The History Of Islam

The Khalifs (Khalifahs)

The early history of Islam after the death of Muhammad is one of glorious wars and victories on the one hand, and hatred, dissension, jealousy, intrigue and deceit on the other.

It begins with the so-called 'Ridda' of a number of Arab tribes after the death of Muhammad. Several 'prophets' contested the leadership of Muhammad and his subsequent successor Abu Bakr, who was chosen after his death to lead the Muslim believers.

The first Khalif Abu Bakr (10-12 AH; 632-634 AD) died after only two years of reign, and was followed by Khalif Umar (12-22 AH; 634-644 AD). Umar was, like Abu Bakr, a father-in-law of Muhammad. He was assassinated by an Iraqian slave while at prayer in the mosque. Under him - probably the most gifted and respected of the Khalifs, the Arab Empire grew vastly. He was succeeded by the third Khalif Uthman (22-34 AH; 644-656 AD). By trying to unify the Empire, largely comprising independence-loving Arabs, he fell into disfavour, particularly for his revision of the Qur'an (see this chapter). He was assassinated in a gruesome way and was not allowed to be buried in the Muslim cemetery. His wife, with some of his friends, buried him by night without the ritual washings, listening to the curses of the Arabs, who also pelted stones at them. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery. Khalif Ali was the last of the 'four rightly guided' Khalifs.

Two well exposed leaders, Talha and al-Zubair, with the support of Aysha, rebelled against Ali. The resulting "Battle of the Camel" saw 10 000 Muslims slaughtered. Ali and his troops won, but soon faced another contender, Mu'awiya, the Governor of Syria, who accused him, as did Aysha, of complicity in the assassination of Uthman. Another battle resulted with tremendous loss of life but without a decisive victory. Mu'awiya and Ali agreed to appoint arbiters and to abide by their solution. This strongly undermined the authority of Ali, who eventually was assassinated by one of his disillusioned followers.

The heir and expected successor of Ali, al-Hassan, renounced his khalifship in favour of Mu'awiya, who from then on ruled not only Syria and Egypt, but the whole Islamic empire.

Al-Hussein, Ali's other son, together with most of his family, was slain under the reign of Mu'awayia's son, the Khalifah Yazid I. at the battle of Kerbela, which actually was rather an assassination than a battle.

This triggered off a split in Islam. Those who sided with Ali and his sons, whom they declared the only true Khalifs, because they were relatives of Muhammad, are now known as the Shiáh (= "followers") Muslims. The much bigger part (today about 80%) are known as Sunni (= "one of the path") Muslims.

The Early Expansion of Islam

The Byzantine Empire was defeated at the Battle of Yarmuk in 636 AD, Jerusalem was taken in 638 AD, the Persian Empire was defeated at Nihavand in 641 AD, and Alexandria (North Africa) in 640-641AD.

Superior military techniques, the use of horses and camels, the incentive of booty, and finally the superior motivation and enthusiasm of an up-and-coming Arab nation, made the victories over decadent systems of ageing nations inevitable.

In the beginning Islam was considered to be a kind of Jewish-Christian sect. The Copts of North Africa regarded the Muslims as liberators from the yoke of Byzantia, and they aided the Muslims in waging their war.

Under the Khalifahs, Mecca and Medina were the most important centres. Under Ali, Kufa, Damascus took their place in the development of the Islamic empire. Soon expansionist zeal led the Muslims as far as the Chinese border, India, Spain and even Southern France. At the Battle of Tours and Poitiers (732 AD) the Franks under the leadership of Charles Martel turned the tide and the Muslim forces withdrew to behind the Pyrenaes, a mountain range separating France from Spain.

"Freedom of religion" was granted by the Muslim conquerors. Conversions from Christianity and Judaism to Islam were allowed and encouraged. Conversion from Islam to Christianity, however, were subject to the death penalty. This is to this day the practice in some Islamic countries.

In those conquered territories the Arabic language usually became the official medium of communication. Only Turkey and Persia resisted this policy of arabisation with success.

The significance of Persia turning to Islam was, that a mature culture, which could well be considered superior to contemporary European culture and science, was incorporated into Islam. Under Islam, during the Middle Ages, philosophy (revival of Greek philosophy), the sciences, particularly medicine, mathematics and astronomy, reached great heights. Names like al-Kindi, al-Arabi, Avicenna (Ibn-Sina) and Averroes (ibn Rashid) earned fame far beyond their Muslim homelands. The Arabs became the tutors of Europe in the "Dark Ages". Muslims understood how to preserve and revive the cultural heritage of subject nations and successfully synthesised a new Islamic culture.

