The rise of ISIS has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of the jihadist group?
In the fourth article of our series on the historical roots of Islamic State, Aaron Hughes explains the amazing regional variation in Islamic practice to illustrate why Islamic State appeared where it did.
No religion is unified. How Catholicism, for example, is practiced in rural Italy differs from the way this is done, say, in New York City. Language, culture, tradition, political and social context, and even food is different in these two places.
Such geographic differences are certainly important in Islam. But also important are the numerous legal schools and their interpretations. Since Islam is a religion predicated on law (sharia), variations in the interpretation of that law have contributed to regional differences.
Also significant in the modern world is the existence of other religions. Malaysia, for example, has a relatively large percentage of religious minorities (up to 40% of the population). Saudi Arabia has virtually none.
This means Malaysia has had to develop a constitution that protects the rights of religious minorities, whereas Saudi Arabia has not. And it’s why Islam is so different in these two countries.
Schools of thought
There are historical reasons for this variation. Despite popular opinion, Islam didn’t appear fully formed at the time of Muhammad (570-632). There were huge debates over the nature of religious and political authority, for instance, and who was or was not a Muslim.
It’s similarly misguided to assume that a unified teaching simply spread throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond.
How Muhammad’s message developed into the religion of Islam—complete with legal and doctrinal content—took centuries to develop and cannot concern us here.
What is important to note, however, is that his message spread into various (unbordered) regions. Modern nation states would only arise much later. And each of these areas was already in possession of its own set of religious, legal, and cultural traditions.
The result was that Islam had to be articulated in the light of local customs and understandings. This was done, in part, through the creation of legal courts, a class of jurists (ulema; mullas in Shi`ism), a legal code (sharia) and a system of interpretation of that code based on rulings (fatwas).
Many local customs arose based on trying to understand Muhammad’s message. And these customs and understandings gave rise to distinct legal schools.
Although there were originally many such schools, they gradually reduced to four in Sunni Islam—Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi`i, and Hanbali. While these four schools all regard one another as orthodox, they nevertheless have distinct interpretations of Islamic law. Some of their interpretations are more conservative than others.
There are also a number of such schools in Shi`i Islam, as you can see from the image above.
The four Sunni schools are associated with distinct regions (as are the Shi`i schools). The Maliki school, for example, is prominent today in Egypt and North Africa. The Hanafi is in western Asia, the Shafi`i in Southeast Asia and the Hanbali (the most conservative) is found primarily in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.
All this legal and local variation has produced different interpretations of the religion. But despite such regional and legal diversity, many Muslims and non-Muslims insist on referring to Islam and sharia as if they were stable entities.
An example might be illustrative of the extent of the differences within Islam. Many non-Muslims are often surprised to learn how the cult of saints, namely the role Sufi saints (Sufism is Islamic mysticism) have played and continue to play in the daily life of Muslims.
A Sufi saint is someone who is considered holy and who has achieved nearness to God. Praying to these saints and making pilgrimages to their shrines is a way to, among other things, ask for intercession.
Although these practices are not unlike the role and place of saints in Catholicism, in Islam they are much more localized. And this locally-varied cult of saints played, and continues to play, an important role in Islamic religious life from Morocco in the West to Pakistan in the East.
Devotion to the saints is believed to cure the sick, make fertile the barren, bring rain, and so on. Needless to say, such devotion is often frowned upon by more fundamentalist interpretations.
While most legal schools are content—albeit somewhat bothered—by such practices, the conservative Hanbali school forbids cults like this. Its adherents have, among other things, destroyed tombs of saints in both the premodern and modern eras. They have also been responsible for the destruction of shrines associated with Muhammad’s family, such as the shrines and tombs of Muhammad’s wife.
The Hanbali school, backed by the wealth of the Saudi ruling family, has also tried to make inroads into other areas. Those associated with this legal school, for example, have built madrasas (religious seminaries) in regions traditionally influenced by other legal schools of thought.
Most fundamentalist movements in Islam, including Islamic State, have emanated from such ultra-conservative elements. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance, are influenced by the more conservative elements of Hanbali ideology, even though they exist in a predominantly Hanafi legal environment.
The goal of many of these groups, sometimes referred to as Wahhabis or Salafis, is to return to what they imagine to be the pure or pristine version of Islam as practiced by Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often have strict interpretations of Islam, strict dress codes, and separation of the sexes.
Today, there are more than one and a half billion Muslims worldwide, making Islam the second-largest religion on the planet after Christianity. But it is a rich and variegated religion. And this variation must be taken into account when dealing with it.
Most importantly, the variation cannot be papered over with simplistic slogans or stereotypes. That women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia but are in places like Malaysia tells you something about this variation.