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The Islamic Tradition

As with all religious world-views, Islam is possessed of both orthodoxia and orthopraxia – a particular set of spiritual viewpoints and practices that are held to be authoritative and sacredly informative, and thus crucial in the human quest to define the sacred from the profane. In the contemporary age, the Islamic community has two particular, living sources of orthodoxy to draw upon in its quest – the Koran, and the shari’ah – which also serve as the authoritative sources for the development of a sacred orthopraxy – in particular, those practices and rituals that are collectively known as the Five Pillars.

If we were to draw upon the work of Frederick Streng, we would bracket our discussion by stipulating that orthodoxic sources are those that are crucial in defining both the nature of the problematic in the human condition and the ultimate reality [Streng, pg.45-48], whereas orthopraxic sources are crucial in informing the community with regards to actions necessary for transcending the former in pursuit of the latter – they are Streng’s “means to ultimate transformation” [Streng, pg.48-49]. By such stipulation, we thus arrive at a further elaboration: that the Koran and the shari’ah are not only spiritual authorities, but also sources of information regarding the nature of human existential matters, and also that the rituals of the Five Pillars that are derived from them are therefore sacredly-informed (and thereby effective) tools in combating the problematic.

However, in order for outsiders to the community to effectively recognize the orthodoxic authority of these sources, it becomes necessary to first investigate their origins and nature in order to understand them in a manner consistent with the community’s own reasoning. The Koran, for instance, is not understood by the Islamic community to be simply a collection of suras of some antiquity; rather, it is understood as, and trusted to be, a compilation of sacred wisdom handed down by the supreme divine authority (Allah) to a messenger (Mohammed) through a process of revelation, who was thereafter charged with the mission to spread that wisdom throughout the human community; this is Koran’s sacred origination. It’s secondary, temporal origination – the process that transformed that which was previously purely divine revelation into a compilation of written symbols – was one which was completed some time after the Prophet’s death, and it is at the closing of this secondary origination that the Koran came to exist in its current, codified form.

From the Koran (that which is known through the Prophet, and thus from God), sprang the process of theological, theosophical, and philosophical exegesis with is known within the Islamic community as itjihad. The impetus for itjihad - the problem that begat the process of interpretation – was the need of the community to come to an authoritative consensus as to the meaning that lay behind the Koran’s divinely inspired wisdom. To put the problem another way, even with the completion of the primary, revealed source of orthodoxic wisdom, orthodoxy itself could not be established without a reliable interpretation of that source. In the absence of such revelatory inspiration as that of Muhammed previous to his death, the itjihad process was implemented as a manner through which the community could establish the shari’ah - an interpretation of the Koran, the sunnah (the material example provided by the Prophet’s actions), and the hadith (sayings and rulings attributed to the Prophet) which could be accepted by the community, and which would be possessed of some, if not all, of the authority of its underlying sources.

With regards to Streng’s “problematic” and the “ultimate reality”, Islam’s orthodoxic sources suggest that the cause of human suffering in the world is the misapplication of human willfulness in such a way that puts it at odds with God’s divine order. Through ignorance, poor judgment, or sheer wrong-headedness, humanity (and, in a larger context, all free-willed beings) falls out of step with the sacred reality created and maintained by Allah, thus introducing the sources of its own miseries; a point made most clearly through the suras regarding Adam’s temptation and exile from the garden, Satan’s pride and fall from heaven, the mythology of Noah’s flood, and so forth. Thus, while humanity stands in the light of the ultimate reality which is the divine presence and perfection of God, it nevertheless manages to create problematic situations for itself.

The means through which to escape these problems is expressed most succinctly through another child of the Koran, one informed and interpreted through the encompassing branches of the Islamic orthodoxia: the Five Pillars, which represent the basic orthopraxic knowledge of Islam. The shahadah, salat, zakat, the Ramadan fast, and the hajj are the five central, Islamic rituals through which human beings may steer away from a problematic, profane existence to one which is in harmony with the sacred.

Through the shahadah, one is enjoined in the recitation of a sacred expression of faith in God’s revelation to the Prophet (“There is no God but God, and Muhammed is his Prophet…”). From an earthly, legalistic standpoint, the shahadah may be considered a purely constituitive ritual [Bird, pg.28], in that its recitation before two Muslim witnesses provides one with legal recognition as a member of the Islamic community. If professed with true intention however, the ritual takes on greater meaning; it becomes not only constituitive, but also self-representative of one’s understanding of one’s own identity, expressive of one’s faith, invokes the divine nature of God, and assumes regulative aspects as one implicitly accepts responsibility to follow God’s law. [Bird, pg.28-35]?

