Note by the Saker: I was recently contacted by a reader of this blog who, while praising the overall contents of the blog, also expressed regret at what he perceived was a pro-Shia bias resulting from what, both my correspondent and I agreed, were a number of objective circumstances, including many legitimate ones. Still, my correspondent expressed regret at this bias and I decided to offer him a chance to present his point of view on historical Sunnism. He kindly accepted and we have agreed that I would post here a 3-part series on historical Sunnism, the first one posted today. I am deeply grateful to Anwar for the opportunity to educate me and many others on historical Sunnism and to help us all to better appreciate the immense diversity and richness of traditional Islam (as opposed to the maniacal takfirism of the liver-eating “moderate terrorists” of Daesh & Co.).
My purpose in regularly posting contributions by Muslim authors is not to side with any group nor to endorse any Islamic sect or even Islam as a whole. My main goal is to debunk the crude and sophomoric depiction of Islam constantly instilled by the AngloZionists propaganda machine into the minds of western people. Ignorance and bigotry are never virtues, while understanding is distinct from endorsement and is even required to intelligently disagree with somebody.
It goes without saying that I invite members of other branches of Islam to present their own views on the topics discussed here.
Superficiality as a Path to God: on conflating contemporary violent groups with historical Sunnism
by Anwar Khan
Sunnī Islam is an established historical tradition with distinctive identity markers and coherent internal principles, contrary to popular belief. To the untrained eye that statement may look incongruent with perceived reality as one finds a spectrum of groups, from head-chopping Jihadi zealots to whirling dervishes of the Mevlavi Sufi Order who have very little in common other than the fact that both claim to be Sunnīs. But the fact remains that a historically crystallized tradition—primarily at the forefront of shaping Islamic history—does not necessarily lose currency and essential identity just because some bastard of post-modern ideology hijacks it and claims to be its flag bearer. No matter how many groups call themselves Sunnī, if they lack the essential features of historical Sunnīsm, then they are nothing more than sloganeers. If putting the name “federal” before a business does not make it government sanctioned, then why should ISIS, for example, calling itself “Sunnī” become, unquestionably, a legitimate claim? Which brings us to the following questions:
A) What are those essential features or principles that define Sunnīsm?
B) If there are such principles, then who determines them or in another words who speaks for Sunnī Islam?
C) And why is so much violence is perpetuated in the name of Sunnī Islam, as compared to other narratives within Islam because after all the Talebān, Al Qaʿida, ISIS, Muslim Brotherhood, Boko Haram, Al Shabāb, Abu Sayāf, among others, all claim to be Sunnīs?
But before we delve into these very crucial questions, we need to take a short historical and theological detour to bring some important issues— like some terms and nomenclatures— to the forefront. For without this, I do not think we can properly understand the challenges and complexities that this article will try to shed some light on. Most contemporary problems have their roots in historical developments. Knowing it to some degree is what differentiates a truth-seeker from partisan troll.
I will not be going over the essentials of the Islamic faith as most of the readers will (or perhaps should) already have some prior knowledge of it. The purpose of this essay is to remove some very common-held misunderstandings regarding Sunni Islam—something I find even among my respected fellow truth seekers (in the alternative media world) and otherwise cautious observers, who often fall to “Sunnism, somehow, fosters violent tendencies” meme, without really understanding what “Sunnīsm” is all about.
Also, this is not an apologia for Sunnī Islam as the only form of Islam (but this does not mean that I hold all forms to be of equal value—a Free Mason vision responsible for the modern ecumenical movements). This much should be clear to even a passive reader. Islam as a religion has two major narratives within it that have dominated the rest from its early inception to our times. They are the Sunnī and Shiʿa narratives. (Both contain within them many splinter narratives which share some main features with the original school but also certain distinguishing characteristics which have led them to open their own shop after being marginalized by the mainstream). Within these two, the Sunnī narrative has been the dominant version in most Muslims lands, amongst the most Muslims, for most of the time. In other words, the Sunnis have been— until not too long ago— the real movers and shakers of Islamic history.
Nomenclature. What’s in a name?
Traditionally the Sunnis call themselves Ahl ul Sunnah wa al Jama’a (The People of Approved Way and the Group). It is important to understand why this name was chosen by the early mainstream Muslim generations to identify and distinguish themselves. Its not clear who or exactly at what point this name was officially adopted, but it is safe to say that two major schisms within the house of Islam in the decades following the death of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings be upon him, hereby PBUH)(1), played a role in the adoption of this name, which continues to be used to this day.(2) Interestingly, before these schisms the word Sunni was not used. The first schism was the Shia challenge to the Muslim majority’s consensus on the validity of Khilāfa (literally: vicegerency, but in technical usage, ultimate spiritual and political authority) outside the Family of the Prophet PBUH.(3) In other words meritocracy superseded genealogy as the defining guide in leadership selection.
