This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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7.5. Branches, Sects, and Movements

The geographical range of the Islamic world

Perhaps it is helpful, before discussing doctrinal differences withing Islam, to discuss its geographical range. This is helpful because in the West, the Islamic world is typically imagined as being coextensive with the Arabic world. This was true in its origins, just as Christianity was once coextensive with a portion of the Roman Empire, but just as Christianity spread and became integrated with various cultures, as we see in its Eastern Orthodox zone, so also Islam spread throughout the world and the extent of its expansion is an illustration in space of its intellectual, theological, and cultural diversity, which is harder to see.

Sayyed Hussein Nasr, a prominent Muslim scholar, identifies six Islamic zones. We will follow his model here.

First and most familiar, there is the Arabic zone, ranging at its eastern limit from Iraq to the Persian Gulf, and at its western limit, from the Iberian Peninsula through Morocco and as far south as Mauritania. As mentioned above, although this is often viewed as the entirety of the Islamic world, this vast area is nonetheless home to only one-fifth of all Muslims. This zone is often divided further into its eastern and western portions, the dividing line running through Libya.

Second, both in this list and in terms of the historical expansion of the Islamic religion, is the Persian zone. This area includes Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and parts of Uzbekistan. While the Arabic world is unified first and foremost by the use of Arabic (despite its ethnic diversity), the Persian zone shares the Persian language, also called Farsi.

The third zone in Nasr’s list is Black Africa, or Sub-Saharan Africa, which is home to over 150 million people and is composed of a remarkable diverse range of cultures.

Fourth is the Turkic zone, composed of people who speak one of the Altaic languages, primarily Turkish but including a few others as well. This zone extends from Macedonia to Siberia and as far north as Vladivostok.

Fifth is the Indian subcontinent, which includes Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.

The sixth and final Islamic zone is Southeast Asia, which includes Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and some of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Although it is the ‘youngest’ Islamic zone, it is home to over 220 million Muslims.

This rough outline of the geographical range of the Islamic world will hopefully provide a corrective lens and permit the reader to better understand what unifies and what distinguishes Muslims from one another, not only in terms of geography, but also in terms of how each group relates to the sacred, and how this expresses itself in philosophy and religious practice.

Underlying unity

People in the West tend to view Islam not only as a geographical island somewhere in the Middle East, but also as a doctrinal monolith, and so we will first examine to what extent this is true before we delve into the more obvious ways in which it is not.

First, we should point out that although there is truth to the idea of an underlying unity in the Islamic world, this is not usually what Western journalists or politicians have in mind when they write or speak. Rather, they ignore the historical and mundane type of unity, which is the real heart of Islamic community and doctrine, and select those details or aspects of the Islamic world that are the most controversial and violent. For example the Arab-Israeli conflict is in the news all the time, and whatever is true about that conflict, which may or may not ever be conveyed by the papers, the impression one gets is that whatever is said about Islam in these stories is what goes to form the general image of Islam for the average Western person. Needless to say this is grossly inaccurate, for reasons that we’ll outline below. For now, however, let us set aside what is actually reported about Islam in the news and briefly mention what truly does give unity to the whole Islamic world.

Islamic community and the Abode of Islam

Because terminology is helpful, we should mention two concepts that are dear to Muslims and which contribute a sense of unity, although in different ways.

First is the ummah, or the Islamic community, which has a local, immediate meaning but also extends to the entire membership of the Islamic faith, no matter where any one member finds themselves. This is similar to the idea of Christian fellowship that gives a sense of kinship to two individuals allowing them to connect on the street even if they’ve never met before.

Second is the notion of the dar al-islam, which is the ‘Abode of Islam’. This term is more concrete and refers to the actual geographical domain of the Islamic world. All Muslims yearn for great unity within the Abode of Islam, and in this way they are one with the heart of the Prophet who dedicated his life to unifying the tribes of Arabia. This second term can therefore have a more political meaning since it implies a political unity between groups.

Both of these concepts are central to the Muslim identity and it is part of the straight path to nurture within them.

Faithfulness to the Koran

Doctrinally speaking, and perhaps above and beyond anything else, the Koran is still the primary unifying factor in Islam. We are tempted to compare this with the role of the Bible in Christianity but that is a misleading comparison, as we’ve already noted. For one thing, the Bible in Christianity is never authoritative, but rather it is a particular interpretation of the Bible that is authoritative, and as the centuries have demonstrated, it is never entirely clear to the great mass of believers how the Bible can be interpreted. Hence the magisterium, which gives unity to the Catholic world, and its absence, which gives perpetual disunity to the Protestant world. A more accurate comparison here, then, is to compare the Koran with Christ, since whatever else Christians fight about amongst themselves, the fundamental belief that Christ died for the sins of man, and that Christians are saved through faithfulness to Christ, is almost never in question. So we can say that the unity given to Christianity by Christ (and not by the Bible) is the unity given to Islam by the Koran.

This is helped by the fact that the Koran was given in the Arabic language and so although there are certainly difficulties the believer may face when interpreting it, it is obvious that they will not face the same set of difficulties that Christians face when they pick up a book that has been thrice translated and was originally given in a context that has few similarities to their own. It is in this sense that we might suggest that the Koran’s meaning is, at least to a agree, more immediately apparent to Muslims than the meaning of the Bible is to Christians, and for this reason it can function more as a unifying factor than a dividing one.

The doctrine of Tawhid

Along with the Koran, and within it, we can also point to the essential truth contained in the Prophet’s commissioned message, which is the Oneness of God. On this fundamental point, no Muslim quibbles.

The Sunnah and Hadith

Although a primary division within Islam is between Sunna and Shia, one should be careful not to take this to mean that only the first group accepts the Sunnah, simply because they are named by it. On the contrary, the Sunnah in combination with the Hadith are great unifying factors within Islam, granted of course the (relatively minor) differences between which Hadith are accepted by the two groups mentioned above and other local variations that do occur in interpretation.

Shariah Law

In the most exoteric dimension, we come to Islamic Law, or the Shariah, as a unifying factor for Muslims. Shariah is subject to differences in interpretation, which will be mentioned below, but it must be emphasized that the basic elements it contains are universal and accepted everywhere, not only on the purely social level but especially on the religious level. For example, although not every Muslim community interprets the prescribed dress for women in the same way (a social rule), the religious rule of five daily prayers is considered to be normative everywhere, as are the remaining four ‘pillars’ of Islamic religious life.

The unifying presence of the Sufi orders

Lastly, we feel it necessary to acknowledge the role of Sufism as a unifying factor in Islam. This is because Sufism, unlike Shiism and Sunnism, is not a horizontal ‘branch’ of Islam but is rather its mystical and ascetic expression. In other words, it is vertically distinct, and so it tends to transcend any ‘sectarian’ differences. A Sufi may be Shia, but could also be Sunni.

Another way of understanding the role of the Sufi orders is to compare them to the monastic orders of medieval Christianity, such as the Benedictines or the Franciscans. A man did not cease being Catholic simply because he became a Benedictine.

Apostolic succession and initiatic continuity

We have noted that Islam is not hierarchical in the same way that Catholicism is hierarchical, and that it does not have a priesthood. We will note, however, that the Sufi orders claim initiatic continuity, which is to say they can identify a chain of ‘initiators’ going back usually to Ali. The chain differs between the founds of the Sufi order in question, but its operation is very similar in logic and in function to what is called ‘apostolic succession’ in Catholicism. This is a necessary component of all initiatic schools and the insistence on it is evidence of an authentic understanding of how traditional initiation operates.

The wheel as the hierarchical representation of Islam

Having mentioned Sufism, we are now in a position to understand the hierarchical structure of Islam as presented by its sages. This representation is based on three levels:

Shariah: the law of practice.

Tariqah: the path of spiritual realization.

Haquiqah: the Divine Truth, source and origin of the previous two.

The relationship between these three hierarchical elements is based on the image of the wheel. The center of the wheel, around which everything else pivots and which gives stability to everything, is the Divine Truth, Haqiqah, God Himself. The circumference of the wheel, its outermost part, is composed of individual Muslims practicing the Shariah, the life of the faith. The spokes which connect the Shariah  to Haqiqah, permitting passage from the exterior to the interior, are the spiritual paths, the Tariqah, which came to be identified with the Sufi orders.

This symbolism integrates Muslims of all levels: those who are envisaged as mere participants carrying out the Divine Law (and there is no degradation in this station), those who make further progress along the spiritual path, and then the final destination of all: the Divine Truth at the center of everything.

The capacity to embrace diversity

Islam has historically proved itself capable of integrating not only the diverse cultures it has encountered during its expansion but also the various mentalities and philosophical currents that crop up within its one world. This is partly due to the built-in attitude of universality that is part of Koranic doctrine, and the teachings that encourage diversity of opinion are not difficult to find.

We read in the Koran, for example, that fellowship and community are actually based on distinctions between individuals and groups:

“O, mankind! Verily We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know each other.”[1]

And in the words of the Prophet, this is a blessing:

“Differences between the scholars of my community are a mercy from God.”

Diversity has not, of course, always been embraced in that spirit.

[1] Koran, 49:13.

Sunni and Shia

Depending on the source you reference, it is thought that about 85 percent of all Muslims are Sunnis and about 15 percent are Shiites. This means that the Sunnis, taken as a whole, constitute the largest majority of any of the major religions. For example, if we take Catholicism as the majority in Christianity, it only represents 50 percent of all Christians.

The term sunni itself is taken from ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama’ah, which means basically the people who followed the Sunnah of the Prophet and the majority. Shia or Shiism comes from shi’at ‘Ali, meaning partisans of Ali ibn Abi Talib.

The origins of the division between these two primary ‘branches’ of Islam go back to events surrounding the death of the prophet and the appointment of his successor. It is said that Ali, who was son-in-law and cousin to the prophet, went to bury the Prophet immediately after his death. Meanwhile, the rest of the community gathered in Medina and selected Abu Bakr.

Here we need to pause and observe that the title given to Abu Bakr by the community was khalifah rasul Allah, or ‘viceregent of the Messenger of God.’ It is from this title that we derive the word ‘caliph’ which has been used again and again even by the Ottomans. This title is important because the disagreement between Sunni and Shiite interpretations hinges not only on who was chosen at this time but also in what the function of that successor was to be.

For Sunnism, the ‘caliph’ was appointed to take up the Prophets administrative mantle but not to fulfill any of his prophetic functions, which is to say he was not so much a spiritual guide as a political one. He would protect the borders of the Abode of Islam, appoint judges, etc.

For the Shiites, the successor to the Prophet would need further qualifications including those of a spiritual dimension: he would not only have a master of the Shariah but the esoteric teachings as well. Because he must have qualifications of a spiritual dimension, he could obviously not be ‘chosen’ by the community as if he were an elected leader—since spiritual qualities can obviously only be discerned by one who sits in a superior position—and so the Shiites claim that the true successor should be chosen by Divine command.

The Shiites believe that such a command did in fact come from the Prophet himself at Ghadir Khumm, and that the chosen successor was Ali. The small group holding this opinion rallied around Ali and became the first Shiites.

As for Ali, as we would expect from one of his character, he did not oppose Abu Bakr but rather supported him and cooperated with him in his leadership, and afterwards he performed in the same manner for the second and third caliphs, Umar and Uthman, at which point, after being ‘thrice passed over’, he was finally chosen as caliph himself. Thus, it is not so much that Sunnism rejects Ali, but rather that it sees Ali as its fourth caliph and interprets his role as much the same as the preceding caliphs: that of political and legal administrator, hence ‘viceregent’ of the Prophet. Ali was later killed by a member of the Khawarij, an extremist group that rejected both Ali and his opposition, and it was only after Ali’s death that Shiism became an organized movement.

On the title Imam as used in Shiism

For Sunnis, the term imam has a variety of uses, none of them ‘mystical’, but more in the etymological sense of ‘standing in front’, which is to say it is a general term for one who leads the daily prayers and or who is knowledgeable about doctrine.

For Shiism, the term Imam is used in a special sense for the true spiritual successors of the Prophet and implies certain initiatic and prophetic qualifications. Thus, Ali was the fourth caliph but the first Shiite Imam.

To be more specific, in Shiism the title of Imam carries an esoteric or mystical significance: the Imam participates to some degree in the office of the Prophet and is therefore inerrant (ma’sum) and protected from sin by God. He possesses a perfect knowledge of the Sharia and the Tariqah—the Law and the Way, and by virtue of his investiture he carries the power of initiation (walayah). We could, with certain reservations, say that his role is similar to that of the pope in Catholicism, and is distinct from the Sunni view in the same way that a Protestant ‘prayer leader’ or church pastor is distinct from a priest of Bishop, the difference between the two always hinging on the presence or absence of an initiatic investiture.

This is why it is sometimes said that Shiism presents itself as the esoteric side of the Sunni-Shia division. This would seem to contain some truth since the Shiite Imams are also the spiritual authorities for the Sufis, and almost every Sufi order traces its initiatic chain through the first eight Imams and back to Ali himself, who is the representative par excellence of Islamic esoterism.

Reverence for the members of the family of the Prophet

An important term, especially when it comes to an understanding of the distinctions between Shiite and Sunni, is Ahl al-bayt, which refers to members of the family of the Prophet. Shiite Islam displays a fervent devotion to this group, of whom Fatimah, daughter of the Prophet and wife of Ali, is the mother. This love is also present in Sunnism, but in Shiism it takes on a special character to which we will refer later.

Divisions within Sunnism

Sunnism is typically divided according to the school of Law (madhhab) to which they adhere. Many have been developed, but four codifications have survived the test of time and go to form the main body of Sunnism. These four ‘schools’ of jurisprudence (fiqh) are Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali.

The Hanafi school began in the 8th century, founded by a Persian, Imam Abu Hanifah. Abu was himself a student of the sixth Imam of Shiism, Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, considered the founder of what is now Twelve-Imam Shiite Law, and is therefore called Ja’fari Law.

Imam Abu Hanifah emphasized the integration of local conditions into the Law, and is the madhhab with the most followers among Sunni Muslims. It was popular from the beginning among the Turks and throughout the Indian sub-continent. Abu Hanifah is believed to be the first to formally adopt Qiyas, or analogy, as a method to derive Islamic law when the Koran and Hadith are ambiguous in a particular situation.

Founded in the 8th century by Imam Malik ibn Anas, Malikism is a very conservative school that differs from other madhhabs by recognizing the consensus of the people of Medina as a valid source of Islamic Law.

Northern Africa (outside of Egypt) is the heart of Maliki-based Sharia. It is this juridical unity that has made possibly the cultural unity of the region, so much so that the entire area is called al-Maghrib, ‘the West’ of the Islamic world.

The Shafi’i school was founded by a student of Imam Abu Hanifah named Imam Muhammad al-Shafi’i. It was therefore formulated slightly later, during the early 9th century. It is the Shafi’i school that most closely resembles the Ja’fari school of Shiite Islam, and in the earlier days it had the most followers, until the expansion of the Ottoman Empire led to its replacement by the Hanafi school in many areas. Shafi’ism is now concentrated in southeast Egypt and Indonesia.

Lastly, we come to the school founded by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, or the Hanbali school, founded in the 9th century. This school is distinguished by being based solely on the Koran and Hadith, which results in a very strict interpretation of Shariah. Presently its adherents are concentrated in Syria, although sometimes Saudi Arabia is also included, which is somewhat misleading since Saudi Arabia is primarily Wahhabi, an offshoot of Hanbalism.

Wahhabism and difficulties with labels and overlap

Wahhabism is an offshoot of the Hanbali school that arose as a reformist movement in the 18th century and existed in opposition to all of mainstream Islam, both Sunni and Shiite. However, due to its finding favor with the House of Saud, and the enlargement of the political and economic power of the latter after World War I, it became accepted as the official interpretation of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

Wahhabism is fundamentalist in its tendency due to a combination of factors, namely its chosen response to the invasion of the Islamic world by the West, and the reductionistic view of Shariah that it retained from its Hanbali origins, combined with a strictly literal reading of the Koran. In this way it has tendencies that resemble those of Christian Protestantism, being highly exoteric and exclusivist in its handling of doctrine.

Given the prevalence of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, and the fact that Medina and Mecca are also situated there, one can easily get the impression that Wahhabism is synonymous with mainstream Islam, but most of the Sunni world cannot in any way be described as Wahhabi, much less can we identify this movement with Shiism, which has always opposed it.

The problem is made a bit more convoluted by the fact that not many ‘Wahhabis’ would actually call themselves that, since it more often appears as a derogatory labels used by their opponents. Instead they would more often choose to identify as ‘Salafi’, which is not so much a maddhab or school of thought within fiqh as it is a general reformist movement, of which the Wahhabis would form a certain type. We could say that Wahhabis could be considered as an overlap between Hanbalism, which pertains to fiqh or jurisprudence, and Salafism, which is a more general reforming movement opposed to speculation in theology (kalam), which for its part could be set against Ashari kalam, which is the more prevalent Sunni view on theology and more open to speculation.

