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The Tyranny of Religious Scholars

As any observer will have noticed, the debates that are consuming many Arabs right now have to do with the place of religion in their societies. Most Muslims want freedom and democracy within an Islamic context, as if the two are natural allies in the quest for social justice and development. To safeguard their heritage and protect their identity (hawiyya), they imagine a society governed by fixed cultural foundations (thawabit), namely the basic and sacred principles of Islam, while allowing for change in other non-specified areas. This view is widely shared within the Muslim community (umma), even though it is, at bottom, disconcertingly essentialist and is often condemned when used by Western scholars who study Arabs and Islam. Yet many progressive Muslim intellectuals proudly claim their unchanging heritage as a badge of honor in fighting colonial intrusions or imperial designs.

There are a number of problems with this form of resistance. The first and obvious one is that these two spheres of the fixed and the fluid (athabit wal mutaghayyir), if you will, are a mere fiction. The religious scholars (ulama) who designed the sharia more than a thousand years ago in Iraq made sure that every facet of human activity is covered by some prayer or by another religious protocol.  As a good friend never ceases to remind me with exasperated humor, even walking into and out of a bathroom has its own set of prayers.  If a simple profane act could be thus inserted into the sacred there is practically nothing that can’t be regulated by fixed Islamic guidelines. Eating, dressing, banking, and marrying are all governed by dictates established by Sunni scholars. As if to illustrate the absurdity of these laws, Iran just announced that it was banning all flights over its sky during the five daily calls to prayer and prohibiting all takeoffs before the first dawn prayer.

Such rules developed gradually, when the expanding Muslim community needed guidelines and useable myths to consolidate a transcendent identity that was independent of caliphs, sultans, or political dynasties. This is, to be sure, the historic and great contribution of the ulamas to Muslim societies. The sharia put constraints on the ruler who, like everyone else, was bound by Islamic laws, but it also chained the Muslim individual in a highly regulated and ritualized system that left no room for individual maneuver. By so doing, the ulama won in two major ways: They gained access to power by becoming arbiters of the ruler’s legitimacy and held control over society by stripping the individual of any meaningful autonomy. An individual can only exist as part of a community (jama`a).

As Jonathan Berkey showed in his masterful and award-winning book, The Formation of Islam, this juridical oppression was bound to be resisted. Over time, caliphs and sultans co-opted the scholars and turned them into state functionaries, while the masses (`amma) sought refuge in Sufism and other forms of popular religion. The Sufis embraced universal themes that brought them closer to the accursed Christians, Jews, and the Shiites, while their mystical chants grew into musical events. Quiet prayers for the prophet evolved into boisterous celebrations of his birthday (mawlid); remembering the dead grew into a mania for graveyard visitations (ziyarat al-qubur); local pious men and folks preachers were endowed with the power of intercession (ashafa`a); and storytellers filled the gap of the austere law by entertaining the public with biblical tales. All these activities were condemned by the ulama as innovations (bida`) that eventually lead straight to hellfire. They unearthed hadiths (reports about the prophet’s sayings and doings) to support their view. The theologian Ibn Taymiyya (1263 – 1328) reported on how the prophet described the flute as “the muezzin of Satan.” By the late 15th century, a scholar in Syria was condemning storytellers and authorizing jihad against them.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. In the Islamic view, anything not supported by the Koran, Sunna (prophet’s ways and style), consensus of the scholars (ijma`), and perhaps analogical reasoning (qiyas), falls outside of the realm of legality and is, therefore, not properly Islamic. There is no room for the much vaunted ijtihad (intellectual effort) either, since that possibility has been foreclosed centuries ago. And even if the gates of ijtihad were to be reopened, the only acceptable opinion would be one derived from the four sources mentioned above. Anything that is not sanctioned by Islamic precedent is out of Muslim bounds and is, therefore, a soul-endangering and umma-threatening innovation.

