban against women and historical and religious monuments, the stoning of women in Nigeria, the taking of hostages in Iran and Lebanon, the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia…” We need to understand the present context of religious authority in Islam because there are many different contradictions of religious scholars opinions on different topics such as jihad, peace, and Sharia.

Non Muslims must understand that in Islam, there is no institution similar to the church. As Dr. Fadl explains, "There is no clergy, in the Western sense; there is nothing in Islam that comes close to the papacy in Rome or the institution of the priesthood."

However, in Islam, there is a class of people who attend religious studies or training similar to a seminary, where they study the religious sciences and Islamic law. Those who studied and graduated in these schools/universities are called in various names—in Arabic, ‘alim (pl. ‘ulama), faqih (pl. fuqaha), mulla, shaykh, or imam.

The opinions given by these religious leaders in Islam are persuasive in nature, and they are not mandatory or binding. These opinions called in Arabic as fatawa (sing. fatwa). They may tackle different issues and concerns or may even address either a specific problem of interest to a particular person or a matter of public concern.

During pre-colonial time and what we call as the classical time, Muslim scholars set strict qualifications that an ulama or imam had to meet before becoming qualified to issue a fatwa. The more serious the subject matter the higher the qualifications demanded from them.

However, today these systems and institutions of training for our religious leaders were destroyed by the colonial powers from the West dated back in 1798 when Bonaparte invaded Egypt. Combining the geopolitics in the Middle East, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and promotion of the Neo Salaffi-Wahabbi ideology supported by petrol dollar industry, practically anyone can appoint himself a mufti and or an alim and make declarations of religious decrees or fatawa, without either a legal or a social process that would restrain him from doing so.

In light of these realities in Islam and the Muslim community, moderate Muslims must work hand in hand in strengthening and supporting the religious studies, trainings and education of our religious scholars. We must review and reclaim the classical teachings of Islam.