The Boundaries of Islam

The reformed GCSE and A level specification highlights that there is a wider expression of Islam beyond Sunni. The majority of RE teaching teaches to the Sunni interpretation of Islam; the Six Beliefs and the Five Pillars are more closely identified with Sunni, rather than other expressions but form the majority of teaching within the classroom. Alan Brine (2015) has suggested:

Do we need to actively question the idea that there is such a thing as ‘true’ or ‘reaI’ Islam? There are just lots of different Islams. Some forms are pleasing to the eye; others are distasteful but they are all just versions of Islam. Some Muslims will claim some kind of authority for their version, and that is ‘interesting’, but it cannot be taken as a baseline for our teaching about the religion.

The two central teachings of Islam seem to be developed in the context of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad. The Shahadah, which is accepted by all Muslims in varying forms says:

            There is no god but Allah; Muhammad the Messenger of Allah

These beliefs as the defining characteristics of orthodoxy within Islam seems to be supported within the Qur’an:

You who believe, obey God [God] and the Messenger [Prophet Muhammad], and those in authority among you. If you are in dispute over any matter, refer it to God and the Messenger (Surah 4:59).

Acceptance of the unity of Allah, to whom there can be no partner ascribed is the most important belief of Islam. This is reflected in the greatest sin within Islam – shirk – which is the sin of ascribing partners to Allah. The nature and unity of Allah underpins the message of the Qur’an and the message of Islam.

The belief in Allah is central to all belief and worship. The most important concept about Allah to Muslims is Tawhid, or the unity of Allah.

Say: He is God, the One and Only; God, the Eternal, Absolute; None is born of Him, nor is He born; And there is none like Him (Surah 112).

The nature of Allah is explicitly linked with his relationship with his creation, in particular through the Prophet Muhammad and the revelation of the Qur’an. Muhammad is the most important of the messengers of Allah, and is taught to be the ‘seal of the Prophets’. The Qur’an is the definitive revelation of Allah. The primacy of Muhammad and of the Qur’an can be used to draw elements of the boundaries of Islam. If we use Baha’i as an example, they were a movement who, while having their roots in Islam, placed themselves outside of the realm of Islam because of their teaching about the person of Bahá’u’lláh and the position of Muhammad as one Manifestation of God. While teaching the Qur’an as authoritative it is not the definitive word of God and the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh are seen to take precedence. As such, both Baha’is and Muslims recognise that they stand outside of Islam; though the Baha’i view is slightly more nuanced. They provide a useful case study in that other people/books are placed before/alongside the Qur’an and the Prophet, as well as recognising themselves that they are outside of the ummah (community of Muslims).

Could this be used to draw the boundaries of Islam? A further discussion of the orthodoxy within Islam could be linked to further beliefs. A Hadith reports:

He (the inquirer) said: Inform me about Iman (faith). He (the Holy Prophet) replied: That you affirm your faith in Allah, in His angels, in His Books, in His Apostles, in the Day of Judgment, and you affirm your faith in the Divine Decree about good and evil. He (the inquirer) said: You have told the truth. He (the inquirer) again said: Inform me about al-Ihsan (performance of good deeds) (Sahih Muslim 8).

This does not create a list of things that can be believed by Muslims, rather this is the baseline. To be a Muslim, to live in submission to Allah one believes in these six beliefs. It may be self-evident that this Hadith does not contain all of the nuances of these teachings and that it is possible to have divergent understandings of what is meant by each of the above. Thus, within Sunni Islam there are the Six Beliefs that relate to the beliefs outlined exactly, whereas within Shi’a, the five roots of ‘Usul ad-Din could be seen to incorporate the beliefs outlined in the Hadith.


Nature of Humanity

A further discussion of who can be considered to be a Muslim could focus on right practice, or orthopraxy. To be precise in definition, a Muslim is one who submits to the will of Allah. This submission is shown in the actions that a person performs, it is not just to be found in declarations of iman (faith) but in the living of that faith. One Hadith reports:

The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said: Al-Islam implies that you testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, and you establish prayer, pay Zakat, observe the fast of Ramadan, and perform pilgrimage to the (House) if you are solvent enough (to bear the expense of) the journey. (Sahih Muslim 8a).

This links explicitly with what Muslims believe about the nature of humanity.

Within Islam humanity is a special creation of Allah; humans were created from clay and the spirit of life was breathed into them. They are distinct from the rest of creation by virtue of their soul, their conscience, intelligence, free will and the ability to worship. These gifts make humanity superior to the rest of creation including the angels and every aspect of the natural world. The three parts of human: body, soul and intellect all combine to enable a person to worship Allah and live in submission to his will.

