The House of Islam

This section reprinted by permission of Vincenzo Oliveti © 2001
(with the exception of President Obama’s speech)

The religion of Islam is based on belief in the One God (who in Arabic is called Allah). It was founded by the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE) in the ancient cities of Mecca and Medina, in the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula (known as the Hijaz). God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad the Holy Qur’an, the Sacred Book of Islam. The religion this created, however, was not a new message but simply a final restatement of God’s messages to the Hebrew Prophets and to Jesus.

The Holy Qur’an says:

Say ye: we believe in God and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the Tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the Prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have submitted. (The Holy Qur’an, 2:136)

Moreover, the Holy Qur’an did not exclude the possibility of revelations other than those that were given to the Prophets mentioned in the Bible (and thus did not exclude the possibility of other genuine ancient religions other than Judaism, Christianity and Islam). God says, in the Holy Qur’an:

Verily we have sent Messengers before thee [O Muhammad]. About some of them have we told thee, and about some have we not told thee . . . (40:78).

And verily we have raised in every nation a Messenger [proclaiming]: serve God and shun false gods . . . (16:36).

The Essence of Islam

The essence and substance of Islam can be easily summed up by three major principles (which are also successive stages in the spiritual life): Islam (meaning ‘submission to God’s will’); Iman (meaning ‘faith in God’), and Ihsan (meaning ‘virtue through constant regard to, and awareness of, God’). The second Caliph, the great ‘Umar ibn al Khattab, related that:

One day when we were sitting [in Medina] with the Messenger of God [the Prophet Muhammad] there came unto us a man whose clothes were of exceeding whiteness and whose hair was of exceeding blackness, nor were there any signs of travel upon him, although none of us knew him. He sat down knee upon knee opposite the Prophet, upon whose thighs he placed the palms of his hands, saying: ‘O Muhammad; tell me what is the surrender (Islam)’. The Messenger of God answered him saying: ‘The surrender is to testify that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is God’s Messenger, to perform the prayer, bestow the alms, fast Ramadan and make if thou canst, the pilgrimage to the Holy House.’ He said, ‘Thou hast spoken truly,’ and we were amazed that having questioned him he should corroborate him. Then he said: ‘Tell me what is faith (Iman)’. He answered: ‘To believe in God and His Angels and his Books and His Messengers and the Last Day [the Day of Judgement], and to believe that no good or evil cometh but by His Providence.’ ‘Thou hast spoken truly,’ he said, and then: ‘Tell me what is excellence (Ihsan).’ He answered: ‘To worship God as if thou sawest Him, for if Thou seest Him not, yet seeth He thee.’ ‘Thou hast spoken truly,’ he said…Then the stranger went away, and I stayed a while after he had gone; and the Prophet said to me: ‘O ‘Umar, knowest thou the questioner, who he was?’ I said, ‘God and His Messenger know best.’ He said, ‘It was Gabriel [the Archangel]. He came unto you to teach you your religion.’

Thus Islam as such consists of ‘five pillars’: (1) the Shahadatayn or the ‘two testimonies of faith’ (whose inward meaning is the acknowledgement of God). (2) The five daily prayers (whose inward meaning is the attachment to God). (3) Giving alms or Zakat–one-fortieth of one’s income and savings annually to the poor and destitute (whose inward meaning is the detachment from the world). (4) Fasting the Holy month of Ramadan annually (whose inward meaning is detachment from the body and from the ego). (5) Making the Hajj (whose inner meaning is to return to one’s true inner heart, the mysterious square, black-shrouded Ka’ba in Mecca being the outward symbol of this heart). Thus also Iman as such consists of belief in all the essential doctrines of religion (and the inner meaning of this is that one should not go through the motions of religion and of the five pillars of Islam blindly or robotically, but rather have real faith and certainty in one’s heart). Thus, finally, Ihsan as such consists in believing that God always sees us, and therefore that one must be virtuous and sincere in all one’s actions. In this connection the Prophet said: ‘By Him in whose Hand is my Life, none of you believes till he loves for his neighbour what he loves for himself ’. In summary, we could say that the essence of Islam is exactly the Two Commandments upon which Jesus said hangs all the Law and the Prophets:

