Several days ago, while listening to one of the late evening local talk shows on radio, I was astounded by the ignorance about Islam and insults spoken about Muslims. It was not the first time I have heard such ignorance about Islam and its practices, and I usually just let them slip by because they seem to be harmless. This particular conversation was so offensive, however, having to do with certain body functions, that I simply was astounded. And one of the things that made the situation worse was that the host let the caller continue without a single challenge, seeming to accept everything the caller said.
Of the approximately 1.2 billion Muslims in the world today, there are many divisions and subdivisions. What they all have in common are the Five Pillars of Islam: 1) the confession of faith, or shahada; There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah; 2) five specifically timed daily prayers; 3) alms, or zakah; 4) the annual fast at Ramadan; and 5) a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during one’s lifetime.
The two primary divisions of Islam are the result of a split shortly after the death of Muhammad in 632 C.E. over how the ongoing leadership of Islam should be determined. One group contended that leadership should be chosen by the Muslim community and is called the Sunni. It makes up 80-90 percent of the Muslim population. The other group contended that leadership should be chosen from among descendents of Muhammad. It is called Shia, and it comprises approximately 10-20 percent of the world’s Muslims.
One scholar described these positions in terms of whether succession is viewed as intrinsic (family succession in the line of Muhammad) or contractual (chosen in contract by the community). Both groups base their view on how they say the first successor was determined — by vote or by birthright.
This description of the primary issue of Muslim divisions, however, helps only to understand the basis of the two major divisions. Across the centuries, the two major divisions created numerous subdivisions, and some practices spread across division and subdivision lines. In this respect, the similarities and differences within Islam are much like the similarities and differences across Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and Free Church lines in Christianity.
A major movement found across division and subdivision lines is Muslim mysticism, called Sufism. Like mysticism in all religions, Sufism emphasizes individual meditation, spiritual development and development of the soul. As in Christianity and Judaism, so in Islam, mysticism was at first viewed with suspicion because personal contemplation of God seemed to ignore the authority of the primary holy writings — the Bible and the Quran. Today, however, it is a fully accepted form of Islam.
A major responsibility of every Muslim is jihad. All Muslims view jihad as two-part warfare — warfare of the individual soul against self-seeking, pride, greed and other common failings or sins; and armed warfare to protect defenseless Muslims and even non-Muslims from brutal attack. Most Muslims consider the first type the primary one, and think it possible never to have to engage in the second. Extremist groups consider the second type primary, some even to the point of warring against Muslims who do not agree with their view of proper obedience to Allah.