Sunnism, Shi‘ism, and Sufism and Traditional, Modernist, and “Fundamentalist” Interpretations of Islam Today

O, mankind! Verily We have created you maleand female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know each other.

(Quran, XLIX:13)

Differences between the scholars of my community are a mercy from God.



Often in the West Islam is depicted as a monolith, and little attention is paid to the rich diversity within both the religion and civilization of Islam. Recent events, however, have made the Islamic world the focus of much attention. Although the attempt by the media to deal more with Islam is laudable, what is presented is usually highly selective and politically charged, dominated by the Arab-Israeli conflict and extremism manifesting itself in threats or acts of terror.

Therefore, despite greater interest in covering matters pertaining to Islam, the reductionist message associated with extremism continues to dominate the scene, hiding from the Western public the great diversity of the Islamic world and the multiple interpretations of the Islamic religion.

The vast world of Islam is actually like a Persian medallion carpet; it has incredible diversity and complexity, yet it is dominated by a unity into which all the complex geometric and arabesque patterns are integrated. This complexity can be better understood if one views it as the superimposition of a number of patterns upon the plane of the carpet.

In the vast world of Islam also, one can gain a better grasp of the whole by separating the patterns and seeing how each is related to vertical and horizontal dimensions of the religion of Islam itself as well as to cultural, ethnic, and linguistic factors. Then reuniting the patterns and seeing how they all fit together yields a vision of the total spectrum of Islam, in which unity leads to diversity and diversity is integrated into unity.


Before turning to the components of the Islamic spectrum and the question of diversity, let us first ask which factors have created and sustain unity in the Islamic world. Despite political fragmentation, theological differences, and ethnic distinctions, there is a strong sense of the unity of the Islamic community(ummah) and a constant desire for greater political unity within the “Abode of Islam” (dar al-islam ) in the hearts of all Muslims, and there is, of course, a visible unity in Islamic civilization.

The central factor in the creation of unity among Muslims is the Quran. For all Muslims, it is the very Word of God, with the same text, which is chanted as well as read and written, and the same message for all Muslims, although interpretations of that message differ among various Muslim groups and there are levels of meaning to the text.

Then there are theSunnah and Hadith of the Prophet, which are very powerful unifying factors, although again there are local variations of interpretation of certain facts and features of the Prophet’s life, actions, and words.

Despite these variations in the understanding of the twin sources of the Islamic religion, that is, the Quran and theSunnah (along with the H.adith), there are three central doctrines upon which all schools of Islam agree, namely tawhid, or Divine Oneness, nubuwwah, or prophecy, and ma‘ad, or eschatology, to which we shall turn in Chapter 6.

Only very small groups here and there have deviated from these basic principles, which are the source of Islam’s sapiential and practical teachings

and whose unifying power can hardly be overestimated. Those who have deviated from these basic doctrines have sometimes brought about civil and religious crises within the community and sometimes even violence.

Another unifying factor is Islamic Law, or theShari‘ah , which is interpreted according to different schools but the basic elements of which are the same throughout the Islamic world, especially as they concern the rites of the religion.

These rites, which consist of the five daily prayers performed in Arabic whether one is in Malaysia or Bosnia, the annual pilgrimage (h. ajj) made from all parts of the Islamic world, the fast of the month of carried out by all healthy adult Muslims throughout the seven climes, the tithe paid to the poor, and other religious acts, bind Muslims together wherever they might be. Over the ages the ethical norms related to theShari‘ah , the injunctions of the Quran and Sunnah, and the spiritual etiquette, or adab, associated with ethics and based on the Prophetic model have also acted as powerful integrating forces. To these must be added the presence of Sufi orders, which cut across confessional and ethnic boundaries and which, basing themselves by definition on the Unity that transcends all multiplicity, have been a major factor in the integration of Islamic society. Finally, on the plane of forms, one must mention Islamic art, from the chanting of the Quran to geometric patterns found on articles and structures, an art that, despite local differences, has its own unique genius and has played a very important role in bringing about unity on the physical plane while permitting local variations and cultural diversity.


To understand the sources of diversity in the Islamic world, one must first of all turn to the hierarchy within the religion of Islam itself. The total religion called Islam may be said to consist of the levels of islam, iman, and ihsan, or surrender, faith, and spiritual beauty. The Quran refers often to the muslim, the possessor of surrender, the mu’min, the possessor of faith, and the muh. sin, the possessor of virtue.

Although the Quran emphasizes that all Muslims stand equally before God, it also insists that human beings are distinguished in rank according to their knowledge of the truth and virtue, as in the verses, “Are those who know equal with those who know not?” (39:9), to which the Quran gives the resounding answer of no, and, “Verily, those of you most close to God are those who are the best in conduct” (59:13). These verses refer to degrees of perfection of believers, as one sees also in Christianity, and do not imply in any way exclusion, ostracism, or support for violence against certain groups.

Later Islamic sages, especially the Sufis, have also spoken of the hierarchy of theShari‘ah , or the Divine Law, the Tariqah, or the spiritual path, the Haqiqah, or the Divine Truth, which is the origin of both. Islam is then envisaged as a circle whose center is the Haqiqah. The radii of the circle are the turuq (plural of Tariqah), later identified with the Sufi orders, and the circumference is theShari‘ah . Each Muslim is like a point on the

circumference, whose totality composes the Islamic community, or ummah. To reach the Haqiqah, one must first stand on the circumference, that is, practice theShari‘ah , and then follow the Tariqah, or Path to God, whose end is the Center, God Himself, or the Haqiqah.

In a famous tradition of the Prophet known as the hadith of Gabriel, this primary vertical structure and hierarchy, which does not in any way obviate the reality that each Muslim stands as his or her own priest before God, is made evident:

‘Umar said, “One day when we were sitting with the Messenger of God there came unto us a man whose clothes were of exceeding whiteness and whose hair was of exceeding blackness, nor were there any signs of travel upon him, although none of us knew him.

He sat down knee unto knee opposite the Prophet, upon whose thighs he placed the palms of his hands, saying: ‘O Muhammad, tell me what is the surrender(islam) .’ The Messenger of God answered him saying:

‘The surrender is to testify that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is God’s Messenger, to perform the prayer, bestow alms, fast and make, if thou canst, the pilgrimage to the Holy House.’ He said: ‘Thou hast spoken truly,’ and we were amazed that having questioned him he should corroborate him. Then he said: ‘Tell me what is faith(iman) .’ He answered: ‘To believe in God and His Angels and His Books and His Messengers and the Last Day, and to believe that no good or evil cometh but by His Providence.’

‘Thou hast spoken truly,’ he said, and then:

‘Tell me what is excellence(ihsan) .’ He answered: ‘To worship God as if thou sawest Him, for if thou seest Him not, yet seeth He thee.’ ‘Thou hast spoken truly,’ he said. . Then the stranger went away, and I stayed a while after he had gone; and the Prophet said to me: ‘O, ‘Umar, knowest thou the questioner, who he was?’ I said: ‘God and His Messenger know best.’

He said: ‘It was Gabriel. He came unto you to teach you your religion.’”1

It is clear from this hadith clarifying din, or religion, for Muslims that islam encompasses what is expected of all Muslims in the acceptance and performance of the “pillars”(arkan) of Islam, with which we shall deal later. Iman, or faith, involves not only belief in the ordinary sense in God, His angels, messengers, His revealed books, and the eschatological (end-time) realities, but also knowledge of these matters, and it was into this dimension of the Islamic tradition that intellectual disciplines such as theology and traditional philosophy were integrated. As for ihsan, it is obvious that not everyone can worship God as if they saw Him. This is the station of the saintly, and ihsan, which means both “virtue” and “beauty,” is associated with the spiritual path that leads to sanctity and is considered practically a definition of Sufism.

Not everyone who is a muslim is amu’min and not everyone who is amu’min is a muh. sin, but a muh. sin must also be amu’min and amu’min a muslim. Reference to this hierarchical distinction is also made in some sources as the exoteric, or outward (z.ahir), and esoteric, or inward (, dimensions of the tradition. In any case, throughout Islamic history there have been the ordinary believers, or muslims, those of intense piety, or

mu’mins , and those who have sought God here and now, or muh. sins, about whom the Quran says, “God loves the muh. sinin” (3:133, and many other verses). Ihsan later became crystallized almost completely but not exclusively in Sufism, which can still be found throughout the Islamic world. Serious attachment to Sufism also requires attachment to theShari‘ah , and therefore a person who is a Sufi must also be the follower of this or that school of Law. Some Shari‘ite Muslims may reject Sufism, especially today among both modernized and so-called fundamentalist or reformist circles, but the Sufis show the greatest attachment to theShari‘ah , whose inner significance they seek to reach. And they must of necessity follow one of its schools.

It is meaningless to ask, as many Western scholars and especially anthropologists have done, whether a particular Muslim is a Sunni or a Sufi, or for that matter a Shi‘ite or a Sufi. A Sunni or a Shi‘ite can be a Sufi or not a Sufi, but the situation is not one of alternatives, because these dimensions of the religion are not situated on the same level of reality. That is why the presence of Sufism has never been a cause for division in traditional Islamic society. In contrast, it has been a cause of integration and the return to that inner unity whose attainment is the goal of Islam. The first division in the structure of the religion must, in fact, be sought not in the difference between Shari‘ite Islam and Sufism, but in the separation of Sunnism and Shi‘ism from each other in the first century of Islamic history. The Sunni-Shi‘ite division is the most important in the formal structure of Islam, although even this division does not destroy the unity of Islam and both share the unifying elements already mentioned. Moreover, Sufism, representing the inner dimension of the religion, transcends this dichotomy. Not only are there Sunnis as well as Shi‘ites who are Sufis, but Shi‘ism and Sufism also share together the original inner message of the Prophet and the power of spiritual and initiatic guidance (walayah/wilayah), so that the situation is somewhat more complex than stated. But for the present discussion it suffices to say that Sufism, or the Tariqah, belongs to the inner dimension of Islam and transcends Shari‘ite differences, and Sunnism and Shi‘ism mark a division within Islam on the formal and legal level.

