Islam an overview

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Of the four major religious traditions considered in these sections of Religion 103, Islam is the youngest. It appeared in the seventh century c.e. under the leadership of its prophet Muhammad as a small religious movement that quickly spread throughout what is today Saudi Arabia and beyond. Today approximately 20% of the world's population identify themselves as Muslim and profess: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet." After some brief introductory comments, this overview will present Islam under the following headings: Muhammad: the prophet of Allah; Qur'an: the revelation of Allah, and the Straight Path: surrender to the ways of Allah.
To understand Islam, one must come to realize the absolute centrality of a Muslim's belief in the unequivocal guidance of Allah. The word "Allah" comes from an Arabic word which literally means "THE God." The term Islam is derived from the root s-l-m, meaning peace or surrender. (It is related to the more familiar Hebrew word, shalom, meaning "peace".) Islam refers to the peace that comes when one surrenders to the merciful and gracious Allah. "Muslim" which also comes from the same root (s-l-m) refers to a person who follows the path of peace in surrender to God. Muhammad serves as God's messenger, the one who points to THE GOD, ALLAH. Through this prophet, God communicates to humans the path to be followed to live in God's ways in this present existence and in the life that follows death.
Muhammad was born in 570 c.e. to a poor family of the Quraysh tribe who dwelt near the city of Mecca. Sometime before his birth, the prophet's father died, and shortly after his birth, his mother also died. The orphaned boy lived a relatively happy childhood thanks to an uncle who cared for him until the future prophet reached young adulthood.

Muhammad left his uncle's household to manage the trade business of a wealthy widow, Khadijah. His exceptional honesty and moral sensitivity caught the attention of his employer who eventually asked him to marry her. At the age of 25, Muhammad agreed to marry the 40 year old Khadijah. Only after her death twenty-five years later did Muhammad take into his household more than one wife, a practice common in the region and given sanction in the Muslim sacred text, the Qur'an.

Muhammad spent the next fifteen years successfully managing Khadijah's and now his trade business. Yet throughout this period, he would escape into a cave, called Hira, located in the stark mountainous desert on the outskirts of Mecca. Isolated in this cave, he spent long periods in deep contemplation--a practice common among holy men of the desert, known as hanifs. These hanifs believed in the one God

In his fortieth year, 610 c.e., Muhammad had an experience that would radically alter the lives of millions. As recalled in the tradition, Gabriel, one of God's angels or messengers, appeared to Muhammad with a simple command: "Proclaim!" Three times the message was pronounced, and three times Muhammad declared his inability to follow the command. Then Muhammad recited the first of many divine revelations. These verses appear below in a translation from the original Arabic.

Proclaim! (or Read)

In the name of thy Lord and Cherisher Who created--

Created man, out of a leech-like clot [clotted blood];
Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful--
He Who taught (the use of) the Pen,--

Taught man that which he knew not.

Nay, but man doth transgress all bounds,

In that he looketh upon himself as self-sufficient.

Verily, to thy Lord is the return (of all).
[Qur'an, Sura Igraa 96, 1-8]
He fled the cave deeply shaken by the experience which he initially reported only to his wife Khadijah, who immediately believed his account and became his first convert.

Over the next three years, Muhammad experienced more revelations from Allah. He remained circumspect about their purpose and related their content to only four other people, his wife, a cousin, Ali, a fellow tradesman Abu Bakr, and Zayd an emancipated slave. Then in 613 c.e., under the direction of one of Allah's revelations, Muhammad began to preach his message in the city of Mecca. At the heart of the message was a conviction in the oneness of God and the equality of all peoples before God. He warned of Allah's judgment against idolatry and immoral behavior motivated by greed and selfish desires. His central religious conviction implied not only a shift in religious belief but a reordering of society as well. The revelations guiding this conviction continued throughout this period.

The religion of the area can best be characterized as polytheistic though practicing Jews and Christians also inhabited the region. Mecca was in fact a religious center in the region, housing over 300 shrines to various gods and goddesses. The most eminent shrine among those found in Mecca was the Ka'ba. So, many in his audience already had certain religious convictions and simply doubted the possibility of such a revelation to an unlettered tradesman.

