Of the divided nature of Islam

January 21, 2008 at 12:30 am (Islam, Islamism, Religion, Religions)

When many people think about Christianity, they are aware of the fact that Christendom is quite divided. There are significant divisions even within the major forms of Christian. These people are also aware that there continue to be major disputes regarding doxa (belief) and praxis (practice). The same exists for Judaism: also quite divided with lingering debates and disputes. People are also aware that issues being disputed can become quite heated. In other words, there are true and genuine divisions within the various factions and interpretations of Christianity and Judaism.

When it comes to Islam, though, the picture changes. Most people are aware that Islam is divided into three major divisions (Sunni, Shiite, and Sufi, even though Sufism is not a separate division but more of a spiritual or mystical movement). Most people believe this is it, other than the much-touted efforts of fringe elements to hijack Islam and kill their opponents. But the same “inter-denominational” divisiveness that plagues Christianity and Judaism (and, indeed, practically every religion and religious movement) also persists in Islam and has since the death of Muhammad. (There were divisions and debates within Shiites and within Sunnis back then too.)

Let us take the issue of asking for intercession (this asking being called tawassul). Some groups believe that a Muslim may call upon Muhammad, the prophet-founder of Islam, for intercession. Others believe that people close to Muhammad may be invoked, such as his son-in-law and cousin Ali, or Muhammad’s daughter and Ali’s wife Fatimah. Others are more liberal: any righteous Muslim, any Muslim saint (pir, wali), may be called upon. For Shiites, any of the imams or those close to the imams may be called upon. Some groups, however, forbid any form of tawassul, calling it shirk (idolatry or polytheism, one of the cardinal sins according to Allah as stayed by Islam). It is this issue of shirk that makes it such a polemical issue: according to the reformist fundamentalist groups (the Wahhabis and Salafis) anyone who uses any such tawassul has effectively renounced Islam, become an infidel, committed idolatry and polytheism, and become an apostate. Those who refuse to recognize the error of their act and repent accordingly, are enemies of Islam. Indeed, I was reading a book some time ago called, translated into English, “Infidels who say the Testification of Faith”, in other words those who appear to be Muslim but are actually infidels. As such, such an issue that may seem trivial is actually made to be of eternal significance. And the worst part is that no groups wins, and so the heated battles continue to rage on.

I once read about a particularly interesting case among South Asian Muslims. On group believes that Muhammad is alive in his grave. Another group believes that Muhammad is either asleep in his grave or is in heaven: but he is certainly not alive in his grave. For not believing that Muhammad was alive in his grave, the first group proclaimed the second group to be infidels; for believing that Muhammad was alive in his grave, the second group proclaimed the first group to be infidels.

Fortunately, new groups and battlelines do not appear with each debate or issue. Every group above disagrees on various issues with every other group.

So what, in essence, exists in the Muslim world is that certain elemental or foundational beliefs and acts exist. On this very few groups doubt. But what each group disputes severely is what each of the elemental/foundational beliefs and acts actually means and what it entails. A good example is the issue of monotheism.

Part of the shahadah (testification of faith, one of five pillars of Islam and which every Muslims group agrees is the first and most important of the beliefs and practices of Islam, even if there are slight variations in wording among the major schisms) includes the testification that Allah is one, meaning there is only one God. The reformist fundamentalists say that this means that the names or titles of Allah belong to Allah alone and may not be shared by/with anyone. This means that what Allah is, only Allah is. So when one of the names or titles of Allah is “King” (malik) , only Allah is king or sovereign. And so all humans are bound to obey the laws promulgated by Allah not only because of Allah’s command that they do so but also simply because of who or what Allah is: sole and supreme sovereign over the entire universe. And so man-made laws are forbidden and, indeed, are an affront to Allah, as only Allah may make laws and humans are to obey only Allah’s laws. And so, in this way, those who follow man-made laws or ways deny the oneness of Allah and effectively becomes an infidel, idolator, apostate, etc.

These divisions continue even in the West. The reformist fundamentalists are trying their best to portray their interpretation of Islam as the real interpretation of Islam. They are greatly assisted by their propagandizing tendencies: among Muslims they see it as their duty to educate Muslims as to what real Islam is, and among infidels they see it as their duty to teach them what Islam really is. In the West, they are able to do both at the same time.

It is somewhat alarming to see how fast the legitimacy of the reformist fundamentalist movement is spreading among Muslims, which is slowly making other groups come out and challenge the reformist fundamentalist Muslims. It’s not easy though, because the reformist fundamentalist Muslims base their beliefs and practices on the fundamental sources of Islam (hence “reformist fundamentalist“) whereas most other groups have accumulations that developed over the centuries and that have no support in the fundamental sources; and so, under these conditions, the average Muslim cedes more credibility to the reformist fundamentalists because they seem more authentic.

But the divisions continue, and will only get worse. While Muslims make a big effort to seem united in belief and practice in the West and for the view of the West (often, in doing so, temporarily conceding to the reformist fundamentalists), in their own lands and, increasingly, among themselves here in the West, the battle grows more heated. It should not be assumed that the reformist fundamentalists will win: they are challenged plenty. But while opposition to them continues, they grow stronger and more powerful. (Indeed, it is because of this growth in power and strength that other groups have begun to lash out.)

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