Chapter 11: Unity and Diversity in Islam by Mohammad Rasjidi
(Mohammad Rasjidi is Ambassador to Pakistan from the Republic of Indonesia, Karachi, Pakistan)
No one can claim to speak with final authority concerning the diversity found among the more than five hundred million Muslims who seek to follow the straight path of Islam. One can only record some observations concerning the variations in practices among the Muslims from Morocco and the Balkans to China and Indonesia. It is possible, however, to be much more explicit about the basic unity of Islam, for throughout the Muslim world there is general agreement concerning the sources of Islam, the fundamentals of the faith, and the particular requirements which are the obligations of all believers.
The Sources of Islam
There is general agreement that the sources of Islam are the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and reasoning about them. Of these, the primary source is the Qur’an. Concerning matters not explicitly clear in the Qur’an, the Sunnah is the secondary, supplementary source; and when the answer to questions needs further clarification the third source for Muslims is reasoning about the intent of the Qur’an and Sunnah by those men who are recognized as having the training and experience which qualifies them to reason properly.
The miraculous revelation of the Qur’an has been fully discussed in earlier chapters of this book. It is the final revelation, the Word of God given through His Prophet as a guide to all men everywhere, regardless of race, or color, or nationality. Within two years of the death of the Prophet it was compiled in book form and has been the primary source of Islam for almost fourteen centuries, without question and without variant versions. Since it was revealed in Arabic it has necessitated knowledge of Arabic, and this has been a unifying cultural factor throughout the Muslim world. It was recognized, however, that the people in the various countries often read the Qur’an in Arabic without understanding its meaning. The uneducated people even thought that it was sufficient to pronounce the words correctly, and that such repetition -- even without understanding the meaning -- would bring them blessings from God and save their souls. Some even used verses of the Qur’an as amulets against dangers and diseases! Half a century ago the orthodox Muslims believed that it was forbidden to translate the Qur’an, fearing that translations would supplant the original Arabic version and that versions in different languages would cause disagreements and misinterpretations of the revelation of God. While it is true that because of its very high literary style it is difficult, if not impossible, to translate the Qur’an into any other language without losing the beauty and vigor of the original, translations in the languages of the people are necessary in order that they may understand the meaning of this book which is the source of Islam. Today the Qur’an is available in translation in most of the languages of the world.
Sometimes people ask why the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic if it is intended to be the Holy Book for all human beings. This question cannot be answered definitely, for if the Qur’an had been revealed in any other language -- for example, in English -- the question would still remain as to why that one language was chosen. Thus we have to content ourselves with the fact that, regardless of any possible reasons, the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic.
The second source for Islam is the Sunnah. During Muhammad’s lifetime, Muslims could ask him to guide them in solving any problem when they did not find a clear answer in the Qur’an. For instance, once a man asked him if it would be proper to perform a pilgrimage on behalf of his deceased mother. The Prophet replied that it would be proper since such an act could be compared to a debt which she owed and the son was obligated to pay. When the Prophet was dying, and knew that he would not be present to give such advice, he told the people that they would not go astray so long as they held to the two guides he was leaving for them -- the Qur’an, the Book of God, and the example of his own way of life, the Sunnah. The Qur’an, in Surah XXXIII, verse 21, establishes the Sunnah as the second source of Islam:
"There is a good example in the Apostle of Allah for those who wish to meet God and the Day of Judgment, and to remember God much."
The Sunnah is made up of the deeds, speech, and approbation of the Prophet. His deeds include the way he prayed, or washed his hands, or took a bath, and the like. His words have been preserved for us, as for example when he said, "I am sent to perfect high morality." By approbation is meant that when Muhammad saw something done, or heard words uttered in his presence and did not object, such actions or words are approved. Approbation was applied chiefly to customs of the Arab society which were not in contradiction to the spirit of Islam. For example, when Muhammad saw a man dancing with a sword he smiled and showed his pleasure, so later jurists concluded that dancing with the sword is permitted. Such approval has been applied to customary practices and laws in all Islamic countries where such customs do not contradict the spirit of Islamic laws -- for example, in the marriage ceremonies.
The codification of the Sunnah, the Traditions, began a century and a half after the Prophet when Malik Ibn Anas wrote a compilation of the Traditions concerning Islamic laws. The compilation of the Traditions took final form at the hands of Bukhari and Muslim in the third century (ninth century A.D.), and today most Muslims recognize their work as the two correct books on Traditions. Those two compilers established conditions for determining which Traditions would be accepted as authentic, conditions which related only to the persons who narrated the Traditions. Such persons must be of good moral character, pious, honest, of sound discretion, and blessed with a good memory; and the series of such transmitters must be continuous from generation to generation. The first generation was called the Companions, the second was known as the followers, and the third as the followers of the followers. Thus a tradition narrated by the followers only would not be accepted by Bukhari because there would be a gap of a generation from the time of the Prophet.
It must be explained, however, that those conditions for the correctness of a Tradition did not touch the subject matter, for internal criticism was unknown at the time. Consequently we find in the two compilations some Traditions, such as those about the signs of the approaching of the Day of Judgment, which we do not understand even yet. The lapse of two and a half centuries between the death of the Prophet and the compilation of the Sunnah has resulted in many differences between Muslims which continue in our time. In the civil war and struggle for power in the time of Uthman, the third Caliph, irreligious elements among the Muslim people did not refrain from fabricating traditions concerning the merits of some political figures. Accurate judgments concerning the narrators of Traditions became difficult because the political feuds sometimes made the judgments far from objective. A knowledge of the way in which the Traditions were compiled and transmitted facilitates an understanding of the various attitudes toward the Traditions which are found in Muslim countries today.
