I found this chart on the Washington Post last year. I keep coming back to it to help people see the diversity within Islam. If you enlarge the chart to where you can actually read it, fascinating details emerge; the percentages of Shia and Sunni, subsets of each group and about how many are represented in each subset. You will also learn from what subsets the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS come. It looks a little like a tree to me. Perhaps a tree that needs some pruning. Some will dispute the overall 1.6 billion number of Muslims. I’ve heard numbers between 1.2 billion and 1.6 billion, but clearly this large number resists uniformity. We desperately need a more nuanced conversation when we speak about what “Muslims believe.”
When I first started building relationships with Muslims, a few of my friends talked about the unity of Islam, the single umma (or community) of Islam. This was presented as a proof of God’s blessing on Islam and as a stark contrast to the divisions within Christianity.
In time, I found that there was great diversity within Islam. So much so that it is very difficult to say Muslims uniformly believe anything. I have even heard the five pillars of Islam explained differently and the shahadah (confession of faith) explained differently.
With so many schools of thought and theology within Islam, it is important to see our Muslim friends as individuals and ask their individual perspectives on things. God has us all on a journey. Is this journey getting us closer to God or moving us further away?
Just as in numerous Christian circles we have different perspectives on how to interpret the Bible and live our faith, our Muslim friends also have different opinions about how to interpret the Qur’an and live out their faith. Christians would not all want to be lumped in with the belief systems of a Jim Wallis, an Al Mohler or Pat Robertson, much less so the systems of Jim Jones or Westboro Baptist.
As we describe the faith journeys of others, we need to keep the “Golden Rule” in mind. A nuanced description of others is useful because it helps clarify our thought process and challenges our assumptions. This is respectful and honoring. On the other hand, generalizations can be marginalizing, dismissive and condescending. This is offensive. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Labels are the tools of antagonists’ and politicians to manipulate an uninformed populace. They are the lazy man’s way of categorizing others and not dealing with the nuance required to resolve most conflicts.
It is inappropriate and dangerous to make sweeping generalizations based on what one fraction of the whole professes to believe. Would Christians want to be dismissed as racists because the Ku Klux Klan wear crosses on their robes and twist the Bible to support their claims to superiority over the races?
As I looked at the chart above, it reminded me of a tree. If a limb of a tree becomes diseased, it may need to be pruned. Islam currently has the attention of the world, and people are arguing over who gets to hold the pruning shears and where and how to make the cuts. It seems clear that there is some pruning that needs to be done for the sake of peace and mutual thriving. Some who claim to be Muslims don’t seem to think they can live in peace with the rest of the world. It may be a twig or it may be a branch. Some non-Muslims want to see the entire tree cut down, but not only is that not possible, its not smart to try.
Our Muslim friends also want to see this blight of Daesh eliminated. We can and must work effectively together to do so. It will be an ideological battle that defines Islam and makes space for freedom of religion for all. It will be a psychological battle for the individual hearts and minds of people on all sides. It will be a sociological battle as our society struggles together to overcome the challenges of this era but not also destroy or marginilize our neighbors. It will be a battle of international law and human rights and it may be a military battle as well as misguided souls, created in the image of God, are restrained from hurting others.