May 25, 2023•1,166 words
I was struck whilst reading a blog post from Moxie Marlinspike, the co-founder of the popular encryption messaging app Signal who whilst sharing his thoughts on web 3and crypto technologies wrote:
If something is truly decentralized, it becomes very difficult to change, and often remains stuck in time
Inadvertently, one of the tech lords of our time in a nutshell encapsulated what I believe is the real strength of normative Sunni Islam. It is decentralised. It has always been a messy, contentious, tumultuous affair but it has been difficult to manipulate because fundamentally there is no Vatican where you can issue an ASWJ equivalent of Vatican II which becomes binding on all the faithful.
There are strengths and weaknesses to this model of authority, however I believe in our age it is ultimately a strength but only if Muslims stop seeing it as a negative. Whilst many Muslims bemoan the "lack of unity", our enemies recognize the inherent strength of a decentralised model of religious authority.
Dr. Rabasa a senior policy analyst with RAND who authored The Muslim World After 9/11 (2004), discusses this quite candidly in the summary section, on page xix where in a table titled "Sources of Islamic Radicalism", the decentralization of religious authority in Sunni Islam is mentioned as a condition for said "radicalism". Rabasa and his colleagues contend that is the decentralised nature of Sunni authority that makes it particularly hostile to the interests of American primacy as there are no large institutional actors that can be directly targeted. To further underscore this, there are several pseudo-centralised authorities within Sunni Islam such as Al Azhar which for all intents and purposes are now beholden to do bidding of their political masters.
The Islamic Secular and Polycentric Order
Speaking of authority in Sunni Islam is difficult because Sunnism defies conventional post-Enlightenment secular categorizations of "religion" so to speak. To put it simply, to speak of Sunni Islam is to simultaneously consider the possibility of creedal argumentation (aqeedah), theological debate (kalaam), philosophy (falsafa), ethics (akhlaaq), spiritual edification (tasawwuf), Quranic hermeneutics (tafsir) and much more. An alternative schematic that tries to organize this in a more systematic way would be to frame the Sharia on the one hand and the Islamic Secular on the other, which Jackson defines as:
Ultimately...the space between the bounded Sharia as a concrete code of conduct and the unbounded purview of Islam as religion, that is to say, life lived under the conscious presumption of an adjudicative divine gaze, that constitutes the realm of “the Islamic secular.”
Fundamental to an understanding of the Islamic Secular is the notion that the production of cultural norms, the act of fostering cultural literacy to promote the greater recognition of the aims of the Sharia is not the sole province of jurists alone. To borrow the phraseology of Abdolkarim Soroush we must adjust expectations of the Sharia and by extension the interpreters of this reality - the collective body of the ulema. What is the danger of fiqh maximalism? The danger is that it undermines the very enterprise of fiqh. It becomes burdened with inflated expectations that in the end creates the danger that it may be rejected altogether once it is made apparent that it does not have the tools to negotiate the task at hand
My contention would be that all these diverse phenomena have organically reached the same road - and that is one of polycentric order. This wasn't done out of intentional design but rather out of pragmatic consideration and much contention which included at times physical violence. What is a polycentric order? Anas Malik1 defines it as:
"*Self-governing subcommunities work out common rules and coexist in loose confederation. The subcommunities nest within a collective defense condominium arrangement. Rule is diffuse and shared, yet able to coalesce to counter and deter external threats."
Polycentrism has been the traditional lifeblood of Sunnism in all its diverse manifestations.
A Thousand Flowers
Anglophone Sunnism faces multiple threats both within and without. The common unifying thread through all these threats is to relinquish an orthodox, normative understanding of the Sacred Law and to actively deform it to meet the approval of a contemporaneous progressive political agenda which is constantly mutating.
This progressive political agenda increasingly is relying on centralised coercive authority to exact its writ. Whether its through control and consolidation of social media platforms, judicial activism through the courts or psychological warfare through legacy media and mainstream academia. Decentralised authority that is diffuse and communal with true Khaldunian asabiyyah is difficult to manipulate despite the considerable monetary and structural resources at the disposal of progressives. Diffusion means it becomes difficult to capture, to target and manipulate. If you add another layer of protection - encryption and pseudonymous identities it becomes practically unfeasible.
Ulema will always have the pre-eminent role, they have the esteem and well wishes of communities all over - it is part of their burden. However, the Islamic Secular has a role too. Actors who are either outside the purview of controlled employment (i.e. holding an academic position in Georgetown University that comes with certain preconditions) or those who use privacy enhacing technology to avoid the progressive surveillance state. Both will be required. In fact, the more the merrier. A true Cambrian explosion of the Islamic Secular, with a combination of pseudonymous and public personalities will be required. A decentralised network of Sunnism can prove to be tenacious. This means for the ulema to accept that certain aspects of the Islamic Secular, the meme warriors, online degenerates etc are necessary as a means to ridicule, mock and humiliate progressives. Legacy media fears this and tries to counter this, hence new and ever more Orwellian initiatives like BBC Verify or sensationalist hit pieces like that from the Atlantic.
Only Friend and Foe
The response from "Muslim" leftists and the quisling foot-soldiers of Globohomo to the Navigating Difference manifesto should be clear. There is only "friend" and "foe". The other side understands this is a Schmittian struggle to the end, for dominance and control. There are no Rawlsians in real life - there is no liberal neutrality, no civility, no tolerance. There is only unending ideological conquest.
Muslims however need not adopt such Schmittian typologies when dealing with our own. As long as you conform to the generous boundaries of Sunni Islam you are home. If you stumble, that doesn't mean you are lost forever. If you err you will be called in, not called out. The precondition for this is to simply cling to the Word of Allah and his Messenger not just in spirit but in deed, action and belief. To affirm all that is known by necessity about Islam - the absolute bare bones before one even delves into the dense controversies of aqeedha, falsafa and tasawwuf.
Anas, M. (2011). Minarchist Political Islam [Review of Minarchist Political Islam]. In A. Afsaruddin (Ed.), Islam, the State, and Political Authority (pp. 189–206). Palgrave MacMillan. ↩