The concept of religious diversity is one that has been explored extensively throughout the course. Within the Islamic religion, Muslims practice their faith differently. External factors, such as geography and culture, contribute to the development of varied practices. For that reason, it is incorrect to refer to Islam without specifying “Who’s Islam” (Prof. Asani). One must take into account the context of the religious practice, such as the practitioner, the location, and the time period, in order to understand the religion fully. This notion is rooted in the cultural studies approach, which views religion through the lens of culture. By adopting the cultural studies approach this course has succeeded in portraying the diversity of Islam in different parts of the world. The central themes of these blogs serve to support the notion of Islam as a diverse religion.
One way in which the diversity of Islam is portrayed is through the Qu’ran. The Qu’ran is the central religious text of Islam. It is referred to as “God’s Word (or) Speech” as well as “The Guidance”. (Asani, The Qu’ran Lecture). For that reason, interpretation of this text is crucial to understanding the fundamentals of Islam. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, practitioners set out to interpret the text that codified the revelation of Allah. However, different Muslim groups put forth varied interpretations of the Qu’ran. Nowadays, there is no unified way of interpreting the book. In fact, the Qu’ran is considered to be a text of multiple dimensions. It can be experienced at various sensory levels, including sight, touch, and audition (Asani, The Qu’ran Lecture), so that not only do different people approach the Qu’ran differently, but the same person can experience different perspectives of the Qu’ran as well. Depending on what sensory experience and interpretation a practitioner adopts, the Qu’ran can reveal different messages.
The Qu’ran can be analyzed externally and internally. The external dimension of the Qu’ran is called Tafsir, while Ta’wil refers to the “esoteric”, or internal dimension of the text. The latter dimension was put forth by a group of scholars, within the Shii and Suffi groups, who argued that their unique knowledge of batin, also known as the internal dimension of the Qu’ran, gave them access to a hidden meaning of the text. (Asani, The Qu’ran Lecture). The existence of at least two interpretations gives rise to different practices of Islam because different groups use different lens to analyze their duties differently. What is accessible internally, through the knowledge of batin, may not be comprehensible through an external interpretation, and vice-versa. For example, the Tafsir focuses on the various forms of exegesis, or commentary, including exegesis through transmission and opinion, but the Ta’wil in its very nature upholds exclusivity. According to the Shii and Sunni groups who support Ta’wil, not everybody has access to the comprehension of allegorical verses, only a few elite scholars, so division of practitioners is at the core of interpreting the Qu’ran. Thus, multiple levels of interpretation give rise to various opinions of Muslim practice, which shape the rituals of believers. At its center, Islam puts forth a fundamental belief, which is the profession of faith referred to as shahadah. Shahadah is the declaration of belief in one God and in the Prophet Muhammad. Yet, beyond shahadah, there are varied theories of what practices a Muslim should uphold. Debates around these notions have persisted for many years.
One way in which Islamic groups have endured is through differing views on physicality. Some Muslim groups argue that women should wear a jihab, while others don’t uphold this practice. This could be a result of differing interpretations of the Qu’ranic text that reference women. For example, The Qu’ran reads, “tell the believing women to subdue their eyes, and maintain their chastity. They shall not reveal any parts of their bodies, except that which is necessary”(Qu’ran 24:30-31). What is “necessary” for some groups may differ from what another group reveres. For example, an external and internal interpretation of the Qu’ran could lead to different conclusions of what this verse entails. Similarly, a central debate of Islam is whether a man should have a beard. This is mainly a concern because the Prophet Muhammad had a beard. Some groups, like the Shii Imam and Sufi Shaykh, consider Muhammad to be the “Living Embodiment of the Quran”. As a result, these groups emphasize imitation of the life of the Prophet as a fundamental way of practicing Islamic faith. Groups like the Taliban believe that because the Prophet had a beard, all Muslims should have a beard. Beyond having a beard, the Taliban beard requires a specific length, which is not enforced by other groups, so that even within a practice there is room for diversity (RAWA News). Finally, others Muslims believe that the customs, or sunnah, of the Prophet are voluntary, so having a beard is optional. Therefore, one way in which we can see the diversity of the Islamic religion is through distinct physical appearances. The external appearance of Muslims varies according to their beliefs, which are influenced by distinct views of sunnah, and opposing interpretations of the Qu’ran. Simply looking at a believer is not enough to distinguish between a Muslim and a non-Muslim because believers practice the religion differently. As a result, Muslims have differing opinions of what they believe constitutes a “good” Muslim.
