Sunni Re-centering: The Three Elements That Advanced its Place in the Muslim World
Amir Maalouf’s Samarkand contains many allusions regarding the process of Sunni re-centering. Although there are many examples of this in the book, there are three that are preeminent among the rest: First, the belief that innovations, or Bid’ah, in the forms of science, medicine, and philosophy, only serve to corrupt the teaching of the Quran and the word of the Prophet Muhammad. Second, that the Turkish Empires success and expansion across the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean landscape helped advance Sunni Islam across their territories. And finally, Sunni Islam’s continuity from Sunni to Sunni helped solidify its strength across the Muslim world.
An excellent example I encountered early on in the reading that epitomizes Sunni re-centering in the Muslim world was in the way that Scar-Face and his gang brutally beat Jaber in the streets as a crowd gathered and watched, enjoying the scene. Like Omar, Jaber was an academic. Both spending little time contemplating the universe through the eyes of a creator, but rather, immersing themselves in the sciences and questioning the legitimacy of a God and his divine ability to have created all that was and all that will be. For both men, religion provided answers to questions most men rarely asked; it was an easy way out. Due to their propensity to expound their ideas in such a manner that conveyed blasphemy to the ever-narrowing mind of the growing religious people, in part because of the shifting to the Sunni belief that philosophy and rationalism were threats to the sanctity of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, men like Jaber and Omar were persecuted and executed for their beliefs (Maalouf 5). This is made evident when Scar-Face vehemently proclaims, “We want no failasuf in Samarkand!” (Maalouf 5). In essence, he was voicing the opinion of the people of Samarkand, who nodded in agreement, that intellectuals were not welcome. The Muslim world had not always been so intolerant of academics such as Omar and Jaber, however. In our textbook, Islamic World, a paragraph begins by observing how the Muslim world had changed because of Sunni re-centering. It reads, “Under the tolerant Shia Buyids, individualistic scholars had studied the philosophy and literature of Greek and Roman antiquity and pursued lines of speculation condemned as unislamic by more narrow-minded co-religionists” (Islamic World 40). These “condemned” “lines of speculation” are the reasons why Jaber is being beaten in the street and why Omar fears for his life when being labeled a failasuf.
If the Shia Buyids were the bearers of tolerance, then the increasingly powerful Turks were the bearers of strict religious adherence, according to Sunni law. Sunni re-centering could not have occurred without its propagation by the Turkish Empire as its size continued to expand across the Middle Eastern landscape and beyond. In “Samarkand,” Hassan Sabbah, when explaining to Omar his plan to destroy the Seljuk’s and convert their territories to Ismailism, offers insight into the events that occurred that arrived the Seljuk’s to the seat of power and consequently made Sunni Islam the most practiced form of Islam:
“The new order will soon position itself against the Seljuk empire. It will be intricately organized, powerful, and fearsome and will cause the Sultan and vizirs to quake. Not so long ago, when you and I were born, Isfahan belonged to a Persian Shiite dynasty that imposed its law on the Caliph of Baghdad. Today the Persians are no more than the servants of the Turks…” (Maalouf 90).
The process of Sunni re-centering was executed by the Seljuk Turks. Sunny Islam gained prominence as its followers grew in numbers and its opponents either gave way to it or were destroyed by it: “The Turkification of Anatolia and the corresponding decline of Hellenism was one of the most important demographic and cultural changes to take place in the Middle Ages” (Francis Robinson 43). Because of the power of the Seljuk’s and the Ottoman power and its ability to conquer and influence the people of the Middle East and Mediterranean regions, Sunni Islam became the most practiced and largest sect of Islam.
Hassan Sabbah represents Bid’ah and Sunni Islam’s antipathy towards it. When Maalouf is describing the process Sabbah undertook to fortify Alamut from external enemies, he was using it as a metaphor to describe how Sunni’s rejected innovations to Islam and their protectiveness over the traditional and religious elements of it. He writes, “No sooner had he gained control of the fortress than Hassan Sabbah undertook actions to assure that he was sealed off from any contact with the outside world. His first priority was to render impossible any enemy penetration” (Maalouf 132). Hassan, representing Sunni Islam, was the adamant belief that Bid’ah served no purpose to Islam and was heretical by nature. His heavily fortified Alamut represented Sunni’s impenetrable stance that medicine, philosophy, and other sciences corrupted the message of the Prophet Muhammad, explaining why Scar-Face vehemently labeled Omar a failasuf and beat Jaber in the streets. Hassan also represented how Sunni’s across the Muslim world followed the same practices. Their strength could not only be found in numbers, but also in the continuity from Sunni to Sunni. The process of Sunni re-centering was as successful as it had become because of its followers unwavering beliefs.
Bid’ah, the powerful Turkish Empire, and Sunni’s continuity across the Muslim world advanced the process of Sunni re-centering. Amir Maalouf, as expertly as any historian could do, was able to create a fictional novel that took great consideration in portraying historical events as accurately as possible and how they affected the characters that took part in them. A man like Omar Khayyam would have come into contact with many religious adherents similar to Scar-Face and the angry crowd of Samarkand. He would have faced persecution and feared for his life since his work was deemed heretical by the growing number of Sunni’s. The conversation between Hassan and him about the ever growing power of the Turkish Empire was also historically accurate and the reason why Sunni Islam is Islam’s largest branch of Islam. Finally, the character Hassan Sabbah, although a non-fictional character in history, and his heavily fortified Alamut, served as representations of a Sunni’s strict adherence to the traditional teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran. All three of these elements combined together to advance the place of Sunni Islam in the Muslim world.