Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Orthodoxy in the generic sense means intellectual assent to prescribed religious doctrines. Its opposite, heterodoxy , refers to holding beliefs that deviate to a greater or lesser degree from prescribed doctrines. Orthodoxy in a religious tradition implies at a minimum the presence of specialists with the authority to determine the correctness of beliefs and to safeguard doctrine from contaminating influences and interpretations. The religious cultures of most preliterate, simple societies showed little tendency toward the development of orthodoxy. It was the rise of agrarian societies and universal religions that created an appropriate arena for the appearance of orthodox religious cultures and, in their wake, campaigns to eliminate heresy. We also see, in this connection, a link between orthodoxy and intolerance toward others who hold different religious beliefs. This was the subject of an important study in the United States by Glock and Stark (1966), which showed that belief in orthodox Christian doctrines was associated with anti-Semitism.

The historical lineaments of orthodoxy were classically set forth by Max Weber (1978). According to him, a universalistic-congregational church with an organized priesthood having responsibility for instructing laity as well as novitiates, religious texts in need of collection, systematization, exegesis, and ethical prophecy, are the historical ingredients required for the development of religious orthodoxy in its most extreme form. Weber considered these ingredients to have been most fully operative in the history of Western Christianity, where the concern for doctrinal correctness reached an apogee. Orthodoxy was never as prominent an issue in Islam, Buddhism, and the other historical religions because one or more of the basic ingredients were either missing or weak.

Current developments within Islam provide evidence that Weber's insights are still pertinent. Under premodern conditions, the Muslim 'ulama '* (religious officials) were a tiny minority headquartered in major cities and had only a limited influence on the population as a whole. Among the vast majority of Muslims, religious belief was eclectic, syncretistic, and heterodox. There was widespread belief in the mediation of Muslim saints, in Sufi mysticism, in pious lore concerning the Prophet Muhammad and other heroes of the faith, and in magical prophylaxis and healing. The Quran* and the orthodox ritual requirements of Islam were respected but were not practical foci of worship among illiterate peasants and herders. Many of the beliefs associated with rural religious traditions were pre-Islamic and non-Islamic in origin and were condemned by the 'ulama'* but to little avail. Orthodoxy may have been fervently desired by the 'ulama', but it was not achievable (Hodgson 1974).

The picture has changed dramatically in the last century. An Islamic revival that militantly promotes orthodoxy is on the rise (Esposito 1990). This development is usually explained by reference to the revival being antisecular and anti-Western. While not an inaccurate characterization, this explanation neglects to take notice of important changes in religious demography as they relate to this newfound emphasis on orthodoxy.

Urban populations in Muslim countries have been exploding for decades, a result of relentless rural-urban migration as much as the high birthrate. An enormous increase in the number of mosques and religious officials to staff them has come about to meet the requirements of these growing urban populations. In addition to being places of worship, the mosques are community centers and meeting places where migrants can make connections to find housing and jobs. Knowledge of orthodox Islam is often lacking in the rural areas, but it is prestigious in the cities and towns, where literacy is greater. The supply of trained religious officials has increased concomitantly with the populations's demand for instruction in correct religious principles, a demand that increases with the spread of literacy and being able to read religious literature rather than using religious exemplars (such as saints and Sufi mentors) as intermediaries with God. Thus several of the same underlying factors that Weber mentioned are active in the revivalist push for a wider acceptance of orthodox beliefs in contemporary Islam as well as in other putative orthodoxies.

The link between orthodoxy and religious revival brings to our attention a feature of religious discourse as prominent in the past as it is today: Campaigns for orthodoxy are about stamping out religious deviance and promoting moral renewal (for an interesting historical case study, see Erikson 1966). This is true of Islamic revivalism today (Kepel 1986) but is equally noteworthy in the conservative Christian political coalition that has risen to national prominence in the United States in recent decades. In both cases, orthodox doctrines are used as litmus tests for the correctness of government policies and to assail the moral rectitude of political leaders. Orthodoxy also has a bearing on understanding exclusion of deviance at the level of local congregations and religious communes, where the promulgation of literalist doctrines, stigmatizing beliefs, and high levels of religious conformity and participation reinforces the homogeneity of the members by eliminating those who are less committed (Iannaccone 1992, 1994).

See also Dogmatism, Islam, Christian Right

Edward B. Reeves


K. T. Erikson, Wayward Puritans (New York: Wiley, 1966)

J. L. Esposito, Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990)

C. Y. Glock and R. Stark, American Piety and Anti-Semitism (New York: Harper, 1966)

M. G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam , 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974)

L. Iannaccone, "Sacrifice and Stigma," Journal of Political Economy 100(1992):271-291

L. Iannaccone, "Why Strict Churches Are Strong," American Journal of Sociology 99(1994):1180-1211

G. Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986)

M. Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

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