An Earlier Sunnī Version of Khomeini’s Rule of the Jurist: Mustafā l-Sibāī on Ulamā and Politics
The notion of “the rule of the jurist” is identified exclusively with Ayatollah Khomeini, and was implemented politically following the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. What was perceived as a revolutionary innovation in Šia Islam, however, was seen as alien in Sunnī Islam. Traditionally, Sunnī Ulamā were identified as “men of the pen”, whose task was to preserve religious knowledge but not to assume state authority. Sunnī Islamic movements of the twentieth century did not alter this traditional viewpoint. Most of their leaders actually criticized the Ulamās submission to secular rulers. Indeed, Sunnī circles—as Khomeini himself—spoke of the urgent need to establish an Islamic government to combat imperialism and Westernization, but did not assign any political function to the religious scholars.
The paper focuses on a different view, that of Šayh Mustafā l-Sibāī (d. 1964), of Syrian origin, who asserted in the late 1930s that Ulamā are the best guardians of the nation’s rights. Their entry into politics is neither improper nor deviant, he held, but rather a confirmation of the historic reality in the formative period of Islam. Al-Sibāī’s perception was put into practice with the establishment of the Muslim Brethren in Syria in 1946, but this perception failed to gain momentum.
The paper illuminates an interesting episode in modern Sunnī political thought: an early Sunnī version of Khomeini’s “the rule of the jurist”. While the Sunnī version remained a textual idea, the Šīite version turned into living political reality, exposing the asymmetry between the status of Sunnī and Šīite Ulamā in modern times.