Christians, Muslims and... Sectarianism

Introduction

Both Christianity and Islam aspire to be unified, universal religions for all the peoples of the world.  Both over the years have fractured into an array of diverse, competing traditions and denominations, often with a sad history of infighting.  From the Christian European Wars of Religion to communal conflict in Northern Ireland and from the first Islamic fitna (civil war) to tensions between Sunni and Shi‘a in the Middle East today, these divisions have led to sectarianism and controversy.  The different groups all at some time started as sects within a larger tradition – although which is the sect and which the original is of course contested!  Many within a tradition will see themselves as the only true believers, with all others being in some way heterodox if not heretical.  The sheer diversity of sects in both communities and the intensity of feeling between them can leave the outsider confused and dismayed.  

This Hikmah Guide gives a brief history and description of the main divisions within Islam and Christianity and highlights some typical interactions between Christian and Muslim groups over the years.  It is of necessity brief and simplified.  Further reading suggestions are given for those wishing to explore the subject further.


Overview of Christian Diversity

Christians believe that they are all members of one worldwide community of faith. After all, Jesus prayed in his last days on earth that those who believed in him “would be one” (John 17:20-21). This community is called “the Church” (Matthew 16:18), a word which refers to the congregation of people who have been “called out”, from the Greek word ekklēsía (from ek (out) and kaleō (to call)). 1 So, the focus is on the people, either locally or universally. Christians sometimes call this concept of oneness the “universal” or “catholic” Church, meaning the totality of all believers in all places at all times. 2 This is a different yet related concept to the normal English usage today, in which “a church” often refers to a building or place of worship and maybe to a local group of Christians. Various images are used in the New Testament to describe this global community and its unity. For instance, Christians are: “God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19); members of “the body of Christ”, his hands, feet, eyes and ears on earth (1 Corinthians 12:12-27); or they are “living stones” built together into “a temple”, that is the place where God dwells (Ephesians 2:20-22, 1 Peter 2:5).

This last image of the temple is a reminder that the Christian church is rooted in the idea of “God’s chosen people” in the Hebrew scriptures. God chose Abraham and his descendants to be his special people so that, through the Jewish people, God’s blessing would come to all nations (Genesis 12:1-3). The exact relationship between the Jewish people and the Christian church today is a very important and yet sensitive, often controversial topic. Certainly, the history of anti-Semitism within the Christian church is indefensible. 3 A later Hikmah Guide may be able to deal with the relationships of both Christians and Muslims to the Jews in more depth. At this stage it will have to suffice to say that most Christians see themselves in some way in continuity with “God’s people” of the Old Testament, especially with those Jews who recognise Jesus as their Messiah (or Christ).

Jesus used many images and prophecies from the Old Testament to explain who he was (Luke 24:27). He claimed that he himself would be the new temple when the old one was destroyed (as it was in 70 AD) (John 2:19-21) and he pictured himself as the true vine (John 15:1), an image used of Israel in the Old Testament (Hosea 10:1). In its turn, the church, the “body of Christ”, the “living temple”, is to be for all those who accept Jesus as the Messiah, Jews and gentiles (i.e non-Jews) alike, thus fulfilling – or filling out – the promise to Abraham that through him all peoples on earth would be blessed.

So, given that Christians are expected to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit” because there is only “one faith” (Ephesians 4:3-5), how is it that, as in Islam, there are so many different sects and factions today? There are literally thousands of denominations, especially in the Protestant tradition which reportedly alone has over 11,000. 4 These divisions have come about through theological disputes, leadership disagreements and political wrangling. Even in the early church, Paul had to rebuke the believers in Corinth and appeal to them to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions” as they were all claiming to follow different leaders (1 Corinthians 1:10).

Over the next four centuries many ecumenical councils were held to discuss the exact nature of Christian faith, including in Nicea (325 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD), both in modern-day Turkey. The theological issues discussed centred around the canon of scripture, the exact nature of Jesus Christ and the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Each of these councils led to one group or another either separating themselves from the others or being declared heretics.

In the fourth century, the Roman emperor Constantine himself adopted Christianity and incorporated it into his empire. Christians ever since have disagreed about the degree to which the church should be aligned with power and politics. Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants have all at times formed churches “established” by a particular empire or nation state. “Non-conformists” are those who do not conform to the wishes of the state church and have often argued that the church should not have political power and should be independent of political rulers.

