by J Alejandro Estrella
I struggle a lot. I struggle a lot with people. Well, that’s a lie. Stupid. I struggle with stupid. But I try to understand. This is article is an effort to understand. Because at the end of the day, there is no control. There is only the illusion of control. And what little control there is, is only the control we have over ourselves. So let’s get to it.
I’ve recently been talking with a very good friend of mine who is an educator and contemplative about the recent image of Islam being portrayed in the media. Neither my friend, let’s call him “Mr. H” or myself are Muslim, but we are seekers. He’s been reading and exploring various religious experiences for several years.
I’ve gone on retreats and posed my own questions to the universe about existence, time, love, and other strange elements of the human condition. We both strive in our own way to come to terms with all the news and rhetoric out there and our last conversation inspired me to finally dive into some research for myself. What I discovered was sobering, but not surprising.
Mr. H graciously agreed to a phone call, during which I got some more information to help shed light on some of the final details of Islam. The result is the following:
There are 2 main ones (the ones everybody knows), and some other fringes, but not as many as in the Christian church. As I understand it, there are very few (if any) differences between Sunni and Shia in practice. Shia have a different way of performing ablution (“wudu”, the ritual washing) for example, but the theology is the same, unlike some different Christian sects who differ entirely even in matters of basic theology.
The difference, as far as I understand it, is that Shi’ites believe that Ali (Muhammad’s cousin) was Muhammad’s successor (Aslan, 2011, p. 139), whereas Sunnis believe there was no appointed successor and chose their Caliph through consensus. The shahadah or testament to faith (uttered by those converting) is different as well.
As an English translation, they would both proclaim, “I testify that there is no god but God, and that Muhammad is God’s messenger.” The Shi’ites add a third clause, proclaiming the legitimacy of their first Caliph. This is really the only way politics get applied in that religion, and as far as I know, they don’t subscribe to any differing viewpoints that could be categorized in terms of right/left/center, etc.
Many Catholics pray to St. Mary. Many Protestants do not, and would hold that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches’ veneration of saints and use of holy icons constitutes idolatry, or polytheism. These are major differences in theological experience. Muslim denominations, though there are few, are also not that different.
A clue can be found in the Qur’an in the following verse, as translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem: “Hold fast to God’s rope altogether; do not split into factions” (3:103). Also, take 3:105, two verses later: “Do not be like those who, after they have been given clear revelation, split into factions and fall into disputes…” (Haleem, 2010, p. 64).
There is, for all intents and purposes, one Islam; the only difference is who each group takes to be their leader. Culturally, it’s not even the same as the Pope, so it’s tough to explain without really diving into it for 2 years and getting the feel for it. Christianity and Islam have different ways of dividing themselves up, is basically what I’m saying.
That shouldn’t be surprising. As I write this, it’s the day after Christmas and let’s face it, we’ve all just spent the past few weeks going to dinners, galas, engagement parties, and every other kind of festivities people do during the Holidays. Think about how many different points of view there are in any given room. Think about the different kinds of conversations you have, people you meet and points of view you encounter. Perhaps over the course of a single night at a single event! We take for granted this diversity because of certain key privileges in our society but it doesn’t make them any less meaningful.
I consider myself and strive to be an empiricist and free thinker. That being said, I also understand that the human mind is extremely effective as deceiving itself. Therefore it is downright near impossible to arrive at “truth”. There is only perception. There is what he said, what she said, and what actually happened.
Nestled and scattered away in the pockets of a vastly divided religious tradition is the Islamic Sufi tradition. This group first became identified by British Oriental enthusiasts seeking to encapsulate what they found to be good and attractive about Muslim spirituality and mysticism. Like the mystical traditions of Western Christianity that brought forth minds like St. John of the Cross and Gregor Mendel, The Sufis produced poets like Rumi* and scholars like Avicenna.
For those readers not familiar with the writings of these individuals, The Principle of Mendelian Inheritance by Gregor Mendel is the foundation of modern genetics. The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross was the first major work to address what we would today call personal and personality psychology. The prose of Rumi tells the story of a (soul/mind/spirit) seeking its companions in all; Muslim, Christian, and Jew and bringing them into a loving embrace stating:
“Love will find its way through all languages on its own.”
Finally the monumental work of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine gave us the foundations for our modern understanding of illness as a result of micro-bodies and not “malignant spirits” or “punishment from above”.
My research essentially confirmed my previous observation. Contrary to what the media will have you believe, the unexpected, uncomfortable, but undeniable truth is that love of self (not ego, but inborn goodness/Buddha nature), knowledge, and friend, transcend even the deepest of divisions. The sooner we accept that the majority of human discord can be attributed to willful ignorance and blatant rejection of new ideas, the sooner we will begin working from the inside, out.
Entertaining a challenging thought doesn’t endanger you, any more than slandering someone else makes them so. These extraordinary individuals were fervent believers in their respective religions. Have I left you wondering how a Catholic monk could be the founder of genetics, or a Muslim scholar the father of modern medicine? I hope so. The next time you are tempted to jump to conclusions because of something you “heard on the news,” try to remember how much there is to know about the world and how little you actually know. Remember that most of life is perception and that feeling is easy but thinking takes effort. Finally:
"All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. "
— J.R.R. Tolkien
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Hard Copy References:
Abdel Haleem, M.A.S. (2010). The Qur’an: English translation and Parallel Arabic text. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Aslan, R. (2011). No god but God: The origins, evolution, and future of Islam. New York: Random House.