What defines the "Muslim World"?
Unity and Diversity
Muslims make up nearly one fifth of the world's population. The world's largest Muslim population resides in Indonesia -- with over 200 million. Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India account for another 400 million Muslims. Over 100 million Muslims live in Turkey and the Turkic Central Asian republics, well over 100 million Muslims are Chinese, and Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for several hundred million Muslims. Over 50 countries of the world have Muslim majority populations. And, nearly one-third of the world's Muslims live as minorities, for instance in Europe, North America, and Latin America. It is important to note that the world's fastest growing Muslim populations are found in Europe and the United States, where they are the second or third largest religious communities.
Islam is a diverse religion. The two major divisions are Sunni and Shii (or Shiite) Islam. Sunni Muslims comprise over 85% of all Muslims. Shii Muslims (sometimes referred to as simply "the Shiah") make up the rest of the world's Muslim population, but they are further split into a number of orientations. The major Shii groups are Ithna-Ashari or Twelvers, Ismailis, and Zaidis. The Twelver Shiis, who are the majority in Iran, are the largest branch of Shii Islam. The Ismailis split from the rest of Shii Muslims in the 8th century over a dispute on the lineage of descendants of Prophet Muhammad through his cousin Ali (and therefore the leadership of the Shii community). They live as minorities throughout South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America, and are further divided into Nizaris (whose leader is the Aga Khan) and Daudis (known in South Asia as Khojas and Bohras). Zaidi Shiis (or Zaydis) are the smallest branch of Shii Islam and are found primarily in Yemen.
Another aspect of diversity within the Muslim world is represented by Sufism, which is found among all branches of Islam. Sufism is the spiritual or mystical strain of Islam. It ranges from informal spirituality to highly organized orders (called tariqas) with specific training, practices, and disciplines. There are hundreds of Sufi orders throughout the Muslim world, and they too are highly diverse. Some are loosely organized based on traditional village structures, while others have their own specific disciplines, spiritual practices, and educational centers. Among the highly organized Sufi orders, it is possible to find those that advocate asceticism and rigorous meditational practices, shunning social engagement to focus on spiritual development, and those that are highly politicized and socially active; some advocate the use of music or dance to heighten spiritual consciousness, while others utterly reject music and dance. And while Sufis are found among Sunni and Shii Muslims, some Sunni Muslims reject Sufism as heresy.
Islam is first and foremost a religion based on monotheism, rejecting not only polytheism but also trinitarianism. It is a part of the Abrahamic tradition, along with Judaism and Christianity. Its prophets are the same as those of its monotheistic counterparts, as are its basic teachings and values. But Islam as a religion is organized primarily on the basis of law. Like Judaism, it places more emphasis on practice than on doctrine. Interestingly, in fact, Jews and Muslims observe very similar laws concerning diet, cleanliness or purity, and marriage, among other things. However, Islamic law is also diverse. There are five major schools of legal thought (madhhabs) in Islam. Sunnis may follow Maliki, Hanafi, Shafii or Hanbali law, and Shiis generally follow Jafari law. The madhhabs are considered interchangeable, although some are more liberal than others, and the Sunni schools historically are identified with specific regions.
Muslims are also extremely diverse in terms of culture and ethnicity. Arab, Persian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, African, European, Euro-American, Latino, African-American are all highly distinct cultures. Arabs, like Jews, are Semites, while Persians/Iranians are Indo-Aryans. Turks represent yet another cultural group, as do Kurds, while Africans represent a vast array of still other cultural and ethnic groups. What is more, no individual culture is monolithic. Every cultural family manifests differences between urban and rural societies, for instance, and between wealthy and poor, and educated and uneducated. Take the case of Pakistan. Pakistan has nearly 150 million people, representing several distinct ethnicities and languages, two-thirds of whom are illiterate, and the majority of whom live in rural conditions, many at the level of bare subsistence. Yet Pakistan has also produced one of the Muslim world's three female prime ministers – Oxford and Harvard-educated Benazir Bhutto, elected twice to the highest office in the land.
Perhaps nowhere is the diversity of Islam more evident than in the United States. The first mosque in America was built in Maine in 1919 by Eastern European Muslims, and since that time the population of Muslims has increased steadily. Part of the increase of Muslim population results from immigration; American Muslims come from around the globe and therefore include Sunnis, Shiis, and Sufis. But the American Muslim population also includes many converts from the Euro-American, Latin American, and African-American populations. Within the African-American Muslim population, as well, there is unique diversity. The vast majority of African-American Muslims follow mainstream Sunni teachings and practice. A minority, however, are members of a uniquely American approach to Islam, that represented by the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam offers its followers a view of humanity and divinity that is rejected by most Muslims due to its apparent lack of egalitarianism and monotheism.
Perhaps more significant than all the ethnic, cultural, legal, and sectarian diversity within Islam, however, is its ideological diversity. Like all religious communities, Islam encompasses people whose views range from extremely traditional to fundamentalist to mystical to highly progressive. While all Americans know there are Muslims who rationalize their terrorism through religion, few are aware that the vast majority of Muslims utterly condemn terrorism. There are Muslims who condemn homosexuality, and there are Muslim gay-rights activists. There are Muslims who condemn family planning and those who support it. In short, as in any international religious community with multiple millions of adherents, there is little upon which all Muslims agree beyond the most basic tenet of faith: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.