While on the subject of Sufism, it must be recalled here that Sufism has had the greatest role in the spread of Islam itself, in addition to its vital function in the preservation and purification of ethical life, the creation of the arts, and the exposition of unitive knowledge (ma‘rifah) and metaphysics within Islamic society. From the eleventh and twelfth centuries onward, Sufism became organized in orders usually named after their founders; older ones, such as the Rifa‘iyyah and Qadiriyyah, which still survive, were followed by many later ones, such as the Shadhiliyyah, the Khalwatiyyah, the Mawlawiyyah, the Chishtiyyah, the Naqshbandiyyah, and the Ni‘matullahiyyah. Some of the orders have died out over time and occasionally new ones are created, but they all rely on the continuity of the “initiatic” chain, or silsilah, which goes back to the Prophet.

There is hardly an Islamic country in which Sufi orders are not to be found, and since the beginning of the twentieth century some orders, beginning with the Shadhiliyyah, have spread into Europe and America. In

some countries, such as Senegal and the Sudan, the Sufi orders are so popular that people’s identification on the Shari‘ite level is often combined with their Tariqah affiliation. Such a situation is found, however, only in Sunnism and not in Shi‘ism, unless one identifies the Isma‘ili branch of Shi‘ism as a Tariqah in itself, as many Isma‘ilis themselves tend to do.

It is important to recall here the fact that, in contrast to the claim of those who only look at the quantitative aspects of things and consider the esoteric element of religion to be marginal and peripheral, the esoteric dimension actually lies at the heart of religion and is the source of both its endurance and renewal. We observe this truth not only in Islam, but also in the Kabbalistic and Hasidic traditions in Judaism and various mystical currents in Christianity. In Islam itself, Sufism has been over the centuries the hidden heart that has renewed the religion intellectually, spiritually, and ethically and has played the greatest role in its spread and in its relation with other religions.


Today about 87 percent of all Muslims are Sunnis and about 13 percent are Shi‘ite. The Sunni majority within Islam is the largest in comparison with any denomination in other religions, such as Catholicism within Christianity and Mahayana within Buddhism. But the Shi‘ite population is located almost completely in the heartland of Islam, that is, in the area between Egypt and India. Such countries as Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, and Islamic Lebanon have majority Shi‘ite populations, and India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states, and East Africa have notable Shi‘ite minorities. Both intellectually and historically, Shi‘ism has played a much greater role in the Islamic world than its number might warrant, and the accord or discord between Sunnism and Shi‘ism today is one of the most important factors in contemporary Islamic society.

The word sunni in Arabic comes from the term ahl alsunnah wa’l-jama‘ah, that is, people who followed theSunnah of the Prophet and the majority, while Shi‘ism comes from the Arabic term shi‘at ‘Ali, meaning partisans of ‘Ali ibn AbiTalib. After the death of the Prophet, while ‘Ali, his son-in-law and first cousin, and the rest of the family were burying him, the rest of the community gathered in Medina and chose Abu Bakr as the Prophet’s successor, not in his prophetic function but as ruler of the newly established Islamic community. He was thereby given the title of khalifah rasulAllah , or the vicegerent of the Messenger of God, from which comes the title caliph, taken not only by the first four caliphs, who are called the “rightly guided”(rashidun) , but also by later Muslim rulers of the Umayyad, ‘Abbasid, and Fat.imid dynasties and even by the Ottomans. A number of people thought that ‘Ali should have become the Prophet’s successor and rallied around him, forming the first nucleus of Shi‘ism. ‘Ali himself refused to oppose Abu Bakr and in fact worked closely with him and his two successors, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman, until he himself became the fourth of the “rightly guided” caliphs of Sunni Islam. It was only after his death at the hands of a member of the Khawarij, an extremist group that rejected the claims of both Mu‘awiyyah, who had contested the caliphate of ‘Ali, and ‘Ali himself, that Shi‘ism became an organized religio-political movement in Iraq.

The major point of contention between Sunnism and Shi‘ism was not only the question of who should succeed the Prophet, but the question of what the qualifications of such a person had to be. For Sunnism, the function of the caliph was to protect the borders of Islam, keep security and peace, appoint judges, and so forth. For the Shi‘ites, such a person also had to have the deepest knowledge of Islamic Law as well as esoteric knowledge of the Quran and Prophetic teachings. He could therefore not be elected, but had to be chosen by the Prophet through Divine command.

The Shi‘ites believe that this investiture did in fact occur at the pool of water called Ghadir Khumm when the Prophet was returning to Medina from pilgrimage to Mecca. According to Shi‘ites, the person chosen by him was ‘Ali, whom they consider their first Imam, using this term in the special sense of someone who bears the Muh.ammadan Light (al-nur al-muh. ammadi) and the power of initiation within himself and who is master of

both the exoteric and the esoteric sciences. Otherwise the term imam, coming from the root meaning “standing before or in front,” is used in general for the person who leads the daily prayers, and in Sunni Islam also as an honorific title given to great religious scholars such as, for example, Imam al-Ghazzali, one of the foremost theologians and Sufis in Islamic history. Sunni authors have also occasionally referred to the caliph as imam, but all of these meanings must be distinguished from the specific Shi‘ite usage of the term.

The understanding of the term imam therefore differs greatly in Sunnism and Shi‘ism. In Sunni Islam the term has many uses, but it is never used in the mystical and esoteric sense given to it in Shi‘ism. In Shi‘ism, the Imam, like the prophets, is inerrant (ma‘ and protected from sin by God. He possesses perfect knowledge of both the Law and the Way, both the outer and inner meaning of the Quran. He also possesses the power of initiation (walayah/wilayah ) and is the spiritual guide par excellence, like the Sufi masters within their orders. In fact, the first eight Shi‘ite Imams are also central spiritual authorities or poles of Sufism and appear in the initiatic chain of nearly every Sufi order. ‘Ali, who is the representative par excellence of Islamic esoteric teachings, is not only the first Imam of Shi‘ism, but also at the origin of the initiatic chain of nearly all Sufi orders. There are in fact many Sunnis, such as the majority of Egyptians, almost all of whom are Sunnis, who have the same love and respect for the Shi‘ite Imams and the Ahl al-bayt, that is, members of the family of the Prophet with whom the Imams and Shi‘ism itself are associated, as do Persian or Iraqi Shi‘ites.

As far as Sunnism is concerned, its followers are divided according to the schools of Law(madhhab) they follow. In the eighth and ninth centuries the schools of fiqh, or jurisprudence, were codified by the doctors of the Law.

Some of these codifications or schools died out, but four have survived during the past millennium and constitute the main body of traditional Sunnism. They are the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i, and Hanbali. Hanafism was founded by a Persian, Imam Abu Hanifah (d. 768), who was a student of Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d.757), the sixth Imam of Shi‘ism and founder of Twelve-Imam Shi‘ite Law, which is called Ja‘fari Law. Imam Abu Hanifah sought to create possibilities for the integration of local practices into the Law as much as possible. His school held great attraction from the beginning for Turks as well as Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. Today the Hanafi School has the largest number of followers in the Sunni world, including most Sunni Turks, the Turkic people of Caucasia and Central Asia, European Muslims, and the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. As for the Sunni part of Afghanistan, its people are, like the Sunnis of Pakistan, mostly Hanafi, and this is one of the elements that especially links the eastern part of Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Malikism, founded by Imam Malik ibn Anas (d. 795), is based mostly on the practice of Medina and is very conservative in its approach to the Law. There have been some Malikis in the Arab East and especially in Egypt, but the heart of Malikism is North Africa. In fact, the whole of Islamic North and West Africa outside of Egypt is solidly Maliki, and this legal

homogeneity has made an important contribution to the cultural unity of the area, which in traditional Islamic geography is called al-Maghrib, or the West, the name that is now used for the “Far West” of the Islamic world, that is, Morocco.

The Shafi‘i School was founded by a student of Imam Abu H. anifah, Imam Muh.ammad al-Shafi‘i (d. 820). It is he who completed and perfected the methods of jurisprudence in Islamic Law. In many ways, of the different Sunni schools of Law, his school is the closest to the Ja‘fari School. Buried in Cairo, he is greatly loved and admired by Egyptians, nearly all of whom are Shafi‘is, as are many others south of Egypt as well as most of the Malays in Southeast Asia, whether they are in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, or Thailand.

The Hanbali School, founded by Imam Ah.mad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) from Baghdad, based itself solely on the Quran and Hadith and gave a very strict interpretation of theShari‘ah . Although in days of old it had many followers in Iraq, Persia, and other lands, in recent times its adherents have been confined mostly to Syria. Wahhabism, which is dominant in Saudi Arabia, is an offshoot of H. anbalism, but must not be simply identified with it. Wahhabism, which arose as a reformist movement in the eighteenth century in Najd in southern Arabia, opposed the later refinements of Islamic culture in the form of philosophy and theology as well as the arts; in the domain of religion itself it strongly opposed both Sufism and Shi‘ism, the visit to the tombs of saints, and intercession by saints before God for an individual believer. It was opposed not only by Shi‘ites, but also by orthodox Sunnis, and in the nineteenth century the Ottoman caliph even sent an army to defeat the movement. But through an alliance made between the Wahhabi scholars and the House of Sa‘ud, the movement was kept alive in Najd until the beginning of the twentieth century, when it began to consolidate political power. After World War I it captured Hijaz, where Mecca and Medina are located, and created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As a result of this historical process, Wahhabism became accepted throughout Saudi Arabia as the official interpretation of Islam. Despite its opposition to mainstream Sunni Islam, Shi‘ite, and Sufism, however, Wahhabism was not in itself always violent, although it was quite exoteric and exclusivist in its interpretation of Islam. Its influence remained, however, confined to Saudi Arabia until the increased wealth in the kingdom due to income from oil made it possible for Wahhabi schools and mosques to be established in many other areas of the world. But even then its influence remained limited, and today the vast majority of Sunnis cannot in any way be described as Wahhabi, not to speak of Shi‘ites, who have always opposed Wahhabism. Within Arabia itself during the past two decades there has been a notable opening in certain religious circles toward other schools of Islam, both Sunni and Shi‘ite, although the influence of Wahhabism is still dominant.

