07 March 2018

Wahda and sobornost’

Jamal al-Dîn al-Afghânî and Muhammad ’Abduh

In Arabic-British historian Albert Hourani’s book Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939, I managed to find this gem in the chapter on Muhammad Rashîd Ridâ:
The second distinguishing sign of Islam is that it has created a single community: not simply a Church, a body of men linked by faith and worship yet separated by their natural characteristics, but a community in every sense. The long history of the Caliphate, the spread of a common culture, and many centuries of mingling and intermarriage, have created an umma which is both a Church and a kind of ‘nation’: it is held together by unity of religion, of law, by equality and mutual rights and duties, but also by natural links, and in particular that of language, since Arabic is the universal language of devotion, doctrine and law wherever Islam exists.

It is impossible indeed to exaggerate the importance of unity for these writers
[al-Afghânî and ’Abduh], and the scandal of disunity. But when they talked of unity, they did not mean a unity based on feeling or tradition alone. They were aware, as al-Afghânî had been, how transient and unstable a merely affective unity could be, and how dangerous when not transient. Nor did they mean that unity should express itself necessarily in the form of a single Muslim State; we shall see later what type and degree of political union Rashîd Ridâ thought to be possible. Islamic unity meant for them, in essence, the agreement of hearts of those who accepted each other as believers and dwelt together in mutual tolerance, and the active co-operation of all in carrying out the commandments of religion. The community which was so constituted held authority from God: this was witnessed by the hadith, ‘My community will not agree upon an error’. In so far as any human being exercised any authority in it, it was ‘those who have the power to bind and loose’, a vague phrase which may mean, in general, those who have responsibility for the unity and continuity of the umma, or more precisely the doctors of the law and the holders of political power.

But unity is necessarily connected with truth: there can be no real agreement between Muslims unless they are all agreed on the truth, and conversely agreement is a sign of truth. Possession of the truth is the third and most fundamental sign of Islam, and the true Islam is that which was taught by the Prophet and the ‘Elders’ (
If something about this sounds familiar to an Orthodox reader, that’s because it very well should. Community which is neither sentimental nor outwardly political, but an active coöperation based on love and unity under a divine truth: the principle that these early Arab nationalists were aiming after, from another direction, was precisely the principle of sobornost’ which was espoused in the writings of the Orthodox Slavophils of the first generation. ‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!

From an Orthodox perspective, of course, a quest for sobornost’ within Islam is bound to fail, precisely because that truth which is the absolute criterion for such a quest is something Islam fundamentally lacks. Sobornost’ in Orthodoxy is a principle which flows out of the paradoxical theology of a Triune God: three persons, three wills, in perfect community sharing a single essence. The Symbol of Faith is an ikon of the sobornost’ of the Trinity, which when the believer confesses it, is truly imparted to her as a participant in that same communal love through the Holy Spirit. We participate in the communal love of the Trinity when we partake of the Eucharist. The criterion of truth that is the basis of sobornost’ is embodied in that Eucharist; for the Christian, the truth has always a human face.

In Islam, God is a monad, disembodied (Saint John Damascene would say ‘mutilated’), accessible only through the law and the textual record of the words of its Prophet. The criterion of truth to which the Islamic theorists of sobornost’ had to appeal was, by its very nature, univocal – the community, the umma, which could be based upon it would by necessity have to be passive recipients of that truth rather than active participants. The sobornost’ thus arrived at would therefore be one-sided; having only the single aspect of obedience to rely on, it would have to seek refuge in some rigid outward form – fideism or rationalism, of the sort which Rashîd Ridâ ultimately embraced – or else in those forms of mysticism to which al-Afghânî was drawn, which in any event would lead back to the source.

The point of this post, however, is not to indulge in a straight-up critique of Islamic theology, but instead to point out that Muslim thinkers were independently arriving at a dynamic and communal theory of wahda – or may we say sobornost’? – through a critical engagement with modernisation. Even if al-Afghânî was deliberately and unambiguously positioning himself counter to European colonialism, this striving after spiritual unity, both within his thought and as a hallmark of the Arabic political thought that followed him, is not to be considered as a simple borrowing of, or reaction to, Western ideas. The philosophical debts of al-Afghânî, as Hourani makes clear, are to the mediæval Persian Academic ’Abû ’Alî ibn Sînâ and the Peripatetic ’Abûlwalîd ibn Rushd. As in China with Xu Zhimo 徐志摩, German Romanticism (which is sometimes considered to be the fountainhead of Slavophilia) makes its appearance in Arab thought only with the later figure of Sâti’ al-Husrî.

But it is unsurprising that those Orthodox Christian Arabs who followed in al-Afghânî’s footsteps – notably Michel ’Aflaq (in whom the thought of al-Husrî too echoes loudly), Qustantîn Zurayq and George Habash – seized with such fervour upon this dynamic and multivalent principle of wahda. There is far greater power, even latent, in the Orthodox Christian tradition for such a concept, and it may have left subtle traces on the thinking of these political figures. More interesting still is how figures like ’Aflaq could speak of wahda and in nearly the same breath talk of the need for decentralisation and localism. This can be interpreted in a purely cynical way, of course. Such cynicism is indeed growing more common with the waning intellectual currency of Arab nationalism and its long history of authoritarian governance. But it can also be read much more charitably, as a call to an Arabic unity of spirit and will based on love, rather than a mere outward political unity or one predicated on some external form of rationality. There is a gem worthy of retrieval in this particular line of political thought, however it may lie depreciated by decades of propaganda against the states of Baššar al-’Asad and Saddâm Husayn.

Again, this is based solely on my readings of both the secondary literature (like Antonius and Hourani), and primary literature in translation, so I may well be barking madly and comically up the wrong tree. Even so, this passage in Hourani’s book is deeply and richly suggestive to me. There seem to be many paths pointing to a certain, very Christian end in the world of Arabic thought – even Islamic Arabic thought – and I can’t help but follow where those paths might lead.


  1. Great Mercy and the Holy Spirit are cornerstones of the true and loving God: forgiveness, not once but, 7x70 times. Such a society would surely live in unity.