Islam is distinct from other religions in many ways. We all know that it is a way of social life in addition to personal belief. Like some other religions, it did not evolve over hundreds of years. It claims to be for all time and all parts of the world and to the chagrin of detractors, it has remarkably lived up to its claims. So much so that an honest comparison with the social implications of another faith, like Christianity, shows such a huge gap that it is almost like comparing two incomparable things. (More on this comparison in another article.) For now, let us just look at a couple of mechanisms that were built into Islam’s architecture and that continue to serve it well:
Difference of opinion and its limits: Genuine differences and discussions have been termed a ‘blessing’ to the degree that they do not disperse Muslims into various factions and make them lose their momentum. (quotes)
Absoluteness of God-given law but its continuing evolution: On one hand, the Qur’an laid down an immutable constitution and on the other hand, a framework for evolving jurisprudence that is a marvel. These are commonly known as the sources of law (fiqh). What is surprising is that the consensus of Muslims is a source of law. There is a subtle difference between this concept and the Western concept of legal precedence. It is more like the laws of a temporal legislative body, but without the accompanying political compromises. However, historically, this process suffered from its own politicization.
No intermediary to God while scholarship encouraged: There is no priest, mullah, shaman, bishop or other religious entity sanctioned by the Qur’an, the Islamic constitution. No one is required to give penance or sacrament, or to hear confessions. A Muslim can be directly connected to God without intermediary. However, scholarship and discussion on religious issues and exhorting and teaching others has been there from day one and is actively promoted by the Qur’an.
For all time but rejuvenation needed: Islam is for all time, but human society evolves and is governed by the frailties of human beings such as forgetfulness, greed etc. Also, the politics of social entities and changing circumstances introduce beliefs that sap the strength and tarnish the beauty of Islam and like anything precious on display, it has to be continuously re-polished to show its best face to the rest of the world.
Last but not the least, due to the interplay between these four factors, Islam has enjoyed a monolithic cohesion unparalleled in other major world religions. I hold Muslim writers and thinkers at fault for pessimistically focusing on minor and natural differences, while not paying respect to the political and social phenomena of Hajj, Ramadan, Qiblah, Qur’an, Salah, Zakah, Tauheed — concepts that bind Muslims everywhere. Among these are the five pillars that are very strong and still standing proudly. Muslims have many other problems with political, military and economic unity, but it is much more monolithic than the general perception these days. Let us look at the loosely federated nature of Christianity or Buddhism. Within Christendom, there are huge doctrinal differences between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians. It may come as a surprise to some, but the Orthodox church (Greece, Yugoslavia, Russia and other countries) has a different theology and a different Christmas and Easter.