Deobandi. This is an extreme form of Sunni orthodoxy that developed in India in response to the presence and influence of the British colonial government. Like other Salafist idea systems, Deobandis look to the older forms and documents of Islam, believing that, over the centuries, Islam has been corrupted.
The Taliban practice a simplistic form of revivalist Islam based on Deobandi teachings. The Taliban learned this form of the Islamic faith in Islamic religious schools, or madrasah, run on the basis of an uneasy cooperation between Deobandi teachers and Wahhabi money.
Schismatics and heretics. There are other groups derived from Islam. In their present form, they are of doubtful Islamic identity.
- Druze, an esoteric sect, form a minority population in Lebanon, Syria and Israel. The Druze faith originated as a variant form of Twelver Shiism, but over time, elements of Gnosticism and other influences from Greek philosophy have permeated the sect’s beliefs.
The Druze often employ the Islamic practice of dissembling, known as takkiya, to protect their institutions and people from curiosity and hostility. Most Muslims do not accept the Druze as fellow believers unless political necessity requires it.
- The Alawi is yet another esoteric sect derived from Shiism. In this case, the Shiite “root” of the sect lies in the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt at the time of the Crusades. The Alawis make up about 10 percent of the population of Syria, but enjoy great power there, having been given authority by the French in the belief that a minority population would have to ally itself to the colonial administration to survive. The end of colonialism after World War II spoiled that plan, but left the Alawis in a position of influence. The Alawis do not accept converts. They hold very un-Islamic beliefs that involve the incarnation of God in Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad. For these and many other reasons of heterodox belief, Alawis are not considered Muslim by Orthodox Sunnis and Shiites. In spite of that, the Syrian parliament was forced to declare the Alawi as Islamic; the Syrian constitution requires that the president must be Muslim.
- Groups such as the Yazidi and Bahai live on the fringes of Middle Eastern theological life. The Yazidis are a Kurdish minority who practice an ancient religion only distantly related to Islam. The Bahai religion, although derived from the teachings of a Persian Shiite divine, have wandered in the direction of accepting all belief as valid — far from the Islamic fold — that it is anathema in such places as Iran.
The very nature of the Islamic faith, with its lack of a governing religious authority and reliance on group consensus for legitimization of Islamic identity, ensures that the continuing proliferation of splinter groups, large and small, is inevitable and will result in variations in doctrine and practice until the “last days.”
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W. Patrick Lang is a retired colonel in the U.S. Army and a scholar of Islam and the Middle East.
Tags: Christianity Muslim Islam Shiite