a ‘Sect’ in Islamic Thought

Posted by Shadra_Institute 4:15 AM, under | No comments

As a preliminary, it must be highlighted that in the use of this term, ‘sect’1, lies a potential
cross-cultural communication problem with significant consequences in the academic and
the political world. It is common for academics and journalists commenting on the Muslim
world to use such terms with the same import as they have in a European or American context.
I shall not compare definitions because for the purposes of this paper how the Western
experience is defined is irrelevant. Instead, I will state what comprises a sect within Islamic

One important science in Islamic is aqida, that is, the statement of belief, or the creed. At
its simplest, this is the shahadah, the statement of witness that there is only one God and
Muhammad is His Messenger (pbuH). The aqida outlines in more detail the elements of the
seen and unseen that Muslims believe in, and is derived from the Qur’an in a quite straightforward
manner. A sect arises because the aqida of a group differs from that of the majority,
either by addition or subtraction. In the history of Islam, Muslims have generally concurred
that there are two sects in Islam, the majority Sunni and the minority Shi’a. It is safe to say
that most Muslims feel that this division is regrettable but few would go so far as to say
those in the other sect are not Muslims, since Sunni and Shi’a are united by the shahadah
and, contrary to current belief in the western media, have lived side by side in peace for
centuries. Also, Shi’a Muslims receive permits to visit the holy sites of Islam on the Arabian

Within Sunni Islam, there are then four main madhabs. This word is translated in different
ways, sometimes as ‘schools of thought’, or as ‘schools of law’. These are not sects; there
is mutual recognition between them. They are traditions which interpret the application of
Islamic law to all aspects of life, and while it is necessary to choose one madhab to follow,
it is legal and morally acceptable to follow a particular ruling from a different madhab under
certain conditions.

The important thing to note is that the division of the Muslim community into sects or sectarian
groupings is anathema to canonical Islam. There are warnings against this in the sayings of
the Messenger of God (pbuH), and he (pbuH) welcomed differences of opinion in the umma
as ‘a mercy’. Consequently, Islamic culture is very varied and has made a great contribution
to world legal culture (Sykiainen 2007). For these reasons, Muslims avoid breaking off from
the main body of Islam into sectarian groupings and are well able to avoid breaking off.
Thus, asking if the Gülen Movement is a sect, means asking if it is enacting a new or deviant
form of Islam. If this is not so, it is interesting to ask why the accusation is used, who makes
it and what is their purpose.


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