ISIS, Islamophobia and the End of Sunnism – by Mohammad Fadel

Isis fighters parade through Raqqa

Indeed, 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.

The fundamental problem that has given rise to both Islamophobia and ISIS is that in the modern age, after the collapse of the authority of Sunni madhahibs, Sunni theologians continue to claim that Islam provides the moral grounds for the regulation of Muslim societies, but they have lost the ability and ambition to make this claim effective. As a result, a radical legal pluralism has taken root in the Sunni world, particularly in its Arabic-speaking regions, where every individual has become entitled to express an interpretation of the content of Islamic law. In the absence of a modern Islamic theory of the legitimacy of the state, law and democracy, it is no surprise that Muslims and non-Muslims repair to pre-modern texts when seeking to determine what the normative Islamic baseline on any particular issue is. When this normative vacuum is combined with the profound failure of the Arab state system to produce citizens willing and capable of cooperation in the context of a common political project, it should not be surprising that some Muslims take up interpretations of Islam and Islamic law that are apocalyptic in their scope and claims as an answer to the catastrophic failures of those states.

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. The promotion by Arab ruling elites of a politically neutered, state-dominated Islam that is disabled from holding power accountable to a moral standard serves their authoritarian political project well, even if the cost is quite high: The failure to produce a reasonably acceptable political theology that can serve the needs and further the aspirations of modern Muslims inevitably will create groups like ISIS, at least as long as religion remains socially salient. Neo-traditionalist Sunni theologians, such as ʿAli Jumuʿa of Egypt, or al-Ḥabīb ʿAlī al-Jifrī, who believe that it is possible to re-create in the modern world the division of labor of late Sunnism — in which the state, usually military elites, provided coercive resources and the ʿulamāʾ provided moral legitimacy, binding the public to the state through a regime of taqlīd — will inevitably, even if belatedly, discover that modern Muslims will not willingly cede their moral autonomy to them. Instead, it might produce more theological radicalism, either in the form of increased atheism or religious apocalypticism.

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 combined 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, even if that accountability was deferred and only theoretical; a recognition of the superior piety and learning of some, and even the possibility that some people may receive particular spiritual favors from God, but a rejection that such distinctions could result in the suspension of the law. 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. The failure of the Arab Spring to usher in a new democratic moment in the Arab world has deferred the day when the historical center of the Muslim world will be able to contribute productively to solving the challenges facing Sunni Islam in the modern world.

Source: Extracted from The Islamic Monthly

About the author: Mohammad Fadel is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto and a Columnist at The Islamic Monthly.