Distortion of religious teachings may be seen as a logical consequence of particular religion having interacted with a certain social reality. Any religion seems to have been distorted simply because it would inevitably stand face to face with social reality. Islam is without exception. Distortion however, may take place for many reasons, in addition to its interaction with social reality. It may take place from within, or else from without. It may flourish within a particular religion because of its ambiguity in its teaching or dogma, or may be because of its parochial perspective on certain problem. Historical and scientific evidences have shown that external factors play the larger role for distortion to take place. Modernity for instance, has been blamed as the strongest and major factor, apart from others.
Distortion has been termed differently. Some would call it heresy. In Islam, it is popularly known as bid’ah literally means an innovation, that is, that which religion has never taught about. Bid’ah is indeed more complex than what might appear at the surface. Its definition is not easy to construct. One thing for sure however, in bid’ah, there are social and cultural elements as well as theological and indeed ideological aspects. These elements intertwined to each other, and together form heresy.
Another term for distortion is heterodoxy. While the term heresy is seemingly popular among philosophers and religious thinkers, the term heterodoxy is preferable among sociologists. In religious studies, historically speaking, heresy and heterodoxy are as old as religion itself. This term and concept has been an object of discussion and research by Muslim scholars from as early as the first century of Islam.
The limitation of heterodoxy is not clear-cut. Muslim and non-Muslim thinkers alike have differed significantly in its definition and parameters. In scientific terms heterodoxy may be understood as the opposite side of orthodoxy. It takes place in a space where religious text and the profane context are involved in a dialect. Heterodoxy therefore, is a natural phenomenon given that any religion will certainly get involved in the social and cultural activities. But natural as it may seem, heterodoxy has always been a sensitive issue. It is deemed as the dividing demarcation between one who is considered inside or outside particular religious faith and tradition.
Heterodoxy and orthodoxy are two sides of different coin. And there seems to be no room for reconciliation between them. In Islam, Christianity and Judaism, heterodoxy has been a regular recurrence. The nature of their religious texts -in addition to social and cultural factors- is behind such stream to occur and recur. A holy book like the Qur’an is multi-interpretable. It is symbolic in its words and messages. Hence, its interpretation is varied from one to another, from one group to another. The intellectual background of the interpreter adds to the complexity of how the holy book is interpreted. In this term, it is understandable –although not always acceptable- that heterodoxy emerges.
In most cases, heterodoxy poses a challenge to orthodoxy especially in matters related to dogma and theology. Islam however is aware from its very inception of the possible dichotomy and even animosity between orthodoxy-heterodoxy. It is the Prophet Muhammad himself who spoke categorically of this phenomenon. He was reported to have said that “Islam will be divided into 73 groups, only one of which is secured from the fire of Hell”. The secured one is authentic in the sense that it sticks to the Qur’an and the tradition of the prophet. The rest is heretical.
In the history of Islam, tension between orthodoxy represented theologically by the Ash’arite school of thought and heterodoxy represented by such groups as the Mu’tazlites, Khawarijites and Syiite has always been high. The tension sometime even extended into warfare. Given the intensity of the tension on the one hand, and the significance of the two groups in the whole structure of Islamic thought and history on the other, to deal with the issue of heterodoxy and its relation to orthodoxy is in itself a matter of academic urgency