And Jesus answered him, The first of all commandments is…the Lord our God is one Lord; And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy understanding, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second commandment is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these

The Canon of Islam

Islam does not, like Christianity, have a clergy. There is no temporal or even spiritual institute that holds it together or unifies it. So how has it held together–and indeed, flourished–for the last fourteen centuries approximately, when its scholars and temporal policymakers keep changing and dying out over time? How has it remained so homogeneous that the Islam of 1900 CE was doctrinally exactly the same as the Islam of 700 CE? Where have its internal checks and balances come from

The answer is that Islam has a traditional canon: a collection of sacred texts which everyone has agreed are authoritative and definitive, and which ‘fix’ the principles of belief, practice, law, theology and doctrine throughout the ages. All that Muslim scholars (called ulema and muftis or sheikhs and imams) have left to do is to interpret these texts and work out their practical applications and details (and the principles of interpretation and elaboration are themselves ‘fixed’ by these texts), so that in Islam a person is only considered learned to the extent that he can demonstrate his knowledge of these texts. This does not mean that Islam is a religion of limitations for these texts are a vast ocean and their principles can be inwardly worked out almost infinitely in practice. It does mean, however, that Islam is ‘fixed’ and has certain limits beyond which it will not go. This is an extremely important concept to understand, because misunderstanding it, and setting aside the traditional canon of Islam, leads to people killing and assassinating others in the name of religion. The traditional canon of Islam is what protects not just the religion of Islam itself, but the world (including Muslims themselves) from terrorism, murder and oppression in the name of Islam. The canon is Islam’s internal check and balance system; it is what safeguards its moderation; it is ‘self-censorship’ and its ultimate safety feature.

To be more specific, the traditional Sunni Islamic Canon starts with the Qur’an itself; then the great traditional Commentaries upon it (e.g. Tabari; Razi; Zamakhshari/Baydawi; Qurtubi; Jalalayn; Ibn Kathir; Nasafi; and al Wahidi’s Asbab al Nuzul); then the eight traditional collections of Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, (e.g. Muslim; Bukhari; Tirmidhi; Ibn Hanbal, al Nasa’i; al Sijistani; al Darimi and Ibn Maja); the later Muhaddithin, or Traditionists (e.g. Bayhaqi; Baghawi; Nawawi and ‘Asqalani); then the traditional biographical and historical works of Sira (Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa‘d, Waqidi; Azraqi; Tabari; and Suhayli); the Risala of al Shafi‘i: the Muwatta’ of Imam Malik; the Ihya’ ‘Ulum al Din of Ghazali; Ash‘arite and Maturidian theology; the (original)‘Aqida of Tahawi; Imam Jazuli’s Dala’il al Khayrat, and finally–albeit only extrinsically–Jahiliyya poetry (as a background reference for the semantic connotations of words in the Arabic language). We give a specific (but not exhaustive) list here in order to minimize the possibility of misunderstanding.

Islam in History

It is evidently not possible to do justice to the role of Islam in world history, thought and civilization in a few words, but the following paragraph by Britain’s Prince Charles attempts it:

‘The medieval Islamic world, from Central Asia to the shores of the Atlantic, was a world where scholars and men of learning flourished. But because we have tended to see Islam as the enemy, as an alien culture, society, and system of belief, we have tended to ignore or erase its great relevance to our own history. For example, we have underestimated the importance of eight hundred years of Islamic society and culture in Spain between the 8th and 15th centuries. The contribution of Muslim Spain to the preservation of classical learning during the Dark Ages, and to the first flowerings of the Renaissance, has long been recognized. But Islamic Spain was much more then a mere larder where Hellenistic knowledge was kept for later consumption by the emerging modern Western world. Not only did Muslim Spain gather and preserve the intellectual content of ancient Greek and Roman civilization, it also interpreted and expanded upon that civilization, and made a vital contribution of its own in so many fields of human endeavour–in science, astronomy, mathematics, algebra (it self an Arabic word), law, history, medicine, pharmacology, optics, agriculture, architecture, theology, music. Averroes [Ibn Rushd] and Avenzoor [Ibn Zuhr], like their counterparts Avicenna [Ibn Sina] and Rhazes [Abu Bakr al Razi] in the East, contributed to the study and practice of medicine in ways from which Europe benefited for centuries afterwards.’

