Islam is one of the major religious traditions of the world involving approximately a quarter of the world’s population. It is the last of the three great monotheistic Abrahamic religions and according to Muslim belief was divulged through the Divine word known as the Quran, which was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and is considered to be the uncreated word of God. The word Islam, signifies an individual surrender to the Divine will with related connotations of inner spiritual tranquillity.
There are two main branches of contemporary Islam consisting of the Sunni and Shi’a branches. Rightly or wrongly, the Sunni rite is usually referred to as orthodox Islam and is related to the word Sunnah, which describes the canon of knowledge derived from the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. The Shi’a differ from the Sunni in believing that the successor to the Prophet should have been his nephew, Ali ibn Abu Talib. In fact, it was Abu Bakr Siddiq, one of the closest companions of the Prophet who was elected for the position of Caliph whilst Ali assumed the position as the fourth Caliph at a later date.
The term Shi’a means the party or contingent as in Shi’a tul Ali or the party of Ali. Over the centuries the Shi’a have therefore not recognised the elected leaders of orthodox Islam and this initial impasse has developed into deeper theological differences. Though there are many similarities the main differences between the two primarily lie in interpretation and religious authority. Approximately 12% of the total world Muslim population is Shi’a.
Main Theological Schools of Thought
Muslim theology has been interpreted through long established religious schools of thought known as madhabs and most Muslims would claim to follow one of these. However, in recent years Islamicists, the radical, modernist elements within the Muslim world consider adherence to the madhabs be deviant. The madhabs are named after their original founders and while there is no friction or conflict between the different schools of thought there are some methodological differences in determining judgements, not readily apparent to the layman. The four Sunni schools of thought are the maliki, hanafi, shafi and hanbali. The madhabs tend to be identified with different geographical areas for historical and political reasons. In the Shi’a tradition it is the jafari school of thought which predominates.
The Sufi tradition, the more mystical and spiritual aspect of Islam is often confused with being a separate sect on its own. In fact, it has been very much part of the classical canon under the Sunni category both in theoretical and practical terms. The word Sufi is a confusing one as different people mean different things by the tag and the Arabic word tassawuf is more indicative. Due to this confusion and the fact that there are movements who proclaim being Sufi and yet would not be accorded this right in accordance with mainstream doctrine. For these reasons, many reformist agenda of the modernist and radical tendencies within the Muslim world perceive Sufism as a deviant innovation. Simple research reveals this not to be the case and in fact many famous theologians have been Sufis. Its equivalent in the Shi’a tradition is called Irfan.
There are many famous muslim mystics who are often venerated as saints awliya who occupy a special place within the classical mode. Some spiritual orders have also developed around the spiritual practices of these and these are widely disseminated throughout the muslim world. In recent years a revival of these orders has occurred in reaction to a widespread revisionist tendency.
In the last 150 years, though accelerated within the last 50 years with the arrival of the petro dollar, a radical and reformist tendency has arisen within the Muslim world. The wahabi and salafi movements are characteristics of this. The origins of such movements are understood to lie within in a reaction to the dominance of western thought and colonialism and any ensuing economic and social deprivation. These movements claim to be the sole representative of the Sunni orthodoxy by laying claim to be modelled on the earliest Muslim communities.
Nevertheless, this is refuted by many classical Muslim theologians who perceive such movements as neo traditionalist, employing a rationalist stance in an irrational manner in their application and understanding of Islam. Muslim commentators of this classical bent understand the wahabi and salafi movements and its evolving mutations as the backdrop or initial starting point for violent radicalisation among the Muslim population. However, it must be equally stressed that radicalism and reformism as manifested by wahabism and is derivatives does not automatically imply the preaching of violence or the undertaking of terrorism. For those outside of the faith the issue of what exactly the traditional implies can be confusing. Suffice it to say, that one should never presume traditionalism or orthodoxy by dint of appearance, as in the wearing of certain clothes, as in hijabs (head scarves), niqabs (face coverings), robes and lengthy beards.
In conclusion, the Muslim world is currently undergoing a huge upheaval mainly brought about by the modernist revisionist movements named above. This sort of shake-up is something perhaps that the other Abrahamic, as well as the Dharmic traditions have been through previously as in the Christian Reformation. Various research shows that the average Muslim on the street is theologically confused and may hold opinions garnered from reformist elements and the classical without realizing that these in fact are often at contretemps.
