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.

If Islamic State is based on religion, why is it so violent?


Aaron W. Hughes, University of Rochester

Islamic State’s seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for its emergence?

Today, religious studies scholar Aaron Hughes considers whether this jihadist group’s violence is inherent to Islam.


Despite what we’re told, religion isn’t inherently peaceful. The assumption is largely based on the Protestant idea that religion is something spiritual and internal to the individual and that it’s corrupted by politics and other mundane matters.

But people kill in the name of religion, just as they love in its name. To claim that one of these alternatives is more authentic than the other is not only problematic, it’s historically incorrect.

The Crusades, attacks at abortion clinics, some political assassinations, and price-tag attacks – to name only a few examples – were and are all motivated by religion.

This is because religion is based on the metaphysical notion that there are believers (in one’s own religion) and non-believers. This distinction is predicated on “good” versus “evil”, and can be neatly packaged into a narrative to be used and abused by various groups.

An imagined past

One such group is Islamic State (IS), which is inherently violent and claims it mirrors the Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. In this, it’s like other reformist movements in Islam that seek to recreate in the modern period what they imagine to have been the political framework and society that Muhammad (570-632 CE) and his immediate followers lived in and created in seventh-century Arabia.

The problem is that we know very little about this society, except what, often, much later sources – such as the Biography (Sira) of Muhammad and the work of historians such as al-Tabari (839-923 CE) – tell us it was like.

A central ideal for IS is that of restoring the caliphate. A geopolitical entity, the caliphate was the Islamic empire that stretched from Morocco and Spain in the West, to India in the East. It symbolises Islam at its most powerful.

When it was spreading across the Middle East and the Mediterranean region in the seventh century, Islam was highly apocalyptic. Many early sources, such as the second caliph Umar’s letter to the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, as well as contemporaneous non-Muslim sources, such as the mid-eighth-century Jewish apocalypse The Secrets of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and the seventh-century polemic Doctrina Jacobi, speak about the coming destruction of the world as we know it.

The destruction is to begin with a battle between the forces of good (Muslim) versus those of evil. And IS has adopted this apocalyptic vision.

Again, though, it’s worth noting two things. The first is that the majority of Muslims today don’t buy into this apocalyptic vision; it’s mainly something recycled by groups such as Islamic State.

Second, such an “end of days” vision is by no means unique to Islam; we also see it in Judaism and Christianity. In these other two traditions, as in Islam, such groups certainly do not represent orthodox belief.

Medieval tolerance

But apocalypse aside, was Islam particularly violent in the seventh century? One could certainly point to three of the first four of Muhammad’s successors (caliphs) having been assassinated.

One could also point to the tremendous theological debates over who was or was not a Muslim. And such debates included the status of the soul of grave sinners. Was such a sinner a Muslim or did his sin put him outside the community of believers?

What would become mainstream Muslim opinion is that it was up to God to decide and not humans. But groups such as Islamic State want to make this distinction for God. In this, they certainly stray from orthodox Muslim belief.

While this doesn’t make them “un-Islamic”, to say groups such as IS represent medieval interpretations of Islam is not fair to medieval Islam.

Manuscript with depiction by Yahya ibn Vaseti found in the Maqama of Hariri depicts the image of a library with pupils in it, Baghdad 1237.
Wikimedia Commons

The eighth century, for example, witnessed the establishment, in Baghdad, of the Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), which symbolised the so-called golden age of Islamic civilisation. This period witnessed, among other things, Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars studying the philosophical and scientific texts of Greek antiquity.

These scholars also made many advances in disciplines, such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and chemistry, to name only a few. Within a century of its founding, Islam represented a cosmopolitan empire that was nothing like the rigid and dogmatic interpretation of the religion seen in the likes of IS.

A powerful tool

Observers in the West who want to claim that Islam is to blame for IS and use it as further proof that the religion is inherently violent, ignore other root causes of the moment.

These include the history of European colonialism in the area; US and European support for a number of ruthless Middle Eastern dictators; and the instability created by the American invasion of Iraq after the events of September 11, 2001.

It’s juxtaposed against these recent events that groups such as IS dream of reconstituting what they romantically imagine as the powerful Islamic caliphate.

The fact is that religion’s ability to neatly differentiate between “believer” and unbeliever”, and between “right” and “wrong”, makes it a powerful ideology. In the hands of demagogues, religious discourses – used selectively and manipulated to achieve a set of desired ends – are very powerful.

While it would be incorrect to say that the discourses used by IS are un-Islamic, it’s important to note it represents one particular Islamic discourse and that it’s not the mainstream one.


This article is the third in our series on understanding Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.


Aaron will be online for an Author Q&A between 9 and 10am AEDT on Thursday, February 18, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section below.

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.

How Islam Became the Fastest Growing Religion in Europe


TIME

The religiously motivated terror attacks in France last week have exacerbated anti-Islamic sentiments across Europe, with a record 25,000 people joining anti-immigrant protests in Germany on Monday.

But even as polls show anti-Islamist sentiment rising, Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. Nearly 5 million Muslims live in France, the largest Muslim population in Europe, and some 4 million live in Germany.

In the video above, TIME foreign correspondent Simon Shuster discusses how French colonialism and immigration policies throughout Europe helped fuel migration from the Muslim world.

View original post

The worst places in the world to be religious


CNN Belief Blog

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Editor

(CNN) — Since 1999, the U.S. State Department has tracked the world’s worst abusers of religious rights. 

As the most recent report notes, it has never lacked for material. Persecutions of people of faith are rising across the globe.

Among the most worrying trends, according to the State Department, are “authoritarian governments that restrict their citizens’ ability to practice their religion.”

In typically bland bureaucratic language, the State Department calls these “countries of particular concern.” But the designation can come with some teeth.

Sudan, for example, where a Christian woman was sentenced to death this week for leaving Islam, is ineligible for some types of foreign aid.

In addition to Sudan, here are the State Department’s “countries of particular concern.” You might call them “The Worst Places in the World to Be Religious.”

View original post 628 more words

False Religion: Jediism


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the ‘religion’ known as ‘Jediism.’ Yeah, it is from Star Wars.

For more visit:
http://www.details.com/culture-trends/critical-eye/201311/star-wars-religion-church-of-jedi

USA: ‘No Religion’ Growth According to Survey


The number of people in the USA with no religion is growing rapidly according to a recent survey.

For more visit:
http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/09/survey-one-in-five-americans-is-religiously-unaffiliated/

Article: Restrictions on Religion on the Rise


The link below is to an article that really confirms what many of us probably already suspected.

For more visit:
http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/09/21/restrictions-on-religion-on-the-rise/

Article: Vietnam – Converting to Christianity Because it’s Cheaper


The following article reports on the Jarai indigenous minority in Vietnam and how many are ‘converting’ to Christianity because it’s a cheaper religion.

For more on this disturbing story, visit the link below:
http://www.phnompenhpost.com/index.php/2012061256749/National-news/the-power-of-faith-and-medicine.html

USA: Barack Obama No Christian


The following article reports on the personal religion of Barack Obama. What is clear from the interview is that the answers given to questions that were asked of President Obama, is that Barack Obama is not a Christian as far as the Bible definition of a Christian goes. He may be regarded as a ‘Christian’ in some sort of typical western religious manner, but as far as true Christianity goes, he is not.

http://www.christiantelegraph.com/issue15679.html