The shrine of the 8th century Muslim scholar Abu Hanifa, located in the Sunni district of Al-A‘dhamiyya in the center of Baghdad, does not attract many visitors today. Nor has it undergone a major renovation or expansion comparable to the shrines of Shi‘a imams in Karbala and Najaf. That is why in some regards it embodies the crisis of authority and identity in Iraq’s Sunni community.
This crisis is partly a result of the increasing Shi‘a ascendancy in the country. It is also due to internal divisions and rivalries among various claimants to authority within Sunni Islam, as well as between religiously-oriented Sunnism and alternative forms of identity, whether tribal, regional, or secular. Abdul Wahab al-Samara’i, a prominent cleric at the Iraqi Jurisprudential Congregation (IJC), summed up the communal mood by observing, “We, the Sunnis, have been under attack, receiving one slap after another.” The IJC is headquartered at the Abu Hanifa shrine and its role is to issue fatwas, provide religious learning, and engage in philanthropy.
The 2006–2007 sectarian killings in Baghdad and the post-2014 conflict with the Islamic State group have put the Sunni religious authorities in a difficult position. “We had to face Sunni extremism, while at the same time protecting our identity from becoming entirely dominated by the other,” Samara’i said, in reference to the Shi‘a sect. This translated into fragmentation of the Sunni community and a lack of consensus over basic issues, including how to renovate the Abu Hanifa shrine, the subject of disagreement between the IJC and the Office of Sunni Endowments (OSE), the main institution responsible for Sunni mosques and religious endowments.
Despite the harm caused by the doctrinal association of the Sunni community with the Islamic State, Salafi networks and preaching continue to exist. That is especially true on Baghdad’s periphery and in marginal socioeconomic areas of major Sunni urban centers. Salafism attracts religiously-oriented youth and most mosques in those areas are controlled by clerics with Salafi inclinations.
Salafism also provides an alternative value system for communities that had been primarily defined and interconnected by tribal relations. The egalitarian feature of Salafism and its literalist, direct interpretation of the Quran and the Sunnah, or the tradition of the Prophet Mohammed, appeals to those segments who distrust the hierarchical nature of the formal religious authorities and look for more radical alternatives. Yet, most Salafi networks in Iraq are politically quietist. They distance themselves from the Islamic State and preach a version of Salafism that focuses on social ethics and religious piety. But even in this form, Salafis threaten other forms of Sunni Islam, especially Sufism, which has a long tradition in Iraq and a strong presence in the country’s urban centers.
To counter Salafism, especially its most radical takfiri forms, Abdul-Latif al-Humeim, the head of the OSE and an Islamic scholar originally from Anbar Governorate, has attempted to institutionalize religious preaching and fight extremism, bigotry, and intolerance in Sunni religious discourse. One way of doing so has been to assert the control of his institution over Sunni mosques and moderate the messages communicated by their imams. Yet while Humeim’s efforts appear to have yielded some good results in influencing mosques in Baghdad and the centers of major governorates, more peripheral areas continue to remain largely out of his reach.
More importantly, Humeim’s legitimacy as head of the OSE is questioned by other religious actors. He was appointed by former prime minister Haidar al-Abadi’s government without consulting the IJC, which according to the OSE law should have approved the nomination. Several Sunni clerics view Humeim as the choice of the Shi‘a-dominated government rather than as someone who emerged from a legitimate process. In a conversation, the head of the IJC, Ahmed Hassan al-Taha, pointedly complained that the government does not respect the autonomy of Sunni religious institutions as it does with the Shi‘a religious authority in Najaf.
The government has legitimate concerns about radical ideas being propagated by some Sunni mosques. By selecting moderate figures such as Humeim, it sees the OSE as a tool to diminish the appeal of Sunni extremism. Yet the irony is that in post-2003 Iraq there has been an assertion of the autonomy of the Shi‘a religious authority, known as the Marja‘iyya, which has sometimes appeared to be superior to the state, while the main Sunni religious authority has been increasingly subjected to the influence of the Shi‘a-dominated government. This has to do with the different histories of the Sunni and Shi‘a religious authorities, and the inherited identification of Sunni Islam with the state. Yet in a context where boundaries between the two sects have been solidified and institutionalized, the objection in Sunni religious circles to government influence seems justifiable.
In fact, this has motivated some groups to call for the establishment of a unified Sunni marja‘iyya as the community’s highest religious authority. However, this has been tried several times without yielding the anticipated results. The first attempt was in 2003 with the formation of the Association of Muslim Scholars, which fiercely opposed the U.S.-led occupation and the subsequent political process in Iraq. The latest was the reestablishment of the IJC, helped by the Iraqi Islamic Party, which was part of the political process.
Recently, Mahdi al-Sumaida‘i, a Salafi sheikh who has good connections with the Shi‘a-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces, established what he named Dar al-Ifta’ and declared himself to be Iraq’s mufti. He made the large mosque of Um al-Tubul in Baghdad his headquarters. Both the OSE and the IJC contested Sumaida‘i’s claim, questioning his religious credentials and his right to form Dar al-Ifta’. However, the fact that Sumaida‘i was empowered through his alliance with Shi‘a groups that have strong leverage over the government raised the crucial question about the relationship between the Sunni religious authorities and the Shi‘a-dominated state. Sunni religious institutions that have opted to assert their autonomy or oppose the government have eventually been weakened by losing the state’s patronage and support. In turn those that have bowed to the government’s will and allied with Shi‘a parties have failed to establish broad legitimacy among their own constituencies.
This crisis of authority could have different consequences in the future. The ineptness and mutual delegitimization of existing Sunni religious institutions will further erode their power, creating a vacuum that could be filled by Salafi networks or hardliners. At the same time, the threat represented by more radical forms of Sunnism could motivate the Shi‘a-dominated government to build better relations with moderate Sunni clerics. This would allow such clerics greater autonomy in exchange for the propagation of moderate and depoliticized religious messages.