From ONE Magazine

issues Islam’s Many Faces

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.

Some followers, however, remained faithful to Isma’il. These Shiites, known as Ismailis, later split into two camps. The larger of the two (and to whom the term Ismailis generally refers), the Nizaris, recognizes a living imam, known as the aga khan. The smaller group, the Bohras, believes the imam remains in concealment. A supreme missionary (dâ’i al-mutlaq) rules over them.

Observance of the pillars of Islam

1. The profession of faith (shahâda)

For Sunnis, the formula of the profession of faith is as follows:

I bear witness that there is no divinity except God; I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.

The shahâda is included in the call to prayer and also forms part of the ritual prayer itself. It is whispered into the ear of a newborn as well as into the ear of the dying. An individual who is not able to repeat the shahâda is encouraged to raise the index finger to indicate belief in one God.

Shiites use a slightly different formula:

There is no divinity except God.

Muhammad is the messenger of God.

Ali is the guardian appointed by God, the executor of the will of the prophet.

The third and fourth lines add a specifically Shiite touch. They underscore the role of the imam, which is central to Shiism, from which will flow the duty of walâya, or showing devotion to the imam.

Twelvers bring this version of the shahâda into the call to prayer (adhân):

God is great. [said 4 times]

I bear witness that there is no divinity except God. [2 times]

I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God. [2 times]

I bear witness that Ali is the guardian appointed by God. [2 times]

Come to prayer. [2 times]

Come to success. [2 times]

Come to the best of works. [2 times]

God is great. [2 times]

There is no divinity except God. [2 times]

According to tradition, references to Ali and the best of works once belonged to the call to prayer, but were later omitted by the second caliph, Omar. Before the dawn prayer, Sunnis add, “Prayer is better than sleep.” Shiites omit this line since they believe Omar added it. (Shiites have no love for Omar, who had strongly opposed the claim that Ali was the rightful leader of the Muslim community.)

Bohras express their devotion to the imam by pledging allegiance to his representative, the supreme missionary. This takes the form of a covenant, which a child enters into upon reaching majority (similar to the Jewish bar or bat mitzvah). All members of the community renew this covenant each year on the feast commemorating the appointment of Ali as imam.

2. Ritual Prayer (salât)

For Sunni Muslims, ritual prayer is strictly regulated with respect to both the time when one prays and the various physical positions one takes while praying, whether to stand, bow, sit or prostrate. The combined bodily movements are called rak’a. The number of movements is prescribed for each of the five daily prayers: twice at dawn, four times at noon and in the afternoon, three times in the evening and four times at night. On Friday, the day of congregational prayer, the noon prayer is reduced by half to leave time for the sermon.

Twelver Shiites often combine prayers: noon and afternoon prayers and evening and night prayers, respectively, are conducted together. As a result, the five prayers are recited over three periods of the day. There is no difference with respect to the content of the prayers.

Whenever possible, Shiites touch their foreheads on a small tablet of clay during prostrations; the clay comes from Karbala (a city in modern Iraq), the place where Imam Husayn and his family were martyred. Strict separation of the sexes is also observed. In fact, women are not allowed in the mosque at all. They pray at home, or meet in the im├ómbâra, a special hall used for sermons and services commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn.

Congregational prayer, at midday on Friday, is of less importance for Twelvers. The imam normally convokes this prayer, but, according to tradition, he remains concealed.

When Bohras call the community to prayer, they add the following words:

Muhammad and Ali are the best of creatures and their descendants are the best of humankind.

They, too, group the five prayers into three periods. As with the Twelvers, there is no special Friday prayer and no sermon, since the imam is hidden for them as well. The Bohras are especially exclusive. They do not permit Muslims who are not Bohras to pray with them in their mosques.

According to Ismaili doctrine, ritual prayer is an important pillar of faith. The daily prayers may be performed privately or in the mosque. Ismailis, however, also observe prayers of supplication (du’a) three times a day: in the evening, before retiring to bed and at dawn. Though this prayer contains extracts from the Quran, it consists mainly of reciting hymns.

These devotions are carried out in the prayer room of the community center (jamâtkhâna), which also contains offices and meeting rooms. The prayer room usually contains a portrait of the aga khan (the living imam), providing a focus for loving devotion. Both sexes are allowed in the prayer room; though separated, they are not strictly segregated from one another. Worshipers sit on the floor. Anyone may lead the prayer, with the permission of the community leader (mukhi). The aga khan appoints the leader and treasurer of each community, which is considered a great privilege.