We hesitate to delve into this in much greater detail, at the risk of speaking outside our competence, and what has been presented above already feels like an oversimplification. We will, however, return to certain related points later on in our discussion, particularly with regard to reactions against Western encroachment and Islamic ‘fundamentalism’.

Divisions within Shiism

Geographically, Shiites are a majority in Iraq, Iran, and Azerbaijan, but considering the fact that they constitute only 15 percent of the Islamic world, it is important not to confuse geographical concentration with religious separation, which is to say that Shiite populations exist elsewhere and the divisions are not always clean or ‘exclusive’ based on majority.

While fault lines within Sunni Islam correspond to the different schools of jurisprudence, the same is not true of Shiism, or at least it is not true in the same way, and the preferred criteria for distinguishing between one Shiite branch and another is their understanding of the Imams. That is the approach we will adopt here.

Regarding the Imams in general, we have already said that Ali, the fourth caliph, is considered by Shiites to be the firm Imam. After Ali, his son Hasan was Imam. His life was politically quiet but his brother Husayn, who became the third Imam, was involved in a struggle against Yazid, whose father had opposed Ali. It happened that in 680, after being promised support by the people of Kufa, Iraq, Husayn set out from Medina, but on his way he encountered Yazid’s army and was killed along with every male member of the family of the Prophet, save Zayn al-Abidin, who happened to be ill. This event crystalized the Shiite movement and united its members, and precipitated the downfall of the Umayyad caliphate (established by Yazid’s father).

Zayn al-Abidin became the fourth Imam, and as the only male survivor of the Prophet’s line, all other Imams after would be his descendants. With this background, we can proceed to a discussion of how the Shiite branches differ in their understanding of the progression of Imams, since they generally agree on the details already provided.

The vast majority of Shiites belong to Twelve-Imam Shiism, a branch so-called due to its acceptance of a chain of Imamas descending from Zayn al-Abidin (fourth Imam), to his son Muhammad al-Baqir (fifth Imam), to his son Ja-far al-Sadiq (sixth Imam), on down to Muhammad al-Madhi (the twelfth Imam).

Mahdiism in Sunni and Shiite eschatology

Regarding the person of the twelfth Imam, more needs to be said. Both Shiites and Sunnis accept the Koranic teachings on the Apocalypse, at which time they too look for the second coming of Christ. However, in Islamic doctrine the way for Christ’s return will be prepared by the Mahdi, in a fashion somewhat like that of John the Baptist the first time around.

The difference between Sunni and Shiite eschatology lies in the Shiite belief that the Mahdi is in fact the person who was the twelfth Imam, and that Muhammad al-Mahdi did not die but was granted supernatural long life and has only receded from view by a process of occultation (ghaybah), which can be compared to the taking up of Elijah via the chariot of fire. For Shiites, it is precisely this person who will reappear, publicly, when the end arrives.

Sunnis, for their part, do not claim to know who the Mahdi will be, but rather they simply expect a figure to appear with that name at the appointed time.

We will pause here to note that eschatological thought does not factor into Islamic culture in the same way that the “rapture” and the second coming of Christ factors into Christian popular culture, particularly in the United States where books, movies, and sermons abound with prophecies and imaginative depictions of who will be saved and who will be damned, and what this will look like.

Isma’ili Shiism and the Fatimid Caliphate

The second branch of Shiism is called Isma’ilism. The point of contention that caused this branch to separate from the main body of Shiism relates to the identity of the seventh Imam. It is believed that according to Divine command, Ja’far al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam, chose his son Isma’il to be the seventh Imam. But Isma’il died before his father, and so Musa al-Kazim was chosen to be the seventh Imam. There were some in the community who refused to accept this and who continued to claim Isma’il as the true seventh Imam, and by this they were given the name Isma’ilis and Isma’ilism was born.

By this disagreement, the Ismaili succession of Imams diverges from the Twelvers, and for some time their imams were known only to their followers and were hidden from public life, only to emerge forcefully in the tenth century in Tunisia, declaring themselves rulers and eventually gaining power in Egypt and other parts of North Africa. This marks the established of the Fatimid Caliphate. In this capacity, with their capital in Cairo, they stood in opposition to the Sunni Abbasid caliphate, based in Baghdad.