The Qur’an, which was revealed almost fourteen centuries ago, and the Traditions concerning the Prophet who lived that long ago exclusively in a desert society cannot serve as explicit guides for every situation which might arise centuries later, and especially in the complex societies of the present day. This was recognized by the Prophet himself. Once when he was sending one of his Companions to Yemen to serve as governor, he tested the man by asking him what principles he would follow in his new position. He answered that he would hold to the teachings of the Qur’an. The Prophet asked, "And if you do not find a particular guide in the Qur’an?" He replied, "I shall look for it in the Sunnah." Then the Prophet asked, "Well, what if you do not find it in the Sunnah either?" He replied, "In such a case, I shall make use of my own opinion." The Prophet was very pleased with that answer and said, "Thanks to God who has guided the messenger of the Messenger of Allah."
Thus a third basis for Islam became established, the basis of reasoning. We find in the Qur’an many verses which mention reasoning, or thinking, or knowing -- verses which exhort us to make use of our brains instead of following blindly the traditions which our ancestors followed. Concerning the Unbelievers of old, the Qur’an says, "Nay, for they say only: Lo we found our fathers following a religion, and we are guided by their footprints" (Surah XLIII, 22). While exhorting us to contemplate nature, the Qur’an says, "In the creation of skies and the earth, the difference between night and day, the ships which run at sea carrying that which is useful for mankind, the rain water which Allah sends down from the sky to revive the earth after its death, and to spread animals on it, and the arrangement of winds and clouds between sky and earth, in all those things there are evidences (for the existence of God) for those who make use of their brains" (Surah II, 164). There is even a verse which says that once upon a time the people of Hell said to one another, "If we had made use of our ears or our brains we would not have been the inhabitants of this Hell" (Surah LXVII, 10).
Originally the word used for reasoning, qiyas, meant measure, used in the sense of thinking by comparing one thing with another -- reasoning by analogy. As the third source of Islamic law it means determining the proper course of action by reasoning from the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Some men, however, speak of a fourth source of the law of Islam -- consensus of opinion, or the agreement of capable men in their judgment on a specific question. This concept was introduced by al Shafi‘i, the founder of one of the schools of law. Some people have misunderstood consensus to mean simply public opinion, and have asserted that if public opinion approves an action it is therefore acceptable to Islam. For Muslim legislators, consensus is the agreement reached among qualified religious leaders in one place at one time. There has never been a means by which such agreement might be found for all Muslims everywhere. True consensus, ijma, was possible only during the time of the first two Caliphs and part of the rule of the third Caliph. Ijma now only means that some agreement has been found in some places concerning the interpretation of certain verses of the Qur’an. As a basic source for Islam, it is reasoning, not consensus which is the third source. The Qur’an, the Sunnah, and reasoning are the generally accepted sources of Islam.
There are, as has been seen, some exceptions to the position that these are the three sources of Islam, for some people hold that only the Qur’an and Sunnah can give us a solid foundation for Islam. Their attitude, however, is easily refuted for it must be admitted that the problems of the world today are very different from those of the time of Muhammad, and their attitude would make Islam a dead religion. Actually, Islam is a dynamic religion, based on the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and reasoning.
Some people confuse ijtihad with reasoning, but if used in the sense of a personal preference it is obviously not the same thing. In the sense of careful reasoning as to the implications of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, it is the same as reasoning. Unchecked, ijtihad might even lead to disagreement concerning such basic ideas as right and wrong, good and bad!
To understand the unity and diversity in Islam it is necessary to understand these three sources of Islamic law: the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and the proper use of reason.
The Creed of Islam
The unity in Islam is shown in the acceptance of the six articles of belief, the fundamentals of Islam -- belief in God, Angels, revealed scriptures, prophets, the Day of Judgment, and the destiny of man for good or evil. These beliefs are held by all Muslims.
The proof for the existence of God is found in the Qur’an through meditation on the beauty and order of nature. The harmony of the natural world shows that there is one benevolent Allah who created the universe and all human beings. The oneness of God is His most distinctive characteristic, as is shown in Surah CXII of the Qur’an, "He is One. He it is to whom we address our demands. He never gives birth and He was never born, nothing is similar to Him." In addition, all good qualities can be ascribed to God, He is the Merciful, the Generous, the Lover, the Great, the High. Some traditions mention ninety-nine names of God, but it is probable that the number is to be understood, not literally, but only as a very great number. Thus a Muslim may choose among those names of God the one which is psychologically relevant in the circumstances, a practice which is common throughout the Muslim world.
Theological treatises mention that there are twenty attributes of God, usually listed in four divisions. The first division includes only the essential attribute of existence. The second division is made up of the five negative attributes -- no beginning, no end (eternity), difference from contingent things, independence of existence, unity (uniqueness). The third division includes the seven abstract attributes of power, will, knowledge, life, and the ability to hear, see, and speak. The fourth division, which is called the correlative of the abstract attributes, is made up of present participles of the abstract attributes of the third division -- powerful (overpowering), willing, knowing, living, hearing, seeing, speaking. The theologians stressed that the attributes of God are not separate from the essence of God. This division of attributes is arbitrary and not clear, but most of the people consider it to be an essential element of belief. The series of attributes is clearly an artificial reflection of a reaction to Greek philosophy; it is not found in this form in the Qur’an or the Hadith, and has made people think in an unhealthy way. It is more appropriate to understand the existence of God through contemplating nature, as is revealed in the Qur’an. The differences of opinion among Muslims as to whether or not God resembles human beings, and the opinion of some common people that God resembles a medieval absolute king, arise only from different patterns of education; they are not fundamental to Islam.
Angels are creatures who serve as liaison between God the Almighty and His apostles, bringing the Godly messages and revelations to them. Some Traditions speak of Angels who guard Hell, some who guard Paradise, some who ask dead people about their beliefs, and some who record all of a man s actions; there is also an Angel who will blow the trumpet to awaken all human beings on the Day of Judgment. Common people tend to understand such Traditions literally, while educated people prefer to understand them figuratively with an interpretation more or less acceptable to reason.