Though made into a much contentious issue after the fact, at the time, the passing of religious authority to someone other than the Prophet’s PBUH family was not considered to be a matter calling for theological scrutiny by the overwhelming majority—the Group— of the Prophet’s Companions (ṣahāba) in the light of the fact that no clear instruction was left by the Prophet PBUH on an issue no less important as Khilāfa despite being, otherwise, extremely detail oriented in his instructions even in the most mundane of undertakings like proper usage of a tooth brush (miswāk) and proper etiquettes of relieving oneself.(4)
The issue of Khilāfa, though political at first, become theological much later under the sway of rational scholasticism or Kalām—influenced by Greek dialectic philosophy— that was finding increasing currency among both the Sunni and Shiʿa hermeneutics as the result of Muslim expansion and contact with new people and dogmas. Now the debates where not so much about whether the Prophet PBUH left a historical record about his will on the succession issue but rather whether is it rationally valid that an Ummah (Community) founded by an infallible Prophet can be lead by a fallible successor? How can the nature of things be truly known if infallibility—hitherto an attribute of Prophethood only— is not a condition anymore? What other sources, other than Divine Scripture, can be relied upon to deduce valid judgments? Is the intellect by itself reliable? How about the moral compass of the majority, that is, the consensus? Is there only one right way of doing something in the sight of God or variance in understanding and approach is equally valid? Can error be avoided in creed at all times?
The Shiʿa opinion —vis a vis succession to the Prophet, PBUH — slowly crystallized into the view that the successor to the Prophet had to be infallible or else attaining Divine guidance is akin to shooting in the dark. And this infallibility—maintained the Shia scribes—is only limited to the Ahl al Bayt—the progeny of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH through his only surviving daughter, Fatima, our Lady of Blessed memory. Therefore the ultimate spiritual authority or the Imāma (a term mostly used by the Shias) had to be from the Prophet’s family. How these conclusions were rationalized are beyond the scope of this short article. (A good introductory read in this and other related issues is The Emergence of Shiism and Shiites by Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al ṣadr. It exists in an English translation)
The Sunni narrative, on the other hand, arrived at substantially different conclusions. Again, the technicalities are beyond the scope of this article, but what is important to our purpose is that the mainstream narrative, while refusing to extend the principle of infallibility to any human agency other than the Prophets— of whom Muhammad PBUH was the last— nonetheless reserved it for the the community as a whole (5). In other words while individual Muslims— whether from the Ahl al Bayt or otherwise—, small groups and minorities could make error in creed, the majority of Muslims, as represented by their scholarly community, are immune from error (We will talk more about this scholarly community later because understanding this is at the crux of conflating traditional Sunnis with latter-day claimers like the Wahhabis). Some of the following Quran verses and statements of the Prophet PBUH, among many others, made a strong impression on the early Muslims regarding the sanctity of unity and avoidance of divisions :
“Be not like those who are divided amongst themselves and fall into disputations after receiving Clear Signs: For them is a dreadful penalty.”(3:105).(6)
“And (He commands you, saying): This is My straight path, so follow it. Follow not other ways, lest you be parted from His way. This hath He ordained for you, that you may ward off (evil)”.(6:153).(7)
“Indeed Allah will not allow the consensus of my community to agree on an error. God’s hand(vote) is with the consensus, and whoever deviates, deviates to destruction”. (Reported in Tirmidhī, Bayhaqī and Hākim).(8)
“Whoever deviates from the group(consensus), he dies the death of the Age of Ignorance—Ibn Umar’s famous narration found in Sahih Bukhari.(9)
The Sunnī mainstream’s inclusion of the scholarly consensus (build on the basis of the consensus of the Companions of the ProphetPBUH ) as a valid source of knowledge in matters of religion is a defining feature that sets them apart from the Shiʿas, finding itself even in their official name — the People of Approved Way and the Group.