Although Fatimid Ismailism is fairly moderate in its approach, some of the more radical movements in Shiite history are offshoots from this source. Namely, the Nizaris were a revolutionary movement who taught the “Great Resurrection” and the rejection of formal, legal teachings in favor of a purely esoteric interpretation of Islam. In this way, we can understand why, when comparing the extremes of Shiism to those of Sunnism, we can say that the former tends to identify with an excessive esoterism and the latter with an exclusivist exoterism.

Outsiders have no way of knowing the true number of Ismailis, but they achieve coordination throughout their global community by way of their imam who acts as its leader.

Zaydi Shiism

The third branch of Shiism that should be mentioned is called Zaydi and is composed of those who chose Zayd, son of the fourth Imam, as their leader. Zaydi Shiism was once wide-spread but is now confined mostly to Yemen, and has its own unique madhhab and kalam, and its adherents do not have the same reputation for extreme esoterism or revolutionary fervor as the Ismaili-inspired groups.

The question of theology, or kalam, in the Islamic world

The Islamic world was constituted as a true traditional world, and this means that at its heart is its doctrine, and that all life and fields of knowledge are but applications of the principles contained in this doctrine. We thought it worth pointing this out because we are about to bring up the distinction between theology, which is called kalam, and Shariah, which is the sphere of juridprudence or law.

This is important because the divisions we have been discussing hitherto, such as the four main branches of Sunnism, pertain mostly to interpretations of Shariah and not, strictly speaking, to kalam. The difference being that kalam is thought about the nature of God properly speaking, while Shariah pertains to the world of applications and daily life, which is very much world of man, although it derives from the Koranic revelation.

Islamic places its emphasis primarily on orthopraxy (right practice, authentic Shariah) as opposed to orthodoxy (right belief, authentic belief), and it is another distinguishing characteristic of the Islamic caste of mind in contrast to, for example, Christianity, where orthodoxy is first and foremost and orthopraxy often forgotten completely because not specific in the original revelation.

This distinction now in view, it will make more sense when we mention certain fundamentalist strands of Islam that reject theology altogether, for example the Wahhabis and the Wahhabi-domination Saudi Arabia, where kalam (theology) is forbidden even in religious universities. Such an idea would, to the average Christian, make no sense at all, since ‘Christianity’ is sometimes envisioned as equivalent to ‘theology’ and if theology is forbidden or left unexplored then what is there left of Christianity to discuss? For Islam, the answer is simple: the whole of orthopraxy, which involves the Koran, the Sunnah and Hadith, and all of the subjects mentioned above concerned the various branches of the Islamic religion. In other words, from a certain point of view, Islam can get along quite well by ‘doing what the Koran says’ and not asking why, but rather taking it, roughly, at face value. Now we say ‘from a certain point of view’ because Islam nonetheless has a profound history of theological exploration and there are only certain minority groups who actually take such an exclusively non-intellectual approach to their religion. The point is simply that those who do give little though to orthodoxy are able to do so and remain fervent Muslims, a fact that is completely in-line with the nature of Islam and is rather in its favor than against it, although it is somewhat hard for the average theologically-oriented Christian to grasp.

We will again note that we do not imply that Islam is superior in its approach, and that Christianity’s orientation and emphasis are precisely what they were meant to be, although it is advantageous here, having outlined an alternative arrangement, to point out that the Christian way of doing religion does have disadvantages that come into start relief once compared to Islam. Primarily, we should point out that the vast majority of people are not at all pre-disposed to the intellectual labors involved in working out theological problems and figuring out how they are properly applied in a particular situation: this means that Christian believers depend on a healthy, living priestly class, for if left to their own devices they risk losing touch with orthodoxy altogether. The theological emphasis of Christianity necessitates a magisterium, since individual are in no way up to the task for maintaining theological truth beyond a bare, elementary minimum. This danger, which is the weakness of a primarily theological faith, has become the reality today throughout the Protestant world, which is in a strange way wishing it was what Islam actually is, but which it can never be. That is to say, the very nature of Christianity prevents it from being able to abandon the magisterium without immediately dissolving into a sort of vague religiosity driven by platitudes.

