Dear Friends of ScholarLeaders,
The vast majority of Muslims live where we work: in the Majority World. And from our work, we enjoy rich opportunities to learn about Islam. We sponsor specialists for advanced education, help establish centers for education and dialogue, and work directly with Majority World leaders to identify opportunities, as Christians, to engage Muslims and to minister effectively in Muslim-majority societies.
To help guide us, noted scholar John Azumah joined our Board several years ago. Informed by years of observation, Dr. Azumah has penned the following essay on five forms of Islam. It is a penetrating summary that we hope will be a blessing to you.
Larry Smith, President
The Five Faces of Islam
Oct. 2016 | John Azumah
It is very common to hear Christian apologists and critics of Islam say, “Islam is…,” “Islam teaches…,” or “Islam does not…” These are often, at the very least, overly simplistic and misleading generalizations. As one leading Muslim scholar puts it:
“No one has seen ‘Islam’ in its transparent glory to really judge it. But what we have seen are Muslims: good Muslims and bad Muslims; ugly Muslims and pretty Muslims; just Muslims and unjust Muslims; Muslims who are oppressors, racists, bigots, misogynists, and criminals as well as Muslims who are compassionate, liberators, seekers of an end to racism and sexism, and [among] those who aspire for global justice and equity.”
In other words, there are as many “Islams” as there are Muslims. The five “faces of Islam” outlined here represent various ways in which different Muslims understand and express their faith. These five faces (missionary, mystical, ideological, militant, and progressive) are more like overlapping circles than compartmentalized boxes.
The Missionary Face
Islam is the second missionary religion after Christianity. The Qur’an enjoins Muslims to “summon (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching” (Q. 16:125). From the outset, conversion to Islam was almost always a by-product of conquests and commerce. However, in the 19th century, Christian missions inspired the formation of organized Islamic missions (da’wah), which has included state sponsorship in many Muslim countries since the 1950s. A good example of an Islamic missionary organization is the Tablighi Jamaat, which started in India in 1927 and can now be found all over the world. Muslims who view Islam mainly through the missionary lens seek to commend the best values of their religion while leveling polemical attacks against other traditions, especially Christianity. Well-known Muslim missionary polemicists include the late Ahmed Deedat of South Africa and Zakir Naik of India.
The Mystical Face
This represents the more esoteric or spiritual expression of Islam. Examples include Sufism, Islamic spirituality, or Folk Islam. Folk Islam predominates in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, and is rooted in a strong belief in the supernatural: the spirit world, miracles, faith healings, dreams, visions, and visitations. Thus, mystical Islam bears similarities to charismatic or Pentecostal Christianity. Mystics practice spiritual exercises that include dhikr (remembrance of God), chants, music, poetry, dance, trance, and ritual meals. Whereas traditional Islam emphasizes the transcendence of God, mystical Islam teaches divine immanence and love. It teaches the need for a Master or Shaykh, whose duty is to guide novices and meet the spiritual needs of the wider believing community. The spirit, rather than the letter, of the Qur’an is what matters to mystics. Followers engage in the magical use of the Qur’an for healing and other purposes. Organized Sufi orders include the Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya in the Middle East and Africa, Chishti in India, Mevlevi in Turkey, and Inayati in the USA.
The Ideological Face
Muslims who see Islam through an ideological or political prism emphasize the religion’s legal and political content, and believe that “Islam is a complete way of life.” The chief objective of ideological Muslims, also known as Islamists, is to “Islamize the public sphere.” The Qur’an is the only true constitution, an Islamic state is the objective, and enforcement of shari’a the means. All other systems are manmade and false. Their chief quranic verse for Islamists is: “Ye are the best community that hath been raised up for mankind. Ye enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency; and ye believe in Allah” (Q. 3:110). Ideological Muslims take an extreme stance against other worldviews, and teach a radical disassociation from and aversion toward anything non-Islamic. Examples include the Wahhabis and Salafis of Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Sudan, and the Ansar al-Sunna or Ahl al-Sunna in many African countries. Groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are mainly ideological, but have military wings.
The Militant Face
Almost always inspired by the teachings of ideological Islam, militants seek to achieve political ends through violence. They draw inspiration from parts of the Qur’an, a romanticized Islamic history, and selected texts and traditions. Examples include al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab. It is important to note that just because jihadi groups cite Islamic scripture and texts, it does not necessarily make them Islamic. For instance, they regularly flout the elaborate and complicated laws governing the declaration and conduct of jihad. Moreover, the rise of militant Islamic groups cannot simply be explained by violence in Islamic texts. Oppressive and corrupt regimes, dictatorships, weak state institutions, and misguided Western foreign policies have all contributed in important ways. The seeds of violence are clearly present in Islamic texts and history, but contemporary sociopolitical and economic factors constitute the fertile grounds for such seeds to sprout, take root, and spread.
The Progressive Face
This is the face that genuinely seeks reformation within Islam. Progressive Muslims engage in the critical reading of Islamic texts and sourcebooks. They call for independent critical thinking (ijtihad) in place of what they see as blind following (taqlid) by the vast majority of the faithful. Progressives are open to other worldviews and see themselves as engaged in a struggle for the soul of Islam. They defend the rights of minorities and promote gender equality in Muslim-majority countries. Progressives openly declare their stance against “those whose God is a vengeful monster in the sky issuing death decrees against the Muslim and the non-Muslim alike… those whose God is too small, too mean, too tribal, and too male.” Some are persecuted and exiled from their own countries. Progressive groups and think tanks include the Sisters in Islam of Malaysia, the Gülen Movement in Turkey, Muslims for Progressive Values in the USA, and Quilliam Foundation in the UK.
Each of Islam’s five faces presents unique challenges to the Church. Christians need to move past fear and prejudice in order to bring the Gospel to Muslims (Acts 1:8). We need prayer warriors who will commit to praying for the Muslim World (Zech. 4:6). We need those who can participate in intellectual and theological discourse, helping the Church to engage Islam in both the academic and public spheres. We should affirm courageous activists working for reform and justice. Certainly, the militant face of Islam poses a security threat that governments must confront (Rom. 13:4). Yet, Christians must respond in love, seeking to understand and alleviate the sociopolitical factors that contribute to violence and extremism. The Church can also reach out to and care for widows, orphans, and refugees left in the wake of warfare.
Finally, we must remember and behold the human face of Islam. Muslims are persons with names and loved ones. As an African proverb puts it, in times of crisis, the foolish build walls, but the wise build bridges. May we wise up and be Christian bridge-builders and peacemakers as our Lord and Savior implores us (Matt 5:9).
John A. Azumah is Professor of World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary. Born and raised in Ghana, he earned his PhD at the University of Birmingham. He has taught at theological schools in Ghana, India, the UK, and the US. Among John’s books are My Neighbour’s Faith: Islam Explained for African Christians and The African Christian and Islam (edited with Lamin Sanneh). John serves on the Board of ScholarLeaders International.