On 4 June, 2009, US President Barack Obama said the following at Cairo University:

‘As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam–at places like Al Azhar–that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.

I also know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President, John Adams, wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.’ And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, they have served in our government, they have stood for civil rights, they have started businesses, they have taught at our universities, they’ve excelled in our sports arenas, they’ve won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers–Thomas Jefferson–kept in his personal library.’

II. Major Doctrinal Divisions in Islam

Sunni Theology

1) Ash’ari and Maturidi Schools: Sunni Orthodox

These two schools of doctrine are followed by the bulk of Sunni Muslims and differ only in minor details

Ash’ari School: This school is named after the followers of the 9th century scholar Abu al Hasan al Ash’ari (874-936 CE) and is widely accepted throughout the Sunni Muslim world. They believe that the characteristics of God are ultimately beyond human comprehension, and trust in the Revelation is essential, although the use of rationality is important.

Maturidi School: This school is named after the followers of the 9th century scholar Muhammad Abu Mansur al Maturidi (853-944 CE) and has a wide following in regions where Hanafi law is practiced. They have a slightly more pronounced reliance on human reason.

2) Salafi School

This school was developed around the doctrines of 18th century scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (1703-1792 CE). Salafis have specific doctrinal beliefs, owing to their particular interpretation of Islam, that differentiate them from the majority of Sunnis, such as a literal anthropomorphic interpretation of God. Salafis place a great emphasis on literal interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith, with skepticism towards the role of human reason in theology.

3) Mu’tazili School

This school was developed between the 8th and 10th centuries. Although it is traced back to Wasil ibn Ata (d. 748 CE) in Basra, theologians Abu al Hudhayl al ‘Allaf (d. 849 CE) and Bishr ibn al Mu’tamir (d. 825 CE) are credited with formalizing its theological stance. Mu’tazili thought relies heavily on logic, including Greek philosophy. Although it no longer has a significant following, a small minority of contemporary intellectuals have sought to revive it. Mutazilites believe that the Qur’an was created as opposed to the Orthodox Sunni view that it is eternal and uncreated. Moreover they advocate using rationalism to understand allegorical readings of the Qur’an.

Shi‘a Theology

1) The Twelver School

The infallibility (‘Ismah) of the Twelve Imams descended from the family of the Prophet (Ahl al Bayt) who are believed to be the spiritual and rightful political authorities of the Muslim community (Umma). The twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, is believed to be in occultation to return in the future.

2) Isma’ili School

The Qur’an and Hadith are said to have truths lying with a single living Imam, descended directly from the Prophet. Also known as ‘seveners’ for their belief that Isma’il ibn Ja’far was the seventh and final leading-Imam of the Muslim community.

3) Zaidi School

The infallibility of the Twelve Imams and the notion of occultation are rejected in favor of accepting the leadership of a living Imam. The Imamate can be held by any descendant of the Prophet (Sayyid). Also known as ‘fivers’ for their belief that Zayd ibn Ali was the fifth and final leading-Imam of the Muslim community.

Ibadi Theology

Ibadi School

Ibadis believe that God created the Qur’an at a certain point in time, and that God will not be seen on the Day of Judgment. They also believe in the eternal nature of hell for all those who enter it.

