Islamic Sects. An Extremely Simplified Description
The Hajj to Mecca, Islam's holiest city
This is very much NOT an in-depth look at Islam...
Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is not a united or unified religion or belief system. Unlike either of the worlds other two major religions, however, there is a quantifiable date and an initial event that you might say “kicked off the start of Islam”.
A Very Brief History of the Beginning…
In the year 610 CE, the Prophet Mohammed received his first revelation from the Archangel Gabriel (or Jibrael in Arabic) while meditating in a cave during the month of Ramadan. By 622 CE, Islam as a cohesive religion was formed, with the words of God or Allah as given to Mohammed documented in a text known as the Quran. Experts agree that the majority of the scripture or Sura contained in the Quran is an amalgamation of tenets and beliefs many hundreds of years older than Islam as well as compilations of many men over the proceeding few hundred years.
In this regard, the Quran is very similar to the Bible.
So then, lots of centuries go by…during this time the Muslim Arabs take off on a quest for land, power and converts across Africa and Andalusia (modern day Spain). They are hugely successful until they reach the Frankish Kingdom (loosely, this was France, Belgium, Germany, Northern Italy and most other parts of modern day western Europe, as far north as Austria). In fact, they were so successful, they pushed through ancient Aquitaine as far as Burgundy (modern day southern France). Their forward advances towards world domination were stopped here, however, by The Lombards and Charles Martell, amongst others.
OK, back to the Sects…
Sunni Muslims are by far the majority. Approximately 90% of all Muslims in the world are Sunni. These are the mainstream, traditional Muslims who believe in a strict determinism. The defining belief of Sunni Muslims (and the source of their ancient rift with the Shia) is that the acceptable successors to Mohammed by the subsequent leaders of Islam or "caliphate" could and should be chosen from anyone suitable that was a member of Mohamed’s tribe, but not necessarily an heir or relative of Mohamed.
The Shiite’s central belief is that after the assassinations of the fourth Caliph in 661 CE, the next successor to Mohamed should have been Ali, his brother in law. They split with the Sunni over the issue of succession shortly thereafter. According to Shiite doctrine, their spiritual and political leader is the Imam, who is said to be a direct blood descendant of Ali. The Shia and Sunni differ on matters of Quranic doctrine and the Shia even have their own cannon of the Hadith (the description of Mohamed’s words and deeds). Another primary difference is the belief in a justice system by the Shia that is inherited from the Mu’tazilits or “rationalists”.
So I guess a glib person might venture to say that the main rift in Islam is over meritocracy vs. nepotism…
but wait, there’s more…
Sufism officially developed in the 10th century CE as a type of mystical interpretation of Islam. The basic tenet was of Pantheism or a belief that God and the universe are one. Mainstream Muslims disagree with this idea and instead believe in God (Allah) as a separate being who created the universe.
There was a growing materialism that pervaded Islam around this time. Muslims had gained great power and acquired much wealth and land in a relatively short amount of time. As a result, many Muslims had grown rich and complacent and therefore somewhat laissez fare in their attitudes towards Islam. Sufism arose in part as a reaction to this newly developed way of life.
Sufi’s believe they may attain an inner, mystical knowledge of God through mediation, deprivation, fasting and prayer. In addition, the Sufi believe that the Quran could be interpreted in many ways which gave license to seek hidden, mystical meanings within its pages.
Today, Sufism is most prevalent in Pakistan, though Sufi’s are found all over the world. They are the rebels of Islam…the hippies or the “new agers” to use western terms. Much of what we have from Islam’s golden age of poetry and art was created by Sufi Muslims. The most well known example is Rumi, the Persian poet of the 11th century CE
Two hundred years after the rise of Sufism and four hundred years after Charles Martel stopped the Islamic Jihad into Europe at the Battle of Tours, Islam was suffering from another crisis of stagnation and devolution. In the 12th century CE, Muslims had begun to revert to idol and tomb worship and the austere monotheism of the previous centuries had seriously degraded. From this environment a peaceful revisionist movement known as Wahhabism took root.
The movement was named for Sheikh Muhammad ibn And al-Wahhab, a charismatic individual from the area around modern day Riyadh who, by the age of 10, had memorized the Quran and was leading prayers. Sheikh al-Wahhab had written many books on the subject of reformation based on the Quran by the time Wahhabism had become a full blown movement.
So maybe it could be said that Wahhabism is somewhat akin to the Lutheran movement that took place in Christianity, whereby the reformers attempted to get the religion back to what it was originally meant to be. And by “originally”, of course I mean before the Catholic Church started putting ritual before doctrine.
There are a variety of sub-sects within each sect and adherents to different philosophies within those sub-sects. Much of it, in fact the majority, has common tenets such as the Five Pillars of Islam (profession of faith, prayers, alms for the poor, the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca and the observance of Ramadan). The differences, however minor they may appear to our modern minds, are the ancient wedge issues that have prevented unity in the Middle East for many centuries now.
It is naïve to think that these “minor” differences can be overcome by intervention from any one person or group from the West.
In my opinion, Islam is at a period in its history that Christianity was in around the time just before the Renaissance. Time does not move at the same pace for all peoples of the world, as hard as that is to comprehend. Just as Christianity has (in many ways) progressed, so will Islam…Masha'Allah!
A History of Islam by the History Channel
More about Wahhabism
Charles de Steuben, Bataille de Poitiers, en octobre 732. Painted between 1834 and 1837, today Musée du château de Versailles, France.
Understanding how different types of Islam developed
Islamic history and present day issues
- Understanding-Islam.org - Islam From Various aspects in light of Qur\'an and Sunnah
Here at Understanding Islam we provide you with all information regarding Islam. We attempt to explain Islam in the light of the Qur'an and Sunnah from various aspects and by responding to criticisms and queries.
More on Sufism
- International Association of Sufism
The International Association of Sufism is a non-profit organization affiliated with the United Nations and designed to promote peace and knowledge in the spirit of ancient wisdoms.
A flag of Islam
Charles Martel and the Battle of Tours
- Charles Martel - Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours
Charles Martel was the leader of the Frankish army at the Battle of Tours in 732, and played a key role in turning back the Muslim invasions of Europe. Charles Martel also founded the Carolingian Empire which was later ruled by his grandson, Charlema