What Is Islam?
Whenever I teach on Islam, whether at seminary or in a church, I invariably get asked questions that begin like this: “What would a Muslim think about…?” My standard response is another question: “Which Muslim?”
Imagine someone asking a parallel question: “What would a Christian think about such-and-such?” Well, what kind of Christian? A conservative Presbyterian or Southern Baptist? A liberal Methodist? A Pentecostal? A Coptic? A member of an Acts 29 church plant in Seattle or a fundamentalist Baptist church in the Deep South? A pastor, a scholar, or a layman? An American, a Norwegian, a Ukrainian, a Syrian, a Rwandan, or a Malaysian? I’m sure you see the point.
In reality, there’s as much diversity in the Muslim world as there is in the Christian world. Just as we wouldn’t want non-Christians to pigeonhole us with a “one size fits all” view of Christianity, we should acknowledge and respond appropriately to the plurality of perspectives, traditions, and practices that exist among contemporary Muslims. In this article, we’ll survey some major points of diversity found in Islam today and consider the implications for how we engage with Muslims.
Undoubtedly, the most prominent division in the Islamic world is that between Sunnis and Shiites (also called Shias), which traces back to bitter internal conflicts in the earliest decades of Islam. Sunnis represent 85–90 percent of Muslims today. The only countries with a Shiite majority are Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain. In some respects, the Sunni–Shiite divide in Islam can be compared to the East–West schism in Christianity that separates the Eastern theological tradition (Eastern Orthodoxy) from the Western theological tradition (Protestantism and Roman Catholicism), although the analogy shouldn’t be pressed.
The central disagreement between Sunnis and Shiites is more political than theological, concerning the legitimate leadership of the umma (the worldwide Muslim community). Shiites insist that the umma should be led by divinely guided imams, each of whom is descended from Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. Although Ali served as the fourth caliph, Shiites believe he should have inherited the mantle of leadership immediately after the death of Muhammad. Shiites are divided into further sects, such as the dominant “Twelvers” of Iran, due to disagreements about how to trace the line of leadership through Ali’s descendants. In contrast, Sunnis believe that in principle any pious Muslim may serve as caliph. Shiites typically see themselves as a persecuted but righteous minority over the course of Islamic history. It’s fair to say that Sunnis and Shiites view each other as unorthodox, if not heretical.
Another important point of diversity is represented by Sufism, the mystical tradition within Islam. Put crudely, Sufis are the “charismatics” of Islam. Sufism isn’t a separate branch or sect of Islam alongside Sunni and Shiite Islam, but rather a more experiential approach to piety that can be found among both groups. Sufism originally developed in the medieval period in reaction to the dry legalism of mainstream Islam, which gave little attention to personal spirituality and experiential knowledge of Allah. Early Sufism emphasized oneness with God and flirted with pantheism, the view that God is one with the universe—a quite blasphemous idea for orthodox Muslims. Centuries later, the theologian Al-Ghazali (1058–1111) brought Sufism into the mainstream by recasting it in more orthodox terms, and Sufi spirituality has remained a prominent stream of Islamic religion ever since.
Sufism emphasizes personal piety, mystical experience, and spiritual disciplines such as recitation, meditation, asceticism, prayer, and singing, which are thought to bring the soul into closer union with Allah. One of the best-known Sufi groups is the Mevlevi order, or “Whirling Dervishes,” whose spinning dances aren’t merely artistic performances but acts of spiritual devotion. Sufis have often been treated as heretics and persecuted by the Sunni majority. Even today, they’re generally viewed with suspicion and disdain by traditional Muslims because of their idiosyncratic beliefs and practices.
Christian missionaries working with Muslims in less-developed countries are all too familiar with the diverse and aberrant strain of Islam known as “folk Islam.” Folk Islam is the Islamic version of folk religion, a syncretistic belief system that blends traditional monotheistic religion and animistic pagan superstition. (By way of comparison, think of the fusions of Roman Catholicism and occultism found in parts of the Caribbean and Latin America.) Folk Islam is typically far more concerned with the here and now—protection from evil spirits and coping with everyday suffering—than is mainstream Islam with its strong eschatological perspective.
Adherents of folk Islam will observe various superstitious practices such as warding off spirits with incantations and magic amulets, and reciting verses of the Qur’an to bring about miraculous healings. Muhammad may be ascribed a quasi-divine status and invoked for supernatural assistance, similar to how the Virgin Mary is treated in folk Roman Catholicism. Folk Islam presents distinctive challenges and opportunities for Christian missions. The Reformed missiologist Samuel Zwemer (1867–1952), nicknamed “the Apostle to Islam,” conducted pioneering research on this syncretistic manifestation of Islam, observing that the Lord Jesus addresses the needs and fears of folk Muslims in a way that Muhammad never could.
Christians in the United States should be aware of another distinctive and indigenous form of Islam found among African-Americans. The so-called Nation of Islam (NOI) was founded in 1930 by Wallace Fard Muhammad (born Wallace D. Ford) as a black supremacist movement. Originally, the NOI had very little to do with orthodox Islam. The name was chosen primarily as a contrast with Christianity, characterized as the white slaveholder’s religion, combined with the view that Islam is the original African religion. The teachings of its original leaders were as far removed from historical Islam as Mormonism is from orthodox Christianity.
In the late 1970s, however, the NOI’s leader, Wallace D. Muhammad, renounced its racist roots and brought the organization into line with orthodox Sunni Islam, with the consequence that hundreds of thousands of black Americans entered into the mainstream of Islam almost overnight. (The original NOI was later revived as a breakaway group and continues today under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan.) Today, one in five Muslims in the United States is African-American, compared with one in six Christians.
Christians in the West tend to identify Islam with the fundamentalist Qur’an-based religion found in the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Southeast Asia—and with good reason. Even so, Islamic fundamentalism represents only one of several directions in which Islam is being driven today. The Islamic world has faced a crisis of confidence since the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924. Since that date, there has been no recognizable caliphate to which Muslims can look for leadership. The various Islamic dynasties that dominated much of the civilized world in previous centuries have fallen, and Muslims are consequently asking, “What went wrong, and how do we fix it?”
Broadly speaking, two very different reform movements have arisen in response to this crisis. The fundamentalist movement insists that Islam needs to return to its roots: Muslims today, including the leaders of Muslim-majority countries, are simply not Islamic enough. The proposed solution is a return to an uncompromising adherence to the Qur’an and Hadith (traditions about Muhammad and the early Muslim community). In contrast, the progressivist movement contends that Islam has stumbled because, unlike the Christian West, it has failed to come to terms with modernity. In this view, the way forward is to reform and contemporize Islam, accommodating it to the modern world. Clearly, this demands a more flexible and selective approach to the Islamic sources.
The question arises: Where do most Muslims today stand with respect to these conflicting reform movements? There’s no simple answer, but it’s fair to say that most Muslims find themselves torn between the two. The prospect of living under the strict interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) advocated by the fundamentalists holds little appeal, and they’re disillusioned by the cycle of violence perpetuated by hardline Islamism. Yet they cannot shake the sense that when it comes to representing “true Islam” based on the Qur’an and Hadith, the fundamentalists have the better claim than the modernists.
Beyond these various traditions and divisions in the Muslim world, we can also find considerable cultural diversity, not to mention the familiar variations in personality and temperament that characterize human beings. None of this implies that Islam is an amorphous, indefinable entity. We can still speak meaningfully of “mainstream Islam” as a strict monotheistic religion defined as submission to the will of Allah, revealed through his prophet Muhammad, preserved in the Qur’an and Hadith, and expressed in the “Five Pillars” of Islamic practice. Orbiting that nucleus, however, we find a bewildering diversity of “Islams.”
What does this mean for Christian engagement with Muslims? Among other things, we should apply the Golden Rule, seeking to avoid stereotyping Muslims just as we would resist being stereotyped as Christians. In our conversations with Muslims, we should take time to listen and understand their particular view of Islam and its implications before we apply the scalpel of God’s Word. Trusting in the sufficiency of Scripture, we can have confidence not only that the Bible’s diagnosis of the fallen human condition applies to every individual Muslim, as a fellow descendant of Adam, but also that the ways in which Christ and His Apostles engaged with diverse forms of false religion in the New Testament will be an invaluable guide as we hold out the water of life to our Muslim neighbors.