Islam and the Role of Elites
Author: Monica Duffy Toft, Former Associate Professor of Public Policy; Former Board Member, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Former Director, Initiative on Religion and International Affairs
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Dubai Initiative
This policy brief provides background information on how Islam in its various manifestations has developed and spread throughout the world and the role of elites in this evolution. Having emerged in seventh-century Arabia, Muslim communities have formed and thrived in Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America, and Oceania. Today, themajority of Muslims live outside of the Middle East.2 From the earliest days of Islam, the movement of people and ideas has impacted the institutions of political power in countless regions and modern nation-states. Such changes in religious and political landscapeshave occurred with the help of migration, conversion, and decisions on the part of ruling elites about the desired character of their states.
To varying degrees, religious elites have often pursued a particular vision of the role of religion vis-à-vis the state. In some cases, gaining or retaining political power appearsto hinge on religion—in particular, on how religion can provide authority and legitimacy in the eyes of the public. More recently, modern communication networks have amplified the resonance that religious messages have with coreligionists, both at home and abroad. Today, elites have the potential to gain transnational support as they seek political power. Where feelings of religious brotherhood exist between a local or global group and the group an elite figure desires to represent, they can yield benefits in the form of monetary assistance or by putting political pressure on local authorities. Thus, elites who make religious bids for power are in a position to gain both tangible material support and the more intangible asset of popular resonance.
In offering the following backgrounder, I point to a few key reasons why past elites have incorporated Islam into their bids for power and, with that precedent, why today’s religious bids for control more often occur within Muslim societies as elites compete for power.
In the first section, I provide a brief account of the figures and events that have helped to shape Islamic history; focussing on how and where Islam has spread in the world. After discussing present-day population distributions, I provide a two-part account of how modern Muslim communities and schools of thought came to acquire their character. The first part of this narrative centers on the movement of people through mechanisms such as trade and commerce, migration, and conversion. In the second part, I focus on the movement of ideas and the transmission of knowledge by discussing the major legal schools of Islam and centers of learning. In all of this, the role of local influences are critical. To conclude, I will discuss modern developments in the growth of Islam, placing emphasis on new types of community formation, new ideologies, and their potential consequences.
To read the full brief, please download the PDF below.
- Toft, Monica -- Islam and Elites (1.2 MB PDF)
For more information about this publication please contact the The Dubai Initiative at 617-496-3694.
For Academic Citation: