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Islam: Monotheistic but not Monolithic

Who are Muslims? What do they believe? Are their ideas and traditions so alien there cannot be reconciliation between them and Christianity? Are they united in their beliefs and attitudes? Are they uniformly and permanently hostile to the West? In the last five years, these have become important questions for us all. Once, the nature and theology of Islam were the concern of Orientalist scholars, but no more.

Roots. Islam appeared suddenly in the seventh century after the birth of Christ, emerging in a world long ravaged by war between the Christian Byzantine and the Zoroastrian Sassanian Persian empires. These two great powers had fought to a state of mutual exhaustion and were incapable of resisting armies of desert Arabs, who, driven by drought, overpopulation and faith in a new revelation brought to them by Muhammad — a merchant of the city of Mecca — swept north, east and west from the Arabian Peninsula.

According to Islamic teaching, the angel Gabriel facilitated Muhammad’s reception of a collection of sayings and maxims, which when compiled constituted the final revelation from God to a sinful world. This was the Quran, the central Islamic scripture.

For Muslims, Muhammad is the last in a long series of prophets, which includes those of the Old Testament and Jesus of Nazareth, whom Muslims revere as a messenger of God.

The new faith was sternly monotheistic, admitting the legitimacy of Judaism and Christianity, but holding that the Jewish tradition had been superseded by the “descent” of the Quran while Christians had misunderstood the New Testament, distorting it in such a way that they believed Jesus was one element of a triune God. Muslim intensity on this issue led many of the Church Fathers, who encountered Muslims in Syria and Egypt, to believe Islam was not a new religion, but a Christian heresy, specifically the Arian heresy. This was the view of St. John of Damascus, who lived at the court of the Umayyad caliphs.

Religious sciences. Exposure to the intellectual culture of the Hellenistic world and Zoroastrian Persia soon provided philosophical structure and theological support to the new faith. During the first centuries of the Islamic presence in the Middle East, the religion existed in a great state of flux, driven in various directions by the influence of Greek rationalism and Persian mysticism.

In this period, it appeared for a short time that mainstream Islam would be dominated by scholars — the Mu’taziliin — who sought to wed rationalism to Islamic revelation in such a way as to make the faith an endlessly adaptive “living” system. In much the same period, the mysticism that calls itself “Sufi” (“wooly” in Arabic in honor of the “habits” of its brothers) developed to fulfill the human need for personal experience of the infinite.

Both of these experiments ended in tragedy for their proponents. The power of the majority traditionalists and scriptural literalists eventually proved too much for the Mu’taziliin, who were driven from office and honor with much bloodshed and suffering. Today, their teachings survive in a clear form only among the Zeidi Shiites of north Yemen.

The mystics met a similar fate in which torture and crucifixion often occurred. Their crime lay in believing that they personally experienced God. For the literal minded, this seemed an obvious impossibility and blasphemy: Man is insignificant and flawed while God is transcendent and perfect. Sufi mysticism continues, with a large number of devotees, but it has survived only because its adherents have accepted the concept that what they experience is not God, but rather his reflection.

Seamless garment. In its unadulterated form, the Islamic faith is essentially medieval in character. It views the world in much the same way the peoples of the West viewed life before the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent. It envisions human existence as a “seamless garment,” in which all the aspects of life are united and viewed through the prism of submission to the will of God. Business, family life, inheritance, personal status, politics and war are all seen as governed by the same attitudes and laws. As a result, Muslims do not readily accept ideas that seek to separate various spheres of human activity.

The separation of church and state, for example, is not a concept readily accepted by pious Muslims, and it is often true that the zealous among them experience little remorse in the application of personal or state retribution against those seen as “impious” or “disrespectful” of God and his law. The now infamous fatwa, or religious edict, against the author Salman Rushdie was a good example of this as was the Danish cartoons incident in 2005. In both cases, death was the remedy suggested by some Islamic authorities.

A religion of law. After the initial age of development and ferment, the Islamic idea system stabilized into the forms that continue to dominate Islamic groups:

  • Islam became a religion of laymen, a religion without an ordained clergy or hierarchy. Those who are often referred to as such in the West are usually religious scholars; they are scholars of the law, not clergy.
  • Islam became a religion without sacraments, a religion in which family and life cycle events (like marriage) are governed by rulings and contracts rather than sacramental grace.
  • Islam became a religion of law, a system in which the formulation of divinely sanctioned law was the primary and defining activity of the religion. Forms of Islam that moved away from this definition of the faith have sometimes been tolerated, but only that.

