Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Peter Heine {*}

Richness and Potential for Conflicts

The Diversity of Islam


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 8/2013, P. 410-414
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Islam is not a homogeneous religion. This is not least shown by the conflicts in the countries of the "Arab Spring". The Sunnis admittedly represent the vast majority of Muslims, but they, too, have various law schools. And Shiites and Sunnis do often not trust each other an inch. Even in countries where Muslims, due to migration, are present as a minority, the Islamic variety is noticeable.


Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists. These are just some of the terms that are associated with Islam in some media and in the awareness of the public at large. After all, it may not be surprising that a variety of different doctrinal beliefs and ritual practices developed, in a religion which looks back on a history of more than 1400 years, covers a geographical area from Mauritania and Senegal in the west to the Indonesian archipelago in the east, from Zanzibar in the south to the Central Asian republics, and which has approximately 1.5 billion followers. Nevertheless, the diversity of beliefs and rituals in Islam appears unusually large - compared to other religions.

Certainly, the vast majority of believers with a share of about 85 per cent declares its faith in the Sunni form of Islam. However, the Sunni form of faith developed at least four different schools of law: Maliki in North and West Africa, Hanafi in numerous Arab and Turkic-speaking States, Schafi in East Africa and parts of Indonesia, and finally Hanbali on the Arabian Peninsula. The Sunni schools of law recognize each other as equal. In legal practice, however, there are several differences that repeatedly result in conflicts.

Today, only a minority of Sunni Muslims is aware at all to which school of law they belong. Today, you get normally no response to the respective question. The Maliki and Hanbali schools are generally described as being particularly strict in the application of their interpretation of law. The distinctions between the schools of law hardly concern dogmatic or ritual differences. However, especially in ritual contexts, such as the regulations on pilgrimage, many Muslims comply above all with the regulations of the rigorous schools of law. In such a complex ritual as the pilgrimage to Mecca, which you will undergo perhaps only once in your life, the faithful think it is wiser to choose a form of strict fulfillment of duty. After all, you don't want to make ritual mistakes by which the pilgrimage would be invalid in its entirety.

In the case of the actual differences, which affect the daily lives of believers, it is above all about issues such as the inheritance law. Here, I will therefore only mention an important regulation for Muslims in Germany. Both the Maliki and the Hanbali school of law allow Muslim women in everyday life only a very slight room to move. They give husbands, fathers or brothers a very wide control of significant changes in the life of a young Muslim woman.



In contrast, according to the Hanafi school of law a female person has even before reaching puberty an amazing leeway in decision-making in order to arrange everyday life. She is, for example, allowed to determine independently of their parents her place of residence. Whether this freedom is actually used in practical terms in real life is a different question.

In its ritual practice, the Sunni Islam can be described as rather austere. Emotional aspects play a marginal role. This may have been a reason that already since the eighth century an Islamic mysticism (Sufism) developed which is still of great importance. In the course of time, here various forms and organizations have developed, which are found throughout the Muslim world. With very few exceptions, these Sufi communities allow membership also in other Sufi groups.

In contrast to orthodox Sunni Islam as a whole, these organizations of mystics have precise hierarchies, which in every generation are strengthened again by new religious virtuosos. These organizations were also the ones which were able to effectively counter the European colonialism, and the Christian missionary activity associated with it. Nevertheless, also the Sufi groups were not able to contribute to the harmonization of Sunni Islam. On the contrary, Sunni reformers regarded them virtually as a major cause of fragmentation of the Islamic world.


Mutual Rejection between Sunnis and Shiites

The minority of Shiites, too, is divided into different groups. Here, the Twelver Shia in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Northern India form a clear majority. However, today also the Zaydi in Yemen and the Ismailis in Central Asia are of importance. The Sunni and Shia communities recognize each other as Muslims. In the religious and societal practice, however, there is often mutual rejection, which may develop up to violent conflicts. The respective conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq clearly show these potentials.

In addition to those "orthodox" Muslim groups, also numerous heterodox ones exist. They regard themselves as Muslims, but are not recognized as such by the majority Islam. In Germany the Alevis, who come mainly from Turkey, are here of importance, but they should not be confused with the Alawites in Syria. The Turkish Alevis, who come mainly from the east of Turkey, have a certain proximity to the Shiites. But they significantly differ from them in doctrinal and ritual matters.

