Written by: Nancy Khalek
The Ottoman Empire, established in the high Middle Ages, was the last great Sunni empire. (It actually abolished the institution of the caliphate in the early 20th century.) By the late Middle Ages, however, the position of caliph was mainly honorific, as opposed to the title of a real political or spiritual authority. In spite of grand notions of universal community, which may pertain more to ideological identity than ethnic or political identity, throughout the history of Sunni Islam the concept of community has been fiercely local. This is not to say that there is no sense within Sunni Islam of a universal Muslim community. It is simply to say that when it comes to the business of daily practice and the structure of everyday family, social, and civic life, citizenship generally pertains to the structures and relationships of a particular time and place. It is for them to distinguish between citizenship and identity.
Nationalism, arising in different parts of the Islamic world in response to varied experiences of colonialism and reformist thought, introduced the concept of citizen to a particular Nation, which more often than not was also associated with an ethnic identity. Leading aristocrats, called notables, and officials of the Ottoman Empire who reported back to the Sultan, for example, became the foundation for burgeoning nationalisms in parts of the Arab world in the late 19th century.
For the purposes of Islamic law and practice, citizenship has more to do with the relationships between people and the state than with religious concerns.
Of course, in the modern era, the notion of community in general, let alone a religious community, has changed in myriad ways. New technologies, especially the Internet, mean that parts of the Islamic world that are far-flung can be in communication in real time. Ethnic identity becomes less meaningful when there are so many Muslim immigrant communities becoming established in parts of Europe and in the United States. Race is more and more beginning to be seen as a construct, as opposed to a defining aspect of identity. Politics and ideology have emerged as more important that geography: most recently, events stemming from controversial elections in Iran and in Eastern Europe have united various branches of the Muslim community, across denominations, and have linked the broader Muslim community to the wider non-Muslim world. In a sense, the concept of community itself is no longer what it used to be, regardless of the particular religious affiliation. It remains to be seen how the new global Muslim community will conceive of itself.
1. How are Sunni leaders elected?
2. At the time of Sunnism’s origins, why wasn’t Islamic faith essential to citizenship?
3. What is the role of race within contemporary Islamic society?