Thursday, February 08, 2007

No god but god, Part III—Sunni, Shi'ah and Sufi

Series: Part I, Part II, Part III (below), Part IV

We hear a lot in the news about the Sunnis and the Shi'ites fighting, but I was not clear at all on what these different groups represent until reading No god but God.

Here are some very quick definitions from the book:

  • Sunni: The main or "orthodox" branch of Islam (with Traditionalist and Rationalist schools of thought)
  • Shi'ism: the largest sect of Islam, founded by the followers of Ali (Muhammad's son-in-law)
  • Sufism: the name given to the mystical traditions of Islam

A very loose analogy using Judeo-Christian history might be thinking of Sunni as Judaism (revolving around the law and its interpretation), Shi'ism as Catholicism/Protestantism (revolving around the willing self-sacrifice of a martyr), and Sufism as Christian Science (revolving around discovering the spiritual essence of these laws and events). *Very* loose, mind you, so don't take me too literally.

Here is what author Reza Aslan has to say about the three branches:

Re: Sunni
… Islam is primarily a orthopraxic religion, so much so that Wilfred Cantwell Smith has suggested translating the word Sunni as "orthprax" rather than "orthodox." However, because the Ulama [Islam's clerical establishment] have tended to regard Islamic practice as informing Islamic theology, orthopraxy and orthodoxy are intimately bound together in Islam, meaning questions of theology are impossible to separate from questions of law. For this reason, the Ulama often dismissed the practice of pure speculative theology as insignificant babble. What most concerned the Ulama from the first days of the Islamic expansion, especially as the Ummah [the name given to the original Muslim community] became ever more widely dispersed and varied with regard to language and culture, was not so much theological arguments about the attributes of God, but rather the formalization of specific ways to express faith through ritual. Their ultimate objective was to form strict guidelines that would establish exactly who was and who was not a Muslim. The result of their labors became what is now commonly known as the Five Pillars of Islam.

Re: Shi'ah
Karbala [where Husayn, Muhammad's grandson through Ali, was killed in a battle against the ruling Sunni Caliph in 680 C.E.] became Shi'ism's Garden of Eden, with humanity's original sin being not disobedience to God, but unfaithfulness to God's moral principles. Just as the early Christians coped with Jesus' demoralizing death by reinterpreting the Crucifixion as a conscious and eternal decision of self-sacrifice, so also did the Shi'ah claim Husayn's martyrdom to have been both a conscious and an eternal decision. … The Shi'ah noted that Husayn knew he could not defeat the Caliph, yet he deliberately chose to continue to Kufa in order to sacrifice himself for his principles and for all generations to come. … [A]s Shah Abdul Aziz has argued, Husayn's self-sacrifice was in reality the logical end to the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his firstborn son, Ismail—the sacrifice was not revoked but postponed until Karbala, when Husayn willingly fulfilled it. The Shi'ah thus regard Husayn's martyrdom as having completed the religion that Abraham initiated and Muhammad revealed to the Arabs.

Re: Sufi
… Sufis consider all orthodoxy, all traditional teachings, the law, theology, and the Five Pillars inadequate for attaining true knowledge of God. Even the Quran, which Sufis respect as the direct speech of God, lacks the capacity to shed light upon God's essence. … According to the Sufis, God's very essence—God's substance—is love. Love is the agent of creation. Sufism does not allow for the concept of creation ex nihilo because, before there was anything, there was love: that is, God loving God's self in a primordial state of unity. It was only when God desired to express this love to an "other" that humanity was created in the image of the Divine. Humanity, then, is God made manifest; it is God objectified through love.

Now, can these three different perspectives exist together in harmony? Despite all the violence today, I believe Muhammad would have thought so, and would have expected them to. Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and many other teachings including Christian Science, have been able to achieve harmonious coexistence in the years since the Reformation (after a period of serious bloodshed, to be sure). For the most part, the Muslims who have emigrated to other countries also live in harmony with their neighbors. So there's really no reason the African and Middle Eastern regions can't also learn to adapt, live, and let live.

That is next on my prayer agenda for Islam (after the first item I mentioned on Monday): that sincere devotees of each form continue to pursue that which is bringing them comfort and enlightenment, while respecting the rights of others to practice in the ways that mean the most to them. They can coexist peacefully; they can learn from each other.

Tomorrow will be my final installment on this series, with Aslan's remarkable assertions about pluralism.

Your ideas and inspiration are welcome! Please comment below or Contact Laura.
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