Non-Muslims tend to view Islam as a monolithic religion in which Muslim followers all believe the same thing and follow the same traditions. The emphasis on the use of Arabic in the mosque prayers and for the proper interpretation of the Qur’an only emphasizes a certain uniform system of belief and practice. However, there is great diversity among the people who make up Islam, and this can be seen in the various sects that have developed over the years. The Qur’an and the Hadith both teach that there should be unity in Islam, but they also point out the inevitable diversity of any human institution.
In Surah 42:13, the Qur’an teaches that there should be no divisions within Islam:
He has ordained for you of religion what He enjoined upon Noah and that which We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], and what We enjoined upon Abraham and Moses and Jesus – to establish the religion and not be divided therein.
This may have been the intent for the religion of Islam, but, as we shall see, there were forces working from the very beginning to separate followers and bring divisions. For example, a Hadith attributed to Tirmidhi (no. 171) states that the prophet himself said there will be 73 sects and only one will lead to paradise:
The Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said, “if the people of Israel were fragmented into seventy-two sects, my Umma will be fragmented into seventy-three sects, and all of them will be in Hell fire except one group.” The companions asked Allah’s messenger which group that would be. Whereupon he replied, “It is the one to which I and my companions belong.”
It seems, then, that from the beginning there was the realization that many diverse sects would form, yet only one would be identified as the true path to Allah. In this case, Tirmidhi is assuming that a Muslim will find the right path by following the sunnah of Muhammad and living their life according to the words of the Qur’an. This is still very much the ideal for Muslims around the world. However, since the number of sects in Islam now number far more than 73, it is sometimes difficult to determine which group has the correct interpretation and the right practices that will give them a chance to get into paradise. In this chapter, a number of the major divisions will be examined, and the similarities and differences will be highlighted in order to better understand how belief and practice in Islam are often determined by might rather than by mind.
Traditional Muslim View
It may be true that there are many diverse groups in Islam, but it must also be understood that most of these groups fall into one of two main divisions, the Sunni and the Shia. Most Muslims will identify themselves within these two systems since most of the sub-groups were originally derived from one or the other. In this section, each of the major groups will be described and certain aspects will be highlighted in order to provide more insight into some of the events taking place in the Muslim world today that impacts the rest of the world. Then, in the counter-view section that follows, various reasons for the formation of the divisions and the consequent practices will be assessed and evaluated in order to provide a clearer picture of a possible way forward in regard to relations with Islam and the Western world.
The largest “denomination” of Islam is made up of Sunni Muslims. The various Sunni groups and sub-groups make up 85-90 % of all Muslims. The word Sunni comes from “sunnah,” which refers to the teachings, actions, and example of the prophet, Muhammad. Those who follow or maintain the sunnah of Muhammad are therefore called Sunni Muslims. According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad did not appoint a successor to lead the community after his death. Therefore, his followers elected one of Muhammad’s close companions to be the first caliph or religious successor to the prophet. Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law, was chosen by consensus to be the first one to fill this position.
Following Abu Bakr were other companions of the prophet, Umar ibn al-Khattab, and Uthman ibn Affan. The fourth caliph elected by consensus was Ali ibn Abu Talib, Muhammad’s cousin, and son-in-law. These first four leaders were called the “Rashidun” or “the rightly guided caliphs,” and they tried to provide an example to other Muslims by strictly obeying the commands of the Qur’an and the traditions of the prophet. Islam remained centered around the words and actions of Muhammad, and in time, according to Muslims, the sayings of Muhammad were passed down and recorded as the Hadith, and the religious practices established by Muhammad became the sunnah. Together these two sources provided the basis for Islamic law called Sharia.
During the first century of the Abbasid Empire (750-850 AD), Sharia was established through four schools of religious thought, or jurisprudence, known as Madhabs. These four schools of jurisprudence (or interpretation) are the Hanifite, Malikite, Shafi’ite, and Hanbalite Madhabs. The largest number of Muslims follow the Hanifite school, which was founded by Abu Hanifa al-Nu’man ibn Thabit (d. 150 AH/767 AD). It favors the use of rational judgment in determining what is best for the common good, and it is most influential in Iraq, Pakistan, India, and Central Asia. The Malikite school was founded by Malik ibn Anas (d. 179 AH/795 AD) and it uses consensus and analogy in order to determine the right path. It is most influential in North Africa, Egypt and eastern Arabia. The third school, the Shafi’ite, was begun by Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i (d. 204 AH/820 AD). It accepts the authority of the Hadith, in addition to the Qur’an, and de-emphasizes the role of reason. It is most influential in Indonesia. Finally, Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241 AH/855 AD) founded the last madhab called the Hanbalite school. The Hanbalites maintain that the Qur’an is the supreme authority, though they also accept the Hadith as authoritative. This is the smallest of the four major schools of jurisprudence, but it is the forerunner of the Wahhabi-Salafist movement and has played a major role in the rise of power in Saudi Arabia.
