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Religious Studies Essay Semester 2. Religious Authority

Nurulkamilah Matkamil
Micheal Agnew
March 6th 2012
1072 words
Question: Compare the varieties of religious authority discussed in the textbook with your experience of “authority” in your local community.

            Leadership plays a significant role in community development. With it comes the notion of an authority or power to govern, to make decisions and to enforce obedience. Malaysia is a multicultural and multireligious country under parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy. There is also a separation of power between the federal and state level government. Religious authority, mainly Islam, falls under the state government. Every state has their own mufti who acts as a religious advisor and issue fatwas (Lee).            
            In the early days of Malaysia’s history, much of religious authority is centred on imams at a kampong, or village level (Means). The imams are the privileged few who had the opportunity to do their pilgrimage in Mecca and learn from renowned religious scholars. These imams usually conduct religious classes at the mosque for both adults and children and lead prayers. At the same time, generations of sultans legitimize their rule over an Islamic Malay kingdom with claims that they are descendants of Alexander the Great, who was one of the prophets in Islam and gave themselves the title of “The Shadow of God on Earth.” The sultan would then educate himself in Islamic knowledge to ensure that he is knowledgeable and is capable of governing a kingdom according to Islamic laws (Means).
            This is paralleled with two of the Jewish models of religious authority. The first is the liturgical community of priests and a nation ruled by kings (Corrigan, 118). In the first model, the priests were responsible for maintaining the second temple and they maintain their authority as the community relies on them for leading rituals, whereas in the second model, Jews believe that their king, David, was appointed by God, and was responsible to rule according to God’s laws and ensure that the nation followed the laws accordingly in order to honour the covenant with God (2 Samuel 7:5-16).The imam is similar to the priests who maintain the temple as  both of them play a major role in leading the rituals. However, the role of the imam is not inherited through family ties. Anybody can become an imam as long as he is learned, which is not the case with the priests who keep their stronghold on the temple through familial ties. The way the community forms around the imam is also similar to a rabbinic community of disciples as the Rabbi teaches religion to the people the same way the imams have religious classes for the villagers. With respect to the second Jewish model of religious authority, although the sultan bears the title “The Shadow of God on Earth”, the Malays don’t believe that their king was divinely appointed, but they do believe that to obey God, they have to obey their sultan because the sultan is the administrator of God’s kingdom.
            The bishops in Christianity had double roles of being both appointed by God and are also an inherited post. The reason for the emphasis on apostolic authority was the fact that Jesus had entrusted authority in Peter (Matthew 16:18-19). So, all the priests who were descendants of Peter legitimize their authority through this statement. The priests in Christianity are responsible for performing all the sacraments, teaching the bible and leading the community (“Priest”). At one point, it came to the extent of the priests having the power to intercede and of being seen as holy and the ultimate authority. The Protestant movement began to question apostolic authority. According to them, the scripture alone has the highest authority and they voraciously criticized the perversion of Christian authority due to the over emphasis on apostolic authority (Corrigan, 138).  Malaysia also experienced a period of reformation in Islam from Kaum Muda, or Young Faction, who are a group of youths who were educated in religion at Al-Azhar University. They criticized the perversion of Islam rituals with primitive rites and encouraged the public to study the Quran and Sunnah themselves instead of having to rely merely on the imams. The difference between the Malaysian histories of religious reformation is that Malaysia does not have a specific body of clergy that has absolute power on religious rulings. Most of these rulings are decided after discussion and study, and the ulama’s are respected as intellectual human beings, not as people who are holy, so much of the reformation is on the Islamic practices itself and not on the authority as what happened in Christian history.
            In present day Malaysia, the majority of political leaders are concerned with secular matters and they do not take on the role of a spiritual leader, except for Nik Aziz Nik Mat, who is the chief minister of the state of Kelantan and also a spiritual leader. (Abdul Hamid). Supporters of Nik Aziz respect him not only due to his capacity to govern, but also in his extensive knowledge in religious matters. In Islam, the main source of authority is the Quran and Sunnah, and the best example for muslims is the Prophet Muhammad (Corrigan, 145). So, those who closely follow the prophet’s example or are in close relations with the prophets are believed to have the right to authority. This issue caused a split between the Sunni and the Shia’a sects of Islam, because the Shiites believe that only the descendants of Saidina Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, have the right to authority. Similarly, the right to national authority is always an issue in Malaysia during elections, although the debate does not concern who has the closest relation with the prophet, but some people believe only the most pious should lead the country, as only a pious person would know how to govern the country according to Islamic laws and restore moral order to the country and is also a good example for the people to emulate (Quran 39:18). Inevitably, political leaders sometimes play the religion card alongside the race card in their bid to win over votes, which is how religion sometimes become unethically politicized in Malaysia (O’Shanassy).
            In conclusion, the Malaysian history of religious authority has been changing throughout the times and shares some similarities and differences with Judaism, Christianity and predominantly, Islamic religious authority. With leadership being an integral part of the community, each tradition has had their own history of conflicts between secularism and religious authority. This goes to show that our community is a dynamic system, it changes with time and circumstances, and with that, comes the need of different forms of leadership and governance.


Works Cited

Abdul Hamid, Ahmad Fauzi. “Implementing Islamic Law within a Modern Constitutional  Framework: Challenges and Problems in Contemporary Malaysia.” Islamic Studies. 48 No 2: Summer 2009. JSTOR Web. Mar 4 2012.

Corrigan, John, et al. “Jews, Christians, and Muslims: A Comparative Introduction to Monotheistic Religions.” 2nd Edition.  United States: Pearson Education Inc, 2012.    Print.

The Hebrew-English Bible, Mechon Mamre. Oct 11 2009. Web. Mar 5 2012.

Lee, Raymond L.M. “The State and New Religious Movements in Malaysia.” Sociology of Relgion. 55 No 4: Winter 1994, p 473-479. JSTOR. Web. Mar 5 2012.

Means, Gordon P. “The Role of Islam in The Political Development of Malaysia.” Comparative Politics , 1 No 2:Jan 1969, p 264-284.JSTOR. Web. Mar 4, 2012

O’Shanassy, Micheal. “Malaysia in 2010”. Asian Survey 51 No 1: January/February 2012. p 173-185. JSTOR. Web. Mar 5 2011.

The Noble Quran in The English Language: A Summarized Version of At-Tabari, Al-Qurtubi  and Ibn Kathir with Comments from Sahih Al-Bukhari. Trans. Dr. Muhammad  Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali and Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan.  Saudi Arabia: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, 1996. Print.

The Oxford Annotated Bible with The Apocrypha, Revised Standard Version. Herbert G. May  and Bruce M. Metzger, editor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. Print.

"The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community." Vatican: The Holy See. Web. Mar  9 2012.


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