The four founders of the traditional schools of Sunni Law mentioned above are highly respected and revered by all Sunnis. Converting from one school to another takes place occasionally, and in modern times some governments have drawn from various schools, including the Shi‘ism, to create civil laws in their countries. The difference between the Sunni

schools of Law and the Ja‘fari or other Shi‘ite schools of Law is minor, especially when it comes to the practice of rites. In certain fields, such as laws of inheritance or the legality of temporary marriage, there are, however, notable differences.

As for Shi‘ism, although one could distinguish the various schools from each other on the basis of their legal orientation, a more telling criterion for distinction, used by Muslims themselves as well as by Western scholars, is the position each branch of Shi‘ism takes on the Imams. After ‘Ali, his son H. asan became Imam. He lived a quiet, politically inactive life in Medina disseminating knowledge of the Quran, but his brother H. usayn, who became the third Imam, arose against Yazid, the son of Mu‘awiyyah, who had opposed ‘Ali and who had founded the Umayyad caliphate with its capital in Damascus. H. usayn was invited to go to Iraq by the people of the Iraqi city of Kufa, who promised to support him. And so in the year 680 he set out with his family and many followers from Medina for Iraq. Before reaching Kufa, however, he was met by the army of Yazid in Karbala’, where he and all the male members of the family of the Prophet, save Zayn al-‘Abidin, who was ill, were killed. H. usayn’s body was interred in Karbala’ and his head brought to Damascus, but Yazid, afraid of the reactions that might follow, tried to distance himself from the incident and exiled Zaynab, the sister of H. usayn, to Egypt with the head of her brother. According to Sunni tradition, she buried the head at a site that became the heart of what was later to become the city known as al-Qahirah, or Cairo.

This tragic event crystallized the Shi‘ite movement in Iraq and later elsewhere, especially in Persia, and finally led to the downfall of the Umayyads. To this day the tragedy of Karbala’ is commemorated on the tenth of Muh. arram in many countries, especially Iran, Iraq, the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent, and Lebanon, and these events are the most notable popular religious ceremonies in Islam after the annual pilgrimage, or hajj. Recollection of vast religious processions, sermons, and passion plays of Muh. arram, which dominated the life of Tehran during my childhood spent in that city, are still indelibly etched in my memory.

All other Imams of Shi‘ism were descendants of H. usayn through his one son who survived, Zayn al-‘A bidin al-Sajjad, who became the fourth Imam. The main branch of Shi‘ism, which includes the vast majority of Shi‘ites, is called Ithna ‘ashariyyah, or Twelve-Imam Shi‘ism, which is dominant in Iran and is a majority in Iraq, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, and among the Muslims of Lebanon. The Twelvers accept a chain of Imams descending from the fourth, including his son, Muh.ammad al-Baqir, the fifth Imam, and his son, Ja‘far al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam, down to the Twelfth, Muh.ammad al-Mahdi, whom they believe to have been given a mysteriously long life by God, but who is in occultation(ghaybah) . He is alive like Elijah, who was taken to Heaven alive according to Jewish belief. But the Twelfth Imam is also the secret master of this world and can appear to those who are in the appropriate spiritual state to see him. He will appear publicly before the end of time, when inequity and oppression have become dominant, to reestablish justice and peace on earth, and he will prepare for the second coming of Christ, an event in which Muslims have as firm a

belief as Christians. This eschatological expectation is therefore called Mahdiism and is by no means confined to Shi‘ism. Sunnism also contains such teachings, the difference being that Shi‘ites claim to know here and now who the Mahdi is, whereas Sunnis expect a figure with such a name to appear in the future.

Apocalyptic thought, although present in Islam, does not, however, play the same role there as it does in contemporary Christianity, especially among certain televangelists in America who have commercialized their contentious interpretations of the Book of Revelation and other Christian sources on the basis of an exclusivism that is utterly astounding. In the Islamic world, although the idea of the coming of the Mahdi exists, there is much less public talk about it, especially on television, and there is little emphasis on creating an exclusive club of those who will be saved while the rest will be damned. Although in Black Africa there have been a few Mahdiist leaders with followers willing to die for them, in the heartland of Islam phenomena such as Waco and Jonestown have not existed, except for the one episode in Mecca in 1980 when a person claiming to be the Mahdi entered the Holy Mosque with his followers and was finally killed when government forces attacked the group inside the mosque.

The second most important branch of Shi‘ism is Isma‘ilism, which separated from the main body of Shi‘ism over the question of the identity of the seventh Imam. The sixth Imam, Ja‘far al-Sadiq, had chosen, by Divine command according to Shi‘ite belief, his son Isma‘il as the seventh Imam, but Isma‘il died while his father was still alive.

Subsequently, Imam Musa was chosen as the seventh Imam, but a number within the Shi‘ite community refused to accept this investiture and continued to consider Isma‘il their imam, hence the name Isma‘ilism. For some time their imams were not present in public, until suddenly in the tenth century the Isma‘ilis arose in Tunisia to declare themselves rulers and were able to extend their domination to Egypt, much of the rest of North Africa, and even as far as Syria. They established the Fat.imid caliphate, which vied with and opposed the Sunni ‘Abbasid caliphate, which had its capital in Baghdad. They made Cairo their capital and built it into a great center of the sciences and the arts. Al-Azhar University, over a thousand years old and the most important seat of Sunni learning in the Islamic world today, was built by the Fat.imids, whose rulers were also Isma‘ili imams.

Fat.imid Isma‘ilism was its most moderate form, but other more radical movements followed from it. The Fat.imid caliph bi’Llah had transferred the investiture of the imamate from his older son, Nizar, to his younger son, Musta‘li. Upon his death in 1094, some Isma‘ilis followed Nizar and others Musta‘li. The Musta‘lis, or followers of Musta‘li, continued the moderate teachings of the earlier Fat.imids, but those who followed Nizar became more radical. In Iran the Nizaris created fort cities on top of mountains, of which the most famous was Alamut. The Persian Isma‘ili Hasan S. abbah. had a major role to play in the creation of these forts and the propagation of the Nizari cause. In 1164 the Isma‘ili imam of the time, H. asan, declared the “Great Resurrection” and proclaimed that henceforth only the spiritual and esoteric aspect of Islam mattered and the

legal and formal aspect was to be put aside. Nizari Isma‘ilism became a radical and revolutionary force until finally defeated by the Mongols. It is said that Isma‘ili devotees, who would sacrifice their lives as martyrs and were called fada’iyan, assassinated their Sunni opponents who were oppressing them. The English word “assassin,” in fact, comes most likely from the name H. asan, although some Western scholars have claimed that it derives from hashish, which the assassins are said by their enemies to have taken before committing acts of assassination.

The revolutionary character of Isma‘ilism died down after the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century, and in Persia itself most Isma‘ilis went underground. Meanwhile, the Musta‘lis were flourishing in the Yemen. There was also a third group of Isma‘ilis, who had settled in Sindh and Gujrat in India in early Islamic history and also converted some Hindus to Isma‘ilism. This community was split later and the major group came to be known as the Sat Panth (True Path). This branch of Isma‘ilism was very eclectic in its practices, incorporating many Hindu themes. Its religious poetry, called the Ginan, has verses in which the major figures of Islamic sacred history such as ‘Ali are compared to and even identified with various Hindu avatars. By the nineteenth century the Persian and Yemeni branches of Isma‘ilism, known as the T. ayyibiyyah, were also centered in India, especially with the migration of the Aga Khan from Persia to India. One now has primarily two branches of Isma‘ilism, the Aga Khanid and the Bohras, both having their concentration of followers in India and to some extent Pakistan. But there are also notable Isma‘ili communities in Central Asia, Persia, Syria, East Africa, and Canada, to which many Isma‘ilis from East Africa migrated after the political tragedies of the 1960s and 1970s.

No one outside of the Isma‘ili community knows the exact number of Isma‘ilis, although, since their imam is alive and functioning as the head of the community, they are well organized and have a strong global network that embraces the whole community. Although their number is relatively small in comparison to the Ithna ‘ashariyyah, Isma‘ilis have played an important role in Islamic history, intellectually, artistically, and politically, and constitute, despite their relatively small number, a notable part of the Islamic spectrum.

Finally, the third branch of Shi‘ism, the Zaydi, chose Zayd, the son of the fourth Imam, as its leader. The Zaydis represent a moderate form of Shi‘ism and, in contrast to the Isma‘ilis, do not emphasize the esoteric over the exoteric dimension of the religion. They had many followers in Persia and the Arab East in the tenth century, but gradually they receded to the Yemen, where they constitute almost half the population today and where they ruled for a thousand years until 1962, following the Egyptian invasion of the Yemen. Zaydiism has its own school of law and theology as well as a political philosophy according to which any Muslim who is pious and learned and can defend the country and preserve peace and security can be accepted as imam and ruler.

Although the Zaydis and Isma‘ilis number in the few millions, Twelve-Imam Shi‘ism has some 150 million followers.

