Thursday, Jul. 21, 2011

One Faith, Many Strains

Sometimes the path to spiritual awareness runs through a Turkish suq. Nearly 20 years ago, my wife and I were carpet shopping at Istanbul's vast Ottoman Grand Bazaar. One salesman, a clean-shaven Muslim youth, invited us to a Sufi do — not one of the whirling-dervish performances so worshipped by tourists but a genuine prayer meeting at the home of his effendi.

Sufism holds that you can commune personally and directly with God through, among other avenues, meditative chanting. That's what we witnessed. The effendi's rooms were filled with men young and old sitting on colorful floor rugs, all repeating in rhythmic Arabic the first clause of the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith: "There is no God but Allah." Many appeared to be in a trancelike state. My wife, who is Chinese American, was the only woman present, somehow let in even without a veil. Whatever the reason, we found the experience mesmerizing, soulful and uplifting. I remember thinking, Unlike other strains of Islam, this mystical form is so cool, so mellow.

Many Muslims think differently. For centuries, Sufis have been persecuted by fellow Muslims — puritans who believe that Sufism's individuality and DIY doctrines do not sufficiently adhere to Shari'a law, the sunna (practices attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) and conventional interpretations of the Koran. This antagonism can get murderous. If Ibn Battuta, an otherwise conservative Muslim who loved to visit places holy to Sufis, had been at Lahore's venerated Data Darbar shrine a year ago, he might have gotten killed. Suicide bombers, probably Pakistani Taliban, caused scores of deaths and injuries. And it's not just the Sufis — many Muslim groups are bitterly at odds with one another.

The truth is that while Islam is proudly monotheistic, it is fiercely, even violently, nonmonolithic. Contemporary Islam tends to be viewed in two polar dimensions of light and darkness: a religion of peace and moderation that lives with the rest of the world, or a creed of hate and extremism that conspires to create its own world. Both exist, but the faith is also fragmented in myriad other ways. A veritable Arabic alphabet of Islamic branches and splinters abounds. Between fanatics at one end and reformers at the other lies a full spectrum of grades of belief and practice. While the West asks, Why do they hate us? Muslims could well ponder, Why do we hate one another?

The first and biggest schism in Islam — Sunnis vs. Shi'ites — originated immediately after Muhammad's passing in 632, over whether the Meccan merchant Abu Bakr or Muhammad's son-in-law Ali should succeed the Prophet. A quarter-century later, Ali's son Hussein and his small band of family and friends were pretty much annihilated by an Umayyad army at Karbala in what is today Iraq. Every year, Shi'ites ("followers of the party" of Ali) mark the terrible calamity in a paroxysm of grief and anger. The 1980 — 88 war between Sunni Iraq and Shi'ite Iran had to do largely with security and territory, and this year's incursion by a Gulf force into Bahrain, whose population is majority Shi'ite, with self-preservation and geopolitics. But in both cases, the deep root was a centuries-old mutual mistrust.

It's fair to ask, What's the big deal? Other great religions are split too. But it needn't be that way for Islam, which can, and should, be more unified. Being a Muslim is remarkably straightforward: you simply have to believe in the shahada (whose second part is "Muhammad is the messenger of Allah"). There's nothing as arcane as Christianity's Holy Trinity, as complex as Buddhism's levels of rebirth or as traumatic as Judaism's pain over which to agonize. Islam's fractures have less to do with theology than matters of leadership, interpretation and degree. "The divisions of Islam," Irish scholar Malise Ruthven wrote in his seminal work Islam in the World, "have their origins in politics rather than dogma."

Once a year, Muslims forget their differences. During the hajj, an astonishing diversity of Muslims join together in singular devotion — a breathtaking display of oneness that no other faith can match. Muslims who deny the Islam of others deny that spirit and, indeed, what the Koran itself says: "Allah invites all to the home of peace."