Under this dispensation, 3 200 churches were destroyed or converted into mosques in the Middle East. The population, initially 90% "Christian", eventually became almost completely Muslim. It is sad to observe, however, that political and social advantages were the main incentive. It is perhaps difficult for our minds, biased as they are by tradition, to accept that conversions to Islam did not generally happen by force. The Coptic, Syrian and Orthodox churches were allowed to practise their religion, but were forbidden to conduct any missionary activities among Muslims. The Muslim who declared faith in Christ would at once become guilty of apostasy (irtidad), the only unforgivable sin in Islam and would be liable to the death penalty.

The Dynasties


As we saw already, Mu'awiya had become Khalif and Ali's second son, Hussein, was set up anti-Khalif. He was defeated and slain at the battle of Kerbela in 680 AD. This occasion is still remembered annually as a memorial day among the Shiah Muslims. The division between the Shiah and the Sunni has thus been effected. The Shiahs venerate twelve Khalifs, beginning with Ali and ending with a Mohammed, or "Imam al-Mahdi". According to Shiah belief, he still lives (since 873 AD) in obscurity to reappear in the last days as the Mahdi, foretold by Muhammad to come before judgement day.

The Ummayad Dynasty ruled the Arab world from Damascus for 90 years. In 749 AD all the members of the Ummayad family were murdered, except abd-al-Rahman, who fled to Spain and founded an independent Ummayad Khalifat there. By 711 AD Islam had spread all over North Africa and Spain, and in 717-718 it began to overrun France.

Already at this early stage there was a decrease in piety. Luxurious palaces were built, and it is said of the Khalifs, Yazi I and II, that they were "passionate friends of sport, music and lady singers". A general spiritual and moral decline had begun.


The Abbaside Dynasty succeeded the Ummayad Dynasty, and lasted from 750 to 1258. Abdul Abbas was a descendant of an uncle of Muhammad. He became Khalif in Kufa after the Ummayad Khalif, Marwan, was defeated.

Under the Abbaside Dynasty, Quraish (the tribe of Muhammad) dominance ceased. Baghdad had become the new capital of Islam. The Khalifs, and then later the Sultans, were autocratic rulers. Baghdad, initially a small village, was built by forced labour into a great city, with palaces, mosques and impressive government buildings. The Persian tradition of court ceremony was adopted. After his death, Abdul-Abbas was succeeded by his brother, and he, in turn, by his sons, al-Mahdi and al-Hadi, and thereafter by the famous Harun-al-Rashid (786 AD). Under these rulers the greatest heights of power, economy and culture were experienced. Then a decline set in, which led to the total destruction of this empire under Dhingis Khan in the 13th century.


The Ottoman empire was founded by Emir Osman I in 1301. After the massacre of the last Abbaside Khalif and all his relatives, Turks from near the Caspian Sea began to build a new Islamic Empire on the ruins of the declining Byzantine Empire. The new Sultans assumed the Khalifat and eventually controlled almost the whole of North Africa, the Near East and the Balkans. India was overrun and a peaceful penetration of the East Indies and the Philippines took place, bringing Islam to all these countries.

In 1453 Constantinople, formerly Byzantium (now Istanbul), fell to the Muslims. In 1529 the Turks (Muslims) besieged Vienna, at the very gateway to central Europe. The military power bases of the strong armies of the autocratic Sultans were supplemented by Janitshas (every fifth Christian boy child had to be given to the Islamic state to be indoctrinated as fanatical Muslim soldiers), and 20 000 Russian and African slaves. ("dtv Atlas zur Weltgeschichte", p. 209)

Heavy taxes supplied the necessary finance for such an army. Nevertheless, decline set in as a result of corruption, revolts and schisms (Persia and the Balkan states regained their independence; Egypt fell under Napoleonic domination etc.).

As early as the years 1071 - 1076, Seljuk Turks had committed atrocities against Christian pilgrims in the "Holy Land". They had conquered Armenia, Byzantium and the whole of Asia Minor, where the descendants still live, and also Jerusalem. In response to this, the Crusades were planned. In 1095 the first Crusade was proclaimed by Pope Urban II. Plenary absolution, a direct pass to heaven, should they die, or great riches, should they survive, became the incentive to go on a Crusade. In 1099 Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders, but was recaptured by Sultan Saladin in 1187. This sparked off the third Crusade under Frederick Barbarossa, who drowned en route in 1190.