It’s hard to think of a more efficient system of indoctrination and social control than the one devised by the ulama. It has kept Muslims in a medieval state of thought and elevated imitation (taqlid)—whether of the prophet (as recorded in the collections of hadith) or his rightly guided caliphs—as the privileged subject of study since the past is the permanent fount of knowledge, wisdom, and salvation.  Thus, once Islam is assumed to be the most important legitimizing factor, all Muslims are held hostage to Muslim ulama from the Middle Ages, since they not only defined the canon of laws, but they also placed them beyond any human intervention or modification. This diabolical system may have inoculated vulnerable Muslims subjected to political abuse and social turmoil throughout most—if not all— of Islamic history by giving them an identity in a community, but it also killed the Muslim’s individuality and autonomy. Without the latter, he or she can’t do much besides echoing the voices of the past in a never-ending ritual of prayers and incantations. Only prophets can break rules and create new ones; the rest of us are condemned to praise them forever and ever. As the great American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson told the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School in 1838, worshipping Jesus is not the best tribute to the messiah. It’s far better to act like him.

A society that claims that culture has fixed principles condemns itself to stagnation and, at best, never-ending and debilitating tensions between the natural instinct for freedom and the pull of dead traditions. There is nothing fixed about Islam. Like all religions, it is a human creation. It developed in an environment teeming with religions and sectarian disputes. The Arabs wanted to have their own religion—the equivalent of nationalism in modern times—and gradually, in conversation and confrontation with Judaism and Christianity, developed one with an Arabian pedigree to distinguish it from the rest. Over time, an Arabic speaking prophet from a small town in Arabia that was safely removed from Syria and Persia, the seat of ancient civilizations and religions, was set up as the founding father of the new faith. Neither the Byzantines nor the Sasanians could claim such a pedigree. It was purely Arab.  Islam was Arab nationalism wrapped in the garb of a universal religion.

Arab genealogy (or genalogy, tout court, in Berkey’s insightful reading) thus became primordial; but even more important was the genealogy of the Prophet. For Shiite Muslims, only members of the prophet’s family (ahl al-bayt) were the rightful and legitimate leaders of Muslims, an insistence that separated them from the Sunnis, who were somewhat more open to the qualifications for leadership. The Shiites thus present us with another form of essentalism. The biological, in this case, is endowed with exceptional virtues and cultural values that are not available to the rest of the people. This mindset—which informs the rule of clerics (vilayat-i-faqih) in Iran today— is as far as anyone can get from the spirit of democracy, equal opportunity, and social justice. In the hands of Nazis, this essentialism is interpreted as racism, an evil that all progressive forces have done much to combat.

The search for knowledge in Muslim societies was historically conducted in the same vein. Berkey reminds us that it was the authority of the religious scholar  (alim) or spiritual guru (shaykh) over texts that mattered, not exactly the substance of what is being learned. The prestige of the teacher was, in fact, inherited and passed on in a chain, often involving the children and descendants of the scholar or guru. And no attempt at adding to the four main Sunni schools of jurisprudence (madhahib) could gain traction. The attempt by the 11th-century Andalusian scholar Ibn Hazm, founder of the Zahiri movement, was dismissed by the great historian Ibn Khaldun himself as innovation, since his embattled followers, the Zahiris, committed the fatal error of assuming that knowledge could be acquired from books without the help of teachers!

Confined in the prison-house of the all-encompassing sharia and condemned to memorize the opinions of medieval scholars, Muslims remain trapped in a cycle of imitation and a vicious form of genealogical determinism that leaves no room for personal autonomy and intellectual freedom. For the portals of innovation to be opened in Muslim-majority nations, or in Islamic thought, religion needs to be reexamined wholesale by using modern methods of scholarship.

This won’t be easy. Wahhabi-inspired militants are waging a scorched-earth war to restore Islam to its pristine, pure shape. If this sounds like the Nazis seeking to cleanse their society from alien races, it is. There is no such thing as a pure religion or race. It’s all a mishmash process of exchange and interaction. Purity is a dangerous fiction.  It needs to be resisted, even if it turns one into a heretic or unbeliever.

All Comments (1)

  1. Bravo, Professor Majid, you did it again. Your analysis is beautifully written, concise and insightful all at once.

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