The Qur’an, the holy revealed Book of Islam, mentions three former revealed books -- the Book of David, the Book of Moses, and the Book of Jesus. This does not necessarily mean that there were no other revealed books, but only that we do not know whether or not any other books were revealed. Most people believe that there were no other revealed books than those three and the Qur’an.
The names of twenty-five apostles are found in the Qur’an, beginning with Adam. Muslims depend entirely on the text of the Qur’an for information concerning those prophets since the Qur’an is the only source about which there is not the slightest doubt. It is fortunate that the career of Muhammad is well-known, that there is nothing vague in the records of his life. The Traditions picture him in a very human way. -- dealing in commerce, getting married, having children, losing his wife and his sons, sharing all common experiences -- in no sense a supernatural being. The only difference between Muhammad and the rest of mankind is that he received the revelations of God. All Muslims recognize Muhammad as a Prophet, and the last of the prophets. They see that the proof of his revelation lies not in external miracles but in the nature of the revelation itself. When the question is asked as to whether or not the teachers of other religions, such as the Buddha or Confucius, were prophets, no clear answer can be given. The Qur’an is not explicit on that point, for it says, "I have sent many apostles before you (Muhammad). I have told you about some of them, and I have not told you about some others" (Surah XL, 78). Some people conclude that the teachers of other religions are included in the "some others" that God has not told about, but other people say that only by studying the spirit and fundamentals of those religions can one determine whether or not they are of the same spirit as Islam, and their founders might be considered to have been prophets.
The Day of Judgment is mentioned in many verses in the Qur’an. When the sky is split, when the stars collide, when the mountains are like cotton, when the earth quakes -- that is the Day of Judgment. On that day all people are awakened and their deeds are weighed; those having a heavy weight of good records will live happily in Paradise and those who have light weights will go to a Hell full of fire. The descriptions of Paradise are in such beautiful language that they make a deep impression on anyone who listens to the recital of the parts of the Qur’an which refer to it. On the other hand, Hell is described in a horrible way in many passages in the Qur’an. Although the common people are inclined to understand the descriptive passages in a literal sense, educated people recognize them as figurative. When the passages which describe Paradise and Hell are meditated upon it is easy to understand what great power they have to motivate people toward good actions.
The sixth fundamental belief of Islam is the belief in destiny for good or for evil. There has been much misunderstanding of the meaning of the word destiny. Many people have thought that a belief in destiny implies that everything will happen by itself, whether we wish it or not, and that such a belief will make people apathetic and indifferent toward all progress. The real meaning of belief in destiny, however, is that one believes that God created an orderly world and one should act according to the nature of that world. Thus a man with a sense of destiny will be active in doing anything which he judges to be good, knowing that if anything bad happens in spite of all precautionary measures, then there will be no reason for regret or for blaming oneself. Then he would say that it was the destiny of Allah. This meaning was illustrated by the Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab when he decided not to visit Palestine while there was an epidemic there. A companion asked him, "Are you evading the destiny of God?" He answered, "Yes. I run from the destiny of God to another destiny of God."
There is no difference among Muslims concerning these six fundamental beliefs of Islam. Every Muslim believes in God, in Angels, in revealed scriptures, in apostles, in the Day of Judgment, and in destiny. The differences are only in the interpretations, as mentioned above, and these differences result primarily from the differences in standards of education.
The Pillars of Islam
The fundamental beliefs of Islam have their practical consequences in everyday life. The writers of the other chapters in this book have referred to the practical side of Islam as the consequences of religion, the particular requirements of Islam, or as worship and dealings. Tradition says that the worship obligations, or requirements, of Islam are known as the Pillars of Islam; and the guide for dealings, for the responsibilities of human beings in society, are covered by fiqh, Islamic law.
According to Tradition, Islam is based on five foundations: the confession that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah; prayer; almsgiving; fasting during Ramadan; and pilgrimage to Mecca by those who are able to go. Of these five pillars, concerning the first one there is no variation anywhere in the Islamic world. All Muslims know the Word of Witness, the confession of faith in Allah and the recognition of Muhammad as His Messenger, and all Muslims repeat it as their confession of faith.
The prayers are of two kinds, obligatory and optional. The five daily prayers are obligatory, including the obligation to attend the congregational prayer on Friday in the mosque. It is impossible to estimate what proportion of the people perform the five daily prayers regularly, since women usually say their prayers in the home and men may perform the salat at the mosque, at work, or at home. There is no religious superior who checks on the performance of the prayers. It is possible, however, to observe the attendance at the Friday noon prayers in the mosque. Large number of people will be seen at the mosque on Friday in Indonesia, in Turkey, Egypt, and parts of the Maghrib, and in the Shi’a mosques of Iran, to mention only the most obvious places. The smallest attendance at the Friday service would be found in China, and in the Soviet Union.
The optional, or facultative, prayers are of many kinds, such as the additional prayers before and after the obligatory prayers, prayers on the holiday after the month of fasting, prayers at the festival which marks the end of the pilgrimage, and prayers in times of need -- which are offered by anyone at any time or place when the help of God is sought. Prayer for a person who died is necessary, since the spirit of such a person continues to live. Optional prayers can be performed at any time because a Muslim is in constant relation with God.
There are minor differences from country to country in the manner of praying, differences of no importance which have grown up through varying interpretations in the schools of jurisprudence. Some people emphasize the performance of optional prayers after the Friday prayers, while others do not. There are slight differences in posture; for example, in some countries, while standing, the people put their hands one upon the other in front of the lower part of the chest, while others who follow the school of Malik or of the Shi’as bend their hands down. Such differences are of no importance, and the unity is shown by the complete harmony among Muslims as to the times of prayer, the ablutions which must be performed before prayer, and the facing toward the Ka’ba in Mecca.
