Saturday, July 16, 2016

A War to Define Islam

Islam encompasses a wide range of beliefs about how one should live and interact with the world.  It is a mistake to think that one can simply declare what Islam teaches, or what Muslims believe.  An examination of the whole spectrum of belief of those who call themselves “Muslim’ is beyond the scope of an article, or perhaps even a single book.  This article will briefly outline three major belief systems within Islam that are very relevant to the conflicts in the Middle East that are impacting the world today.

Shia Procession in Tyre

About 10-15% of Muslims worldwide identify as Shia.  They are located primarily in the region between Iran and Lebanon.  The center of Shia power is Iran, but they also are the largest religious group in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan, and close to half the population of Yemen. They have centralized structures of religious authority, and their own school (Jafari) of Islamic law. The original divide between the Shia and the Sunni majority was political, but 1300 years of division have led to some significant theological differences and religious practices. 

While extremism is not unknown among the Shia, they are not influenced by the current wave of Wahabi extremism plaguing the Muslim world. They are doing more than perhaps any other group to combat the Islamic State, since that group has declared them all apostates. My own experience living among the Shia of southern Lebanon has been very positive; they are generally a kind, tolerant, and gracious people.

Sunni Civil Observance in Sidon

About 85% of Muslims identify as Sunni, and can be found around the globe. The foremost institution of Sunni theology is Al-Azhar University in Egypt, but there is no central authority to give rulings on Islamic Law for Sunnis.  Religious rulings have no more authority than the reputation of the scholar or institution making the ruling. In some nations, there are legal codes which officially adopt or reject religious rulings and a council normally determines those codes. There are four main schools of Sunni jurisprudence (Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi, Malaki) which have their own interpretations of Islamic Law and tend to be prevalent in a different region. They differ on what rules or precedents are used to determine law.

Of particular interest is the Hanbali school, which is prevalent in the Gulf region.  This school tends to rely more on textual sources from the Quran, sayings of Mohammad, the life example of Mohammad, and well-published scholars.  Because of their reliance on fixed, immutable texts this school is the least flexible in adapting Islamic law to the modern world.  This is why Saudi Arabia still chops off heads and publicly flogs women.  It is why women cannot drive cars, or travel with permission of a male authority. My personal experience living among the Sunni of Lebanon has also been largely positive.  They are generally kind, but less tolerant than the Shia.

Who gets to define Islam?

From the Hanbali school is derived a sub-school of Islamic jurisprudence known as Wahabism.  It is historically confined to the Arabian Peninsula, but enjoys the support of perhaps 20% of the population. It is the product of an 18th century Hanbali scholar named Mohammad Abdul-Wahab. He decried the moderation of Islam found in the four prevalent Sunni schools of Islamic law, and called for a return to the early forms of Islamic thought as found in the Quran, sayings of Mohammad, and life example of Mohammad. Abdul-Wahab also argued that the early rulers of the Muslim people who had been Companions of Mohammad were also good exemplars of Muslim faith.  He formed an alliance with the house of Saud, a powerful Arabian clan, and together they conquered much of the Arabian peninsula (from the Ottomans) and established an Islamic State.  Ideologically it was much like the one being formed today in Syria and Iraq.  The Turks eventually sent Egyptian troops to crush the alliance and reclaim their lands for the Ottoman Empire.

The ideological foundations of Wahabism lay dormant in the deserts of Arabia for many decades.  In the period following World War I the discovery of oil and the colonial aspirations of Europe brought new power to the house of Saud.  As they amassed vast fortunes, the Saudi princes spent billions building Mosques around the Muslim world, and eventually in the West, where they installed Wahabi preachers to spread their belief system far and wide. It was also a convenient way to export troublesome preachers who showed increasing skepticism of the western-influenced Saudi billionaires.

It is this belief system which gave rise ideologically to Al-Qaeida, and eventually to the Islamic State.  Both groups see themselves as heirs of the banner of Mohammad, but a banner bereft of the centuries of moderation and theological scholarship.  Their Mohammad is the original tribal warlord, a conqueror unashamed to wade in the blood of his enemies.  In their online magazine “Dabiq,” the Islamic State carefully lays out a scholarly basis for their teachings and beliefs as being “authentic” Islam. 

Their Mohammad and their Islam is different than that which is taught and preached by the five schools of modern jurisprudence. The differences are so great, in fact, that the Islamic State has declared that all Muslims who do not follow their teachings and pledge allegiance to them are apostate. By declaring all other Muslims apostate (takfir), the Islamic State can then justify killing them in a war to purge Islam of the impure teachings of the modern schools.

A war that may redefine Islam

These three groups are locked in a violent regional war which is raging from Yemen to Lebanon, and spilling over into the rest of the Muslim world, and even into the West.  The Sunni-Shia divide is an ancient one, and unlikely to be settled any time soon.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing for regional dominance, and using that divide as part of their struggle. The Islamic State is fighting both sides as they work to purify Islam and bring about the apocalypse which will usher in world-wide Islamic rule.

Only Sunni Muslims can eradicate the Wahabi extremism that spawned the Islamic State and is infecting Islam around the world. This is something that the US cannot change. It cannot be bombed out of existence. It must be preached out of existence, and the institutions that produce extremist preachers must be brought down. The alternative to this stifling level of control is to offer complete freedom of religion, but that concept is not to be found in any of the five modern schools of Islamic law.

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