While the people of the Group—consensus of the Companions— was to distinguish them from the Shiʿa thought that was forming slowly among some segments of Muslim populace—but far from being a real threat and far from having the coherence that its proponents claimed for it in following centuries— the people of Approved Way was to distinguish the traditional Sunnis from a different type of challenge—the Muʾtazila sedition— which would almost have proved fatal to traditional Sunnism had it not been for the the efforts of one man, Abu al Hasan al Ashʿarī, to defeat it. The Muʿtazila controversy—though started somewhat innocuously around the 8th century and limited to some segments of Muslim intelligentsia, and treated as a minor nuance on the margins by the mainstream—gained crucial momentum and state support under the Abbasid Caliph Maʿmun. The Muʿtazila creed was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy (as were some of the Abbasid Caliphs) and saw Revelation in the light of a crude rationalism. Anything they considered irrational had to be downgraded from having having a “literal” meaning to being merely “metaphorical” if found in the Qurʾan. At the same time, the statements of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, the Hadith, for all intended purposes, ceased being a genuine source of Muslim creed. It was treated as a mere historic corpus of sayings and traditions, retained for its purely historical and spiritual value.(10)
The Muʿtazila—among other things— denied God’s attributes of Sight, Hearing, Speech, and the Beatific Vision promised to the believers in the Hereafter—all issues explicitly stated in the Qurʾan and Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH and mainstays of Muslim creed —because these Qurʾanic verses and Prophetic statements were in stark contradiction to their version of rationalism as it implied anthropomorphic notions of God. In their quest to rid the Muslims of accrued traditional and “irrational” dogmas, the Muʿtazila set up inquisitions (minḥa) that employed torture, to extract “the right profession of faith”, most important among them the confession that the Qurʾan was a “created” word of God as opposed to uncreated and thus eternal Word of God, an unanimously held Sunni position at the time( and since). The Muʿtazilas claimed that if the Quran was eternal this would necessitate positing an additional eternal entity to the eternal Essence of God and such a position is “irrational” as it posits Taʿadud al Qudamāʾ (the Multiplicity of Eternals), implying plurality of Godhead and therefore constituting blasphemy. Many jurists and theologians were killed under their reign of terror, the most famous being Imām Aḥmed Ibn al Hanbal, the founder of the Hanbali School of Jurisprudence, one of the four schools of Sunni Jurisprudence. For him (and for the majority of the masses) the real basis for Muslim creed was the Qurʾan and Sunnah (the Approved Way) that went back to the first generations of Believers, not philosophical juggling acts of human reason.
It was Abu al Hasan Al Ashʿarī, however, who delivered the coup de grace to the Muʿtazila, by effectively using the very dialectics that the Muʿtazila employed, in defending traditional Sunni creed. He was after all a Muʿtazili himself before reverting back to the creed of the People of Approved Way and the Group (hereby we refer to them as orthodoxy). The story of his conversion and his efforts and methods to rest the Muslim creed from the commissars of this movement are famous and abundantly referenced in history books.(10) It did not take long after the efforts of al Ashʿari and his students—backed by Muslim masses as they were increasingly becoming discontented with the excessive rationalism that had infected religious discourses— for the Muʿtazila to be dislodged and their hold on the centers of powers arrested and religious narrative returned back to the center where it belonged. The Muʿtazila sedition taught the Muslim community many lessons. Most important among them: a) that reason must always be subservient to Revelation, and b) dialectic methods—though not a Muslim invention (in fact criticized by the early Muslim jurists like Imam Shafʾi)— could be, however, employed in theology as a tool to not only defend the creed but advance its cause because increasingly, as the Muslims were coming into contact with new civilizations, the Arabic Qurʾanic Revelation’s monotheism and egalitarianism had to be accommodated with robust dialectics for persuasive appeal.
All these points were to become the hallmark of the orthodoxy (something we will discuss in detail later). The Muʾtazila challenge to mainstream Islamic ethos was negotiated without too much damage, thanks to a large part to the effective use of Kalām or rational scholasticism. The crystallization of the orthodoxy creed was now complete. It accommodated both the manqūl (transmitted) and maʿqul (rational) sciences within its scholarship. The manqūl tradition was the approach of the early Muslim generations who had the direct experience of the fountainhead of Prophecy or the companionship of those who experienced his ministry, and therefore needed no dialectics to convince themselves of the Truth of Islam. The maʿqul approach was the necessity of the realities of Islamic expansion as its centers moved away from the Arabian Peninsula. Importantly there was—the orthodoxy declared— no dichotomy between the two approaches.
