Muslim societies over the centuries, as well as those issues which have brought them together.
Muslims: Divisions and Common Issues
Despite their common religion, all Muslims in the world are not united. In fact, many Muslim communities experience divisions that have made them enemies with each other. The reasons for these divisions are many and complicated: differing sectarian beliefs, differing cultures, differing customs, and differing interpretations of their holy book, The Koran. These divisions have caused strife and turmoil within the Muslim world for centuries. Yet, despite the many divisions within the worldwide Muslim community, there are also those issues which draw them together and make them more aware of their common bond of religion, even uniting them behind it. Particularly strong in uniting Muslim communities has been their common perception of persecution from other religions and other cultures. This paper examines some of the main divisions within the Muslim community and their causes, as well as some of those issues which have served to draw them together.
Perhaps the best-known as well as longest-standing division between Muslim communities is the division that drove the adherents of the Islamic religion into two distinct camps. This was the division that created the Shiite and the Sunni Muslim sects. This division began centuries ago, not long after the death of the prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam. The dispute that created the Shiite and Sunni Muslim camps was one of leadership, specifically who would succeed Mohammed as the leader of Islam. The Shiite sect felt that Mohammed's son-in-law Ali should be the leader, or caliph, and that this role should automatically pass down to Ali's descendants; basically, the Shiites thought the role of caliph should be a hereditary role. The Sunnis, however, felt differently. The Sunnis did not believe that the descendants of Ali had the automatic right to be the caliph. They preferred to elect a leader. While Ali did become the fourth caliph of Islam, he only served in this capacity for five years before being murdered by a Muslim dissident in a mosque while praying (DeWan).
Sunnis were the larger of the two sects. During the centuries of the Ottoman Empire, Sunnis were favored by the Ottoman governors, many of whom were Sunnis themselves. This allowed the Sunnis to gain valuable administrative experience over the centuries, while the Shiites remained poor and persecuted. The administrative experience of the Sunnis became even more valuable to them in 1932 when Iraq gained independence, as the administratively skilled Sunnis were able to take top positions in the government. The Shiites, however, have continued to be the oppressed class in most Muslim countries today, generally eking out a living as sharecroppers or living in the slums (DeWan). The Shiites view themselves as an opposition group, opposed to the power and privilege they see the Sunnis as coveting, and believing in social justice.
Shiite Muslims are still treated quite poorly in most parts of the Muslim world and are considered second class citizens. However, the Shiites have a belief that the Sunnis do not have. Shiite Muslims recognize the role of an Imam in their religion, something that is entirely unique to the Shiites. The Imam is the spiritual leader of the Shiites, and is also the direct descendant of Ali. Shiites recognize twelve Imams, right on up into the tenth century A.D. The twelfth and final Imam disappeared from history, and though the Sunnis claim he died as a child, the Shiites believe he was kept in seclusion so as to avoid assassination. They also believe that this particular Imam will come again in physical form to the earth when Allah calls him to do so. This is the only Messianic figure present in the Islamic religion, and a distinguishing feature of the Shiite sect.
While the Shiite and Sunni division in the Muslim world is long-standing and has definitely caused its share of hard feelings between the practitioners of Islam, it is not the only division among them. Cultural differences play a large role in the divisions in the Muslim world, too. For example, most Muslims in Arab nations with higher rates of education favor a greater degree of secularization of public life than do Muslims in less educated nations (Zarakhovich). This tends to be because the more highly educated Muslims have received Western educations. Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Syria are examples of Muslim nations that favor a higher degree of secularization. This belief causes friction among Muslims who hold a more orthodox stance toward their religion, as those who want secularization lean toward wanting more secularization than strictly permitted by the Koran (Zarakhovich). These secularists want a blend of tradition and integration into the modern world, rather than a purely canonical society.
Interestingly, the wealthier Muslim countries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates favor a more traditional and canonical way of public life than some of the poorer Muslim nations. This is because the great wealth of these nations allows them to continue on a purely traditional path; these nations have the money necessary to take care of all of the needs of the nation and its people while still maintaining a traditional lifestyle. Poorer Muslim nations have had to turn to Western nations to help them build viable economies (Zarakhovich). This has led to a conflict between those who want tradition and those who want modernization.
Perhaps the best-known division within the Muslim world today is the division between the radical (or fundamentalist) and traditional (or moderate) Muslims. The recent terrorist attacks on the United States have brought this particular division painfully to light. There is a growing faction within the Islamic religion of those Muslims who are adopting a radical interpretation of the teachings of the Koran. These are mostly disaffected young men and women who have been plagued by poverty in their homelands their whole lives and blame the Western nations for this state of affairs. They also accuse Western nations of trying to destroy Islam. This accusation provides the perfect rallying cry to holy war, of jihad, with the West. Jihad can also mean a striving or determined effort, and this is what these radicals are engaging in (Streusand). They are determined. This feeling of banding together against a common enemy gives these young radicals a sense of power, and their somewhat skewed (according to Muslim moderates) interpretation of Islam gives them a feeling of religious superiority. This belief that they are fighting for Allah against a great evil and that they alone are practicing the true interpretation of Islam gives these adherents a sense of being specially favored by Allah and gives them the hope of future prosperity and other divine rewards to compensate for their current downtrodden conditions. Of course, this movement is not totally made up of young, poor Muslims. There are quite a few wealthy Muslims who also take this position for reasons of their own, and who provide financial backing for these young radicals to carry out their objectives ("Fundamentalists").
The Taliban, who were recently ousted from their occupation and ruling of Afghanistan, were an example of just such a radical group. Taking the teachings of the Koran to illogical extremes, these young men brutalized women and took away their social identity, strictly imposed some bizarre rules that they believed were mandated by the Koran, and took away most forms of pleasure and recreation, even music. The Taliban, of course, were not unopposed. There were factions in Afghanistan who fought against them and believed what the Taliban were doing was wrong. Other Arab nations also voiced their opposition to the Taliban, but were reluctant to do anything to try to stop them, due to their own fears of being seen as "against Islam." Still, when it came time for the West to oust the Taliban, there were some Arab nations that were willing to lend a hand, including neighboring Pakistan. Those nations that helped in this effort were, in fact, accused of being anti-Islam, thus further demonstrating the division between Muslims.
Another division within the Muslim world has a more secular origin, interestingly. This division is occurring in the area of economics. The basis for this division is the very clear prohibition in the Koran of "riba." Riba is the same thing as interest. The problem is, the economies of much of the rest of the world are based upon interest, and modern-day Muslims who hope to fully participate in this economy are forced to confront this issue. There are those who choose to ignore the prohibition against riba, reasoning that it is an archaic concept and that Allah would not want His children to suffer deprivation because of it. Most Muslims, though, take the stance that riba is prohibited period. There is no room for negotiation here for them. Others try to get around the prohibition by saying that riba, as it is defined in the Koran, is not just simply interest, but…