Non-denominational Muslim

Not to be confused with Cultural Muslim.

Non-denominational Muslims[1] is an umbrella term that has been used for and by Muslims who do not belong to or do not self-identify with a specific Islamic denomination.[2][3][4][5]

Sectarian controversies have a long and complex history in Islam, and they have been exploited and amplified by rulers for political ends. However, the notion of Muslim unity has remained an important ideal, and in modern times intellectuals have spoken against sectarian divisions. Prominent figures who refused to identify with a particular Islamic denomination have included Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Recent surveys report that large proportions of Muslims in some parts of the world self-identify as "just Muslim", although there is little published analysis available regarding the motivations underlying this response.[6][7][8][9][10][11][12]


Non-denominational Islam has in some quarters been used interchangeably with the term non-madhhabi, i.e. without a madhhab.[13]


History of sectarianism

After the death of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, two conflicting views emerged about who should succeed him as the leader of the Muslim community. Some Muslims, who believed that Muhammad never clearly named his successor, resorted to the Arabian tradition of electing their leader by a council of influential members of the community.[14] Others believed that Muhammad had chosen his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib to succeed him.[14] This disagreement eventually resulted in a civil war which pitted supporters of Ali against supporters of the founder of the Umayyad dynasty Muawiyah, and these two camps later evolved into the Sunni and Shia denominations.[15] For the Shias, Ali and the Imams who succeeded him gradually became the embodiment of God's continuing guidance, and they tended to stress the religious functions of the caliphate and deplore its political compromises; Sunnis were more inclined to circumscribe its religious role and more readily accepted its pragmatic dimensions.[15] As these differences became increasingly vested with religious importance, they gave rise to two distinct forms of Islam.[15]

One common mistake is to assume that Sunnis represent Islam as it existed before the divisions, and should be considered as normative, or the standard.[16] This perception is partly due to the reliance on highly ideological sources that have been accepted as reliable historical works, and also because the vast majority of the population is Sunni and this narrative suits their denomination, even though it is far from accurate.[16] Both Sunnism and Shi'ism are the end products of several centuries of competition between ideologies.[16] Both sects used each other to further cement their own identities and divisions.[17]

In the Early Modern period the conflict between Shias and Sunnis took a turn for the worse when the Safavid and Ottoman dynasties turned the military conflict between them into a religious war after the Safavids made Shia Islam the state religion in their empire.[18] During that era some Sunnis and Shias for the first time began refusing to recognize each other as Muslims.[18] Sectarianism continued to be exploited for political benefits into modern times. An example of this was the Zia regime in Pakistan, who used sectarian divisions between the Sunni and Shia to counter the growing geopolitical influence of Iran, as well as to distract from the domestic political problems.[19] Post-Zia governments in Pakistan continued to "cynically manipulate sectarian conflicts for short term political gain."[19]

Development and thought

Islam originally brought a radical egalitarianism to a fiercely tribal society, within which a person's status was based on his tribal membership.[20] The Quran set all individuals as equals, erasing the importance of tribal status. The primary identity of "Muslims" became simply "Muslim", rather than as a member of a tribe, ethnicity or gender. The Quranic concept of the ummah depends on this unified concept of an Islamic community, and it was appealed to again in the 19th century, as a response to colonialism by European powers.[21] One Muslim scholar leading the emphasis on Muslim unity was Muhammad Iqbal, who's views have been referred to as "ummatic".[22] Iqbal emphatically referred to sectarianism as an "idol" that needed to be "smashed forever".[23] He's quoted as having stated, "I condemn this accursed religious and social sectarianism, there are no Wahhabis, Shias, Mirza's or Sunnis. Fight not for interpretations of the truth when the truth itself is in danger." In his later life, Iqbal began to transcend the narrow domain of nationalist causes and began to speak to the Muslims spread all over the globe, encouraging them to unify as one community.[24]

Iqbal's influence on Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, is also well documented. Jinnah, who converted to Twelver Shi'ism as a young man, publicly described himself as neither Shia nor Sunni, his standard answer to questions asking him to define his sect being: was Muhammad the Prophet a Shia or a Sunni?[25]

Other intellectuals who spoke against sectarianism during this era were Altaf Hussain Hali, who blamed sectarianism for the decline of Muslims, the Aga Khan III, who cited it as a hindrance to progress, and Muhammad Akram Khan, who said sectarianism drained the intellectual capacities of Muslim scholars.[23]

