I know I risk pissing everybody off in broaching this, too. To my Muslim friends, you might very well accuse me of being an Orientalist for doing this, and Christians who think they already know everything there is to know about Islamic jurisprudence will eagerly stomp on my neck as well, but here's the deal:
Unless and until we understand each other in terms we're all familiar with, unnecessary argument, war, and killing will continue. For making this understandable to westerners, it's necessary to go Orientalist because that's what they understand. The reverse is also true, and before I begin I want to point out that I was invited to join and recently did join the Facebook Group "Libyans and Americans", a number members are also members of the American-Libyan friendship group as well, and it's well known among those circles that I am an atheist, and am accepted on those terms.
There is no wider difference in Islamic law than that which exists between Shiites and Sunnis, and none of it is based entirely on the Koran, words of which constitute the only commonality between them. Yes, they share a few Hadiths, too, but Islamic law is decided on a tribal basis (Sharia) as well as based on the Koran and Hadiths, so westerners, toss out your concept of precedence right now. It does not apply. Nailing down Islamic law as something simplistic is like trying to nail Jello to the wall--you can't do it, it can't be done.
Muslims, in order to understand western thinking, you'd be well advised to understand precedence. That is a concept where previous court case rulings and past legislation can be applied to a case being tried even though the case being tried is ALSO regarded exclusively on its own merits, and this is for the purpose of achieving uniform justice, the lack of which is often of serious issue with Sharia, even strictly among just Muslims. The reliance of western law on precedence is why lawyers keep getting more expensive--as time goes by, more laws get passed, more court cases get heard, and therefore it takes longer to research all laws and court cases to obtain precedence cases for use in a current case yet to be decided.
Sunni sectarians have recognized this difficulty with Islamic law as such and have established schools of thought (5 of them) regardless of the Sunni sect studying law, but it's still fragmented insofar as no fewer than 5 schools exist, where uniformity of justice is concerned. Shiites are considerably more fragmented depending on tribe, and it's one of the big reasons why Iran's Ayatollah system of justice/government remains on shaky ground where the governed are concerned. It's a case of one sect imposing the law of a single tribe on all other tribes accustomed to their own local jurisprudence. Without a tradition of more centralized jurisprudence, Shiites are more resentful of any attempt at imposition of such without further discussion and agreement among all sects of Shiism. Similarly, the House of Saud runs into finding authoritarianism a necessity because they're imposing Wahab Sharia on other tribes...and thus we find, in this manner, that Syria is just another re-reun of sectarian strife.
Knowing this will also invoke an understanding of how Turkey has managed a secular government although it's primarily Muslim, but it takes its prominent military to do this and it may be the only way Egypt can emerge as a secular democracy as well, but in Egypt the military command remains Mubarak flavored. And the remnants of Mubarak are just as problematic for Egypt as Islamic Brotherhood authoritarianism. There exists no easy progress for Egypt under those circumstances.
And then there are the Sufis who attempt to be above all the sectarian differences in jurisprudence, and in doing so become a sect themselves to a certain extent, although it's possible to be a Sunni Sufist or a Shiite Sufist, and that introduces other wide variations in Sharia. It's why the largest protest in global history occurred in protest of Morsi in Egypt--he was setting himself above constitutional law in favor of imposing the Sharia of his tribe (in this case, his political party) over all other tribes, and that's not how Islamic law has ever worked. Ever.
It is also the case that Islamic law is so complicated and varied that no single book can properly explain it, and even after years of attempting to get a grasp of just exactly what the deal is with Islamic law, one always finds new stuff that causes one to lose one's grip, too. It's a messy, weedy subject that will piss off everybody, and over which nobody can claim to be an expert--not even Muslims themselves. Worse than a big can of worms, it's a blind labyrinth....so....this posting remains under construction periodically, and I especially welcome Muslim comments thereon. firstname.lastname@example.org
First, I'm going to establish what exactly I mean when I use certain terms:
Fundamentalist, fundamentalism: the disregard of currently practiced tradition and Sharia rulings with the insistence on adhering strictly to the Koran and Hadiths--the latter of which will be the most significant difference between Sunni and Shiite sects. I find it something of a self-contradiction when some news org claims that some fundamentalist wants to impose Sharia law.
Sunni, Shiite: I will sometimes use a "y" when spelling "Shiite", as in "Shiyat" or "Shiya", and remind one and all that Arabic-to-English is necessarily phonetic, which renders such words as "Quran" and "Koran" equally correct in spelling. I will refer to these two in aggregate as the Islamic division, not sects, because there are many sects to be found within each, and certainly there are more different Shiite sects than there are Sunni. And I will refer to Wahabs and Salafis as sects, even though there are subdivisions in those as well.
