Monday, 12 January 2015

Has Sunni Islam as a 'Community of the Middle' died?

Herunder are some excerpts from an article that appeared in The Islamic Monthly. It is from the hand of Mohammad FadelAn established scholar, currently associated with the University of Toronto, Fadel is also a prolific author and critical debater on things Islamic.

Mohammad Fadel

In the intriguingly entitled 'ISIS, Islamophobia, and the End of Sunnism', he criticizes both media-savvy Islam (or religion in general) bashers such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris, but also presents an introspection into the shortcomings of the Muslim intelligentsia
Saying that their description of Islamic doctrines is reductionist is not responsive to the legitimate concern that certainly some Muslims hold to the doctrines that Harris and Maher criticize, nor does it provide an answer to the question that many people genuinely wish to know, namely, what is the content of authoritative Islamic teaching regarding a familiar range of contentious issues that are held to be important by mainstream liberals?
In a lucid and boldly argued piece, Fadel not only takes 'new atheists' to task for the misconceived views of Islam, but puts the blame also on Muslim intellectuals. He criticizes the latter for failing to come up with convincing counter arguments as a result of their own uncritical rehashing of outdated texts and over-reliance on authority figures from the past.
The profound weakness, or even the non-existence, of a credible institutional expression of Islamic teachings in the modern world means there is no source from which an outsider (or even Muslims) can know what authoritative Islamic teaching is. In the absence of such an expression, one can hardly blame non-Muslims — who wish to “know” what Muslims believe — for turning to the same sources that Muslims themselves do, such as pre-modern treatises of Islamic law that continue to be taught in seminaries in the Muslim world and are also  used by Muslims in the West.
While appreciative of the argument that there is no such thing as 'Islam', and that it makes more sense to talk of 'Muslims', it is methodologically impossible to give exhaustive representative accounts that accurately reflect the full diversity of opinion among the believers:
Such an empirical investigation, at its extreme, would require surveying of millions of Muslim individuals all over the world before conclusions about Islam could be reached. Not only would such a study be practically impossible, we generally don’t demand such precision in empirical studies before we accept the results of social scientific studies
Pointing at the cheap shots taken by new atheists such as Sam Harris, Fadel observes:
It is a trivial exercise to pick up standard works of Islamic law and find ideas that are repugnant to the modern world. But, it is also a trivial exercise to pick up classics of Western philosophy and law and find the same thing. Even Thomas Jefferson the most egalitarian of America’s founders, expressed views on gender equality that would disqualify him today from entering public office, or might even get him dismissed from a public office were he to express them openly. 
It is not just a matter of 'tit-for-tat' in debating the likes of Harris and Maher, the  lack of critical engagement with the Islamic heritage on the part of Muslims themselves is preventing any real tangible change in the generally deplorable political condition of the Muslim world. For example, in relation to the contentious issue of the application of Islamic law, Fadel observes:
..if Sunni Muslims are too indifferent to their law that they fail to articulate a meaningful expression of its content in the modern world, then the best that Sunnis can plead in their own defense is that historical Islamic law is irrelevant to their beliefs and actions. But it is this very nihilism that produces the ethical and political vacuum that authoritarian political regimes, corrupt oligarchies and religious millenarians have filled and created the political circumstances justifying Islamophobia.
Why, after more than a century of theological and legal reform that has generally moved toward greater recognition of rights of women and non-Muslims, for example, has a brutally atavistic movement like ISIS found a home (even if one hopes it is only temporary) in the Nile-to-Oxus region, which was once called the heartland of the Islamic world by the great American historian of Islam, Marshall Hodgson? In my opinion, this is not because a reified Islam is teaching Muslims to reject liberal values as such, but is a simple and predictable reflection of the fact that political orders prevailing in the Islamic heartland have no interest in promoting liberalizing political values. 
Cutting to the heart of the matter, according to Fadel's diagnosis, Sunni Islam has failed to live up to its claim as representing the umma-alwasat -- the 'community of the middle':
Sunnism was historically a centrist tradition that rejected the messianism of Shiʿism and the unforgiving puritanism of the Khawārij. Its centrism, however, was not born of a kind of ad hoc reasoning that called on Muslims simply to take middle positions between extremes. It was a centrism based on firm adherence to certain moral principles, including rejection of armed rebellion with a refusal to recognize as valid the illegal conduct of rulers; a readiness to overlook moral shortcomings of individuals constituting the community, whether rulers or ruled, combined with an insistence on holding each person accountable before the law for their conduct
The consequences are dire, because in his conclusion Mohammad Fadel minces no words:
In short, the political theology of Sunnism was centered on the sovereignty of law and respect for authority (not power as such). The historical tradition of Sunnism, however, assumed a certain kind of relationship between political leaders, religious leaders and the public that no longer exists and will not return. Until a new political theology is established that adapts the historical principles of Sunnism to the realities of a democratic age, we can continue to expect the persistence of groups like ISIS and the Islamophobic New Atheists. 
For the full article, click here

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