Non-denominational Muslims may also defend their stance by pointing to the Quran such as Al Imran verse 103, which asks Muslims to stay united and not to become divided.[26] In Pakistan, sectarianism is cited as a hindrance to the unification of Islamic Law: "Codification of the Islamic Laws related to family and property on the basis of the concept of Talfiq[27] should also be considered. This will require strong public opinion in favour of this unification of the Islamic Law on a non-sectarian basis, as no change can be considered permanent unless it has full support of the public."[28]


There are faith schools and graduation programs with curriculums that have been described as being oriented towards non-denominational Islam.[29] Non-denominational Muslims have been adopted by some theocratic governments into their fold of pan-Islamism as a means to tackle unreasoning partisanship and takfirism.[5] Some academic press publishing companies have assigned a proper noun-like title to Muslims without a specific sectarian affiliation by capitalizing the designation as Just a Muslim. The customs and rituals practised by non-denominational Muslims are statistically more likely to be Sunni-inclined.[30] In other jurisdictions, some officials have applied a mandatory religious instruction that purportedly gives students a non-denominational outlook in an attempt to appear pluralistic, but in practice, does no such thing.[31]


Western-born Muslims are more likely to be non-affiliated than immigrant Muslims,[32] and when pressed may suggest they try to follow Islamic religious texts "as closely as possible".[33] Although Pew has given comprehensive figures on Muslims with an unspecified branch or affiliation, earlier research from 2006 has also come from CAIR.[34] Some publishers and authors have categorized such non-specified Muslims as being within the liberal or progressive stream of the faith.[35] Sahelian non-denominational Muslims have demonstrated an aversion to austere religious measures.[36] Although some non-denominational Muslims came to their position influenced by their parents, others have come to this position irrespective and in spite of their parents.[4]


According to the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, at least one in five Muslims in at least 22 countries self-identifies as "just Muslim". The country with the highest proportion of Muslims identifying themselves in this non-sectarian way is Kazakhstan at 74%. It also reports that such respondents make up a majority of the Muslims in eight countries (and a plurality in three others): Albania (65%), Kyrgyzstan (64%), Kosovo (58%), Indonesia (56%), Mali (55%), Bosnia and Herzegovina (54%), Uzbekistan (54%), Azerbaijan (45%), Russia (45%), and Nigeria (42%). Other countries with significant percentages are: Cameroon (40%), Tunisia (40%), Guinea Bissau (36%), Uganda (33%), Morocco (30%), Senegal (27%), Chad (23%), Ethiopia (23%), Liberia (22%), Niger (20%), and Tanzania (20%).[6] However, Encyclopædia Britannica reports that in the 20th century the majority of Muslims in all of these countries were Sunnis.[37]


It has been described as a phenomenon that gained momentum in the 20th century which can overlap with orthodox Sunni tenets despite adherents not adhering to any specific madhab.[38][39] In an alluding commentary on surah Al-Mu'minoon verse 53, Abdullah Yusuf Ali states:

The people who began to trade on the names of the prophets cut off that unity and made sects; and each sect rejoices in its own narrow doctrine, instead of taking the universal teaching of unity from Allah. But this sectarian confusion is of man's making. It will last for a time, but the rays of truth and unity will finally dissipate it. Worldly wealth, power and influence may be but trials. Let not their possessors think that they are in themselves things that will necessarily bring them happiness.[40]


