The Middle East’s diversity comes from the many religions and traditions that existed prior to the arrival of the three monotheistic religions. Some of these religions have continued, such as Zoroastrianism, while others, such as paganism – in the Middle East at least – have disappeared. These previous traditions, however, have continued to have an impact on the cultures and practices of Middle Easterners even since the development of the three monotheistic faiths.
Equally, as these three monotheistic faiths developed, they influenced and affected one another. This is particularly the case with the development of smaller faith communities that synergised Judaic, Christian and Islamic beliefs.
The final source of diversity comes from the different invading and imperial forces that occupied the Middle East; the Romans, Mongols and the Crusaders all had a significant effect on the cultures and practices of Middle Easterners, not only because of their invasion and its consequences but also because many of those forces settled there and eventually became part of the cultural fabric. Different powers in the Middle East also took hold of the region and forcibly occupied territories and changed local cultures and traditions.
Islam sees itself as the continuation of the message that was originally given to the Jews, continued on to the Christians and was finally received by the Muslims. This is why Muslims consider the Abrahamic faiths to be ‘people of the book’. Islam’s heritage, then, is a significant one, with complex forms of diversity inherent in how ‘the message’ was understood both by Jews and Christians, before the message continued to Islam.
Upon the establishment of Islam and during its first two centuries, Muslims developed an empire and Islam spread largely through the conquest of territory. The gradual absorption of diverse cultures, religions and traditions produced an explosion of ideas and scholarship within Islam. This diversity contributed significantly to the emergence and further development of a range of disciplines such as law, theology, literature and philosophy. It also produced significant differences among Muslims themselves in their understanding of Islam. At the time, while some Muslims sought to change and further develop Islamic thought and practice, other Muslims spent considerable effort trying to regulate and systematise Islam in an effort to protect it from fragmentation. This effort was only partially successful, with significant diversity remaining in the form of branches, traditions and schools of thought. Additionally, at the personal level, there is further divergence in the types of adherence and interpretive practices of individuals that is not directly linked to schools of thought but rather reflective of personal and spiritual approaches to Islam.
Muslim diversity is almost as old as Islam itself. The major source of intra-faith diversity in Islam is that between the Sunnis and Shias. Sunnis form about 80% of the global Muslim population and Shias (or Shiites) most of the remaining 20%. It is our view that these are conservative figures, and that the Shia communities constitute a greater proportion of the Muslim community than is currently recognised, however there is no data on which any estimate can be tested.
Historically, the Sunnis are often referred to as mainstream Muslims and the Shias are often seen as evolving from the mainstream.
However, it would be more correct to say that both groups formed due to a difference in belief as to who was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad (whose name will be followed by the initials PBUH, standing for “Peace Be Upon Him”, a common blessing given to him by Muslims).
The Sunni community believes that the Prophet (PBUH) did not leave instruction as to who should succeed him after his death, and that upon the Prophet’s (PBUH) death key members of his inner circle were elected by the Muslim community to act as leaders/Caliphs in a manner that was ordinary and appropriate. The Shias believe that Muhammad’s (PBUH) cousin Ali, should have become Caliph as this was the wish of the Prophet (PBUH), and that Imam Ali, known as a philosopher-warrior, was best suited to take up the leadership role. Upon the Prophet’s (PBUH) death, however, Abu Bakr (a respected elder), Umar (a mediator) and Uthman (a member of a prominent clan), were elected to the leadership. Imam Ali became the last of the four Caliphs and the last member of the Prophet’s inner circle to lead the Muslim community.
Over time, more sub-groups have developed within these two overarching branches, and the original split between Muslims has widened to encompass social, political and theological differences. However, the main underlying beliefs and principles of Islam remain the same in both the Sunni and Shia streams.
It is important to note that some minority Islamic communities have faced substantial persecution from mainstream Islam in Muslim countries. As a result, some groups do not always identify themselves with mainstream Muslims or Islam. Similarly, some mainstream Muslims do not accept some of these groups as Muslim. In Pakistan, for example, the government has declared that the Ahmedis – who believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, was a prophet after the death of Muhammad (PBUH) – are non-Muslims, despite the fact that the Ahmedis themselves identify as Muslims.
The story of Muslim diversity is an intensely complex one which has sometimes led to conflict and violence. On the one hand, there is the desire and push to homogenise Islam and bring consistency and consensus among all Muslims. On the other hand, there are real differences in how Islam is interpreted and practised. This dilemma appears endemic to most religions and can be seen in Christianity for instance, following the split between Catholics and Protestants.
It is difficult to do justice to the breadth of differences within Islam and the individual practices of different branches. The diversity that exists in Islam today extends not only to theological differences but also to cultural ones. For example, the two communities featured in this guide – the Alevis (a sect within Islam) of Turkey and the Alawites of Lebanon and Syria – until recently, were considered to be the same group. However, recent studies suggest that they are actually very different – both historically and theologically.
The majority of Muslims in Australia are Sunni. But there are also significant populations belonging to the Shia, Alawi, Alevi, Ismaili, Druze, Bohra and Ahmedi communities.