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Raisu-l-ulama (Chief Imam): FROM TITLE TO SERVICE*

The title "Raisu-l-ulama" first appeared in the context of Bosnia in 1881, in a petition made by distinguished Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) to the Austro-Hungarian authorities to permit them to have their own leader- the Raisu-l-ulama- who would manage their religious affairs. [1] The following year, the Austro-Hungarian government complied to this petition, which it had, in fact, initiated itself, and an Ulama Council was established (the Majlis ulama) consisting of four alims and a Raisu-l-ulama as chairman. Thus a Bosniak national religious council of Bosniaks was instituted, detached from its main centre (meshihat) in Istanbul.

As is known, in the Ottoman (Ottoman) State, Muslims did not have a religious system that was detached from the state (...) However, the state was known for its concrete hierarchy of the ulama (the ilmija), one which was not common in early Muslim states. Members of that hierarchy were the ceremonial ulama (imams, khateebs), the educational (the muderrises), the legal (kadiyas) and others. There were different ranks within each category. At the head of the entire organisation was the Sheikhu-l-islam. Originally, he was the mufti of Istanbul, while, there were tendencies later, especially in the 19th century, for the post to be accepted as the supreme religious authority of the Sunni Muslims.[2]

Unlike Muslims, non-Muslims in an Ottoman state possessed separate confessional organisations in a system with and legal autonomy (the millet). As a result of this, non-Muslim communities more readily welcomed the shift of power, even in the territories from which the Ottoman authorities had to retreat. As the newly established authorities in these territories were normally founded on a structural and functional distinction of the political and religious power, Muslims had to find new institutional solutions within that framework for the organisation of their affairs. In the case of Muslim communities in former Ottoman states, these solutions were founded on analogies inspired by the Hanafi School of law, and the practical opinions and interests of the new authority. This was the case in Bosnia as well.

From a political point, Austria-Hungary was interested in separating Bosniaks from the influence of Istanbul in every respect. For the role of Islam in the lives of Bosniaks, this religious-administrative connection was greatly significant. On the other hand, faced with the departure of senior Ottoman officials from Bosnia in 1878, the resolution of ties with the office of the sheiku-l-islam and the Waqf Ministry in Istanbul, distinguished Bosniaks wished for a consolidation of the newly established state, and assurances that they would have a chance to persist under the new circumstances. One of the possible solutions that would contribute to that cause was establishing a local Islamic religious administration. This administration consisted of: a religious authority consisting of an ulama, headed by Raisu-l-ulama, the Waqf directorate, and the Islamic education system. The Sharia judiciary was considered a part of the state court system and was thus loosely connected to the religious administration. These segments were developed gradually, regulated legally, adapted, and were given a relatively stable form in 1909 with the proclamation of the Statute for the autonomous governance of Islamic religious and waqf-maarif affairs (The Autonomous Statute).  This document, which was a result of an age-long political struggle, gave Bosniaks the right to independently govern their own religious affairs.

What is particularly interesting is the use of the term "Raisu-l-ulama". In the world's entire Muslim community, only Bosniaks today use this term as a name for their religious leader.

As Bosniaks lived within the Ottoman state for a few centuries, the answer to this question should be sought within this framework. In the Ottoman tradition, the Raisu-l-ulama was a title (an unvan), and not a post. The Kanunama (legal book) of Sultan Mehmed II (1451-1481), which was created at the end of the 15th century and deals with the organisation of the ulama, it is stated that "the sheiku-l-islam is the chief of the ulama" (...Seyhul islam ulamanin reisidir...)[3]. This legal text states that the post of Raisu-l-ulama was at that time associated with the mufti of Istanbul, who would, by the end of the 17th century, become widely known as sheiku-l-islam.[4] Evidence of this meaning of the title can be found in the work "Risale" by Haydar Ćelebi, composed between 1526/27 and 1534. Mentioning the sheiku-l-islam Shamsudin b. Kemal-pasha (1468/9-1534), Ćelebi states: "He is now the mufti of the protected states and the chief of the ulama of Islam (...ulama-i Mamin reisi.).[5]

