Sunni Islam is undergoing a gigantic tug-of-war – a power struggle – in which competing versions of the religion are facing off against one another. The struggle, with consequences that manifest themselves in terms of dead bodies and violent accusations of heresy, is at its heart, an aesthetic one: how does one arrange the sources of Islam? This article is an effort to catalogue that discussion. It might seem pithy and even irrelevant at time, but the fundamental questions about Islam today – the place of women, the place of minorities, the rights of non-combatants, the limits placed upon the various nation-states, the death penalty of apostasy and blasphemy, censorship, the organization of parliamentary (or one party) systems, Muslim democracy, Muslim republicanism, Islamism, Israel, oil and so on – all hinge on a) whose narrative about how Islam’s sources are arranged emerges victorious, and b) which narrative does the economically and militarily powerful West decide to empower.
The general trend among academics in the West is to list four or five presumably “standard” sources of Islam and then say “well, here are the ones the Salafis do not accept and add, here the ones the Wahhabis do not accept and add” and so on. I suppose academics do this because they see the world in terms of what is normative (within the academy) and not what is normative in terms of power. This is a flawed approach because it presumptively favors one particular brand of orthodox Sunni Muslims – the classic orthodox – which has been getting quite a proverbial beat down at the hand of the Salafis and Wahhabis for over a century. The only reason one would treat them as normative is if one a) truly believes they ought represent normative Islam (I do not), and b) truly believes that their position can address the various questions about Islam today (again, I do not). On the other hand, I am not comfortable with treating Wahhabis and Salafis as normative either – though they would just love that – because a) they do not actually have a unified method, and b) their service to a particular political ideological agenda means that we should be careful from treating them as normative. As such, I will treat only the Quran – which is to Islam what Christ is to Christianity – as normative, and explain the fascinating, contradictory and multifarious ways in which Muslims relate to it, and the massive systems they have created emanating from it. All of this becomes relevant because the fate of a billion people, and all those who are touched by them, depends on it. Pay attention.