III. Ideological Divisions

Traditional Islam

(96% of the world’s Muslims)

Also known as Orthodox Islam, this ideology is not politicized and largely based on consensus of correct opinion–thus including the Sunni, Shi‘a, and Ibadi branches of practice (and their subgroups) within the fold of Islam, and not groups such as the Druze or the Ahmadiyya, among others.

Islamic Modernism

(1% of the world’s Muslims)

Emerging from 19th century Ottoman Turkey and Egypt, this subdivision contextualized Islamic ideology for the times–emphasizing the need for religion to evolve with Western advances.

Islamic Fundamentalism

(3% of the world’s Muslims)

This is a highly politicized religious ideology popularized in the 20th century through movements within both the Shi‘a and Sunni branches of Islam–characterized by aggressiveness and a reformist attitude toward traditional Islam.

IIIa. Traditional Islam

Sunni (90% of the world’s traditional muslims

The largest denomination of Muslims referred to as Ahl as Sunnah wa’l Jama’h or ‘people of the prophetic tradition and community’–with emphasis on emulating the life of the last Prophet, Muhammad.

Schools of Sunni Islamic Law

Hanafi (45.5%) Named after the followers of Imam Abu Hanifa (699-767 CE/ 89-157 AH) in Iraq.

Shafi’i (28%) Named after the followers of Imam al Shafi’i (767-820 CE/ 150-204 AH) in Medina.

Maliki (15%) Named after the followers of Imam Malik (711-795 CE/ 93-179 AH) in Medina.

Hanbali (2%) Named after the followers of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (780 -855 CE/ 164-241 AH) in Iraq.

Shi‘a (9.5% of the world’s traditional Muslims)

The second-largest denomination of Muslims referred to as Shi‘atu ‘Ali or ‘the party of Ali,’ the fourth caliph of Islam and first Imam in Shi’ism.


Zaidis (Fivers) (Less than 1%) Named after the followers of Imam Zaid ibn ‘Ali (695-740 CE) in Medina.

Twelvers (8%) Named after the followers of Imam Ja’far al Sadiq (702-765 CE/ 83-148 AH) in Medina.

Usul 99% of Twelvers. This dominant school favors the use of ijtihad, independent legal reasoning, with an emphasis on four accepted collections of Hadith. Derive legal opinions from living ayatollahs, or mujtahids, whose rulings become obligatory. Taqlid, the practice of following rulings without questioning the religious authority, is a core tenet of this school. The name Usuli is derived from the Arabic term usul meaning ‘principle’.

Akhbari Akhbaris reject the use of ijtihad or reasoning, and do not follow marjas who practice ijtihad. They also prohibit exegesis of the Qur’an. Derive legal rulings from the Qur’an, Hadith, and consensus. The name Akhbari is derived from the Arabic term akhbar meaning ‘traditions’. They can trace their roots to the followers of Muhammad Amin Astarabadi (d. 1627 CE). Akhbaris continue to exist to this day, although in small, concentrated pockets, particularly around Basra, Iraq.

Isma’ilis (Seveners) (Less than 0.5%) Named after the followers of Muhammad ibn Ismail (746-809 CE/128-193 AH) in Medina.

Ibadi (0.5% of the world’s traditional Muslims)

The Ibadi school has origins in and is linked to the Kharijites, but the modern day community is distinct from the 7th century Islamic sect. It was founded after the death of Prophet Muhammad and is currently practiced by a majority of Oman’s Muslim population. Also found across parts of Africa.

Mystic Brotherhoods

Although reliable statistics are not available for the millions of Muslims who practice Islamic mysticism, it has been estimated that 25% of adult Sunni Muslims in 1900 CE participated in these brotherhoods as either murids (followers of the Sufi guide of a particular order) or mutabarrikin (supporters or affiliates of a particular Sufi order).

Sunni Orders

Founded by Baha al Din Naqshband (d. 1389 CE) in Bukhara, modern day Uzbekistan. Influence: popular from China to North Africa, Europe and America.

