In Catholicism we have the concept of the Magisterium. The Magisterium is the official teaching office of the Church and consists of all the bishops who are united to the Pope. The Magisterium is believed to have the divine authority to declare dogmas and teach doctrine. Once a dogma has been defined it becomes an essential teaching of the faith such that if you don't believe in it and agree with it you cease to be Catholic.

This system works wonders for maintaining doctrinal unity across the entire Catholic church, as it ensures that all Catholics are teaching the same thing, and believing the same thing no matter where they are in the world. (It should be noted that anything which is not dogma is still open for debate, and so there are many areas where a difference of opinion is permitted, however when it comes to essentials everyone is on the same page)

In contrast to Catholicism you have the Protestant system, which is where every individual Christian takes the bible and decides what it means for themselves. The results of this system are complete doctrinal chaos, with Protestant Christians arguing and setting up factions and splitting again and again and again. No two protestant Christians agree with each other completely, even when it comes to essentials of the faith - they can't even agree what the essentials of the faith are in the first place. There is absolutely no unity in this system.

It seems obvious to me that the Catholic system is superior to the Protestant system when it comes to ensuring doctrinal unity. The truth cannot contradict the truth, so doctrinal unity is essential.

I'm wondering how Islam deals with this situation? When it comes to deciding doctrine/what to believe, how does Islam do it? Does each congregation listen to their local Imam and submit to whatever he proposes for belief? Is there a council of senior Islamic clergy who come together to decide doctrine which all Muslims worldwide must believe? Is it considered the responsibility of each individual Muslim to study the Qu'ran and Hadith for themselves and come to their own conclusions, like in the protestant system I described above?

The reason I ask is because I get the impression that aside from a few major splits (Sunni and Shia for example), Muslims all more or less believe the same thing and agree when it comes to doctrine, but I'm curious how that is possible because you don't seem to have a Magisterium like Catholics do.

  • you said: "divine authority". Just to get a better understand of what 'Magisterium ' is his position? Is the Magisterium infallible? Do they change their opinions? Has Magisterium centuries later said something another Magisterium didn't agree with?
    – Thaqalain
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 17:21
  • @Honey In Catholicism every teaching is ranked according to how certain it is. Some teachings are completely certain (these are the dogmas) and other teachings are only believed on the balance of probabilities. Throughout history, the magisterium has never taught something as dogma which it later disagreed with, however it has indeed taught other things which it later disagreed with. For example for the longest time the church taught that the earth was the center of the universe. The church no longer teaches this, however this is not a problem because that teaching was never a dogma. Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 22:49
  • @Honey Examples of dogmas would include the teaching that God is Trinity, the teaching that Jesus is Divine, the teaching that Jesus was truly crucified and truly resurrected and Ascended to Heaven. After these teachings became dogma, they have never been changed, and to deny them means you are no longer a Christian. There are around 238 dogmas in the church, although no one has done up an exact list Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 22:53

2 Answers 2


Let me start off by saying that there is no doctrinal unity across all Catholics in any other than a tautological sense (as in: "there is authoritative doctrine, and whoever doesn't adhere to all of it is not a Catholic"). I know people who are Catholics who find the part of the Nicene creed that talks about the "apostolic Church" ridiculous, and there are numerous Catholics who find the idea of a virgin birth ludicrous. I've even seen bishops skirt the question of virgin birth, which doesn't mean they don't believe it but it does indicate an unwillingness to publicly commit to what everyone can easily determine to be Church doctrine. You will be hard pressed to find two Catholics that agree on absolutely everything as well, but certainly to a far lesser degree than with Protestants, and the disagreement is likely to be on less central issues.

In (Sunni - I'm not that familiar with Shia) Islam, there is no formal hierarchy of authority on doctrinal matters, i.e. there is no clergy, and certainly no person who can declare a dogma after the death of Muhammad. However there is also not the doctrinal chaos that Protestants generate. What there is are scholars of the religion (ulama) who interpret the foundational texts according to different methodologies; with regard to fiqh (jurisprudence), four schools of thought (each with its own methodology) have been dominant historically almost to the exclusion of other schools, and with respect to aqida (belief), there have been three schools (Asharites, Maturidites, Atharites); the schools of belief differ in minor issues.

What ensures a certain degree of unity in doctrine is the scholarly discourse that weeds out lines of argument that are considered methodologically unsound - scholars do not take the texts that they find, read them however they want, and declare what they come out with to be valid opinions; they have to argue their opinion, and the discourse is committed to weeding out opinions that are not justified by a recognized methodology.

On central matters, the discourse arrives at a consensus (ijma), and those central matters are somewhat few. The eminent medieval scholar al-Ghazali (who I refer to here because on this issue, he gives a minimal outline that every Muslim scholar will agree on without hesitation) names three central tenets:

  • belief in Allah (the one and only God of Abraham and the other prophets)
  • belief that everything Muhammad said was true (which includes that the whole Quran, letter for letter, is the literal word of Allah) and that he did not make any mistakes in matters of teaching the religion
  • belief in Judgment Day

These three already imply the parameters of what is and what is not necessary belief to some precision. Whatever is reliably demonstrated to have been stated by Muhammad, with the wording unambiguous enough to be interpreted in more than one way, relays necessary beliefs. When the transmission of a tradition of what Muhammad said (hadith) is not completely without doubt, then such a tradition does not by itself imply a necessary belief; however, the scholars being unanimous about a doctrinal point, this engenders necessity according to many scholarly opinions.