All of these schools seek to apply and instill the will of Allah in their legal works through strict adherence to the Qur’an and the sunnah of Muhammad, though some have a greater reliance on reason. They are also considered orthodox in their teaching and usually display mutual tolerance for the others, though there were often periods of great rivalry as different schools postured for power in the development of the various Islamic empires. However, most Sunnis today consider their view of Islam to be the only correct interpretation, so there is often intolerance and persecution directed at other forms of Islam, especially Shi’ism.
The second largest division of Muslims, the Shi’ah, make up around 10-13 % of all Muslims, and comprise the majority of the population in Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran, and Iraq. The name is derived from the “shia Ali,” or the party or partisans of Ali, the fourth elected caliph and the son-in-law of Muahmmad. Shi’ah believe that the caliph should be a direct descendent of Muhammad rather than a leader selected by consensus from the general followers. Thus, they reject the legitimacy of the first three Rashidun caliphs and claim that Ali was the first true leader of the faithful after Muhammad.
This split between the Sunni and the Shia developed through three phases. The first point of division took place in 632 AD when Abu Bakr was selected to succeed Muhammad rather than Ali, who was a blood relative. The Shia believe that before his death Muhammad conveyed to Ali that he would be the one to succeed him after his death. However, the previous pledge by Muhammad was overlooked and Ali was denied leadership at that time. Later, after the assassination of the third caliph, Uthman, Ali was selected by consensus to take on the role of caliph. However, this choice was disputed by Muawiyah, a relative of Uthman, who desired the position for himself.
This quarrel culminated in the battle of Siffin (657 AD) during the First Fitna, or Civil War, between the forces of Muawiyah and Ali. Muawiyah wanted Ali to punish the murderers of Uthman and therefore would not pledge his allegiance to Ali until that was accomplished, while Ali said he would not pursue the murderers until Muawiyah pledged his allegiance and accepted his authority. Since Ali was not able to follow through, Muawiyah brought his forces up against Ali’s army near the Euphrates river. After three days of a battle, which neither side wanted to start, Ali called for arbitration in order to stop the bloodshed. This brought an end to the battle, but it also was seen as weakness on the part of Ali and led to the decline of his rule. After four years, Ali was assassinated by a Kharajite (“one who leaves”), a former follower who had separated from Ali’s camp and decided that piety rather than blood should determine the choice for the leader of the faithful. Ali’s son Hasan was put forth for the next caliph, but Muawiyah persuaded him to withdraw, and after a treaty was signed the people selected Muawiyah to lead them.
Years later (680 AD), when Ali’s son Husayn, who was considered the third caliph in the Shia line, went up against Muawiyah’s son, Yazid, his army was intercepted at Karbala, Iraq, and Husayn was captured and beheaded. This further infuriated the Shi’ites because the treaty between Hasan and Muawiyah had stipulated that after Muawiyah’s death the people would select the next caliph. However, Muawiyah had chosen his own son to follow in his footsteps. This triple betrayal at the hands of the opponents of Ali’s family set in motion a rift that still exists between the Sunnis and the Shias.
Though both Shia and Sunni Muslims follow the same Five Pillars and hold the Qur’an and the sunnah of Muhammad as their supreme authority, there are a number of differences between the two systems. Minor differences on the Shia side range from condensing the five daily prayers into three, more leniency during the month of fasting, and religious observances to honor their past leaders such as pilgrimages to the shrines of various leaders and passionate displays of loyalty.