Founded by scholar and saint ‘Abd al Qadir al Jilani (1077-1166 CE) in Baghdad, Iraq. Influence: stretches from Morocco to Malaysia, from Central Asia to South Africa.

Ahmad al Tijani (d. 1815 CE) who settled and taught in Fez, Morocco. Influence: major spiritual and religious role in Senegal, Nigeria, Mauritania and much of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Founded by the Moroccan saint Abu’l-Hassan al Shadili (d. 1258 CE). Influence: most influential in North Africa and Egypt.

(d. 1221 CE) from Khawarzm, modern day Uzbekistan. Influence: mostly present across Central Asia.

Founded by Persian scholar Abu Najib Suhrawardi (d. 1168 CE) in Iraq. Influence: a strong presence in India.

Founded by the Persian saint Mu’in al Din Chishti (d. 1236 CE) Khurasan. Influence: highly influential in India.

A Turkish order founded by the Persian saint and poet Jalal al Din Rumi (d. 1273 CE). Influence: mainly in Turkey.

Founded by Ahmad ibn ‘Ali al Rifa’i (d. 1182 CE) in southern Iraq. Influence: widely practiced across the Muslim world with a strong presence in Egypt.

Founded by ‘Ali Nur al Din al Yashruti (d. 1892 CE) in Palestine. Influence: strong presence in Syria and Lebanon.

An Egyptian order founded by the Moroccan saint Ahmad al Badawi (d. 1276 CE), considered by many as the patron saint of Egypt. Influence: active role in Egypt and the Sudan.

A Turkish order founded by the Persian saint ‘Umar al Khalwati (d. 1397 CE). Influence: wide presence in the Balkans, Syria, Lebanon and North Africa.

Shi‘a Orders

Irfan, which means ‘knowing’ in Arabic and ‘most beautiful and knowledgeable person’ in Pashto, is Shi‘a mysticism. Mulla Sadr al Din Muhammad Shirazi (1571-1636 CE) from Iran is considered a leading Shia theorist of Irfan.

IIIb. Islamic Fundamentalism


Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood, or Al Ikhwan Al Muslimeen is a transnational Sunni movement, with no particular ideological adherence. It is the largest political opposition organization in many Arab states, particularly in Egypt where it was founded in opposition to colonial rule by Hassan al Banna in 1928. Al Banna originally sought to revive Muslim culture from its position of exploitation under colonial rule, through charitable and educational work, to bring Islam into a central role in people’s life. Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966 CE) was also a leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 50s and 60s. Wahhabism/Salafism
Wahhabism/Salafism are terms used interchangeably to refer to a particular brand of Islam. Salaf, meaning predecessors, refers to the very early practice of Islam by Muhammad and his immediate successors. Salafism seeks to revive the practice of Islam as it was at the time of Muhammad and can be critical of too much emphasis being placed on thinkers from after this period. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al Wahhab (1703-1792 CE) was an important figure in the resurrection of this ideology therefore Salafism is often simply known as Wahhabism.


Revolutionary Shi’ism
Revolutionary Shi’ism is an ideology, based on the teachings of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989 CE), which shares many similarities with Marxist revolutionary thought. Khomeini believed that the only way to secure independence from colonial or imperial forces was through the creation of a Shi‘a state, under the idea of Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist). This means that all politics is subject to the opinion of the Supreme Leader who is responsible for the continued success of the revolution. It is only practiced in Iran.

IIIc. Islamic Modernism

Islamic modernism is a reform movement started by politically-minded urbanites with scant knowledge of traditional Islam. These people had witnessed and studied Western technology and socio-political ideas, and realized that the Islamic world was being left behind technologically by the West and had become too weak to stand up to it. They blamed this weakness on what they saw as ‘traditional Islam,’ which they thought held them back and was not ‘progressive’ enough. They thus called for a complete overhaul of Islam, including–or rather in particular–Islamic law (sharia) and doctrine (aqida). Islamic modernism remains popularly an object of derision and ridicule, and is scorned by traditional Muslims and fundamentalists alike.