There’s a good piece in Foreign Affairs about how there is no central religious authority in Islam to condemn ISIS as un-Islamic. Excerpts:
The rapid rise of Daesh (also known as the Islamic State or ISIS) has triggered a debate about how “Islamic” the group actually is and whether an Islamic religious authority can counter its extreme ideology.
The consensus among Muslim religious scholars is that although ISIS draws on some Sunni Islamic references, its interpretations and applications of those references lie far outside an acceptable range.
When it comes to an authoritative figure or body that can counter ISIS, matters are much more complex. It is well-known that there is no overarching state or nonstate body, such as a church or set of religious figures, that interprets and imposes one set of Islamic teachings. That is, there is also no formal institution like the Vatican or other ecclesiastical body for Muslims.
The (short) piece focuses on the decline of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, long the pre-eminent institution of Sunni religious jurisprudence. The authors discuss political factors that have led to Al-Azhar’s descent, and how rebels like ISIS have made inroads into the vacuum created by the university’s weakening authority.
Islam’s story is not the same as Christianity’s, but reading the piece, I couldn’t help thinking about how Christianity is in the same position, though, thank God, we have no forces like ISIS backing up their renegade theological positions with force of arms and a will to terror. Still, there are disturbing parallels.
I throw around the phrase “small-o orthodox Christians” a lot, and I know what I mean by it: Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox Christians who, whatever their differences, are loosely united in their loyalty to historic Christianity, which includes a belief that the source of religious truth is outside the Self. Unlike liberals within the discrete confessions, “orthodox Christians,” as a general rule, do not believe we have as free a hand to re-interpret texts and traditions.
I wonder, though, if the entropy of postmodernity and individualism is inevitably dissolving even our small-o orthodoxy. Consider Catholicism, which has strong, clear doctrines and institutional religious authority without parallel in Christianity. Not even Orthodoxy, which is ancient and hierarchical, has structures of authority as well-defined as Roman Catholicism. And yet, it is striking how little that authority means on the ground. The magisterial authority of the Roman church has been heavily undermined by its educational institutions, its clerics in the postconciliar age, and by general drift of Western culture towards individualism, relativism, and emotivism.
If Rome’s authority, at least in the West, exists mostly on paper, and not in the consciences of most of the faithful (as opinion polls indicate), how much less does the binding authority of Protestant institutions exist? (I can’t say for Orthodoxy in the West, because there are so few of us.) How do Protestants settle theological disputes in a culture that prizes individual interpretation of Scripture? Can texts ever be settled? What hold does the past have upon the present?
I’m not asking these questions rhetorically. I really want to know. We can’t un-know secularism, meaning the awareness that not believing, or believing something different from what we were given, is an option. If the Vatican condemned a vigorous and popular Catholic movement as “un-Christian,” would the Catholics involved in it yield to Rome’s judgment? I say that not to pick on Rome — we are all caught in this same dilemma — but only to point out that if Rome’s traditional magisterial authority over the individual Catholic’s conscience is not felt in the breast of the individual believer, how much less might the judgment of religious institutions, or even of tradition, felt among non-Catholics, who lack formal institutions to the degree that Rome has?
That’s a wordy way of saying that the plight of traditional Islamic institutions in the face of the ISIS challenge has an analogue in the Christian West. Let us say that a determined, passion-driven movement arises within Western Christianity, one that directly challenges long-settled interpretations of sacred scripture, and whose exponents don’t really care about tradition (or rather, decide that they can cherry-pick tradition to suit their purposes). Who could stop them, and with what, given the near-collapse in the plausibility of traditional modes of religious authority?
Let the reader understand.