This, and all subsequent Crusades, the last being in 1271, not only failed, but left a legacy of bitter enmity between Muslims and Christians, still felt today.


This era is a very sensitive chapter in the history of relationships between Muslims and Christians. They were, of course, variously interpreted. Present day Christians feel very much convicted and condemn these as completely against the spirit of Christ, and surely not without reason. However, one has to consider the contemporary historical and socio-anthropological situation in order to form a balanced opinion.

The "house of Islam" had been expanded (by 1050) in the East beyond the Indus River deep into India, in the North into Central Asia, particularly East of the Caspian Sea, and in the West, all along North Africa into Spain, where an Ummayad Khalif was reigning. Asia Minor had been the most recent acquisition of the Muslims.

All these areas were gained by armed conquest and many were then traditionally Christian contries, e.g. Spain, North Africa, Asia Minor and Northern and Southern Arabia. The center of the Eastern Church, Constantinople, became imminently threatened, but fell only later, together with the Balkans, into Muslim hands (1453).

At the same time we have to realize that Islam was by no means an integrated political or military entity. Around that time endless wars for territorial gain and prestige were fought internally. Egypt was under the rule of the Fatimids, a Shiite sect. The Sunni Saljuk Turks from central Asia were rapidly gaining power and control in Persia, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine. In 1009 al-Hakim, who was a Fatimid Khalif of Egypt, ordered many churches to be destroyed, among them the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which was then under his rule. Christians in general and pilgrims in particular, but also Jews, were molested and subjected to humiliating treatment.

This triggered off the first Crusade in 1095. By 1097, some 50,000 man, mostly Francs (today France) and Normans, assembled at Constantinople and from there marched through Asia Minor - now called Turkey - to the 'Holy Land'. The Crusades dragged on, sometimes more, sometimes less extensively, for just short of 200 years.

After first conquering Antioch, the Crusaders urged on to conquer Jerusalem in 1099. As customary in those times, unbelievable atrocities were committed. When a town called Ma'arrat Nu'man was conquered, over 100,000 people were killed and the town burnt to the ground. Jerusalem fared no better. 65 - 70,000 were slaughtered at the al-Aqsa mosque. "Heaps of heads and hands and feet were to be seen throughout the streets and squares of the City" (Agiles p. 259 according to HISTORY OF THE ARABS by P.K. Hitti)

Not much Islamic territory was conquered though. The knights were satisfied to secure the 'holy places' and fortified places along the Mediterranean coast for their defence. In real terms the Crusaders were hardly more than a nuisance to the Muslims.

It needs to be said that more efforts were devoted to peace time activities than for war, with even friendly relations between Muslims and the Crusaders during the 200 years of their presence.

At that time a young Kurdish man who had advanced to leadership in Egypt, helped overthrow the Fatimid dynasty. He became a powerful leader who united under his rule Egypt and the Northern Arab lands. His name was Salah-al-Din, better known as Saladin. He wrestled Jerusalem and many of the coastal fortifications from the Crusaders (1187 - 1189), and proved to be a man of stature. He freed practically all of the crusader prisoners of war, who were poor and could not provide a ransom. After this a period of peace secured free access by Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem and other 'holy' places. After his death the country was divided among his mediocre leaders who lost its fortresses again (1229), but jealousy and dissention corroded the strength and unity of the Crusaders. 1244 Jersusalem fell again to the Muslims, this time permanently.

The death blow to the Crusaders was given by al-Malik al-Zahir Baybars, a Mamluke (also a Turkic people group) who previously had stopped the Mongols from taking over the Middle East. He destroyed the venerated Church of Nativity in Nazareth, Caesarea capitulated under the condition that its 2,000 knights would be spared. Despite of this they were all executed. When Antioch fell to the Muslims 16.000 Christians were slaughtered and 100.000 are recorded to have been sold as slaves.

A senseless venture, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and inflicting untold misery to millions, all in the name of religion, and under the symbol of the cross, had ended. Had these lives been invested in evangelizing the Muslims, the world would look different today.

We know of only one or two men, who seem to have chosen a different way. Francis of Assissi and somewhat later Raymond Lull. We are told that St. Francis crossed the enemy lines and was on request led to the Sultan of Cairo, al-Kamil, a nephew of Saladin. For a considerable time Francis witnessed to him. Apparently he listened well to the Gospel, without embracing it, however. Al-Kamil then offered Francis a large amount of treasures which he declined before returning to the Crusaders.


