Islam as a religion of decentralization
There are several levels of interpretation of the conflicts in the Middle East which have offered a whole set of internal and external narratives as possibilities to understand these conflicts in their totality. If we reduce the given narratives to several key themes, we start operating with religious and political narratives, or, if we talk about a phenomenon such as ISIS, we get to read texts about Wahhabism as a possible forerunner of ISIS, about equalization of ISIS with Islam, or, on the other hand, about ISIS being a product of various external factors, this being a fertile land for conspiracy theories, which have always managed to find their place in the marketplace of ideas.
Aside from these narratives, there have recently appeared the texts which interpret the phenomenon of ISIS from the aspect of sociology and psychology. In this context, Azmi Bishara’s texts, which attracted great attention, observe the rise of ISIS in the context of its surroundings, and thus the very term of surroundings becomes crucial for this interpretation. In Azmi Bishara’s narrative, the key factors for action include colonialism, autocracy, moral nihilism, and the growing sectarian identities contrasted with the clearly defined religious and national identities. For Ian Robertson, the underlying factors are sociological and psychological by its nature. He voices his opinion that the all-present barbarism can only breed new forms of barbarism. Karim Muhammad writes about a metaphysical plunge into nihilism. Ziyad Majid writes about ‘’six founding fathers’’ of ISIS, implying occupation, despotism, sectarian aggressiveness, Selafism in the Golf area, historical Puritanism, and violence. Assam I’du lists the leading narratives briefly subsumed under the explosion of narratives. This explosion of narratives is as much a result of a great desire to get to know the unknown, but also of a wish for everyone’s contribution to a better understanding of the current situation in the Middle East.
Although Islam is not the only existing reality in the Middle East, it certainly forms a very important, if not the main narrative, we should focus on if we want to better understand the internal Muslim conflicts, the activities of radical movements, as well as various political discourses in the Middle East. In this context, I think it is necessary to start a discussion about Islam as a decentralized religion. Occasionally Islam is mentioned as a decentralized religion, but we rarely get to read about this phenomenon in more detail. I find it necessary to talk about Islam as a decentralized religion for several reasons. Firstly, that those who approach the criticism of Islam as a monolithic system should further think of their theses and arguments, and start talking about religious decentralization, its advantages and flaws. In order to start a serious debate on Islam, one has to get familiarized with decentralization, being a key factor of this religion’s tradition. The religious decentralization in Islam implies several important questions of institutional nature such as: who represents Muslims at all, who speaks in their name, is it a monolithic system or is it a system with a multitude of fragments among which there exist so many differences that speaking about their similarities only serves as proof of the existing differences.
Also, to speak about religious decentralization implies to question the very concept of decentralization, its qualities and flaws, along with its functionality. In the context of Islam as a decentralized system, I will show the qualities of religious decentralization, but also its flaws which further deepen certain crises, turning them into a fertile land for the development of radical movements.
Anyone who has ever tackled the historical development of organizational units within Islam in a scholarly manner has had to notice that so little is said about a monolithic system, but much more about a decentralized religion. During the classical period, such a system was very efficient, serving as an institution of counterbalance against various caliphs who strived for a greater centralization. The legislative system in Islam can serve as a great example for that. As late as the 19th century, no legal code, represented by a single document serving to codify the whole legal system, had been established. The Ottoman Empire made a certain breakthrough regarding this with the creation of a legal code, Majallah Ahkam al-Adliya, which is now behind us as part of history. But what had happened before the 19th century and after the Ottoman Empire?
The fact that up to the 19th century there had not existed a single codified legislative system points to a very important fact in the tradition of Islam noted by Brannon M. Wheeler, who said that this ‘’flaw’’ could have arisen from mere historical coincidences, but it would be difficult to provide arguments for this belief. A more obvious answer is this: the development of the legal system within Islam occurred in a very individualized manner, so that the legislative system developed into a mighty decentralized institution. On that basis, the political power was limited by the authorities of law, and those authorities were the ulama. Therefore, the institution of ulama, during the classical period, posed a problem for both the Umayyad and Abbasid rulers. The problem did not lie in certain authorities in the legal branches, but in the fact that the notion of authority was so scattered between multitudes of lawyers who acted individually. The Umayyad and Abbasid rulers strived for the creation of a single code book, witnessed by the familiar story about Harun al-Rasheed and the case of Malik ibn Anas’ Muwatt. For the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasty rulers, the decentralized form of the institution of legal authorities formed an evident problem because it reduced and limited their authority.
The decentralization of legal authorities was a result of different views on the very levels of authority of the sacred text. While Al-Shafi’i in his ‘’Epistle’’ says that the Revelation and the prophetic tradition form the key authorities for the legal thought, Najmuddin al-Tufi in his epistle ‘’The Care for Prosperity’’ says that the key authority is in the measurability of certain policies’ usefulness or harmfulness. Given that God represents the supreme authority, the key problem lies in the transfer of authority. With God being a superrational entity in the metaphysical world, it is needed to make a transfer of the supreme authority for the real world, i.e. make clear who and what embodies the institution of authority which interprets the sacred text. The given problem is simply solved by the establishment of the institution of religious decentralization. There have been various political attempts to create a code book by using the political force and to destroy one very important aspect of the tradition of Islam- i.e. its religious decentralization.