Notable individuals

See also


  1. Ngaima, Samuel (2014). Factors to the Liberian National Conflict: Views of the Liberian Expatriates. p. 17.
  2. Benakis, Theodoros (13 January 2014). "Islamophoobia in Europe!". New Europe. Brussels. Retrieved 20 October 2015. Anyone who has travelled to Central Asia knows of the non-denominational Muslims – those who are neither Shiites nor Sounites, but who accept Islam as a religion generally.
  3. 1 2 Longton, Gary Gurr (2014). "Isis Jihadist group made me wonder about non-denominational Muslims". The Sentinel. Retrieved 21 October 2015. THE appalling and catastrophic pictures of the so-called new extremist Isis Jihadist group made me think about someone who can say I am a Muslim of a non-denominational standpoint, and to my surprise/ignorance, such people exist. Online, I found something called the people's mosque, which makes itself clear that it's 100 per cent non-denominational and most importantly, 100 per cent non-judgemental.
  4. 1 2 Kirkham, Bri (2015). "Indiana Blood Center cancels 'Muslims for Life' blood drive". Retrieved 21 October 2015. Ball State Student Sadie Sial identifies as a non-denominational Muslim, and her parents belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. She has participated in multiple blood drives through the Indiana Blood Center.
  5. 1 2 Pollack, Kenneth (2014). Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy. p. 29. Although many Iranian hardliners are Shi'a chauvinists, Khomeini's ideology saw the revolution as pan-Islamist, and therefore embracing Sunni, Shi'a, Sufi, and other, more nondenominational Muslims
  6. 1 2 "Chapter 1: Religious Affiliation". The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity. Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. August 9, 2012. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
  7. Burns, Robert. Christianity, Islam, and the West. p. 55. 40 per cent called themselves "just a Muslim" according to the Council of American-Islamic relations
  8. Mustapha, Abdul (2014). Sects & Social Disorder. p. 5. of Muslims identified themselves as Sunni, 12 per cent as Shi'a, 3 per cent as Ahmadiyya but 44 per cent as 'just Muslim' (Pew Forum, 2010)
  9. Muttitt, Greg (2012). Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq. p. 79. A January 2004 survey by the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, for instance, asked people which description suited them best Sunni Muslim, Shi'a Muslim or just Muslim'.
  10. Boulting, Ned. On the Road Bike: The Search For a Nation’s Cycling Soul. p. 155. What is your religion, asked a UN official. Muslim. Are you Shi'a or Sunni. Just Muslim
  11. Tatari, Eren (2014). Muslims in British Local Government: Representing Minority Interests in Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets. p. 111. Nineteen said that they are Sunni Muslims, six said they are just Muslim without specifying a sect, two said they are Ahmadi, and two said their families are Alevi
  12. Lopez, Ralph (2008). Truth in the Age of Bushism. p. 65. Many Iraqis take offense at reporters' efforts to identify them as Sunni or Shiite. A 2004 Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies poll found the largest category of Iraqis classified themselves as "just Muslim."
  13. Tan, Charlene (2014). Reforms in Islamic Education: International Perspectives. This is due to the historical, sociological, cultural, rational and non-denominational (non-madhhabi) approaches to Islam employed at IAINs, STAINs, and UINs, as opposed to the theological, normative and denominational approaches that were common in Islamic educational institutions in the past
  14. 1 2 "Shi'ism". Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia (ed. Josef W. Meri). Routledge. 2006. p. 736.
  15. 1 2 3 Lapidus, Ira M. (2014). A History of Islamic societes. Cambridge University Press. p. 67.
  16. 1 2 3 Hughes, Aaron. Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam. pp. 115–116. It is a mistake to assume as is commonly done that Sunni Islam arose as normative from the chaotic period following Muhammad's death... This mistake is based in... the taking of later and often highly ideological sources as accurate historical portrayals - and in part on the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims throughout the world follows now what emerged as Sunni Islam...
  17. Hughes, Aaron. Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam. p. 116. Each of these sectarian movements... used the other to define itself more clearly and in the process to articulate its doctrinal contents and rituals.
  18. 1 2 Bartold, Vasily (1936). Mussulman Culture. University of Calcutta. pp. 143–144.
  19. 1 2 Copland, Ian. South Asia: The Spectre of Terrorism. pp. 138–139.
  20. Esposito, John. What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam: Second Edition. p. 16.
  21. Esposito, John. What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam: Second Edition. p. 17.
