Muslims aren't all the same (Malcolm Brown)

  (07 February 10)

Muslims aren’t all the same!



By Sociologist Malcolm Brown



As a result of the historical antagonism between Islam and the West, Islam is often stereotyped as homogeneous and unchanging. The reality, however, is that Islam is extremely diverse.


Muslim theological discourse depends on a number of assumptions, without which it would (arguably) not be Muslim, nor would it have developed in the way it has. Centrally, there is a belief in the existence of God, the truth of the first shahada – ‘I bear witness that there is no god but God’. In Muslim theology, there is also a belief in divine revelation, present in the Qur’an and elsewhere, principally the Torah, the Psalms and the injil, or Gospel. Because there is revelation in more than one place, there is already a seed of religious diversity in the very core of Islam.


When the word ‘islam’ is used in the Qur’an, it does not have the reified meaning that Islam has today. According to Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the term islam in the Qur’an is not ‘the name of a religious system’ but ‘the designation of a decisive personal act’.[1] So when islam is an essentially personal act, it is inevitably diverse. But what about Islam, the reified religious system? The Qur’an (49:13, Yusuf Ali’s translation) says: ‘O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into different nations and tribes that ye may know each other’. I do not want to commit the intentional fallacy, but the thinking here seems to be that diversity does not necessarily entail division or conflict, but is an effective way of understanding our own human nature.



The religious diversity that exists in Islam is multi-dimensional. There are differences between masalik (distinctive schools of thought within Islam which have some form of central organisation),[2] madhahib (schools of Islamic jurisprudence and interpretation of Islamic law), and tariqa (mainly Sufi orders). There are differences between Sufis who take an esoteric view of the Qur’an, and ‘orthodox’ Muslims who take an exoteric view. There are different interpretations of the five pillars[3] – for example, some Sufis have understood the first shahada in a way that has overtones of pantheism, and Ismaili Muslims pray three times daily and do not fast during Ramadan since they see fasting in more symbolic terms. All these diversities reflect linguistic, cultural, political, economic, social and historical factors.


So I am Muslim?

Sometimes, storytelling can produce a more vivid understanding than an academic analysis, and it can show the diversity within a very small group of Muslims. When I visited the Haqqani Islamic Priori, a centre of the Naqshbandi Sufi order in North London, I was met by Hussein,[4] a convert from a Greek Orthodox background. Like most of the men there, he wore a turban. He told me that I could meet ‘a Sufi master’ who was visiting at the time, though he was anxious that my reasons for meeting him should be related to a spiritual search, rather than academic curiosity. He referred to the 73 sects of Islam,[5] and said that the Naqshbandi order represented the true sect, because of their allegiance to the Sheikh, who is a successor to the Prophet. His picture of the order was very strongly couched in terms of the Sheikh, but he was quite bemused by my asking what they did, and what was special about them. He told me that Islam is Islam, that fundamentalists are not Muslims, people don’t believe in Islam or come to Islam. Rather, they come to God.


Hussein then took me to meet Sheikh Nazim, and said I should ask for his blessing. He asked if I had ever met a saint before – when I said no, he said I should get ready for it. He spoke about the Sheikh in quite glowing terms – not only was he ‘not like any of us’, but he was a very humble man. I was beginning to wonder what I had let myself in for, but I was warmly welcomed by the group of about fifty men and women, many of whom were wearing turbans and using rosary beads,[6] and I was introduced to the Sheikh. When he found out that my research related to Islam, he asked: ‘What is Islam?’ I replied: ‘You know better than I.’ He answered me with a kind of Socratic dialogue. He asked about my own religious affiliation, then pointed to a number of other people, referring to each one by name, and telling me about their nationalities and backgrounds. In each case he said that this person was Christian, now Muslim. When he got to the end, he said that Muslims and Christians were all the same. The Socratic dialogue ended with me saying ‘So I am Muslim?’, and he said ‘Very good’ – much to the group’s amusement.


He spoke about a number of issues, including the importance of being prepared for death, and a number of the world’s problems, which, for him, were a result of people not knowing the difference between haram and halal. People often said ‘al haq’ (the Truth) while he spoke, and he started praying from time to time, calling something (often the shahada) which everyone would repeat. They seemed to hold on to every word he said, some were doing sound recordings and one person had a video camera. Someone asked if he would rejoin them for the afternoon ‘asr’ prayer, and he wasn’t sure – he needed to sleep, and his deputy could preside since he was ‘a full Sheikh’. Everyone laughed. People kissed his hand as he left, someone else touched the material which hung from his turban.


