Minorities: Offshoots of Islam

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Defining where the boundaries of Islam can be drawn, and which groups can be placed outside of that boundary, is, of course, a normative procedure. In the history of Islam, a number of scholars and groups have been subjected to takfir—the declaration of unbelief—and hence might be classed as offshoots of Islam. If one takes a strict definition of right belief, such as that proposed by Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab, or in the more recent past, by Sayyid Qutb, many of those who call themselves Muslims do not deserve the term. Nonetheless, these groups, religious at base and tracing their origins to Islam, consider themselves Muslim despite the majority community refusing to accept them as such.

The emergence of radical alternatives to the dominant Sunni expression of Islam is normally located (by Sunni scholars at least) in the first civil war (fitna), during the caliphate of ˓Ali (r. 656–661). Two alternative views of the nature of the Muslim community emerged at this time. First were the Shi˓ites, who themselves later divided into a variety of competing groups. The Shi˓ites not only considered ˓Ali as the rightful caliph, but also defended the doctrine that only the descendants of ˓Ali could be legitimate leaders of the Muslim community. Second were the Kharijites, who withdrew their support for ˓Ali following his willingness to negotiate with his opponent Mu˓awiya. The Kharijites (literally, "those who withdrew") developed an exclusive view of Islamic identity, declaring all sinners to be non-Muslims. The mainstream of Sunni Islam took a more forgiving attitude toward those who failed to obey the law of Islam in every detail. The strict Kharijite view undoubtedly contributed to the relatively small number of Kharijites in Muslim history. Elements of Kharijite doctrine, however, survive today within the Ibadi community, which is restricted to Oman and small communities in North Africa. Both the Ibadis and the Shi˓ites have lived as minorities in Sunni-dominated milieux.

Many offshoots of Islam are centered upon the charismatic authority of a particular individual teacher. This charisma is at times successfully transferred to the leader's successor. Perhaps the most enduring of these offshoots is the Druze religion, which has its roots in the doctrines of Muhammad al-Darazi (d. 1020) concerning the Fatimid (Shi˓ite) caliph of the time, al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (d. 996). Darazi, with other Ismaili Shi˓ite scholars, made claims of divinity for al-Hakim. This entailed an inevitable break with Islam, which has been maintained ever since. The modern-day Druze form a separate, non-Muslim religious community in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.

In the modern period, the Ahmadiyya, a community based around the teachings of the Indian leader Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1908), provide an instructive example of individual charisma within Islam. Ahmad made a number of different claims regarding his theological status, including the assertion that he was the Promised Messiah of the Muslims. Though the community did maintain its unity after his death, it eventually divided in 1914 along theological lines. The different groups, which still exist today, claimed different levels of authority for Ahmad. Some viewed him as a prophet (nabi) while others tried to ameliorate the tension with mainstream Islam by calling Ahmad a mujaddid (renewer). The Ahmadiyya's minority status as non-Muslims was confirmed in Pakistan by a 1984 decree that prevented them from using Islamic forms of worship and legalized their prosecution.

A similar pattern can be seen in Shi˓ite offshoots such as Babism and Baha˒ism. The former, led by ˓Ali Muhammad Shirazi ("the Bab," executed in 1850), began in 1844, when Shirazi proclaimed himself the Gate to the Hidden Imam. He proceeded to establish a network of missionaries across Iran, who hoped to persuade the mainly Twelver Shi˓ite population to recognize the Bab. The Bab's self-understanding developed further, and in 1848 he declared the advent of a new religion, with a new code of practice (which he controversially termed a shari˓a) to replace that of the prophet Muhammad. It is clear he adopted the role of a prophetic figure, though he was careful not classify himself as a nabi.

The Babis instigated a number of uprisings in the late 1840s, culminating in the Bab's execution in 1850. The Baha˒i faith emerged out of the collapse of Babism. Baha˒allah Husayn ˓Ali Nuri, one of Shirazi's closest companions, promoted himself as a messianic figure who had been foretold by the Bab. His message consisted of a bundle of doctrines, including the unity of all religions, the institution of a new covenant which abrogated Islam, pacifism and the desire for world peace, and the role of himself and his descendants as conduits for revelation, blessed with spiritual insights which were passed to the people through new revelatory texts. Elements of early Baha˒i doctrine are clearly influenced by Shi˓ite Muslim theology and law. However, the Baha˒is have incorporated Western notions of democracy and human rights into their belief system.

Baha˒is consider themselves to be quite distinct from their Muslim parent religion. The feeling is mutual, as Baha˒is are generally regarded as schismatic heretics by Shi˓ite Muslims. The success of Baha˒ism as an independent religion has, in the main, rested upon its ability to gain converts in Western Europe and North America. Undoubtedly, Baha˒is and perhaps even some Babis (called Azalis) continue to exist as minorities in Iran, although their numbers are difficult to estimate because open adherence brings inevitable discrimination and persecution.

Smaller groups, such as the Ahl-e haqq and the Yazidis (sometimes called "Devil-worshippers"), both based in Kurdistan, might also be classified as offshoots of Islam. Their theologies show a certain syncretism of the various mystical elements of the Middle Eastern milieu. The various Afro-American Muslim movements, such as the Nation of Islam, might also be considered as offshoots of Islam. These various offshoots display a variety of attitudes toward Islam, some wishing to be considered Muslims, while others prefer to be regarded as a separate from, and superior to, Islam.

See alsoAhmadiyya ; Ahmad, Babiyya ; Bab, Sayyed ˓Ali Muhammad ; Baha˒allah ; Baha˒i Faith ; Kharijites, Khawarij ; Minorities: Dhimmis ; Mirza Ghulam .


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Calder, Norman. "The Limits of Islamic Orthodoxy." In Intellectual Traditions in Islam. Edited by Farhad Daftary. London: I. B. Tauris, 2000.

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Robert Gleave