Why is Islam so different in different countries?

Aaron W. Hughes, University of Rochester

The rise of Islamic State has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of the jihadist group?

In the fourth article of our series on the historical roots of Islamic State, Aaron Hughes explains the amazing regional variation in Islamic practice to illustrate why Islamic State appeared where it did.

No religion is unified. How Catholicism, for example, is practised in rural Italy differs from the way this is done, say, in New York city. Language, culture, tradition, the political and social contexts, and even food is different in these two places.

Such geographic differences are certainly important in Islam. But also important are the numerous legal schools and their interpretations. Since Islam is a religion predicated on law (sharia), variations in the interpretation of that law have contributed to regional differences.

Also significant in the modern world is the existence of other religions. Malaysia, for example, has a relatively large percentage of religious minorities (up to 40% of the population). Saudi Arabia has virtually none.

This means Malaysia has had to develop a constitution that protects the rights of religious minorities, whereas Saudi Arabia has not. And it’s why Islam is so different in these two countries.

Schools of thought

There are historical reasons for this variation. Despite popular opinion, Islam didn’t appear fully formed at the time of Muhammad (570-632). There were huge debates over the nature of religious and political authority, for instance, and who was or was not a Muslim.

It’s similarly misguided to assume that a unified teaching simply spread throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond.

How Muhammad’s message developed into the religion of Islam — complete with legal and doctrinal content — took centuries to develop and cannot concern us here.

What is important to note, however, is that his message spread into various (unbordered) regions. Modern nation states would only arise much later. And each of these areas was already in possession of its own set of religious, legal and cultural traditions.

The result was that Islam had to be articulated in the light of local customs and understandings. This was done, in part, through the creation of legal courts, a class of jurists (ulema; mullas in Shi`ism), a legal code (sharia) and a system of interpretation of that code based on rulings (fatwas).

Many local customs arose based on trying to understand Muhammad’s message. And these customs and understandings gave rise to distinct legal schools.

Although there were originally many such schools, they gradually reduced to four in Sunni Islam – Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi`i and Hanbali. While these four schools all regard one another as orthodox, they nevertheless have distinct interpretations of Islamic law. Some of their interpretations are more conservative than others.

There are also a number of such schools in Shi`i Islam, as you can see from the image above.

The four Sunni schools are associated with distinct regions (as are the Shi`i schools). The Maliki school, for example, is prominent today in Egypt and North Africa. The Hanafi is in western Asia, the Shafi`i in Southeast Asia and the Hanbali (the most conservative) is found primarily in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.

Fundamental differences

All this legal and local variation has produced different interpretations of the religion. But despite such regional and legal diversity, many Muslims and non-Muslims insist on referring to Islam and sharia as if they were stable entities.

An example might be illustrative of the extent of the differences within Islam. Many non-Muslims are often surprised to learn of the cult of saints, namely the role Sufi saints (Sufism is Islamic mysticism) have played and continue to play in the daily life of Muslims.

A Sufi saint is someone who is considered holy and who has achieved nearness to God. Praying to these saints and making pilgrimages to their shrines is a way to, among other things, ask for intercession.

Although these practices are not unlike the role and place of saints in Catholicism, in Islam they are much more localised. And this locally varied cult of saints played and continues to play an important role in Islamic religious life from Morocco in the West to Pakistan in the East.

Devotion to the saints is believed to cure the sick, make fertile the barren, bring rain, and so on. Needless to say, such devotion is often frowned upon by more fundamentalist interpretations.

While most legal schools are content – albeit somewhat bothered – by such practices, the conservative Hanbali school forbids cults like this. Its adherents have, among other things, destroyed tombs of saints in both the premodern and modern eras. They have also been responsible for the destruction of shrines associated with Muhammad’s family, such as the shrines and tombs of Muhammad’s wife.

The Hanbali school, backed by the wealth of the Saudi ruling family, has also tried to make inroads into other areas. Those associated with this legal school, for example, have built madrasas (religious seminaries) in regions traditionally influenced by other legal schools of thought.

Most fundamentalist movements in Islam, including Islamic State, have emanated from such ultra-conservative elements. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance, are influenced by the more conservative elements of Hanbali ideology, even though they exist in a predominantly Hanafi legal environment.

The goal of many of these groups, sometimes referred to as Wahhabis or Salafis, is to return to what they imagine to be the pure or pristine version of Islam as practised by Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often have strict interpretations of Islam, strict dress codes and separation of the sexes.