In the Middle Ages the sciences and arts flourished in Muslim countries, especially in Spain. However with the advent of the Turk invasion from Central Asia, there was a marked deterioration of civilization. The "Christian" West overtook the Islamic East in the scientific fields and Muslim lands became rather backward orientated areas.

The Colonial period in the Middle East began with the expansion of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, which at its height (1550) ruled practically the whole of North Africa excluding Marocco and Algeria, the Western part of the Arabian Peninsula including Mecca and Medina, the whole of Palestine and what is now Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, the western part of Iran and, of course, Turkey. In addition it included the Balkans right to the gates of Vienna, and southern Russia including Crimea were annexed. Before this the Mamluks, the Crusaders and for short periods the Mongols who tried to colonize the Middle East.

Early in the 19th centure Napoleon conquered Egypt and briefly controlled it. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, for it led to the opening of Egypt to contact with the West, the introduction of printing to the Arab world and marked the beginning of the modern education system. Parallel to Egypt, the Lebanese part of the Ottoman Empire opened its borders to Western influence, since the majority of the population was Maronite-Catholic. It must be said here, that during that time the liberalisation and with that the moral decay of the West had not reached such a low as we witness it today.

A more typical form of colonialism was imposed by Britain on India, which then included todays Pakistan and Bangladesh. This was accompanied by severe exploitation of natural and human resources by the colonial power. At the end of World War I (1918), the Ottoman Empire broke up, new countries were formed under the League of Nations and subdued forms of colonialism by the West was introduced in parts thereof.

In the Far East, Malaysia and Indonesia, which are predominantly Islamic, were under colonial bondage from the Dutch empire.

All this left a kind of bitter taste with these now independent states. Foreign rule is always inclined to affect a nation's pride. When, however, colonialisation or oppression was imposed on Muslims by Muslims, it seems to have been more tolerable. One will hardly ever hear or read comments on the Ottoman (Turkish) imperialism, which lasted some 400 years until 1918. The colonialisation of Muslims by "Christians" was a more severe blow to the self-worth of the effected people and consequently this effected an aversion toward the religion of the foreign rulers, something that is still evident today.


The independence of the Middle Eastern countries happened parallel to the discovery of oil in many of these. Its wealth led to a very considerable economic power and influence. It is understandable that this at once led to a re-awakening of religious consciousness. Muslims experienced the removal of the domination of foreign powers and a foreign religion over them as a sort of victory of Islam over Christianity. In addition the new wealth, and by that status, is seen as a confirmation of Allah's presence and superiority after all, an exhilarating experience which led to the Iranian revolution and the resurgence of Islam today. However this new wealth proves to be a mixed blessing as Islamic communities are also experiencing the influx of Western technology, morals and values which are imported into their countries alongside. Islam's response to the impact of modernity will be one of the most crucial issues in the future.

The Sects of Islam

Anyone studying the history of Islam will soon become very disillusioned about the much acclaimed "Islamic Brotherhood". As we have seen earlier it did not take long before Muslims took up arms against fellow-Muslims, slaughtering and poisening them in the name of Islam. In one such battle, the hard-pressed Muslim soldiers decided to stick pages from the Qur'an to the points of their swords and thus forced the opposing Muslim army to a ceasefire. It actually worked, for who would dare to fight against "the very word of Allah"!

We are not only considering the two major sects of Sunni and Shiite Muslims under this paragraph, but will further include other groupings, some of which are only of historical or theological significance and are no longer represented in the world of Islam today. Certain groups, such as the Ahmadiyya and the Bahai are no longer or never were considered as part of the Islamic fold and we would rather term them as cults in the Christian context. Others represent forceful movements which permeate both the Sunni and the Shiite faith such as Sufism and Folk Islam. We are aware of the differentiation between these sects, groups, cults or movements, but felt it best to sum them all up under this heading.

It is interesting that already Muhammad anticipated the break-up of his followers into numerous, if not countless sects. A Hadith states:

"Abdullah b-Amr reported that the Messenger of Allah said: There will certainly come over my people what came to the children of Israil [sic] as closely as one sandal resembles another, so that if there was any of them who committed fornication with his mother openly, there will appear someone among my people who will commit that. The Israilites were divided into 72 sects and my people will be divided into 73 sects. Each of them will remain in the fire except one sect. They enquired: O Messenger of Allah! which is that? He said, That one on which I and my companions stand".