An overview of Muslim beliefs is provided below but it is understood that there will not be uniform adherence to all aspects of these beliefs as outlined. The more renowned Sunni articles of faith are the Ashari, Tahawih and Maturidi creeds named after the scholars who formulated them. There are minor differences between them. One salient aspect of the classical Sunni creed developed in reaction to what was perceived as the over rationalization of theology especially during the middle ages is based on the following pivotal question; ‘Does God love the good because it's good or is something good because God has ordained it so?’ The Classical Muslim position is that something is good because God has deemed it so. The customary reasoning being that the ‘good’ would have existed outside of Allah’s creation or prior to Allah for it to be recognised by the Divine as such and this is considered an impossibility.
A Muslim is an individual who ascribes to six basic beliefs; that God (Allah) exists, that Angels (mala’ika) exist and that Messengers (rusul pl.mursalin) and Prophets – nabi pl. anbiyya ) have come to humankind with messages (sometimes referring to ‘Books’ or kitab) from the Divine and by Divine order. Other aspects include a belief in the Last Day as the end of time and a final reckoning and a belief in destiny.
Muslims attempt to live in accordance with the five pillars of Islam, which are:
- a verbal assertion of the unicity of Allah (shahada) and belief in the role of the Prophet Muhammad as Prophet
- performing the five daily devotions to Allah
- undertaking the fasting month of Ramadan
- undertaking the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca
- paying the prescribed welfare tax (zakat) for the poor.
The Muslim Concept of God
Allah is the word for God in the Arabic language and refers to the God of Abraham and the God of both the Old and New Testament. The word was used by pre Islamic Arab culture denoting the supreme deity. It is also used by Christian Arabs when speaking of God. The Muslim concept of Allah is of a transcendent Divinity, a boundless entity without delineation or limitation beyond all space and time and wholly beyond the scope of the human comprehension. God is Omnipotent and Omniscient and pervades all created existence. Figuratively speaking, at the very core of all existence lies the Absolute Divinity, by default capable of all things, yet with one impossibility, the act of coming into space and time.
The two main aspects of Allah are closeness (immanence - tashbih) and distance (transcendence - tanzih). Closeness refers to Allah’s concern for humans, individually and collectively as the human race, ‘..and We are nearer to you than your jugular vein’. (Quran 50:16) and ‘Wheresoever you turn, there is the face of Allah', (Quran 2:115). Distance refers to Allah’s complete independence, an incomparability with anything known or unknown. ‘Nothing is like Him’ (Quran 42:11) and beyond all human concerns. Falling under these two main categories Allah is characterised with a number of named attributes known as the ninety nine names. Many of these are in opposites and the created world is perceived as the dynamic tension between these polarities. Examples of this are: al Baasit - the Expander, as opposed to al Qaabid - the Constricter; or al Khaafid - the Abaser and al Raafi - the Exalter. Manifestations of these qualities within human beings are merely reflections of these Absolute characteristics.
The Prophets and Messengers
Muslim theology perceives the relationship between the Divine and the human race as one bridged by divinely inspired Prophets. There is a basic distinction made between the concept of Prophet (nabi pl. anbiyya) and Messenger (rusul pl. mursalin) in that a prophet is understood to function within the religious law current in a given time and place. Jesus is a prime example of this, for in Muslim belief, he was a Jew who came to renew the spirit of the Mosaic law for the Jews as opposed to changing the law and in this manner exemplifies the concept of nabi. The mursalin – the Messengers are those who came with divinely inspired changes to the law. By default they are nabi but with the added addition of being rusul. These would include figures like Abraham, Moses and Muhammad. Nonetheless, all Prophets and Messengers are human and within Muslim belief are not to be considered in any form or manner as being of a Divine nature.
The relationship between the Divine and humankind is also perceived as something of a cyclical affair insofar that these Prophets and Messengers have come at different historical intervals to diverse communities culminating in the last message of the Quran, embodied by the nature and wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad, described by his wife Aisha as ‘the Quran walking’. Previous Prophets are all those known within the Old Testament. From the New Testament, Jesus has been previously mentioned but John the Baptist (Yahya) is also considered as one of the Prophets of Islam. Interestingly, more mention is made of the Virgin Mary in the Quran than in the New Testament.