There are also some crucial differences as well. First of all, Shia Muslims consider the transmitters of the Sunni collections to be unreliable because they do not give preference to Ali and are sometimes narrated by enemies of the Shia, so different Hadith collections by Shia scholars are preferred. Secondly, while Sunni Muslims consult the four Madhabs, which use consensus for making decisions concerning the Muslim faith, Shia Muslims believe that the Imams, or the descendants of Ali’s family line, are the true caliphs, or rightful successors of Muhammad. These first twelve Imams were considered infallible, so their decisions had spiritual and political authority over the community. They were also the ones consulted in regard to questions of jurisprudence and Qur’anic interpretation.
Shiah Islam is even divided into three branches according to the number of Imams accepted. The majority group follows the teachings of the twelve traditional Shia Imams, and therefore the followers are called Twelvers. They believe that the twelfth Imam, a descendent of Ali, who disappeared in the tenth century, is still alive and in occultation, or hiding. He is known as the Mahdi, a messiah figure, and they believe he will restore the purity of the faith as well as appear again before the Last Judgment (end times). The other two groups, which developed due to disputes over the successions of the Imams, are the Seveners (Isma`ilis), who believe that the seventh Imam should have been Isma’il instead of his younger brother Musa al-Kazim, and the Fivers (Zaydis), who followed Zayd instead of his brother Muhammad al-Baqir. Thus, the Fivers end their list with Zayd, and the Seveners end their list with Isma’il. However, the Twelvers are by far in the majority, and therefore most Shi’ites follow the teachings of their twelve Imams, especially Jafar al-Sadiq, who was the sixth Imam.
Another important group in Islam is Sufism. It is not really a sect, but a mystical and ascetic branch of Islamic teaching that deals with purification of the inner self. The word Sufi means “woolen” and refers to the woolen garments worn by followers and signifies the rejection of worldly pleasures. Most Sufis are Sunni, but Sufi are represented in both major branches. In many ways, it is a reactive movement that arose to counter the rigid ritualism of orthodox Islam. Sufis want a relationship with God, which orthodox Islam will not really allow since Allah is considered too far removed from mankind. Sufis strive to obtain a direct experience of God. Some practitioners even speak of not just experiencing God, but becoming God themselves by annihilation and being absorbed in the divine. Martin Lings, an English convert to Islam, and a highly respected Sufi states, “Sufism is nothing other than Islamic mysticism.” He also relates that Sufism is to Islam “what the heart is to the body.” In this way it is very much a religion of the heart for an Islam that is often overly concerned with the external behavior of Muslims. In a way, Sufism provided a counterpoint between legalism and inner experience and taught that original Islam was much more concerned with spiritual matters rather than the materialistic concerns that seem to be emphasized in the Qur’an. There are also a number of elements that may have been influenced by Christian mysticism as well as Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. This may be why one scholar says that Sufism “originated in pious asceticism and cut across all social and religious divisions.” Two of the most important Sufi leaders in Islam were al-Ghazali, who sought to synthesize the legalistic and mystical schools of Islam, and the poet Rumi, whose words still reach out across the ages to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Ahmadiyyah Muslim Community
A group that does not fit neatly into the Sunni or the Shia camp is the Ahmadiyyah Muslim Community, founded in India by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in 1889. It started out as an eschatological movement in which Ahmad claimed to be the promised Messiah (second coming of Christ) as well as the Mahdi who would bring in the end times. For most Muslims these claims are blasphemous, and so from the beginning, the Ahmadis were considered heretics (kafirs) or non-Muslims. However, Ahmadis consider themselves to be true Muslims, and they claim to practice a pure form of Islam re-established by the teachings of their prophet. They also seek to end religious wars and seek to bring back the justice and peace advocated by Muhammad. In fact, Ahmad encouraged his followers to see themselves as leading a revival that would reject the radical tendencies found in many Islamic groups and “restore the relationship of love and sincerity” between God and his creatures. Ahmadis believe that their founder fulfilled the Qur’anic prophecy of the Second Coming of the Holy Prophet. They also believe that he was “the Messiah for the Christians and Muslims, Krishna for the Hindus, and Buddha for the Buddhists.” In fact, they believe that his mission was to “bring about the renaissance of Islam, to bring all the followers of the various religions into the fold of Islam and to establish its supremacy over all other religions, ideologies, and creeds.” However, most Muslims believe that the prophet Muhammad was the last prophet of Allah, and therefore they reject the words and intentions of Ahmadi and his followers. Today the Ahmadis have expanded to over 200 countries and number between 10-20 million worldwide.
