Coping with defeat

Coping with Defeat: Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Modern State
Jonathan Laurence
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021, xxvi, 578 pp., ISBN 9780691172125

Coping with Defeat is an unusual book not just because it compares two widely different religious entities (Roman Catholicism and “Sunni Islam”), but also because it blends and blurs boundaries between academic scholarship and journalism, history and run-of-the-mill political statements published in newspapers, trendy infographics and archival research, and poorly-reproduced pictures and cartoons from newspapers with tables and charts based on  research data collected over the years. Its 113 illustrations, 27 tables, and 61 pages of notes, comprising references cited from works in its 47-page bibliography demonstrate serious engagement with existing scholarship, but only of a particular kind—the one that conceives Islam as having no inherent agency and stable and unchanging set of beliefs which have been the main kinetic force behind the emergence of its religious and administrative institutions to regulate and facilitate communal praxis. To be sure, these institutions have changed form, administrative structures, and their relationship with the state over the course of centuries, but no one has ever considered them as institutions which define Islam a la Catholic Church defining the fundamental credal positions of Christianity; rather, they are a product of the diverse social and political settings in which Muslims have lived since the beginning of Islam and their function has been to serve, regulate, and—increasingly—to control the religious practices of the community.

Jonathan Laurence, a professor of political science at Boston College, does not explain what he means by “Sunni Islam”, but he justifies the comparison between “Sunni Islam” and Roman Catholicism with half a sentence: they both have “traits like creeds, codes of conduct, and notions of global confessional community” (p. 10). This is a rather weak foundation for the massive structure the book erects on the basis of its “central argument that three shocks, or defeats, eroded the political ties between the last major Christian and Muslim political-religious empires—the Papal States and the Ottoman Empire—and their believers. The shocks differed in timing for Catholics and Sunnis but have had the same revolutionary effect of gradually binding religious authorities to the rule of law…. Each historical shock moved religious authorities further along the spectrum of state-religion relations—from a position of supremacy to the semi-autonomy of the contemporary state-religion bargain” (p. 12).

The central argument of the book presumes that the Ottomans were the custodians of “Sunni Islam” in a manner similar to how the Papal authority is for Roman Catholicism. It posits that there was a “spiritual-temporal fusion: the religious and political authorities were rolled into one, the pope guarding the Two Swords of Saint Peter while the caliph served as guardian of the Sword and Flag of the Prophet” (p. 19). In doing so, it makes three crucial mistakes: (i) it catapults this “spiritual-temporal fusion” to center stage of the book as a singular event in “Sunni Islam” in order to paddle its comparison with Roman Catholicism; (ii) it ignores the critical difference between political structures of the two religions; and (iii) it ignores the fact that the Ghazis (religious warriors) who established the Ottoman emirate under the leadership of Osman Ghazi (d. 1323/4) did not have religious authority comparable to the Pope; in fact, Ottoman sultans were even ambivalent in assuming the title of Caliph as they did not have Qurayshi lineage, which is considered to be a sine qua non for that title. Even when they gained greater political and military power after Sultan Murad I (r. 1362–1389) conquered Edirne, the claim of the Cairo-based ceremonial Abbasid Caliphs under the patronage of the Mamluk Sultanate was more credible until the end of Mamluk dynasty in 1517, because they were the custodians of the two Sacred Mosques and were thus called Servants of the two Noble Sanctuaries (Khādim al-Ḥarmayn al-Sharīfayn), a title denoting the de facto Caliph.

Coping with Defeat also loses its credibility on theological grounds. Religious and political authorities have never been “rolled into one” in Islam after the demise of the Prophet, who alone holds that distinction. After him, Abū Bakr (r. 632-34) was called Khalīfat al-Rasūl (the Successor of the Messenger), not in the sense of a Caliph, as the term was later understood, but simply as the one who succeeded the Messenger. Following him, ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (r. 634-644) was given the official title of Amīr al-Muʾminīn (“the leader of the Believers”)—a title that was retained by several succeeding rulers, none of whom ever claimed to combine religious authority with their office, even as everyone acknowledged the existential necessity of a state where the believers could practice Islam in peace in accordance with the teachings of the Qurʾān and the Sunnah of the Prophet. The first four rulers after the Prophet were given the title of “Righted Guided Caliphs” retroactively.

