How satisfyingly simple the world of Islam must appear from outside: just those two big groups of Sunni and Shia Muslims, and a scattering of obscure outliers.
How peculiar is reality, once you’ve passed through the door and find yourself in that claustrophobic room looking out. Here are the multitudinous sects and sub-sects, each one rejoicing in what they themselves have, as they declare all others than themselves outside the fold.
On the outside, Sunni Islam is rigid and easily defined; on the inside it is an extraordinarily loose umbrella. To refer to it as orthodoxy, as external observers tend to, is problematic in itself. Virtually every single group on the planet believes itself to represent orthodoxy, for that’s just the nature of faith and self-belief.
Does Al-Azhar nowadays have the prestige it ascribes to itself? Anecdotally, I mostly hear it spoken about in derogatory fashion, but perhaps that’s just politics. Groups such as Iqwan and Hizbut Tahir commonly characterise it as a corrupt institution producing corrupt scholars, while groups such as the Salafis favour the University of Medina. These are the currents we encounter on the inside — differences so readily papered over by those on the outside looking in.
It seems to me that in the era of the nation state, Muslim scholarship is largely dispersed along national, ethnic and sectarian grounds. Perhaps that is why some of us never ever seem to fit in.
In my small town alone there are two dominant groups of Muslims: Barelvis and Deobandis. Both adhere to Hanafi fiqh (to different degrees), the same Maturidi school of theology, believe in sufism and hail from India/Pakistan, and yet they anathematise each other constantly and without end.
In their self-image, the Barelvis alone are Sunni Muslims, and insist that the Deobandis are Wahabis (Salafis), which they believe to be different from Sunnis. The Deobandis, likewise, reject many of the Barelvis’ beliefs and practices. The two groups have their own authorities and scholars, concentrated in the regions where they predominate.
Move to a large city and the picture is even more fractious and contentious, with congregations far more cosmopolitan and mixed on sectarian and intra-sectactarian grounds… Even amongst the Salafis there is vast diversity, each group rejoicing in their own particular scholars and points of belief, whilst writing off the faith of all those outside their particular clique.
In short, I don’t buy this thing we call orthodoxy, because it simply doesn’t exist in any real form. Not in our day to day experience. What the outside world characterises as a scattering of obscure outliers is more like the whole. We are all obscure outliers really.