The history of its early expansion was less connected to political institutions than to the spread of its teachings by individual adherents. In fact, its political expression came later than both Zaydiism and Isma‘ilism. It was not until 1499 that the Safavids established themselves as rulers of Persia, which included not only present-day Iran, but also Afghanistan as well as parts of Pakistan, Caucasia, and Central Asia. They established Twelve-Imam Shi‘ism as the state religion and gave support to Shi‘ism elsewhere, especially in Iraq, over which they ruled for some time before losing it to the Ottomans. There were also local dynasties in India that were Twelve-Imam Shi‘ite. Consequently, the number of Twelve-Imam Shi‘ites rose considerably during the past few centuries and today it constitutes the vast majority of Shi‘ites throughout the world.


There is a hadith of the Prophet according to which his community would become divided into seventy-two groups, of which only one would possess the Truth, but this saying pertains more to theological(kalam) differences rather than to Shari‘ite ones. In practice there are far fewer sects in Islam than there are in Christianity, which has experienced continuous fragmentation and division within Protestantism since the Reformation. First of all, Sunnism and majority Shi‘ism must be understood as the orthodox mainstream and not as sects as this term is used in English.

In the context of Islam, the term “sect”(firqah) can be used in its classic sense to refer to small groups entertaining particular theological views that deviate from the general norm, or one can use this term in its current English usage to mean “a dissenting denomination” or “a schismatic group holding to a distinctive doctrine,” but apply it to the case of Islam. The classic meaning has to be put aside in a work such as this because the discussion of firaq (plural of firqah) in classical Islamic thought would require delving into minutiae of Islamic theology and sacred history with which we cannot be concerned here. It is, however, important, in order to understand all the details of the tapestry of the present-day Islamic world, to mention some of the more important small religious groups that qualify as sects as this term is currently understood in English.

There are, first of all, the remnants of the early Khawarij, who existed in the seventh century and opposed both Sunnism and Shi‘ism. At that time they were a revolutionary and violent movement with some following among the nomads. Later they settled down into established communities.

Today they are to be found mostly in southern Algeria and Oman and are known as ‘Ibadis. They have their own school of law and although they began as a sect, today they are closer to the mainstream than other sects.

Before modern times, most of the sects in Islam issued from extreme forms of Shi‘ism deviating in the direction of the divinization of ‘Ali or some other personage or in emphasizing some esoteric teachings without the appropriate exoteric ones. To this day there is a sect known as the ‘Aliallahi in Iraq and Iran that divinizes ‘Ali. The Druze, who live in southern Lebanon and Syria as well as northern Israel, broke away from Fat.imid Isma‘ilism and consider the seventh Fat.imid caliph, al-H. akim bi’Llah, to be a divine incarnation. In Turkey there are the ‘Alawis (not to be confused with the ‘Alawis of Syria or with the ‘Alawi Sufi orders). The Turkish ‘Alawis, who live mostly in central Anatolia, are remnants of Shi‘ites who, after the rise of the Safavids and the Ottoman opposition to them, became isolated and oppressed, forgetting many of the tenets of traditional Shi‘ism. The ‘Alawis of Syria, also known as Nus.ayris, who now hold political power in the country, were originally a pre-Islamic religious sect with roots in Gnosticism and Babylonian religions. They have survived by describing themselves as a school of Shi‘ism and have, in the past few decades, been trying to gain more Shi‘ite legitimacy.

There are other small communities of this kind in the Islamic world, such as the Yazidis of Iraq, the inhabitants of Kafirestan in northern Afghanistan, and the Sabaeans of Iraq and Iran. Like the Nus.ayris, they are remnants of

pre-Islamic religions and cannot properly be called Islamic sects. There are also groups of this kind among Muslims of Black Africa. It must be emphasized, however, that the number of all these and similar sects is quite small. They came to play a more prominent role only when they became a factor in the balance of power in local situations, as one sees in the case of the Druze in Lebanon as well as in Israel, or in the exceptional case of the ‘Alawis of Syria, a small sect that has been able to take hold of the reins of power. The case of the Taliban in Afghanistan presents another example of an extremist minority group that was able to dominate the country for several years.

In the early nineteenth century, one of the responses to the domination of the Islamic world by colonial powers was a wave of Mahdiism that swept over many Muslim lands. In certain areas it produced local Mahdis with considerable religious and political influence, as one sees in the case of ‘Uthman Dan Fadio, who changed the religious landscape of West Africa, or the Mahdi of the Sudan, whose followers play an important role in that country to this day. But such movements did not give rise to new sects. Movements that did, however, create sects include Babism in Persia and the Ah. madiyyah movement in the Punjab, the former issuing from a Shi‘ite and the latter from a Sunni background. In Persia there had developed already in the eighteenth century the Shaykhi movement, which was a very pious form of Shi‘ism with extreme emphasis on reverence for the Imams and an “anti-intellectual” attitude in theology and law. The movement remained, however, still within the fold of Twelve-Imam Shi‘ism. From its background there arose in the early decades of the nineteenth century the Babi movement, whose founder, Sayyid Muh.ammad Bab, claimed to be the bab, or “gate,” to the Mahdi. One of the Bab’s students, Baha’Allah , went further and declared himself not only the Mahdi, but a new prophet and founder of Baha’ism, which also exists in the West today, but which, although based on a Shi‘ite background, cannot be called Islamic. Rather, it is a modernist religious movement seeking to attach iself to certain of the prophetic and universalist principles of Islam, but not in the way that Muslims understand those principles.

The Ah.madiyyah movement, founded by Ghulam Ah.mad in what is now Pakistan, was in many ways a reaction to English missionary activity in India. Its founder claimed for himself a new Divine dispensation, if not an out-and-out prophetic mission. He established for the first time in Islam missionary activity along the lines of the Christian version.

Supported to a large extent for political reasons by the British, the Ah. madiyyah established the first major mosque in Britain, which still stands, and sent many missionaries to Africa as well as Europe. In practice the Ah. madiyyah, in contrast to Baha’is, follow Islamic practices, but their theological views are rejected by the mainstream Islamic community, especially their view that Christ migrated to and died in India and Ghulam Ah. mad’s subtle challenge to the finality of the prophethood of the Prophet of Islam. Since its inception, the status of the Ah. madiyyah has been somewhat ambiguous. Some Muslims have accepted them as an Islamic sect, although deviant in some ways, while others have declared that they

are not Muslims. In any case their status vis-à-vis Islam is different from that of Baha’ism, which separated itself clearly from Islam and cannot be considered in any way as a sect or branch of Islam.


In addition to those variations delineating Sunnism and Shi‘ism and the numerous sects, there have existed since the beginning of Islamic history, within the mainstream, different theologies and philosophies that have contributed to diversity within the Islamic world, even within a particular school of Law. When one thinks of Islam, it is important to remember that, on the intellectual and theological levels, as well as on the juridical one, Islam is not a monolithic structure, but displays remarkable diversity, the elements of which are bound together by the doctrine of tawhid, or unity. Over the centuries, Islam has created one of the richest intellectual traditions of the world, favorably comparable in its depth and diversity to those of India, China, and the Christian West. In medieval times, in fact, many Jewish and Christian theological and philosophical schools in Europe were created as a result of the influence of and in response to Islamic philosophical and theological teachings.

To discuss in depth all the different theological and philosophical schools or even the most important ones would not be possible here. What is important in the present context is to at least mention the best-known schools and point out that even on some of the most important central religious issues-the meaning of Divine Unity especially in relation to multiplicity, the nature of God’s Names and Qualities, the relation between faith and works in human salvation, predestination and free will, revelation and reason, the relation between God’s Mercy and His Justice, and questions of eschatology, not to mention political philosophy-there have existed numerous views, sometimes opposed to each other.

In theology, which in Islam is called ‘ilm al-kalam or simply kalam, there developed in the Sunni world in the eighth century, first of all, the Mu‘tazilite school, which favored extensive use of reason in the interpretation of religious matters, a position to which certain strict literalist interpreters of the Quran and Sunnah, such as the Hanbalis, were opposed. In fact, the Hanbalis have remained opposed to all forms of kalam until today, as has their Wahhabi offshoot.

To this day the teaching of any form of kalam is forbidden in religious universities in Saudi Arabia.

In the tenth century a new school of kalam called the Ash‘arite arose in Baghdad with the aim of creating a middle ground on many questions, such as the use of reason in religious matters. Ash‘arism, which many orientalists have identified with Islamic theological orthodoxy as such, spread quickly among the Shafi‘is and reached its peak in many ways with al-Ghazzali, who did, however, hold some non-Ash‘arite views, and with Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Gradually Ash‘arism spread among the Hanafis and Malikis as well and became the most widely held school of kalam in the Sunni world until the contemporary period. But there were also other Sunni schools of kalam that held sway in certain localities, such as Maturidism in Khurasan and Central Asia and T. ahawism in Egypt. Since the late nineteenth century, certain Muslim “reformers” such as Muh.ammad ‘Abduh of Egypt have sought to revive Mu‘tazilism, because it

made greater use of reason rather than relying predominately on the tenets of the revelation.

In Shi‘ism also, kalam has had a long history. Isma‘ili kalam, which began to be developed from the eighth century onward, was closely allied to Isma‘ili philosophy and took greater interest in what in the West would be called mystical theology than Sunni schools of kalam. As for Twelve-Imam Shi‘ite kalam, it developed along more intellectual lines than Ash‘arite kalam and received its systematic formulation in the thirteenth century in the hands of al-Din T. usi, who was also one of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians, and astronomers of Islam. The Zaydis adopted more or less Mu‘tazilite kalam, which therefore survived in the Yemen long after it had become eclipsed by Ash‘arism after the eleventh century in the intellectual centers of the heartland of the Islamic world in the Arab East and Persia.