There are other Prophets mentioned in the Quran who are not found in either the Christian or Jewish scriptures, such as Hud, Shu’ayb and Luqman. Furthermore, the Quran speaks of other nameless Prophets that have come in the past to all the different world communities historically at some time or other and communicated within the collective cultural understanding of the people and area. As such, a tribe of Amazonian Indians, for example, may well have had such an individual amongst them. All such ‘messages’ call to a reawakening of a consciousness of the Divine presence and the consequence of personal choice. Some Muslim theologians have suggested that the likes of Buddha and Plato are examples of these, though this is never posited as irrefutable Muslim canon. Whatever the case, in Muslim belief, all prior teachings have been superseded and culminated by the Quran and the Way of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Muslim community holds the Prophets and Messengers in high esteem and affection and their stories are frequently recounted and applied to present day situations. A very special respect is given to the Prophet Muhammad, though the quality and degree of this reverence may differ according to the school of thought. These views may range from the Prophet Muhammad, (literally ‘the praised one’) conceived as al insan kamil or ‘the perfect human being’ embodying all the fulfilled human potentialities, as opposed to just being very highly regarded by dint of good character and the singular fact that Allah choose him as a Messenger. Consequently this is a major area of controversy in the Muslim world. An example of this can be seen in the wahabi Saudi Arabian Affairs Ministry proposing the destruction of the Prophet’s tomb in 2004. The idea being to deter excessive respect towards the Prophet bordering on the worship of a human being which according to wahabi doctrine is equated with idolatry.
The Muslim community has traditionally conducted its affairs, on both the communal and individual scale, based on three sources in descending hierarchical order. Legal and theological rulings are based and referred to in the first order on the Quran, secondarily in relation to the Prophet’s actions and words which are based on Hadith. The Hadith form an essential part of the Muslim canon and are the collected accounts of the actions and words of the Prophet in a variety of situations over a period of 23 years, i.e. from the first revelation to his death. The manner in which these sayings and doings are verified as authentic is very exacting and is a science unto itself and a recognised branch of Islamic knowkedge.
Those who dedicate themselves to this study are known as Muhadith. Each hadith is accorded a particular ranking of verification based on several different factors. The most verified collections (Sahih hadith) are the collections known separately as the Bukhari and Muslim, named after the men who painstakingly complied these over many years. Other famous collections are the Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah collections, amongst others.
The third element of adjudication and general religious authority lies in the general consensus (ijma) or accumulated wisdom of the scholars and the Muslim community.
A Brief History of Islam
The Prophet Muhammad was born in 570 AD in the city of Mecca, which is currently situated in the modern state of Saudi Arabia. At the time the Arabian peninsula was divided up between different Semitic tribes of both Arab and Jewish origins. The Arabs had degenerated from their original Abrahamic monotheism to the worshipping of gods and goddesses. The Kaaba, a stone cubic building in Mecca, believed to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael, was the epicentre of Arabian religious life.
Once a year all the warring tribes would lay aside their hostilities and perform a pilgrimage to the Kaaba, a sacred rite linked back to Abraham. In and around the Kaaba a great many of the tribal gods and goddesses were placed and the pilgrimage was made in their honour. If anything, Allah was the great God or the father of the gods similar to the role of Zeus and Thor within the Greek and Scandinavian traditions. It was into this world that Muhammad was born though his father died prior to this and his mother passed on when he was only six years old. His grandfather, Abdul Muttalib took charge of him, only to die two years later himself. He was taken on by his Uncle Abu Talib who raised as if he was his own child.
At the age of 25 Muhammad married Khadija, an older woman of 40 who is a wealthy trader. During this time Muhammad identified with the Hanifin who were Arab non conformists, spurning the worshipping of idols and believing in one solitary Divinity. These figures were prone to solitary retreats in the wild. It was on just such an occasion, when Muhammad had withdrawn to a cave in the mountains for a period of secluded contemplation that he was visited by his first vision in the year 610AD wherein the Archangel Gabriel recited the first words of the Quran which were imprinted on the mind and heart of Muhammad.
Initially worried that he had become insane, he rushed home to Mecca, where further visions occurred. As a result of these and those that followed, he became reassured of the Divine origins of the visions and he began to openly proclaimed Allah as the one and only God. This had the effect of initially convincing a small number of people from his family, as well as some slaves and various impoverished people of Meccan society. However it also drew much animosity of many others in Mecca, for the very livelihood of the city depended on polytheism through the revenue that came in from the great yearly tribal pilgrimage. Muhammad was branded a madman, prone to strange mutterings and dreams.