Mishkat I, pp. 169+170

Of interest is also the footnote regarding this Hadith:

"The present English-educated Muslims should ponder seriously over this prophecy and examine whether it has been literally fulfilled or not. The Muslims are now following the Christians and Jews step by step in dress, manners, eating, talking and in every particulars. The influence of these two nations have caught the imagination of the upper-class Muslims so much so that even Arabia, the cradle of Islam, could not but be a prey to these tendencies".

"The number has, however, far exceeded the Prophet's predictions, for the sects of Islam even exceed in number and variety those of the Christian religion.

In order to fulfil the prophecies of Muhammad, the Ghyasu'l-Lughat divides the 73 into six groups of twelve sects (= 72) and adds a number 73, the "najiya" (those being saved), i.e. the Sunnis".

"Dictionary of Islam", pp. 567-569

Others have provided a different list. None, however, mention the latest editions, the Ahmediyas, the Babists and Bahais. Admittedly most of these sects have relative minor theological differences, but so too have most of the Christian denominations.

A brief look into some theological differences will suffice:


Meaning: "One of the Path"

They are Muslims who acknowledge the first four Khalifs to have been rightful successors of Muhammad. They accept the Sihahu's Sittah, or six authentic Hadith, and belong to one of four schools of jurisprudence (Abu Hanifa, ash-Shafi'i, Malik or Ahmad-ibn-Hanbal). This is by far the biggest group. Their spiritual centres are the al-Azar university in Cairo and the University of Medina. Their number makes up over 80% of all Muslims.


Meaning: "Followers", i.e. of Ali

They believe in the heredity succession of Khalifs. To them, Ali, the nephew and son-in-law of Muhammad was the first rightful Khalif, and his sons (one of whom was assassinated, and the other abdicated the throne) should have succeeded him. They base this claim on Surah 2:124:

"He said: 'I will make thee an Imam to the Nations'. He pleaded: 'And also (Imams) from my offspring!'".

Many Hadith are quoted by the Shia to support their case. According to tradition, the twelfth in heredity line, Imam-al-Mahdi (a kind of Messiah), is still alive and hiding to appear before judgment. Among the many splinter group of the Shia the Ismailis play a very dominant role in East Africa and are decidedly less fanatical than the Iranian Shiah Muslims, but more devoted to philanthropic work. Their spiritual leader is the Agha Khan who has become a well respected international figure.

The center of Shiite activity is not in Africa, but in Iran where the Ayatollah (lit. 'sign of Allah') Khomeini established a new base for a Shiite Islamic missionary thrust which is felt in almost every corner of Africa today. Even in a small island like Lamu, known as 'the Mecca of East Africa' Iranian Shiite influence and finance has gained control over one of the oldest and largest mosques on the island; a power struggle that is quite typical for many parts of Africa today.


Founded in 732 AD, the Mutazilites rejected all eternal attributes to Allah. They regarded the Qur'an as being created and not eternally pre-existing. In contrast to traditional Islam, they denied absolute predestination.

Their reasoning: "God then must be the author of evil!"

Consequently, man has a free will, and when a believer commits a grievous sin and dies without repentance, he is lost.

They maintain that righteousness limits the omnipotence of God, for Allah is contained to acts within his own ethical norms. This point was heavily criticised by their opponents.

After approximately 100 years, the Mutazilites were suppressed.


Abd'ul Wahhabi was born 1691 AD. He was a diligent scholar of Islam in Mecca, Basra and Baghdad and became a reformer in Islam, rejecting omens, all auguries (divination by omens), sacred shrines and tombs, intoxicating drugs (smoking), as well as the silk and satin clothing of the wealthy. He tried to return to the original Islam. Although he had a good following, he was opposed by the rulers. Asylum was granted to him by Muhammed-ibn-Sa'ud, an influential chief. What could not be accomplished by eloquence was done by the sword. Sa'ud married Wahhabi's daughter, and their son, Abd-ul-Aziz, led the Wahhabi army to victory over Arabia. However, he was murdered while praying, and his son Sa'ud continued to lead the Wahhabi to prominence, threatening the whole Turkish Empire. His aim was the conversion of the whole world to Islam. The battle cry of the Wahhabi was "Kill and strangle all infidels, which give companions to Allah" (i.e. a Son).

In the early 19th century a forceful reform was undertaken in Mecca. All people were driven with whips to attend the five daily prayers. The mosques were filled, but Sa'ud's son was taken prisoner by the Turks and executed in Istanbul. The Wahhabi influence is still strong in Arabia and Northern India.


