On the Concept of Al-Imam Anyone who holds the title must be subordinate

September 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Last week, I discussed the concept of umma being mistranslated into the European concept of “nation,” I argued that the main difference between the two concepts is that, in the case of the nation, the will among the people concerned to form a unified state of their own is what determines whether they form a nation or not, while in the case of the umma the people concerned might not want to live under the same overarching “umma-state” yet still demand that every one of the numerous states ruling over different portions of the umma be accountable to all other members of that umma, even those who do not fall under it jurisdiction. In that case, the Egyptian state would be as accountable to Palestinians and Iraqis as it is to Egyptians. An act it takes against the interest of those nations would be extremely unpopular to many in Egypt, even if it was in the interest of the Egyptians; because, to those Egyptians, the umma rather than the Egyptian nation is the focus of loyalty.

Nevertheless, we cannot really understand how the concept of umma operates in directing Arab and Muslim public opinion without understanding its twin concept: the “imam.”

To most people, the first thing that comes to mind when hearing the word “imam” is a supreme leader of Shiite Muslims, be that the Hidden Imam or Ayatollah Rohollah Khomeini. Like the concept of umma, the “imam” was quarantined out of contemporary politics as sum medieval theocratic relic that only angry fanatics would like to bring back.

The imam, in Arabic, mainly means the guide. And, like in English, the guide could be a human being or a book, a set of symbols which point to some destination. Thus the imam means the book that guides ­ ie. the Koran. The word also means the ideal, the perfect imagined existence against which the concrete worldly existence is measured and judged; even a piece of string stretched between a pair of nails used by ancient builders to measure a building’s angles is also called an imam.

In this sense, the texts of the Koran and Hadith (the tradition of the Prophet Mohammed) are in themselves imams for the Muslims, following these imams, is what makes the Muslims an umma.

Anyone who holds the title imam must be subordinate, in one sense or another, to those supreme textual Imams of the Koran and the Hadith. For example, when the caliphs, Shiite and Sunni alike, throughout Islamic history used the title of Al-Imam, they did so because they legitimized their rule depending on some interpretation of the Koran. When the twelve leaders of Shiite Muslims claimed the title, they, again, did it due to one interpretation of Koran and Hadith. When the four founders of the four major Sunni schools of thought were called Imams, they were interpreting the Koran; they were assuming a subordinate position of specifying the exact meanings of texts. While they were followed by others, they in turn were following the texts. Not only were these founders of major schools called imams, any one who could interpret the Koran in a manner that is unique to him, and who can convince others that his interpretation is more adequate than other interpretations, is an Imam. In other words the imam is a scholar and scholar is at once a student and a teacher.

All political power was vested in the holy texts of the Koran and the Hadith. Those texts had to play the roles of a constitution, a body of laws, a system of symbols and emotional magnets to define and unify the collective. Yet those texts, as anyone who reads them might realize, are very metaphorical. Extracting the law out of the metaphor is the work of the scholar, the interpreter. The power to interpret, then, was a power to judge, maintain or redefine the whole socio-political system. One scholar might put forward the argument that according to his interpretation of the Koran, no hereditary rule is allowed in Islam, and that the ruler should always be selected by the people, which was indeed the argument put forward by the Khawarij, the third largest sect of Islam throughout the first three centuries of Islamic history. Another interpreter might argue that, using the same texts of the Koran, hereditary rule is the only legitimate form of rule in Islam, and that only the members house of the prophet’s cousin;  Ali son of Abu Talib are entitled to that right. Shiite scholars made that argument throughout the same three centuries. Both diagonally opposed arguments are based on the power to interpret the texts and convince people with the authenticity and adequacy of the interpretation. The skill of literary interpretation thus yielded great political power to the interpreter.

Now, how does all this relate to current day politics in the Arab world? It relates in two ways: First, the modern-day Arab state has inherited the position of the Imam, as an executive ruler, and therefore has inherited the popular expectations related to that post; since the Imam assumed power according to an interpretation of a holy text, and since the text was universal to all Muslims, the Imam derived his legitimacy from all Muslims regardless of how many of them actually fell under his rule. Many in the Arab world expect their states to derive their legitimacy from interpretations of the religious texts and to be accountable to all other Muslims regardless of the number of Muslims who happen to be their citizens.

The second way the concept of imam is relevant to current affairs has a lot to do with the power of literature and literary interpretation. The rigidity with which many in the Arab world confront any attempt by scholars to reinterpret parts of the Koran could only be understood if the political potential of interpretations is kept in mind. Such rigidity is a technique by which the status quo preserves itself against any winds of change. Since interpretations could be diagonally opposite, they might have diagonally opposite implication. The Iranian revolution and the various Sunni Islamic movements on the one hand and the Moroccan and the Saudi monarchies on the other are all fruits of different interpretations of metaphorical texts. Any attempt to reinterpretation would therefore be attacked by both sides of the political spectrum, since, unless the new interpretation was in complete conformity with their own, ie. unless the new interpretation was for all practical purposes old, it would pose a threat to them, whether they be on the side of the monarchies or the side of the opposition.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Art/2003/Sep-20/112514-on-the-concept-of-al-imam-anyone-who-holds-the-title-must-be-subordinate.ashx#ixzz2wGv118vK 
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