The system of decentralized authority during the Umayyad and Abbasid reign was very efficacious, and it formed a very important institution of counterbalance to the incumbent structures and the legal authorities close to the ruling elite. The game between the elites and the authorities was a true chess game used in an attempt to hinder the political power and narrow its remit. On the other hand, it brought about an increasing freedom to the civilian sector and the legal authorities that acted in a decentralized and individualized manner. The ruling elite, of course, had the same goal, but on the other side of the fence: it wanted to repress the power of the decentralized religion and to place legal authorities closer to their own goals.
The decentralized system was well organized in a specific way, because the authority, although individualized, was respected, and the procedure for one to become a legal authority was clear. Mere popularity could not necessarily get one the authority. The terms such as al-ijaza, al-munawala, al-wasiyya, al-wijada and others were well defined in the classic works. These terms, while preserving the institution of authority, explained how one could become an authority in a certain field.
The years of traditional way of studying before the already established authorities produced well prepared and, more often than not, encyclopedically educated experts in society. The decentralized system of religious authority was a self-regulating and functional system that quickly banned incompetent individuals or those violating the system. Such a system developed an individual legal code which included autonomous legal opinions and the right to choose one’s own mentor. Aside from the politically established legal system made up of judges, influential legal authorities were publicly accessible and they often avoided contact with the political system to remain legally autonomous.
By doing that, they fought against the political authority keen to take over the place of God’s authority, which is a completely different direction from the one we can see in modern Islamists, who often do not differentiate between political and religious authority. The way to become a political authority (a caliph) was completely different from the way to become a religious authority. Legal authorities had a special place in the system, and they preserved their integrity and the integrity of the institution of religious decentralization. With the development of religious decentralization, an important institution was created which served as a counterbalance to the political authority, leading to a certain balance of power in spite of attempts either to destabilize or destroy it completely.
A rebellion against the ruler and the ruling institutions was a strict exception for classical Islamic lawyers, used only in very delicate situations. The basic principle was that, in case of a crisis within traditional institutions which became a part of culture as time went by, the institutions could not be sacrificed just because of their temporarily harmful, or even tyrannical impact. Changes are necessary, but they are not to be achieved through violence and destructive actions against the existing institutions, because negativities can be immeasurable despite the optimism and hope for the opposite. The Arab Spring, therefore, has taught us two important things: first, revolutions very often lead to unseen negativities, resulting in a serious undermining of the institution of religious authorities in Islam, because the voice of authorities in favor of revolution overwhelmed the quiet voices warning of the imminent negativities in the aftermath of the revolution.
The issue of authority will thus become the crucial internal Muslim problem to be reflected in various social activities. Explaining the rift between Muslim denominations on the metaphysical level is certainly a flaw, albeit not a wrong method. The transcendence in Islam is very clear and all dilemmas and internal discussions deal with secondary theological questions. However, the question of authority for me is of crucial nature. The very division into Sunnism and Shiism is primarily a problem in authority. The basic question these two narratives diverge in is as follows: who was supposed to take the authority of leading the community after the Prophet’s death? Thus this question of authority would become crucially important, while the authority itself was divided in religious and political authority.
During the classical period of Islam there had been no single source or religious authority that represented the whole Muslim community, not even in certain territories that were ruled by a single caliph in a certain time. The non-existence of a hierarchical clerical organization led to the existence of decentralized religious authority. During that classical period there had been no powerful force which strived to form a single legislative body that would monopolize the interpretation of sacred texts, especially of those relating to law. Therefore, we got a polycentric legislative system and a myriad of different authorities and opinions. Today, we will often read about four legal schools within Sunnism, with Ja’fari school being added from the Shi’ite milieu as the fifth, but the number of existing schools is far greater than we can imagine. The given number is more of a consequence of the development of different schools of jurisprudence and it mentions those schools that had been supported the most. This does not represent a final number of the existing schools. To make things even more complicated, within one school of thought several opinions can be voiced regarding a single legal problem.
All this information shows that the system of religious decentralization was very powerful, while uniformity is just a myth people try to promote, resulting in a feeling of sadness for some previous period of unity and uniformity. The ruling dynasties certainly strived to justify their own legitimacy in the public sphere by means of religion which played an important social role, but they have never managed to adequately and absolutely conquer the field of the decentralized authority. The principle of particularity was at work, and it was applied efficiently and appropriately in any given context.
