The Crisis of Legitimacy and Representation in Islamic Leadership

The quality of being trusted and believed in is often measured by looking at what is being represented and how we are representing it. Whether we look into any scientific study or political dynamics, the question of credibility becomes critical when the representation is skewed. Similarly, when discussing the issue of legitimacy in any religion including Islam, one cannot ignore who is representing Muslims. Hence, the role of leadership in form of theologians, scholars and religious leaders becomes inevitable.

mosque women

Before jumping in with both feet, it is important to look at the term ‘Muslim leadership’. The tradition and culture of leadership among Muslim leaders varies depending on what layer of the society one is addressing. A Muslim religious scholar and leader can be a person who is highly educated from a Western Ivy League institution and can also be someone who has obtained his or her education through the local Islamic institutions within their reach.

Therefore, when questioning the legitimacy of these leaders one has to look at the individuals whom these leaders are representing.  For example, an uneducated Muslim from a lower socioeconomic status in Pakistan will have a different leader than an educated Muslim from a higher socioeconomic status in Norway. Additionally, individuals’ perception of their leaders will also vary. Hence, the demographics of a religious leader and the population whom they are representing play a significant role in order to understand the perception of legitimacy amongst religious leaders in the Muslim world.

In short, Muslims are not a homogenous group. Thus, the leadership should reflect that diversity in the form of gender, sexual orientation, ethnic backgrounds etc. Sadly this is not the case per today. However, there has been progress in the last few decades as we see more Muslim women in the leadership positions such as Benazir Bhutto, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Tansu Ciller, Begum Khaleda Zia, Atifete Jahjaga, MameMadior Boye. Fortunately, we are also witnessing increased debates within Islam regarding minorities such as the LGBTQ community.

According to Ingrid Mattson, a professor of Islamic Studies and the president of the Islamic Society of North America, Quran provides very general and vague guidelines about how Muslims should organize themselves and choose their leaders. However, across the Muslim world we see that religious leaders are predominantly male. The experience of being Muslim women depends a lot on the Islamic traditions and culture that exists within various societies. For example, China has a long tradition of female mosques in comparison to many other countries with Muslim population. Meanwhile, in many countries including Pakistan the tradition of Muslim women attending the mosques is less prevalent.

It would be interesting to see whether access to Islamic spaces such as mosques and other religious institutions has any correlation with number of female Islamic leaders in that country. Unfortunately, there is no data that can answer this hypothetical question, yet. But across the globe we are witnessing a new trend, which is the emergence of so-called ‘female mosques’ and increase visibility of Muslim female politicians and scholars in many countries. Through these changes we will continue to see more platforms where women can freely mobilize and practice Islam on their own premises. Ultimately, these changes will give rise to increase prevalence of female leadership. These transformations will challenge and alter the current traditional model of Muslim leadership, hopefully, making it more diverse and egalitarian.

When it comes to diversity within the leadership, one cannot ignore the queer Muslim population. Currently, there are a handful of imams and leaders who identify as LGBT. In order to tackle the legitimacy issue amongst Islamic leadership, one has to make space for egalitarianism and diversity. The leaders will automatically lose their credibility among many Muslims (esp. women and minorities), when religious leaders are not representative of the general population. Thus, distorting the perception of religious authorities and making it illegitimate. Heterosexual males significantly dominate the religious monopoly that currently exists. Without diverse religious leadership body, the question of legitimacy will remain in the state of uncertainty.

Afak Afgun, Graduate student cognitive Neuroscience

University of Oslo



Ahmed, A. (1999, April 29). Podium: The two styles of muslim leadership. Independent. Retrieved from

Bakhtyar, M., & Rezaei, A. (2012). Female leadership in islam. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 2(17), 259-267.

LGBT Muslims. (2015, January 20). Five imams who are openly gay. Retrieved January 13, 2016, from

Mattson, I. (n.d.). Can a Woman be an Imam? Debating Form and Function in Muslim Women’s Leadership | On Being. Retrieved from

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