The Impatient Secularist’s Guide to Islam
January 12, 2011
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Islam is a confusing religion to a lot of people. After all, it’s foreign and stuff. So I thought I’d help clear up some of that confusion for you, my secularist pals who are mostly familiar only with Christianity. I’m only going to bother telling you what I think is relevant to what are likely to be your interests, so don’t think this is comprehensive.
Some of these will seem like obvious statements, but bear with me because I like to be thorough.
First and foremost, the basics:
- Islam is not monolithic. As diverse as Christianity is, so too is Islam. Therefore one should never be talking about Islam as a whole except in the broadest sense. If you’re tempted to do so, consider whether your statements are general enough for you to make something analogous to them in reference to Christianity as a whole.
- Islam is not a thing, but a description of an ideology. While it is practically useful to talk about Islamic dogma and Islamic thought, ultimately these do not exist outside of how Muslims perceive them. One cannot draw a serious distinction between Islam and Muslims.
- There are about a billion Muslims in the world, and the majority are not Arabs. Incidentally, about 10% of all Arabs are Christians.
- Dogma in Islam usually comes from four sources, in descending order of credibility
- The Qur’an, a book of poetic verses that set down the fundaments of Islamic thought in what almost all Muslims will agree are divinely-issued and infallible passages
- The Hadith, a body of anecdotes and proverbs attributed to the founder of Islam, Muhammad, and which ‘flesh-out’ the structure provided by the Qur’an. The Shi’i sect of Islam has a different body of Hadith than the majority Sunni sect, but there is some overlap. Hadith carry almost as much weight as the Qur’an itself
- Fiqh, which is Islamic jurisprudence, and constitutes a body of precedent in religious law that may be drawn upon to support new dogma
- Ijtihad, or ‘reasoning’, which is an Islamic scholar’s best attempt at providing an ‘Islamic’ judgement on a question which has no immediately obvious answer in the Qur’an, Hadith, or Fiqh
- The Shari’a is the fundamental body of binding Islamic law, derived from the first two of the above sources of dogma
- A FATWA is NOT an incitement to violence. A fatwa is a religious-legal judgment offered by a qualified individual about anything posed to them. Want to know what the most Islamic way to give a backrub is? Get a fatwa. Can a good Muslim man sip tea with his little finger in the air? Get a fatwa.
- There is no single, central source of religious authority in most Islamic sects. This has to do with Islamic epistemology. Similar to Judaism, most Islamic dogma is the product of individual theologians and may be accepted or rejected by individual Muslims according to personal choice. In theory. In practice, certain sources of dogma are elevated and their judgments made binding through political or social coercion.
- Iran actually does have a central source of authority. ‘Revolutionary Shi’ism‘ as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s innovative interpretation of Shi’ism is called, is defined and prescribed by a small group of theologians, and is presided over by a Supreme Leader who receives the title ‘Jurist Guardian‘ and has final political and religious authority in Iran.
- Islam, like all religions, requires certain rituals and demonstrations of piety. These include praying five times per day, fasting during the daytime in the holy month of Ramadan, paying tithes, attempting to make a pilgrimage to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and ‘testifying’ that ‘There is no god but The God [Allah], and Muhammad is his prophet.’
- Most types of Muslims you will find fall into one of the following broad categories:
- Sunni, the most common and ‘traditional’ (har har har) sect of Islam. Most Muslim countries are mostly or entirely Sunni. There are many schools or movements of Sunni thought, some of which I will mention later as they are particularly socially or politically relevant to stuff you’re probably interested in.
- Shi’a, the second most common sect of Islam. Shi’a Islam is considerably more messianic than Sunni Islam. Shi’a theology has been shaped by a succession of political ‘guides’ the twelfth of whom is usually thought to be in occulation and who is thought to be returning as a messianic and apocalyptic figure at some point in the probably distant future (unless you’re Ahmadinejad). They don’t get along well with Sunnis. Iran is mostly Shi’a, Lebanon is about 1/3 Shi’a, and there are large Shi’a populations in parts of the Gulf and in India/Pakistan, plus scattered other communities.
- Sufi, the mystical and often monastic versions of both Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Sufism is far less structured and subject to jurisprudence and orthodoxy compared to other Islamic sects. Many of the versions of Islam practiced in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus are Sufi.
- Ahmadi, though they’re an endangered species.
