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Answers to Misconceptions - What is Sunnism and what it is not
The Sunni tradition represents the mainstream of fourteen centuries of Islamic tradition. As its accepting, inclusive, and tolerant language melts away, the its center is occupied by extreme views that should otherwise remain in the margins of society. The hierarchy of Islamic sciences and education has yielded its place to the ideological and transient manifests of political movement. Discourses that are not profound matters, that are distant to metaphysical tension, that are deprived of knowledge of law, method, aphorism and wisdom are bound to be discarded and left to wither away with the very first lights of the sun. That is what is happening. Instead of the Sunnism that has for centuries been put up status quo, accused by pacifism and castigated by with accusations of sectarianism, we have rhetoric that points to the streets, that calls for action. This rhetoric has not been able to solve any of our problems.
As long as the Muslim and conservative side of Turkey turn its back on Sunnism, radical currents that emerge from the Arab world and Salafism undertake operations to make themselves mainstream for the sake of “the defense of Ahl-al Sunnah.” With their thousands of books in print, they call the innocent youth of Anatolian into Salafism for the sake of Ahl-al Sunnah. On the one hand, there is black propaganda carried out under the name of Sunnism, on the other, there is the threat of radicalism, which undercuts Sunnism. These is also reasons to refer to the Turkish left as a third line.
I do not know what to do with the Turkish left, which refuses to see the fact that Ghazi Mustafa Kemal relied on mainstream Sunnism when forming the Republic. We can see the effect of Hanafi-Maturidi thought in two important works of the Republican period. One of these is the work of Elmalı Hamdi Yazar, the first tafsir of the Quran during the Republican era. The other is Tacrid-i Sarih, a major hadith collection and a summary of Sarih al Bukhari. In his comment on the Tecrid-i Sarih, the late Kamil Miras finds it necessary to give a place to Imam Maturudi. Also, Seyyid Bey, a great fiqh (Islamic law) and legal thinker of the Republican period, has emphasized Maturidi thought in his work. He was a Fiqh teacher in the Istanbul Ottoman University. While founding minds of the Turkish Republic predicated Hanafi-Maturidi interpretation of Sunnism, it is not understandable why the Turkish left disparages Sunnism as sectarianism. Probably, they are also quite confused. In brief, all of Turkish leftists, conservatives and Salafi circles have kept Sunnism at bay under the name of “Sectarianism”. I hope that at least this essay may conduce to the rethinking of Sunnism.
Let’s start with correcting the most basic mistake about Sunnism. Sunnism is not by any means a sect. For this reason, there would be nothing more meaningless than accusing someone who talks about Sunnism for being sectarian. Sunnism is a structure that occurred through the gradual institutionalization of sects and gained the approval of Muslims. The structure is like a confederation of sects. Sunnism is a huge umbrella consisting of 4 sects of fiqh (such as Hanafism, Malikism, Shafiism, Hanbelism) and two sects of kalam (Asharism and Maturidism). That is why, when hearing the term “Sunnism” you should not think of a sect but of a upper-meta discourse. So the key point we need to know about Sunnism is that it is not a sect. Someone who is sectarian cannot be a Sunni.
Rather, Sunnism situates itself against Shiism. The reason behind that is the political struggle between the two. Shiism is more political than it is of itiqad or fiqh. It has a structure that considers the rule of Muslims to be based on faith. The problem is “Who will rule us?” For Sunnis, that question is not too important. It leaves the domain of power to the will of Muslims. Historical facts verify this. Under Sunni political thought, what is significant is how we will be ruled, not who will do the ruling. Because of that, although it is said that the line of the caliphate continues with the Quraysh lineage, the idea has been softened to accommodate the rule of the Turks.
For the Shia, the question who will rule us is not only a political question but also one of itiqad, the Muslim tradition of thinking of the individual’s relationship to God. The matter of who will rule us, called Imamate in Shia tradition, is the main element shaping history, according to Shias. Shia is the common name of given to people who believes that Ali bin-abu Talib was the appointed Khalif right after the Prophet Muhammad. Accordingly, claims of imamate of Ali bin abu Talib’s lineage till the day of judgement and all those imams who believe will be innocent are still present. The quality that sets the Shia apart from other Islamic sects the most is its belief that Ali’s appointment as Khalif right after the Prophet Muhammad. Divisions about how and to whom the imamate passes on after Ali has caused splits within Shiism. Therefore, while Shiism puts into doubt the legitimacy of the Khalifs after the Prophet Mohammed, Sunnism strictly denies this approach. The competition between Sunnism and Shiism is about how political sphere is to be organized. Furthermore, second principle we need to know is that while Sunnism is leaving political sphere to the will of Muslims, Shiism encloses the political sphere within a theocratic and unquestionable sphere.
