Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

22
The Significance
of Heresy in
Islam

For the medieval Muslim, the significance of heresy was religious: it was related, that is to say, to differences of belief, opinion, or practice concerning divinity, revelation, prophecy, and matters deriving from these. These matters, in Islam, extended to include the whole range of public and political life, and any further explanation, beyond the religious one, was unnecessary, even absurd, for what could be added to the greatest and most important of all the issues confronting mankind? The grounds and terms of argument between opposing religious factions were almost invariably theological. That is not to say that Muslim polemicists always accepted the good faith of their opponents. Very often they accuse those whose doctrines they dislike of pursuing ulterior motives—but usually these ulterior motives are themselves religious. The commonest of them is the recurring theme of a plot to undermine Islam from within in favor of some other faith. This is usually connected with some more or less fabulous figure, of superlative malignity and perversity, who functions as a diabolus ex machina, to explain dissension and heresy in the community. This is in part due to the general tendency of Islamic historical tradition to attribute to the limitless cunning and multifarious activity of an individual the results of a long development of thought and action; in part also to the tactic, familiar in other times and places, of discrediting critics within the community by associating them with enemies outside the community. The two classical examples are ‘Abdallāh ibn Saba’ and ‘Abdallāh ibn Maymūun al-Qaddāḥ. The first, a convert from Judaism and a contemporary of the Caliph ‘Alī (reigned

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