The birth of Islam coincided with radical change in the anthropological and sociocultural situation of Arab populations which, in about the seventh century CE, had already been affected by strong social tensions and by a number of important religious upheavals. If pre-Islamic societies are generally to be considered as poly theistic, the presence, since the beginnings of Islam, of important Christian and Hebrew communities must not be understated and from which elements of the Koran are taken. This “new” religion, Islam – whose etymology means “peace” but also “submission” in the sense of humankind’s devotion to God’s word – not only changed the extant religious language, but also deeply modified the social and anthropological structures of the peoples of the Arab peninsula. In analyzing the structures of Islamic societies it is clear how such an event resulted from the demand for change in a social universe – the tribal and clanic world – which claimed to be structured differently from the extant one, and which was crossed by deep tensions and crises.
According to Islamic tradition, God chose a man, Mohammad, who through the angel Gabriel’s revelation (or tanzil, which means Word descent) would become God’s messenger and prophet. The God of Abraham reveals definitively in the Word, the recitation of which corresponds to the term Qur’an in Arabic, the language that, according to the Koran, God chose because of its “clarity.” This point represents an essential element in the definition of Islamic identity: the new religious conscience of Islam involves a linguistic and semantic specificity represented by the Arab language. In this way, signs and symbols define the whole religious universe of Islam and they are the foundations of Islamic dogma, the I gaz al qur’an (the inimitability of the Koran): ”If all the humans and all the Jinns banded together in order to produce a Qur’an like this, they could never produce anything like it, no matter how much assistance they lent one another” (Koran, Surah XVII, verse 88).
The notion of inimitability refers to the notions of fascination and amazement: the divine language interrogates man, as the creator asks him to witness the eternity of his mystery (gaib) and the mystery of creation. An essential element of Islamic theology is the mystery behind the revelation of God, who does not allow man to attain such knowledge. Divine revelation in Islam is inseparable from ”God’s messenger” or rasul, Mohammad’s path, which is divided into two phases, each corresponding to a collection of Surahs (chapters) of the Koran. The first phase, from the beginning of the revelation until 622, is called the Meccan period: it reflects the image of a solitary man, marginalized from Meccan society because of the revelation. The Meccan Surahs of this first period deal with a deeply spiritual, eschatologi cal Islam – an Islam which could be referred to as being an interior Islam. In the second period, from 622 to 632, a change in the function of the Koran’s message occurs: Islam appears and develops in Medina, where the first Muslim community is born and where individual religious identity becomes collective. The cycle of the revelation continues in Medina and the Prophet Mohammad dies in 632, leaving a society in the making.
The Koran’s text, composed of 114 Surahs, is present in the memory of the Prophet’s companions (the first four caliphs) and in the community’s memory, but it is not yet structured, given that their culture is based on oral traditions and not the written word. This explains the reason for the great disagreements behind the authenticity of some verses and forms of transliteration. In fact, any passage which passes from oral to written form creates a filter that has consequences for an orally revealed religion.
The present text of the Koran, comprising 114 chapters, was codified during the age of caliph Utman (d. 656). His decision to arrive at a definitive version of the text intended to stop the violent polemics which the two different approaches to text created, due to the diverging views on Islam and its social structure. Sources for the contention were founded on issues of Arabic grammar. Two schools arose: the Bassora school and the Baghdad school. This implied two different ways to expound the revealed Word: one more closed, the other more open. Utman, to avoid disputes, opted for the more conservative system.
In the Koran, the order of chapters does not follow the chronological sequence of their revelation. Except for the first Surah, Al Fatiha (”the opening”) that is Meccan, all the initial Surahs are from the Medina period, in that they essentially define the social organization of Islam and its ethical and juridical principles. Some scholars affirm that the historical sequence of the Surahs is inverted because they have been ordered beginning with the longer ones and ending with the shorter ones. Others affirm that this has to be interpreted as an accent on the Medina Surahs – those that refer to a specificity of Islam, the primacy of the community over the individual, a primacy that is historically defined in Medina and becomes the social archetype of the Muslim world.
In effect, Islamic identity is founded not only on the historically defined experience of the Medina community, but also, and essentially, on the prophetic function. The Prophet Muhammad embodies two roles in Islam. He is the messenger of God, whose Word he receives to transmit to the community, and he also represents the image of the perfect man (insan kamil), symbol of charismatic authority that is expressed through history, and therefore in a social construction consequent to the sacred experience of revelation. He is the archetype, the model which should inspire every Muslim community.