Two extremes of the spectrum

When Shiite Islam moves to the extreme, it tends to adopt an exclusively esoteric outlook, unsupported by the exoteric framework necessary to any spirituality. One characteristic of this tendency is the divinization of Ali or another imam at the expense of the Prophet and the rest of his message. Examples of this are not hard to find: we have the Aliallahi of Iran, who divinize Ali, and the Druze in Lebanon and Syria who consider the seventh Fatimid caliph a divine incarnation.

On the other end of the spectrum, when we come to ‘radical Sunnism’, what we tend to see is a rejection of esoterism, which usually results in hostility not only to Shiites but to Sufis especially, and a disdain for any form of kalam, in favor of observance of the Shariah and a strict, literal interpretation of the Koran. Wahhabism is a popular case of ‘extreme’ Sunnism.

Remnants of pre-Islamic religions in the Islamic world

In some parts of Africa, as well as within the Arabic world itself, there are some groups who are not sects of Islam, properly speaking, but are rather the remnants of various pre-Islamic religions that have survived by partially integrating the Islamic faith and yet retaining incongruous or external elements of what was before. Some of these groups survive by calling themselves Muslims but they are not technically within the fold. The Yazidis of Iraq and the Sabaeans of are examples.

Political groups and local situations

It often happens, as with the Taliban in Afghanistan, that local groups rise to power due to reasons that are political rather than religious and can exercise significant influence in a local area. We should keep in mind that just because a certain group is ‘Islamic’ and claims religious motives, this does not mean that they represent a part of the Islamic mainstream or that they even qualify as a sect within Islam. Religion is not every man for himself, and in every case the traditional mainstream has the prerogative of granting or withholding the status of legitimacy to a certain group. Thus, we should look to the mainstream and its attitude toward a movement or group before assuming that these few individuals ‘speak for’ the Islamic world. As Christ had put it: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father.” It likewise true of any religious society that evil men within it will do evil things in the name of god, and if it appears distasteful to us that this occurs, we should first consider the fact that the modern West does nothing in the name of religion, which is evidence, not of virtue, but of a practical atheism, and is not exactly laudable. The West commits its share of evil, but does so in the name of patriotism, economic liberation, and what-have-you, and for this absence of religious identity we somehow manage to congratulate ourselves on being religiously superior.  Suffice it to say that Muslims, especially within the Arabic world, are immersed in religiosity, and so their evils will always be committed with an air of religious fervor, just as Western crimes are committed with an air of nationalistic or ideological fervor, and although their way seems more repugnant, it is really more human and often more honest.

Movements as opposed to branches and sects

Much like the familiar Christian landscape, the Islamic world is complex and groups not only move in difference directions but ‘on different levels’ as well, and we might even say ‘on difference wavelengths’ depending on the sphere of action or knowledge in question. We have distinguished between the schools of juridical thought, which deal with Shariah, and those of kalam, dealing with theology properly so-called, but both of these are somewhat distinct from broad ‘movements’ such as, for example, the Ahmadiyyah movement, which, like many such ‘movements’ is a reaction to a particular problem or phenomenon and not necessarily a school of thought within fiqh or kalam. In the case of Ahmadiyyah, the movement could be explained in some ways as a reaction against Western missionary activity. Another example would be the cases of Mahdiism, which occasionally produced sects but is not a sect itself.

Asharism and Salafism

Having attempted to make various important distinctions in the preceding paragraphs, we can discuss two ways of thinking about Islamic theology, one old and one relatively new: Asharism and Salafism.

In a way, these two “approaches” should not be placed side-by-side. Asharism is a school of Sunni kalam and has been around since the 10th century, and is essentially an approach to theology that permits of speculation and the use of reason while still showing due respect for the role of revelation. That is to say, it has a healthy respect for philosophical thought in general, and permits its flourishing.

Salafism, on the other hand, presents itself first and foremost as a reforming movement that came into being as a response to Western encroachment, going back roughly as far as the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt. Only in a secondary sense does Salafism address itself to kalam, and the attitude it adopts is rather a kind of anti-kalam, and so we place it in the same discussion as Asharism mostly because it presents itself as an alternative and an opposition to that school. The Salafi approach is the same as that which forbids the study of kalam in universities and insists on a literalistic interpretation of the Koran and an exclusivist interpretation of the Islamic faith in its relationships with the outside world.

