Islam is a very large religion, accounting for one-fifth of the world’s population. In any large religious community, there are many different variations and sects and this is true of Islam. But unlike what is usually common, there is also an underlying unity that flows through the entire Muslim community. Muslims show this on a personal, one-on-one level, but also even at the global level, when Muslim countries help other Muslim countries. And as a whole, the tradition of Islam balances its large diversity through the concept of the tawhid and the Five Pillars. Islam, since it is a missionary religion, has changed and adapted everywhere it has gone, creating many diverse variations around the world.
Islam began in Saudi Arabia, but over the centuries it has migrated around the world to Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Each geographical area has its own unique way of practicing Islam. In places like Iran and Nigeria, Shariah law is followed. This is the exact law as it is written in the Quran and mainly emphasizes the “eye for an eye” and “ear for an ear” principle. Although punishments aren’t always enforced, they give people great incentive not to commit crimes, thereby lowering the chaos in the country (Muslims).
On the other side of the spectrum, in places like the United States, the main goal is trying to fit in and find a place for Muslims in a country that discriminates so much against them. Many times, Muslims are asked to truly put to test their values of peace, acceptance, and compassion by putting aside their differences and educating and relating with other religions such as Christianity. Even though they may be discriminated against, even to the point of life threatening danger, Muslims are asked to be loving to those who do such things to them and to emulate said characteristics by not retaliating.
In places such as Turkey, Islam is being squashed by the government because of a desire to modernize and urbanize to keep up with the rest of the world. Here, Muslims many times protest and rebel, but once again, their values of peace and acceptance are put to test. In Turkey when the hijab was banned, many Muslims went out of their way to protest this injustice, but a few extremists went too far, terrorizing the country for not being Muslim (Muslims). These few persons had forgotten their true morals and what it means to be Muslim. They had forgotten the importance of diversity in Islam and how it can actually serve to unite all Muslims.
One major idea in Islam, called tawhid, is one of the most important ways that the tradition stays unified. Tawhid can be translated as “the Divine Unity”, which is a single religion that’s message comes straight from God (Nasr 3). In essence it’s Islam and persons that are followers of tawhid are members of the ulama or the community of believers. One of the most important principles of Islam is to believe and act upon this unity. To do so, one must follow jihad, which is thought of as a battle between good and evil, between angels and devils, between man and his personal wrongful desires. Choosing the side of good and following the path of Islam is essentially jihad. Part of this means taking care of and defending any person in the ulama who is impoverished or being attacked.
But jihad is commonly mistaken as terrorist activity by Westerners. This is because a few radicals have seen the oppression of their fellow Muslims and felt it was their need to protect any part of the ulama that was being treated in such a manner. This was not how jihad was intended to be justified, but to some radicals, having a member of the ulama attacked is like having a member of your family attacked; that’s how closely knit and unified their community is.
Another way Islam focuses on unity is by following the Five Pillars. These are:
1) shahadah or “bearing witness,”
2) salah or “daily prayer,”
3) zakah or “almsgiving,”
4) sawm or “fasting”, and
5) hajj or “pilgrimage” (“The Five Pillars”).
In Islam, there is only one God and to become Muslim one must declare that they believe this (along with the fact that Muhammad is God’s prophet), which is shahadah. This universal belief is what unites all Islamic practitioners. Once that is done, Muslims must partake in the five daily prayers called salah. These involve using God’s name to call to him. In the Qur’an however, there are ninety-nine names listed for God (Nasr 61). Each different name represents a different characteristic or form of God. It is similar to the metaphor of the idols to the Greater Being in Hinduism. There each idol portrays a different form of the Greater Being in a way that humans can understand it.
In Islam, each name shows a different piece of God so that humans can grasp all of his qualities in a way that’s understandable to them. But all of these names are unified in that they represent just one being: God. Zakah again relates back to the ulama. Muslims are required to give 2.5% of their holdings every year to charity. This is in order to take care of all the members of their community and to invest in each other’s well-being. This investment can create bonds of unity that last a lifetime. Sawm also creates a bond through fasting. Fasting from anything, food or sex or TV, can be hard. But during the month of Ramadan, every Muslim comes together to support each other through this challenging time. This month can create a sense of growth and maturing not only between a person and God, but between the entire Islamic community as well because they work through the challenge together and come out better in the end.
And lastly, the hajj is a pilgrimage every Muslim is asked to take once in their lifetime if they are financially capable. Here, practitioners from all over the world join together in one larger ceremony to worship God and fend off evil. The persons involved range anywhere from young children to adults. They come from every single country of the world and from every social class there is. But when they get to Mecca, it doesn’t matter who they are. Everyone circles around the kaaba; everyone drinks from the fountain; everyone has to go meditate at night; and everyone throws rocks at the jamarat, which are three pillars that symbolize the devil. It doesn’t matter that they are all different. All the participants are there for one reason and that is to celebrate their tradition and their God. While studying Islam, I listened to a presentation, in which Vansot, a practitioner of Islam, said, “diversity is intended to help enrich our knowledge.” Diversity is a central theme for Islam; it is present through all the different types of societies and cultures Muslims come from. But because of this diversity, practitioners of Islam are able to learn how to be respectful and unify as one in order to worship their God and in order to be a part of the “Divine Unity” (Nasr 3).