The mosques are the centers for prayer, teaching, and service in the Muslim world and are recognized as the distinctive symbol of Islam even though they differ considerably from country to country. Originally the mosque was very simple, for any ground can be made a place for prayer. The first mosque built by Muhammad in Medina was a simple plot of ground with clay walls on all sides and a roof of palm branches. As Islam spread to other countries the mosques adopted the architecture of those countries. In China, for example, we find mosques which resemble pagodas in many ways; in Indonesia most mosques are built near streams which the people can use for ablutions; in Arab countries the big mosques have one section roofed for winter use and an open area for use in summer. In recent years the greatest activity in building new mosques has been in Turkey and Indonesia.
There is great variety in the minarets which are used for the call to prayer. They may be simple square or round towers, as in the Levant; or elaborate architectural designs as in Egypt; or the slender, pencil-shaped minarets of Turkey; in Iraq and Iran the minarets in Shi’a mosques are often beautifully decorated with colorful ceramic tiles; in Indonesia they stand as separate towers, or in the villages may even be a chair in a high tree; and in China the government did not permit the building of minarets. Indonesia is unique in using drums for the call to prayer.
It is generally agreed that a Muslim should give alms which amount to a tenth of the agricultural yield immediately after harvest, and a fortieth part of his wealth of goods, or of gold after a lapse of one year if it reaches the quantity of thirty.-eight grams -- and about the same proportion of wealth in animals. The Qur’an specifies that such alms are to be given to the poor, the needy, the collectors of zakat, those whose hearts are to be appeased, slaves, travelers, debtors, and those who are on the path of God. While the source and the recipients of zakat are generally agreed upon, there are variations in the practice of distribution, largely because most Islamic countries do not have official collectors or an official organization for administering almsgiving. Turkey has a ministry of waqfs, as a part of the government; some of the Arab countries have governmental departments which are concerned with the administration of religious endowments; but in most countries almsgiving in goods or money is a voluntary gift either to individuals or to pious foundations. In Arabia they still give animals as alms since they have official collectors, but there is no almsgiving of goods or gold. In Indonesia people pay zakat on agricultural products to the religious men in the Islamic country reaches the proportion imposed by religion.
Pilgrimage remains a very important force making for unity in the Muslim world. Each year Muslims from all over the world, Muslims of every color and race, gather in the Holy Land to fulfill their obligation to make the pilgrimage. After almost fourteen centuries the pilgrimage retains its importance for Islam in spite of the development of new means of communication, for there Muslims from all over the world, religious leaders and common folk, meet and exchange views. Such personal contact is necessary to keep the spirit of universal brotherhood alive. The minor details in practices associated with the pilgrimage are only variations which developed in the different schools of law and are not significant. In modern times the improvement in travel facilities has made it possible for large numbers of people to make the pilgrimage even from distant lands, an important factor in bringing the Muslims of the Far East into closer relations with their brothers of the Turkish and Arab areas of Islam. In recent years the major obstacles to the pilgrimage, other than the ever-present difficulty of being able to afford the expense, have been currency restrictions and the limitations imposed by the governments of the Soviet Union and China. Pilgrimage remains one of the vital pillars of Islam, wisely instituted by the Qur’an and Sunnah as a form of worship which brings Muslims closer to God and to each other.
As we have seen, the practical consequences of the six fundamentals of Islam include both worship, as outlined under the five Pillars of Islam, and dealings, or the responsibilities of Muslims in their everyday life. These practical consequences, the particular requirements of religion, have been codified in the four schools of law which exist amicably side by side in the Muslim world. The Maliki school which was founded during the second century after Muhammad shows preference for the Traditions and practices of Medina where the Prophet lived for thirteen years; it is found today chiefly in North Africa, some parts of Egypt, and in the Sudan. Also in the second century there lived in Baghdad a silk merchant named Abu Hanifah, a rationalist who based his teachings concerning the consequences of religion on the Qur’an and the Traditions. He wrote no book himself, but his disciples spread his liberal teachings and founded the Hanaifi school of jurisprudence which is found in Turkey, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Pakistan, India, and Egypt. Another of Abu Hanifah’s disciples, Muhammad Ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i, founded the Shafi’i school in the third century; he was a great systematic jurist who took an Intermediate position between extreme legalism and traditionalism. The school of Shafi’i interpretation is predominant in South Arabia, South India, Thailand, Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The fourth school of law was also founded in the third century after the Prophet by Ahmad Hanbal, a resident in Baghdad; he stressed the Traditions and distrusted the use of reason. The Hanbalis arc found in Central Arabia, Syria, and some parts of Africa.
These four schools of law -- covering the four divisions of rites, contracts, matrimonial law, the penal codes -- were worked out so completely by their founders over a thousand years ago that those who came after them found fully adequate systems of law which met all the requirements of their times. A Muslim was free to choose any one of the four systems for his personal guidance, but the prevailing practice was to choose the school of law which was followed in the place of a man’s birth. Thus a man born in Indonesia is usually a follower of Shafi’i law, while a man born in Turkey will be a Hanafite.
The influence of birth was so great that many Muslims later became convinced that one did not need to look back to the original sources of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, for they believed wrongly that no one in these Later days has a capacity for reasoning equal to that of the founders of the schools of law. They became imitators of their predecessors on the basis of a belief that every period since the time of the Prophet has been inferior to the earlier days. While it might be true that those who lived in the time of the Prophet could understand religion better than the people of today who must study Islam by means of documents only, we cannot ignore the considerable change in the social situation and world conditions during the past fourteen centuries. The insistence on imitating the predecessors reflects a loss of self-confidence which was at one time widespread in Islamic communities. The texts of the Qur’an are still and will always be valid, but we should understand them in the light of present knowledge. One of the great tasks facing religious scholars in our time is the re-examination of the jurisprudence of Islam in the light of reason and modern knowledge. Since Islam does not make a distinction between the secular and the religious, and since a large part of the Muslim world has but recently attained political independence and is now playing a significant role in world affairs, this re-examination of Islamic law is all the more urgently needed.
