Recep Senturk: Religion as a Chain of Memory

Just as there has not been any society without religion, there has never been a leading sociologist who did not deal with the relationship between religion and society. From Ibn Khaldun to Karl Marx and Max Weber and to Talcott Parsons and Jurgen Habermas, all great sociologists have paid special attention to religion as a social phenomenon. In addition, the way sociologists see religion has undergone a significant transformation after the 1960s wherein the positivistic, materialistic, evolutionist and reductionist view that had been dominant until then started to lose its hegemonic position, and has gradually been rejected and replaced by a newer approach which is more idealist and anti-positivistic rejecting evolution and reductionism in the study of religion.  However, despite these developments, the traditional approach to society and narrative still continues to be applied in the East and the West by the Orientalist experts on Islam, who have failed to follow the new developments in social theory. Religion should no longer be understood as a “social institution” as defined by classical positivistic sociology of religion –and repeated without questioning by different academic circles and even by religious circles in Turkey; but rather we should embrace the view that sees religion as “religion” on the basis of these new approaches. Similarly, we need to re-construct the relationship between thehadith and the sunna on the one hand, and social structure, on the other.

In his book titled “Religion as a Chain of Memory” the prominent French sociologist Daniel Hervieu Leger argues that religion used to constitute the memory of the traditional society; however, modernization process has led to the emergence of a social amnesia (or loss of memory). For any society, collective memory means collective culture. Thus, the loss of the collective memory, or its disintegration would be a grave danger for the survival of a society. For, no society can come into existence without having a collective memory, nor can it survive afterwards without it. In addition, as observed by Fueck, the collective memory of the Islamic society is constituted by the prophetic tradition (sunna). The emergence, integration and survival of the Islamic society has been possible through the penetration and preservation of the collective memory, which is embodied by the prophetic sunna, into all layers of the society.

The Islamic society, which consists of many different races and cultures, has had a shared culture and a common identity to a certain extent despite the existence of differences among its members. Is it then possible to specify the sources of these cultural similarities, which are strikingly evident on a global scale? In his context, we are of the opinion that the prophetic sunna has played a crucial role by providing Muslims with the common models of action that have been internalized by them –models that cover all domains of life. Put more concretely, the question we would like to ask is this: what role does the sunna of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) play in terms of the cultural integration of the global Islamic society and for providing Muslims with a common identity and common models of action?

From a sociological point of view, cultural integration has two main dimensions: the integration of different generations that lived in different historical periods; and the integration of different social groups and classes who are part of the same generation. In my opinion, both inter-generational and inter-regional integration has been achieved in the Islamic civilization through the penetration of the transmission of hadiths into every layer of the society. In other words, the scholars of hadith have greatly contributed to the constitution of a common Muslim identity by helping disseminate the prophetic models into ever corner of the Islamic world. If hadith scholars did not help create a common life style and action model by disseminating the prophetic tradition and establishing the hadith as a reference point, there would emerge no collective culture, neither between generations nor between different regions. Rather, different generations would live very differently and think in radically different terms; similarly, people living in different regions would interpret and apply the principles of the Qur’an in extremely different ways.

The question of “how did Islamic scholars transmit the prophetic sunna across generations, and establish this tradition as the collective culture in different parts of the Islamic geography?” could not be answered without investigating the basic social structure of the hadith transmission network, or in technical terms, the isnad. It is thus important to understand the social structure of the network of hadith transmission and its contribution to the integration of different generations and of different regions. Furthermore, we need to keep in mind that the prophetic sunna involves a flexible approach to the problems of social life, and an attitude that reserves room for variations, rather than a series of standard and fixed models of action. For, the prophetic sunna itself approved and even encouraged differences in the application of its principles. Thus, when it reaches a region, the prophetic tradition does not clash with and replace existing local mores, but rather gives it its own distinctive color.

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Recep Senturk is a Professor of Sociology at Fatih University in Istanbul, where he has worked since 2006. Senturk previously taught at the Art Institute of Pittsburg, Rensellar Polytechnic Institute, and Emory University Law School. He has published in English, Turkish, and Arabic, including numerous journal articles and Narrative Social Structure: Anatomy of the Hadith Transmission Network, 610-1505 (2005). Senturk earned his BA from Marmara University, MA from Istanbul University, and PhD at Columbia University.