Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Jae M. | The Individual and Communal in Islam

RELG 270
Prof Jafar Mahallati

In the Classical Period, Islamic morality was tied up not only in the personal, spiritual and interior practice of faith, but also in the creation of lasting institutions. These institutions often took the form of charity, in and of itself a requirement of Islam; they were hospitals, mosques, and especially madrassas and other entities that survived via waqf. The orthopraxical nature of Islam—its concern not only with the spiritual and thought-based practice of religion, but also with the living practice of it in tangible, material ways—expressed itself both in the exterior and the interior world; it was not enough to simply be a Muslim oneself, to perform all the requisite duties, but rather to express that in ways that would affect other people and establish a community identity. In this manner, the benefactors of the Islamic world who were responsible for the establishment of many of the madrassas via waqf were participating in a sort of active and intentional world-building: they were involved in a project of identity-formation not simply for themselves or their families, but rather for the entirety of the Islamic world as a whole.  In many cases, the esoteric and the exoteric combined in various ways to create a combination or synthesis of the two that became the hallmark of the Islamic world: that it was both intensely personal and intensely communitarian. While the majority strains of Islam and the Sufis had different ways of going about this personal and community-based practice of religion, they both ultimately involved orthopraxical ways of doing so that defy easy categorization into either the personal or the communal. I focus here on the institution and moral worldview of the Sufis: namely, that it is not enough to simply practice Islam to a high degree, but also that one must be part of a social system in order to truly practice it.

            Sufism is often cited as the most intensely personal, interior, and esoteric tradition within Islam. Its focus on ihsan – “doing what is beautiful” (Murata and Chittick 1994, 268), understanding and practicing Islam to the best of one’s ability, in turn becomes  an ihsan of “being what is beautiful” (ibid., 304). To be “what is beautiful”—that is to say, religious, of upright character, someone who practices religion not in order to avoid punishment (Islam), to know why to do it and how (iman), but rather to be closer to God, to truly devote oneself—one must practice adab. Helminksi writes: “Adab is the ability to sense what is appropriate at each moment and to give each its due—a continuous process of refining one’s speech and actions” (93). It is, then, an embodied practice of interiority, but at the same time, intensely communal in nature, as it is defined entirely in terms of other people. Helminksi’s statement begs the question: who decides what speech and actions are refined and what are not? These topics are socially and culturally prescribed; they are contextual in nature. What is considered “refined” in one community would not be so in another. The ethical imperative inscribed by the Sufis to practice adab is thus communally construed in addition to community-building in nature even as it seems to be intensely personal and singular. It is an institution even as it is not formally constructed as such.

            Another way that Sufism creates communal identity—in and of itself an institution—is via the tariqa, or lineage, where individual Sufis can identify themselves within a chronological and genealogical line of masters of Sufi thought and action that is “traced first of all to the founder of his or her particular “path” (tariqa) of Sufism, and then through that founder back to Muhammad.” (Brown 2017, 224)  Associating themselves with this lineage is yet another way to build identity: people are defined via their connections to others, and authenticity is associated with exactly who one studied with in much the way that a college degree from a so-called ‘elite’ institution bestows upon one a degree of specific status and authority.  Via the tariqa, Sufis gain authority and authenticity as legitimate people capable of practicing religion and then proceeding with the teaching of others.

            Another example of the duality of the interior and the communal in Islam, while more mainstream, is the Hajj itself: the embodied experience of community itself, yet at the same time intensely and irrevocably personal. This ritual practice both involves an experience of “death” and “rebirth”—incredibly individual experiences, mediated by the body and mind of someone independently acting—and the sharing of these experiences with many others. The Hajj was “a death and a meeting with God, and the return from the hajj was a rebirth.” (Murata and Chittick 1994, 20). It fits well into Turner’s notion of communitas, in which a group in the midst of the liminal phase of a ritual, or otherwise embodying liminality—an experience of symbolic “death”—becomes a blend of “lowliness and sacredness, of homogeneity and comradeship” (Turner 1969, 360) via their shared experiences and individual change. Importantly, this bestows upon one another marker of authenticity: that of the title of “Hajji”, where people become “no longer involved with the pettiness of everyday life” (Murata and Chittick 1994, 20), and thus at least nominally reintegrated in a better state back into society after their original symbolic death.

            Another example of this contrast and conflict between the individual and the communal in the religious realm, and its subsequent reintegration into a state of synthesis and difference without conflict, is in the practice of waqf. Waqf is the “creation of a legal fiction in the form of transfer of the ownership of a personal property to God in perpetuity” (Morgan 2001, 21); its purposes are often charitable, and designed at least in part to provide spiritual benefit to the deceased via prayer and good deeds. In this manner, one may act with ethics even after death, via establishing an ossified, formal institution which in turn sustains the community left after the death of the benefactor. Morgan even notes that property may be owned “either by God or the community” (ibid.). Here, an individual desire for ethical behavior—for doing or being “what is beautiful”—actively affects the community and establishes it as a formal entity. While it may be intended in an individual desire to do what is right, it nonetheless is tied up in conceptions of the communal, of what the community needs.

            Durkheim writes that a “religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things… beliefs and practices which unite its adherents in a single moral community called a church.” (Durkheim translated by Cosman, 2001, 46). While Durkheim was writing from his own context and explicitly states a “church”, his definition would nonetheless apply wholly to Islamic communities and especially to the formalized structures of waqf, the individual Sufi practice of adab, and the formalized institution of the tariqa which defines identity within a lineage of other scholars. These examples clearly illuminate the contrast between individual moral worldview and formalized institution: they are intensely communal even when they appear to be singular and personal, and always incredibly involved in the project of forming a groupwide Islamic identity.


Brown, Daniel. A New Introduction to Islam. John Wiley & Sons: Oxford. 2017.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by Carol Cosman.Oxford University Press: New York.  2001.

Helminski, Kabir. “Adab: the Sufi Art of Conscious Relationship.” In Parabola 30, no. 2 (2005): 93-98.

McAuliffe, Jane. The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Islam. Edited by Jack Miles. W. W. Norton: New York. 2015.

Morgan, Claire. “Islam and Civil Society: the Waqf”. The Good Society 10, no. 1 (2001): 21-24.

Murata, Sachiko and William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. Paragon House: St. Paul. 1994.

Turner, Victor. “Liminality and Communitas.” In The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Aldine Publishing: Chicago. 1969.

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