The relation between Islamic law and the law of the government is a pressing issue in modern times. In Turkey the national law is avowedly secular and even the waqf funds are administered by secular authorities. In Egypt, Pakistan, and India the problem of the relation of Islamic and national law is the subject of frequent public discussion, and in Indonesia several political parties have grown up around this issue. Another problem is the relation between Islamic law and the customary law of a country, as has been noted in China and Indonesia in particular. This will inevitably continue to be a problem as Islam spreads throughout the rest of the world.
Sects in Islam
From the beginning, the basic sources of Islam have been the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Muslims have always looked to the Qur’an as their guide and have prayed and fasted and made pilgrimages as the Prophet did. For the details governing their lives, Muslims have relied upon their reason in applying the principles of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and this has been the cause of the different schools of law, the various tendencies, and the sects which are found in Islam.
Followers of the Hanafi school of law tend toward rationalism, such as is found among the Mu’tazilities; the Shafi’i school follows the moderate theology of the Ash’arites; the Malikites are predestinationist; and the Hanbalites tend to be literal in their interpretation of theology. These are theological tendencies, but not sectarian differences.
The two major sects in Islam are the Sunnis and the Shi’as, whose distinctive characteristics have been discussed at length in earlier chapters in this book. Among the Shi’as the three leading sects are the Ithna Ashariya, the Sab’iya, and the Zaidis. The Ithna Ashariya is the major group among the Shi’as, found primarily in Iraq and Iran; they accept the twelve Imams. The Sab’iya, sometimes called the Seveners because they broke away over the claim that Isma’il was the seventh Imam, are also known as the Isma’ilis. They have divided into several sects, of which the best known is the group which follows the Agha Khan, found in Pakistan, India, Iran, Syria, and East Africa. The Zaidis, now found in Yemen, are a small Shi’a sect which has drawn closer to the Sunnis over the years.
The Kharijites, who rebelled against Ali, were originally Shi’a and have been somewhat influenced by Sunni thought. They are found in Oman and Muscat, and in North Africa where they are known as Ibadis.
More than ninety per cent of the Muslims of the world are Sunnis, followers of the Sunnah. The only sects of any importance among the Sunnis are the Wahhabis, the reformist sect of Arabia, and the Qadiani sect of Pakistan which is generally looked upon as somewhat heretical -- although its Lahori branch is not always so regarded. The various tendencies among the Sunnis have often led to differences in point of view, but not to the creation of new sects. The most widely accepted theological position is that of the Ash’arites. The rationalism of the Mu’tazilites at one time almost led to the formation of a recognizable sect, but today the rationalist point of view is only one of several tendencies among the Sunnis. Differences between the firmly orthodox and the modern reformist have not created a sectarian division.
The numerous Sufi orders cannot be classed as separate sects because they are made up of people who consider themselves to be Sunnis or Shi’as as well as Sufis. Sufi orders have been banned by the government of Turkey, but Sufism continues there as a powerful factor in the Islamic life of the country; both intellectuals and common people study the writings of their famous Sufis and continue their personal Sufi disciplines. The Sufi orders continue to be an important factor in Africa, though their influence in Egypt is declining. There is still, however, a strong interest in Sufi writings among the intellectuals in Egypt. The Shi’as have pronounced Sufi tendencies which have influenced the devotional life in Iran and Iraq as well as Pakistan and India. The Sufism of Pakistan and India has sometimes been influenced by the mysticism of Hinduism, leading on occasion to pantheistic tendencies there. In Indonesia, as we have seen, Sufism plays a major role in the devotional life of the Muslims, both as organized orders among the common people and as a study and discipline among the intellectuals. Only in China do we find that Sufism has not been an important factor in the Muslim community.
Sufism has been especially susceptible to the influences of Greek, Iranian, and Indian thought which have sometimes led it to excesses and fanaticism which were contrary to the real spirit of Islam. Some Sufis even denounced the Pillars of Islam and taught that union with God is the aim of Islam, a pantheistic doctrine which is heretical. Other Sufis have followed the teachings of Ghazali, combining the rituals of Islam with deep religious feeling. Such Sufis have made, and are making today, a valuable contribution to the religious life of the Muslim world.
Characteristic Islamic Practices
Muslims are exhorted to follow the straight path of Islam in every detail of their daily lives, guided by the Qur’an, by the example of the life of the Prophet, and by the Hadith. The life of a Muslim should illustrate the teachings and example of the Prophet.
When a Muslim baby is born, it is recommended that some one should whisper the call to prayer in his ear, "God is Most Great. . there is no God other than Allah . . Muhammad is the Messenger of God ... Welcome prayer. . Welcome good fortune. . . God is Most Great When the baby is one week old it is suggested that the parents sacrifice a sheep -- one sheep for a girl and two for a boy -- and distribute the meat among the poor. A baby should be given a good name on the seventh day. It is also recommended that boys should be circumcised, and girls also, for the sake of cleanliness. The parents are urged to teach the children how to pray so that by the age of nine they should know everything about the prayers, including the proper ablutions to be done before prayers.
The ablutions before prayer simply require the washing of the hands up to the wrist, washing the face and the head -- a part of it is sufficient -- and washing the feet up to the ankle. After any pollution or sexual intercourse, a Muslim must take an obligatory bath; in case there is no water, a symbolic action is necessary.
