Our Religious Authorities are recognized not through closed-door conclaves or political charisma, but rather solely by their unparalleled knowledge and unmatched piety. They are respected not for dogmatism or unflinching fundamentalism but rather for an unbending adherence to knowledge, logic, and pure intellectual thought.In the Swat valley of Pakistan, an innocent 17-year-old girl is beaten and humiliated in public for false charges of “immorality”. In Somalia, a mentally disabled girl is stoned to death for “adultery”. In Afghanistan, acid is thrown on the faces of girls trying to attend elementary school. The Muslim world today is seeing an alarming rise of self-proclaimed lovers and enforcers of the Shariah, who are willing to swiftly and mercilessly amputate, shoot, and burn down anything and anyone that fails to lie within their declared bounds of Islamic law.
Who are these people? Usually clad in dirty clothes, sporting long, messy beards, and hardly ever able to read at beyond a 6th grade level, they give themselves grandiose titles like “Shaikh”, “Mufti”, and – the most popular one – “Amirul Momineen”. When asked to prove the validity of their rulings, they are quick to quote a few out-of-context verses of the Qur’an and easily dismiss 1400 years of Islamic jurisprudence as heresy. Across the Sunni world, and especially among scholarly circles, there is a growing sense of urgency and outright panic on how to tackle this rise in “vigilante jurisprudence” and the popularity that these self-styled revivers of the Shariah seem to enjoy among the ignorant masses.
The Imams of the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them) were Divinely-guided beings who possessed great foresight. They knew that when the Twelfth of them goes into occultation, the Shia world will be without a direct leader. To account for the void that would have otherwise have existed and the opportunists that would have otherwise risen, the Imams created the system of Niyabat (representation). They would train scholars and dispatch them to various parts of the Muslim world. When their followers had religious questions or needed to pay religious dues, they would turn to these scholars. Over time, this system evolved into Marjaiyyat (Religious Authority), upon which the final seal of approval was placed by the Twelfth Imam in his famous saying as recorded in Ehtijaj of Shaikh Tabarsi: “In regards to future incidents, turn for guidance to the narrators of our traditions, for they are my proof upon you just as I am the proof of Allah.”
But not only did the Imams set up a system of religious authority, they set up one that is unparalleled in its scope and is grounded solely in knowledge and piety. When a student enters the Islamic seminary in Qom or Najaf today, he will spend 20-25 years studying and researching Qur’an, Hadith, jurisprudence, logic, and various other Islamic sciences under the supervision of a qualified mentor. Only when his mentor is fully satisfied by the student’s moral fiber, intellectual caliber, and ability to deduce Islamic law from its resources does he grant him/her the degree of Ijtihad. (By rough estimates, an Ijtihad degree is equivalent to having 19 PhDs in the Western academic system.)
But this is just the beginning. Upon receiving his Ijtihad degree, a scholar will spend another 15-20 years debating and arguing the validity of his jurisprudential rulings with students and fellow scholars. Needless to say, this takes place in a very open and academic atmosphere. (The late Ayatollah Abul Qasim al-Khoei, for example, would conduct these lessons with over 500 students present in front of him, any of whom could challenge him at any point and force him to defend the validity of his ruling on that particular issue.) Only after 40-50 years of research and scholarship, during which his piety and character are also closely scrutinized, a scholar is declared a Marja Taqleed (Religious Authority) by the academic community, his intellectual views are considered credible, and he is permitted to publish his rulings for others to follow.
It is therefore truly saddening to see the widespread suspicion and outright condemnation aimed at the Marjaiyyat by the majority of the Shia world today. Especially in our age, when a wide variety of charlatans and ignoramuses seem to have hijacked the Shariah for their own nefarious political purposes, leaving the majority of Muslim academia scrambling to counter this mess, the Shia world has been immune from this problem precisely because of our adherence to a centralized and academic system of religious leadership for the past 1200 years that has left no room for fanatical imposters or unqualified extremists to even come near the reins of religious authority.
Indeed, we Shia Muslims should be immensely thankful for being blessed with such an impeccable and flawless system of religious leadership and constantly strive to defend it. Our Religious Authorities are recognized not through closed-door conclaves or political charisma, but rather solely by their unparalleled knowledge and unmatched piety. They are respected not for dogmatism or unflinching fundamentalism but rather for an unbending adherence to knowledge, logic, and pure intellectual thought. As such, Imam Sadiq (peace be upon him) is narrated to have said in Furu al-Kafi, “They must seek out one of you who narrates our traditions, who is versed in what is permissible and what is forbidden, and who is well-acquainted with our laws and ordinances, and accept him as judge and arbiter, for I appoint him as judge over you. If the ruling which he based on our laws is rejected, this rejection will be tantamount to ignoring the order of Allah and rejecting us is the same as rejecting Allah, and this is the same as polytheism.”