The institutions of any religious belief, are expressions of faith and fulfill the task of passing down their religion’s belief across generations. The Sunni Islam (followed by 90% of Muslims) has no clergy, nor specific hierarchies.
The figure of the caliph (literally, “vicar” of the prophet) was important in the first six centuries, especially in the political sphere. The caliph was in fact, the authority able to hold together the Arab tribes merged into the new faith and also played an important role as rulers of an empire that rapidly extended, thanks to the conquests of other territories achieved after Muhammad’s death. People of different ethnicities, languages and traditions merged in the one Ummah (Muslim community) in the name of a religion. The universal germs of the original message passed the test of a historical evolution which the early followers would have never imagined.
The emphasis on the religious law of Islam can be explained by the limited sense of belonging to one state of the ancient Bedouins, along with the rule of dynasties of caliphs who tried to imitate the Persian and Byzantine monarchies, and the weakness of a centralized power. These factors made it increasingly difficult to control the Muslim conquests which stretched from Andalusia to China and India’s borders (until the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258). Sharia has never been formally codified but is based on the Koran prescriptions and the teachings of the prophet and is left to the interpretation of jurists in each case.
Sharia rules related to worship and family law, in particular, and became a reference point for the life of the believers as individuals and as members of a community. However the crystallized Sharia law has had and still has to face the changes of customs and traditions brought by modernity. Even the “legal war” (jihad), which in the time of the Prophet was essentially defensive against enemy attacks, underwent profound changes both during the period of the conquests, and during the rule of the various dynasties.
Today “jihad” is used instrumentally with anti-imperialist tones, especially against the US and its allies, by fanatics, who claim themselves as members of liberation movements, trying to regain roles and glories of a past which has now vanished. Unfortunately the nature of the regimes in power in many Arab countries, the slow socio-institutional evolution towards a real democracy and the persisting of local conflicts fuel the instrumental ideologization of religious themes which hide far more concrete issues such as energy and geostrategic interests, favouring in this way foreign interference. This makes the chaos even worse, where more than one is fishing in troubled waters.
The current situation
Both regimes and their opponents abused Islam indiscriminately, as an instrument of legitimacy and as a destabilizing factor. As a consequence, Islam is often seen now as a monster and a threat, and not as a religion with principles and values, which is what it really is. Too many unresolved or mismanaged issues have caused and are still causing lack of security and often the loss of life of an impressive number of innocent victims.
As always, minorities are those who pay the highest toll, not only the Christian ones, which have been reduced to less than a quarter compared to the number they were a century ago, but also the Berbers in North Africa and the Kurds in the Middle East, even though their populations are mostly Muslim and Sunni.
Islam, therefore, which is perceived as “a” danger is now instead “in” danger of losing its soul, running the risk of not being able to bring to faithful Muslims the message of justice and mercy, which for centuries was typical of the Islamic faith. In this way, Islam, this ethical and spiritual heritage for all mankind, might irreparably jeopardize itself. (P.B.)