Muslims are required to pray five times a day, with two prostrations in the early morning before sunrise, four a little before midday, four in the afternoon when the shadow of a thing is as tall as the thing itself, three after sunset, and four about one hour later. Each prayer takes not more than five minutes, though it may be lengthened with optional prayers. It is recommended that the prayers be performed collectively, or at least with one companion. In case a person is traveling, two prayers can be performed together and shortened by half. Shi‘as customarily carry a small tablet made of the clay from Karbala which they place on the ground and touch with their forehead as they prostrate themselves in prayer.
All Muslims should attend the Friday midday prayer in the mosque and listen attentively to the address given by an Imam. Women may also go to the mosque, but they must pray behind the men. In practice, women either gather at a separate place in the mosque or do not attend the collective prayers at all. At the two major festivals, the Id al-Fitr at the end of the Ramadan fast and the Id al-Adha -- or Id al-Qurban -- at the end of the pilgrimage, Muslims are urged to perform additional congregational prayers, preferably in the open air, and to listen to the special address by the Imam. Before the prayers at the end of Ramadan they are urged to contribute food to the needy so no one may be hungry that day, and after the pilgrimage prayers they are exhorted to sacrifice a sheep, a cow, or a camel and distribute the meat to the needy.
There is no restriction on association between men and women in the Islamic community, the only reservation in the instructions being that there must be no occasion for misconduct. Thus, a woman must not meet a man alone, nor should a woman travel alone. She must protect her body decently but her face need not be covered. The practice of purdah, of veiling the face in public, which is followed in many Islamic countries, is only an exaggeration of the instructions enjoining modesty which has been deeprooted in Islamic communities by long centuries of ignorance.
When a young man wishes to marry he is allowed to see his prospective wife in order to assure the success of the marriage. The girl is protected by her parents, but they must ask her consent before giving her in marriage. If she is a widow, the consent must be explicit, and if she is a virgin tacit consent by silence is suffiecent. The bridegroom must pay a dowry to the bride, which may be only a token. Two male witnesses are necessary for the marriage contract. A celebration after the marriage is recommended, but it should not be extravagant.
The husband must provide maintenance for the wife and children. Divorce is permitted only as a last resort. In case differences arise between a husband and his wife, relatives of both parties should serve as a committee of arbitration. Since divorce is a serious event "by which the throne of God is shaken," in the words of the Prophet, it must be delayed by two stages before it becomes final, and during that time the wife must receive maintenance. A wife can also ask for a divorce on the grounds of cruel treatment, sexual defect, contagious disease, and like conditions which make the marriage intolerable.
Polygamy is neither forbidden nor required. It may be called a necessary evil. If a man needs a son and his wife does not give birth to a male, for example, he might take a second wife. The question is still a subject of controversy among Muslim jurists, but there is general agreement that more than one wife is not permitted for the purpose of satisfying one’s lust. Mut‘a, a temporary marriage which may be terminated after even one day upon payment of a gift, is permitted among the Shi’as. It was originally permitted by the Prophet, but later the permission was abrogated, according to the Sunnis. The Shi’a still maintain that there was no abrogation, but even those who claim that the permission continues are against the prevalent practice, which does not differ much from prostitution. Adultery is forbidden; if the evidence is sufficient, the prescribed penalty is flogging with eighty lashes or stoning to death if the offender is married.
In case of death a man inherits from his wife or a wife inherits from her husband. The laws of inheritance are given in considerable detail but they follow the general principle that a man inherits twice as much as a woman. This is because the man must bear the responsibility for maintenance of his wife and must provide dowry for the marriage, while a woman who marries will receive both dowry and maintenance.
A dead person must be bathed and given ablution before burial and the community must pray for him. The prayer for a dead person is an obligation of the whole community. If it is neglected, the whole community is sinful, but if one person performs the prayer, the community is considered to have performed its duty. It is recommended that neighbors of the bereaved family should prepare food to be offered to the mourners and their visitors. It is also recommended that relatives should visit the grave from time to time to put flowers on it and to pray for the departed soul. Women, however, are urged not to go to the graveyard to pray for the deceased, since they are too sensitive.
Concerning food, Muslims are permitted to eat anything that is not explicitly forbidden. It is related that the Prophet said, "What God permits in His Book is permitted, and what He forbids is forbidden, and what is not mentioned is in favor, therefore take His favor. God does not forget." According to the Qur’an, Muslims are forbidden to eat a corpse, blood, pork, a pagan sacrifice, suffocated animals, animals killed other than by slaughtering, animals which died from a fall, animals killed by other animals, remnants of food eaten by a beast, food offered as a sacrifice to idols. All fish which live in the sea may be eaten, according to the ninety-sixth verse of the fifth Surah. All animals which live in the water and on land, such as frogs, crocodiles, turtles, and the like, are forbidden as food. Of land animals, it is permitted to eat camels, cows, sheep, horses, and the like. It is forbidden to eat donkeys; beasts with claws such as lions, tigers, wolves, and bears; birds with talons, such as hawks and falcons; animals which the Prophet ordered killed, such as snakes, mice, crows; creatures which the Prophet forbade killing, such as ants and bees; animals judged to be dirty, and animals which live on dirt. In deciding what food can be eaten and what is forbidden Muslim jurisprudence accepts as guides the Qur’an, the Hadith, what the Prophet ordered to be killed and what he forbade killing, and the foods which are abhorrent to human feeling.
The verses of the Qur’an make it clear that all kinds of drinks are permitted except wine. Wine is forbidden because it is intoxicating. On this point the Holy Qur’an is so clear that no other interpretation is possible. Thus, however small the quantity may be, the drinking of wine is absolutely forbidden. By wine is meant the fermented juice of grapes. As to other fermented drinks, there is a difference of opinion among Muslim jurists. Some maintain that juices extracted from fruits other than grapes, such as apples or dates, are permitted. They base their opinion on some Traditions which say that Muhammad sometimes fermented dates for one or two days.
