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Islam

Updating, Rediscovering, Reinventing: The Three Options for Sunnism

Saudi men in Riyadh [Moatassem/Shutterstock.com]

The real novelty that the 2011 revolutions introduced is not the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia but, rather, the confirmation of the Sunni crisis

This article was published in Oasis 27. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2018-10-26 16:30:02

In the beginning there was the progressive/conservative divide. Nasser and Arab socialism were progressive and the Gulf was conservative. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the moderate/fundamentalist variant was introduced, only to find out that the moderate could be pretty conservative and the fundamentalist, in his own way, rather progressive, revolutionary even (or “involutionary”, depending on one’s point of view). The 2011 revolts prompted a paradigm shift. The lens for reading the Muslim world now became the more familiar “Internet/No Internet” binary system.

 

“During the first euphoria of the revolutions,” we wrote in July 2011, “while so many usual points of reference were falling, the scenario seemed to be so changed as to be unrecognisable […] [In fact] every day that passes confirms the impression that these revolts […] have introduced something really new, albeit grafted onto a specific context,” For precisely that reason, we decided to dedicate that thirteenth issue (which came out with the Arab squares still in turmoil) to the “unresolved tension between Sunni and Shi‘ite communities.”

 

The interpretation has since become fashionable, partly because the reckless use ISIS has made of the net has shown how superficial the “progressive = moderate = social network” equation was. Thus hardly a day goes by without the Sunni/Shi‘ite opposition being invoked as the explanation for anything happening in the Islamic world. Let us be clear, differences between these two denominations do exist – as Joshua Landis clearly points out speaking of Syria – and the category has the comparative advantage of not being imposed from the outside. However, by over-relying on it, and especially by conflating the dogmatic level with the geopolitical dimension, there is once again the risk of loosing sight of facts, as al-Marashi warns writing about Iraq: indeed, the real novelty that the 2011 revolutions introduced is not the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia but, rather, the confirmation of the Sunni crisis.

 

The “spirit” of this religious denomination, amounting to approximately 85% of the world’s Muslims, is perfectly captured by Sohaira Siddiqui in her article. The idea that revelation came to a definitive close with Muhammad, without continuing in his descendants, implies that no believer can claim full religious authority. This fact can be seen as the source of a perennial legitimacy deficit but also as a barrier to hegemonic claims (and it is probably both things at once). The result, in any case, is the creation of a culture of compromise, further accentuated by the fact that the scriptural corpus is not exactly the same for the various law schools. Indeed, whilst the Qur’anic text is identical for all Muslims, opinions differ on the reliability of the hadīths i.e. the reports that constitute Muhammad’s Tradition or the Sunna – the term is continually cropping up in this issue. Considering the diversity within the scriptural heritage and the possibility of interpreting it in several ways, divergences are, up to a point, not only natural but also inevitable, as explained by Walī Allāh, the original thinker translated in the Classics section.

 

Coming from eighteenth-century India, Walī Allāh’s voice seems to have a special value in the current situation, where Sunnism – along with the class of ulama or religious experts who have historically embodied it – is caught in a multiple-party crossfire. In describing the birth of a state-powered “neo-traditionalism”, Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen lucidly illustrates the dilemma of contemporary ulama, left as they are with the choice “between an organization supporting Islamism and another supporting authoritarianism.” How many times have we read over the last few decades that Islam would need a Luther (and the names of possible candidates too). Our thesis is that there has already been an Islamic Luther. His name is technological revolution. The press, which swept into the Islamic world only in the mid-nineteenth century, then the Internet and now the social media have made the vast Islamic scriptural corpus (Qur’an and hadīth) available to common believers, making the ulama’s scholastic tradition seemingly redundant. And in fact, also in the case of the original Luther, it is well known how important the invention of the press was for the spread of Reformation. Therefore, we too unreservedly admit the importance of the technological revolution which is under way in the Muslim world. However, we do not read it as an extrinsic factor intervening from the outside in order to secularize Islam – the not-so-veiled hope of many commentators on 2011 revolutions – but, rather, as an element that is amplifying an internal evolution towards textualism.

 

The champions of Sola Scriptura are, obviously, contemporary Salafis. How much of their position is in continuity with their medieval predecessors and how much, conversely, constitutes an innovation is explained by Ahmad Wagih, who analyses the Egyptian case and tries to impose a little order on a confused terminology. But there are not just the Salafis. The other challenge to traditional Sunnism comes from the Muslim Brothers. The provocative thesis advanced by Tewfik Aclimandos, who sees a gnostic element in their ideology, intimates the difficulty this movement has in accepting forms of mediation not just at the practical level but also at the ideological one. However – and we feel obliged to add this – the head-on confrontation that is rasing in Egypt certainly only makes matters worse.

 

This issue does not say much about secularists, except in Salim Daccache’s useful review of the debate sparked in Lebanon by the Islamic State threat. But an element that has, in some way, a certain affinity with them was recently introduced by the Saudi attempt at neo-liberal reform, with its consequential declaration of war against the Qatar-driven political Islam supported by Qatar. Both Nabil Mouline’s article and Chiara Pellegrino’s extensive review caution about the limitations of the much-trumpeted return to the “moderate” Islam existing in the pre-1979 Kingdom. It is not enough to allow women to drive or re-open cinemas to solve the problem, even if – as Emma Neri concedes – “one has to start somewhere.”

 

Traditional and neo-traditional ulama, Salafis, Islamists and neo-liberals against the background of the unresolved issue of jihadism and the persistent conflict with Iran: the pieces of the Sunni puzzle are all on the table. But how to put them together into one harmonious composition? Each actor thinks s/he has the answer already in the bag but, in reality, there has been no formula up until now. There are only attempts and among them the Moroccan case, to which Michele Brignone’s reportage is dedicated. Perhaps, rather than Riyadh it is worth looking in the direction of Rabat, where the programme is an updating of Maliki Islam. Just how updated remains to be seen – the contradictions and red lines are all there, as the case of the feminist Asma Lamrabet demonstrates – but at least the answer has not already been given in a more or less remote past. It can be sought, rather than “rediscovered”. It is an incomparable advantage.

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