by Sümeyye Kocaman for ISLAMiCommentary on JANUARY 7, 2015:

Sümeyye Kocaman
Sümeyye Kocaman

As we hear more and more about the Caliphate, the ummah, Islamic law and the Islamic State, I am surprised by many things: the so-called experts’ lack of information; how the facts are being politically manipulated; how people of faith are letting religion be used in this minefield; and worse, how people of faith believe that religion can be used to legitimize inhumane, political arguments.

When we hear religion as a political argument — e.g. how an ‘Islamic state’ is needed to provide freedom for Muslims who have been victimized for centuries — we must see this as merely a new wave of nationalism backed up by the power of religious discourse. Religious discourse has the highest potential to mobilize crowds. If the discourse is powerful enough some local groups or even the society at large can be mobilized into an emotional mob that cares little for reason. Their voices — pure political ideology.

In the modern world religion and politics continue to be dangerously intertwined. We can regard this crisis of religion as a chance to reverse a vicious cycle.

Religion is about the relationship between the individual and the Creator and its social ramifications. In this definition, religion is knowledge of the society that is both produced for people and consumed by the people. I see this as religion of the people. Religion of the people stands up against all kinds of radicalisms that refer to religion to legitimize their claim: in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Yet “the people’s religion” is often challenged by “the politicians’ religion.”

The conception of religion, particularly in Islam and Judaism, as a top-down hierarchical organization with harsh ordinances is partially a product of 19th-century political intervention in social groups, and political interpretations of religious theory and meaning. The 19th century witnessed the rise of many nationalist ideologies. Religion itself became affiliated with these ideologies. And in this process, the perception of “my religion is the best and the rest are the enemy” emerged in a big way.

At the same time, the first world religions congresses were being held in prominent metropolitan areas including Chicago and Paris. And religions were even declared to be equal in the new constitution of the Ottoman state in 1876. But despite legal and formal acknowledgement of religious equality and thus religious freedom, religious differences continued to fuel conflict.

Ummah (the Arabic word for ‘community’ or ‘nation’) was actually a name for many religious groups before the mid- 1800s in Ottoman territories. However politics, in the name of religion, came to define the Muslim ummah towards the end of the 1800s. The Ottoman sultan Abdulhamid II promoted Islam as the glue that would connect the people, and declared ummah to be a strictly Muslim term.

While the sultan saw religion as the basis of an imagined community that transcended borders and nationalisms, he could not prevent territorial nationalisms and eventually the Ottoman state lost its lands in three continents. Islam became the only glue to hold disparate Muslim communities together after the Ottoman Empire broke up and further splintered. Islam became the central element of various national identities, and Muslims believed in an Islamic state in an environment where they felt threatened.

Colonial military actions in the Middle East since the 18th century had made Muslims in the area feel even more vulnerable. Islam became a proverbial house in which to take shelter. Islam in effect became the “East” in a supposed ideological clash between East and West. Religion/Islam was seen as a political ideology rather than something related to consciousness about the Ultimate Knower, the Ultimate Protector, the Ultimate Giver.

National identity that had been allied with religious identification in the 1800s, by the 1900s was more likely to be defined by race and language. By then Islam had become more of a national identity. Nascent nationalist states played a critical part in this process. Religion was a very strong social dynamic with the power to mobilize crowds. Thus rulers of these states proposed various and sometimes distorted versions of religion to legitimize their political rule and also to support nationalist ideology.

For instance, according to the 1917 family law that was instituted in Istanbul by the Young Turks, men were legally declared the head of the household, i.e., women were supposed to submit to men — and Sharia was professed to be the legal basis for this. Accordingly, married women were obliged to seek their husband’s permission in financial, legal, and (albeit infrequent) medical issues. Renowned historian of  Islamic law Wael Hallaq argues persuasively that this interpretation was unprecedented in Islamic law. Accordingly, the state was masculine, and the citizenry were supposed to submit as women. Eventually a distorted version of Sharia was invented to educate new submissive citizens to new nationalist states — transferring the sentiment of awe of religious authority to awe of political authority.

We are now experiencing a transformative period of post-nationalism. If the people’s religion doesn’t speak up, religion as cultivated knowledge, ritual and social practice will be sacrificed forever. If people do not generate wind from their little wings, and promote an atmosphere in which the people’s religion can flourish, then the hurricanes of political power will destroy religious communities who see religion as a Creator-centered moral philosophy and signifier of light and warmth and not as a political instrument with sharp orders and prohibitions.

We should rather pursue a new idea — religion with a bottom-to-top hierarchy in knowledge and in practice, religion that adapts to the times, and religion and religious knowledge produced by the people and for the people. Maybe only then we will be able to think out of the box and meet an Islam that first and foremost meant PEACE, not a source of hatred and conflict.


Sümeyye Kocaman holds an MA from UCLA in Islamic Studies and is pursuing further post-graduate studies. Her main research interest is on changing perceptions of law and religion during the decline of empires and rise of nationalisms. She has previously published op-eds in the Turkish press. 

ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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