Into the crisis of authority in contemporary Sunni Islam

This article was published in Oasis 25. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 08:57:32

Al-Juwaynī’s misfortune is to have had the great al-Ghazālī as his disciple. And yet the imam al-Haramayn (the title by which he is known) was a thinker of considerable originality, even if his style is frequently contorted. Born in Nishapur, Persia, in 1028, he divided his interests between law and dialectic theology, following the Shafi‘ite school in the first domain and the Ash‘arite one (which was increasingly becoming the expression of Sunni orthodoxy) in the second. Greatly appreciated by the powerful Seljuk vizier Nizām al-Mulk (himself a champion of Sunnism), he was appointed to run an important madrasa in his native town, where he died in August 1085.


It is to none other than Nizām al-Mulk that al-Juwaynī dedicates the Ghiyāthī, the work from which the following pages have been taken. The subject is the organization of power in the Islamic community and, in the first section, after criticizing the Shi‘ite position, the author presents the Sunni vision of the functions of the imam-caliph, largely following in the footsteps of the jurists of his time, especially al-Māwardī (d. 1058).[1]



An “Imamate of Usurpation”


Unlike al-Māwardī, however, our author does not stop at the theoretical and largely idealised depiction of the caliphal role that was customary in these works. Rather, he begins to wonder what would happen should some of the qualifications required for leading the Muslim community fall away, starting with descent from Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh. Thus the author discusses the possibility of an “imamate of usurpation” i.e. the case in which a strong candidate seizes power though lacking all the required qualifications. Far from being an academic supposition, this was actually the concrete situation of his time, when the Abbasid Empire was under the guardianship of Nizām al-Mulk and the Seljuk sultans.


At the end of the second section, the author pushes himself further and begins to imagine an era in which it is no longer possible to appoint either a caliph or a sultan. In such a case, concludes al-Juwaynī, power ought to pass to the ulama. As Sohaira Siddiqui has recently demonstrated,[2] this statement is of extreme importance, because it heralds the passage (in the final part of the work) from a ruler-centred reflection on power to a community-based vision, along the lines that will be developed by Ibn Taymiyya in the fourteenth century. When the caliphate dies out (even in the form of a puppet-caliph controlled by a usurper), authority therefore returns to the “sharia-bearers”, a phrase by which the author means, primarily, the great scholars of the Law.


The matter does not end here, however. In the third section, the indefatigable jurist-theologian further wonders what would happen if even these “sharia-bearers” were to fall away. With his characteristic relish for sub-classifications, he hypothesizes four cases in ascending order of gravity. First, he posits the disappearance of the “independent jurists” capable of deriving new rules from the Law; then also the scholars who apply the doctrines emanating from the various schools of law cease to exist. As a further step, knowledge of the Law’s details is lost but at least the general outlines remain known. At this point al-Juwaynī stops, almost at the edge of the abyss, and examines what of the Islamic legal order would still be left intact: essentially, the rules of worship and family law, whereas the whole socio-political dimension would have been lost.


Islam without Sharia


Not satisfied, al-Juwaynī looks even further ahead and discusses the final case, in which knowledge of sharia totally disappears from the world. Is the hypothesis plausible? Even if many ulama had replied in the negative, al-Juwaynī does not feel he can exclude it a priori, because every natural reality has a beginning and an end. By way of illustration, he takes the case of some island dwellers who have received only a vague religious proclamation, without meeting any real ulama. In such a case, concludes the author, only monotheism and prophecy would remain binding, without the Law: without sharia.


In purely negative terms and by an accumulation of subtractions, al-Juwaynī has therefore come very close to theorizing what, in Catholic theology, would be called the legitimate autonomy of worldly realities. What is he lacking in order to turn it into the positive? The conviction that, alongside the revealed divine Law, there exists a natural law: the Mu‘tazilites, one of the most important schools of theology during the first centuries of Islam, had forcefully argued this. However, the Ash‘arites (including al-Juwaynī) had replied that good and evil do not exist per se, but only in relation to the Law.


And nowadays? The hypothesis set out in these pages has largely come true. The Islamic world no longer has either a caliph or a unitary government controlled by an “imam of usurpation” or a sultan, or whatever label one chooses. The independent jurist capable of deriving new rules has died out and so has – to a great extent – the tradition of the schools of law. And just as the author had foreseen, it is mainly the rituals and the domain of family law that have remained alive in sharia. The alternatives are clear: either try to revive the independent jurists or recognise the autonomy of the worldly realities, no longer as a purely negative fact tied to sharia’s erosion, but, rather, as a consciously accepted historical development. Without seeming to in the slightest, al-Juwaynī has led us, with his hypothetical reasoning, all the way down to the crisis of authority in contemporary Sunni world.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] The passage on the Caliph’s ten duties was translated in Oasis 20 (2014), pp. 81-82.

[2] Sohaira Siddiqui, “Power vs. Authority: Al-Juwaynī’s Intervention in Pragmatic Political Thought,” Journal of Islamic Studies 28 (2017), pp. 193-220.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Martino Diez, “Theology-Fiction: Prophesying the Umma to Come”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 100-101.

Online version:
Martino Diez, “Theology-Fiction: Prophesying the Umma to Come”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2017, URL: