The Boundaries of Islam


Tom Saunders

After years of conflict in Iraq and the Middle East, most Americans know little or nothing about Islam.  They hear the terms Sunni, and Shia on the news but have no idea what makes these factions different. All factions of Islam follow sharia, or the law…..

”Sharia  is the body of Islamic law. The term means “way” or “path”; it is the legal framework within which the public and some private aspects of life are regulated for those living in a legal system based on Muslim principles of jurisprudence.”  These principles are invariably derived from the study and interpretation of the Koran, which is believed to be the word of God as given to Muhammad.

”Islam, one of the three major monotheistic faiths, was founded in Arabia by Muhammad between 610 and 632. There are an estimated 5.1 million Muslims in North America and 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide.”

The differences in the beleifs of the body of Islamic law are what makes for the major conflicts in Islam. Muslims believe that there is only one God, referred to as Allah. Muslims believe that Islam existed long before the Prophet Muhammad and that the religion has gradually evolved with time. The Qur’an describes as Muslims many Biblical prophets and messengers: Adam, Noah (Arabic: Nuh), Moses (Arabic: Musa) and Jesus (Arabic: Isa) and his apostles. The Koran states that these men were Muslims because they submitted to God, preached His message and upheld His values. Thus, in Surah 3:52 of the Koran, Jesus’ disciples tell Jesus: “do thou bear witness that we are Muslims”.

”Muhammad was born in A.D. 570 at Mecca and belonged to the Quraysh tribe, which was active in the caravan trade. At the age of 25 he joined the trade from Mecca to Syria in the employment of a rich widow, Khadija, whom he later married. Critical of the lax moral standards and polytheistic practices of the inhabitants of Mecca, he began to lead a contemplative life in the desert. In a dramatic religious vision, the angel Gabriel announced to Muhammad that he was to be a prophet. Encouraged by Khadija, he devoted himself to the reform of religion and society. Polytheism was to be abandoned. But leaders of the Quraysh generally rejected his teaching, and Muhammad gained only a small following and suffered persecution. He eventually fled Mecca.”

The Five Pillars, or primary duties, of Islam are profession of faith; prayer, to be performed five times a day; almsgiving to the poor and the mosque (house of worship); fasting during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan; and pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj) at least once in a Muslim’s lifetime, if it is physically and financially possible. The pilgrimage includes homage to the ancient shrine of the Ka’aba, the most sacred site in Islam. (Ibid.)

The two main factions of Islam that Americans hear about most are Shia, and Sunnis.  There are other factions but these are the most commonly known.  All factions seem to derive their beliefs from the study of the Koran. (Quran) The Shia follow fewer derivations of sharia.

Shia Muslims follow Jaafari (Hallaq 1997, Brown 1996, Aslan 2006).  The Ja’fari derive their Sharia, or religious law, from the Qur’an and the Sunnah. The difference between Sunni and Shi?a Sharia results from a Shi?a belief that Muhammad assigned ?Ali to be the first ruler and the leader after him (the Khalifa). Twelvers  are Shi’a Muslims who believe in twelve Imams, as distinct from Ismaili and Zaidi Shi’ite Muslims, who believe in a different number of Imams or in a different path of succession. Approximately 80% of Shi’a are Twelvers and they are the largest Shi’a school of thought.

Moreover, according to Shi?a, an Imam or a Caliph can not be democratically elected and has to be nominated by God. Sunnis believe that their Caliphs were popular and had greater vote so they were made caliphs. This difference resulted in the Shi?a.

Most Sunni Muslims follow Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki or Shafii.   Among the four established Schools of Legal thoughts in Islam, Hanafism has the most followers of about 49% of the total Sunnis living in the world today. (  Followers of the Hanafi hold to purity laws which include not eating certain foods, and pray six times per day.

