Oct 272015
 

 

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Sunni Islam is in turmoil. Over the last two decades, it has been in the grip of ferment and fragmentation unprecedented in its long history. After the wave of radicalisation that had swept across Shiism following the Iranian revolution of 1979, it was the turn of Sunni Islam, which represents around 80% of Muslims worldwide, to seize the spotlight and move centre- stage, with the relentless rise of radical violent movements of the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The roots of Sunni Islam’s ailments it must be noted are not entirely to do with religion, as most journalists, politicians and “experts” in Europe and across the Atlantic never tire of repeating. Rather than scripture and theology, it is in politics and economics, in power balances, foreign interventions and the scramble for influence and resources that the causes of its ills reside. Religious faith, sect and ethnic affiliations are spontaneously recalled, or wilfully exploited within the conflicts raging around the Muslim world, but are in reality neither their primary cause nor the sole key to their resolution.

Still, there is a real concrete problem characterizing majority Sunni Islam: the profusion of religious and political voices pronouncing in its name, in disorderly, conflicting and confusing ways — a phenomenon from which Shia Islam has been largely immune thanks to the power conferred upon the clergy within the sect.

Sunni Islam has for centuries established itself as representing the majority’s beliefs, or the Muslim ummah‘s faith, rather than being a mere sect, in contrast with the various other components of the Muslim landscape, which assumed the character of dissidents seceding from the mainstream. This gave Sunni Islam a sense of self-confidence and the ability to identify with the wider ummah and act as is its voice, while other creeds remained limited expressions of angry dissident factions, even where they happened to seize power as with the Fatimid Shias who ruled Tunisia and Egypt between 909 and 1171 AD.

Theologically and historically, Sunni Islam has been largely egalitarian, in that it has denied anyone the right to monopolize the religious text, instituting a direct relationship between believers and scripture, free of any hierarchy. This created wide scope for flexibility and pluralism in the interpretation of the text, leading to the emergence of myriad intellectual and juristic Sunni schools.

Shiism on the other hand, underwent a sort of catholicism through restricting the process of scriptural interpretation to the infallible imams, and their successors, the clergy who provide the sects’ adherents with requisite religious exegeses and are devoutly followed by them.

The problem of absence of a religious axis of gravity or guiding centre was resolved within Sunnism by establishing the authority of scholars (ulama) as the chief bearers of the legitimacy to interpret the religious text, while acknowledging the right to intellectual pluralism within the framework of “ijtihad” or free interpretation.

But Sunni Islam has undergone a brutal change over the last two centuries. The process of modernization in the Muslim world has been associated with the growing role of the state and its bureaucracy as the chief, then eventually, sole actor and controller of the fates of Muslim societies. This phenomenon coincided with the fragmentation of the authority of scholars and the erosion of traditional learning institutions, which had been responsible for furnishing Muslim societies with meaning, values and symbols and maintaining their general equilibrium. This generated a vacuum filled with confusion and chaos, as amateurs and impostors came to intrude into the sphere hitherto occupied by qualified jurists and scholars.

The fates of Sunni religious establishments ranged between total obliteration, as was the case in Turkey, Tunisia, Iraq, and Syria, and marginalisation and annexation as happened in Egypt, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Egypt’s al-Azhar turned into an arm of the state’s, used by successive rulers to bestow legitimacy on their power and political edicts. Tunisia’s al-Zaytouna, established in 737 AD, was closed down in the 1960s, then turned into a mere marginal branch of the post-independence Tunisian university.

Amidst the vacuum, disorder, and erosion of the religious educational system, many intruders were able to penetrate into the deserted territory and claim the authority of pronouncing in the name of Islam and acting as the guardians of its adherents. Ben Laden was an engineer while al-Zawahiri was doctor, both educated and trained in modern/ post-colonial establishments.

Indeed, contrary to the dominant narrative that associates terrorism with religious education, it is rare to find a terrorist who had received solid instruction in a Sunni religious educational institution, even those that have lost their lustre. In fact, it is graduates from those schools and universities that are acting as powerful antidotes to extremist groups and the version of Islam they espouse.

