Sticking Together (Sunni Islam and Jamā`a Judaism)



Neither impressive nor interesting is Patricia Crone’s characterization of the Sunni political model as “Judaic,” i.e. this notion that in Sunni Islam and in Judaism appeals to universal truth are “used” to sanctify a particular social-political form on the basis of revealed law. This would be opposed to the Buddhist model, which Crone associates with Shiite Islam, according to which that truth is separated from “social and political arrangements” (God’s Rule, p.330). The oppositions are too pat and uncomplicated.

What I’m lifting from Crone has to do with a more basic social attitude in Jewish and Sunni religion, the concept of jamā`a, meaning communal unity and solidarity, which Crone says became common in the Ummayad period.

A principle of conformity, this traditionalist view (its first expression associated by Crone as proto-Sunni) is one in which communal unity is presented as more important than right government per se. What would matter more is the guidance left behind by the Prophet, not allegiance to a religio-political leader in the here and now (53). But perhaps even more important, what matters most is the “community,” or even community itself.

Looking past this principle as a tool for mere social conformity and political quietism, the basic and more attractive motive is a tough kind of social concern and solidarity, what Crone calls  “sticking together,” the idea that “lonesomeness was bad, from whatever angle one looked at it,” the point being always to keep the community together, no matter what (pp.134-5).

Crone sees in this a kind of majoritarian tyranny, which I guess is true as far as it goes (p.140).  But the concept bespeaks a more “sympathetic” social principle, a refusal to separate from the community.  Jamā`a is very Jewish, or if not “Jewish,” then rabbinic.  With its focus on people and a people, especially suffering people, it might explain a lot of things both good and bad about both Islam and Judaism. One advantage would be that the concept explains them both together, not apart from each other.

If today Jews and Muslims seek to close the abyss between them, it might help to understand and never to underestimate that social cohesion is its own truth, trumping more abstract and moralizing forms of truth telling, political or metaphysical. It’s a stubborn and bedrock form and habit.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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