A common refrain heard by those who adopt a critical approach to Islam is that there is not one but many Islams. Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi, probably Sunni Islam's best-known theologian and apologist, discussed that question on a recent Al Jazeera TV edition of Shariah and Life. The broadcast in Arabic is available here.
Host Uthman informed viewers at the onset of the program that the Quran states in Surat Al Imran (3:19) that Islam is the only religion accepted by Allah, and that those who follow any other religion will be condemned (3:85). But what is this Islam, and is it possible to speak of many Islams?
Dr. Qaradawi quoted Surat At Taghabun (64:8) and Surat An Nahl (16:44) to say the Quran was revealed from Allah as a clear and plain light, and there was no religion in the world more clear than Islam. He gave the classic definition of Islam as not the religion founded by Muhammad, but the only true religion that has existed for all time. Since the beginning of history Allah sent his Prophets and his Messages to call people back to Himself. Just as there were not many Prophet Abrahams or many King Davids, so there are not many Muhammads and many Islams. Just as there were not different Islams for different eras throughout human history, there are not different Islams today.
Dr. Qaradawi then took a moment to illustrate the Quranic teaching that all the Biblical heroes were Muslims who followed one single Islam in their submission to Allah. Noah said (10:72), "I have been commanded to be among the Muslims." Surat Al Imran (3:67) states that Abraham was neither a Christian nor a Jew, but a Muslim. Jacob, who was the grandson of Abraham, encouraged his offspring to be Muslim as he was (2:132). Joseph declared that he was a Muslim (12:101), and Moses commanded his people to follow Islam (10:84). Jesus and his Disciples bore witness to the fact they were Muslims (3:52). The only difference between Muslims today and then is that Islam is now complete, having been perfected by Muhammad, as demonstrated in Surat Al Maidah (5:3), "I have now perfected and completed Islam for you as your religion."
The Quran, continued Dr. Qaradawi, defines Islam in 4:136 and 2:177. The Muslim is one who believes in Allah, his Angels, his Books, his Messengers, and the Final Judgment (by contrast, the one who does not believe those - including belief in Muhammad as a Prophet and the Quran as Revelation - is a Kafir). These five Quranic statements of faith are accompanied by the five Pillars of Islam (exemplified not in the Quran, but in the life of Muhammad), the Shahada (I testify there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah), the Salat (five daily prayers), Sawm (Ramadan fast), Zakat (almsgiving), and the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
As Uthman pressed for the reason some claim there are "many Islams", Dr. Qradawi reminded viewers of the Quranic teaching that "some verses are clear and others are not" (3:7). The "unclear" verses allow for various Islamic schools of thought, and difference of interpretation about minor issues, but cannot be construed as different Islams. "Everywhere I go in the world," Dr. Qaradawi said, "I see Muslims praying at the same time and fasting at the same time. I see Muslims avoiding pork and alcohol, and eating only with their right hand. The laws of inheritance and the prohibitions against usury are the same. It is true that some Muslims follow their whims and ignore some of the rules of Islam, but that does not mean there is more than one Islam."
"There are two circles within Islam," continued Dr. Qaradawi, "An open circle that represents rulings open to interpretation, and a closed circle with rulings that are not. The Quran, for example, is within the closed circle and there can be no question about its rulings. The person who commits adultery is to be lashed exactly 100 times. It cannot be changed to 95 or 105 lashes. The open circle represents differences of opinion on how to apply, for example, different aspects of Shariah."
Uthman asked who were those insisting on many Islams. Dr. Qaradawi replied they were Western Orientalists who insisted that the Islam of Europe was not the Islam of Africa, and both of these were not the Islam of Asia or the Middle East. These same Orientalists separated Islam into the Islam of the Prophet and the Early Caliphs, as well as that of the Umayyid, Abassid, or Ottoman Empires, and "Modern Islam". They also tried to separate Islam into that of the Sufis, the intellectuals, or folk Islam. All these are vain attempts by the enemies of Islam to divide the one Islam accepted by God.
Dr. Qaradawi acknowledged that some who called themselves Muslims, such as the Black Muslims of America who thought that Satan was the White Man, or the Druze who did not pray in mosques, or the Qadaris in India who followed their own Prophet, were not really Muslims at all although some of them were open to reconciliation. Groups such as these, however, represent only a small minority of the worldwide Ummah.
A second guest, University of Lebanon Professor Ridwan Sayyid, added that a new generation of Western Orientalists had influenced even some Arab scholars to consider the existence of differing Islams. He agreed, however, with Dr. Qaradawi that the vast majority of Muslim scholars rejected the idea. When Uthman asked how Muslims could confront the false notion of various Islams, Dr. Sayyid replied they needed to recognize the power of a united Islam throughout history, and speak out against those whose interests lay in advocating a divided Islam.
My comment: As I noted at the beginning of this post, those in the West who are critical of Islam are often told they are being unfair because there are many Islams. Perhaps the many-Islam-Muslim-proponents in the West are the Arab scholars referred to by Ridwan Sayyid who are themselves influenced by Western Orientalists (why do I have a feeling that those whom Qaradawi and Sayyid unfavorably describe as "modern Western Orientalists" would include the many non-Muslim professors in our universities who see themselves as moderate and unbiased scholars of Islam?). At any rate I think it is noteworthy that, at least according to Qaradawi and Sayyid, those who speak of "many Islams" only represent a fringe of Islamic scholarship in the Muslim world.
Another common refrain recently heard in the West is that Shariah is such a massive and unwieldy subject it cannot even be spoken of as a united whole. It is worth noting that, according to Dr. Qaradawi, there are elements of Sharia that are open to application and interpretation. That is much different, however, than saying that Shariah is so broad it cannot even be discussed, or the application of Shariah to Western society cannot even be brought to the table.