Islam enters into many political and social discussions that are relevant both here in the enlightened parts of the world, and in the Orient. I will make some points about how to understand the role that Islam plays in politics, continuing in list form:
- Islamic movements have major political cred in oppressive and inefficient states such as Egypt and Syria, and to a lesser extent in places like the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, and even Turkey. This cred often isn’t so much a result of pre-existing levels of religiosity, but rather a product of what Islamic movements do:
- Islamic movements deliver social goods to areas where the state does not provide well for its population. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood give food to the hungry, education to children, job training and networking, organise athletics teams, and even offer matchmaking
- Islamic movements offer effective paths to political articulation and protest in autocratic regimes
- These movements are usually very socially conservative by most Western liberal standards, and do not always have sophisticated intellectual platforms. However, there are some areas where prevailing attitudes are even MORE conservative. For example, in some Egyptian slums with large rural-urban migrant populations, Islamic movements actually advance women’s rights.
- Not all Islamic political and social groups are socially conservative. A small but growing minority are liberal.
- Many Islamic immigrant communities in Canada, the UK, Europe, and to a lesser extent the US, are very insular. Here in London, Muslims often live in ghetto-like neighbourhoods. The prevalence of strong Islamic conservatism amongst second or third generation Muslim youth is a result of identity politics, internal social dynamics, and communal marginalisation and separation, and also needs to be placed in the context of the broader ‘Islamist turn’ in the politics of Muslim communities and countries.
- When the leaders of Muslim countries or of political movements justify their policies in Islamic terms, they’re often merely cloaking pragmatic behaviour in rhetoric…unless they’re Saudi Arabia, Iran, or depending on the policy, Turkey. However, as any constructivist will tell you, if they use Islamic terms, they are constrained by Islamic terms. When the political and social discourse is conducted through the norms of religion, that religion becomes increasingly powerful in shaping the perspectives and principles of those engaged.
We see lots of images and themes of violence emanating from Muslim communities and groups. Almost any modern discussion of terrorism includes a discussion about Islam, with more reasonable and less reasonable arguments as to the link between the two. I’m going to try to clear up some common misconceptions by making a few points on the subject:
- In almost all high-profile cases of violence from Muslims, the cause is complex and involves many political and social dynamics. Unless you’re a Wahhabi (not to be confused with something else). More on that later. There’s nothing inherently more violent about Islam than Christianity, in my opinion.
- Jihad! It basically means ‘struggle’. Theologically speaking, it doesn’t only refer to violence, but also to all sorts of personal or communal struggles. It isn’t compulsory either. However, when you hear it spoken about in the media or used as a term by basically any Muslim leader, it’s probably being used in the violent sense. There isn’t a single view on what violent jihad should involve though. Also, remember: cloaking politics in the language of religion helps legitimate action.
- The kind of jihad that involves assassinations, bombings, and guerrilla warfare is very, VERY marginal in most Muslim communities, with the exception of those few countries experiencing sporadic or ongoing civil unrest (Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Indonesia)
- In countries where such jihad is present, it receives varying levels of social acceptance from the broader population. Generally, the level is ‘low’
- The intellectual foundations for Islamist-inspired terrorism against a Muslim state or in ‘the West’ is largely derived from the writings of Sayid Qutb. Qutb’s theology is rejected by most other theologians. For most, violent jihad is only legitimate as a response to direct occupation.
- Those cartoons with the picture of Muhammad? [don’t click the link if you’re not comfortable seeing them, and link is NSFW if you work at a kebab shop] Yeah, people rioted because they were pissed off in general and because certain Muslim leaders decided to stir things up. Not every depiction of Mo’ has led to or will lead to such a reaction. Also, Islamic law doesn’t apply to non-Muslims under most interpretations.
You will come across some of these movements if you read the news.
- Wahhabism, which is the dominant and highly ‘puritanical’ Islam of Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Gulf. It is a tribal variation of Salafism. Saudi Arabia has poured money into spreading Wahhabi Islam to other places. Many lulz were to be had. Not. Wahhabis enforce strict separation of the sexes, to an extreme degree [click it]. You may not have pre-marital sex, consume alcohol, be a woman outside without modest dress, or gamble. Unless you’re a member of the Saudi royal family.
- Deobandi Islam, which is a conservative version practiced by Muslims in parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. Women should wear one of these. The Taliban are a more radical permutation of this
- Hizb ut-Tahrir, a transnational and highly conservative Islamist movement that seeks to recreate a single Islamic state modeled after the Caliphate
Well, I hope this has been educational. Feel free to suggest to me any corrections or additions. I’m not an expert on Islam or Islamist politics.