The initial purity of the soul is shown through the Islamic belief in reversion. All people are born in submission to Allah, it is only through life’s experiences and choices that they rebel against him. Thus, when a person chooses to follow Islam they are ‘reverting’ to the state of submission into which they were born.

This ‘battle’ between living in submission to Allah and not, can be found in two elements of the human soul that have differing emphases in the various traditions of Islam, and are linked to the concept of greater jihad. The greater jihad is the struggle to live in submission to Allah, that can be seen in a discussion of ‘nafs’ and the ‘qalb’.


Where are the boundaries of Islam?

Having established two aspects of Islam that could be seen to be normative: the nature of Allah and the nature of humanity, are we any closer to understanding how to define Islam and, more particularly, to identify who is a Muslim? The boundaries of a religion are often determined by those with the largest voice, and this isn’t always the best way to make decisions or move forward.

In some ways the unity of Islam can be seen to be a myth; Muslims can be seen to be unified by certain teachings, but even within the same traditions there can be seen to be different expressions and emphases. The table below suggests some of the different groups that can be found within the two main traditions Islam:


Sunni Shi’a
Hanafi Hanbali Maliki Shafi Ismaili Jafri Zaidiyyah
Barlevi Deoband Sevener Nizari Musta’li Twelver Alawi Alevi
Qaramira Tayyibi Akhbari Usull
Bohras Shaykhi

Sunni and Shi’a groups.

Missing from this table are Sufi schools or traditions that can be found across Sunni and Shi’a expressions of Islam.

For Shi’a Muslims they are the original expression of Islam taught by the Prophet Muhammad. It is Sunni Islam that are seen to be schismatic. Sometimes within discussions it can be seen that Sunni is taught as the normative expression of Islam, and Shi’a split from Sunni. This is perhaps an inevitable result of a large percentage of Muslims in the UK, and around the world, being Sunni (estimates range from 85–90% with the remainder generally being found within Shi’a Islam). The typical Sunni view is summarised by Cyril Glasse:

Shi’ites are Muslims because their doctrines coincide for the most part with orthodox Islam; the Shi’ite belief in the mystic role of the Imams, while deplorable does not put them beyond the pale (2001, p. 427).

For Shia’s this summation would be offensive; in this understanding Sunni Islam is ‘orthodox’ and Shi’as beliefs are ‘deplorable’, also described as heterodox or heretical. Contrary to this, Muslims would describe their version of Islam as the authentic expression, taught by the Prophet Muhammad and continued by his successors, the Imams.

This is important within the teaching of different expressions of Islam. As already noted, there is a tendency to describe Shi’as as the breakaway or schismatic sect of Islam. In teaching Shi’a self-understanding it is imperative that Shi’a claims are recognised on their own terms, and not through the lenses of Sunni history and belief. This is not to suggest that the differences cannot be examined; indeed, the provide a rich area of discussion but teachers should allow both Sunnis and Shi’a to speak for themselves.

Ahmadiyya Islam occupies a controversial place within wider Islam and highlights a tension between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. If one were to attend prayers in an Ahmadiyya mosque, or converse about the central tenets of Islam a person would struggle to observe a noticeable difference between Sunni and Ahmadiyya practice and teachings. However Ahmadiyya Muslims seem to be rejected as Muslim. One example of this is in the state of Pakistan. There are elements of the Pakistani constitution that outlines their placement outside of Islam. Firstly, in 1974 the Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan declared members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to be non-Muslims. In 1984 Ordinance XX was added to the constitution which effectively restricted the self-identification and religious practice of Ahmadiyya Muslims. Ordinance XX outlines specific prohibitions against the Ahmadiyya community. Each of these ‘offences’ are punishable by three years imprisonment and a fine.

There are numerous other examples of anti-Ahmadiyya sentiment and action. Although most prevalent in majority Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, there are examples in the UK. In March 2016 Ahmadi newsagent, Asad Shah, 40, was killed by a Sunni Muslim in what police termed an act of “religious prejudice”. In the same year leaflets calling for death to Ahmadis were found in mosques – the mosques themselves asserted that they were unaware of the leaflets and had not placed them there, they remain evidence of anti-Ahmadiyya feeling within aspects of Islam.

There is space for disagreement within Islam as is shown in Sunni-Shi’a relationships. What is it, therefore, that Ahmadis believe and teach that seems to create such animosity? The major point of dissension surrounds the person and role of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Ahmadis believe that he was the promised Messiah/Mahdi foretold in the Qur’an and by the Prophet. This is rejected by other Muslims, in concert with the Ahmadi belief that Ghulam Ahmad was sent to rejuvenate Muslims from their malaise. In some ways it could be argued that Ghulam Ahmad’s claims are a rejection of Islamic tenets as understood by Muslims worldwide. This could lead to feelings of animosity.