They are a group founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1865-1908 in the Punyab, then India), who claimed to have been called as a prophet. Concerning Islam itself, the Ahmadiyyas are orthodox but differ in their teachings, in that they reject the possibility of miracles and certain aspects of the life of Jesus. While the Qur'an rejects the crucifixion completely, Mirza Ahmad said, that Christ was on the cross but was taken down alive, migrated to Srinagar in Kahmir, and died in old age. His grave is still to be seen. Ahmad claims to be the expected Mahdi or Messiah, "the one expected by all nations in whom the return of Christ is symbolized". His followers call him Khalifa. They are very missionary-minded, have a more intellectual approach and make good use of literature. Consequently they have pursued the translation of the Qur'an into various African languages even before the Sunnis ever gave permission to such official translations. In an attempt to make Islam palatable to modern man, they are 'open minded' and offer socialism as an Islamic tenet, 'an economic principle already practised for 1 300 years'. Monogamy is also advocated. Ahmadiyyas are totally rejected by the rest of the Muslim world and not considered to belong to Islam.


This group was founded by a follower of Bab, Mirza Hussein-ali-Nuri (1817-1892). He came from Persia and called himself the "Shrine of God". In his book "Kitab-al-akdas" he even receives the title "A Radiation from God". Claiming to be universal, he promoted mutual love and good works to introduce a universal language and religion. He proclaimed himself to be the returning Christ, the reincarnation of Krishna, the fifth Buddha and the embodiment of Hussein, the son of Ali. He died after twenty-eight years of imprisonment. ("Der Islam" by Kellerhals, pp. 119+120).


This is the mystical expression of Islam. The various groups may be pantheistic, ascetic (Fakir from Fakr = poor) and monastic. They all seem to have a strong hinduistic element in their teaching/practices. Small groups of disciples are formed around a Shaikh (guru), their spiritual leader. Motivated by fear of judgment, they seek to mortify their bodies, purify their hearts, and have a desire for secluded contemplation. The Hadith says, 'There is no monasticism (= orders of monks) in Islam. The monasticism of our assembly is Jihad". Sufis try to flee from the 'bad world' into a union with God by way of exercises that lead to 'experiences', direct contact and communication with Allah.

The components of Sufism are renunciation ('holiness' by personal effort) and ecstasy. The aim is the 'experience' of 'annihilation of self in god'. This 'experience' is partly promoted by technical means, such as dancing, chanting and music (the dervishes). As Hindus use a 'mantra', a kind of religious, secret word - which is to be repeated thousands of times - Sufis use 'dikr', which has the same function: to induce ecstacy. They like to 'see the inner light'.

The desire for such religious experiences is a reaction to the cold orthodoxy and legalism of strict Islam. The highly recognized Qur'anic scholar, al-Ghazzali (1056-1111 AD), made the rejected Sufi movement acceptable. Ghazzali claimed to have been led to reject entirely all belief in the senses.

The name Sufism may come from the word "suf", which was a coarse woollen cloak the Sufis wore, or perhaps from "safu", which means purity, or perhaps "sofia", meaning wisdom, or "sufa", an Arabic tribe serving in the mosque in Mecca. In its essence, Sufism always existed. We see obvious parallels to Buddhism, Hinduism, the medieval mystics of Europe, and even in the existentialism and some extreme 'charismatic' movements of our time.

It entails complete submission to a 'guide'. There is no difference between good and evil, all is unity, and unity is God. The guide fixes the will of his followers, who consequently have no responsibility. The body is the cage of the soul, so a Sufi longs to die. His journey begins as a searcher, then advances as a traveller. The third stage is service, then love, seclusion, knowledge, ecstasy, truth, union with God and then extinction. The perfect man has lost his identity. Monastic orders in Sufism live in community of property, including their women. Others live with all types of vices, deeming the body, which is defiled, as 'only a miserable robe of humanity, which encircles the pure soul'.

Understandably many Muslims are rather negative about the influence of Sufism on the course of Islam. Dr. Isma'il al Faruqi comments:

"Mysticism succeeded in reorientating the Muslims away from life, from the world, from reason and common sense, and delivered them to introspective meditation. Mysticism dulled the Muslim sense of realism and drew Muslims away from society, from their businesses, even from their families. Instead of pursuing the will of God as law, Sufism taught the Muslim to run after the dream of union with God in gnosis, or 'mystical experience."