Most people in the West who are familiar with the Baha’i Faith are not aware that this new religion first developed as an offshoot of Shia Islam in the nineteenth century. It all began in 1844 when a young Shia Muslim in the city of Shiraz, Iran, named Muhammad Ali, became convinced that he was the Bab or the forerunner of the Mahdi to come. The Bab’s teachings came under severe persecution from the Muslims, especially since he taught that Muhammad was not the final prophet, and he was arrested and then executed in 1850. Thirteen years later, one of his followers, Husayn Ali Nuri, claimed an angel appeared to him while he was in prison to inform him that he was the chosen one, or the Mahdi. He began to refer to himself as the Baha’u’llah, or “the Glory and Splendor of God,” the Promised One that the world was waiting for. In time Husayn Ali was exiled to Haifa, Israel and spent the rest of his life writing scriptures for the Baha’i Faith. Today the movement has over five million followers in 200 countries.
Followers of Baha’i believe that religion is evolving and so their prophet, the Baha’u’llah, and his teachings supersede Muhammad, the Qur’an, and all other religious systems. Just as the Baha’u’llah is the fulfillment of all the Messianic roles in the major world religions, Baha’i claims to be the ultimate fulfillment of all religions. As the pinnacle religion of the world, it can afford to accept the good things found in other religions because they are lesser revelations leading to the most complete revelation found in Baha’i. Thus, it not only accepts these things, but it also absorbs them. In the teachings of Lao-tze, for example, they say that the primary teaching was reverence. The identifying characteristic for Brahmanism was sacrifice. For Buddhism it was renunciation. Under Moses, the people learned righteousness. Through Jesus came a deeper understanding of love. Through Muhammad came the teaching of submission to God. Finally, Baha’u’llah, the greatest of all these teachers, founded the greatest of all these religions based on the principle of unity: unity of God, unity of religion, and unity of humanity. Supposedly this is the last and greatest principle in the progression of revelation.
The major goal of Baha’i, then, is to unite all of mankind into one religious kingdom. In order to do this, all the religions of the world would have to bow to a great unifying one. Baha’i claims to be the religion that would bring all others together. The reason the Baha’is can say this is that they believe that underneath the different patterns of ritual and worship, all religions are in complete agreement in regard to all the important things. They also believe that Baha’u’llah were the highest and most complete manifestation of God. Therefore, his writings should be the most complete revelations known to man. However, because Baha’is deny that Muhammad is the final prophet, both Sunni and Shia Muslims reject Baha’i as a heresy and continue to persecute believers who still live in Islamic countries.
The Alawites are another offshoot from Shia Islam that Christians should know about, since the present leader of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, ascribes to this form of Islam. The name Alawi means “followers of Ali,” and today the Alawites represent around 20 percent of the population in Syria, as well as minorities in Turkey and Lebanon, with a total of around 4 million people. Alawites follow a branch of the Twelver school of Shia Islam, and are thought to be descendants of the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari (d. 873). However, they tend to add some syncretistic elements to their beliefs, such as a divine triad comprised of Ali, Muhammad, and Salman the Persian. According to their theology, these three Muslims are the three current emanations of the one God. Ali represents the incarnation of the deity in the triad and is called the “Essence” or the “Meaning” of God, while Muhammad, whom Ali created of his own light, represents the Name, and Salman the Persian is the Gate. In addition, through their contact with the Byzantines and the Crusaders, Alawis added other Christian elements to their creeds and practices such as celebrating Christmas, Easter, and the Epiphany. In other ways, their doctrines incorporate Gnostic, neo-Platonic, and heretical Islamic beliefs and practices. Even with all the syncretistic additions, Alawites still claim to be Muslims. However, Sunni scholars generally disavow this claim and consider them to be pagans or non-Muslims. Even the great scholar Ibn Taymiyya was virulently anti-Alawite and accused them of aiding the enemies of Muslims. Al-Ghazali, the great Muslim philosopher, also considered Alawites to be non-Muslims. Today there is a movement to downplay the former syncretism and connect the Alawites more firmly within the Twelver belief system. This has been encouraged by the Iranian regime, which is also a strong advocate of Twelver Shia beliefs.