Due to this emphasis on law, the juridical and scholarly processes to formulate Sharia, or divine law, by any group became central to the life of the Islamic community. Islamic law is created by applying “tools,” known in Arabic as usul fiqh, the roots of law. These tools, which are employed by a virtual army of religious experts, are:

  • Quran (Qur”an). For the great majority of Muslims, the Quran is the uncreated word of God, a document that has existed in the mind of God from all eternity in its present language. It is in some sense an aspect of the mind of God. The Quran’s usages, admonitions and anathemas, indeed its language, are sacred. With this status, it is inevitable the Quran should be a primary source for formulation of law.
  • Tradition (hadith). These are canonically accepted collections of accounts of the early practice of the Islamic community and of the prophet Muhammad. Typically, a tradition consists of the story of what the community is said to have done and then a description of those who repeated this story from the time of the event until the collection was compiled. Some Islamic groups prefer one collection of hadith while others prefer another. The general word in Arabic for “practice” is sunna.
  • Analogy (qiyas). In the first centuries of Islam, it was thought throughout the Islamic world that individuals learned in the Quran and tradition could, through personal effort, arrive at new and unprecedented interpretations of these documents that would create new law. This root of the law was called ijtihad.
    As the system matured, most Muslim scholars came to believe the possibilities for fruitful original interpretation of scripture and tradition had been exhausted. Ijtihad could no longer be used to find new meaning in the raw materials of revelation.
    The use of ijtihad continued within the minority Shiite community as the purview of scholars certified as “mujtahids” or “ayatollahs.” In the Sunni vision of Islam, however, the gate of ijtihad has been considered closed and unavailable for a thousand years. This was an awkward development; the interpretation of scripture and law in courts lay at the very heart of Islamic life. It is possible, but difficult, to find detailed guidance in specific cases within the canon of Quran and tradition, but the multiplicity of events in daily life, many of which were without precedent in the time of Muhammad, required some help in finding a satisfactory jurisprudential outcome.
    Eventually, it was decided that, even if the gate of ijtihad was closed, it was still possible to reason from analogy to previous case law to find a judgment sanctioned by revelation. This feature of Islamic law formulation is called qiyas, or analogy. This tool of the Islamic legal scholar remains central to the process.
  • Consensus (ijma’). Because Islam is a religion of laymen, there are no definitive sources of authority in theology (kalam). Instead, groups form in response to the rulings and teachings of noted or certified scholars. These groups may be of any size or ethnicity. The group accepts the authenticity of the ideas of an individual scholar or that of a school of study, and for that group the consensus surrounding the teaching of the group becomes the “real” Islam. The views of other groups are measured and judged by their similarity or deviation from the accepted consensus.
    Consensus groups can be of any size. They can be as numerous as the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire or as few as the followers of Osama bin Laden. The present consensus among the Islamic Jihadi movement that jihad — the struggle for the faith — necessitates permanent armed struggle against the kuffar, or the unbelievers, is a good example of the way in which consensus over a key issue of law and theology can create a group identity so strong it excludes all those Muslims who do not share this consensus. It defines them as “outside Islam” and subject to the ultimate sanction of death.

The application of these tools to the formation of Islamic law, and the group identity that grows from consensus among those who believe their particular group to be the custodians of the true Islam, is central to the history and present existence of a great variety of Islamic sects and related communities, some of which are only distantly Islamic in their beliefs.

There are other factors that influence the formation of Islamic states and political groupings. Ethnicity, geography, economics, military rivalries; these are all significant. But in the context of the medieval mindset that tends to cause the Muslim to see all elements as inseparable parts of one divinely ordained whole, the role of religious consensus is central to identity and often serves as justification for separation and hostility, where the true causes may lie elsewhere.

Without effective central authority and under the pressure of the centrifugal impetus of varying consensus, Islam has tended to evolve in the direction of ever proliferating understandings of the nature of Islam. That process continues and leads to widely differing understandings on the part of Muslims of the nature of Islam and its requirements for salvation.

