Is Islam a Monolithic Religion?
The war on terror has drawn global attention on Islam with many people associating the religion with terrorism. Arab-Americans have complained of being targeted for discrimination since 9/11 and the general feeling has been that Islam and terrorism are closely related. While this view is misleading, another equally misleading perception is that Islam is the religion of Arabs. Even more misleading is the view that Muslims speak with one voice and that there is cohesion in the religion.
Islam is the dominant religion in the Arab world but it has adherents globally. Global Islam has a number of sects and there are considerable differences among the sects. For this reason, Islam cannot be considered monolithic. However, the things that are fundamental to the faith have universality among the various sects.
The various sects
One of the reasons that make people Islam view as non-monolithic is the existence of a number of sects within the faith. Before examining the aspects that make Islam monolithic, it would help to examine the factors that make it non-monolithic.
There are two main sects in Islam (Sands 2001, p1). The biggest number of Muslims globally is followers of the Sunni faith. Sunnis are also considered the traditionalist Muslims and it is estimated that 90% of Muslims globally are Sunnis. The other main sect of Islam is the Shi’ite and it is the dominant sect in Iran (Sands 2001, p1). These two main sects have a number of theological differences that make unity between them almost impossible. Yet what is notable about both sects is the fact that they have accepted the teachings of Prophet Mohammed and embraced the Quran. Sunni traditions are based on the system that was established by the leaders who succeeded Mohammed after his death. These leaders, known as Caliphs, are believed to have continued the traditions that the Prophet had started thus giving them legitimacy. The first Caliph was Abu Bakr who was Mohammed’s father-in-law (Sands 2001 p1). The Shi’ites, on the other hand, while accepting the teachings of the prophet, refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Caliphs. They especially failed to give legitimacy to the first three Caliphs but acknowledged the fourth Caliph from whose name they got the name of their sect. This fourth Caliph was known as Ali and was the husband of Mohammed’s daughter, Fatima (Sands 2001, p1). Beginning with Ali, the Shi’ites have been led by spiritual leaders known as Imams. Differences between the Sunni and Shi’ites are mainly on the interpretation of the laws of the Quran.
While these are the two main divisions in the Islam faith, there are many other sects within these two main ones. The most visible mini-sects include the Wahhabis, a sect that was started in the 1700s and is the dominant sect in Saudi Arabia (Sands 2001, p1). There are also the Imamites, a sub-sect of the Shi’ites, which is a group that believes that the 12th Imam, who disappeared in 940 AD, will return. Most Imamites are found n Iran. Another sect within the Muslim faith is the group led by the Aga Khan. This group, the Ismailis, is a Shi’ite sub-sect and has large followings in the Bahrain, Egypt and Syria (Sands 2001, p1.) The break-away of the Ismailis from the main Shi’ite group occurred in the eight century over the issue of succession after the death of the sixth Imam. Another group in the Muslim faith is the Alawis who also broke away from the Shi’ite and are mainly found in Syria. Then there is the group known as the Kharijites which broke away from mainstream Islam during the 7th century. This group has followers in parts of North and East Africa as well as Arabia (Sands 2001, p1). Another Islamic sect, which has gained reasonable following in India and parts of Africa, is the Sufi sect (Sands 2001, p1). Additionally, there are Muslim Fundamentalists who are found in almost every sect of the religion. The existence of the many sects is one of the reasons that make many people feel that it would be wrong to consider Islam a monolithic faith (Fields 2006).
Apart from the various sects, it should be recognized that Islam is a global religion with followers on all continents. It is the main religion in the Arab World but more than 80% of the followers are in countries outside the Arab world, including the US (Strikwerda 2006, p 45).
Aspects that make Islam Monolithic
While different sects exist within the Islam faith, there are many factors central to the fundamental religion that are observed by the various sects and which would therefore be considered as giving the faith a monolithic character. Whatever differences the sects have between themselves, the foundation of the faith has not changed and there is much to unite Muslims than there is to cause disunity.
The five pillars of the faith
The religion of Islam is founded on the five pillars of the faith (Hussain). Whatever differences there might be between the sects, all Muslims are guided in their religious practices by these pillars. The five pillars of the Muslim faith are founded on the Revelations of Prophet Mohammed, the originator of the religion. These pillars are what holds the religion of Islam and act as a guide to the believer.
The first pillar of the Muslim faith is the belief in the unity of God. Unity of God teaches that there is only one God, Allah, and that there is no other God except Allah. The Quran further teaches that Allah is supreme and is the protector and sustainer of all mankind. Quranic teachings on this pillar of the faith also emphasize the fact that Allah is alone and has no partner. This is emphasized by saying specifically that apart from being eternal, Allah does not beget nor is He begotten (Hussain). In addition to believing that Allah is supreme, there are two proclamations that a Muslim is required to make. These are the statements that declare that there is no God except Allah and secondly that Mohammed is His prophet. These proclamations, which are known as Kalimas, are the foundation upon which the Muslim faith is laid and it is by making the proclamations that a person gains acceptance into Islam (Hussain).
The second pillar of the Muslim faith is prayer. The faith requires every believer to show devotion to Allah by praying five times every day (Hussain). Prayer occupies a central position in the life of a Muslim as it is considered both crucial for increasing the worshipper’s belief in addition to showing submission to Allah. Islamic prayer consists of recitation of verses from the Quran in addition to following specific body posturing that shows the submission of the individual to Allah. This pillar of the faith, just as the first one, is common to all Muslims regardless of the sect they belong to (Gutas 2003, p 215).