Formed out of such crises and disagreements the following diagram gives an idea of the most basic divisions in the Christian church worldwide over the years:

christianity islam sectarianism diagram.jpg

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian tradition in the world and has as its head the Pope based in the Vatican. Historically, it was responsible for launching the crusades against Muslim armies, and there was little contact with Muslims until the modern era, apart from St Francis of Assisi and some notable Jesuit missionaries. More recently during the Vatican II Council it published Nostra Aetate (1965), a declaration which acknowledges that Christians and Muslims worship the same God and are linked through Abraham.

The Church of the East, sometimes known as the Nestorian Church, was a breakaway after the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) that spread as far as China. The church came into early contact with Muslims given their geographical proximity and there is an extant record of a remarkable dialogue in 781 AD between the Patriarch Timothy and a Muslim Caliph. Today the Chaldean and Assyrian Churches continue in this tradition but have diminished greatly. 5

The Oriental Orthodox Churches separated after disputes about the nature of Christ at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) and for this reason are referred to, along with the Church of the East, as Non-Chalcedonian churches. They include the Coptic Church in Egypt and the Armenian Church both of which have a long history living under Islamic rule. The Armenians in particular have suffered at the hands of Muslim-majority nations in Turkey and the Middle East.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, which with all the other traditions is Chalcedonian, parted from the western church in 1054 over disputes about the power of the Pope in Rome and various doctrinal issues. There are independent Orthodox churches in different nations and regions which are all viewed as being equal. The Orthodox Churches of the Middle East have lived under Islam for many centuries. However, the Russian and Serbian Orthodox Churches, for example, have sometimes found themselves a majority over Muslim peoples.

Protestant Churches arose after the C16th Reformation during which leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin protested against some of the beliefs, practices and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. They championed a return to the authority of the Bible which for the first time was made widely available to ordinary people translated into their own languages. However, the Reformers were very negative about Islam, seeing it as an enemy of the Church associated with the Anti-Christ. Later, Protestants became concerned about mission and throughout the western colonial era and beyond sent missionaries to evangelise Muslims. The Lutheran and Anglican churches are examples of Protestant denominations that have at times been established state churches and whose liturgy often still closely resembles the Catholic model. The Baptist churches, Anabaptists and Quakers are examples of non-conformist groups whose worship diverges significantly from the liturgical model.

Evangelicals are Christians, usually within the Protestant churches, who: stress the necessity for a voluntary conversion, meaning that one cannot be born into the church but rather has to be “born again”; focus on the cross of Christ as the means of salvation; hold the teaching of the Bible in greater regard than church tradition; and actively promote evangelism or the proselytising of non-believers. 6 However, in continental Europe the word evangelical is synonymous with Protestant, as in the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, which is the federation of Protestant churches in Germany.

The Pentecostal churches are Protestants who emphasise the “work of the Holy Spirit”. They emerged in the early C20th but trace their roots back to the early church and the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). They expect to experience the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12) and their worship is often exuberant and even ecstatic. They are sometimes compared with Muslim Sufis and are very strong in Latin America and Africa. The Christian church grew significantly in Africa during the C20th and many people have noted that the centre of gravity of the church, which started in the Middle East and then became strong in Europe and the West, has now shifted to the Global South. 7

Charismatics are Christians found in any of the main traditions who emphasise the work of the Holy Spirit, as the Pentecostals do, but who have remained within their denominations. They are so called as they too expect to experience the charismata or “gifts of the Spirit” such as prophesy, healing or deliverance from evil spirits.

Along with the theological differences of the above traditions, there is an amazing diversity of worship style and religious practice, which is in marked contrast to the uniformity of Islamic worship in the mosque and which may leave Muslim onlookers bewildered. As the Bible nowhere prescribes one style or form of worship, Christians have been able to be very creative. One of the big differences is between those churches which are liturgical, such as the Orthodox, Catholic and state-established Protestant churches, and those, principally non-Conformist Protestant and Pentecostal churches, that are non-liturgical, preferring a freer, more spontaneous style of worship. The word liturgy is derived from the Greek leitourgia, meaning the “work of the people”, and is a standard set of scripture readings, prayers and worship that are used in all of the churches of that denomination or nation, thus lending a degree of uniformity and predictability to the worship, which some Muslims may find more familiar.

