Wednesday, September 26

Islamic Branching

There are many interpretations of Islam in existence today, and that's disregarding the pedant's stance which says that Islamic practise is unique to all individuals. But even if we stuck to the more formal schools and interpretations there are a dazzling array of opinions, thoughts, philosophy and practise of the religion.

I think what makes these Islams different to the equivalent divisions found in other modern religions are their common baseline, namely the Quran and its corresponding basic theology (and so this discussion is limited only to those Islams which agree on these fundamental ingredients).

The mutual acceptance of a difference in opinion varies in reality though. Sufism was practised by some of the greats, but most mainstream Muslims seem to pour scorn on any mention of it. We have four main accepted Sunni schools of thought, each with a teacher at the head whose lives were spent becoming interpretive experts, and there was no reason to think each weren't equally sensible in forming their conclusions. Yet some of us spend so much time trying to convince each other we are doing something wrong.

Whichever stance a Muslim eventually takes, it must always start from the baseline: a reading of the Quran (if possible without even interpretation). In this way it's like a constant religious axiom. Some further inputs are other scriptural sources (mainly the Hadith), the cultural contexts in which we exist and other "real life" considerations like science, technology and even secular ideals. These are then fed into a methodology which eventually results in outputs in the form of rulings and prescription.

These inputs are "spatially" relatively constant between all the various Islamic groups by virtue of them all living in the same here and now. However, since they change "temporally" (apart from the scriptural sources of course) we should expect the rulings and prescriptions to change over time too - and that's while making the huge assumption that the methodologies remain static. They probably don't since, recursively, they're based on rulings too.

Another source of difference is perception. This acts like a random variable input into the methodology-machine and means that you can get two different outputs with the exact same inputs. As a real life example of this, just check out how Islam is practised in Indonesia versus how it is practised in Saudi Arabia. We can't say which is right or wrong or how they rank in terms of closeness to the truth since they've both developed in exactly the same manner, if not with the same conclusions.

This discussion isn't meant to suggest we all get out our own methodology machines and run them flippantly to get our own tailored versions of Islam; no, most of us just aren't equipped to do this. We have to first spend the months or years it takes to become an expert in doing so, but the point is that there is no reason for us, through this expertise, to stop generating new rulings if we wanted to today.

The various practises of Islam that we see today are nothing but branches of a big old Islamic tree. Each are equivalent in status and validity and none are closer to the truth than the other. And who knows? Once we consider living with our differences as an essential requirement for a genuine ummah, perhaps we might show a bit of unity too?