Another Shia sub-group that contains syncretistic elements is the Druze faith, with around 2 million adherents in the Levant region (Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan). It is believed that they developed in the eleventh century as an offshoot of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam (Seveners). They are considered heretical and non-Muslims by other Muslims because of their syncretistic beliefs that incorporate elements of Ismailism, Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and even Hinduism. For example, they believe in a form of reincarnation in which the soul continues to reincarnate as a human until it unites with the Cosmic Mind and achieves ultimate happiness. They are also considered heretical because of their belief that the third Fatimid caliph of Egypt, al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, was a manifestation of Allah and will return as the Mahdi on judgment day. Like the Alawites, the Druze tend to keep their beliefs secret in order to ward off persecution and gain acceptance in the greater world of orthodox Sunni Islam.
Sunni Muslims seem to be less drawn to heresy, but they have their own excesses that tend toward hyper-fundamentalism rather than syncretism. Wahhabism is an example of this trend. Wahhabism is a fundamental revival of seventh-century Islam by the eighteenth-century teacher Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab in Saudi Arabia. It is derived from the Sunni Hanbali school of interpretation via the writings of Ibn Taymiyya (d.1328). In some ways the Kharijites of first century Islam could have been an early model for Wahhabis today since they, too, only wanted to follow the pure, original teaching of Muhammad. Wahhabism rejects all innovation in Islam after the prophet Muhammad’s time in the seventh century. They are rigid in their interpretation of Sharia and intolerant of Sufism and innovation. Wahhabism was instrumental in bringing the house of Saud into power, which is why it is the official creed of Saudi Arabia. Since it is also linked to Salafism (“following the forefathers of Islam”), Wahhabism teaches that they have the right interpretation of the Qur’an, they consider moderate Muslims to be infidels, and they seek to convert all Muslims to their form of belief. They also seek to dominate the world for Islam, according to the Qur’an (Q. 8:39, 9:33, 61:9) and the Hadith (Sahih Muslim #1731). Even though Wahhbism is a minority position overall in the Muslim world, it is thought to be foundational to Muslim terrorist groups operating today, especially those who believe in the destruction of non-Muslim societies like America.
The Nation of Islam
There are some sub-groups in Islam that began far from the foundational moorings and then tried to reform their beliefs in order to come in line with orthodox Sunni Islam. The Nation of Islam, one of the only sub-groups to develop in America, has this record. The Nation of Islam was founded in Detroit in 1930 by Wallace Fard Muhammad. He wanted to resurrect the spiritual, social and economic condition of black men and women and looked to Islam for a solution. However, the original beliefs did not look very much like Sunni Islam in the Middle East. It was more of a mixture of Islam and Black Nationalism. First of all, his followers came to believe that Fard Muhammad was the Messiah for the Jews and the Mahdi of the Muslims. They also believe that the Arabian Muhammad was not the final prophet, but rather they hold that Elijah Muhammad, the successor to Fard Muhammad, was the final “messenger of Truth.” They also believe black people were the original race on the earth and only allow blacks to be a member of the movement. Due to these heretical differences, traditional Islam rejected the Nation of Islam and did not consider them to be true Muslims. However, the son of Elijah Muhammad, Warith Deen Muhammad, abandoned the beliefs of the Nation of Islam in 1976 and turned to orthodox Islam, naming his new organization the American Society of Muslims. Not everyone agreed with this move, and the present leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, revived the former group in 1979 with the earlier heretical teachings. Under Farrakhan, the NOI once again grew, but it was still viewed as a heresy by most orthodox Muslim groups. More recently, after a bout with cancer, Louis Farrakhan has reached out to orthodox Islam, and in time may follow Malcolm X and Warith Deen Muhammad on the road toward orthodoxy.
It would be helpful to be familiar with some of the political groups that have influenced the West and challenged Christians on the nation’s campuses, in the courts of law, and in the halls of Congress.
Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun)
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by an Egyptian scholar, Hassan al-Banna in 1928. It is now the largest Sunni movement in the Arab world and accepts Muslims from all four Sunni schools of thought. The Brotherhood seeks to re-establish the caliphate and pushes for stricter Islamization of society. This is why the formation of Islamic courts of law, or Sharia, in the West is seen as essential to the development of the end goals of the Brotherhood. Underlying all that it does, the Muslim Brotherhood looks to the Qur’an and sunnah as sole guides for faith. One of their mottos describes this well: “Allah is our objective; the Qur’an is the Constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish.”