Some Meccans, particularly of the ruling class, found Muhammad's message of God's absolute oneness and the demand for a just society as threatening to their way of life. If Muhammad proved successful, then the lucrative business associated with religious pilgrimage would disappear. Such a change in economics threatened those whose wealth made them powerful. These influential people orchestrated persecutions ranging from ridicule to physical threats and then to actual violence. Despite these hardships, Muhammad remained committed to proclaiming the revelation which he had received. His perseverance and the power of his message gradually won over a small group of believers. Yet, they remained a persecuted minority.

The prophet's fiftieth year (620 c.e.) proved especially eventful. Muhammad experienced the depths of sorrow with the deaths of his beloved wife and faithful supporter, Khadijah, and his uncle who had cared for him when an orphan. To make matters worse, persecution intensified. During this darkest period, Muhammad experienced his most profound mystical experience that has come to be know as al-mir'aj or Night of Ascension. Through this profound experience, the prophet encountered the great prophets and teachers who had preceded him including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Even more significantly, he was brought into the Divine Presence itself in its infinite reality. This experience is related in various parts of the Qur'an.

The depth of Muhammad's religious awareness began to spread beyond Mecca. North of that city, the inhabitants of another urban center, Yathrib, had heard and believed the prophet's message. Representatives of the city came to Muhammad to offer him a place of leadership in their community which was severely divided among several factions. Their hope was that Muhammad could unite these factions.

The offer came at the same time that certain members of Muhammad's own tribe, the Quraysh, were plotting the prophet's death. Given the opportunities Yathrib presented and the grave danger in the existing situation, Muhammad and his followers fled Mecca under cover of darkness to escape certain death and to establish a society guided by Allah's revelation. This flight, known as hijra (literally meaning "migration"), took place in 622 c.e. It is the event which marks the beginning of Islamic time. In other word, it is year "One" in the Muslim calendar. (To remind the reader of this dating difference, the dates that follow will list Islamic date/common era date.)

Muhammad, in fact, fulfilled the hopes of the inhabitants of Yathrib. The significance of his influence is indicated by the fact that the city's name even changed from Yathrib to Medinat-al Na'bi (the city of the Prophet). Today the city is most commonly referred to as Medina. These new surroundings became the context for new revelations to the Prophet. His political duties had not overtaken his spiritual giftedness.

The Prophet proved himself to be not only a skilled statesman and just ruler but also an effective military leader. For eight years, he together with the newly founded community resisted Meccan attacks. In 8/630 c.e., the Prophet's army dealt the final blow to Meccan military forces and marched triumphantly into Mecca. His commitment to justice as well as mercy provided an opportunity for Meccans to accept the truth of his message of "Islam" or surrender to Allah.

Even while fighting his enemies, Muhammad had gained the allegiance of several other Arabic tribes. His several marriages after the death of Khadijah are in part related to his desire to unite Arabia. His success in bringing together disparate tribes was indeed phenomenal.

Prior to his death in 10/632 c.e., Muhammad made one last journey to Mecca, a religious pilgrimage to the Ka'ba, the site long held sacred by Meccans. In 8/630 c.e., he had removed all idols from the cubicle structure and dedicated it to the one God, Allah. Its existence in Mecca is attributed to Abraham and his son, Ishmael who were the first to worship the one God in Arabia. One corner holds a black stone, perhaps a meteorite, which Muslims believe to be a relic dating from the time of Abraham. Muhammad's pilgrimage proved to be the first Muslim hajj, a practice that today remains a central Muslim commitment. The Prophet as in all other Islamic practices defined the hajj ritual followed by all Muslims who have come after him. Shortly after returning from Mecca, the Prophet fell ill and died in 10/632 c.e.

The Prophet, Muhammad, provides for Muslims the consummate human exemplar of one who has surrendered to Allah. In fact, the practices and customs of the Prophet, know as Sunnah, continue to be imitated by dedicated Muslims. The Sunnah (practices and customs) are accessible primarily through the Hadith an important collection of the Prophet's sayings that are distinct from the revelation that makes up the Qur'an. Islamic scholars verified the authenticity of the sayings through a variety of measures and produced the final written form used by 80% of Muslims in the sixth/ninth century. The Hadith remains an important guide to the Islamic life. Yet it pales in comparison to the Qur'an. The great legacy of the Prophet is his role as Allah's messenger, humbling serving as the mouthpiece of Allah's revelation found in the Qur'an.