With more and more people came to believe in Muhammad and his message though there was much persecution of the Muslims in the early days. The Quranic messages coming to the Prophet continued throughout this time and were often in relation to things that were happening in the vicinity. The fledgling Muslim community eventually expanded to encompass a significant number of people and drew a corresponding opposition at one time resulting in the Muslims being banned from Mecca.
The situation became so oppressive that under Divine guidance the Muslims in 622 AD eventually fled to the city of Medina, (known as the Hijra) where they were welcomed by the inhabitants of that place. Here the small community gained in confidence and strength, now augmented by the conversion of the majority of the Madinans. Several defensive battles were fought against the Meccan forces opposed to the Prophet’s message. The Muslim community though smaller in number were frequently but not always victorious in defence.
In 630 AD events led to Muhammad leading the Muslims into the streets of the now defeated city of Mecca. No retributions towards the Meccans or their property was made and within a short space of time the city was largely Muslim. Islam spread rapidly through the Arabian peninsula. In 632 the Prophet Muhammad died.
Despite internal dissension and warring over the succession of religious and political power not long after the death of the Prophet, the influence of Islam spread beyond the confines of the Arabia Peninsula. This occurred both through the encountering of Muslims through trade and through armed conflict. Muslims historians perceive what could be called a hijran cycle; in that many of the poor and disempowered of a particular region accepted Islam, were persecuted as a result by the ruling authorities who perceived them as a threat. The Muslim community would then retreat away from the areas of oppression to set up their own communities (hijra) but when the persecution would follow them, a larger Muslim force from elsewhere came to defend the Muslim minority eventually winning overall power.
While such means of expansion appear to have occurred frequently enough, others historical occasions were simply religious and political conquests. Probably, in a conglomeration of both these elements in several smaller communities the Byzantine and Persian kingdoms came to be defeated within 50 years of the Prophet’s death. Large areas of China, North Africa and almost the whole of the Iberian Peninsula up to the Atlantic coast came under Muslim control within 100 years of the Prophet’s death. By the Middle Ages, Islam had spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Muslims in Britain
It is impossible to overlook the controversial image of Islam in the world today and some of this has been touched upon in the preceding sections. The events of 9/11 and 7/7 have been the focus of public commentary and anxiety. The fact that a number of British born individuals have been involved in international acts of terror deserves comment in this overview. The elements of British Muslim communities that factor into this must be looked at. Importantly, there is now a gravitation amongst policy makers against holding the notion of Islam as constituting the root cause of problems within the Muslim communities in Britain. These are now considered to be problems of dislocation caused by migration and adjusting to the status of a religious minority. With this in mind it is crucial to give some brief analysis of the Muslim presence in Britain.
Different European countries have different levels of Muslim discourse depending on the make up and origins of Muslim immigration to that country. For example, Canada has a high level of professional people of middle class origins from a variety of countries engendering a relatively sophisticated discourse. In Holland, the case is different, with the majority of Muslims stemming from the rural regions of Morocco and Turkey. France has a mix of professional and working class Muslims mainly from Morocco and Algeria with a significant minority from the sub-Saharan regions of Africa rendering a complex dialectic. Into this intricate situation must be added the French emphasis of laïcité.
The majority of Muslims in the UK stem from Pakistani roots and particularly from rural areas such as the Punjab, Mirpoor and Kashmir. The fact that the Arabic language, the backdrop required for some religious sophistication was understandably never a priority for these communities has certainly played a role. That said, there are significant numbers of other ethnic origins stemming from countries like Morocco, Algeria, Somalia and the Middle East amongst others where Arabic has been the lingua franca. Despite this, the Pakistani presence could probably be seen to dominate most of the Muslim discourse within the UK in one way or another. Accordingly, adherence to the faith has tended to be couched in emotional terms rooted in cultural and tribal identities. There are also strong polemical differences inherited from the homelands between groups representing different outlooks on religious matters.
Significantly, 50% of the Muslim community in the UK is under 25 and were born in the UK and as a result there is a patent inter-generational shift in all of the above mentioned perceptions. There is also a strong drive amongst young people to broaden their knowledge of the religion rather than take on what has been passed down from parents. As a result there is tremendous upheaval and tension within the Muslim communities on all levels of social interaction. For those wishing to look further into these matters, Phillip Lewis’ book, Young British and Muslim (2007) is highly recommended.
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