The CAIR website states, “The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was established in 1994 to challenge stereotypes of Islam and Muslims.” In many ways it has grown to be the leading organization in the United States dedicated to promoting an Islamic perspective on a number of different fronts. According to the website, “the vast majority of CAIR’s work deals with civil rights and anti-defamation.” However, they also detail acts of destruction and desecration of Islamic places of worship, support educational efforts to promote Islam in the US, advocate for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience on behalf of Islam, denounce terrorism and religious intolerance, and oppose racial and religious profiling. However, in 2007 CAIR was included in a list of organizations that were labeled as unindicted co-conspirators of a Hamas funding project involving the Holy Land Foundation, which was indicted. In 2008 the FBI labeled CAIR as a front group for Hamas. A book published in 2009, titled Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld That’s Conspiring to Islamize America, by Paul David Gaubatz and Paul Sperry, portrays CAIR “as a subversive organization allied with international terrorists.” CAIR has denied these allegations, and under the Obama administration, the organization has regained some of its former influence. CAIR continues to present itself as a staunch supporter regarding “America’s founding principles and religious pluralism,” but at the same time, they have organized political action to protest aspects of US counterterrorism policy as well as to downplay the concern of Christian groups concerned with the rise of Islamic terrorism in the US.
Another important political group to be familiar with is the Jamaat-e-Islami founded by Abul Ala Maududi in 1941. This is the oldest religious party in Pakistan, and it was formed in order to aid the new state of Pakistan to develop a government that was totally ruled by Sharia. Maududi was very much opposed to the Western social and economic structures, such as secularization, capitalism, and socialism. He favored the founding of a caliphate with Islamic economic laws and believed that politics was integral to the Islamic faith. Western ideas and methods were antithetical to the ways of Islam and therefore would not work in a truly Islamic society. Maududi further believed that only a complete Islamic state would be able to bring about the type of revolution necessary to subdue the whole world under the domain of Islam.
The last of the political groups to review is the very influential Gülen movement established in the 1970s by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. This movement is very active in education with over 1,000 private schools and universities in over 180 countries in the world (including even American charter schools). It promotes interfaith dialogue as a way to seek inroads into the communities and foreign governments and advocates cooperation between different religions. The movement has garnered praise for its advocacy of science, education, and interfaith dialogue, but critics have also pointed out that it often uses these means as a way to infiltrate non-Muslim societies.
The Counter View
One of the central struggles within Islam is the ongoing conflict between the Sunni and the Shia Muslims. Historically, both sides claim the greater legitimacy, the former through succession of the chosen political leaders, and the latter through direct bloodlines going back to Muhammad himself. The Shia also claim to carry the superior leadership through their spiritual leaders, who will culminate in the Imam Mahdi, the one who will appear at the end times and lead the Muslims in the final battle against the infidel.
One Muslim scholar, Murtaza Hussain, however, believes that the Sunni-Shia conflict narrative is “misguided at best and disingenuous at worst.” He reasons that, “The conflict which some claim exists today between Sunni and Shia Muslims is a product of very recent global events, blowback from the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the petro-dollar fuelled [sic] global rise of Wahhabi reactionaries,” and driven by modern politics rather than the continuation of a 1400-year grudge war between Sunnis and Shias. A Shi’ite Saudi economist, Ihsan Bu-Huleiga, agrees with the political assessment, but not the timeline: “The differences between groups in Islam have always existed, but it is only when you mix them with politics that it becomes really dangerous—dangerous like an atomic bomb.” Indeed, throughout the Middle East, most of the wars and political conflicts pit Sunnis against Shiites. However, is the root of this schism found in the decision over the right of succession, or have these battles been fought for political and economic sway?
In a recent dissertation, Michael Bufano concludes that the split between Sunnism and Twelver Shi’ism was the product of several centuries of various theological factions (such as the Kharajites, the Qadarites, Mu’tazilites, and the Ash’arites) wrestling with the early theological issues and sorting out which beliefs would become standard, or orthodox. He suggests that “many do not realize how long it took for the important differences between what became known as Sunni and Shi’i Islam to become solid and fixed as they now seem to be. In other words, in the first few centuries of Islamic history, the term Shi’ism can only be applied retrospectively to a diversity of political sects and religious movements, many of which had little in common.” Thus, it is possible that the Sunni-Shi’a divide did not begin to develop until the tenth century during the Abbasid era and reach fruition until the sixteenth century under the Safavid era. This means that the process to consolidate these two main branches of Islam took almost 1,000 years. This reminds us that much in Islam may be retrofitted to accommodate later views, which would explain many of the contradictions and historical gaps that mark the development of early Islam. Just as there is a 9th-century view of how the Qur’an was canonized rather than 7th-century narratives from eyewitness accounts, in the case of the Sunni-Shia divide we may have a 16th-century invention rather than the real story.