It seems that from the 17th century onwards, the weight of the title "Raisu-l-ulama" began to change, and began to be assigned to military judge in charge of the European pert of the Ottoman state (Rumeli kazasker). The two kazaskers, one assigned to Rumelia and the other to Anatolia, were members of the Sultan Council (Divan Humayun) and had the right to appoint kadiyas, whose retribution was no more than 150 akchi, and also to appoint muderrises, imams, and khatibs within their districts. [6] Until the end of the 17th century, the kasaskers were appointed by the sheik-ul-islam with the approval of the grand vizier.

In the case of the Rumelia kazaskers, the title "Raisu-l-ulama" was mainly a rank and did not correspond to the genuine academic values of the individual in this position. It was thus possible, as noted by Turkish historian Ismail Hakki Uzunçarsïli, for incompetent people to acquire this title, especially during the period of the decadence of the Ottoman state. [7]

The fact that the title of raisu-1-ulama was gradually moved from representing the mufti of Istanbul to the Rumelia kazasker, can help account for its first use in the Bosnian Muslim context at the end of the 19th century.

From 1882 onwards, the position of the Raisu-l-ulama was shaped and fixed. Finally, a title once belonging to high Islamic dignitaries in the Ottoman state became the supreme religious title for Bosnian Muslims.

An alternative to the position of the Raisu-l-ulama could have been the grand mufti or chief mufti, the name used for the religious leader of other Muslim communities in the Balkans. After the end of the Ottoman state in Bosnia, there was a religious administration in all these communities, headed by a mufti. In the modern age, it is a common instance in the Muslim community, especially amongst Muslim minorities, for the mufti position to be affirmed outside of the common jurisprudential area (the ifta). [8] This became the case in most countries in the Balkans which have Muslim minorities (such as Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Romania) after the Balkan war of 1912 - 1913, when peace treaties stipulated the establishment of national religious administrations of Muslims headed by the grand or chief mufti.


The uniformity of these resolutions is a consequence of the fact that they were reached through treaties between the Ottoman state and the Balkan national states, whereby identical models were observed. As opposed to that, through struggle for religious and educational autonomy and faced with pressure from Austro-Hungarian authority, the Bosniaks established a peculiar system of religious administration on their own, which made possible solutions that were not parallel to other Muslim communities in the Balkans.


The legitimacy of the post of raisu-l-ulama

Keeping in mind the historical conditions that governed the creation of the rank of  Raisu-l-ulama in the Bosniak community, we can say that the issue of the legitimacy of this post should be seen as part of a broader context of the position of Muslims i.e. Muslim minorities under non-Muslim rule. In principle, classic Islamic legal thought discusses the issue of leadership within an Islamic state i.e. a state in which the majority of the population is Muslim, wherein the state derives its legitimacy from Islamic doctrine. [10]. The leader of an Islamic state therefore embodied there functions (imamet), the interpretation of Islamic regulation (futya) and judiciary authority (kada). The leaders of historically Muslim states kept the political, albeit symbolical (...) interpretation to themselves, and assigned the implementation of laws to the khadiyas and muftis. The basis of these functions was that the leaders had power by proxy- in delivering their duties, they were considered representatives of imams. This notion proved to be very significant in trying to establish the foundation of the authority of religious leaders of Muslim minority communities.

Because the Muslims in Bosnia and other Balkan communities followed the teachings of the Hanefi School of Law, the official madh'hab of the Ottoman State, we should look at how the standard works of this school address the question of the leader of a Muslim minority.

In the Hanefi School of Law, a territory is considered a part of daru-l-islam (the Islam world) for as long as certain Islamic regulations are implemented freely within that area.

Hanefi works mention the following rules in this category: the carrying out of salah (namaz) in the jamaat, especially Salat al-Jumu'ah and Salat-al-Eid, and the existence of Islamic judges (khadiyas) and governers.[11]

This position of the Hanefi School of Law was established in the pre-modern era, and was Islam's answer to the loss of Islamic territories, especially between the 6th and the 12th century [12]. Under this position, Muslim minorities were required to preserve an autonomous legal position (the application of Sharia Law in personal matters), which was generally acceptable even to non-Muslim states because of the personal legitimacy of family law during the middle Ages. Thus, the pre-modern solutions do not discuss the question of the exclusive religious leadership of Muslim minorities- instead; they address the question of their religious and legal autonomy.

However, the Muslim minorities have applied these views of appointing governors and judges in non-Muslim-ruled areas in the modern era as the basis for an analogous appointment of religious leaders. Evidence of such positions is given in Hanefi works, which is in:


Ibn Nujaim (died hijreti 970)

As regards provinces ruled by the infidels, Muslims are allowed to perform Salat al-Jumu'ah and Salat-al-Eid, a judge will be appointed with their approval, and they need to ask for a Muslim governor to be appointed (el-Bahr'ur Raik, Kuetta; el-Maktab el-Majjidiya, Pakistan, (n.d.), vol. 6, 274.).


Ibn el-Humam el-Hanefi (died hijreti 681):

Should there be no sultan nor anyone who is has the authority to appoint, as was the case in some non-Muslim countries taken over by infidel, such as Cordoba, Venice and Ethiopia...the Muslims in the community should agree on selecting one amongst themselves to be a wali, who will then appoint the khadiyas and imam to pray the Salat al-Jumu'ah. ( Feth el-Kadir, Beirut: Dar el-Fiqr (n.d.), vol. 7, 294).

This opinion was also used in Bosnia as a justification of the territorial legitimacy of an Islamic administration after 1878. This was document in the work "The Sharia Public Law", by Mehmed-effendi Handžić, study material issued by the Viša islamska šerijatsko-teološka škola (the Islamic Sharia-Theological School) in Sarajevo [13].

The question of the legitimacy od Sharia courts in Bosnia after 1878, which from then on became part of the state's judicial system, was simple to answer. Pre-modern Hanefi attorneys considered the appointment of a khadiya by a non-Muslim ruler a legal solution. However, an additional condition of this set-up, the approval of the Muslim community with the appointment, was realised in Bosnia by special licence (the shariya murasela) issued by the Rais-ul-ulama to the khadiyas.

Much more difficult to address was the question of the legitimacy of the Raisu-l-ulama as the religious leader of Bosniaks, in light of the fact the position had not previously existed in Bosnia. The most supreme Muslim dignitaries in Bosnia before 1878 were the muftis, who, in the Islamic hierarchy of the Ulama were ranked as "regional muftis" (kenar muftiler). They were appointed by the Sheiku-l-ulama, who would also issue a special document on the appointment, known as the menshura. In that sense, the regional muftis functioned as the representatives of the Istanbul mufti. During the whole time the Sheiku-l-islam's Office was open in Istanbul (the Office was shut down in 1924), the Bosniaks insisted that the Raisu-l-ulama receives his authorisation i.e. his letter of appointment from Istanbul. After the country was annexed to Austria-Hungary and the political ties with Istanbul severed, the Bosniaks, in this way, wanted to preserve at least their religious connection.

On the other hand, Austria-Hungary, like every other system of rule in Bosnia since then, could not remain aloof to the issue of the selection of the religious leader of the Bosniaks. The solution adopted by the Autonomous Statute in 1909 reflected a certain rift of influences from Bosniaks, Austria Hungary and the Sheiku-l-islam regarding the selection of the Raisu-l-ulama. A special electoral body of the ulama nominated three candidates for the vacant post of the Raisu-l-ulama, from which the then monarch of Austria Hungary selected and appointed one as the Bosniaks' religious leader. After that, the Electoral Body submitted a petition to the Sheiku-l-islam to issue a menshura (letter of appointment) to the selected Raisu-l-ulama. The petition was submitted diplomatically [14]. The same or similar procedure was also planned for Muslim communities in other Balkan countries after the war of 1912-1913.