There is no Friday midday prayer, but on Fridays most of the faithful go to the jamâtkhâna. Instructions (firmans) of the aga khan are announced. On this day, the congregation is also sprinkled with holy water, and once a month they are invited to drink this water. It is made holy by mixing it with clay from Karbala.

Many devout Ismailis gather in the jamâtkhâna early in the morning, between 4 and 5, for daily meditation. Through the aga khan, they are given a secret “word,” specific to each individual, which he is to assimilate or realize through meditation. This demonstrates how the aga khan, as the living imam, is the spiritual director of his followers.

3. The alms tax (zaqât)

Sunni Muslims observe a third pillar of Islam – the payment of an alms tax. In giving up a portion of one’s income according to the will of God, one purifies the remainder for one’s personal use. Generally, tradition requires one to give 2.5 percent of one’s income to the poor and needy.

Twelvers also follow this injunction, but they have the added obligation of paying one-fifth of their savings, after having deducted all legitimate expenses. Half of this amount should be given to the descendants of the prophet, while the other half belongs to the imam, being paid to him through his representatives.

Bohras have the same obligations, but they are required to make additional payments. There is a special poll tax that the local agent of the supreme missionary collects during Ramadan. On the occasion of special ceremonies, e.g., circumcision or marriage, voluntary offerings are given. Offerings are also made to atone for the nonobservance of certain duties. Finally, payment may be made in fulfillment of a vow to the imam.

For Ismailis, the payment of zaqât is an important sign of solidarity. All offerings belong to the imam. It will be used not for his personal benefit, but on behalf of the whole Ismaili community. In this way, the community has been able to build schools, hospitals, dispensaries and other social service establishments as well as homes for families.

4. Fasting (sawm)

Sunni Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar calendar. Fasting is compulsory during daylight hours. It involves abstaining from taking anything into the body, whether by way of eating, drinking, smoking or sexual intercourse.

Following Ramadan, Muslims celebrate ’Id al-Fitr, the feast of the breaking of the fast. Ramadan begins or ends according to the sighting of the moon (though some Muslims follow astronomical calculations). Thus, there can be differences, with one country starting and consequently ending before another. This can even happen in the same area where different groups follow different systems, so one group will still be fasting while the other is already feasting.

Twelver and Bohras Shiites observe the Ramadan fast in the same way as Sunnis.

Unlike other Muslims, the Bohras follow an astronomically calculated calendar, so their days of fasting do not always coincide with the larger community. Often, they will delay their feast so as not to displease other Muslims who may still be fasting.

Ismailis consider fasting to be a pillar of Islam, yet, following the principle that there should be no strict obligations in matters of religion (cf. Quran 2: 256), members of the community are left to follow their own consciences. Only on the 21st day of Ramadan is fasting mandatory for all. Fasting is also observed when the new moon coincides with a Friday.

5. Pilgrimage (hajj)

The pilgrimage to Mecca takes place during the first days of the pilgrimage month (dhu al-hijja). Undertaking the pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime is an obligation for all adult Muslims provided they have the ability and the means.

Sunnis as well as Twelver and Bohras Shiites share this obligation. The fact that the pilgrimage sites in and around Mecca are under the control of Sunnis sometimes makes it difficult for Shiites to fulfill this obligation. For this reason, Shiites have developed the custom of visiting other holy places, such as the sites of the martyrdom and entombment of imams as well as shrines dedicated to the descendants of the imams.

These shrines play a major role in the lives of Shiites. They provide them with a space and a focus for expressing their devotion. To some extent, visits to the shrines are more important and of greater merit than the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Although Ismailis recognize pilgrimage as an obligation, they generally leave the decision to fulfill it up to the individual. In contrast, the community places great importance on visiting the imam.

To reach as many of his followers as possible, the aga khan visits the various Ismaili communities around the world. His visit is an occasion of great joy and Ismailis travel from far and wide to have the privilege of being in his presence. The imam’s visit brings special blessings. For this reason, many Ismailis celebrate marriages during this time.

The basic principles of the Islamic faith remain largely the same for all Muslims, yet the differences cannot be ignored. As in the Christian world, a movement, which could be termed “Islamic ecumenism,” has developed in the Muslim world to bring about greater understanding, cooperation and unity among the various Muslim communities. This is of particular importance in some regions of the world – particularly the Middle East – where tensions exist between Sunnis and Shiites.

Archbishop Fitzgerald is papal representative to Egypt, delegate to the Arab League and president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.