Most church services – whether liturgical or not – will include prayer, scripture reading, singing and a sermon or teaching. Some traditions feature visual art including stained glass windows, statues, paintings and, particularly in the eastern traditions, icons. Such images are difficult for many Muslims as they are either banned or discouraged in most Islamic traditions. Indeed, icons have been controversial in Christian church history, and many non-Conformist Protestant churches do not have images in them. In particular, whilst Catholic and Orthodox churches tend to display the symbol of Christ hanging on the cross, non-Conformists will have images of the empty cross, emphasising that Jesus has risen from the dead. In contrast to the liturgy, this lack of images may make non-Conformist churches more comfortable for Muslims. Bread and wine next to a bible

Another very significant difference between the denominations is the emphasis or otherwise on what are called “the sacraments”. These are defined as “visible symbols of an invisible grace” and range from two to seven in number always including the bread and wine (know variously as the mass, the eucharist, communion or the Lord’s supper in different traditions), baptism (whether infant or adult) and sometimes ordination of leaders (known as priests, clergy, vicars, pastors or ministers). Sacramental traditions place a great emphasis on these symbols, and they may be seen in mystical ways such as the Catholic concept of transubstantiation, the idea that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus once blessed by the priest. Such variation has led to one of the starkest manifestations of the rupture between the various parts of the Christian community whereby the more conservative churches in all the major traditions deny the sacraments (especially the bread and wine and baptism) to members of other church traditions.

Sacramental churches also tend to have a high view of Christian leadership. The ordination ceremony is seen as setting the new leader apart from ordinary people, or the laity. Some traditions will see these leaders as priests who offer a sacrifice and who stand before God as an intermediary on behalf of the people, as the Old Testament priests did (Leviticus 16:32-33). This idea is vigorously rejected by many Protestants who see Jesus as the only priest between God and humankind (Hebrews 4:14). There are also serious differences over the role of women in the church. The Catholic and Orthodox churches along with some Protestant churches do not accept ordained women in leadership.

The main Christian festivals shared by all the traditions include: Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus; Easter, marking his death and resurrection; and Pentecost, remembering the coming of the Holy Spirit. The dates of these are by no means agreed and western and eastern churches tend to celebrate Christmas and Easter at different times. Some denominations and national churches will have an array of other special days, especially many commemorating various saints, who are men and women in history who have been recognised as especially significant or holy. These saints are sometimes associated with national days, such as St George’s Day in England. In some places the veneration of pre-Christian figures has also been incorporated into worship raising the problem of syncretism both in the church and in the worship of ordinary people. The Mexican celebration of Santa Muerte (Our Lady of Death) is one example of the sort of localised worship which emerges in many religious traditions, including Islam, and is often a driver of sectarian difference and dispute.

Apart from the distinctive worship and practices of the various Christian traditions, there are also strong cultural, legal and political aspects of Christian sectarianism. This sectarianism on occasion in history has turned violent. The crusades of the C11th to C13th saw Christian armies from Europe fighting and killing not just Muslims and Jews but also Orthodox Christians in the east. These memories still linger. Europe’s Catholics and Protestants fought one another during what became known as the European Wars of Religion ending with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. More recently Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland and Serbian Orthodox and Croatian Catholics have fought each other, often with tacit or even explicit support from the churches. Of course, the majority of Christians would distance themselves from such violent sectarianism and often view the perpetrators as being “nominal” Christians or even non-Christians. 8 Most sectarianism tends to express itself in less violent, cultural ways. For instance, there is an ongoing cultural feud in the USA which pits conservative Christians against those who are more liberal.

Today there are different movements to bring unity amongst Christians such as the World Council of Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance. There are also national networks trying to unite Christians such as Churches Together in England.