The reason why Alevi-Bektashis in Turkey have not have had enormous trouble with Sunnis thus becomes evident. The affinity of Alevi-Bektashis in Turkey towards ahl al-bayt does not match up with the political discourse of official Shiism. Alevi-Bektashis are very far from a belief in a divinely appointed human ruler on earth, nor that this person should be innocent and sheltered. The crises that occurred at the time of the Ottoman occurred when some groups embraced the Ismaili faith and denied the sovereignty of Ottoman rulers and giving support to movements related to Mahdism. Any view that did not challenge sovereignty could find a place for expressing itself. Alevi-Bektashis, who do not believe in divine appointment, nor that he is sheltered and pure, is not a competitor to Sunnism. On the contrary, it is known that Bektashis have preferred Hanafism as a sect in Anatolia and that the official sanjak of the Guild of Janissaries was the sanjak of Ebu Hanifa. It must not be forgotten that Bektashis in the Balkans adopted Hanafism and Sunnism as their doctrine. Facing-off Sunnism against Alevists is the outcome of early political fights. The Salafisation of Sunniism and the opening of Alevis to extreme Marxist left-wing views have had important consequences. Therefore, the third principle we need to know: Sunnism is not the competitor of Alevis, but that of Shia rhetoric.
The first reaction we see when we start talking about Sunnism is: “do not engage in sectarianism!” Since we now know that Sunnism is not a sect, we must also understand here that belonging to a sect does not mean being dogmatic. It is frequently said that sects and Sunnism have an exclusionary character that does not allow anything outside of it the right to exist. However, exclusivism and dogmatism are only possible with the claim that beliefs of one specific sect is true and only the followers of that sect can achieve salvation. Sunnism on the other hand, has adopted a pluralism that accepts that many different sects within it can be accurate within their own conditions. It also approves that the later imams of a sect can disagree with their founding imams. This allows for opinions within the sect to renew themselves and become appropriate to their times. In this respect, sects are not stable structures but dynamic ones. Claims that Sunnism declares non-Sunni groups are non-believers (takfir) are not true. Above all, it is contrary to the principle that “ehlikıble,” meaning those who worship towards Mecca, cannot be said to be non-belivers (takfir). Sunnism may claim that others are at fault, but does not attack their right to live. Defending and approving one faith does not mean attacking others’ right to life.
One of the founder imams of Sunnism, Ebu Hanifa transfers a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad as “Allah says ‘do not send my servant to hell or to heaven untill the day of Judgment, when I decide on sending them to their places’” Accordingly, Ebu Hanifa asserts “except for those Allah has sent as messengers, we cannot say such and such will go to heaven and such and such to hell.” Under the circumstances, how it could be possible that Sunnism would send groups outside of it to hell? The only claim of Sunnism can make is to point out things that are wrong and will harm an individual in the afterlife. Hence, the fourth principle we need to know about Sunnism: Sunnism is not exclusivist but inclusivist.
Ultimately, I would like to recall a moral clause within the ‘flowers of Sunnah,’,a passage from one of the founding essays of Sunnism “Sevadu’l-A’zam” by Hakîm es-Semerkandî: “leave the sins of people to them,” meaning that as Muslims, do not compete to reveal the sins of each other. “Call people to justice. Avoid extremism and the limitlessness of your desires.” Therefore, Sunnism is not merely a dry matter of law, nor a matter of doctrine. Sunnism is a moral attitude and an opinion of social justice.
To sum up,
- Sunnism is not a sect. He who is sectarian cannot be a Sunni.
- Sunnism leaves the political sphere to the will of Muslims. Shiism encloses the political sphere into a theocratic and unquestionable sphere.
- Sunnism is not the competitor of Alevism but of Shia rhetoric.
- Sunnism is not exclusivist but inclusivist.
- Sunnism is a moral attitude and an opinion of social justice.