Shades of Islam

We cannot speak without qualification of a European Muslim, as if such a generic individual was easy to find. After all, when we speak of Europe's Christians, we are including Dutch Calvinists and Sicilian Catholics, Romanian Orthodox and English Quakers. Muslims worldwide are almost as diverse in their styles of belief and practice. Islam, similarly, has over the past 1,400 years acquired quite different characters in different lands, and there are Moroccan Muslims, Turkish Muslims, Nigerian Muslims, and so on, representing very different forms of the faith, and varying degrees of commitment.

Too often, Western concepts of Islam are drawn from the characteristic models of the Arab Gulf states, and especially of Saudi patterns, with their ferocious intolerance of any customs or practices that deviate from what they perceive as the historic faith. In fact, the dominant form of the faith in Saudi Arabia, known as Wahhabism, is itself a fairly modern development, arising from reform movements of the eighteenth century, and it owes its contemporary power to the vast wealth acquired by the Gulf states in the twentieth century. Oil gave these nations the resources to build mosques and schools around the world, to train and pay imams and teachers, and to publish literature.

If in fact Wahhabis are correct, then a great many Muslims around the world are not truly Muslim, and European communities often draw on traditions that are anathema to the Saudi establishment. Around the Mediterranean, established religious forms, whether Catholic or Muslim, merge with popular religious beliefs that a strict observer might call superstitious. In Algeria, the lived religion of ordinary believers usually focused on holy men, wandering marabouts, who were channels of divine blessing, baraka. After death, their power survived at the sites of their tombs, which became venerated shrines and pilgrimage centers, around which annual fairs are held. Festivals are celebrated with ritual dramas. Nothing in this picture would have surprised the medieval Christian devotee of his or her own saints. Ordinary north African Muslims, moreover, often have a lively belief in spirits or djinn, and a powerful belief in fate or destiny is indicated by the regular use of the word mektoub ("It is written"). Morocco has a rich subculture of fortune-tellers and diviners (shawafat), who diagnose curses and hostile spells, and helpfully dispense amulets and talismans. Alternatively, one can frequent a fkih, a spiritual healer. Saudi Muslims view these customs with all the nausea of a seventeenth-century English Puritan observing the folk-customs of Neapolitan Catholicism, and they are just as likely to use terms such as devil-worship and witchcraft. Yet despite all the criticisms, all these ideas survive and flourish in migrant communities in Europe.4

Western media and policy makers sometimes imagine a more moderate form of Islam that would serve as a counterweight to Wah-habism, which is seen as strict, intolerant, and puritanical. Somewhere, they feel, they can identify a more authentic Islam, more broad-minded and tolerant, a "religion of peace." Generally, such hopes are quite plausible, but with the caveat that strictness is not a Wahhabi prerogative. For one thing, the term "Wahhabi" is sometimes applied over broadly, to cover fundamentalist movements with origins distinct from the Arabian-based sect of that name: the Indian Deobandi school is particularly influential. More important, throughout its history, schools of thought and belief of enormous variety have indeed proliferated within Islam, and many have spawned enduring institutions in the form of brotherhoods or informal networks, and these differ radically from the stark simplicity affected by Wahhabism. The problem for Western interpreters is that many, in their various ways, possess their own elements of strictness, intolerance, and puritanism, and some confound religion and politics to a degree that unsettles secular Euro-Americans.

Some of these other traditions within Islam are well known, especially the Shi'a version dominant in Iran, and strong in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though Wahhabi believers question its claims to authentic Muslim status, Shi'ism is no less radical in its assertions of God's supremacy, no less theocratic, and has powerful apocalyptic and millenar-ian currents. The Shi'a are a minority among European Muslims, but they do represent a real force in Germany especially. Twenty percent of Germany's 3.1 million Muslims are non-Sunnis. This includes 400,000 of the Turkish-based Alevi sect, a form of Shi'ism that rejects many of the basic tenets of orthodox Islam: they do not even recognize prohibitions against pork or alcohol. Fifty thousand more are Ahmadiyyas, a tradition that many Muslims regard not just as heretical but as simply non-Muslim.5

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