Overview of Muslim Diversity

Muslims too believe that they are all members of a worldwide community of faith called the ummah. The Qur’an says that "this ummah of yours is one ummah" (Sūrat al-Mu’minūn 23:52). So the unity of the community is extremely important for Muslims. 9

Although the Qur’an is written in Arabic (Sūrat Ṭā Hā 20:113), Muslims believe that Muhammad was sent as “a mercy to all the worlds” (Sūrat al-Anbiyā’ 21:107). The Qur’an frequently mentions and discusses Christians and Jews as “the people of the book” (ahl al-kitab) with prophets who had preceded Muhammad.  In fact, prophets like Abraham are described as being muslim.  So, Jews and Christians are sometimes seen as in continuity with Islam (Sūrat Yūnus 10:94) but at other times are seen as having gone astray (Sūrat al-Mā’idah 5:77), sometimes as being close to Muslims and at others as being at odds (Sūrat al-Mā’idah 5:82).  Whilst the previous prophets had been sent to particular peoples, Muhammad is seen as being the “seal of the prophets” (khātam al-nabiyyin, Sūrat al-Aḥzāb 33:40) who was sent to “all humankind” (Sūrat Sabaʼ 34:28).

As with Christians, despite being commanded not to be divided (Sūrat Āli ‘Imrān 3:103), Muslims have experienced division and factions. Some believe that Muhammad foresaw this and there is a hadith quoting him as saying, “my nation will split into seventy-three sects, one of which will be in Paradise and seventy-two in Hell”. 10 Needless to say many Muslim sects have believed that they were the elite sect!

When Muhammad died there was immediately disagreement over who would lead the community. Some believed that Muhammad had indicated that his cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib should be the new leader and that his blood relatives should continue to lead the ummah. Others believed that Muhammad had either indicated his close companion Abu Bakr or had left the decision to the community. This group followed four successive leaders known as the Rāshidūn (or rightly guided) caliphs. The followers of the former group were called the shi‘at ‘Alī (party of Ali) or Shi‘a. The latter group were called the ahl al-Sunna or Sunnis. This early disagreement gave rise to the most enduring sectarian divide between Muslims as will be seen below:

Major muslim traditions.jpg

The Khawārij (or Kharijites) were other groups which split off from the main community at this time emphasising radical purity, declaring other Muslims to be non-Muslims (a practice called takfīr) and even denouncing caliphs seen as in error. Ali, who became the fourth rightly guided caliph, was assassinated as a result of such reasoning. Most of these groups were short-lived. However, the Ibāḍīs (see below) are a remnant and some see an affinity in the extremism of groups such as al-Qaeda, which practise takfīr against other Muslims.

Sunnis are by far the largest umbrella sect and make up maybe 85% of the world’s Muslims. As mentioned above this tradition formed early in Islamic history during the disagreement over leadership of the Islamic community. Until perhaps the C16th the Sunni caliphs wielded considerable authority but since the last Ottoman caliph, Abdulmejid II, was deposed in 1924, the Sunni community has not even had a central figurehead. The ‘ulamā’ (religious scholars) have considerable power as those who interpret the texts, a principle perhaps familiar to Protestant Christians. There are also legal scholars (fuqahā’) who as muftis are qualified to issue a fatwa (legal ruling). However, there is no one agreed centre of Sunni learning, with al-Azhar University in Cairo, Saudi institutions and various South Asian schools all holding authority for different movements, organizations and traditions. The following are some non-exhaustive examples:

Deobandis, inspired by Shah Waliullah Dehlawi (d.1762), opposed syncretism and emphasised education, today running many Islamic schools (dār al-‘ulūm) and mosques in Britain and elsewhere. The Deobandis gave rise to other groups such as Tablīghī Jamā‘at (the preaching group), which seeks to reinvigorate lapsed Muslims, and the Ṭālibān (lit. students), an armed group which grew out of the madāris (Islamic schools) in Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-89);

Wahhabis do not usually self-identify as such but are a revivalist tradition centred on Saudi Arabia and follow the teaching of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d.1792). They have at times fought other Muslims whom they consider to be nominal or syncretistic and are often hostile to Christianity, not allowing churches to be built in Saudi Arabia, prohibiting proselytism and taking a strict view of apostasy laws;

Salafis grew up in the early C20th partly as a reaction to colonialism and modernity. They reject later tradition and look back to the early texts and practice of the salaf (pious ancestors) seeking to imitate the example of the early Muslim community as found in the Hadith. Jihādis often espouse some form of Salafism, although not all Salafis are violent;

Barelwis were founded by Ahmed Raza Khan (d.1921) in Bareilly, India. They are a popular movement emphasising devotion to the Prophet, Sufi practices and saint veneration. There are many different tarīqas or discipleship schools amongst the Barelwis.

The Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwān) is a political activist movement which grew up in the early C20th and has spread from Egypt around the world. The Brothers emphasise political and social action and they have been successful in elections in Algeria, Palestine and Egypt, although the results of these elections have been rejected by western governments for various reasons. They are an example of what is often called political Islam or “Islamism”.

The Shi‘a are the second largest group of Muslims worldwide, forming a majority particularly in Iran and Iraq. They revere Ali as the first rightful Imam (leader) and then different sects have varying beliefs about his successors. The largest Shi‘a group, the Twelvers (Ithnā ‘ashariyyah), recognise twelve Imams and believe that the last Imam went into hiding and will one day return, giving the Shi‘a a focus on the End Times. Religious leaders (or Mullahs) in the Shi‘a tradition carry great authority. The most distinguished carry the title ayatollah (sign of God Sūrat al-Mu’minūn 23:52) and a few are considered to be Grand Ayatollahs or marja‘ (lit. point of reference) meaning that they are someone to trust and imitate. The investment of such authority in leaders may be familiar to Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians. As with the Sunnis there are many sects and traditions that have grown out of Shi‘ism including: Ismāʿīlis (Severners), Nizaris, Dawoodi Bohras, the Alawites of Syria, the Alevis of Turkey and Zaydis (Fivers) mostly in Yemen.

Most groups of the Kharijites mentioned above have disappeared. A notable exception are the Ibāḍīs who predate the Sunni/Shi‘a divide and who are found in Oman and small parts of North and East Africa. Today in Oman, many Ibadis are engaged in inter-faith work and peace-making although they still debate vigorously with other Muslims.

The final major Muslim sect are the Ahmadiyya. They originated in the Punjab during the C19th and follow the teaching of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (d.1908) who claimed to be the Mahdi, a figure that most Muslims believe will appear in the End Times. Although they are orthodox in most of the basics of Islamic belief and worship, almost all other Muslims view them as being heretics as Ahmadis hold Ahmad to have been a prophet. They are often persecuted and attacked by other Muslims, and in 1984 Pakistan even prohibited Ahmadis from referring to themselves as Muslims. However, in the west they are often keen to take part in inter-faith dialogue or debate.

It should also be noted that there are many progressive and liberal Muslims who want to modernise Islam and adapt its laws, traditions and institutions to the C21st. They can be found throughout the different traditions above, although they have often taken up residence in the western world.

As law and conduct (sharī‘a) 11 are so important in Islamic practice it is not surprising that legal traditions have grown up in all of the above sects. A maḏhab (law school) is a particular method of legal interpretation associated historically with a respected jurist. The four principal schools in Sunni Islam are Hanafi, Shafi‘i, Maliki and Hanbali with the main Shi‘i school being the Ja‘fari. Legal differences between the schools are often quite small and are not as controversial between Muslims as some other aspects, such as forms of worship and politics. Muslims at Friday prayers

The basic form of Islamic worship is similar in these different sects. Certainly, compared to the diversity of Christian worship forms, there is a remarkable uniformity of Islamic worship, which is carefully prescribed and liturgical. In most forms of Islam there is a strict absence of images or icons of any kind and mosques are usually minimalist compared to many churches. The ṣalāt prayers are led by an imam and are recited in Arabic whilst in turn standing, bowing, kneeling and prostrating. There are small differences between Sunnis, Shi‘a and Ibadis concerning where the hands should be placed during prayer, and the Shia sometimes place a clay tablet (turbah) under their forehead. Other religious duties – the shahādah (witness), zakāt (almsgiving), Ramadan (month of fasting) and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) – are also performed with only minor variations. There are also different opinions about the extent to which women should take part in public worship. However, the more major differences that distinguish various Muslim traditions are the practice of extra worship forms, and celebration of festivals.