Another question may also be significant, “Why does it matter?” In the chapter on the development of Islamic theology, it was demonstrated that theology because it is so often linked with politics in Islam, was subverted by power. In turn, this quest for power tends to use religion as its stepping stool for conquest and control. Thus, it is possible that the early movement toward a new religion in the seventh century may have been inspired by the religious goal of unifying Judaism and Christianity, with its various branches (Monophysites, Nestorians, and Melkites), under one religion. This first appealed to a number of those who were conquered, but after a while, the leaders of the new religion realized that they could only manage the population through political manipulation and “theological” control. Thus, it is possible that as Islam moved through various stages of development, Muslim leaders needed to exert more authority over the non-Muslims in order to maintain their religious dominance. Today this ever-escalating need for power and control seems to be reflected in the many battlefronts between the Sunni and the Shia for control over Islam. The main problem with this is that the rest of the world seems to be caught in the middle.
If the Sunni-Shia split did not occur in the 7th century over the dispute concerning the rightful successor to the leadership of Islam, but rather was a gradual development over centuries, then what does this indicate about the early history of the religion and its development? First of all, if the terms “Sunni” and “Shia” were not in use until the 10th century, this may support the view that the traditional narrative of the selection process for the new leader after Muhammad is incorrect. Indeed, since the historical existence of the first four caliphs, including Ali, is absent, then it is possible that this narrative of a dispute between the group that advocated selection by consensus and the group that advocated selection by heredity may merely be a scenario that was retrofitted from the tenth century after a long litany of theological and political disputes had coalesced into two main camps.
Historically it is certain that there were factional disputes within the early developers of the religion of Islam. However, the evidence better supports the view that these theological and political disputations were not along traditional Sunni-Shia lines, but rather indicate the eventual outcome of a religious revolution that first sought to bring the various Jewish and Christian factions together but ended up as a religion driven by political power to the point that in the end it rejected the very impetus of its original design. In other words, if the crafters of the religion of Islam, such as Muawiyah, Abd al-Malik and al-Hajjaj, were trying to create a religion that would unify the other major religious influences in the Middle East, what they ended up with is a religion that distorts the Mosaic legal system of the Jews, rejects the gospel of salvation of the Christians, and dooms its followers to the whimsy of a God they cannot relate to and a future that offers no assurances of a paradise beyond the grave.
Another implication of the Sunni-Shia divide is that it indicates that Islam is very much controlled by political ambitions: theological Islam has been trumped by political Islam. The practices (orthopraxy) in Islam cannot be separated from its beliefs (orthodoxy). Therefore, religion and politics, belief and power, become intertwined. Furthermore, the tendency is to mandate religious devotion through force rather than freedom of choice. We see this especially in the various political groups that have sprung up from both Sunni and Shia Islam, such as Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood, CAIR, Jamaat-e-Islami, the Gülen Movement, and even more so with the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and ISIS. All these groups have made political Islam the force behind their ideology and the pathway to reaching their goals.
On the other hand, Christianity is not dependent on political institutions. In fact, the main point of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees concerning the Roman coin was to demonstrate that the core of Christianity is separate from the power of the state (Matthew 22:18-22). The real power in Christianity comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, the real power in Islam comes from the followers submitting to the demands of the religious leaders which are based upon the commands in the Qur’an (Q. 3:18-20).
Christians need to understand the different groups that make up Islam in order to better explain Christian beliefs to Muslim friends. Some of the reasons for the development of the different sects in Islam are similar to the reasons that there are different denominations in Christianity. Christian leaders through the centuries have interpreted the Bible differently and these different interpretations have brought about different emphases in styles of worship, views of doctrine, and ways to interpret Scripture. These differences have led to the three major branches of Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant), and numerous denominations, especially among the Protestants. There have also been a number of heresies that have developed along the way.