Islamic responses to Western imperialism

Prior to the 18th century, Islam had by and large experienced success wherever it went. There were territories or battles lost here and there, such as in Spain, but overall the Koranic reassurance that “If God aideth you, no one shall overcome you”[1] had proven true and had given a sense of legitimacy and value to Islamic expansion.

In 1798, Napoleon invaded Egypt and the Islamic cosmos, and the Islamic conscience, was shaken. Never before had they faced an opponent so militarily superior, and what was worse is that it was becoming clear that this was not simply an isolated incident but would become the norm for interactions with the West. Moreover, and what has become more true since, military defeat did not mean for the enemies of the West what it had traditionally meant for the enemies of Islam. Where Islam conquered it left local cultures, including local religions and customs, intact; where the West conquered it tended to level everything in favor of an aggressive modernism, bringing with it its style of enterprise and its ideologies. For a more familiar example of what this could mean for a local culture, one need only look at what happened to the native American people in the face of European expansion: they were not simply conquered, they were destroyed and very nearly wiped from the face of the earth.

This was a threat unlike anything Islam had encountered and it was not so much a challenge to their military power as it was a challenge to Islam’s relation to God. It made many ask what has happened to make God abandon his people.

We can identify three responses to this situation.

First and foremost—the response of the vast majority of the Muslims—was to endure, to remain faithful, and to continue on in the traditional fashion to the best of one’s ability. Again, we must emphasis that this was the approach taken by the bulk of the Islamic world.

Second, there were some who adopted a mindset of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ and these became the ‘Muslim modernists’. What followed from this approach was, from the political and economic point of view, an acceptance of Western techniques, an imitation of Western ideology, and a rapid industrialization of certain areas. On the plane of religion, it had a slightly different effect. It would be said that the Shariah was clearly for another time, and that due to starkly altered conditions, it no longer applied, or did not apply in the same way, and was discarded, and given what we have said about Islamic unity being based on orthopraxy, it should be clear what kind of dissolving effect this would have. What makes matters worse is that the concession made here has been in many cases self-defeating. It was assumed that modernization and an acceptance, to varying degrees, of liberal ideology, would bring true independence to the Middle East. What actually tends to happen is that the West intervenes in the name of ‘liberty’, but this liberation tends to mean the destruction of Arab political features and their replacement by a new, strictly economic form of enslavement, where only those who bow to Western interests are truly ‘free’ and everyone else is no better, and often fairs far worse, than before the ‘liberation’. This creates resentment and disappointment in those Muslims who argued for modernization and whose hoped they see dashed in front of them, and thus are sown the seeds of hatred that may germinate in future extremisms.

Third, there were those who, feeling abandoned by God, asked why, and, in answer, concluded that Islam had lost its way, had not remained true to its roots, and required reform and revival. This response gave birth to various groups and various ‘reformist’ interpretations, some of the aggressively hostile to the West, some of them hostile to traditional Islam itself, turning its critical gaze on Shiites, Sunnis, and Sufis all at once. Salafism is an example of this last type of response, which, closely allied to Wahhabism and having its origins also in Egypt, sought to return to ‘pure Islam’, after the fashion of the first generations of Muslims, the salaf, or the ‘pious predecessors’ hence the name of this movement. Others who, in their own way, formulated responses along this vein, took an eschatological tone, and this created a new wave of Mahdiism and even some who proclaimed themselves to be the Mahdi. Almost all of the groups that today we call ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘extremist’ have their origins in this period and in this third way of dealing with the problem of Western encroachment.

What we need to emphasize most, at this point, is that of these three responses, the two ‘extremes’ of modernism and fundamentalism fall outside the norm of traditional Islam and that both constitute a kind of ‘extremism’. Moreover, the actual numbers of Muslims involved in these minority movements are, doctrinally speaking, negligible, even if the actions and beliefs of these small groups have had significant and even disastrous consequences locally and across the globe.

Lastly, we reiterate that these extremisms have their origins in Western imperialism and constitute a kind of ‘backlash’ against the exercise of American and European intrusion, whether that be actual military intervention or aggressive, materialistic evangelization. These claims are not revisionist, they are historically demonstrable, but demonstration can do nothing to curb the impulses of the West, which is no driven, no less than historical Islam, by a reassurance that their actions are divinely sanctioned, even if they rarely admit such motivations.

[1] Koran 3:159.