Fatwah: Not a simple declaration. This is a court-level decision based on a series of questions, so westerners, if you still think you know what a fatwah is because of the ones you hear about in the news, e.g. Salman Rushdie's, you'd be dead wrong. Tribes under the direct government of a cleric will indeed produce pronouncements by those clerics (something more common among the Shiyat than the Sunni) but it's not ever pulled out of a hat. Court is involved, questions are examined, then answered, and it's the conclusion reached as the result of the evaluation of the questions and their answers is what a fatwah is. You can call the whole procedure "due process" and still be correct.
Sharia Law: Court rulings on matters of conflict between tribal practice and core Islamic beliefs.
Now then--Muslims, you should be acutely aware of the fact that it's Sharia that gives Islam a bad rap because what Sharia does is turn a blind eye to barbaric tribal practices by separating those practices from Islam and then giving them license. This is the problem from the reputation for oppressing women to the matter of "female circumcision" which I do recognize as a tribal practice as separate from Islam, but it has been OKAYED by tribal Sharia. This is not a good thing.
I am also aware of the Koran's view on women, which is not that of oppression, and yet this oppression occurs because Sharia recognizes that as a legitimate tribal practice. This is not good either.
Westerners, Sharia isn't the big religious boogeyman people make it out to be. Oklahoman lawmakers, you're completely ignorant on this. There will always be a need for Sharia rulings as long as there's a need for Muslims to resolve conditions they find with the culture they move into with the religion they believe. That's what Sharia is for: determine what's Islamic and what is local custom: not Islamic but okay. Where Muslim immigrants run into trouble is Sharia of the land they're from conflicting with the laws of the land they move to. As long as the Muslim immigrant is a member of a particular tribe with particular Sharia rulings, it should be clear that the old Sharia does not apply even though it is recognized tribal ruling before immigration. Sharia poses no threat to the non-believer outside of what comes in conflict between old tribal practice and new surroundings.
Shiyat founder was a woman: Fatima, daughter of Mohammed, though Ali was the caliph. Fatima was one of Mohammed's daughters by his first wife and Ali was Mohammed's adopted brother, second convert, and then son-in-law by marriage to Fatima.
Sunni founder was a woman: Ayisha, Mohammed's second wife, with whom Fatima took issue. Although many Muslims would have us believe that the only difference between Shiite and Sunni is succession, it's not true. Sunnis have Hadiths of Ayisha which Shiites believe to be heretical, and because Shiites not only refuse the Ayisha Hadiths but the Sunnah as well, Shiites are considered to be heretical by Sunnis. They have been at life-wasting battle with each other beginning with The Day of the Camel --and what peace they've enjoyed during Ali's caliphate through the rise and fall of the Islamic Empire, it's always been just temporary, as today's sectarian violence bears out.
It's far past time to stop. The only reason that the first Califate Empire succeeded was because of the accord reached at the conclusion of the battle on The Day of the Camel. Sectarian differences were settled then, and throughout the golden age of the Califate Empire, so they shouldn't have been unearthed at all even today.
UPDATE: So far, no negative reaction from Muslims, but there has been pointed out a need for clarification on a few things.
First, when I made mention of all Muslims should be aware of western precedence, I didn't mention that western Muslims--Muslims raised in western countries--are already familiar with the concept either by being raised western or actual study in law school. The further east you go, the more important tribal affiliations get, even above and beyond national affiliation in some cases. With the focus on Syria and the preceding "Arab Spring" events, my focus presumed non-western Muslims when I should have said so.
The rest, as yet unchallenged, remains accurate unless I'm told otherwise by properly authoritative sources. Okay...next...
Too many of my atheist friends go all ballistic against any/all religions, and I can understand that--but one of the things that will cause difficulties between myself and my fellow atheists is that I myself do not; further, I've told my Muslim friends (and this is true) that although I'm an atheist, I often find myself in the peculiar position of defending Islam because much of what atheists believe about Islam is Christian and/or Jewish (as in Zionism) junk that just isn't true, and I'm an atheist because I value facts. Verifiable facts, not theocratic mythology. This is another reason I find it preferable to be a time traveler rather than an historian. This difference has served me well in sorting out the mess that is Islamic history, which is something I know my Muslim friends would in fact take issue with.
An historian will read some wonk's evaluation of what happened, from some author's point of view. A time traveler visits the time in question and looks around to see what's going on, what the scuttlebutt is being passed around, and take a look at events from several different perspectives, and then triangulate. An historian's account of history doesn't involve navigation; a time traveler's account of history does involve navigation. And no area of history requires more nimble or more intrepid navigation skills than Islamic history does. It's thereby that I arrive at my own accounting of Islam--and in the various debates I've gotten involved with in that regard, I have not ever encountered a dispute with a Muslim with what facts I've presented, not even via this post.
