Christian Bolles: Humble Revelation: Dualism and Unity in the Islamic Worldview

A thousand-year-old religion boasting a wild heterogeneity of traditions, ethics, and worldviews, Islam unites a divergent but connected network of sub-religions that draw different conclusions from the same text. These differences stem mainly from multivarious approaches to the Quran itself, and speak to the fundamental ethics of each denomination. For the purposes of this response, I will focus on the complementary and contradictory relationships between the Sunni, Shi’a, and Sufi traditions before concluding that the concept of utter humility is the driving force behind the Islamic world.

To understand the profound schism between Sunni and Shia that has blazed unfettered since Islam first diffused into the world, it’s important to first consider the religion’s relationship to Mohammed. As a messianic figure akin to Jesus – though Jesus is seen as a prophet, not a savior, to adherents of Islam – Mohammed diverges from the historical role of that Christian idol in his very tangible impact on the sociopolitical landscape of 10th-century Arabia. During his reign, he liberated the Arab people and united them under the banner of Islam; but such power inevitably creates a vacuum upon vanishing, and his death opened the proverbial floodgates when it came to the question of succession[1]. This is where the schism originated from: the debate over whether the inheritor of Mohammed’s kingdom should be granted the position by blood or by merit[2]. The Shia inhabit the former camp, arguing that Ali and his descendants “are part of a divine order;” Sunnis take the opposite position. Mohammed’s cousin, Ali, was available for the role, thus taking up Mohammed’s mantle in 656 CE[3].

The fundamental paradigm of Shia practice, then, is a strict adherence to what various sects see as the true embodiment of the Quran. Shias see the world through a literalist Quranic lens, making legal and moral decisions based on direct interpretation of the text as delivered by God-provided leaders: Imams, first, then ayatollahs. Imams epitomize the denomination’s authoritarian tendency; over hundreds of years, imams have interpreted and reinterpreted holy texts in hopes of enlivening the original word of God[4]. These interpretations are encouraged to be spun into legislative reality, a high point of resistance with their Sunni counterparts[5]; Shia are capable of exerting much greater legal authority.

Sunni practitioners, on the other hand, relegate the power of spiritual authority to the Quran itself. Believers in extrapolation based on the Quran’s text rather than literal interpretation thereof, Sunnis live under a broader definition of Islam that essentially exists in exclusion of Shia practice. Jurisprudence is divided into four schools, representative of the Sunni tradition’s scholarly tilt.[6]

Both traditions believe in the Five Pillars of Islam, an unshakable core that endures through all of the religion’s subsects; this response will delve into the first two, the most vital. The first takes the form of a declaration intrinsic to all Muslims which must be uttered before identifying with the faith: I believe in the one true God, and Mohammed is his messenger. Within this pillar lies the fundamental truth of all Abrahamic religions: that wherever one is, whoever one is, there is an omnipotent God watching[7]. Yet the inclusion of Mohammed as his greatest messenger is where Islam begins to separate itself. As was previously discussed, Mohammed’s existence is a foundational aspect of Muslim identity, his lineage alone leading to a crisis of succession so contentious that the resultant divide still endures today.

The second pillar is daily prayer, a practice so commonplace that it has diverged into many different manifestations. Tradition dictates that one pray five times per day, but the actual practice of that prayer might vary even within a single life. Communal prayer is encouraged; for every person added to a prayer group, the heavenly favor accrued by each supplicant is increased exponentially. The communal focus of Islam as a whole is a symptom of the magnetism of prayer. As prayer draws Muslims away from solitude, family emerges as the unspoken pillar: the most immediate, and important, community one can find.

Nested inextricably within prayer is repentance, and it is here that Sufism finds its muse. A mystic tradition of deep thought and scholarship, Sufism claims the realm of the supra-rational. Its theology and law rely on “discursive reason and dialectical thought,” drawing its conclusions somewhere between Sunni extrapolation of Quranic texts and Shia literalism. Fundamentally, Sufism is focused on the “unveiling” of the truth by lifting the curtain of our perceived reality. To do so, Sufis seek inspiration in order to journey from their physical forms to find their spirit, and to in turn discover the divine. In the Sufi-verse, there are two sets of divine attributes: majesty and beauty. Each contains one side of an ideological coin: Transcendence to nearness, justice to bounty, wrath to mercy, severity to gentleness, destruction to creation, revenge to forgiveness, disclosure to concealment, hell to paradise, material to spiritual, and yin to yang. Sufism is caught in the middle of these extremes, and it’s impossible to ignore the implications of a dualistic outlook when Islam is such a dichotomically divided religion. The broader concept linking these ideas – even though it’s among them – is the idea of justice and how it should be carried out. Sufism argues that God prefers mercy; this is why Sufis must repent. That repentance defines the degree of one’s holiness. Regular Sufis repent from bad deeds; “select” Sufis repent from good ones; but the greatest of the great repent for repentance, for they understand that the act of repenting is itself selfish and presumptuous in its expectation of mercy. This near meta-commentary on the religion is the epitome of Muslim humility[8].

That humility is universal, inherent in all five pillars. The submission of one’s mortal form to the justice and mercy of God is the driving force behind all of Islam. Despite the divide between Sunni and Shia, that commonality endures.

[1] “Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman,” W. Montgomery Watt.

[2] “The Sunni-Shia Divide,” CFR Infoguide.

[3] “Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman,” W. Montgomery Watt.

[4] “The Sunni-Shia Divide,” CFR Infoguide.

[5] Mahallati.

[6] “Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman,” W. Montgomery Watt

[7] “The Hajj,” Gai Eaton.

[8] “Sufism,” Mahallati.