Theo-nationalism: towards a unified Sunni Volksgeist?

One of the fallacies of post-World War II globalism and the radical importance modernism attaches to the individuality of man is the increased redundancy of traditional patriotism. The dichotomy between nostalgia to a group’s supposed better past and that group’s complete deracination from that same past has led to a misplaced and superficial sense of pride within members of that group.

Arthur Keith (1866-1955)

Patriotism itself has always played a major historical role in the survival of mankind’s sociopolitical groups. It served as a tool of self-determination, a kinship between individuals collectively working towards the same goal of ensuring the perseverance of their own tribe, village or fief. This was seldom driven by ideological reasons, but rather because of a selfish pragmatism. Indeed, an individual could only guarantee the survivability of his livelihood and trade when part of a stable group. However, such patriotism can only exist if that initial pragmatism is additionally reinforced with a sense of pride and affection. Scottish anthropologist Arthur Keith (1866-1955) describes patriotism with an interesting supposition in his A New Theory of Human Evolution (1948): “Let us proceed on the assumption that primitive humanity was separated into exclusive, self‑contained groups; such separation permitted each group to work out its own germinal potentialities. To do that, each group must be master of its own independence; only as an independent unit can a group work out its evolutionary destiny, and it must maintain that independence over countless generations. Patriotism is the safeguard of independence; it is its bulwark. It is the guardian of the territory of the group, for if the homeland is lost the group is scattered.”

This very Khaldunian description of patriotism, or ʿaṣabiyya as Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406) called it, is very much rooted in the idea of pre-industrial separate groups, the so-called badū or Bedouin nomad groups as opposed to the ḥaḍāra, the prosperous and pacified urban society. This cyclical divergence between ʿaṣabiyya and ḥaḍāra, however, has in our modern day become redundant and has been resolved in favor of the latter. Since citizens of industrial nation-states no longer felt the need to invest in primal survival or the upholding of tribal kinship, patriotism became less and less relevant. There was no more need to defend one’s territory because that became the responsibility of the state and its professional army. The increase in livelihood and welfare meant less competition over basic resources. Early nationalist thinkers like Treitschke, Dumas and Mazzini sought to counter this trend by emphasizing the importance of political and cultural union, supporting the creation of a monocultural and monolinguistic state centered around a highly centralized government to which one should show his loyalty. Patriotism should be for the state, affinity to the government and the flag. Earlier thinkers like Rousseau and Hobbes had already theorized that citizens of such political entities needed to voluntarily consent to give up their previous natural freedoms and small-scale patriotism to obtain the benefits of political order and security through a social contract. This system was subsequently exported to replace colonial rule and was forcefully introduced outside of Europe.

European nation-states locked in stalemate right before World War I, unbeknownst that its nationalism would bring about two of the greatest wars ever seen on the face of the earth

This nationalist idea, however, and the replacement of traditional patriotism with militarized nationalism failed miserably and the developed world became locked in stalemate. As Adam Smith (1723-1790) had predicted in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), “independent and neighboring nations, having no common superior to decide their dispute, all live in continual dread and suspicion of one another”,  emotions that lead to the two most terrible wars humanity has ever witnessed, and which continue to stir up feelings of hatred and irredentism anno 2020, as exemplified by the unresolved conflicts between among others India-Pakistan, Algeria-Morocco and Egypt-Sudan.

Gottfried Herder (1744-1803)

The enforced and superficial national monoculture became subsequently replaced by a highly urbanized, postindustrial multiculturalism. The distance between government and subject became increasingly larger and less tangible. Last but least, religion and Abrahamic morality were condemned by secularism and liberalism to a limited existence in peoples’ private affairs. Due to these three historical developments, modern man lost his Volksgeist, Gottfried Herder’s (1744-1803) concept for the essence of a cultural group that sets it apart from other groups. Modernity has effectively killed the Volksgeist and globalism has killed patriotism. The peoples of this world have scattered all over the earth’s surface, local styles have been replaced by a bland international style, homelands were lost or abandoned and the pressing need for survival has declined due to the radical explosion of general wealth and consumer products.

