As in all religions, there is scope for interpretation in Islam as well. This is as a result of an inevitable human condition which determines that the uniqueness of every individual leads to unique understanding of religion. Just as a red-coloured flower only radiates the red part of the white light, similarly each person will have his or her religious understanding and experience coloured by their dominating character and level of intellectual and spiritual development. As the person develops so too does their religious understanding and experience. In spite of this fact, Islam is unique in some respects.
Irrespective of what orientation a Muslim may belong to, the Qur’an is the ultimate reference accepted by all. Since the Qur’an has never changed from the time of the Prophet, authentic Islam has always been with us to date. As divergent ideas and strange interpretations rose risen beyond the boundaries of the Qur’an, they were easily refuted by the Qur’an itself, which has always been readily accessible to all Muslims. Hence, interpretations against the clear teachings of the Qur’an and Islam never found long-term favour with people in general.
The essentials of faith and the five pillars of Islam are the same for 98% of more than 1.2 billion Muslims on earth. These tenets are clearly outlined in the Qur’an and in the words and the practice of Prophet Muhammad. The differences in interpretations are usually in peripheral issues and the way the social application of Islam evolved differently across the demographic and cultural landscape of the vast Muslim world.
The objectivity and genius of early Muslim scholars preserved the
Sunnah, which includes what the Prophet said, what he did and those actions that he approved. Muslim scholars undertook a rigorous critical evaluation of the references in the narrations from the Prophet filtering only the authentic tradition from among the large volume of narrations.
Islam is a living religion. The practices of Islam were well established at the time of the Prophet and continued to be practised personally and communally. For example, daily prayers were performed for years by thousands of people in the lifetime of the Prophet. These people continued this communal performance in a continuous manner for centuries. It is impossible for any one to change his or her practice or forget about how it is done in such circumstances. Therefore, there is also a consensus in as far as Islam’s rites of worship are concerned.
These have resulted in the outcome that authentic Islam is preserved and the great majority of Muslim world follows this authentic and mainstream Islam. The distribution of the Muslim world falls into three main orientations.
Sunni: At about 85% of the Muslim world, Sunni orientation is the majority. The term ‘sunni’ generally refers to the one who follows the Sunnah (example) of the Prophet Muhammad.
Shii: At about 13% of the Muslim global population, Shii orientation is an important minority. Most of Iran and minority populations in its neighbouring countries are of Shii orientation. The term ‘shii’ or ‘shite’ generally refers to the one who is a ‘partisan of Ali’ a relative and the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.
Ghulat: At about 2%, this category consists of the many diverse and small minorities who have developed extreme doctrines that cannot be supported by the Qur’an or the teachings of the Prophet. The term ‘ghulat’ mean ‘exaggerators’ and generally refers to the one who follows an extreme doctrine of the Shii line. The Muslim world, in general, does not consider this portion to be pure Muslim.