A Muslim is forbidden to steal, and if he steals a certain amount deliberately the punishment prescribed is the cutting off of the hands. A Muslim must not gamble nor participate in lotteries. He must not deceive concerning measures or weights; he must not break a promise or go back on his word. He is forbidden to pay or receive interest when borrowing or lending money, but a debtor may present a token of gratitude to the creditor.
These requirements and prohibitions, mentioned here only in general outline, are representative of the rules found in the Qur’an and Traditions which govern the lives of all Muslims.
To understand the role of Islam in society one must first realize that Islam is a universal religion in which all Muslims are brothers, regardless of differences in homeland, race, color, or rank. This brotherhood does not divide the world into Muslims and non-Muslims, for Muslims must be friendly toward non-Muslims so long as they are friendly, so long as they do not attack Islam. Islam has retained its unity and universal characteristics in the midst of such diverse cultures as those of Arabia, Greece, Rome, and Iran in ancient times, and later in the cultures of Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Central Asia, India, China, and Southeast Asia. Once more the universalism of Islam is being shown as it comes into contact with the new culture of the W/est.
In this interplay between Islam and the various cultures of the world it should be remembered that Islam has no master organization which requires conformity or organizes missionary programs. The interplay is a spontaneous movement on the part of individual Muslims who seek to follow the straight path of Islam. These Muslims recognize no distinction between the religious and the secular; they try to follow in their social life the rules revealed to them in the Qur’an and the Sunnah and interpreted in Islamic law. For Islam, the present world is but a transitory existence to be followed by the Eternal World which is better by far, "And verily the latter portion will be better for thee than the former" (Surah XCIII, 4). This does not mean that we must neglect this world; on the contrary, Islam warns us against neglecting it, for the Qur’an says, "But seek the abode of the Hereafter in that which Allah hath given thee and neglect not thy portion of the world, and be thou kind even as Allah hath been kind to thee, and seek not corruption in the earth; lo! Allah loveth not corrupters" (Surah XXVIII, 77). Islam recognizes the importance of life in the community in this world, but it warns the Muslim against considering this world as the end of existence. Moral and religious values must be seen to be higher than material values.
The importance of social justice is constantly emphasized in Islam through the obligation of zakat and the distribution of gifts at the times of the great festivals. In the older Islamic countries this has been the origin of waqfs for all kinds of service to the community. The teachings concerning zakat stress the principle that the ownership of wealth is a privilege, not a right, and one which imposes obligations to the community. In the Traditions the Prophet exhorts us to give our servants the same food we eat and the same clothes we wear.
In Islam the merit of a person depends upon his deeds, not upon his words, nor his ancestors, nor his rank in the community. The Qur’an says, "there is nothing for the person but what he has done" (Surah LIII, 39) and again, "The highest among you is the most pious" (Surah XLIX, 13). The only recognized difference in rank in Islam is that which is merited by religious devotion and insight. Such recognition is accorded on the basis of deeds, not on the basis of office. Islam has no ordained clergy, no religious hierarchy with authority over their fellow Muslims. The ulama, the Shaikh, Mullah, Imam, Ahund, Mufti, Mujtahid, Hatib -- all are only men like the others in the Muslim community, men who perform special services and are respected and elevated only on the basis of the Quranic principle that the highest is the most pious.
Slavery was customary at the time that Islam was revealed, but Islam prepared the grounds for its elimination. It encourages the emancipation of slaves by giving them the possibility of purchasing their freedom, it urges that part of zakat be given to slaves to help them free themselves, and it offers the possibility of atonement for certain sins, such as having sexual intercourse during fasting days, by releasing slaves.
Women are given equality with men, in principle, for the Qur’an says, "Whoever, male or female, who is a believer, performs good actions, they will enter into Paradise" (Surah IV, 124), and again, "Men have reward for what they do, and women have reward for what they do" (Surah IV, 32). But we cannot deny that in general men are superior to women and consequently men have authority over women. The Qur’an says, "Men have authority over women" (Surah IV, 14).
With the rise of nationalism in the modern world, the relation of nationalism to Islam has become a problem which is frequently discussed. Many people think that since Islam is universal it must be against nationalism, but this is not the case. Universalism can begin with national loyalty, for nationalism is simply the result of the organization of a group of people in one political body, regardless of their differences in religion. Islam does not prohibit such political organizations so long as they do not jeopardize the essentials of Islamic teachings. Nationalism can unite or divide, and when it is guided by the universal principles of Islam it can lead men to unity rather than to divisions. In this regard it should be noted that the demand for the Caliphate, in the political sense, has greatly lessened in modern times. Pan-Islamism in our day is not a movement for one super-government over all Muslims, but for cooperation between Islamic nations.
Jihad, holy war, has sometimes been misunderstood as meaning that Muslims must declare war on non-Muslims until they accept Islam. This mistake arises from a misreading of the Qur’an without knowing the context of the verses and the circumstances in which they were revealed. The verses which call for war against unbelievers were revealed when pagans were still putting obstacles in the way of the activities of Muhammad even after opportunities for reconciliation had been given. War in Islam is only legitimate when it is declared in defense of religion, property, and prestige. The Qur’an says, ‘Fight in the way of God those who wage war on you, and do not commit aggression. God does not like aggressors" (Surah II, 190).
Islam does not approve of hostility toward other religions. Rather, it proclaims freedom of religion and forbids coercion in religion. During his lifetime, Muhammad himself was very kind toward his neighbors and friends of other beliefs, Jews as well as Christians. He even married a Jewish woman, Safijah, and a Christian slave, Marie, who was given him by the ruler of Egypt. When the Emperor of Abyssinia died, Muhammad prayed for him in recognition of his help given to the Muslims who took refuge there in the early days of Islam.