Coping with Defeat conceives the comparison between “Sunni Islam” and Roman Catholicism in terms which set the latter as a model and forerunner for the former. “Despite its disastrous encounter with the modern state in the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church arrived at a peaceful cohabitation by the turn of the new millennium” (p. 393),  “Sunni Islam”, on the other hand, is “in disarray” (p. 394), “a race for religious hegemony has ensued, posing ever more urgently the issue of Islamic temporal sovereignty” (p. 395). The triumph of modern nation state is seen as not only the logical outcome of the “three defeats” it has supposedly served to Roman Catholicism and Islam, but also a manifest destiny. This, despite the fact that many contemporary stake holders and beneficiaries of the Westphalian model, upon which the modern nation state rests, are already claiming that the world has arrived at a post-Westphalian era because of globalization which has “made the Westphalian approach anachronistic” (A. Claire Culter, “Critical reflections on the Westphalian assumptions of international law and organization: a crisis of legitimacy,” in Review of International Studies, Volume 27, Issue 2, April 2001, pp. 133-150). Others—such as Hall Gardner, Professor and Chair of the International and Comparative Politics Department at the American University of Paris, France—even question the prevalent notion that the Treaty of Münster between the Holy Roman Emperor and France, along with their respective allies and the Treaty of Osnabrück between the Holy Roman Empire and Sweden, along with their respective allies, signed on 24 October 1648 inaugurated a new era in European and world affairs by reifying state sovereignty as a global governing principle (IR Theory, Historical Analogy, and Major Power War, 2018, p. 117-118).

These fundamental problems notwithstanding, Coping with Defeat does have plenty of data to support the increasing state control of religious affairs in the modern period through control of mosques, Imams, and madrasas. It is the author’s stance—that increasing control of religious institutions by ministers and ministries of religious affairs and the shrinking of the independent Muslim religious leadership is redefining “Sunni Islam” itself just as Roman Catholicism was redefined—that is problematic because Muslim history proves otherwise. Islam and Muslims have lived through the glory and vainglory of five centuries of Abbasid Caliphate (132-656/750–1258), which witnessed the reign of 39 caliphs—and the only inquisition in Muslim history, the miḥna (218-233/833–848), during which scores of religious scholars, including Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. Ḥanbal (163-240/780–855), were imprisoned and flogged—and 625 years of the rise and fall of 37 Ottoman Sultans, some of whom were installed by the Janissaries when they were as young as 11 and six (Murad IV and Mehmed IV respectively) and none of whom ever visited the two Noble Sanctuaries which are supposed to give them their religious authority, without suffering any damage to its core beliefs because they remain securely lodged in its twin sources: the Qurʾān and the Sunnah.

“Sunni Islam” crystalized into its four legal schools and associated credal positions several centuries before the Ottomans. Its distinguishing principles of jurisprudence (aṣūl al-fiqh) and creedal positions of the Folk of the Prophetic Practice and Community (ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamāʿ) were never under the sway of caliphs and rulers; they emerged in an open-source, public discourse among scholars. While it is true that religious beliefs and practices can be influenced, even expelled, from vast swaths of the earth by force—as was done under the Soviet and Chinese communist rules and as is being done by certain modern secular rulers of Muslim majority states in North Africa who have happily taken over the colonial project of removing Islam from constitutions and lawbooks of their states—it is also true that Islam is not, will never be, defined by constitutions and lawbooks of nation states. For Muslims, Islam is simply how their Prophet defined it when asked by the Arch-angel Jibril: “Islam is to testify there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, to establish prayer, to pay zakāt, to fast the month of Ramadan, and to perform the Hajj if possible.” At this fundamental level, there is not even a “Sunni” and “Shia” Islam; it is that simple. This is not to deny the validity of Sunni and Shia differences in certain matters of fiqh, creed or even the principles of interpretation of the Qur’an, nor to reduce their historical differences in political matters; it is simply to point out that these differences do not give rise to different Islams in the manner Catholicism is distinguished from Protestant Christianity and Papacy from the priesthood of all believers.

Political rulers may even force laws on a nation in contravention to the Qurʾān and the Sunnah and certain practices—even beliefs—may become corrupt for some Muslims for some time, but since the primary sources of Islam remain uncorrupted and always accessible to successive generations, they provide an ever-present path of revival of beliefs and practices in Islam. This has happened over and over in Muslim history and there is no reason to believe that it will not happen again, especially given the Prophetic foretelling about the final triumph of Islam over all other systems of belief. Yet, admittedly, this argument will not be convincing for Laurence and others who work within the framework of secular modernity built upon the progress narrative which conceives the triumph of whatever happens to Western civilization as the destiny of all civilizations and people.

Coping with Defeat is yet another product of this self-conceit and triumphalism of post-Renaissance Western attitude toward other civilizations and religions. It is a narrative full of bombast, even wit (“As the Ottoman Empire shrank, the caliphs made Islamic lemonade from European lemons… the House of Osman hoped to emulate the nineteenth-century papacy, whose last grains of earthly power were also slipping into the lower bulb of the hourglass”, p. 24). Yet, it is inconceivable that a few princes and self-appointed kings and presidents of certain countries who populate the pages of this book can be raised to the stature of Papal authority and power as held in Roman Catholicism simply by focusing microscopic attention to their stratagem for extending their rule to the religious domain, just as it is inconceivable that Islam can ever have anything similar to a Pope, dioceses, eparchies, bishops, the Holy See, the Roman Curia, and the Nicene Creed.

Center for Islamic Sciences, Canada                                                                    Muzaffar Iqbal

August 18, 2022