Some of the groups and their origins (from a Western point of view):

Sunni. This is by far the largest sect in Islam and was the original form of the religion. About 70 percent of all Muslims are Sunni, who live in large numbers from Morocco to Indonesia, from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean.

Sunni Islam is distinguished by its conviction that the roots of law no longer include the possibility of original interpretation of scripture. There are four mutually recognized schools of Sharia within Sunni Islam: Maliki, Shafa’i, Hanafi and Hanbali. The differences among these schools of law are not thought by Muslims to amount to sectarian divisions, but to something analogous to the corpus of varying case law available to lawyers in different state jurisdictions in the United States. Sunni Muslims who accept these schools are distributed in roughly cohesive geographic areas with a good deal of overlapping.

  • Adherents of the Maliki school live almost entirely in western North Africa.
  • Perhaps the oldest school, the Shafa’i, is found throughout the Islamic world, but is concentrated in the Middle East.
  • The Hanafi school benefits from having been the imperial court faction of the Ottoman Empire. Hanafi adherents are widely distributed throughout the lands of the former empire.
  • Found in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Hanbali school differs from the other three in that it recognizes only two roots of law: the Quran and tradition. This refusal to accept consensus and analogy as bases for case law causes Hanbali courts and Hanbali followers to be prone to severe and inflexible opinions that lead toward extremism often a characteristic of fundamentalist belief in any religion. Hanbali teachings and opinion are heavily influenced by the writings of the medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya (died 1328), who was in large part the originator the concept of Salafism. This doctrine looks backward to the early figures of the Islamic community as models for behavior and practice and as a basis for the purification of the faith. Based on this teaching, the Wahhabi movement was founded in the 18th century in what is now Saudi Arabia. Largely suppressed by Ottoman and Egyptian forces, the movement was revived in the 19th century and became the endorsed form of Islam within the Saudi state. The extremist Jihadi groups inspired by Osama bin Laden are in a direct line of descent from the Wahhabi variant of Salafist Islam as well as other Salafist extremists whose place of origin was in Egypt.

Shiite. When the newly converted Muslim armies of desert Arabs conquered Mesopotamia in the seventh century, millions of Persian-speakers — in what is now southern Iraq — were brought under Arab Muslim control. Over an extended period of time, nearly all converted to Islam.

For a century, the Arabs ruled as an occupying army, excluding Persian-speaking Muslims from participation in the list (diwan) of those who received a share in the annual income of the Islamic community. This was thought to be unjust. When a dispute arose among Muslims regarding the right of succession to the caliphate, the oppressed of southern Iraq predictably chose to support the descendants of Muhammad rather than their oppressors, the Umayyad dynasty of caliphs.

Since Islam embraces the idea of theocracy and the universal unity of belief, it has always been a feature of Islamic history that an Islamic population who wishes to revolt against an Islamic government frames its cause in religious terms. This makes the revolt one in which the rebels are restoring “true” Islam against sinners and deviants.

This appears to have been the case in the original Shiite revolt against what is now called the Sunni majority. To this day, Shiite populations are quick to think of themselves as an oppressed underclass bullied by the stronger and more numerous Sunnis.

This is often seen as reflecting Shiite weakness in the larger Islamic world rather than in particular settings, like Iraq. Given the mechanisms of group formation previously discussed, it should not be surprising that the Shiite populations have divided and redivided themselves many times along “fault lines” of doctrine and ethnic advantage.

There are now many different Shiite- or Shiite-descended groups, all of which are oriented toward the special status given to those who come directly from the family of Muhammad. The historical figures in that line of descent are all referred to as “imam,” as opposed to the Sunni tradition of naming their leaders “caliph.”

Various Shiite groups think this line of descent ended after 5 imams (the Zeidis in Yemen), 7 imams (the Ismailis, who live mainly on the Indian subcontinent) or 12 imams (the Imami Shiites in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran). In some cases they believe the last of the line has been “hidden” from the world for centuries waiting for the time of return in glory to “judge the living and the dead.”

There is a widely held belief in Islam (both Sunni and Shiite) that a messiah (mahdi) will come to assure the ultimate triumph of Islam. This notion of the messiah is often conflated with that of the “hidden (12th) imam” in such a way that one man is expected to be both. In the Shiite tradition, it is thought the messiah/hidden imam will return with Jesus of Nazareth and that together they will judge the world.