Many intellectual trends and groups would rise from time to time to challenge the orthodoxy but lacking mass support, political backing and sound intellectual foundations, they would fall short, pushed to the margins, being historical footnotes only.(12) From the demise of the Muʿtazila in the 10th century to the 20th century, the Muslim orthodoxy maintained its creedal integrity even when politically there were upheavals and seismic changes. Dynasties and empires would rise and fall in Muslim lands: the Abbasids, Seljuks, Ghaznavids, Khwarazmians, the Fatimids, the Mongol Golden Horde, Delhi Sultanate, Mamluks, Ottomans, the Safavids, and Moghuls, among others, but interestingly the creed of the orthodoxy maintained its integrity without undergoing much meaningful changes. This is an astonishing fact that is unknown to most (even Muslims), who have allowed modern identity discourses and divisions encompassing the Muslim world to form their judgments. From Morocco in North West Africa to Indonesia in South Pacific, from Somalia in East Africa to the Caucasus bordering Russia, the creed of Muslim orthodoxy was astonishingly homogeneous. How do we know this? Well, one way to tell is to take a look at the curriculums taught at the theological seminaries or madrasas of all these different lands and people and find an astonishing homogeneity in the material: the basic texts, the commentaries, the glosses on beliefs, jurisprudence, logic, rhetoric, grammar, Syntax, the hagiographic literature on the Pious Forefathers.(13)
One might think that it must be the work of strong political institutions that could have forced or at least guided this intellectual cohesion on the ʿulema or scholars of these lands for the sake of unitarianism and all the political conveniences that comes with it. The fact is that at no time was the the entirety of the Muslim territories (or even most of it) under one Caliphate or any other political entity for this uniformity to be accomplished. This was an exceptional development in human affairs. It is quite difficult to find another example of such unique intellectual cohesion that lasted so long within such varying terrains and cultures and despite very frequent political instabilities. It is as if Providence had shown the Prophet PBUH the future and allowed him to declare “indeed God will not allow the consensus of my community to agree on an error”.
Now that we have briefly examined some relevant historical factors to understand how the Sunnis orthodoxy came into crystallization, now we can shed some light on questions raised at the onset of this article: what are the main features and principles of this orthodox Sunnism? Who speaks for it? And why is modern Jihadi violence singularly associated with Sunnism?
To be continued…
1) A phrase used by the Muslims every time the Prophet’s name is mentioned as a token of love, and also as obedience to the Qurʾanic injuntion found in verse 56 of the chapter Al aḥzāb.
2) Actually there were three major schisms, two are discussed here but the third—the Kharijite Rebellion— was more of a military threat than an intellectual one. Its stunning literalism of the Qurʾan, devoid of any principles, found little support among the Muslim masses. Once it was defeated in 659 A.D. in the battlefield of Nahrawan by Ali—the Prince of the Believers, it ceased to be a force, but its crude literalism lingered in one form or another on the margins of Muslim thought until Mohammad Abdul Wahhāb, the founder of the Wahhabi sect, become the latest reincarnation of this anti-rational, anti-traditional outfit around 1750. Though the Wahhabis do not consider themselves to do anything with the Kharajites—in fact they also declare them to be outside the fold of Islam— their Takfeeri—excommunicating others from Islam— tendencies, however, have more in come with the Kharajites than the Wahhabis would want us to believe. This will be discussed in detail later.
(3) The Arabic word Shīʿa means “partisan”. The early Shīʿat Ali (Partisans of Ali) among the Companions of the Prophet PBUH and the Tabiʿīn(generation after the the Companions), were supportive of Ali’s succession as the leader of the Muslims based on his superlative qualities as a man. The Cosmic nature of “Ali’s Reality”—among them his infallibility— was an artifact of later Shīʿa devotion. Contrary to popular belief, traditional Sunnism also hold Ali beyond the usual esteem. In fact most established and famous Sufi fraternities trace back their Tariqa or Ways to the principles laid by Junayd Baghdadi, and inspired by Ali’s esoteric knowledge. More on this when we discuss Sufism. For further reading on the position Ali holds in the Sunni narrative refer to Khaṣaʿiṣ Imām Ali (Distinctions of Imam Ali) by Imam Nasaʿi. Translated into English in an anthology by Khaled Williams. The Perfect Family: Virtues of the Ahl al Bayt. Publisher Visions of Reality Books. 2015.
(4) That the Prophet PBUH took detail quite seriously in passing his deeds and statements down to future Muslim generations should be abundantly clear if one had to cursorily look into the book al Adab al Mufrad (Etiquettes) by Imam Bukhari, a collection on Prophetic injunctions on proper etiquettes in all aspects of personal and collective interactions. Yet that he left no determinate, clear, emphatic, categorical instruction on who should lead the Muslims after his physical demise should be a cause of little reflection. This is further complicated by the obvious omission of any succession related instruction in the Qurʾan itself, the ultimate source for both the Sunni’s and Shiʿas. If anything, the Quran actually claims that God has not left out anything of importance for the the believers with verses like:
“This is a detailed explanation of everything” (12:11) —Yet we do not find the succession issue or the infallibility of the Ahl al Bayt.
