The religion game in Syria

2012-06-29 21:46:12



Syrians are struggling to establish stability and peace. However, it seems it is taking longer than expected. The problem is not only that the Syrian government is waging war against its own citizens and resisting the establishment of democracy. The major problem is the division and ethnic and religious diversity of the country, which prevents people from uniting against the common enemy.

The country is home to Sunni Arabs, Maronite Christians, Arabic-speaking Greek Orthodox Christians, Aramaic-speaking Christians, Arabic-speaking Alawites, Muslim Gypsies, Armenians, Jews, Yezidis, Kurdish-speaking Sunnis and nomadic Sunni Bedouin. The current Syrian government belongs to the Arabic-speaking Alawites. Some political leaders try to use religion and sects as ploys to paint the conflict as a conflict between the majority Sunnis and minority Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam. Have they been successful? The answer is “Yes,” which forces us to look at history to understand the reasons for their success.

The problem between the Shiites and Sunnis has existed for centuries, starting with the death of the Prophet Muhammad. However, Muslims, especially in the ninth-10th centuries, realized their need for a sound dogma to protect the vitality, unity and harmony of the Muslim community. This argument could throw some light on the establishment of Sunni Islam as a common dogma. The emergence of Sunni self-awareness was a response to the religious and political crisis in Muslim society in the ninth century. At that time, both Sunnis and Shiites had similarities and differences; however, the Sunni groups accepted the existence of the sunna of the Prophet as the general scheme for “the roots of law,” the principles of Quranic exegesis, etc. On the other hand, the Shiites gave a special place to Ali and dissociated themselves from other companions of the Prophet. The sharp polarization between the two groups became more evident in the early 10th century. This raised an important question of mutual tolerance in a community which preferred peace and negotiation rather than war and battles among the factions. This charismatic and all-accepting community would later be called “Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama'ah.” Sunni Islam established its theological foundation in the sunna, and became more popular by following the sunna of the Prophet and later the sunna of the four rightly guided caliphs. This was for a reason:

(1) It acquired its title from “sunna,” meaning “standard practice” or “normal and normative custom” of Islam. In pre-Islamic times, “sunna” meant the normative practices of a particular tribe. The Quran introduced the terms “sunnat Allah” and “sunnat al-awwalin” to describe those God punished in the previous generations. Sunna became the legal practice in the light of the Quranic rules and a measure of agreement on what was in accordance with Quranic and Islamic principles, which could only be supported by a precise chain of transmitters (the “isnad”). Moreover, “ijma,” or the consensus of the scholars, also meant “sunna,” a point which was neglected during the Umayyad caliphs. The new and superior qualification of the scholar now was an excellence in both tradition (hadith) and sunna, which was introduced by the jurist al-Shafi'i, who insisted that a particular practice of the Prophet must be supported by evidence in the shape of a tradition with an isnad and also with the Book of God. This yielded to the production of two “sahih” books of scholar al-Bukhari (d. A.D. 870) and Muslim (d. A.D. 875) and four other hadith collections. However, only the former books were accepted as “canonical” books. However, there were different positions between the Kufa and Medina schools of Sunni tradition.

(2) The establishment of the legal rights and schools within the conceptual and methodological framework, or “usul al-fiqh,” also contributed to the victory of Sunni Islam. William Montgomery Watt points out that previously these schools were geographical schools but were transformed into “personal schools” after the name of their founders, i.e. the Shafii school, the Hanafi school, etc.

(3) The development of the Quranic interpretation and “qira'a,” the study of the text, contributed to the canonization of the tradition and the establishment and consolidation of Sunni Islam.

(4) Unlike other theological schools of Islam, Sunni scholars tolerated the mystical teachings (Sufism), which gave strong support to Sunni Islam in the process of “establishing” itself.

On the other hand, Shiism after A.D. 850 presented itself as a divided movement, including Twelvers, the Zaidis and the Ismailis. Some Shiite sects hoped to convert the whole Muslim community to their specific doctrines, while some abandoned any such hope and tried to hide their identity in order to avoid state persecution. For instance, the Ismailis acted as an underground movement from about A.D. 765 until the end of the ninth century. The Ismailis were the revolutionary extremists; meanwhile the Twelvers became political moderates. The Ismailis gradually became a high intellectual and missionary movement. Their common arguments were: (1) God has on earth a “hujja,” or “proof” from the sons of al-Hasan ibn Ali and he is a “wasi,” or “legatee,” to his father; (2) the Imamate may not fall to two brothers after al-Hasan and al-Husain; (3) the Imamate is in the progeny of al-Hasan ibn Ali; (4) if there were only two men on earth, one would be hujja and if one died, the one left would be hujja; this applies so long as it is God's command; (5) it is not for any believer to choose an imam by rational consideration (ra'y) or choice (ikhtiyar) -- God appoints him for us.

Despite the abovementioned differences between certain legal and theological schools, Sunni Islam created widespread social unity and resulted in stability of the intellectual structure and a deep underlying loyalty to the broader Muslim community. The Shiites were content to be a kind of permanent opposition. However, from our past, Muslims learned a very good lesson. Muslim scholars in past instituted “ijma',” or “consensus,” which served the purpose of establishing an agreement among Muslims. It was an important institution and contributed to the establishment of a bridge among once hostile Ashari, Hanafi, Hanbali and -- recently -- Shia dogmas. As a result, almost all orthodox Muslim theologians avoided condemning or accusing another Muslim who prayed towards Mecca, who recognized the oneness of God and who accepted Muhammad as the Prophet as infidels and admitted that the difference of expression did not mean the person became a disbeliever (kafir). The current problem in Syria and all over the Muslim world shows that contemporary Muslims have forgotten the past. It is now obligatory upon us to come together and discusses the differences in a meaningful and peaceful manner.

Yorum Yaz