Arabic Language Blog

Modern Religious Ideologies in the Arab World Posted by on Nov 23, 2017 in Uncategorized

Most Arabs define being an Arab as one who speaks Arabic and views the history of Arabs as an integral part of his/her cultural identity. Arabs are predominantly Muslims, but they have different religious ideologies. This difference is primarily due to power struggle which led during the early days of Islam to rebellious movements. This post is about how Islamic ideologies emerged and what remains of them today.

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Origin of Sunni and Shiite Ideologies:

Following the death of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), differences in opinion over who should lead Muslims emerged. This continued to be the case until the death of the Third Caliph, Othman. After his death it was recommended that Imam Ali, Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, be the Fourth Caliph. However, Muawiyah, the ruler of Syria at the time, refused to pledge allegiance to the new caliph. His refusal led to war and subsequently the formation of the Umayyad Caliphate الخِلَافَة الأَمَوِيَّة.

The early Umayyads represented the orthodox Islam, and were a few generations later أَهْلُ السُّنَّة ahal as-Sunnah, the followers of the Prophet’s practices. After Imam Ali’s was killed by the Umayyad, his supporters continued to be loyal to his sons, Hassan and Hussein, who were also killed in this turmoil of power struggle. Their supporters continued to be loyal to their children, and called themselves شِيْعَة Shiite, the supporters of Imam Ali and his family.

Sunnis or ahal as-Sunnah أَهْل السُّنَّة:

The Sunnis, or ahal as-Sunnah, who are originally the followers of the Umayyad, have remained politically intact ever since the time of Muawiyah. Certain variations in the implementation of some teachings of Islam emerged. This led four paths of Sunni doctrines, each of which has been name its founder. These are:المَذْهَب الحَنَفِي, Hanafi Doctrine, المَذْهَب المَالِكي Maliki Doctrine, المَذْهَب الشَّافِعِي Shafi’i Doctrine, and المَذْهَب الحَنْبَلِي Hanbali Doctrine.

About 90% of Muslims in the Arab World today are Sunnis. In the history of Sunni branch of Islam, there has not been a single authority that regulates matters of dealings. Instead, it has been left to leaders of each doctrine to decide what is appropriate. In later times, this led to the emergence of sub-doctrines, namely Salafism and Wahhabism, which are oftentimes used interchangeably.

Salafism السَّلَفِيَّة:

Salafis السَّلَفِيِيْن, which literally means the followers of true teachings of Islam as practiced during the time of the prophet, first emerged in the fourth century of Islamic Calendar, and they were followers of the Hanbali Doctrine. In the seventh century, a renowned Salafi scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah, revived this path of worship and added more strict guidelines that he deemed appropriate for that era. Five centuries later, Ibn Taymiyyah ideologies were embraced and adopted by Mohammed bin Abdul Wahab in what presently known as Saudi Arabia.

Wahhabism الوَهَّابِيَّة:

As the name suggests, this Sunni sub-doctrine was named after Mohammed bin Abdul Wahab. It is deeply rooted in Salafism. For this reason, it is often argued that Wahhabism is another version Salafism. However, what make it so controversial is that it is more extreme than Salafism. An interesting example of their extremism is that some Wahabi scholars refused to drink coffee during the early days of this ideology. They deemed it حَرَام haram ‘prohibited’. Other examples that distinguish this ideology are destroying shrines, rejecting photography, refusing to pray in rooms in which there are photographs, and prohibiting music.

Shiitism الشِّيْعَة:

Shiism is considered the oldest political doctrine in Islam. It emerged publicly during the time of the Fourth Caliph, Othman. It became more popular during the time of Imam Ali, as people admired and valued his skills, eloquence, and religious knowledge. As the Umayyads’ aggression mounted, more and more people embraced this ideology especially in Iraq where Imam Ali and his family were based at the time.

Shiism is based on the belief that the إِمَامَة Imamat ‘Muslim leadership’ should be restricted to those who are descendent of the prophet. All Shiites agree that Imam Ali must have been given the priority to be the caliph, as he was the most exalted companion of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). However, due to their high regard to Imam Ali, many consider it as sanctification. This led to emergence of multiple doctrines within Shiism. Shiite doctrines that are currently practiced include: the Imamiyyah (or Twelver), Zaidyism, Ismailism, and Alawism.

Imamiyyah (Twelver) الإِمَامِيَّة (الاِثْنَا عَشَرِيَّة):

This Shiite Doctrine is the largest and is predominant in Iraq and constitutes substantial visible minorities in Lebanon Bahrain, and Kuwait. In this doctrine, it is believed that Imams must be appointed as the prophet did when appointed Ali as his Caliph, but the other companions forcefully took it from him. They are called the Twelvers because they believe in twelve Imams, Imam Ali being the first, Hussein the third, Hassan al-Askari the eleventh, and his son Mohammed who disappear at the age of eight, and whom they considered as the promised Mahdi.

Zaidyism الزَّيْدِيَّة:

This doctrine is name after Imam Zaid, the grandson of Imam Hussein. They are concentrated in the northern regions of Yemen. They are considered closer to Sunnism than to the Imamiyah because they don’t exalt the descendants of the prophet as much as the Imamiyah; plus, they believe only in four Imams prior to Imam Zaid. In addition, they have high regards for all campions of the prophets, including the first three caliphs.

Ismailism الإِسْمَاعِيْلِيَّة:

This Shiite branch name after Ismail Ibn Jaafar al-Sadiq, who is the sixth imam in the Imamiyah branch, so they don’t believe in other imams of the Imamiyah. Ismailis are scattered all over the Muslim World, but within the Arab world most of them are in Syria.

Alawism العَلَوِيِيْن:

Alawism is derived from Ali indicating that they are followers of Imam Ali; however, they are a branch of Imamiyah, that is they share with them the belief in Imams till the tenth Imam. Alawis are concentrated in Syria. This branch of Shiism is based on the secrecy of worship and religious practice.

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About the Author: Ibnulyemen اِبْنُ اليَمَن

Marhaban! I am from Yemen. I am a language teacher. I teach English and Arabic. In this blog, I will be leading you through Arabic language learning in a sequential fashion. I will focus on Modern Standard Arabic. To learn more, you can also visit my website Ibnulyemen Arabic or my facebook page.