The salat (referring to the act of conducting five daily prayers), similarly, communicates strongly regulative aspects, as it involves ritual prayers traditionally directed towards the Ka’ba in Mecca at prescribed times of day. The zakat cajoles Muslims towards the giving of alms for the welfare of the poor and needy, thereby both combating the problematic conditions of the world and enjoining the faithful to loosen attachments to earthly wealth. The Ramadan fast encourages further disassociation from material goods, and encourages the commonality of purpose and condition in all Muslim’s during its observance, while the hajj (journey to the Ka’ba in Mecca) seeks to encourage both these while also recreating the events of Muhammed’s triumphant return to Mecca, and the victorious establishment of the Islamic community therein.

The Five Pillars, collectively and individually, communicate all of the aspects described as part of religious ritual activity by Frederic Bird, but they also go further than that; they also form the backbone of Islamic orthopraxy, and are thereby the tools through which it is understood that faithful Muslims may address the problematic. By studiously engaging in these orthopraxic rituals in the proper way and with the proper intention, the faithful are explicitly assaulting the causes of human troubles by doing away with the ignorance, poor-judgment, and wrong-headedness that may, through misapplied willfulness, direct the human soul away from the light of God, and the comfort and certainty of His divine order - all as a result of drawing the inspiration for the rituals of the Pillars from the Koran, and thereby from Mohammed and thus Allah – the supreme source of all that is sacred.

Thus, while some scholars may attest that Islam, as a world-view, is more concerned with orthopraxy than orthodoxy, one might surmise that something of a logical fallacy is being committed; Islam, as with all religions, does not concern itself with orthopraxic rituals and conduct for their own sake. Rather, as should perhaps be evident, the rituals conducted by truly devout Muslims is meant to be an outward expression of the orthodoxy – the “right opinion” – of the faithful. As Streng once pointed out “What is the problematic in the human condition that is cured by an appeal to [sacred] myth and ritual? It is a world of meaninglessness, chaos, selfishness, and impurity.” [Streng, pg.45]

What then, could possibly be accomplished by orthopraxic conduct in the absence of orthodoxic understanding? Very little, if one follows Streng’s line of thinking, for if the “appeal to myth and ritual” is meant to cure the world of meaninglessness, such acts must surely be conceived with the assumption that the rituals themselves have meaning with a transformative quality. However, that transformative quality should not be thought to be directed towards the natural order created by God, but rather towards the willful souls of humankind; the purpose of Islamic orthopraxy is to aid in the development of an orthodoxy of the spirit - in the development of truly Muslim souls capable of a true expression of heartfelt faith (iman) who love and praise the divine, and who’s very lives consequently become harmonious with the sacred order. To say it simply, the orthopraxy forever exists in service of the development of orthodoxy. Without the later, the former is little more than habit and tradition, devoid of sacred meaning or concordance with the divine. Using the example of the shahadah, for instance, Mahmoud M. Ayoub has written [Ayoub, pg.361], “Inwardly, however, it [the shahadah] is meaningless unless it becomes a true expression of faith and righteous living. Without this inner dimenstion of the shahadah, Islam loses its meaning as a faith tradition.”; one could equally say that the same is true of all rituals.

In the final analysis then, what Islam is – or strives to be – is a message; one that seeks to call its faithful towards an understanding of God and His work through the recorded voice of a chosen Prophet, and the direction provided through right practices. To understand it as such however, scholars and researchers may require themselves to evade the temptation to define the essence of the faith in terms of its outward, physical manifestations.


Ayoub, Mahmoud M. “The Islamic Tradition” in Willard G. Oxtoby (ed) World Religions: Western Traditions. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press. Pg. 341-461.

Bird, Frederic. “Ritual as Communicative Action” in Jack N. Lightstone and Frederic Bird (eds.) Ritual and Ethnic Identity: A Comparative Study of the Social Meaning of Liturgical Ritual in Synagogues. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1995. Pg. 23-52.

Streng, Frederick J. “Creation of a Community through Sacred Symbols” from Understanding Religious Life (3rd edition). Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1985. Pg. 43-61 + notes (1 page)

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