War and Mideast tensions are adding new importance to a long-running "struggle for the soul of Islam," according to perhaps the most highly regarded U.S. scholar on the faith. In his view, America will play a vital role in shaping Islam's future ó and has an important stake in the outcome.
As historian John L. Esposito of Georgetown University sees it, there is widespread dissension in worldwide Islam over the role that the faith should play in 21st-century society, involving such questions as the place of women, Islam in education, the application of religious law, and whether and when political violence is permissible.
The great historic split in Islam, dating from the faith's first century, divides the dominant Sunnis (85 percent of the 1.2 billion Muslims) and the Shia branch, a minority worldwide though the majority in Iraq and Iran.
But to Esposito, the more important struggle involves three broad sectors within both Sunnism and Shiism that now dominate the landscape:
Esposito sees dim prospects for a fourth group, the Muslim "modernists" who favor secularization.
His viewpoint is worth noting.
The 62-year-old Roman Catholic founded Georgetown's Center for/sMuslim-Christian Understanding in 1993, which ó along with the center at Hartford Seminary, a Protestant-/sfounded school ó are considered the primary U.S. think tanks in Islamic studies and Muslim-Christian relations.
Almost uniquely, Esposito is "considered an authority by both non-Muslims and Muslims," says Muqtedar Khan, a Muslim political scientist at Michigan's Adrian College. Islamic teachers even "give his books to new converts because they have much more clarity than Muslim books," Khan says.
Those works include standard reference works Esposito edited, including the new "Oxford Dictionary of Islam," and popular titles such as "Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam" and "What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam," both published last year by Oxford.
As Esposito's writings portray, Islam has always been heavily political. The Prophet Muhammad was a head of state, after all. As for war, there has been much debate over the centuries about the Quran's so-called "sword verses" and the conditions for combat against non-Muslims.
Terrorism, too, dates back to Islam's first generation when the Kharijite party assassinated Ali, the paragon of Shiism entombed in Iraq. Enemy troops then killed his son, Hussein, whose martyrdom was commemorated in this week's Iraq pilgrimage.
Though mainstream Muslims traditionally rejected terror, there's hot debate over whether Palestinian suicide bombers are terrorists or martyrs. And Esposito says violent extremists are an influential Muslim minority that will continue to bedevil the United States.
Esposito thinks the prospects for these extremists, along with the nonviolent activists and ulama, depend greatly on what the United States accomplishes the next two years in resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict and creating a stable, democratic Iraq.
Without progress on both fronts, he predicts, the "broad-based anti-/sAmericanism" across the world will persist, aiding the violent extremists.
Obviously, neither problem will be easy to solve.
The Israelis' and Palestinians' turbulent relationship over decades is at a low point, and competing religious claims to Jerusalem appear intractable.
Democracy also is "a formidable challenge" for Islam, says UCLA's Khaled Abou El Fadl in the leadoff essay for a symposium in the current Boston Review, which includes Esposito and Khan.
Abou El Fadl argues that democracy expresses such values in the Quran as justice, mercy, individual rights and humanity's God-given diversity.
But the ulama views God as totally sovereign, and themselves as the interpreters of God's will. The ulama "will always stand as an instrument of authoritarianism and an obstacle to democracy," he says.
Khan agrees that traditional thinking "makes states accountable to God alone" and encourages authoritarianism, and if the ulama maintains its monopoly on interpretation "there can be no Islamic democracy."
Esposito thinks that unlike the ulama and extremists, the Islamic activists show potential interest in democracy and will be "the group to watch" when Muslim countries allow "reasonably open elections."
But he says regimes resulting from authentic democracy may be more heavily Islamic, and less to Washington's liking ó a prospect raised by developments in Iraq this week, where Shiites expressed their newfound freedom by condemning the United States along with Saddam Hussein.