Times of Youth: Can you clarify the difference between a Muslim and Islam?
Dr. Bilal Philips: A Muslim is somebody who claims to follow Islam. Whether he or she actually follows it or not will depend on their level of knowledge, the cultural influences that may be on them, and a variety of other factors. So what they may end up doing in the name of Islam, may or may not agree with the actual teachings of Islam. In order to judge the various principles and teachings of Islam, one needs to understand them from their authentic sources rather than from the practices of Muslims in different countries. In summary, Islam is not necessarily what Muslims do, but what they are ideally supposed to do. People might ask, ”How are we non-Muslims supposed to know what is cultural and what is actually from the teachings?” The basic rule of thumb to follow is that what Muslims do everywhere in the world, like praying five times per day, fasting in Ramadan, Hajj, etc., you can be almost certain that it is a part of the teachings of Islam. But what you find in some places, like FGM (female genital mutilation), females giving dowry to males and “honor killing”, and not in many others, you can almost be sure it is cultural and not from Islamic teachings.
Times of Youth: In the light of your knowledge, if you were given a choice to abolish one thing/act in the world forever, what would you choose?
Dr. Bilal Philips: Oppression. This is a major and dominant evil which affects all human societies. The Prophet (pbuh) quoted Allah as saying, “O my servants, I have forbidden Myself from oppression, so do not oppress each other.” The Quran calls us to justice and prevention of oppression. The Prophet (pbuh) warned, “Beware of oppression, for it is layers and layers of darkness on the day of Resurrection.” I would say that oppression is the biggest thing plaguing human society on all levels, so it should be abolished as all human laws in general seek to prevent oppression and establish justice.
Times of Youth: Despite all Muslims follow one and the same Holy Qur’an, why are there so many sects and different schools of thoughts among Muslims?
Dr. Bilal Philips: First and foremost, it is not correct to refer to the Quran as the Holy Quran. That is an imitation of the Christians reference to their scripture as the “Holy Bible”. The Quran has not been described as “holy” in any of the texts of the Quran, or the Sunnah or statements of the Sahaabah. This term only came into vogue in the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent after the period of Christian European colonization of the Muslim world. So it is proper to refer to the Quran as the Noble Quran (Al-Quran Al-Kareem), or the Magnificent Quran (Al-Quran Al-Atheem), and so on and so forth. Better to use the descriptive terms which were used by Allah in the final revelation.
In terms of the actual question, “having only one Quran, why do we have so many different sects”, this goes back to people’s interpretations instead of strictly following the Quran and Sunnah. Where people have strayed away from the Quran and Sunnah, either denying the Sunnah all together, or denying parts of the Quran which don’t agree with them. These are factors or modernist interpretation of the Quran. Extreme views. So we have all these factors which can create different lines of thought, but those who follow the Quran and Sunnah as it was understood by the early generation of Muslims, they represent the main body of Muslims and they are one.
An additional point. What I’m trying to say is that, Prophet Muhammad May God’s Peace and Blessings be upon him, had predicted that Muslims would be divided up into 73 different sects. Only one of them was going to Paradise. These 72 sects are the product of satanic deviation. Satan whispers and you have several groups that have clearly deviated from Islam to varying degrees. That one group of the 73, in my view, is not a narrow single group. So we can’t say it’s only so and so people. All of the modern movements and certain groups that have come up, are part of the same one out of the 73 that are generally on the correct path in general. Though they may have individual errors amongst them. Some may be closer to the perfection, and some further from the perfection. We’re not going to say that it’s only these particular individuals, and everybody else is going to hell. That’s what the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had said. The 72 are going to hell. Only one is going to paradise. Are you ready to say that a person who’s so and so and because he’s not of the other sect, that he’s going to hell? That’s a very difficult claim to make. Very difficult claim. A more inclusive approach is to look at the one going to Paradise, the one correct path, as having people within it who have different opinions, but they are firm on Quran and Sunnah, and are trying to follow it the way the forefathers did. The earlier generations, such as Abu Hanifa, maybe they slipped up here and there. They don’t realize today that Abu Hanifa wasn’t a Hanafi, but as far as they are concerned they are trying to follow Abu Hanifa who was one of the pillars of that generation, who were interpreting the Quran and Sunnah as it was understood by the earliest generation. When we look at that group which are going to Paradise, the right group, we need to be a little more open minded than many of us tend to be today.