Islamic philosophy was developed by Islamic thinkers rooted in the Quranic revelation and meditating upon translations of Greek and Syriac texts into Arabic. The result was the integration of ideas drawn mostly from Pythagoreanism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, and to some extent Stoicism into the Quranic worldview and the creation of new philosophical perspectives.

Various schools were developed, starting with the Peripatetic (mashsha’i) and Isma‘ili from the ninth century onward. This early period produced such famous philosophers as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina(Avicenna) , and Ibn Rushd(Averroës) , whose influence on the medieval West was immense. One cannot conceive of either the Christian philosophy of the Middle Ages and such figures as Albert the Great, St. Thomas, and Duns Scotus or medieval Jewish philosophy as represented by such masters as Ibn Gabirol and Maimonides (who wrote his most famous work, The Guide of the Perplexed, first in Arabic), without consideration of the influence of early Islamic philosophy and to some extent kalam upon them.

Although the influence of Islamic philosophy upon the West came more or less to an end in the thirteenth century with the translation of Averroës and earlier Islamic philosophers into Latin, Islamic philosophy itself not only did not come to an end, but was revived in the eastern lands of Islam and especially Persia. In the twelfth century Suhrawardi founded a new school of philosophy called the School of Illumination(ishraq) and in the seventeenth century S. adr al-Din Shirazi created a major synthesis of philosophy, doctrinal Sufism or gnosis in the sense of illuminative and unitive knowledge (‘irfan), and theology in a new school he called “the transcendent theosophy” (al-h. ikmat al-muta‘aliyah). Both of these schools are still very much alive and have played a major role in the intellectual life of Persia, India, and as far as the school of ishraq is concerned, to some extent, Ottoman Turkey.

Another major school that developed in the later history of Islam is doctrinal Sufism, or gnosis, associated with, more than anyone else, the name of the thirteenth-century Andalusian Sufi Muh. yi al-Din ibn ‘Arabi, the most influential intellectual figure in Islam during the past seven centuries.

His teachings spread from Sumatra and China to Mali and Mauritania, and his school produced numerous major thinkers and poets in nearly every Islamic land.

All of these schools of kalam, philosophy, and gnosis along with the philosophy of law, methods of Quranic commentary, and the study of other transmitted sciences with which we cannot deal here, as well as various schools of the sciences from medicine to astronomy, all of which are so important for both Islam and the development of science in the West, had both their adherents and opponents, and all of them must be seen as so many strands in the total tapestry of the Islamic intellectual tradition. Although they were all concerned with either the intellectual aspects of the religion, the cosmos in light of the truths of revelation, or purely theoretical knowledge, they often also exercised either direct or indirect influence on the popular level. In any case, their diversity must be considered when studying the spectrum of Islam in its totality. Their very existence also demonstrates the remarkably open universe of intellectual discourse within the framework of the Islamic tradition, an openness that marked many periods of Islamic history yet did not lead to rebellion against the sacred framework established by Islam, as was to happen in Christianity in the West after the Middle Ages.


The question of orthodoxy in any religion is of the utmost importance, for the very word means “correctness of belief or doctrine.” If there is truth, there is also error, and if nothing is false, then there is no truth. As the Quran says, “The truth has come and falsehood has perished” (17:81).

Orthodoxy means possession of religious truth, and orthopraxy, the correct manner of practicing and reaching the truth. In the context of the totality of the Islamic tradition and in light of what has been said of the spectrum of Islam, orthodoxy and orthopraxy can be understood as the state of being on the “straight path” (al-s.irat. al-mustaqim); Islam itself is sometimes called the “religion of the straight path.”

There is no magisterium in Islam, as there is in Catholicism, to determine the correctness of doctrine, and on the level of belief and doctrine Islam has been less stringent than Catholicism in determining what is orthodox. Usually acceptance of the testifications of faith, that is, “There is no god but God” and “Muh.ammad is His Messenger,” has sufficed, even if opposition has been made to other beliefs and interpretations of a particular person or group. Like Judaism, Islam has insisted more on the importance of orthopraxy than orthodoxy. Although it has been lenient on the level of orthodoxy as long as the principle of tawhid and the messengership of the Prophet have been accepted, it has been more stringent on the level of practice of the daily prayers, fasting, pilgrimage, and so forth; in observing dietary laws such as abstention from pork and alcoholic drinks; and in following moral laws dealing with sexual relations, theft, murder, and so on.

As to what plays the role of the magisterium in Islam, the best response is the ummah, or the Islamic community itself, and for Shi‘ism the guidance of the Imam. Throughout Islamic history, the consensus of the community has decided in the long run what new interpretations of the Quran andSunnah on the level of both thought and action are permissible and what is to be rejected. But this action by the community must always remain subservient to the teachings of God’s Word and those of His Prophet. At that level any innovation (bid‘ah) has always been seen as a major sin and deviation from the “straight path,” but the strong rejection of bid‘ah in its technical religious sense has never meant opposition to adaptation and application of the immutable principles of Islam to new conditions and situations, as has happened often throughout Islamic history.

With these definitions in mind, we can now turn to the spectrum of Islam and pose the question “What constitutes orthodox Islam?” In most Western studies, orthodoxy is limited to its exoteric aspect, and when Islam is considered, the four Sunni schools of Law alone are considered orthodox.

But this appraisal is totally inadequate. There is an exoteric orthodoxy and orthopraxy and there is an esoteric orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Traditional and orthodox Sufism is not only part of Islamic orthodoxy, but is its heart and must not be seen as analogous to various mystical and occult manifestations in postmedieval Christianity that are called heterodox. Sufism is as much a part of Islamic orthodoxy as Franciscan or Dominican spirituality was part of Catholic orthodoxy in the Middle Ages.

To understand the position of Shi‘ism within the Islamic tradition, one must compare it not to Protestantism, which arose many centuries after the foundation of Christianity as a protest against Catholicism, but to Eastern Orthodoxy, which has been there from the beginning. Although Catholicism and Orthodoxy have been at odds with each other for nearly one thousand years, both belong to the totality of Christian orthodoxy. The same holds true for Sunnism and mainstream Shi‘ism of the Twelve-Imam School. One might say that in the middle of the spectrum of Islam as far as orthodoxy and heterodoxy are concerned stand Sunnism and Twelve-Imam Shi‘ism. On the side of Sunnism leaning in the direction of extremism stand the Khawarij and similar groups, and on the side of Shi‘ism after the Zaydis and moderate Isma‘ilis stand those called Shi‘ite extremists(ghulat) , including eclectic forms of Isma‘ilism and the various sects described above. Certainly on the formal and exoteric level all the four schools of Sunni Law, Twelve-Imam Shi‘ism, Zaydiism, as well as those at the two sides of the central bands of the spectrum, whether they be Isma‘ilis or ‘Ibadis, as long as they practice theShari‘ah , belong to the category of Islamic orthodoxy, as does of course all normative Sufism that bases itself on the practice of Shari‘ite injunctions. In fact, because of the centrality of orthopraxy one could say that Muslims who practice theShari‘ah belong also to Islamic orthodoxy as long as they do not flout the major doctrines of the faith such as the Prophet being the seal of prophecy, as do the Ah. madiyyah.

The use of such terms as “heterodox” and “sect” must be weighed closely in light of the nature and structure of the Islamic tradition. One should never refer to Shi‘ism as a whole as a sect, any more than one would call the Greek Orthodox Church a sect. Nor should one call Sufism heterodox, unless one is pointing to a particular figure or group which has adopted either beliefs or practices that are indeed heterodox as judged by the consensus, or ijma‘, of the mainstream community on the basis of the Quran and the Sunnah, but such a phenomenon pales into insignificance when compared with the vast reality of Sufism.

Authentic esoterism, far from being heterodox, lies at the heart of orthodoxy and orthopraxy in their most universal sense.


People often speak of Arabic, Persian, or Turkish Islam as if they were three Islams. In reality there is only one Islam, but with local coloring related to the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural traits of the different peoples who became part of the Islamic community. Wherever Islam went, it did not seek to level the existing cultural structures to the ground, but to preserve and transform them as long as they did not oppose the spirit and form of the Islamic revelation. The result was the creation of a single Islamic identity. The vast area of the “Abode of Islam” (dar al-islam ) therefore came to display remarkable diversity on the human plane while reflecting everywhere the one message of the Quran revealed through the Prophet. This cultural and ethnic diversification must therefore be added to all of the factors already mentioned to make clearer the patterns that, superimposed upon each other, have created the great diversity in unity found in Islam.

The first cultural zone in the Islamic world is the Arabic zone, which stretches from Iraq and the Persian Gulf to Mauritania and before 1492 into the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. Needless to say, in contrast to what many in the West think, the Arab world is not by any means synonymous with the Islamic world. In fact, Arab Muslims constitute less than a fifth of all Muslims, being around 220 million in number, but since the Quran was revealed to the Arab Prophet of Islam and the first Islamic society was established in Arabia, the Arabic zone of the “Abode of Islam” is the oldest part of the Islamic community and remains central to it. One of the great mysteries of early Islamic history is that as the Arab armies came out of Arabia, the lands that they conquered to the north and the west became both Islamicized and Arabized. The word “Arab” is a linguistic and not an ethnic term when used in a phrase like “the Arab world.” There was also much Arab migration into this world, but what made it decisively Arab was the adoption of the Arabic language from Morocco to Iraq. Even a country with such an unparalleled ancient past as Egypt became Arab and in fact remains to this day the center of Arabic culture. In contrast, the people of the Persian Empire under the Sassanids, who were conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century, became Muslim, but they did not adopt the Arabic language. Rather, they developed Persian on the basis of earlier Iranian languages and retained a distinct cultural zone of their own. Iraq was the only exception. Although the seat of the Sassanid capital, it became Arab and in fact the center of the ‘Abbasid caliphate, but it always retained strong Persian elements.