The dispute of fact that I typically get into involve both atheists and Christians, and *some* Jews. The term "Zionist" isn't just a general epithet--it has a specific meaning that dates back to Theodor Herzl, and we're not talking the usual junk one finds about World War II/Holocaust. This is World War I stuff--the Great War, with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Prior to that, Muslims and Jews got along just fine in the Ottoman Empire--it was the Christians that were persecuted, by both.
There's a lot of historical junk told by western historians about how Islam "spread by the sword" and that's a mischaracterization entirely. Islam spread by conversion and by the rewards of spoils. Take a step back and look at General Muawiya, for example. That lone guy, who served under Calif Omar, traversed the entirety of northern Africa along the Mediterranean coast, and established the Emirate of Cordoba in Spain. All by himself? Hardly.
He started out from the Levant with the usual size of a battalion, but by the time he got to Gibraltar, he had amassed a rather large army that was WILLING to fight for his cause. You can't get military recruits by slaughtering the people you need for your army, and you can't force people to be loyal fighters for you either. In this regard, westerners got snookered by history written by the losers. Any claims that Muslims simply planted a flag, proclaimed the residents to be their citizens and killing everybody who disagreed is just flat out BS. Historic Christian BS, but BS all the same. One has but to analyze just how persuasive Al Shabab's attack on that Nairobi mall in making Islam attractive. It doesn't, and corpses can't join any armies.
So, what actually happened and how do I know exactly what happened? The first answer is a rather long one, but the second answer is navigation via triangulation. Perspective of one belligerent's side, perspective of the other belligerent's side, and the perspective of a third observer party, and when I navigate history, I prefer to utilize more than one third party. Every conclusion about history that I have ever uttered are 100% my own conclusions obtained via navigation; not a single one of them have parroted anything from any book. Of what I've written on such matters, I am, in fact, the original author.
So--what happened? People did die by the sword, but not by Arabs. First, let me provide biblical clues to the powers that were when the Arabs arrived, as in, the Roman Empire. That was an empire that began as a unification of Italian tribes for the purpose of expelling Celts, followed by an adoption of various aspects of the various tribes under a single leadership, including the adoption of Latin as its unifying language. At its birth, it did NOT speak Latin, and the Latins were just one of a number of tribes. The Roman confederacy grew to be the Roman Republic, but went downhill from the point it got corrupted and became the Roman Empire, with not one but two biblical references to how important it was to pay taxes.
Basically, the ruled weren't happy about paying ever-increasing tax rates for ever-increasing imperial needs to expand the empire AND to raise resources to keep the conquered in line. It was the conquered that readily converted to the force which went up against the Empire, and it was by the swords of the Roman-ruled/vanquished that Roman officials fell. Basically, the spread of Islam was a large-scale Roman rebellion against the Roman Empire--what Muawiya did was gain support from the Roman-vanquished Carthage Empire people. The Levant was always entertaining Messiah rebellions ever since the mid 80's BCE when the Mithraic kingdoms were finally vanquished by Rome..which were Mithraic for centuries, not Jewish. This highlights the error that the U.S. commits when it claims exceptionalism via its system of being a representative republic. It was NOT the first, nor was it the only.
Even the Califate Empire recognized this principle, and that's how Sharia developed. Tribal self-determination with allegiance to the religious empire, only slightly different than the way the Roman Republic ran.
It's clear once again that further clarification is necessary, to my non-western Muslim friends regarding Sharia and tribal/sectarian violence.
Islam was given birth as a tribal strife: the Koreish tribe, specifically, and even though that strife was somewhat resolved during the events surrounding the Hijra and the eventual conversion of Mecca, it still remained an issue even through the events surrounding the Treaty of Medina (Yathtrib) insofar as the Koreish was still regarded as an enemy.
For my western friends, there is need to point out that Mohammed was Koreishi himself, and that his best friend and father-in-law via his second wife was a prominent general of that same tribe as well. And yet Islam, since Mohammed, in the name of mercy, accommodates the practices of many different tribes by way of Sharia. So it makes NO SENSE for an elected Muslim to impose his idea, or his party's idea, of his own Sharia on any tribes other than his own, and, further, that's not what he was elected to do even in his own tribe. My non-western Muslim friends, it's this singular fact that renders any/all Islamist radicals unIslamic, and it certainly removes them from the category of fundamentalism.