Sufis. For many humans, law and obedience to law is not enough solace in dealing with the daily travail of life. For many Muslims, the traditional Islamic orientation toward a man/God relationship mediated by religious lawyers has never been enough comfort.

In response to this, Muslims developed forms of mysticism that remain, with enthusiastic support, in most parts of the Islamic world. Islamic mystics of this kind are called “Sufis.”

Only the Hanbali/Wahhabi/Salafist tendency in Sunni Islam firmly rejects Sufi mysticism as impertinent blasphemy. For other Muslims, however, Sufism is not an alternative identity, but a special devotion added to their more conventional observances.

There are many orders, or tariqas, among the Sufis. Some, such as the Qaderis and the Naqshbandi, are very old. They all possess a special liturgy, or thikr, and form brotherhoods that are not necessarily the quiet groups sometimes described by their friends in the West.

In the 19th century, Sufi brothers fought the Imperial Russian armies for decades; they later fought the Soviet Army in Afghanistan and continue to fight the Russian Army in Chechnya. There, as in the Balkans, they have made common cause with their Wahhabi adversaries. What the result of that will be, only time will tell.

Ibadhi. This is the prevalent form of Islam in the Sultanate of Oman. Ibadhism is probably descended from the Khariji revolt, which took place shortly after the death of Muhammad in 632. The Ibadhis do not accept that idea, but, it is, nevertheless, probably the case.

The Ibadhis are neither Sunni nor Shiite and consider both to be unbelievers. They do not believe the Quran is the uncreated word of God, but believe Muhammad to have written it inspired by God. The Ibadhis’ refusal to accept the validity of other views of Islam is undoubtedly the result of isolation and the innate divisiveness of the consensus process of group formation in Islam.

Deobandi. This is an extreme form of Sunni orthodoxy that developed in India in response to the presence and influence of the British colonial government. Like other Salafist idea systems, Deobandis look to the older forms and documents of Islam, believing that, over the centuries, Islam has been corrupted.

The Taliban practice a simplistic form of revivalist Islam based on Deobandi teachings. The Taliban learned this form of the Islamic faith in Islamic religious schools, or madrasah, run on the basis of an uneasy cooperation between Deobandi teachers and Wahhabi money.

Schismatics and heretics. There are other groups derived from Islam. In their present form, they are of doubtful Islamic identity.

  • Druze, an esoteric sect, form a minority population in Lebanon, Syria and Israel. The Druze faith originated as a variant form of Twelver Shiism, but over time, elements of Gnosticism and other influences from Greek philosophy have permeated the sect’s beliefs.
    The Druze often employ the Islamic practice of dissembling, known as takkiya, to protect their institutions and people from curiosity and hostility. Most Muslims do not accept the Druze as fellow believers unless political necessity requires it.
  • The Alawi is yet another esoteric sect derived from Shiism. In this case, the Shiite “root” of the sect lies in the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt at the time of the Crusades. The Alawis make up about 10 percent of the population of Syria, but enjoy great power there, having been given authority by the French in the belief that a minority population would have to ally itself to the colonial administration to survive. The end of colonialism after World War II spoiled that plan, but left the Alawis in a position of influence. The Alawis do not accept converts. They hold very un-Islamic beliefs that involve the incarnation of God in Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad. For these and many other reasons of heterodox belief, Alawis are not considered Muslim by Orthodox Sunnis and Shiites. In spite of that, the Syrian parliament was forced to declare the Alawi as Islamic; the Syrian constitution requires that the president must be Muslim.
  • Groups such as the Yazidi and Bahai live on the fringes of Middle Eastern theological life. The Yazidis are a Kurdish minority who practice an ancient religion only distantly related to Islam. The Bahai religion, although derived from the teachings of a Persian Shiite divine, have wandered in the direction of accepting all belief as valid — far from the Islamic fold — that it is anathema in such places as Iran.

The very nature of the Islamic faith, with its lack of a governing religious authority and reliance on group consensus for legitimization of Islamic identity, ensures that the continuing proliferation of splinter groups, large and small, is inevitable and will result in variations in doctrine and practice until the “last days.”

W. Patrick Lang is a retired colonel in the U.S. Army and a scholar of Islam and the Middle East.

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