For them, Afi, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, is the one who brings salvation. They know prayers, but at any time and without ritual conditions, as e.g. ritual purity. Men and women celebrate common worship services. They observe three days of fasting in the month of Muharram and are acquainted with the confession of sins. The social status of women in the Alevi community is higher than in the Sunni society. Alevis have the reputation to be more liberal, progressive and open-minded. They are not recognized as Muslims by Turkish conservative religious scholars. In the past decade they have at least tried in Germany to be accepted as a Muslim group.


No Hierarchically Structured Institution

As regards the Syrian Alawites, who are also known as Nusayri, it is originally about a secret religion. In it in addition to Shiite ideas above all Gnostic ideas are of importance. They, too, are not counted as belonging to Islam by the majority of Muslim scholars. Another group that is not recognized by Muslims is the "Ahmadiyya Community in Islam." It originated in what is now Pakistan. In its legal and religious practice, it is close to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. But due to the fact that its followers worship the founder of their community, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a prophet, the majority of Muslims regards them as apostates.

The dogma of Islam can be summarized in two articles: There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God. In the case of a conversion, a new Muslim must declare his faith in the revelation of the holy books, the Torah, Psalms, Gospels and the Koran, the existence of angels, and the expectation of the Last Judgment. By the way, you become a Muslim by the fact that you are the child of a Muslim father. Thus, you inherit the religion. A special initiation ritual is not provided. The believer is directly under the will of God. A mediatory authority between the Creator and his creature is basically not required.

That's why in Islam a hierarchical, centrally controlled institution has hardly developed, which could formulate binding interpretations of the Muslim faith, and of life praxis. This fact had both positive and negative consequences for Islam. On the one hand, every Muslim could and can, without any special training or without being entrusted with this task, make people acquainted with Islam and induce them to profess their faith and thus to enter into Islam. On the other hand, in the course of such changes in religion heterodox beliefs and practices in Islam could become established, which have resulted and still result in significant, even violent conflicts within the Muslim communities.

More important than the dogma is the fulfillment of the Islamic religious duties: confession of faith, prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage.



According to Josef van Ess, Islam is therefore rather orthopraxy than orthodoxy. On the other hand, Islam as a universal religion requires that Muslims orient their entire life towards the will of God. The Islamic scholarship has developed a moral yardstick that is ranging from absolute obligations as prayer through actions which may ethically be evaluated positively or neutrally up to such actions which must be rejected and are absolutely forbidden as the unjustified killing of a human being.

Religion thus intervenes directly in the practical life of Muslims. According to Muslim conception angels keep "account books," in which the actions of each person are listed. Good deeds can compensate for bad deeds. What matters in the end is that at the end of his/her life the person has a positive balance. That's why the French Islam researcher Maxim Rodinson spoke about Islam as a "bookkeeper religion." Every human act must be checked for its significance to God.


Government-organized Expert Opinions

Especially in a time when both in the societal and technological area innovations and changes with a rapid pace can be observed, it is not always easy to make such assessments. It may here involve basic things, as e.g. the topic of stem cell research, but also odds and ends of daily life, such as the question whether a man is allowed to wear a toupee or a woman to paint their nails. How should a Muslim astronaut when flying around the earth do his prayer, in which he, as is well known, has to pray in the direction to Mecca? Is a Muslim allowed to work in a restaurant where also alcohol or pork is served?

Due to the fact that a devout Muslim, who is only average acquainted with his religion, is hardly able to answer these questions, a system of legal scholars came into being. According to the guidelines of Islamic law, they give the appropriate legal opinions (fatwa) to the questions of the faithful. In many Muslim countries, this providing of legal opinions is now organized by the state. Muslims can there resort to the public assessment authority (Dâr al-Iftâ), where also comprehensive collections of legal opinions from the entire Muslim world can be found.

At the international Muslim level, there is an Academy of Islamic Law. It debates on particularly serious ethical issues such as euthanasia or artificial insemination, and publishes its results worldwide. Today, in case of complicated situations - especially on medical, economic or technical issues - these big institutions of the fatwa-issuing naturally make use of the expertise of the respective professional researchers. Some of the scholars have in the course of their lives studied the respective subjects, and have at least the appropriate basic knowledge.

