Man’s Failure to Achieve Sacred Consensus Dooms him to Tyranny
The ‘Ash’aris believe the Koran is uncreated (qadim) while the Mu’tazilites and Shi’a hold that while its essence is uncreated, the words are indeed created in time (hadith). As such, they are time-bound, context-bound. And therefore, in order for their timeless wisdom to be applied to each new situation, the context-bound revelations (bound in the context of the circumstances in which they were revealed, the circumstances of the sacred community, and the circumstances of the world at large (for example, the level of development of, say, mathematics of the community to which the revelations were sent) must be interpreted anew and applied to new situations. This act is called ta’wil, which has the same jazr (triletteral root) as awwal (a-wa-la), and is the hermeneutic process of taking a given ayah back to the context of its first inception. It is the creative act of recontextualization of the essence of a moral truth to the (new) contemporary situation. Ta’wil is a Shi’a phenomenon and is not shared by the literalist Sunnis, for whom tafsir (exposition, elaboration, amplification and explanation (grammatical, syntactical, orthographic, etc.) suffices. Because the Sunnite or majoritarian view did not feel the need for ta’wil (a specialized sort of sacred spiritual hermeneutic exegesis), then they did not see in their imams (small i), qaaris, mohaddesin, mofasserin, motekkallemin and fuqaha a need for them to fulfill the function of Imamat (capital I), which included the role of interpreter par excellence of the ayaat and ahaadith – a function for which they necessarily needed to be inerrent (ma’sum; see commentaries on 33:33) and designated from Above (mansus).
So as I have said before, the hadith/ qadim controversy, spills over into the imamat/ khilafat dichotomy (due to the functions assumed for each, and both eventually also crystallize in fiqh in the form of the issue as to whether or not the baab ul-ijtihad (the Gate of Striving) is open or closed. In Sunnite Islam, it remained closed (the various modes of piety having been exhausted by the four Rites (Maliki, Sha’fi’I, Hanafi & Hanbali) until the la-madhhab salafis and Wahhabis came along (these are modernists such as yourself, fyi, who reject the millennial wisdom of tradition (which holds that not everyone is qualified to interpret the sacred texts) – rejects tradition in favor of a truly bizarre “democratic” free for all philosophy of anyone and everyone not only having a right to, but being able to and indeed having a duty to interpret the sacred texts for themselves (and not to imitate others). That is why the Wahhabis demolished the four “maqaams” (stations) of the four Rites which had been erected in the four corners of the ka’ba and stood there for many centuries. (I personally agree with that act of destruction, and must give credit where credit is due –though I do NOT agree with the wholesale dismissal of the 4+1 madhahib, which to me is, like I said, simply a bizarre act, on a par with literally throwing the baby out with the bathwater, if you can imagine such an absurdity. Well you can, of course. What am I saying? You do it every day! You live and breathe that absurdity!!
The fate of the Gate of Ijtihad for the Shi’a is another (much longer) story again. Suffice it to say that it remained kinda open after the Greater Occultation, with the hinges rusting it further and further shut in a creeping Sunnification of our fiqh until Imam Khomeini (ra) and his blessed movement threw it wide open with using the fulcrum of the necessity of expediency in matters of state. (Note that the capitalization of the Imam in Imam Khomeini is titular rather than particular, so that it is proper not to capitalize the word in a sentence such as: Khomeini was a Shi’a great imam (leader; lit. foreperson) of the Iranian people).
Here is an excerpt from an email I sent my friend Mr. Soros a couple of years ago (before the riots that followed the election). In it I tried to articulate the problem of an authority not derived from above, but agreed to by means of reason and convention.
[Mr. Soros,] You are wrong about the de jure status of profane authority: Sunni Islam did indeed accept in theory as well as in practice the authority of the impious (notice I did not use the sacred/ profane dichotomy). That was the Shi’a’s whole objection to the dominant majority of the community: they capitulated in principle to the might makes right position, and hence abandoned in toto the kernel of the Prophet’s charge: the (re)instatement of God’s will on earth.
And because of this acceptance (and of course the de facto demonstrated failure of the Prophet’s mission), that which the modern West thinks it wants and had become the very way in which it defines its notion of freedom, this failure has been within “Islamdom” (to use one of Marshall Hodgson’s necessary neologisms) from the very death of the Prophet himself, and actually, from before it (but that is a much longer story).