Sufism (or taṣawwuf) is a highly diverse movement of Islamic mysticism that has been practised in various forms since the early centuries of Islam. A main goal is dhikr (the remembrance of God), or even fanā’ (destruction of self), and this can be expressed in chanting, song, music, rhythm, dance and poetry, often in ecstatic forms. A Sufi will usually follow the order (ṭarīqa) of a particular Sufi master or shaykh and there are many such orders including the Bektashi, Chisti, Naqshbandi, Qadiri and the Dervishes. As with the charismatic movement in Christianity, Sufism is often viewed with suspicion by other Muslims. Some Christians have seen Sufism as being closer to Christian thought as it frequently emphasises love, light and the presence or experience of the divine. That does not mean that Sufism is necessarily pacifist and there have been examples of Sufi jihadis, such as the Tijaniyyah of West Africa. Sufis are found amongst both Sunnis and Shi‘a.Traditional whirling dervishes whirling

There are several main festivals shared by all Muslims including: Eid al-adha ((ʿīd al-‘aḍḥā)), when each family sacrifices an animal commemorating Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son (Sūrat al-Ṣāffāt 37:101-106); Eid al-fitr (ʿīd al-fiṭr), which concludes Ramadan; and Islamic New Year or Muharram. Many Muslims celebrate Mawlid al-Nabī (Muhammad’s birthday), although some, such as the Salafis, discourage this seeing it as an innovation in danger of venerating Muhammad as a person. At Ashura (during the month of Muharram) the Shi‘a commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala. The Shia celebrations, which sometimes include self-flagellation, are occasionally attacked by Sunni extremists opposed to Shi‘i Islam. In addition to these formal festivals, there are many other local practices in which some Muslims venerate saints, sometimes praying at their tombs. Some emphasise the use of amulets, potions and other occult practices to receive blessing (baraka). Such practices are deemed to be ill-advised syncretism by more conservative ‘ulamā’.

The greatest repercussions of these sectarian differences today are political. There was a marked increase in Islamic political activism or “Islamism” during the C20th. More recently news from the Middle East in the early C21st has been dominated by the tensions between Sunnis and Shi‘a across the region. From rival militias during the Lebanese civil war, through the Iran-Iraq war, to the post-Gulf War sectarian violence of the Iraqi insurgency, Sunnis and Shi‘a have been engaged in bloody intra-faith conflict Proxy wars, such as the one in Yemen, have taken place, particularly growing out of the increasing political rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi‘a Iran, the two biggest powers in the region.

This has been exacerbated by and even given rise to a surge in mainly Sunni extremism with jihadi groups like al-Qaeda and Daesh not only in conflict with non-Muslim western forces but also with Muslims they deem to be un-Islamic. This may be because they are Shi‘a, Sufi or just have different political interpretations of Islam. Indeed, more Muslims have died at the hands of extremist groups than have Christians or any other group.

One of the main sectarian issues amongst Muslims in this scenario is takfīr. This is when one group of Muslims pronounces another group to be kuffār or infidels, that is, non-Muslim. This happens both when extremists attack moderate or nominal Muslims believing them to be non-Muslim, but also when moderate Muslims label extremists as non-Muslim. In 2004 King Hussein of Jordan brought together a group of Islamic scholars to call for tolerance and unity amongst Muslim sects. The resulting document, the Amman Message, recognised Sunni, Shi‘a, Sufis, Salafis and others as all being Muslim and stated that it is “impossible and impermissible” to pronounce takfīr on them. The document also forbade the pronouncing of fatwas (legal rulings) except by qualified individuals. There are also global movements trying to bring Muslims together – sometimes for political purposes – such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).


Implications

  • It is important for Christians and Muslims to realise that both religions are highly diverse.  Both aspire to be united and universal and many believers may feel aggrieved or even embarrassed by their divisions.

  • It follows that there are different expressions of both Christianity and Islam.  Neither should be seen as monolithic but should be understood as consisting of many different, complex expressions and interpretations.  It is often helpful to ask oneself the question, “how does the particular individual in front of me understand his or her religious faith?”

  • Many Christians and Muslims would want to distinguish between political conflict and what they see as the true expression of their faith.  They are unhappy with leaders who notionally self-identify with Islam and yet do not practise it – at least in the way that they would want to. 

  • This leads both Christians and Muslims to use adjectives such as “non-practising”, “nominal” or even “heretical” to distinguish themselves from those they do not believe to be living up to the standards of their own faith and practice.

  • In both Christianity and Islam, culture, ethnic identity and geography contribute greatly to variety and difference between sects.