It is interesting to compare this development with the spread of Christianity into Europe. Through becoming Christian, Europe also became to some extent a part of the Abrahamic world, but remained less Semiticized than the non-Arab Muslims who embraced Islam, because through St. Paul Christianity itself had already become less “Semitic” before spreading into Europe. That is why the Christianization of Europe was not accompanied by the spread of Aramaic or some other Semitic language in the same way that Arabic spread in the Near East and Africa and also among Persians and Indians, who belonged to the same linguistic and racial stock as the Europeans.

Not only were the Gospels written in Greek and not Aramaic, which Christ spoke, but also the Bible itself was translated early into Latin as the Vulgate and became linguistically severed from its origin. Latin became the closest in its role as the language of religion and learning in the West to what Arabic was in the Islamic world, with the major difference that Arabic is the sacred language of Islam as Hebrew is that of Judaism, whereas Latin is a liturgical language of Christianity along with several other liturgical languages such as Greek and Slavonic. The Arabization of what is now the Arab world and the significance of Arabic among non-Arab Muslims cannot therefore be equated with the Christianization of Europe and the role of Latin in the medieval West, although there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between the two worlds.

The Arabic zone, characterized by the use of Arabic as not only the language of religion, which is common to all Muslims, but also as the language of daily life, is further divided into an eastern and a western part, with the line of demarcation being in the middle of Libya. The western lands, called in classical Arabic al-Maghrib, that is, “the West,” are further divided into the “near West,” including western Libya, Tunisia, and most of Algeria, and “the far West,” including western Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and in earlier periods of Islamic history al-Andalus, or Muslim Iberia. Also within the western zone are important non-Arab groups, the most important being the Berber, who inhabit mostly the Atlas Mountains and who have their own distinct language.

The second zone of Islamic culture, whose people were the second ethnic group to embrace Islam and to participate with the Arabs in building classical Islamic civilization, is the Persian zone, consisting of present-day Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan (with certain cities in Uzbekistan).

The dominant language of the people of all these countries is Persian, known locally by three different names, Farsi, Dari, and Tajik, all of which are the same language; the differences between them are no greater than differences between the English of Australia, England, and Texas. This zone also included southern Caucasia, the old Khorasan, Transoxiana, and parts of what is today Pakistan before the migration south of Turkic people from the tenth and eleventh centuries and subsequent ethnic and geopolitical changes. The people of this zone are predominantly of the Iranian race, which is a branch of the Aryan or Indo-Iranian-European peoples, and Persian is related to the Indo-European languages as are other Iranian languages spoken in this zone, such as Kurdish, Baluchi, and Pashtu.

This zone has a population of some 100 million people, but its influence is felt strongly beyond its borders in other zones of Islamic culture in Asia from the Turkic and the Indian to the Chinese.

The first Persian to embrace Islam was Salman-i Farsi, a slave whom the Prophet caused to become free, making him a member of his “Household.” From the beginning the Persians were deeply respectful of the “Family of the Prophet” and many of the descendants of the Prophet, including the eighth Imam, ‘Ali al-Rid.a, are buried in Persia.

But it would be false to think that the Persians were always Shi‘ites and the Arabs Sunnis. Shi‘ism began among Arabs and in the tenth century

much of the Arab east was Shi‘ite, while Khorasan, a major Persian province, was the seat of Sunni thought. It is only after the establishment of the Safavids that Persia became predominantly Shi‘ite and this majority increased when Afghanistan, a part of Baluchistan, and much of Central Asia, which were predominantly Sunni, were separated from Persia, and Iran in its present form was created. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, during the Safavid period until the eighteenth century it was part of Persia. Then the leader of the Afghan tribes defeated the Safavids and killed the last Safavid king.

Shortly thereafter Nadir Shah, the last oriental conqueror, recaptured lands all the way to Delhi, including what is today Afghanistan. After his death, however, eastern Afghanistan became independent, and in the nineteenth century finally, under British pressure, Persia relinquished its claim on Herat and western Afghanistan, and thereafter Afghanistan as we now know it came into being.

The third zone of Islamic culture is that of Black Africa.

Among the entourage of the Prophet, in addition to Salman, there was another famous companion who was not Arab. He was Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi, the muezzin or caller to prayer of the Prophet, who was a Black African.

His presence symbolized the rapid spread of Islam among the Blacks and the creation of the Black African zone of Islamic culture, encompassing a vast area from the highlands of Ethiopia, where Islam spread already in the seventh century, to Mali and Senegal. The descendants of Bilal are said to have migrated to Mali, forming the Mandinka clan Keita, which helped create the Mali Empire. Some of the companions of the Prophet also migrated to Chad and established Islam there a generation after the Prophet.

Altogether Islam spread in Black Africa mostly through trade, and such tribes as the Sanhaja, who themselves embraced Islam early, became intermediaries between Arab Muslims to the north and Black Africans. By the eleventh century a powerful Islamic kingdom was established in Ghana, and by the fourteenth century the Mali Empire, which was Muslim, was one of the richest in the world; its most famous ruler, Mansa Musa, one of the most notable rulers in the whole of the Islamic world.

In East Africa, which received Islam earlier than West Africa, the process of Islamization took a different path and was influenced greatly by the migration of both Arabs and Persians into the coastal areas of West Africa. By the twelfth century a Swahili kingdom was established with its capital in Kilwa, and from the mixture of Arabic, Persian, and Bantu the new Swahili language, perhaps the most important Islamic language of Muslim Black Africa, was born.

But in contrast to the Arab and Persian worlds, where one language dominates, the Black African zone of Islamic culture consists of many subzones with very distinct languages ranging from Hausa and Fulani to Somali. Some of these languages are also spoken by Christians and are culturally signficant for African Christianity.

Although the north of the African continent was already Arab a century after the rise of Islam, the area called classically the Sudan, which included

the steppes and the grasslands from present-day Sudan to Senegal, also became to a large extent Muslim over a millennium ago. It is, however, only since the nineteenth century that Islam has begun to penetrate inland into the forest regions south of the classical Sudan. There are of course also intermediate regions between the Arabic north and Black Africa where the two zones become intermingled, such as present-day Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia. The zone of Black African Islamic culture with a population of well over 150 million people is bewilderingly diverse and presents a remarkable panorama of ethnic and cultural diversity within the local unity of Black African culture and the universal unity of Islam itself.

The fourth zone of Islamic culture is the Turkic zone, embracing all the people who speak one of the Altaic languages, of which the most important is Turkish, but which also include Adhari(Azeri) , Chechen, Uighur, Uzbek, Kirghiz, and Turkeman. The Turkic people, who were originally nomadic, migrated south from the Altai Mountains to conquer Central Asia from the Persians, changing its ethnic nature but remaining culturally very close to the Persian world. By the time they had entered the Persia of that historical period, they had already embraced Islam and in fact became its great champions. Not only did they defeat local Persian rulers such as the Samanids, but they soon pushed westward toward Anatolia, defeating the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert (Malazgirt in Turkish) in 1071. This was one of the pivotal battles of Islamic history. It opened the Anatolian pasturelands to the Turkic nomads and led to the Turkification of Anatolia, the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, and finally to the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The Turks were powerful militarily and ruled over many Muslim lands, including Persia and Egypt, and their role in later Islamic history can hardly be exaggerated. Today the Turkic peoples, composed of more than 150 million people, are spread from Macedonia to Siberia and all the way to Vladivostok and are geographically the most widespread ethnic and cultural group within the Islamic world. There are notable Turkic groups also within other areas that are not majority Turkic, including Persia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Russia, which has important Turkic minorities who are remnants of people conquered during the expansion of the Russian Empire under the czars.

The fifth major zone of Islamic culture is that of the Indian subcontinent. Already in the first decade of the eighth century, the army of Muh.ammad ibn Qasim had conquered Sindh, and thus began the penetration of Islam into the subcontinent during the next few centuries, but Islam spread throughout India mostly through Sufi orders.

There were also invasions by various Turkic rulers into India, and from the eleventh century onward and until the British colonization of India Muslim rulers dominated over much of India, especially the north, where the Moghuls established a major empire in the sixteenth century. Indian Islam is ethnically mostly homogeneous, with some Persian and Turkic elements added to the local Indian population, but it is culturally and linguistically very diverse. For nearly a thousand years the intellectual and literary language of Indian Muslims was Persian, but several local languages, such as Sindhi, Gujrati, Punjabi, and Bengali, also gained some

prominence as Islamic languages. Gradually, from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a new language was born of the wedding of the Indian languages and Persian with Turkic elements added and became known as Urdu.

Written in the Arabic-Persian script, Urdu became, like Swahili, Ottoman Turkish, and several other Islamic languages, a major language of Islamic discourse and was later adopted as the official language of Pakistan. The Indian zone of Islamic culture includes Pakistan, Bangladesh, Muslims of India and Nepal, and the deeply rooted Islamic community of Sri Lanka. There are some 400 million Muslims in this region, more than in any other. The reason for this vast population is the rapid rise of the general population in all of India since the nineteenth century, including both Hindus and Muslims, and the fact that more than one-fourth of Indians had embraced Islam, which was able to provide providentially a path of salvation for those who could no longer function within the world of traditional Hinduism. They have created some of the greatest works of Islamic art and culture, and although ruled often by Turkic dynasties, they have been very close in cultural matters to the Persian world until modern times.

The sixth zone of Islamic culture embraces the Malay world in Southeast Asia. Islamicized by Arab traders from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea and also by merchants and Sufis from India from the thirteenth century onward, Malay Islam displays again much ethnic homogeneity and possesses local traits all its own. Influenced deeply from the beginning by Sufism, which played a major role in the spread of Islam into that world, Malay Islam has usually reflected a mild and gentle aspect also in conformity with the predominant ethnic characteristics of the people. Dominated by Malay and Javanese languages, Malay Islam embraces Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and sizable minorities in Thailand as well as the Philippines and smaller minorities in Cambodia and Vietnam. Altogether there are over 220 million Muslims in this zone, and although this part of the Islamic world is a relative newcomer to the “Abode of Islam,” its adherents are known for their close attachment to Mecca and Medina and love for the Prophetic traditions.

As is the case with Africa and India, Malay Islam is highly influenced and colored operatively and intellectually by Sufism.

Besides these six major zones of Islamic culture, a few smaller ones must also be mentioned. One is Chinese Islam, whose origin goes back to the seventh century, when soon after the advent of Islam Muslim merchants settled in Chinese ports such as Canton. There has been a continuous presence of Islam in China since that time, but mostly in Sinkiang, which Muslim geographers call Eastern Turkistan.

The Islamic population of China includes both people of Turkic origin, such as the Uigurs, and native Chinese called Hui. Even among the Hans there are some Muslims. The number of Muslims in China remains a great mystery and figures from 25 to 100 million have been mentioned. There is a distinct Chinese Islamic architecture and calligraphy as well as a whole intellectual tradition closely allied to Persian Sufism. The Islamic

intellectual tradition in China began to express itself in classical Chinese rather than Persian and Arabic only from the seventeenth century onward.

Then there are the European Muslims-not Turkish enclaves found in Bulgaria, Greece, and Macedonia, but European ethnic groups-that have been Muslims for half a millennium. The most important among these groups are the Albanians, found throughout Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia, and Bosnians, found mostly in Bosnia but to some extent also in Croatia and Serbia. These groups are ethnically of European stock, and the understanding of their culture is important for a better comprehension of both the spectrum of Islam in its totality and the rapport between Islam and the West in today’s Europe.

Finally, there are the new Islamic communities in Europe and America, including both immigrants and converts (or what many Muslims prefer to call reverts, that is, those who have gone back or reverted to the primordial religion, which is identified here with Islam). These include several million North Africans in France, some 3 million Turks and a sizable number of Kurds in Germany, some 2 million mostly from the Indian subcontinent in Great Britain, and smaller but nevertheless sizable populations in other European countries. In America there are both immigrants, mostly from the Arab East, Iran, and the subcontinent, and converts, primarily among African Americans but also some among whites. The spread of Islam among African Americans began with Elijah Muhammad, who created the Nation of Islam, which espouses reverse racism against whites. This movement later split into two groups and most of its members, along with other African American Muslims, soon joined the mainstream of Islam.

In this process the role of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, was of particular significance. There are some 25 million Muslims in Europe, some 6 million (although some have claimed other figures ranging from 5 to 7 million) in America, half a million in Canada, and perhaps over 2 million in South America. To view the spectrum of Islam globally, it is necessary to consider also these Islamic communities in the West, especially since they play such an important role as a bridge between the “Abode of Islam” (dar al-islam ), from which they come, and the West, which is their home.

These zones of Islamic culture described briefly here display a bewildering array of ethnicities, languages, forms of

art and music, and differing habitats for human life. Islam is practiced from the jungles of Borneo to the Hindu Kush mountains to the deserts of Mauritania. It includes whites, blacks, yellow-skinned people, and practically every intermediary type. Its followers have black as well as blond hair, brown as well as blue eyes. But within this remarkable diversity there reigns the unity created by Islam, a unity that can be seen in the recitation of the Quran in Arabic from east to west, in the daily prayers in the direction of Mecca, in the emulation of the single model of the Prophet, in the following of theShari‘ah , in the spiritual perfume of the Sufi orders, in the universal patterns and rhythms of Islamic art, and in many other factors. Unity in Islam has never meant uniformity and has always embraced diversity. To understand both this unity and this diversity within unity is to grasp the way in which Islam has been able to encompass so many human collectivities, to respect God-given differences and yet create a vast civilization unified and dominated by the principle of tawhid, or unity.


All that has been said thus far provides the necessary context and framework for understanding the recent developments in the Islamic world. Until the impact of European colonialism on the heart of the Islamic world, there were those who fought against Western rule in the extremities of the “Abode of Islam,” but there were no Muslim modernists or fundamentalists. Muslims were all traditional and fitted into the complex pattern of the spectrum of Islam outlined above. But with the advent of European domination of the heartland of Islam, represented by the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798, the period of diverse reactions and interpretations leading to the contemporary period began.

The European encroachment upon the Islamic world had actually begun over two and a half centuries earlier with the Portuguese and later Dutch and British domination of the Indian Ocean, which had been a major economic lifeline for Islamic civilization. There had also been European invasions of North Africa, the decisive defeat of the Ottoman navy in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, which cut the Ottomans off from the western Mediterranean, and the defeat of the Ottomans in their siege of Vienna in 1683, which marked the beginning of the waning of their power. But none of these events, nor the Dutch colonization of the East Indies, nor British penetration into India, moved the minds and souls of Muslims as did the conquest of Egypt. That event awakened Muslims to a challenge without precedence in their history.

The Quran states, “If God aideth you, no one shall overcome you” (3:159). In the eyes of Muslims, twelve centuries of Islamic history had demonstrated the legitimacy of their claim and the truth of their call. God had been “on their side” and aided them over all those centuries, notwithstanding the defeat of Muslims in Spain and the destruction of the Tartar kingdom by the Russians, because these were at the margins of the world of Islam and lack of internal unity was considered as the reason for these defeats.

Otherwise, wherever Islam had gone, it had become victorious; even the powerful Mongols had soon embraced Islam. But these Europeans, whom Muslims had neglected for so long and considered their cultural inferiors, were now dominating the Islamic world and there was no possibility of their accepting Islam as the Turks or Mongols had. They claimed themselves to be superior and were so proud of their own culture that they showed no interest in anything else. This situation created a crisis of cosmic proportions with eschatological overtones.

Several attitudes could have been taken in face of this crisis, and in fact every one of them was adopted by one group or another. One view held that Muslims had become weak because they had strayed from the original message of the faith and had become corrupted by luxury and deviations.

This was the position of the so-called puritanical reformists, of whom the most famous, the eighteenthcentury Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab from Najd, lived in fact before the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt at the end of the

eighteenth century, but whose message sought to respond to causes for Muslim weakness. Although his message remained mostly in Arabia, this type of puritanical reformism, which was usually against Sufism, Shi‘ism, Islamic philosophy and theology, and the refinement of classical Islamic cities as demonstrated in the arts, became known as the Salafiyyah, that is, those who follow the early predecessors, or salaf, disregarding the thirteen or fourteen centuries of development of the Islamic tradition from its Quranic and Prophetic roots.

A second possibility was to turn to eschatologicalhadiths concerning the end of the world, when, it was said, oppression would reign everywhere and Muslims would become weakened and dominated by others. As a result of this focus, a wave of Mahdiism swept across some areas of the Islamic world in the early nineteenth century, ranging from the Brelvi movement in the northwestern province of present-day Pakistan; to the movements of Ghulam Ah.mad and the Bab already mentioned; to uprisings by major figures in West Africa, of whom the most significant, although his career began somewhat earlier, was ‘Uthman Dan Fadio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, whose influence spread even to the Caribbean; to the Mahdiist movement of the Sudan, which inflicted the only defeat on the British army in the nineteenth century. As with every millennialist movement, this Mahdiist wave gradually died down, in this case by the second half of the nineteenth century.

The third possibility was to say, in the manner of European modernists, that the regulations of Islam were for the seventh century and times had changed; therefore religion had to be reformed and modernized. The modernists began in Egypt, the most famous of whom were Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who was of Persian origin, and Muh.ammad ‘Abduh. They also appeared in Ottoman Turkey, especially within the Young Turk movement; in India, with such figures as Sir Sayyid Ah.mad Khan; and in Persia, which produced several other figures besides al-Afghani, whose effect was, however, more local. These modernists varied in their degree of modernism and approach, but in general they were great admirers of the West and of rationalism, nationalism, and modern science. The most philosophical of all of them was Muh.ammad Iqbal, who belongs to the end of this first period of response to the West, which lasted until World War II. When Western scholars speak of Islamic reformers, they have mostly such figures in mind, along with the so-called puritanical reformers. From the ranks of the modernists rose nationalists and liberal thinkers, men who sought to modernize Islamic society, on the one hand, and fight against the West in the name of national independence, on the other. The colonial wars fought against Western powers for national independence by such figures as Ataturk, Sukarno, Bourgiba, and others were carried out in the name of nationalism, not Islam.

Consequently, when Western powers left their colonies, at least outwardly, in many areas they left behind them ruling groups who were Muslim in name, but whose thinking was more like that of the colonizers they had replaced.

There were, of course, also groups of fighters for independence who were not modernists at all, but traditional Muslims, often associated with various Sufi orders. They usually carried out military resistance to preserve their homelands with a degree of nobility and magnanimity that deeply impressed their European enemies. One can cite as a supreme example of this type Amir ‘Abd al-Qadir, the great Algerian freedom fighter and Sufi sage; his opponent, a French general, wrote back to Paris saying that fighting against the Amir was like confronting one of the prophets of the Old Testament. Another notable example is Imam Shamil, who fought for years in Caucasia against Russian encroachment. The example of the saintly nature of these men and the manner in which they treated their enemies as well as noncombatants, no matter what the other side was doing, is of the utmost importance for Muslims as well as Westerners to remember in the present-day situation.

Most of the Islamic world in the period between, let us say, 1800 and World War II did not react in any of the three manners described above. They were the traditional Muslims for whom the life of theShari‘ah as well as the Tariqah continued in its time-honored manner. There were, of course, continuous renewals from within that must not, however, be confused with reform in its modern sense. Many great scholars of Law continued to appear and Sufism was rejuvenated in several areas, especially in the Maghrib and West and East Africa, as we see in the rise of the Tijaniyyah and Sanusiyyah orders as well as the appearance of such great masters as Shaykh al-Darqawi, Shaykh Ahmad al-‘Alawi, and Shaykh Salamah al-Rad.i, all of whom revived the Shadhiliyyah Order. Nevertheless, the modus vivendi of traditional Muslims was not reaction, but continuation of the traditional Islamic modes of life and thought.

After World War II most Islamic countries had become politically free, except for Algeria, which gained its independence in 1962 after a war that cost a million lives, and Muslim areas within the Communist world. The general population of Muslims had expected that with political independence would come cultural, social, and economic independence as well. When the reverse occurred, that is, when with the advent of political independence Westernized classes began ruling over a deeply pious public, as can be seen in countries as different as Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan, major reactions set in that can be seen throughout the Islamic world to this day.

The old modernist and liberal schools of thought became discredited, as did the modernists as a political class, which had failed to solve any of the major problems that society faced in addition to suffering humiliating defeats, especially in the several Arab-Israeli wars. Nevertheless, modernism continued, often with a new Marxist component, and remained powerful because it controlled and still controls the state apparatus in most Muslim lands. But its intellectual and social power began to wane and weaken nearly everywhere except in Turkey, where Ataturk’s secularism remains strong, held in place by the force of the army. Iran was the first country in which a political revolution removed the modernist government in favor of an Islamic one. A process of internal Islamization also took

place, gradually and without revolutionary upheaval, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, the Sudan, Jordan, Egypt, and some other countries, and that process continues.

As for what is called “fundamentalism,” the earlier form of it as found in Saudi Arabia became transformed in many ways. By the 1960s there was a general malaise in the Islamic world caused by the simple emulation of a West, which, according to its leading thinkers, did not know where it was going itself. Many people, even among the modernized classes, turned back to Islam to find solutions to the existential problems posed by life itself and more particularly the actual situation of Muslims. The desire of the vast majority of people was to be left alone to solve the problems of the Islamic world, to preserve the religion of Islam, including the revival of theShari‘ah , and to rebuild Islamic civilization, but the dominant civilization of the West hardly allowed such a thing to take place. Many organizations were nevertheless established to pursue these ends by peaceful means, chief among them the Ikhwan al-Muslimin, or Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in the 1920s by H. asan al-Banna’, and the Jama‘at-i islami, founded by Mawlana Mawdudi in 1941, both of which remain powerful to this day.

In the past few decades this desire to preserve religion, re-Islamicize Islamic society, and reconstruct Islamic civilization has drawn a vast spectrum of people into its fold, all of whom are now branded indiscriminately in the West as “fundamentalist.” The majority of such people, however, pursue nonviolent means to achieve their goals, as do most Christian, Jewish, or Hindu “fundamentalists.” But there are also those who take recourse to violent action, nearly always when they are trying to defend their homeland, as in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, Kosovo, or the southern Philippines, or sometimes in exasperation to defend their faith and traditional cultural values, as one sees in occasional violent eruptions in Indonesia, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

But to act Islamically is to act in defense. Those who inflict harm upon the innocent, no matter how just their cause might be, are going against the clear teachings of the Quran and theShari‘ah concerning peace and war (to which we turn later in Chapter 6). In any case, the unfortunate use of the term “fundamentalism,” drawn originally from American Protestantism, for Islam cannot now be avoided, but it is of the utmost importance to realize that it embraces very different phenomena and must not be confused with the demonizing usage of the term in the Western media.

Disappointment among Muslims with the lack of true freedom after the attainment of political freedom after World War II also led to a new wave of Mahdiism, as seen in the coming of Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran at the time of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 (which was a major event in modern history and which definitely possessed eschatological overtones), the taking over of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1980, and the appearance of Mahdi-like figures in Nigeria during the last two decades.

There is no doubt that there is again a presence of Mahdiism in the air throughout the Islamic world, as there are millennialist expectations among both Jews and Christians today.

As for traditional Islam, in contrast to the first phase of the encounter with the West, from the 1960s onward it began to manifest itself in the public intellectual arena and to challenge both the modernists and the so-called fundamentalists.

Scholars deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition but also well acquainted with the West began to defend the integral Islamic tradition, the Tariqah as well as theShari‘ah , the intellectual disciplines as well as the traditional arts. At the same time they began in-depth criticism not of Christianity or Judaism, but of secularist modernism, which was first incubated and grew in the West, but later spread to other continents. Such scholars base themselves on the universality of revelation stated in the Quran and seek to reject the substitution of the “kingdom of man” for the “Kingdom of God” as posited by modern secularism. Their criticisms of the modern world have drawn much from Western critics of modernism, rationalism, and scientism, including not only such traditionalists as René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, and Martin Lings, but also such well-known European and American critics of the modernist project, including modern science and technology, as Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, and Theodore Roszak. The traditional Islamic response began with those trained in Western-style educational organizations, but during the past two decades has come to also include figures from among the class of religious scholars, or ‘ulama’, and traditional Sufis. These scholars and leaders seek to preserve the rhythm of traditional Islamic life as well as its intellectual and spiritual traditions and find natural allies in Judaism and Christianity in confronting the challenges of modern secularism as well as globalization.

The great majority of Muslims today still belong to the traditionalist category and must be distinguished from both secularist modernizers and “fundamentalists,” as the latter term is now used in the Western media. In fact, it would be the greatest error to fail to distinguish the traditionalists from the “fundamentalists” and to include anyone who wishes to preserve the traditional Islamic way of life and thought in the “fundamentalist” category. It would be as if in contemporary Catholicism one were to call Padre Pio and Mother Teresa “fundamentalists” because they insisted on preserving traditional Catholic teachings. It is essential to realize that the notion of extremism implies a center, or median, of the spectrum; phenomena are judged “extreme” according to their distance, on either side, from this designated center. Unfortunately in the Western media today, that center is usually defined as the modernizing elements in Islamic society, and it is forgotten that modernism is itself one of the most fanatical, dogmatic, and extremist ideologies that history has ever seen. It seeks to destroy every other point of view and is completely intolerant toward any Weltanschauung that opposes it, whether it is that of the Native Americans, whose whole world was forcibly crushed by it, or Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam, or for that matter traditional Christianity or Judaism. Orthodox Jews have as much difficulty resisting the constant assault of modern secularism upon their worldview and religious practices as do Hindus or Muslims. If one is going to speak of “fundamentalism” in religions, then one must include “secularist fundamentalism,” which is no less virulently proselytizing and aggressive

toward anything standing in its way than the most fanatical form of religious “fundamentalism.”

In the case of Islam, there are today certainly religious extremists of different kinds, but they do not define the mainstream, or center, of Islam. That center belongs to traditional Islam. And that center is the one against which one should view fanatical religious extremism, on the one side, and the rabid secularist modernism found in most Islamic countries, but especially in such places as Turkey, Tunisia, and Algeria, on the other. Traditional Islam is not opposed to what the West wishes to do within its own borders, but to the corrosive influences emanating from modern and postmodern Western culture, now associated so much with what is called globalization, that threaten Islamic values, just as they threaten Christian and Jewish values in the West itself. But the philosophy of defense of traditional Islam has always been to keep within the boundaries of Islamic teachings.

Its method of combat has been and remains primarily intellectual and spiritual, and when it has been forced to take recourse to physical action in the form of defense of its home and shelter, its models have been the Amir ‘Abd al-Qadirs and Imam Shamils, not the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution or homegrown models of Che Guevara.

To understand events in the Islamic world today, even the most outrageous and evil actions carried out in the name of Islam, it is necessary to have a context within which to place these actions, in the same way that Westerners are able to place Jonestown, Waco, bombs by the Irish Republican Army, Serbian ethnic cleansing, or the killings carried out by Baruch Goldstein or Rabbi Kahane’s group in context and not to identify them simply with Christianity or Judaism as such. This context can only be provided by looking at the vast spectrum of Islam outlined above. Yes, there are those in the Islamic world today who have taken recourse to military action and violence using modern technology with the supposed aim of ameliorating real or imaginary wrongs and injustices. Considering the history of the recent past, it is hardly surprising that such extremist illicit and morally reprehensible actions by a few using the name of Islam should take place, especially when injustices and suppressions within Islamic societies are added to external ones. Nor does asking why despicable actions take place in the name of Islam by the few and coming to understand the background of these actions in any way condone or excuse them.

The vast majority of Muslims still breathe in a universe in which the Name of God is associated above all with Compassion and Mercy, and they turn to Him in patience even in the midst of the worst tribulations. If it seems that more violence is associated with Islam than with other religions today, it is not due to the fact that there has been no violence elsewhere-think of the Korean and Vietnam wars, the atrocities committed by the Serbs, and the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi. The reason is that Islam is still very strong in Islamic society. Because Islam so pervades the lives of Muslims, all actions, including violent ones, are carried out in the name of Islam, especially since other ideologies such as nationalism and socialism have become so bankrupt.

Yet this identification is itself paradoxical because traditional Islam is as much on the side of peace and accord as are traditional Judaism and Christianity. Despite such phenomena, however, if one looks at the extensive panorama of the Islamic spectrum summarized below, it becomes evident that for the vast majority of Muslims, the traditional norms based on peace and openness to others, norms that have governed their lives over the centuries and are opposed to both secularist modernism and “fundamentalism,” are of central concern. And after the dust settles in this tumultuous period of both Islamic and global history, it will be the voice of traditional Islam that will have the final say in the Islamic world.