As with the Catholic Church, the methodologies Islamic scholars rely on are not entirely axiomatized, but in a sense they are more stringent than Church dogma: declaring a dogma in Catholicism is an act of justification by authority instead of justification by reasoned argument, while in Sunni Islam ijma is not arrived at by anything other than justification via accepted methodology. In this sense, Islamic beliefs on at least central and major issues flow from a somewhat rigorous discourse in the sense that they have to be justified from (textual) evidence (Quran and hadith) via a collective process where peers evaluate and critique each other according to a set of methodological tools that are thought to be mostly reliable. The major split Sunni-Shia comes from different textual evidence being admissible in the discourse (because Sunnis trust other sources than Shias).

This already indicates how one becomes an Islamic scholar: you study the texts, you learn the methodology and the necessary tools (which includes the language, its grammar, and its idioms and styles), and you study the arguments used in the discourse on the issues you study. Whether you have learned enough is a matter of judgment of established scholars. Your teachers on specific subjects traditionally give you a formal declaration that you are accomplished enough in a given field/discipline so you can teach it yourself - this declaration is called ijazah. As for your opinion finding authority overall, that is a matter of discourse comparable to that in secular jurisprudence - if other scholars recognize you as putting forward valid opinions, that makes you a scholar (alim).

The lay Muslim is expected to learn about beliefs as they are considered necessary by scholars, and disagreeing with all scholarly opinions on a given question of belief while knowing that the scholars reject the opinion you embrace is at the very least sinful, and - depending on the importance of the issue, the discrepancy between the belief the person embraces and what the texts say, and the reliability attributed to the texts - liable to constitute disbelief.

  • Very interesting. So Islam is closer to the modern protestant scholarly approach: The consensus of the scholars determines the doctrine of the religion. I'll note that a similar thing happens in Catholicism up to a point: The bishops and theologians debate and study an issue extensively before it becomes dogma, however once it becomes dogma, the argument is over and the results of the discussion must be believed. Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 22:58
  • I'll also note that the Catholics you describe in the first paragraph are not real Catholics, we call them "Cafeteria Catholics", they are a real disease in the church and will be punished severely in the afterlife. Technically what they are doing should lead to the punishment of everlasting torture in Hell, however it's not quite that simple thanks to the idea of invincible ignorance and God's mercy. Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 23:03
  • @TheIronKnuckle A holier than thou attitude is useless in understanding what's going on, or in relaying facts. If you want to go with orthodox teaching and say "whoever doesn't believe a single dogma is not a Catholic", then intellectual honesty requires you to take the same approach to Muslims - "whoever doesn't believe a single necessary doctrine is not a Muslim". In that sense, there are many people who think they are Muslim, but are in fact kuffar, and there are probably hundreds of millions of people counted as Catholic due to having been baptised, but are not Catholics doctrinally.
    – G. Bach
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 23:24
  • @TheIronKnuckle It's just the mechanism by which the necessary doctrines are identified that is different; in Catholicism, you go by divine authority invested in a person (or small legislating body), in Islam they go by divine authority invested in the community of scholars.
    – G. Bach
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 23:26

Is it considered the responsibility of each individual Muslim to study the Qu'ran and Hadith for themselves and come to their own conclusions, like in the protestant system I described above?

Yes it is.It is upon every Muslim to deal with their life, their afterlife themselves. Our Imams have said if I could I would have lashed my followers so they would go and learn Islam by reflecting in the Quran and the narrations. <-- It's like a wish that will never happen.

Why is it upon every Muslim to learn themselves? Because God is going to put every person in their own grave. It's like the person is going to be in a grave and have his Imam next to him.

So because Muslims can't and won't. They delegate it. There are other scholars that do such. In Shia sect there is only one doctrine that is to be forced. Though many groups of Shia don't enforce it.

The doctrine of the 12 Imams is to be forced or currently its 12th living Imam. People are free to interpret them as long as their interpretation stays within the boundaries of Quran.

Yet many philosophers have came and claimed the books, narrations given by the Imam are weak in their chain of narrations and they are not logical statements and we need philosophers to help us. They don't directly oppose the logic of the narrations. The oppose its chain of narrations. It's a debatable claim to say the narrations are weak and let's just figure the relationship between ourselves and our creator on our own, without any official medium between God and his creation. I personally believe that if one understands the narrations there is no doubt left.

Muslims all more or less believe the same thing and agree when it comes to doctrine, but I'm curious how that is possible because you don't seem to have a Magisterium like Catholics do.

That's because All Muslims stick to the same book, same qiblah, same daily prayers, same Mecca. This will bring us closer, but still because of the different sects, different leaders, different narrations there will differences We both believe in 1 God, but the attributes we believe in are different. We both believe daily prayers, but we pray differently. We read different books.

I say that to point to our differences. Yet differences shouldn't create hatred. I'm only pointing them to expand your premise.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .