A Faith with Many Faces: Islam Is Monotheistic, but as a Religion It Never Has Been Monolithic. Theological, Ethnic, Historical and Political Divisions Have Divided Muslims for Centuries. (Religion)

By Sands, David R. | Insight on the News, November 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Faith with Many Faces: Islam Is Monotheistic, but as a Religion It Never Has Been Monolithic. Theological, Ethnic, Historical and Political Divisions Have Divided Muslims for Centuries. (Religion)


Sands, David R., Insight on the News


President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair repeatedly stress that the military campaign against global terrorism is not a "war on Islam." But military planners and policymakers acknowledge that understanding Islam's internal dynamics--the ideas that unite and the controversies that divide the world's 1.2 billion Muslims -- will be critical to solidify a coalition to contain and defeat Islamic militants.

"There are core things that every Muslim believes, but beyond those things you can find an exception to virtually every generalization you hear," says Ali Reza Abootalebi, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire who specializes in social development in the Middle East.

No short survey can do justice to the vast diversity of modern Islam, a 1,400-year-old faith that stretches from sub-Saharan Africa to Indonesia. Muslim culture claims figures as diverse as Saudi militant Osama bin Laden and Indian-born novelist Salman Rushdie to U.S. boxing great Muhammad Ali and Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. Theological disputes as old as the faith itself are compounded by ethnic divisions, historical variations and accommodations to local political realities.

Despite the identifcation of Islam with its Middle Eastern roots, less than one-quarter of all Muslims are Arabs. India, among the most vocal critics of extremist Islamic militancy, boasts the world's second-largest Muslim population, trailing only Indonesia, yet Muslims make up just 14 percent of its population. An estimated 6 million followers of Islam reside in the United States.

"Islam is by no means a monolith" says Thomas Lippman, author of Understanding Islam. "The differences in social practices, political thought, the feel of everyday life can be vast. Fly from Tripoli, Libya, to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates -- two prominent Muslim capitals -- and you get a totally different impression."

But Islamic scholars say a grasp of the basic divisions within the faith is critical to an understanding of the larger challenge facing the Muslim world and the United States in the months and years ahead. It matters, they say, that Shiite (pronounced "she-ite") Muslims are vastly outnumbered by Sunni Muslims but that Shiites are the dominant faith in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and among some of the rebels fighting Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia. It matters that Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally and home to Islam's two most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina, practices a strict offshoot of the Sunni faith -- Wahhabism -- that strongly influenced Osama bin Laden, suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and his followers in Afghanistan and Pakistan (see sidebar). It matters that Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, potentially critical allies in the military strikes against neighboring Afghanistan, are themselves moderate Islamic regimes confronting the same kind of radical Islamic elements that dominate the Taliban.

Complicating matters for a Westerner trying to understand Islam's various strains is the fact that "Islam has no Vatican," adds Lippman. While all Muslims read Islam's holy book, the Koran, "there's no one central authority Muslims can look to. There are theologians, but no sacraments and, strictly speaking, no clergy."

The most basic division in the Islamic world is between the Sunni majority and the Shia minority, a split as profound and enduring as the schisms among the Roman Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox faiths in Christianity. Sunni, or "traditionalist" Muslims make up the vast majority of the Islamic faithful, with estimates as high as 90 percent. Most Muslim nations feature a majority Sunni population and a significant Shiite minority. (In the United States, Sunnis make up more than 72 percent of the Muslim population, and Shiites account for 11 percent, with the remainder from other branches.)

Sunnis trace their faith to the tradition established by the first successors to the prophet Mohammed after his death in 632, in particular the line of caliphs beginning with his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, and ending with the prophet's son-in-law, Ali.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Faith with Many Faces: Islam Is Monotheistic, but as a Religion It Never Has Been Monolithic. Theological, Ethnic, Historical and Political Divisions Have Divided Muslims for Centuries. (Religion)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.