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Old sheikhs, new caliphs and the myth of a centralised Muslim authority

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets US-based Imam Siraj Wahhaj as he arrives to make a speech at Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC) in New York, United States on 22 September 2019. [TURKISH PRESIDENCY / MURAT CETINMUHURDAR / HANDOUT - Anadolu Agency]
President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets US-based Imam Siraj Wahhaj as he arrives to make a speech at Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC) in New York, United States on 22 September 2019. [TURKISH PRESIDENCY / MURAT CETINMUHURDAR / HANDOUT - Anadolu Agency]

According to US-based Imam Siraj Wahhaj, “We need a centralised leadership, and that’s the key.” He said this in a speech at a recent event in New York, hosted by the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC). In his usual fiery and animated style, Wahhaj prompted wild applause when he added, “And I have a feeling that the leadership is coming from Turkey… We love you, we love you here in New York. You can stay here as long as you want.”

The “we” that Wahhaj referred to is the Muslim community in the US and around the world; his “centralised leadership” is, in many ways, an alignment with Turkey – whether political or religious or both – that is eerily similar to the recent controversy regarding Sheikh Hamza Yusuf. After aligning himself with the political class and ruling family of the United Arab Emirates; attending a conference which was boycotted by many Muslim figures over the UAE’s human rights violations; and accepting the offer to join the Trump administration’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, Hamza Yusuf has in many ways been sacrificed on the altar of public opinion by the Western Muslim community.

In August, Al Jazeera published an opinion piece slamming Yusuf as well as Imam Zaid Shakir and Sherman Jackson – both significant Muslim figures in the US – and accusing them of allying themselves with “white supremacy, the erosion of civil liberties and global tyranny.” What followed was an extensive debate, mainly on social media, in which they were accused of abandoning the interests of the Muslim community in return for political power. In their defence, it was also said that all three have good characters and, Sheikh Hamza in particular, intended to work for an end to bloodshed in the Muslim world.

Regardless of his intention, though, the fact remains that Hamza Yusuf has aligned himself publicly with the UAE, and now Imam Siraj Wahhaj seems to have done the same with Turkey. Unlike the author of that Al Jazeera article and the countless others who have given up on Yusuf, however, the aim here is neither to belittle Wahhaj nor claim that he has been “bought” by Turkey, nor, indeed, to discredit him; he is, after all, a giant in the community. However, the Imam’s comments signal two major shifts in Muslim communities in the West: significant religious figures identifying with political entities abroad, and the romanticising of a centralised Islamic entity within the minds of Muslims.

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The myth of centralisation

Imam Wahhaj’s calls for a centralised Muslim authority in the world are not new; the concept has appealed to many Muslim communities over the past century or so, and numerous Islamic movements have indeed been built on such an idea and capitalised on it. The popular narrative is this: ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire – a Sunni Muslim Caliphate – in 1922, the Muslim world has been leaderless, with little political power or the kind of influence that it once had. While this is partly true, it is essentially a myth.

Geopolitically, the Ottoman Empire ruled over a large part of the Islamic world and was a representative of a Sunni political power even beyond its borders, but neither the Ottomans nor the Muslim powers that came before them were regarded as centralising entities. Throughout the thirteen centuries of Islamic history before the Ottoman collapse, there were at various stages a number of Caliphates, Sultanates and Emirates operating in different regions. Along with the Abbasids, there were, for example, the Umayyads of Spain, the Fatimids of Egypt, the Almohads of Morocco and the Mughals of India, as well as the Caliphates of Bornu and Sokoto in West Africa and Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

Religiously, the Muslim world has never really had a “centralised” entity which has given wide-ranging religious rulings to all regions within its control. There exist academic and scholarly institutions which have been held in high regard such as the Universities of Al-Azhar in Egypt and Umm Al-Qura in Saudi Arabia which have theological differences but are responsible for the education of many scholars and imams around the world; even these influential institutions do not dictate the actions of the Muslim world nor those of its rulers. Apart from the Qur’an – which details clear distinctions between permissible and impermissible actions – and the recorded sayings and examples of Prophet Muhammad and his companions, many rulings, opinions and religious influences have differed from region to region, scholar to scholar and culture to culture, rendering a religiously centralised Muslim world impossible. Hence, in part, the reason for the existence of the four main schools of thought – Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali – being entrenched in different parts of the world.

Indeed, we can go so far as to say that the last time the Islamic world was truly united and centralised as a whole, both territorially and religiously, was during the Caliphate of the immediate successors to the Prophet in the first three decades following his death.

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We are not the West

This long tradition of a decentralised and regional structure of governance, as well as the conciliatory relationship between religion and state, within the Islamic world is entirely alien to the history of religion in the West and its rough struggle to divorce church from state. In Christendom, the Roman Catholic Church ruled from the Vatican — a city-state in its own right — dictating to the Kings and Queens of Europe what they should and should not do. With the rise of the nation state as a political entity, such influence and control over the European states reduced gradually. Today, the Roman Catholic Church remains influential over its followers, but not the states in which they live. Britain’s Anglican Church remains the “established” church with 26 bishops sitting in the House of Lords (the country’s upper legislative chamber), despite claims that it is a “secular state”.

Rulers across the Muslim world, however, have never been controlled by the clerical and scholarly classes; in many cases, the reverse was true, with Islamic scholars being used by the rulers to gain some degree of legitimacy. Attempts to create a centralised system or to enforce a state-sanctioned version of Islam over a territory wide enough to encompass multiple regions failed; one example was the Mu’tazila movement during the Abbasid caliphate.

The phenomenon of such significant religious figures within the American Muslim community aligning themselves with publicly controversial Middle Eastern states is thus a problematic signal that they are crossing a red line with regard to the trust that their local Muslim communities have in them. However, not every example of Islamic scholars aligning themselves with rulers has resulted in the support of suppression or blind-backing for state policies. There have been instances where the scholarly class has in fact served to keep executive power in check by having a positive influence and ensuring that a generally less oppressive rule is the norm. Such is the case with Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born scholar resident in Qatar who has had significant influence over the small Gulf state’s domestic and foreign policies across a number of decades. Many have smeared his influence as being the foundation of Qatar’s relatively smooth relations with “Islamist” causes and groups, but while no country is entirely free from controversy and bias, the human rights concerns about it have largely been confined to the lack of foreign workers’ rights rather than the extrajudicial killing of journalists or the famine-causing military intervention in a neighbouring country which we see amongst Qatar’s critics.

Essentially, rulers have long used scholars as tools for their own interests and as grantors of legitimacy. This continues to this day, and any scholar who does not openly support the government’s politics and line of thinking is often persecuted and removed, as is the case with the Saudi Arabian scholar Salman Al-Odah who has been detained and sentenced for his opposition to Riyadh’s blockade of Qatar.

While Christendom suffered from religious control over politics, the Islamic world has long suffered from political control over religion. Scholars, Imams and religious figures within the Muslim community in the West would be wise to tread with caution in their relations with Middle Eastern states and autocracies while the rulers do not respect the boundaries between the realms of statecraft and academia. Such scholars must also, surely, recognise the motives of any political strategy behind calls to “centralise” the Muslim world around one state or religious authority.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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