The development of the culture of religious decentralization during the classical period brought about the creation of institutions of counterbalance to the established ruling dynasties. The culture of religious decentralization caused the culture of religious evolution to strengthen and the ideas on the level of internal interpretations of the sacred text to freely clash with one another. The usefulness of such a system was reflected in the balance of power between religious groups holding different views, but also in their relations with political authorities. However, the religious decentralization in the Middle East has been permeated with different contents and touches in recent times. As political authorities grew stronger, the culture of religious decentralization grew weaker in a certain way. When the states in the Middle East started to take over the crucial institutions, it made the decentralized religious system possible, clearly seen in the institution of waquf (the private endowment), the authority of lawyers changed.
The legal authorities, previously individualized, had to be subsumed under the state apparatus. The participation in such an apparatus greatly violates the authority of religious decentralization, which has now turned into a powerful weapon in the hands of radical groups. Unfortunately, the political authorities in the Middle East states strived to get a greater control over the civilian sector, and along with it, over the most important religious institutions. In the context of the violation of the classical institution of religious decentralization, two important things have happened.
Firstly, the legal authorities have become closer to state institutions which makes them directly or indirectly connected with the ruling structures. That led to the creation of alternative decentralized religious groups, increasingly present in the public. In a sense, they represent a rebellion against authority. Even the traditionally most important centers such as Al-Azhar University in Cairo would often become questionable. The public will keep questioning and doubting the religious authorities that are part of the state system. The result of the state meddling in the system of religious decentralization, that characterized Islam in the classical period, has been the changes in which the autonomy of opinions disappears. The development of information technology and the rise of literacy have provided a new alternative that keeps developing the organizational structure in keeping with religious decentralization, but with different outlines. In such circumstances, a completely new wave of interpretative streams has arisen, supported by certain classical period sources, realized within scripturalism. These alternative decentralized circles of religious authorities will further foster a subversive mentality, blending metaphysical and eschatological issues with realpolitik. This, in turn, will create a suitable environment for a rise of fundamentalist ideas.
The authority will get shaken, while the religious decentralization will assume new outlines. Not only are we witnessing the struggle for authority, but also the rebellion against it. If you follow the events in the Middle East at all, one thing becomes clear: the rebellion against authority has resulted in a wave of quasi-religious authorities, mostly of radical orientations. They act in rebellion against both political and religious authorities.
At the organizational level, the formerly strong institution of the power balance, represented in the decentralized organization, has now become replaced by new decentralized units which do not serve as a counterbalance to political authorities. They exist to take the power of political authorities themselves, creating a strong monopoly, and ultimately, a greater centralization.
The ideal examples for the above are Yemen and Iraq. There is very little coverage about Yemen when it comes to reporting on the Middle East conflicts. Only with the intensification of these conflicts do we have a chance to read bit and pieces about them. The recent conflicts have led to the Houthi movement taking over the institutions of the central state which will eventually lead to the signing of the agreement about national peace and cooperation. That document should formally lead Yemen to become a state in which decentralization can be functional. However, when state institutions are weak and the very state becomes questionable, the creation of functional decentralization turns out to be a difficult task. Inefficient state institutions in Yemen, under Mansur al-Hadi’s rule, or Nouri al-Maliki’s repressive regime in Iraq, are telling examples of the development of an alternative decentralization, striving to rebel against the incumbent authorities. Its efficacy is not only reflected in the fact that one group can take over the institutions of the state in a short time, but also in its dealing with social issues, clearly seen in the example of Ansar al-Shari group which serves the local communities.
The culture of religious decentralization was created in the classical period, but the modern age has brought about new challenges, indicating that religious decentralization, with the state meddling in the civilian spheres of religious organization, was counterproductive or basically flawed. They also pointed to the newly outlined properties of the institution of decentralization. Considering the fact that there is no single institution in Islam that represents the collective voice of all Muslims, it is harder to explain the very concept of Islam in the media. In such an environment, the decentralized religious structures, using various mechanisms of information technologies, simply do not have to follow the traditional framework that differentiates between authorities and quasi-authorities. In simple terms, there are other mechanisms that are ideal for radical groups’ activities which enable them to present their own interpretations and worldviews easily, garnering some support.
Weak functionality and organization of the state institutions in the Middle East makes the task much easier. Islam as a decentralized religion, both in respect of its rites and structural organization, is a subject that requires a more detailed review, especially regarding the functionality of that system under current circumstances. Decentralization has a multitude of advantages, but negative effects can prevail under certain circumstances, creating a suitable ground for the development of radical groups. Their primary goal is not to gradually develop a complete system, but to destroy it through revolution and the establishment of a ‘’new’’ and ‘’better’’ social system. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that dozens of radical groups have been created, clearly visible in states such as Syria and Yemen. These groups do not aspire to reach compromises. Instead, they put their conflicting interpretations on a metaphysical level, perpetuating conflicts on the ground. They act in a decentralized manner, but their purpose is not to strengthen the decentralized autonomous opinion and improve their social institutions: on the contrary, they strive to create a monopolized narrative that would downgrade the existing traditional institutions.