The first historical experience of Islam is that of Medina: it represents the collective memory for the entire Muslim world. In this way history becomes tradition (Sunna) and creates an individual and collective model for the whole community. From the outset, this passage in history involves a structural crux: if an initial historical experience is to be reproduced perpetually, Islam can no longer be empowered by history. Therefore, with the death of its Prophet, profound disagreements arose regarding Islam’s developments throughout history; the controversy between Sunnis and Shiites has its roots in the function of the Prophet. For the Sunnis, the cycle of prophecy concludes definitively with Muhammad’s death. To subscribe to a historical perspective means to reproduce the founding elements of Islam, the categories and the interpretive patterns elaborated by the Prophet, since they are considered sufficient to preserve the social and religious elements of a community.
For the Shiites, on the contrary, the cycle of prophecy does not end, but continues throughout history. Islam has to be experienced permanently, in order to preserve a vital link between the sacred and the historical experience of its community. In the Shiite tradition, such continuity is made possible by prophetic descent, by the genealogical filiations which have their beginnings with Ali, cousin and son in law of the Prophet: in fact, the Shiite faith witness mentions Muhammad alongside Ali.
These deep differences in the interpretive grid configure the Islamic universe into different dimensions and into contrasting anthropological and juridical patterns. In Islam, two perceptions of the connection between society and religious identity have developed. They correspond to different ways of interpreting the concept of authority. For the Shiites, the collective memory of Islam is kept alive, since the prophetic descent ensures the continuity of interpretation. The caliph is the principal figure of authority because it is he who maintains the interpretation of the Koran; the prophetic tradition does not conclude with the death of Muhammad, but it is continually enriched through the succession of the imams, interpreters of Islam in its historical development. For the Sunnis, on the contrary, the historical cycle of interpretation concludes with the death of the Prophet in 632; Muslim society disposes of a definitively fixed pattern that can and must only repeat itself in following cycles of history.
Such deep disagreements produced a political and a theological divorce, since – according to the Shiite perspective – the caliphate had been usurped by the Sunnis. While Sunni Islamic theology is based upon a series of dogmas, Shiite Islamic theology is founded on the combination of the spiritual dimension and its achievement in history. While for the Shiites there is an uninterrupted investment in history with the sacred, for the Sunnis these two areas are distinct from one another and are always susceptible to conflict. For example, radical Islamism springs from the refusal of a historical investment in the interpretation of the Koran.
Sociologically, Sunni Islamism adapted to the cultural and cognitive contexts of the different peoples it encountered within its history, through the formulation of a legal system and not of a theology. Up to the present there are four schools of juridical interpretation: the Malikite, the Hanbalite, the Hanafite, and the Shafiite. Each of them extends over a wide area of the Muslim world. For example, the Malikite school is present in the Maghreb region and the Hanbalite school extends over the Middle West area (Mashreq), whereas the Hanbalite and Shafiite schools are in the areas of the so called peripheral Islam (Central Asia, the Balkans, the Indian subcontinent, etc). Not only do these schools differ from each other in their juridical characteristics, but each of them also defines a specific approach to the Koran’s exegetics, since each adopts a particular speculative methodology about the juridical corpus, varying from maximalist to minimalist interpretations.
There are four methods of reasoning in the formulation of the law in Sunni Islamism: igma (consent); qiyas (analogy); ray (personal opinion); and igtihad (interpretation), which provides an essentially closed praxis. The identity of a Sunni Muslim is not only founded upon the Koran and the prophetic tradition, but also upon his belonging to a certain juridical school which conditions his whole existence, from birth to death, through rites and religious praxis.
From the late Middle Ages, the European approach to Islam has been functional to the relation between religious identity and territory. The expansion of Islam in the Mediterranean basin has been interpreted in terms of competition between two patterns of medieval intelligibility, that is to say in terms of the different conceptions of truth, connected to revelation in the two sacred texts (the Koran and the Christian gospels). Intellectual and theological debates attempted to ascertain which of them held the truth.
Until the beginning of the twentieth century the interpreting grid of the Islamic phenomenon was based upon the more relevant historical events or changes. The birth of a wide Islamic empire in the heart of the Mediterranean has been the object of various interpretations, in particular the thesis of two prominent historians, the medievalist Henri Pirenne and the founder of the Annales school, Fernand Braudel. Pirenne affirmed that what distinguishes Islam from Christianity – and what corresponds to Islam’s strategy of conquering new territories -is that Islam never integrates into other cultures, but always remains unchanged. Studying the texts of the Councils in Muslim Spain, Pirenne points out that the church had to translate its Latin texts into Arabic because Arabic was so widespread. His explanation is that the Muslim conquest implied an extension of its religious and sociocultural pattern. Pirenne places this specificity of Islam in opposition with the conquest of the Germans who, on the contrary, integrated and embraced the linguistic, cultural, and religious patterns of the people they conquered and who converted therefore to Christianity. Pirenne considers the fact that Islam never integrates a specificity of the religion, because he maintains that Muslim identity has a territorial character: Islam exists anywhere Muslims live.