"Islam" by Isma'il R. Al Faruqi, Argus Communications, Illinois

In real terms Sufism is a syncretistic Islam, having a number of elements taken from other religions. May I add, however, that Sufis, being less orthodox, seem to be much more open to the Gospel than most other Muslims.


No doubt this is the most popular form of religious adherance in Islam . Again it would be wrong to call this a sect, for it operates within and is sanctioned by Islam.

Folk Islam, though being structured and having its respective fixed sets of rules and beliefs, is far more accommodating than biblical Christianity could ever be. For a pagan to become a Muslim, he really only needs to believe and say the kalima, "There is no god except Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger".

Occultism in Folk Islam

All pagan religions have occult background. Spirit involvement and ancestor worship - which amounts to much the same - is the dominating factor in all tribal religion. Shamans or witchdoctors, to use a common description, claim to be in contact with the spirit world in order to pacify or even manipulate spirits with their magic. Spells, charms and amulets are used for protection against negative influences from the spirit world. Shamans will resort to the finding of more potent charms or spells, when a person feels to be under bondage or is sick. Subsequently the adherents to "natural religions" are bound to live under constant fear of the spirit world and are at the same time dependent on the Shamans.

The Western world has largely brushed this aside as stupid superstition. "Enlightened" Westerners classify the occult as mere humbug. Even in evangelical circles we find this trend. Others, and that does even include some missionaries, do not know how to handle the occult. Being afraid of the unknown, they try to ignore it. Again others perceive all Islamic activities as completely demonic and engage in a kind of "power encounter" evangelism, something which leaves many question marks. (See A PRACTICAL AND TACTICAL APPROACH TO MUSLIM EVANGELISM under "Spiritual Warfare").

Islam, on the other hand, not counting a few exceptions like the Wahhabi, have little reservations with the occult. It is either tolerated, accommodated or islamisized. By that they open wide the door to more spiritual bondage.

Shamans in an Islamic Setting

All over Africa and Asia Shaikhs, Marabouts, Al Hajjis, Pirs, Walis or Imams act as Shamans. They may use different charms or amulets and cast spells in the name of Allah (the practice of 'Mubahala' as outlined in the Qur'an in Surah 3:61). Here the practice of prayer and the occult are often confused. Shaikhs who are considered powerful (!) are often consulted even after their death; especially so among the so-called 'grave worshippers'.

May a few Hadith and their comments help us understand:

"Aisha reported that when any of the members of the household fell ill Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) used to blow over him by reciting Mu'awwidhatan, and when he suffered from illness of which he died I used to blow over him and rubbed his body with his hand for his hand had greater power than my hand".

Sahih Muslim III, p. 1195

The footnote explains:

"That some words have the healing power is a fact which has been substantiated by evidence. This is the reason why incantation (the practice of curing diseases and removing the evil effect of magic) is almost universal. The mere fact that this process is supersensory does not prove it to be a superstition. There are so many facts for which no causative relationship can be traced in the realm of physical world, but still they are facts. Same is the case with incantation. Islam has, however, purged incantation from all evil practices. It has forbidden the recitation of words and phrases which run counter to the spirit of Islam and has exhorted its followers to recite the name of Allah and some other verses of the Holy Qur'an, e.g. Sura al-Fatiha and Mu'awwidhatan for the purpose of incantation".


To a Christian worker with experience in the occult, this simply constitutes "white" magic, i.e. the practice of witchcraft in the name of God instead of the devil. It is still witchcraft, though.

"Aisha reported that when any person fell ill with a disease or he had any ailment or he had any injury, the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) placed his forefinger upon the ground and then lifted it by reciting the name of Allah (and said): The dust of our ground with the saliva of any one of us would serve as a means whereby our illness would be cured with the sanction of Allah".

Sahih Muslim III, p. 1196

A footnote explains:

"According to some scholars, it refers to the sacred dust of Medina on which had fallen the saliva of the pious Muslims".


We will be careful not to compare the happening of John 9:1-7 with the above. There is a clear line of difference!

"Aisha reported that Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) commanded the use of incantation for curing the influence of an evil eye".


Incantation has the following meaning: "Ritual recitation of magical words or sounds, a magic spell." (Collin's Dictionary)

Those who practise such, claim, like all spiritists, to be able to differentiate between good and evil spirits or jinns. The Bible condemns such practices altogether:

"Let no one be found among you who ... practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord".

Deut. 18:10-12

Shaikhs, or other persons, may be 'blessed' with 'Karamat', i.e. the gift of power or miracle. After their departure their graves become centres of pilgrimage and the visitors offer prayers and gifts, asking for intercession or assistance.

