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Reading Advice

The Crisis of the Sunni Compromise

The dangerous promise of an Islam recreated from scratch

This article was published in Oasis 26. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2018-11-15 14:27:04

 

the-mosaic-of-islam.jpgReview of Suleiman Mourad, The Mosaic of Islam. A Conversation with Perry Anderson, Verso, London-Brooklyn (NY) 2016

 

A Lebanese historian transplanted into the United States, Suleiman Mourad passes the difficult test of the book-interview and, what is more, on an extremely sensitive subject: Islam.

 

Stimulated by Perry Anderson’s questions (which, incidentally, presuppose an uncommon quantity and quality of reading), Mourad – educated at the American University of Beirut and in Yale and now professor of religion at Smith College – tackles an assortment of subjects that can be grouped around four cores: the Qur’an and early Islam; jihad; the difference between Sunnism and Shi‘ism and, finally, the crisis in contemporary Muslim world.

 

Whilst it is impossible to go through the contents of the book in detail, some strong ideas running through the entire volume are worth highlighting. They make it a very helpful tool for understanding the dynamics at work within Islamic societies.

 

First of all, what is Sunnism? Although he was born into a Sunni family from Southern Lebanon, Mourad confesses that he only gradually became aware of the extraordinary variety of opinions expressed by ulama on almost every issue. To explain this point, he offers a clear, albeit  slightly irreverent, example: “Classical Sunni Islam... was much like academia today – you can bring different people together to talk about Lincoln, Shakespeare, or any other topic, and four speakers on a panel can completely disagree with each other, and at the end of the day go to a pub for a drink together; and if they write about it, they will say this was my opinion, but others saw things differently. That is essentially what we call mainstream Sunni Islam” (p. 82). Thus the fundamental idea in Sunnism is according to Mourad compromise – the belief that no one sect has it completely right (p. 81).

 

In the author’s opinion, if this position is not dead, it is at least gravely endangered by “Wahhabi manipulation” (p. 98). Promising direct access to an Islam recreated from scratch, this trend is exerting a powerful attraction on the Islamic world, which cannot be explained only through its huge economic resources. At the geo-political level, the Wahhabi supremacy is translating into “an increasing Sunni paranoia toward Iran” (p. 100). To be sure, Hezbollah and the Iranian regime are driven by an equally sectarian ideology: “The difference is that the message is not broadcast – it is kept within a closed circle” (p. 135).

 

It is within the framework of such conflict that the concept of jihad is being reactivated. Mourad has written several important works on its history. The militant and military dimension of this institution are undeniable and “the recent advocacy that jihad in Islam means internal struggle is disingenuous to say the least”, as Mourad observes with great intellectual honesty (p. 43). The point is, rather, that in Islamic history there has been an oscillation about the nature of jihad as an individual or a collective duty. After the first conquests, the Abbasid caliphs (750-1258) sought to place this institution under their control and “tame” it (p. 45) in the service of their empire’s political interests. Nevertheless, the Crusades reactivated and re-orientated the ideology of individual jihad, particularly within the Mamluk sultanate (1250-1517) which was in the front-line in the struggle. “The Abbasids hired scholars to discredit jihad as an individual duty. The Mamluks did not. So if one goes into any seminary today, the formulation of jihad that is taught features the one that was radicalized during the Crusader period” (p. 49).

 

This alarming statement paves the way to two considerations: first of all, the need for a detailed understanding of contemporary jihadist ideology. Mourad offers the example of Lieutenant Islambouli who, after fatally wounding the Egyptian leader Anwar al-Sadat, did not strike the then vice-president Hosni Mubarak (who was within firing range) because the fatwa that legitimated his actions exclusively targeted the Egyptian president. The problem is that “conventional analysis of Islamic terrorism does not pay attention to what its militants actually say – it looks at economic factors or historical circumstances, operating with only a very general sense of religion and ideology, ignoring the precise terms in which they justify their actions” (p. 93).

 

On the other hand, one is almost naturally led to ask whether the jihad formula inherited from the Crusade era can be reformed. Mourad does not answer the question directly, but he does warn against what he most aptly calls the “Protestant trap” (p. 125), namely, the idea that the solution lies in a return to the text of the Qur’an alone, without any form of mediation. As a historian, he observes that, “The Qur’an legitimizes a lot of things that modern Muslims consider embarrassing: slavery, military jihad, control of women, polygamy, scientific fallacies.” Consequently, many modern thinkers who cling to a Protestant approach to scripture argue that the way forward would be to recover the “spirit” of the Qur’an. “This move allows a scholar to decide that the spirit of the Qur’an promotes social justice, and the entire text can therefore be reinterpreted accordingly or ignored. In so doing, modern reformers have realized the limitation of the Qur’an but only after they butchered the best thing about Islam: the fascinating civilization that Muslims have created over the centuries” (p. 126). There could be no more clearly-worded criticism of the modernist school that, albeit promoting numerous, welcome “updates”, cannot totally free itself from the impression of reading the sources selectively and, on a last analysis, opportunistically.

 

Mourad presents himself as a man in search, not “confined by any religious affiliation” (p. 136) and does not feel obliged to indicate what the solution to the modernist dilemma could be. His scientific output nevertheless reveals a line of enquiry centred on the late antique period and the links between the Qur’an and other religious traditions, particularly Christianity. And perhaps it is not mistaken to state that the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, along with everything that is associated with it (Mary, Jerusalem, Syriac civilization…), runs like a fil rouge through Mourad’s work and his attempt to valorise and recover the dynamism that the classical Islamic civilization so compellingly expressed.

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