Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Sunni Islamic authority between the text and context

By Hatem Bazian

The ongoing chaos in many parts of the Muslim world can, in part, be traced to the collapse of Sunni Islamic authority and the emergence of various groupings claiming to fill the vacuum. While all agree that the collapse is a reality, dating the collapse is as difficult as the attempts to fill it.

Some locate the collapse in the immediate aftermath of the death of the Prophet, while others point to the Umayyad’s shifting authority into a dynastic rule and subsequent periods of jostling for power. The more recent dating of the collapse phenomena posits late Ottoman period and the emergence of European colonization in the Muslim world.

Debates on dating the Sunni collapse will not end anytime soon. While it is a major error to conflate the fortunes of states, dynasties and power with Sunni authority, nevertheless, the political stability, resources and recruitment of scholars were greatly enhanced through institutional building and direct state and elites investments. In this regard, Sunni Islamic authority in earlier periods was a function of scholars’ presence as much as the political, social, economic and religious context existing at the time.  Sunni authority existed within an epistemic that stitched the ethical and moral fabric of the society with members sharing a coherent and consistent worldview even if not agreeing on the particulars.

Authority does not exist in a vacuum. The temporal world that supported and embodied the Sunni Islamic authority no longer exists and has totally collapsed with the dismantling of the Ottomans in the 1920s. Not to imply the late Ottoman collapse as the definitive dating, but rather to point out the simple fact that the political, social, economic and religious institutional backbone sheltering the Sunni Islamic authority came to an abrupt end.

The effort at forging Sunni Islamic authority takes for granted the changes in the context and insists on reading the text as is while attempting to reconstitute itself on the non-existent historical circumstances. Navigating the text based on a fixed historical reading, without taking into consideration that the context that gave rise to it in the first place changed, creates the existing confusion and incoherence across the board. The modern nation-state is not the same as the classical state that Sunni Islamic authority functioned under or operated within the confines of a supportive, if at times contentious, environment.

One cannot transplant Sunni Islamic authority into the nation-state structure by simply creating and appointing a Mufti as the highest religious authority or regulating mosque functions. Furthermore, how can Sunni Islamic authority reclaim a lost terrain by attaching itself to elites within a nation-state that they themselves lack the basic popular mandate to govern over their respective societies?

Sunni authority suffers in this a compounded collapse: on the one hand, it can no longer claim authority on the basis of a lost ethical and moral past; on the other, it becomes a partner in the oppressive machinery of the modern post-colonial nation-state project. The notion of Sunni scholarly independence is almost totally non-existent, as the need for governmental and institutional support causes a navigation of the text based on the narrow confines of power’s context and not outside of it.

At a time when the nation-state is the law, the end, above and beyond authority itself, the discussion of forging Sunni Islamic authority is a contradiction as well as possibly being a pure philosophical pastime endeavor. How to forge an authority when the world on the basis of which such authority rests and functions no longer exists and the imagined past is disconnected from the contemporary realities?

Challenges in forging Sunni authority include the nation-state itself, transformation of educational institutions, new modes of mass communication and technology as well as globalization that makes it possible for anyone at anytime or place to create a new context with or without a text. Today when authority and access to a global audience is easily achieved through easy access to Arabic text, Facebook pages, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube channel with semi-sophisticated graphics, he crisis is far greater then mere names, titles and fancy buildings.

At present, the text exists in a vacuum and utilized by individuals, groups, and government institutions to influence and give legitimacy to an enforced, jumbled and pre-determined secular post-colonial state context. The results are at best a peaceful disaster and at worst periodic intense violence.