The prophecy

Afterwards, a few people told me how lucky I was. One said you don’t come to the Sheikh, but you get brought, while another told me that just before my arrival the Sheikh said that someone with a little bit of good in his heart will be brought to meet the friends of God [7] (as if I was the fulfilment of this prophecy). Another asked if the Sheikh had given me a new name. As I was leaving, I spoke to Omar. We talked about his turban (he said it acted as a reminder to him, helping him to concentrate on prayer), his thoughts about the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca (he hasn’t been yet, and can’t really afford to, but the intention is more important, and there are other acts of worship which can be done instead), and his marriage ceremony, which was extremely simple. He said he often goes to pray in churches, and had done a Quaker retreat. Becoming a Muslim for him was not a conversion away, but another step. As an illustration of the esoteric qualities of this group (or perhaps their sense of humour), Omar’s father told me that he had a potion to cure baldness.



In France, I spoke to Ibrahim, who was also a member of the Naqshbandi order. I had met him some time before visiting the Naqshbandi centre in London. Ibrahim said that his parents were not practising Muslims, but that at the age of 18 he wanted to practice and to become better acquainted with his religion. So he started learning Arabic, then the Qur’an, then he travelled in some Muslim countries, particularly Morocco and Syria, where he learned from a number of Imams, some quite well known, and joined the Naqshbandi order in order to deepen his faith. About this ‘deepening’, he said:


When one wishes to deepen one’s faith, one realises the need for a definite spiritual discipline. A book or cassette cannot educate us, but what can is the teaching of a living person in front of us, who gives advice, and who also sees what is good. He gives more personal advice, while a book gives more general advice. I felt a need to have this spiritual education, and so that pushed me to seek membership of a Sufi brotherhood.


A Catholic priest, who was heavily involved in Muslim- Christian dialogue, told me that Ibrahim had been at a Muslim-Christian meeting, and said that, for Muslims, the Qur’an is the Word of God written, while Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh. Having visited the Naqshbandi centre in London, I was struck by the contrast between Ibrahim’s independence and depth of thought on the one hand, and the importance, sainthood, and seeming infallibility which were attached to Sheikh Nazim on the other. When I met Ibrahim for the second time, I asked him about this. He explained that the Naqshbandi order had two branches, one of which was led by Sheikh Nazim, who lived in Northern Cyprus, and the other one was led by his Sheikh in Damascus. Sheikh Nazim’s branch had more Western converts who were completely new to Islam, so it was necessary to explain Islam in a simpler, more formulaic way. As a result, the Sheikh became a more central figure (a bit too central, he seemed to imply), though he insisted that the two Sheikhs were on very good terms, and met each other frequently.



We see from this that a particular maslak or tariqa, like the Naqshbandiyyah, has its own specific understanding of Islam, and that provides a sense of belonging, a group ethos, and an influence on the identities of its members. Aside from membership of different masalik, Muslims express a diversity of meanings attached to Islam, or what it means to be Muslim. For some, the formulaic, or (less pejoratively) propositional understanding is predominant, while for others, the answer is more related to an internal, personal, subjective, experiential, existential reality. Of course, the two understandings are not mutually exclusive, but they are as important a part of the diversity of Islam as they are of any other religion.


So, Muslims aren’t all the same.





[1] The meaning and end of religion, SPCK, 1978, p.110.

[2] Jørgen Nielsen, Muslims in Western Europe, Edinburgh University Press, p.133.

[3] The five pillars, or central practices of Islam, are the ‘bearing witness’ to the oneness of God and the Prophethood of Muhammad (shahada), the five-times daily prayer (salat), the giving of alms, roughly equivalent to 2.5 per cent of income (zakat), fasting from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan (sawm), and the pilgrimage to Mecca, to be done at least once in a lifetime if circumstances permit (hajj).

[4] With the exception of Sheikh Nazim, the names of people I met are all pseudonyms.

[5] There is a Hadith, or Tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, in which he said that his followers would be divided into 73 sects, of which only one would be saved.

[6] The Sufi Muslim rosary (tasbih) has 99 beads (sometimes 33, to be repeated three times), which have a number of meanings and representations, such as the 99 names of God, or the 99 stages towards unification with God.

[7] Sufis often refer to themselves as the friends of God.





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