Muslim Religious Authority in Modern Asia

Established Patterns and Evolving Profiles

in Asian Journal of Social Science
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The social, economic, and political transformations of the past two centuries have been rapid and dramatic, resulting in complex reconfigurations of religious authority in many Muslim societies. These changes have involved not only the emergence of distinctly new profiles of leadership, but also the persistence and adaptation of the models established by the ulama of the classical period. The challenges of modernizing reform at the turn of the twentieth century struck at the very heart of traditions that had bolstered established religious authority for a thousand years. In the modern period, ulama find themselves in increasingly crowded and highly contested public spheres in which they can no longer hold any kind of monopoly. Contemporary debates in Muslim public spheres are characterized by the emergence of complex new discursive formulations on issues of religious belief and practice, individual rights and responsibilities, and proper standards of public morality. This essay provides an historical introduction to the emergence of diverse models of Muslim religious authority in modern Asia.




By the 1880s, Muslims from Southeast Asia had come to comprise the largest annual contingent of pilgrims to Mecca and many of the steamships that took them there passed through Singapore (Vredenbregt, 1962). For more on the historical development of the Hajj from Southeast Asia, see Tagliacozzo (2013).


See, for example, Asad (2003), Casanova (1994), Martin (2005) and Scott and Hirschkind (2006).


See, for example, Feener (2007) and Meeker (1991: 76).


See, for example, Brenner (2011), Feener (2013) and McLarney (2011).


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