Should We Stop Using the Word ‘Islam’?

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The Quran. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Quran. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Using the term ‘Islam’ instead of a more specific word for a sect can often be too vague when discussing various aspects of the religion.

It’s true that when talking about any group, it is necessary to a certain extent to talk in generalities. Without mentioning the things that tie a group together, a group ceases to meaningfully exist as a concept. So when talking about religion, it is natural to fall into this pattern and talk about a large grouping unified by a common creed.

But this may not always be so helpful when the group is so broad that it doesn’t mean much to peg someone as a member.

When talking about Islam, it is easy to forget just how vast it is. Well over a billion and a half followers is a colossal number. Yes, there is a common doctrine. To be counted as a Muslim one has to accept that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is his messenger. Muslims also accept the Quran as scripture.

But beyond that there is a lot of divergence. There are four schools of Sunni jurisprudence. The Shiite world is largely divided into Twelver, Zaidi and Jafari, but there are many other, smaller groups. Each Muslim country over the centuries has developed its own traditions, customs and legal thought. Each community looks to its own leaders for religious guidance.

Others reject hadiths and fiqh altogether, going only by what they read in the Quran.

What we most commonly think of as Islamic fundamentalism today, the austere Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, is itself only a recent invention. It was an 18th-Century reaction against the cosmopolitan Islam practiced by the Ottoman elites of the day. Iran’s theocratic government is even younger, implementing Ayatollah Khomeini’s program of “Guardianship of the Jurist,” which was drawn up in the 1970s, replacing hundreds of years of Islamically-sanctioned monarchy.

In the West in particular, but also all over the world, many Muslims are now questioning their relationship with their faith and re-opening old questions. Islamic feminists are pushing for a greater role for women. Progressives and humanists are questioning whether or not the Quran is divinely authored, while still relating to it as a hugely important guiding influence in their lives.

There is tremendous variety within the Islamic spectrum. It is no more reasonable to talk of a unified Islam than it is to speak about Anabaptists and the Jesuit Order as being the same religion. Yes, Anabaptists and the Jesuits both share a belief that Jesus was crucified and resurrected, but beyond that there are a lot of theological differences.

So when you conceptualize Islam, dig a little deeper. Don’t be content to talk of it as one singular entity. Figure out what kind of Islam specifically you are talking about.



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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