Monday, May 19, 2008


A couple of weeks ago we saw a misleading headline: “Islam Overtakes Catholicism as World’s Biggest Faith.” Statistics published by the Vatican show that Catholicism is the religion of 17.4% of the world’s population while Islam has grown to 19.2%, due largely to a faster birthrate.

What is misleading about this is treating Islam as a monolith without treating Christianity the same way. If you cumulated all the Christians together, their 33% market share would easily outstrip Islam. But lumping together Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants, or Croatian Catholics and Serbian Orthodox, or Pastor Hagee and the Pope, produces a fairly meaningless number. It is just as meaningless to lump together the Sunni and Shiite factions of Islam, which our soldiers in Iraq can tell you are busily butchering one another, with Americans caught in the crossfire.

Antagonism between Sunni and Shiite arose in the earliest days of Islam. The Umayyad dynasty that

ruled the Arab-conquered world after the deaths of Muhammad and his immediate companions was not terribly religious. Christianity, Judaism, and even Paganism continued to flourish, and no attempt was made to impose the Islamic law known today as “Sharia” in Umayyad territories. Muhammad himself was accorded little honor; his daughters made poor marriages, and his funeral bier was auctioned off for cash. Caliph Alwaleed Ibn Yazid sneered that “Muhammad the Hashemite manipulated people by his claim that he was a prophet, without true inspiration or an inspired book.” Caliph Walid II is said to have stuck the Koran on a lance and shot it to pieces with arrows – quite similar to what an American staff sergeant is now in trouble for doing with a rifle, forcing his superiors into grotesque groveling – literally having to kiss the Koran to make amends. Perhaps the sergeant was simply a student of Arab history?

The clergy grew increasingly critical of the Umayyads. In 680, a serious revolt against the caliph broke out in Iraq, led by Muhammad’s grandson Husayn ibn Ali. Husayn was defeated and killed at the battle of Kerbela, but his supporters never gave up; their spiritual descendants are today’s Shiites. The Umayyads were later overthrown by Arabian clergy, who helped establish the much more religious-dominated Abbasid dynasty. It was the Abbasids, centuries after Muhammad’s death, who elevated him to the lofty status he enjoys in the Sunni world today. One might think that the Abbasid clergy in Arabia would have patched things up with the Shiites in Iran and Iraq, but that would have meant sharing power; does any reader know the Arabic translation for “fat chance”?

What is less generally known is that there are other factions inside Islam as well. In Turkey, for example, there is a large sect called the “Alevis,” with 15 to 20 million adherents – about the same number as America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists. Alevis are Islamic in that they accept the idea that Muhammad was God’s prophet, but they do not attend sex-segregated mosques on Fridays, as Muslims do. Instead, Alevi men and women gather on Thursdays, where they mix their prayers with dance to help them experience mystical union with Allah (and, for the lucky, other types of union after the service). The women wear red headdresses, a vestige of pre-Islamic fire worship days. Their veneration for Husayn ibn Ali leans them toward Shiism, but of course the Iranian mullahs will have nothing to do with them – Alevi principles like “The important thing is not religion, but being a human being” have no place in revolutionary Iran.

The Alevis are old, and represent a grafting of Islam onto pre-existing Paganism. A much newer sub-group has sprung up around the 19th century teachings of one Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed to have had one-on-one chats with God in the same way Muhammad did, and thus to be a new prophet. Just as the Jews of the 2nd century BC decided that they were finished with having to deal with any more disruptive new prophets, the Muslims in the 9th century insisted that Muhammad was the end of the line, prophet-wise, and that God was too busy, too ornery, or too tired to send us any more. So the Ahmadiyas, as Mirza’s followers were called, had to be heretics.

Ahmadiya differences from mainstream Islam include, among other things, their belief that Jesus did not die on the cross. He simply fainted, awoke later in the tomb, and then hightailed it for Kashmir, where he died of old age under the name Yuz Asaf. Not so absurd a theory, in light of Mark 15:44: “And Pilate marveled if he were already dead: and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been any while dead,” because Pilate knew that death by crucifixion normally took days, not hours.

New prophets run counter to the spirit of the whole Muslim enterprise. The word “Islam” itself means “submission,” a concept implying that “B” is unquestioningly to do exactly what “A” tells him to do. Since God is not actually around to do the telling, “A” is the gang of preachers who proclaim themselves to be God’s mouthpiece. Such a model has no place for new factions, which by definition represent a departure from what “A” has been saying all along, thereby insulting A’s authority.

Thus, both the Ahmadiyas and the Alevis are endlessly harassed by mainstream Muslims, even in allegedly moderate Muslim states like Turkey and Indonesia. In Turkey, Alevi taxpayers pay through the nose to subsidize official Sunni Islam, with free electricity for Sunni mosques, government-paid salaries for imams, and brainwashing of Turkish children by promotion of Sunnism in state schools; but Alevi clerics and churches are never allowed to feed at the government trough. In democratic Indonesia, the government is responding decisively to protests last month by thousands of Sunnis organized by something called the Islamic Defender Front. “We demand the government outlaw Ahmadiyah’s teachings immediately,” said the marchers; others burned down an Ahmadiya mosque and ransacked a school while chanting “Burn, burn!” and “Kill, kill!”. Outlawing Ahmadiyah’s teachings is exactly what Indonesia’s religious affairs ministry is now preparing to do, based on a recommendation from its “Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society.”

The curious thing about all these factions is that every churchgoer in the world implicitly believes that God’s will is accepted by only a small minority of the people on the planet. Even if you view the biggest single cult, Catholicism, as a monolith (a highly debatable proposition), that leaves a minimum of 82.6% of the world’s population as being just flat-out wrong about what God wants; for any other sect, the misguided proportion of the world is even greater. The God who created the universe and guides its every action puts up with that kind of disrespect?


Ummat-al-wahidah said...

assalaamu alaikum,
mohon maaf, saya hanya ingin tahu saja rujukan dari posting FACTIONS ini, karena tidak tercantum di manaopun di blog anda.
terima kasih.

Ali said...

waduh, maaf ya Bro/Sis'.
Nih link-nya:

Ummat-al-wahidah said...

Okeh boss ...! Thanx ya!