Islamic society has been greatly influenced, and the spread of Islam has been aided, by the educational opportunities offered through the mosques and religious leaders. The Prophet encouraged education by appointing many of his Companions as teachers in Arabia when Islam spread thoughout the country. It was ruled that a poor man could marry a woman with a dowry of teaching her a chapter of the Qur’an. As Islam spread to other lands, centers of study grew up at Baghdad, Kufa, and many other cities of the Muslim world. The system of education was simple, without organized program or ceremony. Any pupil could approach a teacher and stay with him as long as he’ continued to learn; then he might go on to other teachers, or receive a license to be a teacher himself. In the family the parents educated their children. The teachers did not form a special class but were at the same time landowners, merchants, or government officials. This system continues today in most Muslim countries.
In addition, there have been in most countries the madrasas associated with the mosques, and special schools of higher learning. The oldest Islamic university is the Al Azhar in Cairo, founded in the fourth century (tenth century A.D.). Other centers for higher Islamic studies today are found at Fez in Morocco, at Zaitouna University in Tunisia, at Medina, at Istanbul and Ankara in Turkey, at Baghdad and Karbala in Iraq, at Tehran in Iran, at Lahore in Pakistan, at Lucknow and at Alighar and Usmania Universities in India, and at Jogjakarta in Indonesia. In some of these centers the Islamic studies are associated with government-supported universities; there are also government universities in other countries which offer special courses in Islam, as is the case on Taiwan. Instruction in Islam is given in local languages at the lower levels, but for higher studies a good knowledge of Arabic is necessary and mastery of Persian and Turkish is required for any extensive research.
Since art and music flourish in times of peace and prospenty, there was little time for them in the early days of the Prophet. Muhammad, however, approved of the music known in his day. He forbade the art which was prevalent in his time, consisting chiefly of human figures, since it was symbolic of idols and would have spread paganism. Because of that, the literal-minded jurists deduced that Islam opposed art and music, which is not correct. The better deduction would have been that we must be careful of the consequences of any kind of art. Art for art’s sake is unknown in Islam. As long as art is useful as a means of heightening religion and morality, it is permitted; but if it leads to immorality, it is forbidden.
Latest Developments in Islam
When the Mu’tazilite, or rational, movement was suppressed and the political organization of the Muslim world disintegrated, the Muslim people lost their vitality. They neglected the study of the Qur’an and the Traditions which are the original sources of Islam and instead adopted the teachings of the scholars. They thought that ijtihad was forbidden and that they must only imitate the four schools of law. Instead of making use of reason, they accepted the four schools of law as complete and unchanging and turned to mysticism and belief in the supernatural powers of saints, dead and alive. That gave rise to the worship of the graves of saints which is found today in all Islamic countries from North Africa to Indonesia.
The Wahhabi movement in Arabia was a reaction against the worship of saints, but it made use of force rather than arguments, and failed to establish a general reform. After the French occupied Egypt many scholars studied in Europe and a renaissance was started which culminated in the work of the great scholar, Muhammad Abduh, who brought new ideas to the people of Egypt. At about the same time the Muslims of India, led by such men as Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who founded Alighar University, became conscious of their cultural importance and their national existence. Within the past half-century the greater ease of communication and travel has brought the peoples of the Muslim world into closer contact with each other and with the cultures of the rest of the world and made them aware of the need for a new evaluation of the ideas of the jurists and thinkers of the middle ages. This is the period in which much of the Muslim world has attained political independence and the people have been preoccupied with political and international problems.
Today the Muslims of Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, the Levant, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Indonesia are vitally concerned with problems associated with the establishment of their new, independent governments. At the same time, the Muslims of Algeria and much of Africa, of the Soviet Union and of China, are struggling with political controls which are not encouraging to Islam and are often inimical. These political problems have been faced at the time when the impact of Western culture in the Muslim world has been most pronounced. More than anything else, Islam today needs a period of peace in order that favorable conditions may develop for the growth of Islamic thought. Since the time of Ibn Khaldun, more than five centuries ago, no great thinker has arisen in the Muslim world. Now more than ever there is a need for a time of peace and intellectual freedom in which devout thinkers can interpret the Qur’an in the light of the progress of human knowledge. The rituals will remain as they are, the fundamentals will remain unchanged, but the understanding of Islam will be illuminated anew for our time.
At the present time, there are four major tendencies in the Islamic world -- orthodoxy, reform, Sufism, and Shi’a. The increase in commumcation and in education is bringing to the followers of each tendency a better understanding of the others. Significant progress is being made in Cairo in encouraging better understanding and reconciliation between Shi’a and Sunni. Orthodoxy is becoming less reactionary and the reformers less intolerant. The Sufi orders are declining in influence at the same time that the devotional and mystical teachings of the Sufi masters are being studied more sympathetically by intellectuals. In Turkey, Egypt, and Indonesia in particular there are many evidences of a new vitality and interest in Islamic thought. Many books are being published, many students are engaged in Islamic studies, new mosques are being built.
Islam spread originally along the trade routes through North Africa, Iran, Central Asia, Indonesia, and China. As Muslim traders settled along those routes they married and established families which often became the nucleus for a new Muslim community. In spite of the diversities of cultures, they maintained the unity of Islam through the centuries. Today, with trade routes easily followed around the world, it is inevitable that the same process will be repeated and Islam will spread to new regions where it has not been known.
In this discussion of the unity and variety of Islam we have seen that divergences from the essential unity of Islam have occurred only when there is ignorance among the common people -- a low level of education. It is the task of the present generation to provide training in the essentials of Islam, to know Islam deeply, for out of that knowledge of the straight path of Islam will come the unity of belief and practice which has been revealed to mankind in the Qur’an and the Sunnah.