No doubt, we cannot turn the clock back. The modernization process is a firm reality in the Muslim world. Furthermore, the intellectual, or modern intelligentsia is now a factor of Muslim society. It has taken on aspects of the role traditionally played by the scholar. The challenge for Muslims today is to restore and revive Sunni Islam’s enormous religious and scholarly heritage within a modern context, thus creating an amalgam of the profound and rich Islamic sciences and modern methods and disciplines.

In order to absorb the great tensions seething deep within Sunni Islam’s guts and recover its equilibrium it is crucial to redeem the status and function of the traditional scholar not as the sole player on the arena or as the conscience of Sunni Islam, but as an intellectual authority of great moral influence and presence across Muslim society. The key to this restorative process lies in the revival of the old educational Sunni establishments, taking into account the spirit of modernity and demands of the times, while preserving their autonomy and independence from the powers that be, thus imparting moral authority to their views and interpretations in the eyes of Muslims around the world.

Only then can we resurrect the traditions of openness and dialogue that had characterized those institutions and safeguard the Muslim body from the extreme tendencies of violent terrorist groups. Take Morocco, for instance. Thanks to its active and influential religious institutions, foremost al-Qarawiyyin and Husseiniyya, it was able to weaken radical currents and deny them religious legitimacy. This stands in sharp contrast with the experiences of its neighbours in Algeria and Tunisia, where the dearth of local religious scholars has left society, mainly the younger generations, prey to the influence of extreme ideas and ill-equipped to challenge and isolate their proponents.

Reviving the authority of traditional learning institutions couldn’t on its own act as a magical cure to the maladies of radicalism and terrorism. These feed on the political conflicts raging in the region. But it would no doubt help restore the stability of Muslim societies in a closely interconnected world, where crises can no longer be left to rage far away and inevitably spread closer home. To that the waves of wretched refugees crossing into Europe’s shores to flee the Syrian abyss is a clear testimony.

Image courtesy of Winnond, Free Digital Photos

Oct 272015
 

ID-10051186With over 1.6 billion followers, one third of them living as minorities, Islam is a major force in the world today. An active factor in international relations, its influence is far from local or confined to countries and communities classified as “Muslim.” With the presence of Muslims in Western capitals and the rapid diffusion of mass-communication media, Islam has become a globalized subject, albeit one largely viewed through the prism of security and intelligence. Amidst the rise of al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups, it has become increasingly perceived in Europe and the U.S. as a generator of crises and a threat to global stability and security.

In spite of the deluge of images and narratives of Islam that has flooded the public space since September 11th, knowledge and understanding of the subject has remained limited. Few know the enormous diversity of the Muslim world and its societies, on the levels of schools of thought, religious interpretations, or sectarian pluralism. Fewer still realize that there exists no uniform Islam but divergent tendencies fostered and promoted by the general political climates where different Muslim communities happen to find themselves.

It is such conditions that define the form of Islam that gains prevalence in a given historical context. Like any other major religion, Islam has been in its past, and continues to be in the present, subject to multiple strategies of interpretation. In general terms, we can speak of three prominent trends competing over the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world today.

The first is theocratic, at the service of absolutist rulers for whom Islam is a means of acquiring a de facto authority wrested by the force of the sword and hereditary succession, above any checks and restraints, and free of any accountability. This Islam is armed with its network of institutions, funds, and functionaries. The essence of religion as an authentic spiritual experience is irrelevant here. What matters are the rituals and outward forms of religiosity as the source of power legitimation. Religion is a mere obedient and obliging servant of the ruler, his interests and whims. In the Arabian Peninsula, a Wahhabism wedded to rule by the sword represents the clearest embodiment of this form of Islam.