The clear leaders within folk Islam in many countries are the Walis (= protector, friend, benefactor). According to traditions (the Qur'an does not promote this) there are always a number of Walis alive on earth. Those that die are replaced by others. One tradition discloses their number: 4 000.

Walis may be somewhat likened to 'saints'. They claim to have the power to bind and to loosen, to heal (often only certain ailments), speak a variety of languages, read thoughts, practise telepathy and telekinesis (= they can by psychic power move articles anywhere), make rain and have other psychic powers. Anyone even faintly acquainted with demonology will at once realize the source thereof: Satan and his demons.

One of the authors has at various occasions met Muslims, who were afflicted by demons and who invariably were aware of the sources thereof. Most Muslims seem to be strongly intimidated and fearful of such powers and what they may do.

It is indeed good to know that as Christians we serve the King of kings and Lord of lords. Thus by delegation we have been given authority over all these powers.

From Islamic source material we may assume that "Muhammad sanctioned the use of spells and incantations as long as the words used were only those of the names of Allah, or of the good angels, and of the good genii (spirits)". According to a Hadith Muhammad said: "There is nothing wrong with using spells so long as you associate nothing with Allah" (DICTIONARY OF ISLAM, by quoting Mishkat XXI, c.i.). Since we may well assume that Muhammad had an occult background, we need not wonder, how it got a foothold in Islam. The Dictionary also quotes the book 'Jawahiru'l-Khamsah' by Shaikh Abu'l-Muwayyid of Gujerat, India:

"In order to explain this occult science, we shall consider it under the following divisions:

  1. The qualifications necessary for the 'amil, or the person who practices it.
  2. The tables required by the teacher and their uses. (These include Zodiac etc.)
  3. The methods employed for commanding the presence of the genii.

When anyone enters upon the study of the science, he must begin by paying the utmost attention to cleanliness. No dog, or cat, or any stranger, is allowed to enter his dwelling place, and he must purify his house by burning wood-aloes, pastilos, and other sweet-scented perfumes. He must take the utmost care that his body is in no way defiled, and he must bathe and perform the legal ablution constantly. A most important preparation for the exercise of the art is a forty-days fast (chilla), when he must sleep on a mat spread on the ground, sleep as little as possible, and not enter into general conversation.

Previous to reciting any of the names or attributes of God for the establishment of friendship or enmity on behalf of any person, it is necessary to ascertain the initials of his or her name in the Arabic alphabet, which letters are considered by exorcists to be connected with the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the seven planets, and the four elements.

The exorcist must first ascertain if the elements, the signs of the Zodiac, and the planets are amiably or inimitably disposed to each other in the cases of these two individuals, and also if there is a combination expressed in the ism or name of God connected with their initial letters.

If the exorcist wishes to command the presence of genii on behalf of a certain person, it is generally supposed to be effected in the following manner. He must, first of all, shut himself up in a room and fast for forty days. He should besmear the chamber with red ochre, and, having purified himself, should sit on a small carpet, and proceed to call the genius or demon. He must, however, first find out what special genii are required to effect his purpose.

The exorcist should then, in order to call in the help of the genii, recite the following formula, not fewer then 24 800 times:

Ya Danushu! for the sake of the Eternal One!

Ya Hushu! for the sake of the Guide!

Ya Rabushu! for the sake of the Lord!

Ya Qayupushu! for the sake of Allah!

Ya Majbushu! for the sake of the King!

The exorcist will perform this recital with his face turned towards the house of the object he wishes to affect, and burn the perfumes indicated according to the table for the letters of Bahram's name".

All this is blatent witchcraft - and is done in the name of Allah! We can easily see that Islam has by no means the uniformity it tries to propagate. It may well be that many orthodox Muslims will totally distance themselves from above practices and declare it unislamic. The Christian witness is therefore well advised not to assume that all Muslims are alike. Islam has many forms and consequently it needs wisdom in choosing the right approach.


Recommended Literature for Chapter 3

Islam - Aspects and Prospects, A critical Analysis, R.W.Thomas, 1988, Light of Life, 203 pages.

Textbook of Islam I, M.A. Quraishy, 1989, The Islamic Foundation, pp. 83-224.

Textbook of Islam II, M.A. Quraishy, 1989, The Islamic Foundation, pp. 231-315.

The Occult in Islam, Abd Al-Masih, Light of Life, 49 pages.