  22. Junid, Sanusi (2002). "Iqbal and Muslim Unity". Intellectual Discourse. International Islamic University Malaysia. 10 (2, 115-124): 116. Iqbal's vision was Ummatic and hence he should be referred to as "the poet philosopher of Muslim unity."
  23. 1 2 Jones, Justin. Shi'a Islam in Colonial India: Religion, Community and Sectarianism. pp. 25–26.
  24. Junid, Sanusi (2002). "Iqbal and Muslim Unity". Intellectual Discourse. International Islamic University Malaysia. 10 (2, 115-124): 120. Iqbal was no longer writing for Indian Muslims alone but for his coreligionists scattered all over the world. He had switched from Urdu to Persian to make his message available to the largest number of the adherents of Islam.
  25. Ahmed, Khaled. "Was Jinnah a Shia or a Sunni?". The Friday Times. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
  26. Intra-Societal Tension and National Integration, p 119, A. Jamil Qadri - 1988
  27. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam defines Talfiq as "Legal term describing the derivation of rules from material of various schools of Islamic law." Oxford Islamic Studies Online
  28. GHAFUR, ABDUL (1987). "ISLAMIZATION OF LAWS IN PAKISTAN: PROBLEMS AND PROSPECTS". Islamic Studies. 26.3: 271. JSTOR 20839846. (registration required (help)).
  29. GSRC (2015). "Degree overview: Theology and religion". Retrieved 19 October 2015. Most theology schools are based in a religious tradition—a specific sect or denomination of a major religion (i.e., a branch of Rabbinical Judaism, a Catholic order, or a school of Buddhism); a general foundation in a major religion (i.e., nondenominational Islam or Christianity)
  30. Mustapha, Abdul Raufu (2014). Sects & Social Disorder: Muslim Identities & Conflict in Northern Nigeria. p. 54. ... the Ahmadiyya (3%), the 'something else' (2%), the 'Just a Muslim' (42%), and the 'Don't Know' (4%) (Pew 2010, 21). Most of the 'Just a Muslim' are also likely to be Sunni-inclined
  31. Torfs, Rik (2012). Islam, Europe and Emerging Legal Issues. p. 29. The Turkish government maintained that religious instruction was mandatory because it was objective, pluralist and neutral, that is nondenominational ... The perception of the applicants was totally different ... they argued that the teaching was done from the perspective of Sunni Islam
  32. Section 2: Religious Beliefs and Practices, Pew Research Center
  33. Testerman, Janet (2014). Transforming From Christianity to Islam: Eight Women’s Journey. p. 13. If people ask me “What are you, Sufi, Shiite or Sunni?” I say No, I'm just a Muslim. I follow the Quran as much as I can, and if I have questions I go to scholars, but I don't get myself involved in any divisions.
  34. Roelle, Patrick (2006). Islam's Mandate- a Tribute to Jihad: The Mosque at Ground Zero. p. 374. In a 2006 survey of 1,000 Muslim registered voters, about 12% identified themselves as Shi'a, 36% said they were Sunni, and 40% called themselves "just a Muslim," according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
  35. Aamir, Omer; professor Fatima Mustafa (2013). Federalism and Pakistan. Their dream of turning the conflict into an Arab against the Shiite's is turning into a reality. A dark twisted reality for the liberal non denominational Muslims
  36. Kennedy, Lisa (2015). "Film review: "Timbuktu" depicts the beautiful and the brutal". The Denver Post. Retrieved 21 October 2015. In town, the jihadists have begun imposing Shariah laws on the locals. Many of the citizens are already devout, if non-denominational Muslims, but this pushes them.
  37. "Sunnite". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2010-08-26. In the 20th century the Sunnis constituted the majority of Muslims in all nations except Iran, Iraq, and perhaps Yemen. They numbered about 900 million in the late 20th century and constituted nine-tenths of all the adherents of Islām.
  38. Islam in South Asia: A Short History - Page 491, Jamal Malik - 2008
  39. Defence Journal - Volume 10, Issues 9-11 - Page 35, Ikram ul-Majeed Sehgal - 2007
  40. The Meaning of the Holy Quran, New Edition with Revised Translation and Commentary, Published by Amana Corporation, page 853
  41. "The aim and objective of the Tolu-e-Islam". Tolu-e-Islam. Retrieved 24 September 2015.
  42. Hunter, Faruq. "The mosque of the real imam yahya davis". We are Muslims! 100% non-denominational, 100% non-judgmental, 100% dedicated to helping the people
  43. Kolig, Erich (2012). Conservative Islam: A Cultural Anthropology. p. 317. Society for Spreading Faith, founded 1926 in India, an international and nondenominational movement directed towards re-Islamization
  44. Cughtai, Muhammad Ikram (2005). Jamāl Al-Dīn Al-Afghāni: An Apostle of Islamic Resurgence. p. 454. Condemning the historically prevailing trend of blindly imitating religious leaders, al- Afghani revised to identity himself with a specific sect or imam by insisting that he was just a Muslim and a scholar with his own interpretation of Islam.
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