The third pillar of the Muslim faith, which is practiced in a uniform manner throughout the sects, is fasting (Hussain). Fasting holds a special place in the lives of all Muslims regardless of the sect they worship in. Muslims all over the world observe a month-long fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadhan. During this month, all Muslims, except the sick and pregnant women, are required to completely abstain from food and drink and in addition to avoid all manner of carnal pleasure even between husband and wife. The faithful are required to observe the fast as a measure of self discipline and it is believed this abstinence purifies the body and the soul. Other than a light breakfast very early in the morning, the fasting Muslim is required to eat or drink nothing else for the rest of the day. The fast is broken after sunset (Hussain).
The fourth pillar of the faith is Alms giving, also called the tax for the poor (Hussain). Through the tax for the poor, rich Muslims are required to provide for the poor members of the society through the giving of alms. This too is an act of submission to the will of God as the Quran promises the Muslim who gives alms that he or she will be repaid a hundred fold whatever has been given to sustain the poor in the next life. Not only is the giving of alms meant to sustain the poor, it forms a basis for the Muslim economic system as it aims at redistributing wealth. While the giver is promised great rewards in the next life for observing the alms-giving law, warnings of severe punishment are issued by the Quran to those wealthy members of the society who fail to give alms. This pillar of the faith is observed by Muslims of all sects.
The fifth pillar of the Muslim faith is the pilgrimage, also called Hajj (Hussain). The pilgrimage consists of a visit to Mecca, a city that is holy to Muslims. Quranic teachings make it mandatory for every Muslim to make at least one visit to that city. Those who cannot afford it are exempted from this requirement. Pilgrimage to Mecca is made mandatory as it is considered a duty that men owe God. In visiting Mecca, Muslims are supposed to pray at the Holy Kabbah which they consider the first house of worship ever built on earth (Hussain). The pilgrimage has an elaborate program and includes an act known as stoning of the devil and a visit to the grave of Prophet Mohammed (Hussain).
These pillars of the Muslim faith are observed by Muslims of all sects. For this reason, the fundamental teachings of Prophet Mohammed, as recorded in the Quran, remain unchanged for Muslims all over the world( Iqbal 2003 p 221).
While the Quran is the central book of the Muslim faith, the Hadeeth are another source of information and direction for the Muslim faithful. Hadeeth refers to sayings uttered by Prophet Mohammed during his lifetime (Godlas 2003). Development of Hadeeth has come a long way because in the initial stages of the development of the religion there were never any guarantees about which Hadeeth were actually from the Prophet and which were the inventions of other characters. What was happening is that, in an attempt to influence the believers to behave in a certain way, tales were being peddled around in the formative years of the faith, and these tales were being attributed to the Prophet (Godlas 2003). With time however, collections were made of Hadeeth that had been authenticated and these Hadeeth are known as Sahih – which means “correct, true, valid or sound” (Godlas 2003). Compilation of the correct Hadeeth led to the creation of six books which contain the sayings of Prophet Mohammed. These books, together with the Quran, have been used to offer guidance to the Muslim and have also been used to develop the Islamic legal system. For the Muslim then, the Hadeeth and the Quran are critical books. Hadeeth are sometimes used to make texts of the Quran clearer. Fitzgerald (2006) notes that, when it comes to interpretation of the Quran and the reading of the Hadeeth, Islam has such uniformity that it can be considered monolithic. For this reason, the Sunni, the Shi’ites and the Ibadi have no difference in the topics that they teach their faithful to concern themselves with. Fitzgerald (2006) notes universality in the Muslim teachings on the need to participate in a Jihad to spread the Muslim religion. Secondly, all Muslims have the common belief that Islam is the Universal religion of the world, that everybody was born Muslim but ended up in the wrong religion. For this reason, those who convert to Islam are considered as only reverting to the religion of their birth (Fitzgerald 2006). Furthermore, the importance of Hadeeth is shown by the fact that once a Hadeeth is considered Sahih, it becomes mandatory. Such Hadeeths have been used as a source of information in cases “involving Islamic Shariah law” (“Weak hadith defence”). Fitzgerald (2006) finds much similarity in the actions of Muslims now and in the past that would make us consider the religion monolithic. He gives the example of the Jihads that were carried out by Muslims in the past, all inspired by the Quran and the Hadeeth, and notices that they were similarly brutal.
It would therefore appear that differences in the Muslim sects have not affected the Muslim faith as the fundamental principles of the faith have been followed universally. Differences between Muslims in different sects and regions could be shown by factors such as slight changes in dressing but the main religion has remained intact.
The uniting message of Islam
While Islam is much maligned in the west, Muslims claim that theirs is the religion for people of all races and colors and is the only religion capable of uniting the world. In making these assertions, Muslims point to Mohammed who they say is the last prophet (“Quranic view of religion” 2000). Not only do Muslims claim that Mohammed is the last prophet, they teach that he is different from any other prophet that was ever sent to mankind. For the Muslim, all the information that came from all the prophets was information on Islam. The arrival of Mohammed then is the culmination of a long journey that the human race has traveled in search for the truth about God. Referring to Mohammed as the last prophet, Muslims claim that all previous prophets were sent to different and specific places with messages from God. Mohammed, however, was not sent to a particular people but to “all mankind for all time” (“Quranic view of religion” 2000).
Fields, S 2006, “Misleading by Misreading; Pope Benedict’s Message is Clear Enough”, The Washington Times
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Is Islam a Monolithic Religion?. (2016, Oct 26). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/is-islam-a-monolithic-religion/