Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 08/10/2020

Last modified: 08/10/2020


Table of Contents


Communities can be inward looking, or reach out to the wider world.

Religion not only involves beliefs and practices, it also generally involves participation in a community, which provides a sense of belonging and identity for adherents.

Community can take an institutional form, for instance membership in a church congregation, or it can be a sense of belonging to a less organised, wider group, like the Islamic ummah or community, which includes Muslims from all backgrounds, nations, and theological schools.

Muslims were commanded as their first duty to build a community (ummah) characterized by practical compassion, in which there was a fair distribution of wealth … The political and social welfare of the ummah would have sacramental value for Muslims. If the ummah prospered, it was a sign that Muslims were living according to God’s will, and the experience of living in a truly islamic community, which made this existential surrender to the divine, would give Muslims intimations of sacred transcendence.

Armstrong, 2001, pp. 5-6

According to Douglas Marshall, it’s the involvement in shared rituals and ceremonies that leads to a greater sense of community and bonding between participants – even if participants are only passively involved; just sharing a ceremonial space with others helps to form an enduring connection.

This bond between people from diverse backgrounds, unified by a religious identity, can be found in many different traditions around the world. We see it in the common links between people of the Jewish faith, which has found political reality in the nation state of Israel; likewise most Buddhist traditions start their initiates with vows to take refuge or seek guidance in the so-called three jewels: the Buddha, the Dhamma (i.e. the teachings of the Buddha), and the Sangha (i.e. the community of practising Buddhists). This ‘going for refuge’ is described in the Dhammapada (a text containing sayings attributed to the Buddha, although written down after his death).

They go to many a refuge,
to mountains, forests,
parks, trees, and shrines:
people threatened with danger.
That’s not the secure refuge,
that’s not the supreme refuge,
that’s not the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering and stress.
But when, having gone for refuge
to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha,
you see with right discernment
the four noble truths—
the cause of stress,
the transcending of stress,
and the noble eightfold path,
the way to the stilling of stress:
That’s the secure refuge,
that, the supreme refuge,
that is the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering and stress.

Dhammapada 188-192 (trans. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu)

The Buddhist Sangha serves the dual purpose of providing refuge to the aspiring Buddhist, and preserving and communicating the Dhamma itself. According to tradition, it was the Buddha who placed this responsibly on the early monastic community, stating:

Go monks and travel for the welfare and happiness of the people, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and men. No two of you go the same way. Teach the Dhamma, monks … and proclaim the pure holy life. There are beings with little passion in their natures who are languishing for lack of hearing the Dhamma; they will understand it.

Gombrich, 1988, pp.18-19

We find a similar instruction delivered by Jesus in the Book of Matthew, where he tells his disciples:

Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

Matthew 10:5-8 (New International Version)

Buddhism and its Sangha emerged from the Indian subcontinent, where we also find the development of Sikhi (also known as Sikhism), whose community of religious adherents use the related word sangat.

Sikhi is characterised by its founding figures: a series of ten divinely inspired leaders known as Gurus. Unlike Hindu gurus (who tend to be considered holy persons with great wisdom), Sikh Gurus were viewed as conduits of the supreme guru (Waheguru) – i.e. God. Therefore the actions and sayings of the Gurus hold tremendous importance for Sikhs, and during their lifetimes they were instrumental in shaping the tradition.

The foundational relationship in Sikhi is between teacher and pupil, hence the importance of the term Guru (teacher) and Sikh (student). According to Sikhi, God is the supreme and immeasurable creator of all existence, which makes itself available to humanity in the form of a teacher who can dispel ignorance and darkness. Each successive human Guru presented this divine intelligence and guidance in different forms for different contexts, but the tenth and final Guru, Gobind Singh, placed spiritual authority in two complementary locations – the recorded scripture (known as Guru Granth) and the Sikh sangat itself, also referred to as the Guru Panth (panth means path, or way, and by extension – those who follow the Guru’s way).

The Sikh community can be further divided between those who have been initiated into a group known as the Khalsa (the pure), and those who follow the Gurus but don’t engage in the additional practices required for Khalsa initiates. These additional steps involve a ceremony known as ‘taking amrit’ and the wearing of the so-called five K’s.

You can watch a discussion of this ceremony in the BBC clip below:

The ceremony is also covered in this video from the Open University.

There is sometimes dispute between whether the authority granted by Guru Gobind Singh applies to the entire Sikh panth, or specifically the Khalsa panth (Oxtoby, 1996, p.194). Whichever side of this debate is correct, religious authority wasn’t just given to the Sikh community by itself, but also to the scriptures.

The leadership of the collective Khalsa or the Panth, did not mean that any majority decision taken by it had an automatic religious sanctity. The supreme consideration was that such decisions had to conform to the Sikh ideals … It was the Sikh principles which were to be supreme. The Guruship was conferred on Guru Granth Sahib [the holy text], and leadership on the collective Panth. These steps were taken to ensure that after the Gurus, the collective leadership of only those who were ideologically oriented, prevailed.

Singh, 1997, p. 297

The amrit ceremony for Khalsa Sikhs is not the only example of initiation into religious communities, in fact it is a common practice in religious traditions around the world. Most Christian churches use a form of baptism, either anointing the head with holy water, or submerging the entire body, and new Muslims must recite the shahada or declaration of faith. These initiation practices help to establish a sense of the boundary between the old and the new identities, and link members together in a shared experience.

Religious communities, especially if they require alternative lifestyles to the dominant culture they’re situated within, can sometimes be inward-looking and closed-off from the outside world, and even loosely associated congregations can tend to focus on their own needs – but this is not always the case.

Many religious communities make efforts to reach out to those around them, either to recruit new members, provide services, or engage in charity work. There are numerous examples of Christian aid organisations around the world, and Islamic charitable giving is a major source of support for many vulnerable groups. The All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims published a report on the extent of Islamic charity in the United Kingdom, called Faith as the Fourth Emergency Service | British Muslim charitable contributions to the UK which goes into this in more detail – if you are interested, you can read the report here: Faith as the Fourth Emergency Service.


  • Armstrong, K. (2001) Islam: A Short History, London, Phoenix Press.
  • Gombrich, R. (1988) Theravada Buddhism, London, Routledge.
  • Marshall, D.A. (2002) ‘Behavior, Belonging, and Belief: A Theory of Ritual Practice’, in Sociological Theory, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 360-380.
  • Oxtoby, W.G. (1996) ‘The Sikh Tradition’ in World Religions: Eastern Traditions, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 176-213.
  • Singh, J. (1997) ‘The Khalsa’ in Sikhism: Its Philosophy and History, Chandigarh, Institute of Sikh Studies, pp. 289-302.

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