But has any Islamic court considered questions regarding heresy committed by Islamists and issued a fatwah decision on those questions? No. At least, not to my knowledge. It needs to be done, and by more than one court, and by both Sunni and Shiyat. In weak Islamic nations ("failed states" like Yemen) it's clear that Islamic law and their faith in it is too weak to take on these unIslamic radicals, so therefore those courts lack the same faith in Allah that you have. Consider that carefully, and at length. These questions must be asked, and answered. And a ruling made on them by all who believe. Yes, I know that the Saudis will find this impossible because during the entire reign of the House of Saud, they have imposed Wahab Sharia on all other tribes within Saudi borders, but that's exactly why their sovereignty remains on very shaky ground, and why recent reforms (related) will not be enough.
My western friends must understand that the Koran cannot be functionally compared to any Bible, and some of my western Muslim friends seem to have forgotten that the Koran is a recitation in Mohammed's version of Arabic (and there are many versions of Arabic out there), which is why exacting care has been taken in the training for such a recitation. Written word doesn't contain accurate inflection and can change the meanings of words just on the basis of inflection variation alone. The Koran is regarded as a revelation and not as law by itself, which is why Hadiths are also relied on for the establishment of law, and that's also why different Muslims have different laws even though the Koran hasn't changed all these centuries, for either Sunni or Shiyat.
I am astonished at Muslims who hold the Koran in a book as sacrosanct as any written Bible because of the issue regarding idolatry. The Koran, as written, has always been considered as inferior to the recitation because of the inaccuracies introduced by simply putting it into writing. Sure, the desecration of a Koran book shows disrespect for Islam, but in regard to those who would burn Koran books, it should be made clear that the book is an inferior rendition to begin with.
Othman put it into writing for the understanding of those people who were literate enough to read, and that's all. It wasn't translated to any other language until the 1930s when it was translated into Turkish, and the reason given was for the purpose of Turks to understand, as reciting words that have no meaning to the people of another tongue was a type of idol worship (idol being Mohammed) under such circumstances. If the Koran is to be believed, it necessarily needs to be understood.
I understand these things, knowing the more objective form of Islamic history, and it's why I won't join in with my fellow atheists in arguing Koranic passages, and despite being an atheist, too often find myself in a position defending Islam--it's the accuracy of the facts that I'm concerned with, although I fully realize that there are too many Islamic "experts" running around out there and that suspicion directed at my own expertise is actually a good, healthy thing. Don't trust until you verify, but that's why navigation of history is more important than taking the approach of an historian. It's not just important, it's extremely crucial. Anyone who successfully navigates this most treacherous terrain in history will eventually come 'round to realizing that I've been correct. It is just a matter time.
NPR/PRI's "The World" delved into the current sectarian strife in Syria when it mentioned Alawites (Syrian Shiites) in Turkey's (Sunni) refugee camps. It went into great detail about how ancient sectarianism is still very much in play today. From the Islamic history that I know, I would like to add the following: the Islamic empire that emerged right after the death of Mohammed was able to quell sectarian differences in the name of imperial Islam, which fell when the Empire fell under Genghis Khan' horde.
Sectarian supremacy arose again with the fall of that Islamic empire because no central leadership could be recognized, and once again tribalism was the mainstay until the Turks drove out the Mongols and then established the Ottoman Empire. Trouble is, those Turks were mainly Sunnis, and on top of that, Turkish tribes that weren't Ottoman affiliated were Shiites, thus giving rise to Turk tribe vs Turk tribe on certain occasions. The Ottomans initially were the merging of the Seljuk and the Uygur tribes, eventually incorporating the Mamluks of Egypt, and were thus tolerant enough of each other as long as they were just Turks. Armenia's conversion to Islam occurred before the Ottoman Empire, although Armenia was primarily Christian, and so you have the seeds sown for what eventually resulted in the Armenian Massacre, the precursors of which are still in dispute although through time travel, I have ascertained pretty much what happened. Not that anybody would believe me, though.
And so what we have between Shiite tribes and Sunni tribes are sectarian, but they're tribal as well. Note that Turks also have a big problem with Kurds, who are also Sunnis for the most part--so the Shiite/Sunni divide isn't all there is to any tribal story. Regardless of how secular Turkey's Turks claim to be, they're still religiously/tribally biased to a significant extent.
UPDATE additional material provided by a Yahoo Answers question regarding Islamic law over non-Muslims, and it's to be stressed that the law which existed under the Islamic Empire, aka Saracen Empire, aka Califate Empire, is considerably different than the Islamic law imposed by the Ottomans.
The following YouTube vid was brought to my attention, posted by TrueStoryASA about Muslim prayer in public, not in a mosque, which raised the question of required ablutions, why they're required in mosques and not public prayer. I asked that question and am awaiting an answer.
...and the answer is: ablutions are still required and they were done before the vid rolled.