“We have neglected nothing in the Book” (6:38)
(5) In this regard there are some interesting parallels between the Sunnis and the Orthodox Church on one hand and the Roman Church and the Shiʿas on the other. The Orthodox creed maintains infallibility for the Church only as an embodiment of “lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). The Church, through the eyes and lives of the Patriarchs and Pious Fathers, only qualifies to be “infallible”. Its not for any one individual. The Roman Church on the other hand maintains the element of infallibility to each Pope as the sole representative of Christ, just as the Shias maintain it for each of the Imams only, and not the Community. Reformists like the Wahhabis are the Protestants: infallibility is in the Scriptures only, not in individuals or institutions. See also, http://www.orthodoxtheologicalschool.org/journal/Whitacre_Infallibility.html
(6) The Arabic for “Clear Signs” is bayyināt (singular is bayyina). In the Arabic language this also means muhkamāt (singular is muhkam) which means determinate, something obvious/clear with one meaning only unlike mutashābihāt (singular: mutashābih) indeterminate and thus having multiple meanings which the Quran has advised the Muslims to avoid speculation about, as in the chapter Ale Imran verse 6, for example. The creed of the orthodoxy comes from these determinate or what is called “Mother of the Book” verses of the Quran. Infallibility of the Imams and succession staying in the Family of the Prophet—mainstay of Shia creed—is obviously missing from these verses. The early Muslims knew their Arabic well and knew what the Qurʾanic muḥkam or determinate instructions were, and for them to have missed these issues altogether, or to have known it but conveniently brush it aside is—for all intended purposes— casting a big vote of no-confidence on the Prophet Muhammad’s PBUH selection of the men and women around him.
(7) Again, the emphasis is on “straight path”, indicating ease of understanding God’s Will for the believers. The idea that somehow all the companions of the Prophet PBUH missed this straight forward Will of God —and thus betrayed their religion (despite all their obvious sacrifices to spread this creed) and only three among them understood it—which is the official Shiʿa position— is a very difficult logical pill to swallow, even if we hypothetically hold the historical record to be somewhat murky, which is not.
(8) Logically this means— to the Sunni orthodoxy: a) God’s Will is with the consensus, b) the consensus of the Prophet’s companions chose Abu Bakr(May God be pleased with him) as their leader after the demise of the Prophet PBUH , therefore God’s Will was for Abu Bakr to be the leader. Here Will means sanction, because God may Will something without sanctioning it, like the Martyrdom of our master Hussein(May God be pleased with him).
(9) “Death of Age of Ignorance” or Jahiliyyah does not necessarily imply dying as non-Muslim, rather that one dies without knowing one’s true purpose and orientation. Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim are the two most authentic books of narration of the statements and deeds of Prophet Muhammad PBUH. The Shiʿas do not hold them of any value let alone as sources of religious knowledge. They rely on narrations through the Family of the Prophet PBUH only.
(10) Mu’tazila or Withdrawers/Seceders was the name given to them by their detractors after their founder Wasil bin Ata withdrew from the learning circles of Hasan al Basri— a renowned spiritual master of the early generations— after disagreeing on a creedal matter. The Muʿtazila called themselves Ahl al Tawhid wa al ‘adl (People of [Divine] Unity and Justice), the two most defining features of their theological difference from the orthodoxy. See also, Gimaret, D. (1992) ‘Mu’tazila’, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, New Edition, Vol. VII, fasc. 127-8: 783-93.
(11) See page 9, Elder, Earl Edgar. (1950) A commentary on the creed of Islam: Sa’d al-Din al Taftazāni on the creed of Najm al Din al Nasafi. New York, Columbia University Press.
(12) The Shia narrative was an exception to this. It was coming into its own by the middle of the 12th century, but the Golde Age of Shiʿaism was still some three centuries away. It was Safavid military might that established Shiʿa institutions after being fairly marginal up to that time. Interestingly, the Sunni orthodoxy, despite its military and political might, never intended, as a general rule, to annihilate Shiʿas and Shiʿa institutions within its domains (some persecutions existed but was not widespread) This is a historical fact. This was another hallmark of traditional Sunnism that it tolerated minorities and their institutions much more than the present day Jihadi flag bearers of Sunnism who consider presence of non-Sunnis within its domain anathema.
(13) See Francis Robinson’s The Ulema of Farhangi Mahall and Islamic Culture in Southeast Asia for a lucid description and discussion of the theological curriculums in the Muslim world and its role as one of the strongest binding element of the Muslim community, even when as a military power they were a mere shadow of their former self.