General Introduction to Islamic Faith and Practice
Muslims believe that God has many qualities and names, one of the most significant of which is Allah, a word in Arabic signifying God for both Muslim and Christian Arabs. For many medieval Muslim thinkers, the name Allah signifies God's comprehensiveness, God's all-inclusiveness. Another name of God, one that is more particular, is al-Khaliq (the creator). Thus Muslims believe that God is the ultimate creator of existence. After creating existence, Muslims believe that God does not leave the creation without guidance. Hence there are signs of God and guidance from God in existence. In addition to these signs that are embedded in existence, God periodically revealed wisdom to prophets, wisdom which in some cases was in verbal form and which has become known as sacred scripture. Muslims believe that the last of the prophets was Muhammad. The revealed wisdom, or revelation, given to him is the Qur'an. The purpose of revelation is to enable humans both to devote themselves to God and to lead lives and construct societies that will increase their closeness to God in this world and for all eternity. For Muslims, revelation, God's grace, the human intellect, and the human capacity to choose to follow devotedly God's revelation are sufficient to enable people to become close to God, now and eternally. Hence in Islam, like traditional Judaism, Islamic practice in harmony with guidance given by God's revelation is emphasized as being the key to salvation. Unlike in Judaism, however, Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the form of revelation that can be relied on today, in contrast to the Bible, which Muslims believe has been subject to human influence. Western scholars of Islam have noted that Muslims, like Christians, emphasize the significance of correct belief. Nevertheless, unlike Christians, Muslims believe that God's revelation, God's grace, and human intelligence and effort is what saves, although Muslims do revere Jesus as a prophet.
The bare minimum that a Muslim must do and believe in order to rest assured
of his or her salvation is quite simple, although the faith and practice
of many Muslims may often be complex and elaborate, reminding students of
the detailed and scrupulous observance of Rabbinic law in Orthodox Judaism
and the precise doctrinal formulations of Catholicism. Basic, rudimentary
Islam is clearly stated in the following "sound" (sahih)
A Bedouin came to the Prophet and said, "Tell me of a deed such that if I were to do it, I would enter Paradise (as a result)." The Prophet said, "Worship God (Allah) without worshiping anything along with Him, offer the (five daily) prescribed prayers, pay the compulsory alms(zakat), and fast the month of Ramadan." The Bedouin said, "(I swear) by Him in whose hands my life is, I will not do more than this." When he (the Bedouin) left, the Prophet said, "Whoever would like to see a man of Paradise should look at this man." Narrated by Abu Hurayrah in the Sahih of Bukhari, Volume 2, p. 272-73, book 23, #480.
Although the hadith noted above indicates four practices (worship of God alone, prayer, almsgiving, and fasting), the core of Islamic practice (which is the concrete or outward manifestation of the inward attitude of surrender to God) is expressed in the well-attested hadith, "Islam is based upon five [practices]..." which are also called the "five pillars." (This is also confirmed in the well-attested and well-known hadith involving Gabriel.) These five practices are as follows:
shahada, bearing witness that there is nothing worthy of worship
but God and that Muhammad is God's messenger;
salat, performing the prescribed Islamic prayer;
zakat, almsgiving of a 2 1/2 % tax on one's asests;
sawm, fasting from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan;
and hajj, performing the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Theological Differences and Attempts at promoting Unity
The line of Mohammed (pbuh) through Ali and Hussein became extinct in 873CE when the last Shia Imam, Al-Askari, who had no brothers disappeared within days of inheriting the title at the age of four. The Shias refused, however, to accept that he had died, preferring to believe that he was merely "hidden" and would return. When after several centuries this failed to happen, spiritual power passed to the ulema, a council of twelve scholars who elected a supreme Imam. The best known modern example of the Shia supreme Imam is the late Ayyatollah Khomeni, whose portrait hangs in many Shia homes. The Shia Imam has come to be imbued with Pope-like infallibility and the Shia religious hierarchy is not dissimilar in structure and religious power to that of the Catholic Church within Christianity. Sunni Islam, in contrast, more closely resembles the myriad independent churches of American Protestantism. Sunnis do not have a formal clergy, just scholars and jurists, who may offer non-binding opinions. Shias believe that their supreme Imam is a fully spiritual guide, inheriting some of Muhammad's inspiration ("light") . Their imams are believed to be inerrant interpreters of law and tradition. Shia theology is distinguished by its glorification of Ali. In Shia Islam there is a strong theme of martyrdom and suffering, focusing on deaths of Ali and, particularly, Hussein plus other important figures in the Shia succession. Shi`ism attracted other dissenting groups, especially representatives of older non-Arab (Mawali) civilizations (Persian, Indian, etc.) that felt they had not been treated fairly by the Arab Muslims.
Sunnis and Shias agree on the core fundamentals of Islam - the Five Pillars - and recognize each others as Muslims. In 1959 Sheikh Mahmood Shaltoot, Head of the School of Theology at Al Azhar university in Cairo, the most august seat of learning of Sunni Islam and the oldest university in the world, issued a fatwa (ruling) recognizing the legitimacy of the Jafari School of Law to which most Shias belong. As a point of interest, the Jafari School is named after its founder Imam Jafaf Sidiq who was a direct descendent through two different lines of the Sunni Caliph Abu Bakr. And Al Azhar University, though now Sunni, was actually founded by the Shia Fatimid dynasty in 969CE.
However, there remain significant differences between the two forms of Islam and these are what tend to be emphasized. Many Sunni's would contend that Shias seem to take the fundamentals of Islam very much for granted, shunting them into the background and dwelling on the martyrdoms of Ali and Hussein. This is best illustrated at Ashura when each evening over a period of ten days the Shias commemorate the Battle of Karbala, with a wailing Imam whipping the congregation up into a frenzy of tears and chest beating. It is alleged that instead of missionary work to non-Muslims, the Shia harbor a deep-seated disdain towards Sunni Islam and prefer to devote their attention to winning over other Muslims to their group. There is ongoing violent strife between Sunnis and Shias in Pakistan. On the other hand, in recent years there has been signification co-operation between the two groups in the Lebanon. And some of the most dynamic developments in Islam today are taking place in Shia-dominated Iran.
On a practical daily level, Shias have a different call to prayer, they perform wudu and salat differently including placing the forehead onto a piece of hardened clay from Karbala, not directly onto the prayer mat when prostrating. They also tend to combine prayers, sometimes worshipping three times per day instead of five. The Shias also have some different ahadith and prefer those narrated by Ali and Fatima to those related by other companions of the Prophet (pbuh). Because of her opposition to Ali, those narrated by Aisha count among the least favored. Shia Islam also permits muttah - fixed-term temporary marriage - which is now banned by the Sunnis. Muttah was originally permitted at the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and is now being promoted in Iran by an unlikely alliance of conservative clerics and feminists, the latter group seeking to downplay the obsession with female virginity which is prevalent in both forms of Islam, pointing out that only one of the Prophet's thirteen wives was a virgin when he married them.