We proudly proclaim to the world that there is no priesthood in Islam. However, we forget to mention that we do have a kind of priesthood in our current practice of Islam. Our professional Imams go through a similar process of education, training, and indoctrination as any other religious priest. They lead ritual prayers, give sermons, and conduct religious ceremonies. Most of them perform these services under the auspices of a particular school of thought or a religious sect within Islam. Our Imams thus act and behave no differently than other religious priests: largely promoting and serving their own sect. Muslims have come to accept this practice without any second thoughts.
If there is no priesthood in Islam then it stands to reason to ask how this pseudo priesthood entered Islam, and how did it achieve such common currency among Muslims.
By contrast, we find no trace of any kind of priesthood in early Islam. Our Prophet (PBUH) did not appoint an Imam per se to lead regular prayers; nor did the rightly guided caliphs do. They all led prayers (as did all other officials of the state at that time) as part of their official duties. The use of full-time professional Imams to lead prayers in mosques and to perform religious services must therefore have come into Islam much later.
If we look at history we find that, after the rightly guided Caliphs, Umayyad and Abbasid rulers needed religious sanction for their dictatorial authority. Initially, Islamic scholars resisted this attempt as it was clearly against the Qur’an (50:45). As a consequence, many paid with their lives. But many others buckled under threat and intimidation and gave the religious sanction the rulers needed for their dictatorial rule. The rulers after having received the ‘Islamic’ stamp of approval then happily returned the favor to religious leaders by officially creating a religious ministry for them. This new institution was granted religious authority as long as it did not cross the line set by the rulers.
This allowed a kind of Muslim priesthood to take root in Islam which continues till today in one form or the other resulting in an explosion of religious schools and seminaries throughout the Muslim world. This was possible because various Imams created their own schools of thought, their own jurisprudence, or the Shariah law. Some compiled works of Ahadith, Tafsir, and Islamic history. Their domain of influence however extended only over religious, moral, and ethical aspects while absolute power rested exclusively with corrupt rulers.
Openly violating the clear injunction of the Quran (4:93) these corrupt rulers, the so-called Muslim Caliphs, fought many wars amongst themselves spilling Muslim blood– all in the name of Islam! Family feud was common among them. They conspired against each other to grab power. Great numbers of Muslims (e.g., Mu’tazilites and Kharajites) who dared to challenge these rulers on Qur’anic grounds were declared heretics and were exterminated. While all these political fights continued the religious schools of thought the reigning caliph belonged to flourished under his tutelage in areas of the Islamic world he controlled. The movement started by the original scholars to protect Islam (or rather what was left of Islam) during the power struggle of Umayyads and Abbasids (and later among the Abbasids themselves) had developed and matured into different schools of thought and sects so much so that they became permanent fixtures in Islam. Consequently, every mosque was under the control of one or the other of these sectarian religious institutions, and so were the appointments of Imams. This in brief is how a kind of sectarian-based priesthood became part of Islam. And this is why we now have mosques designated for different sects within Islam unthinkable during Prophets’ time or during the time of the rightly guided Caliphs.
So what should be done now? Should we simply close our eyes to the Qur’an and allow these latter day rulers and Imams to regurgitate the same old sectarian material that was developed under dictatorial rule and which tramples on the most basic values of the Qur’an dealing with universal human rights among which some of the most basic ones are: sacrosanct right of the sanctity of human life (5:32); inalienable right of the freedom of choice (2:256, 18:29); right of tolerance for other faiths (22:40) and absolutely no compulsion in faith (2:256); right to conduct affairs by mutual consultation (3:159, 42:38); universal right of human dignity (17:70); sacrosanct right of equal justice for all (4:58, 4:135, 5:42, 16:90) including enemies (5:8) and no bending of justice for anyone (if the Prophet was not above the law (6:15) then how can anyone else be?); right to hold positions based solely on merit (46:19); right of personal responsibility and accountability (53:38); absolute right of ownership of the fruits of one’s labor and no free ride for anyone (53:39). Are these Qur’an-guaranteed human rights (to all men and women) to be found in our current practice of Islam anywhere not to say of the holiest place in Islam, the birthplace of our Prophet (PBUH)?
Who else could be more responsible then for damaging the sacred heart of Islam in the name of Islam, in the name of the Qur’an, in the name of the Prophet (PBUH) than the twin forces of Muslim dictatorship and Muslim priesthood?
The situation has degenerated to such an extent that if one were to mention that above human rights are some of the most sacred ones in Islam; that our Prophet (PBUH) lived and implemented these rights in society; that an Islamic society is supposed to be constituted on the basis of these core rights at its heart; then surely it will raise many eyebrows and may even draw laughter from some. Still, some others might retort back with contempt: “Have these human rights anything to do with Muslims and Islam?” Maybe they are not entirely wrong considering how Muslim countries have been (mis)treating and even killing their own people in the name of Islam.
The world is judging Islam by our practice of Islam, by observing the so-called practicing Muslims. No wonder we seem to be fulfilling the prophecy of the Qur’an by showing to the world by our own actions that Islam is a failure, that Islam is false (107:1-7)! Our failure to live up to true Islam is being seen as a failure of Islam. We may think we are good practicing Muslims. We may think that Allah is happy with us. We may think that we have the blessings of Allah. All this is fine but what about the Qur’an and its proclamation of universal human rights? Is the Qur’an only for reciting to achieve mercy and forgiveness mostly for the dead? Or, should its human rights also need to be implemented in human society?
As a matter fact, these values are under siege in every Muslim country. Can we expect to get anywhere when Muslim societies trample on these rights while putting extraordinary emphasis on rituals? What would be more important to Islam in the eyes of Allah: performing its rituals or implementing its basic human rights? One need not ask a scholar or an imam but one’s own heart.
The Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said that Muslim Ummah is like a body. When any part of the body is in pain the whole body feels it. That body seems to be in critical condition today. The only way to revive it is to go back to the basic Qur’anic values guaranteeing universal human rights and make them the foundation of Muslim society the way our Prophet (PBUH) did more than 1400 years ago when the rest of the world was living in barbarism and chaos as noted by many historians (see, e.g., J.H. Denison, Emotion as the Basis of Civilization). This is the real miracle of the Qur’an. This is the true Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH) to practice (7:157).