I say failure advisedly. You see, this is the depth of the problem: (and this will be a hermeneutic (hashiye-nevisi) on Durkheim’s immense statement (taken from his seminal The Elementary Forms of Religious Life): “If religion generated everything that is essential in society, this is because the idea of society is the soul of religion” [emphasis mine].
If we grant that an-archy (absence of authority) leads to barbarism, then it follows that the more a community strays from consensus and common ground (regarding the authority and legitimacy of its governing laws), the more oppressive its laws become to its outlying constituents.
One cannot get rid of the idea of society without getting rid of the idea of authority; or put another way, one has to have authority if one is to have society. And if authority is to have legitimacy, it has to be bought in to. Some Iranians have decried Khamenei as the symbol of a failed revolution because they claim that they dethroned the Shah only to replace his head with that of Khamenei (see The Turban for the Crown by Saeed Amir Arjomand, for example). Laving aside Arjomand’s weak and superficial thesis regarding the revolution, that is precisely what Western democracy has done: decapitated papist absolutism only to replace it with (the ideal) of representative democracy – the point being that they have done nothing to the behemoth of absolutism; they have merely substituted one form of absolutism with another. But don’t go running off to defend the new authoritarianism as relatively superior. That is not my point. My point is that we have no choice but to embrace absolutist authoritarianism (in its modern democratic guise or otherwise), because society cannot exist without laws, which themselves can only be enforced by brute force. Therefore, the only way to escape from the tyranny of absolutism is for that absolutism to have absolute legitimacy or to have as much legitimacy as possible; is for society to be a community; for there to be consensus or near-consensus, in other words, and for that consensus to be sacred, to have consensus upon the sacred, to hold values in common that are held sacred: haram, haraam, totem & taboo. Without consensus upon the sacred, one can have authority but one cannot have legitimate authority, and without legitimate authority one either has barbaric anarchy, or the next (but barely) better thing, illegitimate autocracy. Man’s failure to achieve sacred consensus dooms him to tyranny. This, I believe, is a formidable rational argument for the justification of religion. And it is a formidable one which I believe the Left has not even begun to recognize, let alone to address. And of course the Right in the West has been much more interested in stoking the popular will with the false promises of the equally false prophets of the (communitarian, statist) right, be they Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, or Mao.
The whole thing about Islam is that it recognized the need for consensus (ijma’) in order for the sacred community (umma) to obtain, but it also recognized that this (sacred) authority must be limited and that everything that is not haram must by default be halal. Or at least that is what the theory was. Then came scope creep. And authority became all-encompassing, totalitarian, oppressive.
But the Shi’a knew this was going to happen. That is why they insisted in the necessity for divinely-appointed (mansus) leadership (the Imams), because the Koran was created in time and hence its laws were context bound (and hence needed to be interpreted anew by a divinely appointed guide whose word was as infallible as the Koran’s (and the Prophet’s). This was the difference between the two proto-communities, not the “political” differences and power struggles between the ‘Alid partisans and that of the Bani Umayyah, as orientalists have repeated, parrot-like, regurgitating the Sunnite clap-trap. The schism was much deeper, and had its origin in a religious feeling that the community must be divinely guided in order for it to remain sacred. Indeed, the Cycle of Imamate that we Shi’a believe was initiated by the passing of the prophet from the earthly plane is the only way for God’s wilayah to be effected on Earth, the only way for His Will and His Justice to obtain is for Him to claim His jurisdiction on Earth (as it is in Heaven). And that, in turn, is the only way not only for us to fulfill our end of the Bargain (mithaaq, Covenant) that we struck on the Day of Alast (to follow Guidance from Above), but is indeed the only way for God to fulfill the end of the Bargain which he covenanted. This is the Shi’a interpretation of the relevant verses of the Qur’an  which see in the Covenant of Alast the necessity of the Imamate as God’s obligation to provide guidance in order that man is able properly to carry the onus of the Trust (baar-e amanat) that is the vice-regency of God on Earth (khelaafat-ollah f’il ardh).
Hence we have the difference between the Sunnite concept of khilaafat and the Shi’a concept of imaamat: the former inherited only the prophet’s temporal functions of political authority, whereas the subscribers to the concept of imaama held that the tripartite functions of political, juridical and spiritual authority were all necessarily inherited by the leader of the community, the Imam, if the community was to fulfill the raison d’etre of the Prophet’s ministry (resaalat) and sustain its sacred character.
Posted by Arash Darya-Bandari