Sunni Islamic authority between the text and context

The ongoing chaos in many parts of the Muslim world can, in part, be traced to the collapse of Sunni Islamic authority and the emergence of various groupings claiming to fill the vacuum. While all agree that the collapse is a reality, however, dating the collapse is as difficult as the attempts to fill it. Some locate the collapse in the immediate aftermath of the death of the prophet, while others point to the Umayyad’s shifting authority into dynastic rule and subsequent periods of jostling for power. The more recent dating of the collapse phenomena posits the late Ottoman period and the emergence of European colonization in the Muslim world.

Debates on dating the Sunni collapse will not end anytime soon. While it is a major error to conflate the fortunes of states, dynasties and power with Sunni authority, nevertheless, political stability, resources and recruitment of scholars were greatly enhanced through institutional building and direct state and elites investments. In this regard, Sunni Islamic authority in earlier periods was a function of scholars’ presence as much as the political, social, economic and religious context existing at the time that enabled it to exist. Sunni authority existed within an epistemic that stitched the ethical and moral fabric of the society with members sharing a coherent and consistent worldview even if not agreeing on the particulars.

Authority does not exist in a vacuum. The temporal world that supported and embodied Sunni Islamic authority no longer exists and has totally collapsed with the dismantling of the Ottomans in the 1920s. Not to imply the late Ottoman collapse as the definitive dating rather to point out the simple fact that the political, social, economic and religious institutional backbone sheltering the Sunni Islamic authority came to an abrupt end. The efforts at forging Sunni Islamic authority take for granted the changes in the context and insists on reading the text as is while attempting to reconstitute itself on non-existent historical circumstances. Navigating the text based on a fixed historical reading without taking into consideration that the context that gave rise to it in the first place changed, which creates the existing confusion and incoherence across the board. The modern nation-state is not the same as the classical state that Sunni Islamic authority functioned under or operated within the confines of a supportive if at times contentious environment.One cannot transplant Sunni Islamic authority into the nation-state structure by simply creating and appointing a Mufti as the highest religious authority or regulating mosque functions. Furthermore, how can Sunni Islamic authority reclaim a lost terrain by attaching itself to elites within a nation-state when they themselves lack the basic popular mandate to govern over their respective societies? Sunni authority suffers in this a compounded collapse; on the one hand, it can no longer claim authority on the basis of a lost ethical and moral past, while on the other, it becomes a partner in the oppressive machinery of the modern post-colonial nation-state project. The notion of Sunni scholarly independence is almost totally non-existent as the need for governmental and institutional support causes a navigation of the text based on the narrow confines of power’s context and not outside of it.

At a time when the nation-state is the law, the end, above and beyond authority itself, then the discussion of forging Sunni Islamic authority is a contradiction as well as possibly being a pure philosophical pastime endeavor. The question is how to forge an authority when the world on the basis of which such authority rests and functions no longer exist and the imagined past is disconnected from contemporary realities.

The challenges in forging Sunni authority include the nation-state itself, transformation of educational institutions, new modes of mass communication and technology as well as globalization that make it possible for anyone at any time or place to create a new context with or without a text. Today, authority and access to a global audience is easily achieved through easy access to Arabic text, Facebook pages, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube channels with semi-sophisticated graphics then the crisis is far greater than mere names, titles and fancy buildings. At present, the text exists in a vacuum and is utilized by individuals, groups and government institutions to influence and give legitimacy to an enforced, jumbled and pre-determined secular post-colonial state context. The results are at best a peaceful disaster and at worst periodic violence.