No, all Muslims aren’t the same: textual, historical, doctrinal and cultural context

When I was in Iraq, I encountered a Sunni interpreter confounded by the portraits of Ali ibn Abi Talib found in so many Shiite homes. “How could they ever know what Ali looked like?” the interpreter asked about images of the man the Shiite community regards as Muhammad’s rightful successor. “It’s ridiculous!” he exclaimed.

Since I was well on my way to atheism — and, perhaps more importantly, raised in a faith that also displays images of its holy figure — I found the practice far from biggest test of faith. Rather, this was a Sunni man embedded with American soldiers in a region where both his coreligionists and U.S. forces were fighting Shiite militias widely believed to be backed by Iran. It struck me that identity, nationality and politics had as much much to do with this interpreter’s perspective as the finer points of theology.

I thought of this memory when an argument flared up on a normally community-minded Facebook page in Hopkins, Minnesota. A neighbor objected to the city’s effort to get to know our Muslim neighbors, saying the “ideology of Islam is dangerous.” This woman has — no doubt earnestly — studied a very specific strain of Islam through the lens of select pieces of texts and extrapolated it to global Islam.

But religion isn’t just shaped by a single textual interpretation — or even just by the text itself. It’s a complex, living organism that human beings negotiate both individually and as part of a larger body of believers. Whether those believers are Christian or Muslim, their experiences are shaped by text, history, doctrine and lived experience.


For religions with holy texts, their books are the most unchanging aspects of the belief system. Interpretations may differ across time and space, but words on a page are more constant than other aspects of spirituality. These words are a concrete, visible part of religious practice that critics can expropriate for their own use without troubling themselves to understand the totality of that religion. Perhaps that’s why the people most hostile to a faith system are so prone to focus on a text to the exclusion of a religion’s other features, whether anti-Muslim activists criticizing Islam or atheists dismissing Christianity.

Even here, though, texts are far less immutable than they might seem — and interpretation is only the most obvious example. The Christian canonization processes splintered the collection of books collectively called the “Bible” — literally from the Greek word for “the books” — so that Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac churches have slightly different “bibles” today.

In Islam, the Quran is the best known source of scripture. But the hadiths — records of Muhammad’s teachings, deeds and sayings — are the second primary source of Islamic doctrine. Muslim scholars evaluate these hadiths based on how credibly they can be traced back to the prophet and declare that chain of evidence to be anything from authentic to fabricated. The strength of the evidence determines the weight a hadith is given in Islamic jurisprudence and doctrine. Different scholars rate individual hadiths differently, and different branches of Islam use different collections of hadiths.

Even scripture varies.


Humans tend to view history as a linear progression from beginning to end, and it’s no different with religion. Protestants, for example, often tell a story that begins with Jesus’ ministry, followed by the spreading of the gospel amid great persecution until Constantine’s adoption of Christianity granted state protection to the church. The church flourished until it descending into the corruption that sparked the Reformation and the denominational fracturing that followed.

But this is just one branch of Christian history and just one narrative. The Eastern church embarked on its own rich historical journey when it split from the Western church 500 years before the Reformation. And during the Counter-Reformation, believers like Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier were a visible sign of the spark that Catholic spirituality never really lost.

This is to say nothing of the many dead-ends in the church’s history. Christianity briefly blossomed in China starting in the 7th Century but was declared dead by the end of the 10th Century. Arianism — a non-Trinitarian belief that Jesus was created by God the Father and is therefore subordinate to the Father — was one of the main challenges to what we’ve come to think of as orthodox Christianity. But today, Trinitarian belief is nearly synonymous with Christianity outside of denominations like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Similarly, the Shia-Sunni split isn’t just theological; it’s a historical schism based upon disagreements over who should be Muhammad’s next successor. War erupted in the wake of that dispute, and divisions remains. Those divisions led to distinct theologies shaped by different historical narratives.

With both Christianity and Islam, historical experience shapes present-day actions. The unique history of the individual branches within these religions gives each one a distinct character — even when compared to other denominations of the same faith.


Doctrine is the formal set of beliefs that a religion teaches, so it would seem at first blush to follow inevitably from that religion’s text and history. Yet we know this is not the way it works in real life.

For example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod:

  1. Have the same scripture;
  2. Operate in identical cultures, with some Missouri Synod and ELCA churches literally sitting on the same street corner; and
  3. View themselves as largely part of the same historical narrative that began with the ancient church, split with the Catholic church in the Reformation and endure to this day as a specifically Lutheran strain of Protestantism.

Yet these two branches couldn’t diverge more sharply on issues like communion, the role of women in the church and human sexuality. Each community of believers views truth through its own lens.

Lived experience

Yet even within a single denomination — where text, history and doctrine are monolithic — there can be extreme variation. The same Roman Catholic church that’s known for conservative priests also birthed the liberation theology movement, which pushed for progressive reforms and greater involvement of the laity. Liberation theology found fertile ground in Brazil because of the economic and political hardships the poor faced during the country’s two decades of military rule. Similarly, Catholic nuns’ groups have broken with the Vatican on issues like the all-male priesthood, birth control and sexuality. Believers live their faith differently, even within the same religion. If we see this amount of variation in Catholicism, a religion of 1.3 billion people, we shouldn’t be surprised when practice also varies among the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims.

Culture is a specific subset of this phenomenon. Early in the Christian church’s history, leaders wrestled with the propriety of integrating Greek and Roman philosophy into a religion that was at heart a Judaic offshoot. Paul, originally a devout Jew, warned believers against Greco-Roman philosophy in Colossians 2:8, but other early church writers like Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius and Augustine of Hippo integrated Platonic ideas into Christianity in ways that shaped the faith forever. Augustine eventually wrote that he saw the same truth in both Plato and Paul.

Similarly, Acts 17 describes Paul debating Stoic philosophers even though he also used Stoic terminology to translate his Christian faith to a gentile audience. Modern-day stoicism is now often viewed as an interfaith approach, much like the prayer and meditation are practiced across religions.

Islam has similar intersections between culture and faith. The religion emerged from Arabic communities, but Arabs only account for about 20 percent of Muslims now. There are legitimate debates about where Arabic culture ends and Islam begins. Iran, whose dominant culture is Persian, has a regional rivalry with the major Arab power and birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia. Believers in Pakistan, Indonesia and Dearborn, Michigan, navigate very different cultural waters despite the sizable Islamic community in all three.

Both Christianity and Islam have always had ambitions to transcend nationality and culture. Christianity has the Body of Christ; Islam has the Ummah. But this is aspirational. Believers negotiate their differences just as much as they connect with one another on their similarities.

Members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, for example, do not differ from the United Methodist Church “in any major way from what all Methodists believe,” according to the AME church. And yet they suffered a split that arose as “the result of a time period that was marked by man’s intolerance of his fellow man, based on the color of his skin.”

Religion, after all, is as much about the human as the divine. This humanity chokes out our connections with one another and strangles believers with stereotypes. But it also cultivates the full flowering of belief that allows each sinner to blossom. For neighbors to come together, we must grant one another sufficient space for this diversity to take root.

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