Along with the shahada, the five pillars of Islam are mandatory for Muslims and they are considered to be central aspects of the Islamic religion. The five pillars of Islam include: shahadah, salat, hajj, sawm, and zakat. Zakat refers to the practice of giving a percentage of one’s money to the needy and poor. Islamic diversity can be seen through careful analysis of the practice of the zakat, since different Muslim groups approach the ritual differently. A reading from the course that addressed this notion is “The Beggars’ Strike” by Aminata Sow. In this play, whenever the wealthy donors gave money to the beggars they addressed Allah by making a wish that they desire to be fulfilled. Therefore, practice of zakat was a means of ensuring survival. The beggars, on the other hand, receive the donations, and serve as intermediaries between the donors, who are making wishes of prosperity, and Allah, the receiver of wishes. This novel exemplifies the idea that zakat is experienced differently by Muslims, specifically Muslim groups that belong to different social classes. While the beggars receive the zakat, the wealthy give the zakat, thus establishing two distinct approaches to the same pillar. Consequently, it is necessary to have different experiences of zakat in order to have zakat at all. If the wealthy and poor were to experience zakat differently, there would not be a receiver and a donor, and the pillar could not be practiced. So, while Muslims are united by zakat, within that practice, diversity is upheld. What constitutes proper zakat for some Muslims is not proper zakat for other Muslims, given their social standing. This exemplifies diversity within the Islamic religion and it serves to explain why different groups of Muslims approach the religion differently, and revere Allah uniquely.
“There is no god but God”, states the shahadah. In this way, Islam unites its believers through the idea of the oneness of God. Yet, a fundamental difference between Muslim groups stems from this profession, because Muslims differ in the ways they revere this united Allah. This diversity is especially evident through the discussion of the Sufi mystics. Sufism cannot be defined simply, because it is an “umbrella” term that refers to the mysticism of Islam. (Asani, Sufism Lecture). The Sufis believe in transcending the boundaries of Islam by entering a spirituality in which they become connected with God. This spirituality has political, economic, as well as artistic dimensions. One of the central artistic representations is poetry. Ever since pre-islamic Arabia, poetry has served an important function in the religion of Islam. The “sha’ir” poets used it as a means of communicating with different communities. Nowadays, poetry is used as a medium for recitation of religious verses. There is a strong emphasis on the aural experience of the Qu’ran, so that poetic verses are recited publically. Interestingly, the Sufis use poetry romantically. Through the love lyric, also known as the ghazal, Sufis use poetry to express their reverence to Allah. The central theme of these poems is an expression of an unrequited love towards a beloved. The beloved is represented in many ways, including a rose, a flame, and other elements of nature. Nonetheless, the popular interpretation of these ghazals is that the beloved represents Allah, and while superficially the poet could be expressing a physical love, careful analysis of the ghazal reveals that the love is actually spiritual and religiously tied to Islam. This is a distinguishing feature of Muslim groups. Other groups use poetry to connect with Allah, but the theme of love of Allah is unique to Sufis. For example, the film “Koran by Heart” exemplifies the importance that Muslims put forth on the memorization of the Qu’ran as a means of connecting spiritually. Another way in which poetry is used to connect with Allah is through the representation of poetic verses publically, such as in murals, artifacts, and clothing. The reverence of Allah is clearly a unifying factor amongst Muslims, but the way in which this is done various across different groups. This differing reverence to Allah distinguishes amongst Muslim groups and leads to various ways of connecting with the religion.
It is possible that an external focus on the understanding of Islam overshadows its unifying themes. In the “Conference of the Birds” reading, Attar portrays the idea of Allah within his believers. This Persian epic narrates the story of a group of birds that set out to find the Simorgh, who they have chosen to be their king, but only those who address their faults complete the journey. In the end, the remaining birds don’t find the Simorgh, instead they are presented with their own reflections on a lake. This can be interpreted as the birds having found Allah within themselves. Although they did not find the Simorgh, they completed the journey internally. This same notion is alluded to in Iqbal’s “Complaint and Answer” reading. By including a poem from the perspective of Muslims, complaining of their sorrows, and a poem from the perspective of Allah, responding to the Muslims by encouraging them to uphold the greatness of their ancestors, Iqbal is able to put forth the idea of Muslims finding greatness within. In Iqbal’s reading, Allah believes the Muslims have to change their circumstances; they have to be the determinants of the change they want to see in the world. Thus, a way in which we can see the unity of Muslims is through an examination of the religion internally. Through this analysis, one can see that at its core, Islam attempts to unite its believers, but differences in the interpretation of the religion have sustained the diverse concept of what we know to be Islam today.
According to Muslims, Allah is everywhere, so that “wherever you turn there is the face of God” (Quran 2:115). Externally, we can see Allah in the physical appearance of Muslims, whether they wear a jihab or have a beard, as well as what custom they practice; whether they uphold the five pillars, or portray reverence to God. The Sufi and the Shii will show Islam differently, just like Muslims from distinct cultures will practice distinctly. In this course, we have been presented with different interpretations of Islam that could explain this diversity. Yet, an internal analysis of the Islamic religion confirms that just as differing interpretations of Islam sustain different groups, at its core, Islam puts forth the idea that each Muslims carries the message of Allah within. To understand Islam fully one has to keep in mind the unifying pillars of the religion, while accounting for the differences in the practices of groups. Therefore, there is not just one Islam; there are unifying factors that bring together all Muslims, but various practices put forth by its believers.
1. Taliban measures beards with lantern glass. RAWA News. 1998. http://www.rawa.org/beard.htm