The new situation came to be after 1924, when the Mashihat was abolished in Turkey. United with other Muslims in the then Kingdom of Yugoslavia, in 1930 Bosniaks found a new solution to legitimize the position of the legality of the Raisu-l-ulama. The Constitution of Islamic religious community in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia ordered, as of 9 July 1930, that a special body, composed of national Muslim dignitaries, should issue a letter to mark the appointment of each selected Raisu-l-ulama, "until a valid Khilafet is established." [15]. However, "the cease of the Khilafet" (fasile-i Khilafet) is still ongoing.

This practice of issuing the menshura to the religious leader of Bosniaks after the abortion of the Mashihat is nevertheless a unique case among the Muslim communities in the Balkans, and it seems, even elsewhere. Even in the cases where they had generally accepted religious leaders, other minority Muslim communities did not attempt to provide them the support, albeit formal, of the Shariyaa.


* This text has been taken from "Istorijski razvoj institucije Rijaseta" (The Historical Development of the Institution of the Riyasat", edited by Omer Nakičević, the Riyasat of the Islamic Community, Sarajevo 1996, pp. 45-56.

[1] J. Krcsmarik, "Bosnia and Herzegovina". E. J. Brill´s First Encyclopedia of Islam 1913-1936, reprint edition (EI), vol.II, 760.

[2] J.H: Kramers, "Shaikh al-Islam", EI, vol. VII, 277.

[3] Ismail Hakki Uzunćaršili, Ottoman Develetinin Ilmiye teškilati, Ankara: Turk TarihKurumuBasimevi, 1988, 175, b. 159.

[4] R. Repp. The Mufti of Istanbul: A Study of the Ottoman Learned Hierarchy, London: Ithaca Press for the Board of Faculty of Oriental Studies, Oxford University, 1986, 195.

[5] Ibid.

[6] I.H. Uzunćaršili, op. cit., 151-160.

[7] Ibid., 159.

[8] For information on this process in South.-East Asia, please see: Michael O. Mastura, "The Status of Muslim Personal Law in Selected Non-Muslim Countries", Journal Institute of Muslim Minoritv Affairs, vol. VI, no. l (1985), 123.

[9] M. A. Kettani, "Islam in Post-Ottoman Balkans", Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affaairs, vol. IX, no. 2 (1988), 381-403.

[10] See e.g. Ali b. Muhammed b. Habib el-Basri el-Maverdi, El-Ahkam el-sultanijje, Kairo, (n.d.).

[11] el-Fetava el-Hindijje, Kuetta (Pakistan): el-Maqtab el-Medžidijje: 1982, vol. 6, 311; Ibn Abidin, Redd el-Muhtar, Beirut: Dar el-Fiqr; 1979, vol. 3, 253.

[12] A detailed analysis of the development of the legal understandings of this problem was given by Khaled Abou el-Fadl, "Islamic Law and Muslim Minorities: The Juristic Discourse on Muslim Minorities From The Second/Eight to the Eleventh/Seventeenth Centuries", Islamic Law and Society, vol. I, 1994, 141-187.

[13] Mehmed Handžić, The Sharia Public Law, study material for a course at the Viša islamska šerijatsko-teološka škola (Academy of Islamic Sharia Theology). Copies made by typewriter. Sarajevo, (n.d.) 11.

[14] J. Krcsmarik, op. cit., 761.

[15] Fikret Karčić, Šerijatski sudovi u  Jugoslaviji 1918 - 1941 (Sharia Court in Yugoslavia between 1918 and 1941). Sarajevo, The Supreme Authority of the Islamic Community in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, 1986, 83.