Elliot Bailey | How the neck moves: Islamic perspective and sources of change

What is the Islamic worldview? What do muslims believe? A list of legitimate answers could sprawl ahead of us and by the time we reached its end, we’d easily miss the religion’s common threads. Today, Islam is practiced in many different, sometimes conflicting ways. The answer to the question is that the Islamic worldview is varied. To understand it incisively, one must first understand the beliefs at the foundation of all Islamic practice. Then, to understand how Islamic beliefs can differ and how they came to be what they are today, we have to know how Islam’s been allowed to change and what things have altered its course over time.

At the core of Islam is the word given to its followers, Muslim. It means one who submits to the one and only God. Of the five (six for some sects) major tenets all muslims adhere to, the first is submission or Shahada. [1] Different sects have different views on whether Shahada alone will get you into heaven, but all believe good Islamic practice starts there. [2] To go the full nine yards in Islam means going beyond the Shahada, however. There are four (five in some sects) other primary tenets. These Tenets are called the Five Pillars of Islam and are: Shahadah(submission to the one and only God), Salat (ritual prayer, five times a day), Zakat (“alms tax” or required charity), Fasting (as in the month of Ramadan), Hajj (ritual pilgrimage to Mecca and holy sites, required only if feasible) and in some traditions a sixth pillar of Jihad and Mujahada (outer and inner struggle on the path of God) exists. [3]

In addition there are five beliefs fundamental to the Islamic perspective. Some of them reiterate thoughts which are cast as mandates in the Five Pillars. The first is Tawhid, the affirmation that God is the one and only god. The second is Nabuwwa, the affirmation that God is in contact with humanity via the prophets and that prophecy is God’s chosen form of communication with humanity. Muaad, which figures out to accountability and eternality. This means that on the day of judgement the tally of right and wrong will be taken and the individual’s eschatological fate will be decided based upon this score. Shi’i also have two additional items in this list: Imamah: that the guidance of God will continue to be dictated through a series of Imams as it was through Muhammad; and ‘Adl, or divine justice, which is to say God doesn’t treat humans unfairly, and all humans are born with an understanding of what’s just and unjust.

The beliefs are imparted via a few sources of Islamic thought. The Sharia, Islam’s system of moral and practical guidance is one way Muslims learn how to practice the right way. This code not only tells muslims what they’re not allowed to do, but also what they should do, evaluating actions according to its five terms: required, encouraged, neutral, discouraged and forbidden. [4]

The Sharia is made of instructions from the Quran and the Hadiths (historical accounts of Muhammad’s actions relaid by those closest to Muhammad). These texts and their interpretation are primary components of the islamic perspective at each stage in its evolution.

Let’s backtrack to jihad. Jihad, which refers to a muslim’s outward struggle in the path of Allah has confused many westerners who are quick to dub Islam the religion of the sword. Blog posts from outlets like Jerusalem Post with their 2013 article “Face Islam for what it really is – ‘The Religion of the Sword’ or Jihad Watch’s 2015 article “Islamic State: ‘Allah has revealed Islam to be the religion of the sword, and the evidence for this is…profuse’” propagate this view. It’s true that any war fought by Islamic countries is mostly called Jihad by those countries. [5] But this is a political reality, an example of how the Islamic perspective has been allowed to evolve and not how it has rigorously followed its origins.

Jihad is one place Islamic perspective can seem obscure in the present, but the text is clear on the issue and scholars like Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick are quick to denounce this contemporary renovation of jihad as illegitimate. [6]  The intent of Jihad isn’t to justify the political fighting of muslim people. As with all people, ulterior motives have at one point or another captivated muslims and their leadership. We have to factor this in our score. There are other motors for change too. The Islamic past is awash with political upheaval, social and population changes and cultural cross pollination. This fact is essential to understanding the Islamic perspective in the modern day. What’s important are not only Islam’s foundations, but its vehicles of change.

In a vacuum Islam might have survived as something similar to the religion Muhammad introduced in the seventh century. Muslims might still have an outlook similar to that of their predecessors. However, being humans challenged by their circumstances, Muslims did what humans do and got creative. The pressures of changing political, social and geographic environments explain why the “Islamic perspective” is so diverse.

Hadiths are the collected accounts of Muhammad’s behavior on Earth. Various friends and acquaintances relay how the prophet acted in moral situations and the model he sets forth, preserved in the hadiths, is called the Sunna.

An irremovable figure in the shaping of Islamic worldview is the Ulama, a scholarly class that wrote and preserved the hadiths, wrote biographies of Muhammad, interpreted the Quran and shaped the Sunna as it’s understood en masse. The Ulama, as scholars of the religion, perceived a tremendous responsibility for making sure the Quran was properly understood. [7] The Sira, the oldest and most important biography of Muhammad, reads half like a biography and half like an unsubtle suggestion of how to properly be muslim, how to practice properly, and how to perceive the world as Allah and Muhammad would direct one to. The Ulama provided an organized, accepted way for an individual to come to a debate about Islam and potentially prevail with a singular, exclusive interpretation. The Ulama provide a theater for change.

The Ulama aren’t the only ones who turned the wheels on the Islam project, however. An atmosphere for discussion and synthesis also called up the Falsafah, Islamic thinkers who built theory around ancient Grecian philosophy. The way the Falsafah came at the Islamic narrative with a greek philosophical toolkit meant their message, while surprising, wasn’t unheard of.

Politics are another explanation for the variety in Islamic perspectives. “There were always a few of the religious authorities who would lend support to the king—such as the scholar whom the king had appointed to be chief preacher at the royal mosque.”[8]  All success stories are fueled by a powerful idea. Sometimes, like in the quote above, the idea (Islam) is used for less-than-fully-noble, human ends.

There’s so much to the Islamic perspective that’s difficult to impart, but everything above is a good approximation of that perspective. There are common threads in what all muslims believe. The Five Pillars stand tall over a varied people that all pray to the same god five times a day. When figuring the worldview of a centuries-old, multi-sect religion, we have to consider the conditions under which the religion changed. Of course not all muslims have the same worldview, because their heritage and present conditions differ. But we can understand something of how they differ by knowing the common sources of change and evolution in historical and contemporary Islamic culture. Interpretive bodies like the Ulama, scholarship, philosophy, the movement of the Islamic empires and cultural exchange all played their part in shaping the movement which started with a prophet, a single God, and a book of good lessons, the Quran.


[1] (Murata and Chittick, 8)

[2] (Brown, 179)

[3] (Murata and Chittick, 20)

[4] (Brown, 151)

[5] (Murata and Chittick, 20)

[6] (Murata and Chittick, 22); “By these standards [those establishing what is legitimate Jihad in the eyes of Allah according to the religious texts] there have been few if any valid Jihads in the past century, and perhaps not for the past several hundred years.”

[7] (Brown, 96)

[8] (Murata and Chittick, 22) 



Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction to Islam, 2nd Ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Murata, Sachiko and Chittick, William C. The Vision of Islam. St. Paul, Minnesota: Program House, 2006.

The Inner Journey, Views from the Islamic Tradition, Edited by William C. Chittick, Morning Night Press, 2007, Sandpoint, ID, USA

The Norton Anthology of World Religions, Islam. ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2015