By Mohammad Mazhari

Every religion is political: professor

March 9, 2021 - 11:25

TEHRAN - Noting that claim of being apolitical is a political statement, a University of Michigan professor of Islamic studies says that “every religion is political”. 

Talking to the Tehran Times, Alexander Knysh says, "Every religion is political, even when its followers claim it is not.”

"The claim of being apolitical is itself a political statement and political stance,” Knysh adds. 

In recent years the Islamic world has witnessed bloody conflicts under the pretext of religion while the real reason for these conflicts lies in geopolitical struggles between regional actors. 

"The current geopolitical situation is conducive to conflict because of the geopolitical players' inequality," the professor of Islamic studies emphasizes.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: What are the origins of mysticism in Islam? And in which countries or regions was it more influential?

Mysticism emerged as an ascetic (world-renouncing) way of life and system of mystical thought and practice during the first two Islamic centuries (8th and 9th centuries CE). The exact time and place in which mysticism made its first appearance are impossible to determine. It seems that there have been several centers in which the first Muslim ascetics-mystics were active, especially the Levant (Greater Syria), Iraq (Basra and Kufa, and later on Baghdad), Khorasan, and Central Asia. Egypt was another such center, but we do not have much textual evidence about the activities of local ascetic-mystical communities until the early ninth century (third century of the Hijra calendar).

It is safe to say that the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet contain statements that could be interpreted as encouraging renunciation of this world in favor of the world to come, frugal life and self-abnegation, love of God, and seeking intimacy with Him through canonical and supererogatory (additional; optional) acts of piety and worship. Initially, mysticism followers were active and relatively numerous in the geographical areas I have just mentioned. Later on, it spread widely across the entire Muslim world to become, in the words of the American historian of Islam, Marshall Hodgson (1922–1968), the mainstay of social order in Muslim communities worldwide. I can add that mystical idea and practices also profoundly impacted Muslim culture, especially poetry, figural/representation arts, and architecture. Their communities and shrines can still be found in the overwhelming majority of Muslim countries, except for those in which their governments officially banned Sufism. In terms of numbers, the majority of Sufis today live in Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and Africa, including Egypt. It is common knowledge that mysticism ideas and images have had a lasting influence on Persian-speaking societies of Iran, Central Asia and India, before and after the modern age that started in the eighteenth century and continues today, although some sociologists prefer to describe our current condition as "post-modern."      

Q: What are the differences and commonalities between Shia and Sunni when it comes to Sufism and mysticism?

Mysticism and Shia have many commonalities, especially as far as mystical philosophical ideas and refined spirituality are concerned. However, there was also opposition to Sufism, especially its popular forms (dervishism), on the part of many influential Shia theologians and jurists. They rejected Sufi claims to the spiritual authority and guidance (walaya) of the masses that, in Shia Islam, are seen as the exclusive prerogative of the descendants of Ali ibn Abi Talib and Fatima. In Sunni Sufism, any pious individual and miracle-worker can claim such authority. The Shia opponents of Sufism found such claims groundless and even intolerable. Thus, Sunni Sufism and Shia mysticism are divided by the overall doctrinal disagreement between Islam's respective understandings. At the same time, mystical metaphysical and philosophical ideas have made their way into Shia communities' intellectual and spiritual lives. To dissociate them from Sunni Sufism, they are usually referred to as hikmat/hikmet and attributed to Imam Ali and his descendants. In this way, the philosophical and spiritual aspects of mysticism have eventually become fully integrated into Islam's Shia vision. One can, of course, argue that these ideas were originally voiced by Imam Ali and his descendants, especially the Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq, but I do not want to dwell on this controversial issue here because it belongs to the sphere of theology, which is not my field of expertise.         

Q: What is the role of Wahhabism (in Saudi Arabia) and Salafism in other Arab countries in confronting other Islamic sects and narratives?

There are many speculations around the notions of Salafism and Wahhabism. Sometimes they are used as synonyms; other times, they are separated and treated as distinct movements within Islam. I would say that Wahhabism is a special Arabian version of Salafism that developed within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, in common parlance, Salafism is a catchall term applied, often indiscriminately, too many different trends within Salafi Islam. Even within the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, we can find mutually incompatible interpretations of Salafism, such as the Sururiyya (politically active Salafis, who are critical of the ruling regime/family) and the Madkhaliyya (politically inactive, quietist Salafis, who endorse everything the ruling regime/family does). There are other branches of the Salafiyya, including militant jihadists and peaceful conservative preachers of what they call the "pure" Islam of the Prophet and his companions. Lumping them under the same conceptual umbrella is problematic because it obscures the movement's internal diversity. Yet, opposition to and even outright condemnation of Sufism and its followers is something that the overwhelming majority of the Salafists all over the world have in common. In Saudi Arabia, Sufism is officially declared to be a heretical innovation (bid'a) and banned from the public sphere. It does exist, but clandestinely. In many other countries, however, ruling elites seek to empower Sufi communities to counterbalance the influence enjoyed by various Salafi groups, especially among those who are discontent with the political and economic status quo. In general, the rulers are eager to manipulate the differences between Sufis and their opponents in accordance with the famous principle "divide and rule." While their potential opponents are fighting, they have no time to address the ruling establishment's injustices, corruption, and failures. We find this situation in many Muslim countries as well as countries in which Muslims are a minority.

Q: Some observers say Islam is political in its nature. What is your comment?
All I can say is that every religion is political, even when its followers claim it is not (for example, the ill-fated Gulen movement in Turkey or the Madkhaliyya movement within Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia). The claim of being apolitical is itself a political statement and political stance.

Q: How could some extremists like ISIS exploit and misuse Islamic education and ideas to exercise violence? What are the geopolitical grounds and causes?
Any Muslim movement may claim to be acting or speaking in the name of Islam. This is part of the age-old Islamic world's polyphony and lack of a recognized centralized authority that determines what correct doctrine and practice are and what is not. This feature, that is, the Islamic doctrinal field's decentralized nature, has set it apart from a more hierarchical structure such as the Roman papacy. Yes, we can declare ISIS to be heretics and deviants to our heart's content, but they and their followers will respond in kind, claiming, for instance, that we are neglecting the pillar of Islam. They can also justify their violence by the violence inflicted on the Muslim world by the West (as Usama Bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri did). They would also claim to be restorers of the dignity of the Muslims and Islam in the face of Western ideological, political, economic and cultural domination. We can claim that they are dead wrong, but they will tell us the same thing. And, yes, the current geopolitical situation is conducive to conflict because of the inequality of the geopolitical players. Some nations are rich and powerful, whereas others are poor, marginal, and powerless. Some are masters and others are their willing or unwilling clients. This realization is painful for the latter. Inequality breeds conflict and violence among advantaged and disadvantaged countries and the rich and poor classes in the same country/nation.