Muslim leaders have also been responsible for leading groups of Muslims in various directions according to their interpretations, practices, and cultural background. However, since Christianity is based on core beliefs that all Christians (except for heretics) accept, such as a triune God, the deity of Christ, and salvation through faith, rather than on what they do, having different denominations can be a healthy way to meet the diverse personalities of cultures and peoples.
On the other hand, the emphasis in Islam is unity in the Umma and this usually is interpreted as all Muslims conforming to the same beliefs, as interpreted by the leaders of their sect, and following the same practices, as modeled by Muhammad. Innovation is discouraged and violation of Sharia is met with harsh consequences. One of the main reasons for these core differences between Christianity and Islam is that theological Islam was overshadowed by political Islam. The supreme goal in Christianity is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and then to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:29-31). The supreme goal in Islam is to bring the whole world under the dominance of Allah (Q. 8:39, 9:33, 61:9). Love will free the soul, and dominance will enslave. These two systems are inherently incompatible and, unfortunately, will continue to build an insurmountable divide.
The prevalence of Sufi Islam may be a result of political Islam as well. If Allah is considered unknowable in orthodox Islam, and therefore inaccessible to humans, then it is impossible to have a personal relationship with Allah. However, there is a deep longing in the soul of man to have intimate knowledge of God. In Christianity there are ways for believers to fulfill this longing, and some denominations even go to extremes in order to promote ways to experience the fullness of God. On the other hand, the strict Sunni belief system does not allow Muslims to have a relationship with Allah, and since Islam is considered an all-encompassing system, including social, religious, cultural, and political aspects, these attempts to cultivate a deeper relationship with Allah are often squelched. However, this desire is so strong that Sufi groups have often found ways around the strict views of Sunni or Shia Islam and developed strong pockets of followers, especially from the more artistic and philosophically-minded Muslims. One thing for Christians to recognize is that Sufis are often the ones who are more open to the gospel since their hearts are already softened toward having a relationship with God.
Building Bridges to Understand
The Sufi need for relationship can help Christians reach out to Muslims by stressing the love that God has for us and the reason that Christ came in the flesh. He wanted to break through that divine and human barrier. He also needed to become a man in order to die in our place.
It is also important to stress to our Muslim friends that Christians are also divided over many issues, often because of personal desires rather than biblical ones. Many of the differences among Christians are not about the fundamentals of the faith, but rather secondary issues. Christians therefore need to model forgiveness and tolerance with each other. We should not be afraid to admit to our frailties, especially if our weakness can reveal God’s strength and holiness.
The problems between Sunni and Sufi branches can also be used to challenge Muslims to seek true forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Grudges carried over generations prevent people from true forgiveness. Only Christ can give the peace that passes understanding that will bring healing to such deep divides.
This is why it is so important for Christians to reach out to Muslims in truth and love. Muslims need to see what true Christianity is like, and they need to know that Christians truly love them. Building relationships with the Muslims we meet is the first step to bridging the gap that only Christ can fill. As we share the gospel with our Muslim friends, we can become part of the solution.
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 The irony of this dispute is that both Muawiyah and Ali were descendants of Abd Manaf; Muawiyah through the Umayyad branch of the family and Ali through the Hashim branch to which Muhammad also belonged.
 Martin Lings, What is Sufism? (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1993), 15.
 Ibid., 106.
 Douglass Pratt, The Challenge of Islam: Encounters in Interfaith Dialogue (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), 68.
 A.R. Dard. Life of Ahmad (PDF). Islam International Publications, 2008, XV. Retrieved 30 June, 2016.
 Dard, XIV.
 Dard, XIV-XV.
 “Alawi Islam.” Globalsecurity.org
 Helbawy, K., (2009) The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: Historical Evolution and Future Prospects, p.65
 Doyle, Michael, “Judge: Controversial ‘Muslim Mafia’ used stolen papers,” Charlotte Observer, November 10, 2009
 Yaroslav Trofimov. May 14, 2015 Wall Street Journal. “Sunni-Shiite Conflict Reflects Modern Power Struggle, Not Theological Schism.”
 Michael Bufano, A Reconsideration of the Sunni-Shi’a Divide in Early Islam (Clemson University, 2008).
 Bufano, Reconsideration, 146.
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