Within the broad boundaries of Christendom, Catholics have the Pope, Anglicans have the Archbishop of Canterbury, some denominations have appointed and/or elected leaders, while still others, such as Congregationalists, insist on no hierarchy. Buddhists have several leaders, the most well-known being the Dalai Lama. Judaism is complicated by the melange of culture, race, and religion, so while there is no specific leader, chief rabbis speak to matters of doctrine.
Islam has its scholars (for Sunnis, the Ulama) and Imams, but the famously fractious faith has no head. It needs one.
In the absence of a global leader, Muslims are told to simply obey the Quran and hadiths. That might be a workable solution if both sources weren’t subject to everlasting debate within and without Islam, and complicated for non-Muslims by the practice of taquiya and kithman. The month of Ramadan is upon us, and while the vast majority of Muslims regard it as a time for reflection and self-control demonstrated through fasting and other prescribed rituals, extremists view it as the ideal time for jihad. Such schisms aren’t merely intellectual when spilled blood is a clockwork result.
It is nearly impossible to imagine the human capable of rising from the ranks of the Muslim faithful to assume moral leadership in the modality of a Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The first and most obvious stumbling block is Sunni vs. Shia: Muslims would demand to know as a prerequisite the presumptive leader’s sectional identity and cry foul if it didn’t match their own. Establishing a lasting peace between the two primary branches would be a Herculean effort as each sees the other as apostates.
Of course, that’s more to the point, the need for a uniting voice. Apart from the gruesome violence and staggering body count of Muslim-on-Jew and Muslim-on-Christian terrorism, Muslim-on-Muslim violence is both common and vicious. Apostasy is a sin to both Sunnis and Shia, but Wahabbi Sunnis prefer to enforce the law on punishment of death. A reasonable voice with an ear receptive to both sides of Islam, and the power of enforcement to rule on–and mete out justice to–transgressors would be the hierarchical ideal case scenario. Even a figurehead, a neutered king of sorts, would be a preferable to the status quo.
Road to Reform: An Old Idea Anew
Failing hierarchical organizational restructuring, another solution exists: radical reform.
The Sufi, a small mystical sect of Islam, might hold the key. Sufis are beholden to neither Sunni nor Shia, the oddball in the mix. They are of unknown number, found scattered throughout the nation of Islam. The gravity of this historical moment (the latest global proliferation of Islam) and need for reform could coalesce around a Sufi Mawla, a spiritual leader who must be able to trace his teachers lineally back to Mohammad, and around whom a Sufi congregation forms. Neither Sunni nor Shia view Sufis as practicing Islam properly, but at the very least, they are not as diametrically opposed as Sunni vs. Shia.
A charismatic Mawla, backed by influential Sunni and Shia leaders who recognize the need for even the appearance of change, could conceivably forge a path forward, though it is as tantalizing as it is unlikely. It is telling that any notion of healing the wound of schism in 632 A.D. is intractably fraught. That said, with over a billion followers worldwide and a growing global presence, a solution is imperative.
Reform, not just de-escalating violence, is the logical course for the future of Islam. As Martin Luther decried the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church with his 95 Theses, so must a brave and principled Muslim arise and nail to the mosque door a plan to thwart Islamist terrorism, intra-Muslim violence, and forge a pact of mutual tolerance with the West.
The alternative is to rewind history 900 years.