Today, there are more than one and a half billion Muslims worldwide, making Islam the second-largest religion on the planet after Christianity. But it is a rich and variegated religion. And this variation must be taken into account when dealing with it.

Most importantly, the variation cannot be papered over with simplistic slogans or stereotypes. That women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia but are in places like Malaysia tells you something about this variation.

This article is the fourth in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.

The Conversation

Aaron W. Hughes, Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Rochester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Islamists Forcing Mass Exodus of Christians

The link below is to an article that looks at the rising pressure on Christians across the world in Islamic countries.

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World Watch List 2013

The link below is to an article that reports on the countries that persecute Christians the most. In top spot is North Korea.

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Persecution of Christians: Fifty Worst Countries

The link below is to an article that highlights the 50 worst countries to live in in terms of being persecuted for being a Christian.

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Middle East: Christianity Under Great Threat

The link below is to an article reporting on the status of Christianity in the Middle East. Things are not good for our Christian brethren in Islamic countries particularly.

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Article: Massacre of Christians Around the World a Result of US Policy?

The following link is to an article that suggests that massacres of Christians around the world are a result of US policy? What do you think? Certainly there are some attacks that are linked to what the US has done in some countries, such as attacks because of US troop action in Afghanistan burning Korans, etc.

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Suspected Islamists Burn Down Two Homes in Ethiopia

Two thatched-grass structures belonged to evangelist who received threats.

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 21 (CDN) — A Christian near Ethiopia’s southern town of Moyale said suspected Islamic extremists on March 29 burned down his two thatched-grass homes.

Evangelist Wako Hanake of the Mekane Yesus Church told Compass he had been receiving anonymous messages warning him to stop converting Muslims to Christ. The Muslims who became Christians included several children.

“Inside the house were iron sheets and timber stored in preparation for putting up a permanent house,” said Hanake, who is in his late 30s. “I have lost everything.”

The incident in Tuka, five kilometers (nearly three miles) from Moyale in southern Ethiopia’s Oromia Region, happened while Hanake was away on an evangelistic trip. A neighbor said he and others rescued Hanake’s wife and children ages 8, 6 and 2.

“We had to rescue the wife with her three children who were inside one of the houses that the fire was already beginning to burn,” said the neighbor, who requested anonymity.

Church leaders said neighbors are still housing Hanake and his family.

“The family has lost everything, and they feel fearful for their lives,” said a local church leader. “We are doing all we can to provide clothing and food to them. We are appealing to all well wishers to support Hanake’s family.”

Hanake said he has reported the case to Moyale police.

“I hope the culprits will be found,” he said.

An area church leader who requested anonymity told Compass that Christians in Moyale are concerned that those in Tuka are especially vulnerable to a harsh environment in which religious rights are routinely violated.

“The Ethiopian constitution allows for religious tolerance,” said another area church leader, also under condition of anonymity, “but we are concerned that such ugly incidents like this might go unpunished. To date no action has been taken.”

Tuka village, on Ethiopia’s border with Kenya, is populated mainly by ethnic Oromo who are predominantly Muslim. The area Muslims restrict the preaching of non-Muslim faiths, in spite of provisions for religious freedom in Ethiopia’s constitution.

Hostility toward those spreading faiths different from Islam is a common occurrence in predominantly Muslim areas of Ethiopia and neighboring countries, area Christians said, adding that they are often subject to harassment and intimidation.

Ethiopia’s constitution, laws and policies generally respect freedom of religion, but occasionally some local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

According to Operation World, nearly 40 percent of Ethiopia’s population affiliates with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 19 percent are evangelical and Pentecostal and 34 percent are Sunni Muslim. The remainder are Catholic (3 percent) and ethno-religious (3.7 percent).


Jimma Violence

In Jimma Zone in the country’s southwest, where thousands of Christians in and around Asendabo have been displaced as a result of attacks that began on March 2 after Muslims accused a Christian of desecrating the Quran, the number of churches burned has reached 71, and two people have reportedly been killed. Their identities, however, were still unconfirmed.

When the anti-Christian violence of thousands of Muslims subsided by the end of March, 30 homes had reportedly been destroyed and as many as 10,000 Christians may have been displaced from Asendabo, Chiltie, Gilgel Gibe, Gibe, Nada, Dimtu, Uragay, Busa and Koticha.

Report from Compass Direct News