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Islam’s Many Faces

by Michael L. Fitzgerald, M.Afr.

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Throughout the West, there is much talk about the Islamic world, the spread of Islam, the dangers of Islam. It is as if the individual followers of this religion, Muslims, are forgotten and lumped together in one invariable whole.

The readers of ONE know well many of the differences that exist within Christianity, with its various churches and communities, each with its own rites and customs. They should not be surprised to learn, if they do not know already, about the diversity that exists within the Islamic world: how the interpretation of the five pillars of Islam – the fundamental obligations incumbent on all Muslims – differs among Muslims.

The main divide in Islam separates Sunnism from Shiism. Sunni Muslims emphasize following the example of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, as handed down by tradition (sunna). Shiite Muslims also venerate Muhammad, but they accent the following of a living leader, or imam, who descends directly from the family of Muhammad.

Sunni Muslims belong to any one of four mutually recognized schools that formulate Sharia, or divine law: Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafa’i . The differences among these groups are not considered sectarian, but rather analogous to the corpus of case law available to U.S. lawyers in various jurisdictions. A variety of Sufi groups, or spiritual brotherhoods, each having its own particular tradition of prayers, also subscribes to Sunni Islam.

Shiite Muslims, on the other hand, belong to one of three major subgroups: Bohras, Ithna’ashariyya, or Twelver Shiites, and Nizaris. The differences among these groups are significant.

Why did these divisions in Islam come about and how have they evolved over the centuries?

Islam was united only during the lifetime of Muhammad. After his death, a dispute arose regarding his successor. A group of followers elected Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad’s first companions, to be caliph, or successor of the prophet. Sunni Muslims thus believe in an elected caliphate. Yet others believed the succession should remain within the family of Muhammad, a family chosen by God. In their opinion, it was Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, and thus the closest male relative, who had the rightful claim. These Muslims, known as Shiite Muslims, chose to follow Ali.

When Ali died his followers recognized his son, Hasan, as the next imam and subsequently Ali’s other son, Husayn, who succeeded his brother. Twelvers recognize a succession of 12 imams. The 12th and last imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, became leader in the year 260 of the Islamic era (A.D.874) at 5 years old. Shortly after his installation as imam, he went into concealment. To this day, Twelver Shiites await his return at the end of time.

All Shiites followed the same succession of imams until the sixth, Ja’far al-Sadiq. At first, Ja’far al-Sadiq appointed his son, Isma’il, to succeed him, but then allegedly changed his mind in favor of his other son, Musa al-Kadhim. Twelvers recognize the latter as the seventh imam.

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