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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
What are the main subgroups within the religion?
by John Kaltner

There is a strong sense of unity and solidarity among Muslims that goes all the way back to the earliest days of the religion. When Muhammad introduced Islam into Arabia he simultaneously brought about a change in how the people of the area would identify and align themselves.

It had been a tribal-based society for centuries, which meant people looked first to their tribe for identity and protection. For example, Muhammad’s family was a member of the Hashem clan, which was part of the powerful Quraysh tribe that played an influential role in Arabian society. With the rise of Islam such alliances that were formed along tribal and familial lines were called into question. The important thing became membership in the Muslim community, not affiliation with a particular tribe or clan. The Arabic term that was adopted to designate this faith-based group was ummah, and it is still commonly used to refer to the world-wide Islamic community to which all Muslims pledge their allegiance.

This is not to say there are no divisions within Islam. Muslims differentiate themselves in all sorts of social, cultural, and ideological ways. Despite those distinctions they still recognize each other as fellow believers and members of the one ummah. The most well-known division in Islam is that between Sunni and Shi`a Muslims. To understand the origin and reasons for this split we need to return back to seventh century Arabia.

When Muhammad died in 632 the overriding concern for the young Muslim community was who would take his place. He had not appointed a successor, and there was no system in place to insure a smooth transition of authority. One group wanted a man named Ali, who was the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, to become the new leader. They reasoned it would be important to keep control within Muhammad’s family, and Ali was the perfect candidate. Others thought differently and felt the new leader should be someone who knew the Prophet personally, regardless of whether or not he was a relative.

The latter group eventually won out. A series of three different companions of Muhammad were appointed leader before Ali assumed the office of caliph (“successor”) and held it until his death in 661. This period of Islamic history is referred to as the time of the four “Rightly Guided Caliphs.” When Ali died his followers believed the caliphate would be kept in his family line, but the majority group passed over his sons in favor of a man named Muawiya, whose reign ushered in the Umayyad Period (661-750).

Those who backed Ali in these battles over authority called themselves shi`a, an Arabic word meaning “partisans” that gave a name to the movement. Shi`a Muslims are those of the “party of Ali” who believe the leaders of the ummah throughout history should have been taken from among his descendants. Today they number about 15% of all Muslims. They consider themselves to be a persecuted minority that has been denied its rightful place, but they believe they will eventually be vindicated and all Muslims will come under the authority of someone from Ali’s line. This is a topic to which we will return in the chapter on leadership.

With some relatively minor exceptions that will be discussed later, the beliefs and practices of Sunnis and Shi`a closely mirror each other. They each consider the other to be legitimate expressions of Islam and each deems the followers of the other sect to be fellow Muslims. In recent history there have been some violent clashes between Sunnis and Shi`a, as in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, but these are usually based on political disagreements rather than theological differences.

With only two main branches of division, Islam lacks the diversity and variety of a religion like Christianity, which contains many factions and denominations. There are a number of other Islamic groups whose names are familiar to non-Muslims, but they are more like offshoots of Islam rather than major branches within it.

One is Wahhabi Islam, a radical form of the faith found primarily in modern Saudi Arabia that traces its roots back to a man named Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92). With the endorsement of the powerful Saud family, he was able to spread his extreme brand of the faith throughout the Arabian Peninsula. He thought Islam had been tainted by improper innovations and corrupt practices, and he went about the task of trying to remove these elements from it. Osama bin Laden and his supporters are the most notorious adherents of Wahhabism.

Another group that is well-known in the United States is the Nation of Islam. It was founded in the 1930s by a man named Fard as an organization that attempted to respond to the needs and concerns of African Americans. Elijah Muhammad took over the reins after Fard’s mysterious disappearance, and under his leadership it came to wield a great deal of religious and social influence in many American cities.

Because of certain teachings that run counter to mainstream Islam, its relationship with the rest of the ummah has been problematic. For example, the Nation of Islam maintains that Fard was God incarnate and Elijah Muhammad was a prophet, two beliefs that no Sunni or Shi`a would be able to accept. In recent years, Elijah Muhammad’s successor Louis Farrakhan has attempted to reach out to the worldwide Islamic community and improve relations with other Muslims.

Copyright ©2007 John Kaltner

John Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999)

What Do Our Neighbors Believe?
This excerpt from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner is used with permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.
To purchase a copy of WHAT DO OUR NEIGHBORS BELIEVE? visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered users.



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