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Islam also reflects how difficult it is to define the term orthodoxy, even for a tradition that holds that the umma (the Islamic community) is theoretically united as one because God is one and He has given one divine Scripture, the Koran. There is, for example, no word in the Koran that is equivalent to the English word orthodox. Western writers often regard Sunnism, the tradition to whom the majority of Muslims belong, as orthodox, and many introductory texts define orthodoxy that way. But such a view is not valid, because Shiism, the other important group in Islam, does not regard Sunnism as defining Muslim orthodoxy for a variety of reasons, and even Sunnis would be reluctant to regard their beliefs as "normative," implying that others are not, because the Koran insists that one's true religion is to be judged by God, not by humans.

Moreover, contemporary Islam has been challenged by Islamism, or fundamentalism, which cuts across traditional distinctions between Sunni and Shii and embraces a neoconservative ideology that its practitioners regard as orthodox. Part of the doctrine of that stance involves an antipathy to all non-Muslim ideas and cultural expressions. Currently the West, in all its cultural diversity, is the object of that negative reading. This perception of Islamic orthodoxy is rejected by both mainstream Sunnis and Shiis.

Some scholars prefer to regard Sunnism as an orthopraxy, meaning that the way of life developed by most Muslims around the world reflects important common elements of belief and practice. The formation of a normative path for the believer to walk, particularly by means of the shari'a (Islamic law), became the preferred idea. Insisting on such a view accords with Sunni notions of their own tradition, because at a critical time in its development (c. 900 C.E.), Islamic doctrine moved away from Greek intellectual categories and the use of the mind to construct theologies. Such a movement reduced the input of the mind in constructing the true understanding of Islam. Still, even Shiis would accept that restriction with some modifications.


Of all the things you can teach, Gemara (explanations of the Mishna) is more important than anything else. Gemara is everything. It is Torah sheh ba'al peh' (the Oral Law). It's the real stuff. Everything else will follow. In this world it is Torah sheh ba'al peh', which is the harder way, not the sweet way; it's demanding.… But we also give them what the guys call "bags of candy." We always laugh about it. They themselves call other studies bags of candy after a while. The rabbi calls it that, too. He says, "Okay. Give out bags of candy."

SOURCE: Murray Danzger, Returning to Tradition: The Contemporary Revival of Orthodox Judaism. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 118.

Despite these important qualifiers, orthodoxy does have a place in Islamic self-expression. For example, the Koran itself implores, "guide us in the mustaqiam [straight] path" (1:6), thereby implying that there is a singular way of being Muslim that all should follow. Moreover, Muslims have always valued the noun salaam, a word whose meanings include soundness of being, an attribute of God, as well as peace; in its verbal form it means "surrender" or "submit," and in another form it gives the name of the religion, Islam. Furthermore, submitting to God is held to bring a special perfection to the human being, a perfection called salaam. Finally, from the Koran, the verbal form waqaa, which means to protect, defend, or preserve, has a noun form taqwa, god-fearing or righteousness. This word takes on special meanings in pious circles, for it suggests someone who lives according to normative Islam.

Some contemporary Muslim women have argued that too much of traditional scholarship, and indeed, most of the tradition since the Prophet, has been crafted without proper regard to the principles of equality. They therefore maintain that the true orthodox position of Islam was essentially gender-neutral; male scholarship subsequently skewed the true orthodox position away from women's equal rights (see Ahmed). They contend that Islam must return to the true orthodox position on gender relations. All these interpretations delineate the idea of ethical and religious exemplariness involved in any definition of orthodoxy.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Octadecanoate to OvenbirdsOrthodoxy - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Jewish Orthodoxy, Hinduism, Buddhism, Bibliography