The degree of obligation of those opinions is very different. In Shia Islam, the believers must consistently obey the decisions of the legal scholar chosen by them. But even in Shia Islam, there is no central legal authority. Rather, between individual scholars there is a clearly noticeable competing for their followers. Here, also differing views in ritual or ethical issues are of importance. The opinions of the Sunni scholars are even less binding. First, there are the methodological differences between the various law schools, but then also between individual scholars within a school of law. Due to these differences, the scholars' authority over the believers suffers.

In actual fact, here a pastoral problem emerges. The faithful have sought the scholar's advice in a situation of uncertainty. Given the existing differences between the scholars, they are finally forced to make an independent decision for their behavior. Due to the in many Muslim countries existing close connection between the state authorities and the representatives of the Fatwa system, there are also always dependencies of the scholars on the ruling regimes and their ideologies. This has also an impact on the content of legal opinions.

In case of a change of the political decision framework or even a change in the system, the decision criteria then also change and thus also the contents of the legal opinions. This was and is repeatedly criticized by many Muslims. Whatever may be decided by the various experts, in contrast to Shiites Sunni believers are not obliged to comply with the relevant statements of the scholars. Especially for simple Sunni Muslims, the legal opinions have nevertheless a high level of obligation. But this decreases with the improvement of education in general, and of religious knowledge in particular.


The Commitment of the Muslim Brotherhood

In view of the described problems of the authority of Muslim scholars, in the course of the past century in the majority of Muslim societies a tendency to a rigorous religious attitude has evolved. Followers of such positions are convinced that a particularly rigorous life style increases the security for the believer to gain salvation.



That's why ideologies, as they are advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in the last two decades, were able to gain a considerable number of followers even among academics in Muslim societies. Moreover, the Muslim Brothers have distinguished themselves by establishing social, educational and medical facilities. With this commitment, their political success can be explained at least partially.

Of importance is here also a systematic and ultramodern Fatwa system. It appears to be in itself very uniform. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (b. 1926), who is one of the most important scholars associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, operates from Qatar not only a regular television broadcast in which he comments on legal issues but also a web page that daily receives up to 250.000 inquiries. The effect of this presence in a modern medium needn't be further emphasized. The Salafis with their radical reference to the lifestyle of the early Islamic community of the seventh century are in the end no serious competitor for them.

For the Muslim communities in the Diaspora, the variety of ritual and ethical conditions are particularly problematic. Together with the migrants from Muslim countries also the respective religious peculiarities came in the host countries. Governmental institutions of the countries of origin tried to set up religious institutions - not least in order to be able to exercise some control over their compatriots. Due to this, tensions between the respective States could also affect the diaspora communities. In addition, Muslim groups that were banned in the countries of origin for political or ideological reasons, had already previously cared for the migrants.

They acquainted them with their ideas of Islam, and could definitely achieve successes among migrants. The internal religious conflicts were subsequently carried on in and between the Diaspora communities; the host society, however, was not aware of this fact. Only with the appearance of the second and third generation of immigrants, in the majority societies the insight emerged that a whatever type of dialogue with the diaspora Muslims has to be initiated. Here, not only very practical communication problems were the result, but there arose also the question of who are the contacts on the Muslim side.



After all, at the level of the respective Christian and Muslim communities, successful forms of cooperation and practical exchange are the result. Much more difficult is the situation when common problems or forms of cooperation are to be treated at a higher civil society or state level. Here, the diversity and the competitive behavior among Muslim organizations often generate problematic impacts. In some European states, political and administrative institutions tried of their own accord to establish central institutions of the Muslims. Thus far, these could only in rare cases find acceptance by the Muslim population.

After all, in some major cities in Germany after long and often controversial debates among the various Muslim communities, common institutions have developed. Under the name of "Shura" (Council), they are able to speak for the majority of Muslims of the respective region. These new structures will not endanger the diversity of Islam but further preserve it. The majority society will learn to accept it as such.


    {*} Peter Heine (born in 1944) was from 1994 to 2009 Professor of Islamic Studies on the non-Arab area at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Most recently he published "Märchen, Miniaturen, Minarette. Eine Kulturgeschichte der islamischen Welt" Primus-Verlag, Darmstadt 2011..


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'