Its proponents are as eager to exhibit the ritualist and formalistic aspects of Islam in a crudely interventionist way, such as the imposition of prayer, the segregation of men and women and enforcement of the niqab, as they are to keep it remote from politics and the realms of power and authority. As soon as these taboos are touched, the religious establishment, with its guardians of the sacred army comprising official scholars, clergymen and preachers, springs into action, denouncing the culprits as deviant and unorthodox, thereby furnishing the religious cover for their silencing, oppression and elimination.

The second strategy is as morally absolutist, dogmatic, legalistic and exclusionary as the first but espouses a different type of politics. It is an anarchist form of Wahhabism. It feeds on the climates of crisis, wars and conflicts raging in Muslim lands and seeks a source of justification for the perpetration of violence and terror in the theology of Islam.

This minority current had been isolated in Khandahar and the distant mountains of Tora Bora. But the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and widening circle of political, sectarian and ethnic conflicts has strengthened it and enabled it to resonate with growing sectors of angry, anxious and disillusioned Muslim youth. The Arab awakening, which gave people in the region hope of the possibility of peaceful political change, had dealt a powerful blow to this tendency.

But as its great aspirations were crushed under the boots of generals in Egypt, burnt in the furnace of civil wars in Libya and drowned in the bloodshed of Syria, this violent anarchist current gained fresh momentum and rose to the forefront once more. For all its noise and the enormous exposure it receives, however, it still fails to command religious legitimacy or acceptance in the eyes of most Muslims, who still dismiss it as religiously deviant and politically counterproductive, damaging to the image of Islam and the stability of Muslim societies.

The presence of such extremist groups and the extent of their influence depend to a large extent on the general political climates prevailing in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, these conditions, particularly those reigning in the Arab hemisphere, show no sign of rehabilitation or stabilization.

These two trends are at loggerheads with democratic modernist Islam, whose roots lie in the 19th-century Islamic reform movement founded by Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Mohamed Abdu, which revolves around the notion of compatibility between, on the one hand, Islamic spiritual and religious values and, on the other, what it describes as the “requisites” of modern times. These include the imposition of checks and balances on power, the adoption of democratic mechanisms and procedures, and the emancipation of Islam from what proponents of this reformist school describe as the “prison of stagnation and imitation.”

With the advent of modernization, urbanization and mass education, this current has amassed considerable influence in Muslim societies (and later among Muslim minorities). Today, it is under pressure from multiple quarters. One of these is the theocratic camp, which considers the very presence of an Islam that calls for restrictions on the authority of rulers and respect for the will of the people, expressed through electoral democracy, a direct threat to its existence. This explains the unrelenting war waged by certain Gulf states on the wave of democratic change in the Arab region for the last three years.

Alongside pressures from Arab theocracies, democratic Islam is challenged by Salafi jihadists who dismiss it as “diluted,” “soft” and “naive,” pinning its hopes on peaceful protests and ballot boxes, which, unlike armed warfare, lead nowhere.

And beyond the Muslim landscape, this brand of Islam is viewed with mistrust by many in American decision-making circles and across the Atlantic. In the name of realism and pragmatism, these prefer to deal with rulers who, though authoritarian and ruthless with their masses, are pliant and willing to leave their markets wide open for Euro-American goods and squander billions in their nations’ resources on weapons no one else would buy. These are, therefore, infinitely preferable to elected leaders bound by the will of their people and committed to their interests.

Those who call for the reformation and democratization of Islam seem to miss an essential fact: that a democratic reformist Islam has existed since the 19th century. It has its own literal body, pioneers, and thinkers, within both Shia and Sunni Islam. The question is: Does the situation of present-day Muslim society, marked by crisis, tensions, foreign interventions and political despotism, foster this reformist democratic Islam, or does it promote its violent and theocratic rivals?

Rather than sifting through Muslims’ religious texts, theological tracts and medieval polemical disputes, those agonizing over the “problem” of Islam would do well to ponder the concrete reality of real, living Muslims and seek to fix it rather than striving to fix Islam.

(photo courtesy of  Nutdanai Apokhomboonwaroot, Free Digital Photos)