The good thing about religion is that it produces heretics

Ernst Bloch

A sect is an unsuccessful orthodoxy. Within a religious context that insists on authoritative interpretations of revelation, in whichever form revelation comes, a sect constitutes an alternative and incompatible reading of revelation against the orthodox ruling one. Sects, in the strong sense of the word, are a denial of the principle of ‘unity in diversity’, or – in the Catholic context – the idea that ‘many roads lead to Rome’. No, the sect insists: only this path is the true one. The word is, etymologically, not related to ‘section’ or ‘decision’, a cutting-off, but to ‘sequi’, to follow or go a certain path.

There have been many sects in the Abrahamic faiths, perhaps because they all tend to insist on authoritarian structures in religious practice, in dogma, in the influence religion has on the rest of our social and personal lives. Yet the insistence on the ‘true understanding’ of what has been revealed, in the Qur’an, Bible or Torah, spurs on the perennial struggle over truth. It is as if monotheistic religion necessarily creates its own heretics, in a never-ending stream. The tension between the projected unity and totality of understanding or truth – as the German philosopher Hegel said, ‘the true is the whole’– and the multiplicity of understandings and interpretations of truth, the many shapes it takes, is what generates the cadence of dogmatism and heresy. The fact that the three Abrahamic religions are all religions of texts, and so from the start deal with something that can, and must, be interpreted, reinforces this characteristic.

Thus the struggle over truth is both natural and endemic to the monotheistic religions. But why has the struggle over understanding not replaced actual physical violence over orthodoxy and religious hegemony a long time ago? Our religions seem to almost invite and point towards pluralism and peaceful co-existence, even though within Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this has not always been the case. The inner-religious wars have been just as plentiful and cruel as the inter-religious wars, and under different guises and pretexts they continue to this day.

The rest of this article is only available to subscribers.

Access our entire archive of 350+ articles from the world's leading writers on Islam.
Only £3.30/month, cancel anytime.


Already subscribed? Log in here.

Not convinced? Read this: why should I subscribe to Critical Muslim?

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: