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Muslim Religious Diversity: Sunni, Shi’a, Nation of Islam, Sufi, etc.

By Haley Poland

Journalists seeking to understand Islam in America must distinguish between Islam and culture, so they can grasp the many variations within the religion.

Megan Reid, assistant professor of Islam at the University of Southern California School of Religion, discussed the choices Muslims make domestically, while Juan Campo, associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, spoke about Islam across the globe.

Reid began by saying that Islam is very diverse, even regarding the ways to be a good Muslim in the West.

Many Muslims who have grown up in the United States learn Islam from their parents, but may modify how they practice it to fit their American lifestyle. Converts, she said, tend to take a more active interest in reading Islamic texts.  Children of immigrants may be non-practicing, but are still considered Muslims.

"Remember that all Muslims are not immigrants,” she said.

One of the principal determining factors in how a Muslim practices the religion is how he interprets the hadith.  Hadith are traditions related to the sayings and daily practices (Sunna) of the prophet Muhammad, and provide the major source of guidance for Muslims outside of the Qur’an.

"Muslims look to the words of the prophet to understand their lives and seek guidance,” said Reid.

Reid presented several examples of hadith: one urged voluntary worship, one was used to form laws about fair trade and teach moral values, and one described grooming etiquette.

She encouraged the journalists to look over hadith online, not only to gain familiarity but also to appreciate the breadth.  A recommended site was one put together by USC students:

"The prioritizing of hadith is different worldwide,” Reid said. “So beliefs and actions are different.”

Reid said that just as journalists cannot pick one version of Islam to represent the greater whole, Muslims cannot pick and choose hadith to create their own version.  Every point of view can find textual justifications, but the scholarly tradition of Islam encourages Muslims to seek guidance from leaders as well.  A Muslim could justify violent actions by referring to a specific hadith, but a religious authority would remind him that there are also hadiths condemning violence.

During the Q&A period, Kitty Caparella of the Philadelphia Daily News asked about crime reporting.

"How can a reporter cover people’s different translations of the Qur’an when they seek to justify a crime?” she asked.

Reid answered that a reporter should push the person to talk directly about the ethics surrounding the justification, and then comparatively analyze what he said with information sought from a separate religious authority.

Like Reid, Juan Campo said that for reporters to write responsibly, they must understand what they are covering in a broad context.

"It’s important for journalists to get an idea of what Islam is beyond America, because what happens internationally resonates here,” Campo said.

He said that the best way to understand Islam is to understand the way Muslims define themselves.  Journalists have to know the basics, like the Five Pillars of Islam, but also be sensitive to other ways that Muslims identify themselves.

“The boxes we like to put people in have consequences,” he said.  “It’s important to interrogate those categories to find out what’s actually happening.”

He said that reporters must be aware that many Muslims identify themselves more in terms of ethnicity than religion, such as the Bengalis, Turks, and Persians.

Campo emphasized the worldliness of Muslims in the Middle East and across the globe.  He said that many Muslims speak more than one language and most have access to many different cultures.

"They are very much reshaping their ideas at the intersection of non-Muslim societies,” he said.


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