The Annales school reflects a more complex position, in which religious matters are defined on the basis of material relations. From this point of view, the expansion of Middle Age empires has to be interpreted in relation to the exchange of goods and the control of maritime routes, which determines the logic of power and rule. If this logic is maintained until a certain date, then this is a consequence of the material, that is, economic characteristics of the period. In effect, the decline of the Muslim world historically coincides with the loss of control of the new trade routes. This happened in the sixteenth century, when trade moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. In this case religious identity just seals the means of production and the consequent power relations of the period.
The nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth saw the development of oriental ism. This doctrine is considered as constitutive of a phenomenology of Islamic elements, such as the corpus of founding texts, the production of Muslim jurisprudence, the Arab language and its idioms, and the literature and the history of great dynasties. But orientalism certainly lacked the material history of the Muslim world, pro viding for it a series of interpreting grids, in the same way that the historical method did in the development of the western world. In fact, in Islam’s historiography, the lack of a history of peoples is evident, since a history of dynasties and power has prevailed.
The conceptual frame of orientalism that provided a comprehensive and organic picture of Islam gradually crumbled in the face of the felt necessity to decodify those societies into a structural approach. A new approach to these societies was shaped in the field of social and cultural anthropology, where in fact more relevant methodological changes appeared. In the 1950s scholars like Jacques Berque, Jean Paul Charnay, Germaine Tillon, and Clifford Geertz opened a new approach to Islam through structuralist research. They analyzed the kinship system and local economies; they conducted sociolinguistic studies of dialects; they began to analyze production in the Muslim world and its relations with territory. In this way they got over the issues that blocked these societies into rigid and decontextualized frames.
During the last few decades the consequences of decolonization together with the phenomenon of acculturation in Muslim countries have amplified the crisis and the re Islamization of society, through the forming of religious parties and of a symbolic universe reintroducing religious order in socialization processes (veils for women, beards for men, etc.). Political science and sociology have analyzed all these changes. The phenomenon of Islamic terrorism, the geo political changes consequent to the Afghan crisis and the two Gulf wars, together with the question of the development of an Islamic Diaspora, both in the USA and in Europe, have raised the question of a public space for Islam in democratic western societies.
The role of sociologists and political analysts has therefore become relevant in providing a comprehensive frame for the great changes in Islam’s progress. For example, scholars underline the deep fracture (fitna) afflicting contemporary Islam, dividing those who embrace a close relation between Islam and political order, and those who embrace a change of Islam in private life. The works of Gilles Kepel, Olivier Roy, and Jocelyne Cesaritend to demonstrate the complexity of the changes and conflicts in progress in Islam and in its relations with the West.
A multidisciplinary approach to Islam in the social sciences gives an account of the present complexities and of the phenomena still in progress within Muslim societies. Such an approach is shared by many Muslim scholars, such as the anthropologist Abdellah Hamoudi, the philosopher Mohammed Arkoun, the political analyst Ghassan Salame, the sociologist Leila Babes, and the historians Abdessalam Cheddadi and Abdellah Laroui. In all these studies the traits of contemporary Muslim societies are evident in the relationship between reality and change. Scholars have to face the difficulty of formulating appropriate interpreting grids to describe an ever changing reality. In studying and analyzing reality there is always a risk of using analytical frames which are surpassed by the constant transformation of reality, and of not having a conceptual frame that can account for reality and change.
The doctrine of orientalism has undergone a crisis because it fixed a method of study of those societies which did not take into consideration their transformation. Today, in the social sciences, the risk persists of fixing an immutable frame for Muslim societies by affirming that ”Islam is The wording should probably be changed from Islam to Muslims, that is to say, those who live Islam.
The prospects for research on Islam and Muslim societies involve more than a shift towards field analyses, starting by singling out groups and segments of society, since collective identity tends today to shift toward individual identity. All this is related to the new forms of organization and structure of Muslim societies. What needs to be defined today is the Islamic Diaspora and Islamic nationalism, and what are the political procedures structuring Islam into political patterns like those of Morocco or Turkey. What should be analyzed is the crisis that is political Islam, as in Algeria. Finally, the crisis of contemporary Islam should be evaluated, in which the central questions troubling the Muslim world are the construction of a democratic space and the acknowledgment of human rights – the rights of the individual and religious freedom. Studying these questions society by society and country by country, the social sciences could provide a new framework that emphasizes the magnitude of the crisis, but also the significance of the changes that Islamic societies are already undergoing.
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