The area of most contention seems to surround an understanding of Muhammad as ‘seal of the prophets.’ For Sunni and Shi’a Muslims this tends to indicate that Muhammad is the final prophet, and that after him there will be no further prophets. A Hadith of the Prophet is used to suggest the completeness of the message that he delivered:

My similitude in comparison with the other prophets before me, is that of a man who has built a house nicely and beautifully, except for a place of one brick in a corner. The people go about it and wonder at its beauty, but say: ‘Would that this brick be put in its place!’ So I am that brick, and I am the last of the Prophets (Sahih al-Bukhari 3535).

Ahmadis would not disagree with this Hadith, but their interpretation of what is meant by no prophet after Muhammad differs from that held by Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. There is no disagreement about Muhammad’s position as the greatest of the prophets but, in distinction to Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis say that there are two types of prophets: law bearing and non-law bearing. Ahmad Chaudhry suggests:

His [Muhammad’s] title being ‘Khataman Nabiyyeen’, meaning ‘Father of the Prophets’, gives us the logical conclusion that there can be and will be such spiritual sons who will be prophets bearing the seal of his allegiance and obedience. Such a prophet can bring no new law and will bear the seal of his law (Chaudhry, 1996, p. 39).

Ghulam Ahmad is a follower of the Prophet Muhammad, indeed, is a reflection of all of the prophets and their messages. He does not seek to add to the message of Muhammad, rather he reminds Muslims of the teachings of Muhammad and glorifies his name. In this was he is not coming as a law-bearing prophet but as a prophet chosen by Allah to restore the message of Islam in the lives of Muslims:

But I am a Messenger and a Prophet without a new law in the sense that God reveals to me that which is hidden, and because of the inner grace that has been bestowed upon me on account of my obedience to the Holy Prophet, and because of having received his name (Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Spiritual Treasures of Islam, 302).

Section 2 of Ordinance XX to the Pakistan Constitution makes it clear that this is the major issue which wider Islam has with the Ahmadiyya Community. It is my belief that as teachers we are not to draw lines of demarcation within religions and that the self-identification of adherents should be respected. In most other aspects of Islamic belief and practice there is little, if any, difference between the Ahmadiyya ideal and those found within the wider Islamic world. Even though the religiosity and observance may be different.

A further case study is that of the Nation of Islam who are predominantly found in the USA. The Nation of Islam began with two figures: Wallace Fard and Elijah Muhammad. Fard is variously identified as the Mahdi, a prophet, and by Elijah Muhammad as God, and the source of his teachings. Elijah Muhammad himself is seen to be a prophet within the Nation of Islam. Although members of the Nation of Islam accept Muhammad and the Qur’an, and can be seen to be live the Five Pillars of Sunni Islam, most Muslims would place them outside of the ummah, though relations are ambiguous. In one sense the beliefs held by the Nation of Islam are outside of the realm of Islamic norms; their teachings about God becoming incarnate, the role of the Prophet Muhammad, and the after-life are “heterodox, or even heretical”:

But despite its vast ideological differences from the international Muslim community, the NOI has come to be seen like a partner, even an ally, by many in the Arab and Muslim worlds (Fishman and Soage, 2013, p. 59).

Fishman and Soage go on to suggest that the reasons why there are seen as an ally is political expediency and a shared political outlook. This lays open an interesting discussion: which considerations take precedence when deciding on the Islamicness of a group? Maybe because of their geographical isolation, and also because of their usefulness, the heterodoxy of the Nation of Islam can be seen to be overlooked.

We should teach ‘Islams’ within the classroom, Within the community there will always be lines that are drawn, or not drawn for one reason or another. Teachers and professionals function as “border crossers: able to listen critically to the voices of their students as well as able to critique the language in which histories of conflict was expressed” (Davies 2008, p. 93). We have to teach ‘Big tent’ religions. Whatever our personal views about the Christianness, or the Muslimness, or any other religion of a particular group the self-identification becomes important because in teaching children that their faith is outside of what we consider to be a certain religion, we are imposing our bias on them and questioning their sense of self and identity. This may be at odds with our own personal views, but I think is the only approach open to us as professionals. To return to the question of ‘Who owns a religion?’ let me suggest that I don’t know, but I know it’s not me and I don’t think it’s you either so we have to be as inclusive as possible.

Teachers, regardless of their own opinions, should be able to recognise the messiness of the boundaries of Islam, and help pupils to draw their own conclusions based on all of the evidence as to where the boundaries should be, or whether there should be boundaries at all. This is an approach that could be applied to all religions in recognising their internal diversity.