This state of affairs is exactly why the 21st century finds itself in an identity crisis, characterized by people fanatically looking for any form of identity and a sense of belonging. The Sunni Muslim peoples mustn’t think that they were spared from this curse, as they find themselves increasingly without any authentic identity. Sunni Muslims therefore need to actively think about valid ways of approaching this situation. In my humble opinion, two options are left in this post-diaspora era. Either we reinvent a true form of patriotism for ourselves, or we melt away divided, assimilated and dispersed without any ability or stimulans to persist or to defend ourselves from stronger groups. Know that our brethren among the Rohingya, Uyghurs and Levantine Arabs already balance on the brink of destruction and disappearance, as is the case for many of our brothers and sisters in the Western mahjar, albeit in the form of assimilation. Since modernity and globalism killed any form of local and tribal patriotism, let us not longer remain blind for the dangers posed by assimilation and subjugation, but let us instead focus on that which binds us together, our own Volksgeist. As Keith (1948) puts it: “Patriotism imbues the members of a group with a sense of pride in their membership; it fosters the conviction in their minds that their group is the paragon of groups.” Isn’t this what God told us when He said: “You are the best people produced from among mankind.” [3:110] Is there anything to be more proud of than to call oneself a member of such a group?

Muslims praying, an intimate ritual shared by all Muslims worldwide as part of their daily routine

Sunni Muslims already share that Volksgeist. We posses a shared collective moral and intellectual framework that determines our possibilities and our development and which is deeply rooted in our faith and our way of life. With the exception of some superficial cultural differences like cuisine or dress, the Sunni peoples share the same essence and traditions that set us apart from other groups. Herder wrote in 1774: “Each man, each nation, each period, has its center of happiness within itself, just as every sphere has its center of gravity.” What brings a Muslim more happiness than his Islam? What is more beloved to him than His worship of God? To ensure our survival, self-determination and independence, as Keith put it, we need to reinvent that Keithian-Khaldunian patriotism into a Sunni Volksgeist upheld only by theo-nationalism, the ʿaṣabiyya of faith and brotherhood. Loyalty to none but God alone.

Abū al-Aʿlā al-Mawdūdī (1903-1979)

An excellent attempt at this in our modern age was made by the identitarian Muslim movement led by the Jamaat-e-Islami after the partition of India. Abū al-Aʿlā al-Mawdūdī (1903-1979) began by redefining being Muslim, in order to provide Muslims with a new identity that would remove them from the colonial normative order and distinguish them from the emerging Indian one. Vali Nasr explains in his Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism (1996) that his attempt at redefining the Muslim was born out of his understanding of the structure of relations between Islam, Hinduism and the West, and his desire to provide power and identity to Muslims (i.e. patriotism) by reversing the balance in relations between Islam and the other two. Indeed, a post-colonial Pakistan divided over local or ethnic lines would remain weak against their Hindu neighbor. A reinvented patriotism based on faith as a collective identity would allow Muslims to keep a link with that ʿaṣabiyya so sought after in our modern day and age.

The partition of India on religious lines and the creation of Pakistan created the need for a new Muslim identity and a shift in loyalty

Al-Mawdūdī redefined being a Muslim to mean more than just following Islam (religion only being a part of one’s identity); a Muslim was a modern being with modern social links, political aspirations and, ultimately, cultural outlook. The secular idea of religion being only one part of an individual self needed to be replaced by the conviction that being Muslim meant submitting to a whole system of life, in the line of God’s words: “Say: Verily, my prayer, my sacrifice, my living, and my dying are for God, the Lord of the Worlds.” [6:162] This is who we are. This is our identity which we share with other Sunnites all over the world. This the essence of our existence on this earth. Not the food we eat nor the language we speak nor the clothes we wear, but the knowledge that each and every one of us kneels in worship to God and has completely submitted himself to the message of the Quran and the Prophetic tradition. That is our Volksgeist, and if we do not put our patriotism and loyalty to our faith over our ethnicity or tribe, we are doomed to lose it all and be engulfed by modernity’s vices.

Omer Sayadi

Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he has worked, written and researched on the region, which resulted among other things in the creation of MENAsymbolism.