Hanbali, is one of the four schools (Madhhabs) of Fiqh or religious law within Sunni Islam. (The other three are Hanafi , Maliki and Shafii) It is also a school of aqeedah (creed) in Sunni Islam, also referred to as the Athari (or Textualist) school. It is considered to be the most conservative of the four schools. The school was started by the students of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (d. 855). Hanbali jurisprudence is predominant among Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula, although students of Islam throughout the world study and may choose to observe its conclusions about Islamic practice. The Hanbali school is followed by less than 10% of the world’s Muslim population. (

The Maliki school derives from the work of Imam Malik. It differs from the three other schools of law most notably in the sources it uses for derivation of rulings. All four schools use the Qur’an as primary source, followed by the sunnah of Muhammad transmitted as hadith (sayings), ijma (consensus of the People) and Qiyas (analogy); the Maliki school, in addition, uses the practice of the people of Medina as a source.

This source, according to Malik, sometimes supersedes hadith, because the practice of the people of Medina was considered “living sunnah,” in as much as Muhammad migrated there, lived there and died there, and most of his companions lived there during his life and after his death. The result is a much more limited reliance upon hadith than is found in other schools.

The Shafi’i School of thought stipulates authority to four sources of jurisprudence, also known as the Usul al-fiqh. In hierarchical order the usul al-fiqh consist of: the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet, ijma’ (consensus), and qiyas. The Shafi’i school also refers to the opinions of the Prophet’s companions (primarily Al-Khulafa ar-Rashidun). The school, based on Shafi’i’s books ar-Risala fi Usul al-Fiqh and Kitab al-Umm, which emphasizes proper istinbaat (derivation of laws) through the rigorous application of legal principles as opposed to speculation or conjecture.
Imam Shafi`i approached the imperatives of the Islamic Shariah (Canon Law) distinctly in his own systematic methodology. Imam Shafi`i, Imam Malik and Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal almost entirely exclude the exercise of private judgement in the exposition of legal principles. They are wholly governed by the force of precedents, adhering to the Scripture and Traditions; they also do not admit the validity of a recourse to analogical deduction of such an interpretation of the Law whereby its spirit is adopted to the special circumstances of any special case. Their followers are accordingly designated as “Ahlul-Hadith” or “Traditionalists Par Excellence’, while the followers of Abu Hanifa are called “Ahlul Ra’i” – the “People of Private Judgement”  (

The majority of Kurds are officially Muslim, belonging to the Shafi school of Sunni Islam. However tribal conflicts seem to be prevalent as well as religious ones.  This is evident with Saddam Hussein’s persectution of Kurds, as Saddam was known to be a Sunni. Tribal boundaries are only one type of boundary in Islamic conflicts. For instance the Iraqi, and Iranian conflicts often stem from the fact that Iranians are not Arabs. Iranians do not speak Arabic, but Farsi. Language, sexual, and national lines are virtually drawn in the sand.

Within a century of Muhammad’s first recitations of the Qur’an, an Islamic state stretched from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Central Asia in the east. This new polity soon broke into a civil war known to Islamic historians as the Fitna, and later affected by a Second Fitna. Through its history, there would be rival dynasties claiming the caliphate, or leadership of the Muslim world, and many Islamic states and empires offered only token obedience to a caliph unable to unify the Islamic world.

Although the Koran is known to propose peaceful lifestyle, there are many who have over the centuries sought to interpret the scripture for the sake of war. ”Those verses, sometimes referred to as the “sword verses”, that call for killing unbelievers, such as, “When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush” (9:5)? This is one of a number of Qur’anic verses that are cited by critics to demonstrate the inherently violent nature of Islam and its scripture.”

The one commonality of Islam is the following of the Koran, but it becomes obvious that the system of leadership proposed by Islamic law is a broken theocracy.  Without the abandonment of Sharia for the sake of public law there could be little or no interest in a democracy like those of the western world. This idea is seemingly lost on the Bush Administration, even in the face of the current disaster of the Iraqi occupation. The Bush agenda has no viability in the middle east, and no regard for Muslim sharia, so there is virtually nothing to ‘win’ for Americans in this misguided conflict.