  • Both Islam and Christianity are historically and currently implicated in violence and political conflict.  Jihādi Muslims claim to be fighting in the name of Islam and some western politicians involved in launching wars call themselves Christians.

  • There will be both Muslims and Christians who feel that their religion justifies violence – both state-sponsored or otherwise (see the Hikmah Guide on War).  There will be others who do not see those caught up in the violence as being “true believers” and who will not see political expressions as being valid expressions of faith.

  • However, it is usually unhelpful to deny that violence or practice that we may disagree with has any connection to religion.  Christians and Muslims all need to examine their history, politics and texts to find the root causes of sectarianism.


Further Reading on Christian Diversity

Christianity’, Encyclopaedia Britannica (see especially section on Contemporary Christianity for more details on denominations)

Christianity Comparison Charts, Religion Facts

List of Christian Denominations and Their Beliefs, Church Relevance

Day, Peter. 2003. Dictionary of Christian Denominations Hardcover (New York: Burns & Oates)

Jenkins, Philip. 2007. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Johnson, Todd, Gina Zurlo, Albert Hickman & Peter Crossing. 2016. 'Christianity 2017: Five Hundred Years of Protestant Christianity', International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 1/12: 2-12

Ryrie, Alec. 2018. Protestants: the radicals who made the modern world (London: William Collins)


Further Reading on Islamic Views of Diversity

Islam’, Encyclopaedia Britannica (see especially section on Theology & Sectarianism)

Bowen, Innes. 2014. Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: inside British Islam (London: Hurst & co) – a useful guide to Muslim communities in the UK

Hirji, Zulfikar. 2010. Diversity and Pluralism in Islam: historical and contemporary discourses amongst Muslims (London: Tauris)

Sardar, Ziauddin. 2004. Desperately Seeking Paradise: journeys of a sceptical Muslim (London: Granta Books)


Questions for Further Reflection

For all

  • What have you learned from this Hikmah Guide that is new for you?

  • Do you see Christians or Muslims as being “all the same”? 

  • Or do you see the diversity and complexity of each tradition?

  • What are the implications of the diversity, divisions and schisms within both traditions?

  • Does religion inevitably lead to sectarianism and conflict?

For Christians

  • How much do you know about the different traditions within Islam?

  • Do you learn about Islam from Muslims themselves? 

  • Do you give credence to their different accounts of Islam or do you see Islam as a monolith that you have learned about from a book – whether written by a Muslim, Christian, academic or journalist?

  • Do you feel closer to – or more distant from –any particular Muslim movement or tradition?  Why is that?

For Muslims

  • How much do you know about the different traditions within Christianity?

  • Do you learn about Christianity from Christians themselves? 

  • Do you give credence to their different accounts of Christianity or do you see Christianity as a monolith that you have learned about from a book – whether written by a Muslim, Christian, academic or journalist?

  • Do you feel closer to – or more distant from –any particular Christian movement or tradition? Why is that?


  1. For a discussion on the use of ekklēsía to translate the Hebrew word qāhāl see Bromiley, G., et al. 1990. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (One Volume Abridged) (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans), 397.
  2. Not to be confused with the Roman Catholic Church, which is a particular denomination.
  3. See for example Harvey, Richard. 2017. Luther and the Jews: Putting right the lies (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books)
  4. Johnson, Todd, Gina Zurlo, Albert Hickman & Peter Crossing. 2016. 'Christianity 2017: Five Hundred Years of Protestant Christianity', International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 1/12: 2-12
  5. Jenkins, Philip. 2009. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia - and How It Died (London: HarperOne)
  6. Bebbington, David. 1989. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: a history from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge)
  7. Jenkins, Philip. 2007. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  8. “Nominal” means “in name only” and is often used by some members of a faith community to mark that, in their opinion, others who claim the label are not in fact putting their faith into practice. It may be used of both Christians and Muslims.
  9. It is interesting to note that in Sūrat al-Mu’minūn 23:51-52 the Qur’an is addressing all of God’s messengers raising an interesting question of whether others are included.
  10. Sunan Ibn Majah Vol. 5, Book 36, Hadith 3992
  11. Sharī'a is more a way of life than just law. See the forthcoming Hikmah Guide on ‘Christians, Muslims and the Law’