Muslims understand the Qur'an to be the "verbatim Word of God."1 Muhammad served only as the vessel of communication; Allah provided the content in structure as well as language. A useful comparison for Christians is that the Qur'an is to Muslims as Jesus the Christ is to Christians. Just as Christians understand Jesus to be an immediate and complete revelation of God in his very person, so Muslims believe the Qur'an to be an immediate and complete revelation of God in the very words encountered on the page.

Among all Muslims, only one version of the Qur'an exists. Shortly after the Prophet's death, his followers wrote the version still used today. Muslims emphasize that there exists a single conduit of the revelation, Muhammad, who dictated not only all revelations found in the Qur'an but also the exact order of their appearance in the Qur'an. This singular "source" [Allah is the true sourcel distinguishes Islam from the other two "religions of the Book," Judaism and Christianity. Both of their sacred texts have multiple sources of witnesses to God's revelation through the Chosen People in the case of Judaism and through Jesus and his disciples in addition to the Chosen People in the case of Christianity.

The Qur'an in fact takes up the important figures of both Judaism and Christianity including Adam, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Jesus, and even Mary, mother of the last great prophet before Muhammad. The revelations given to Muhammad place all of these great figures within the ongoing battle between good and evil which all humans must face. From a Muslim point of view, Muhammad provides the definitive revelations concerning these former prophets' significance and thus is known as the "Seal of the prophets."

The devout Muslim considers every facet of the Qur'an as sacred. The text is divided into sections know as surahs. With the exception of the opening chapter (surah), the text is ordered from the longest surah to the shortest. The language itself provides an important focus of devotion. The only authentic Qur'an is in Arabic, the language of the original revelation. Although one can find translations, a committed Muslim memorizes and recites in the Arabic, the original language that God chose as the means of revelation.

The Muslim who then takes up the text finds a gateway to the divine. The actual written form, the shape of the letters, provides an experience of God's beauty. In fact, calligraphy is a great art form in Islamic cultures. Even more importantly than encountering the written form is recitation aloud. Qur'an means "the Reading," referring to verbal proclamation. Some devout Muslims discover in the very sounds of the text a revelation of God. In fact, the Qur'an should be the first sounds that every Muslim hears at birth and the final sound at death.

Of course, the content remains of paramount importance. For a devout Muslim, even today, the Qur'an contains all knowledge in areas of action, contemplation, and intellectual concerns. It reveals "The Truth," that is, exactly what one needs to know concerning God, Humans, the cosmos, and judgment. The following paragraphs provide a brief summary of each of these topics.

GOD. The nature of God is imparted in the many Names revealed through Muhammad. These Names point to God as both just and merciful. God "is al-Rahman (the Most Merciful), al-Rahim (the Most Compassionate), al-Karim (the Generous), al-Ghafur (the Forgiver) and so on. But [God] is also al-Qahhar (the Victorious), al-Adil (the Just), and al-Mumit (the Giver of Death)."2 These Names represent only a small portion of the ninety-nine Names revealed in the Qur'an and the Hadith. Each one serves as a starting point for contemplation of the infinite reality of God.

HUMANS. Humans stand before God as God's servants and as God's viceregents on earth. In other words, humans are creatures dependent upon God for their very existence including their ability to actively engage and even transform the rest of creation. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam includes in its sacred text (the Qur'an) the story of Adam [and implicitly Eve] who were tempted and fell away from God. Unlike Christianity, Islam does not identify this fall as "original sin" but as an individual moment of disobedience. Each person continually faces similar choices. Humans' tendency to ignore God's presence is identified as a kind of "forgetfulness." Religion calls humans back to God through awaking their deepest nature, (al-fitra). Al-fitra testifies to humans' original unity with Allah as Creator and the cosmos, the rest of creation. "Man" and "woman" have distinct and complementary roles in the world with man having primary responsibility for a family's economic and social stability and the woman having primary responsibility for the nurturing of children and matters of the household. Family and kinship are crucial. Ultimately, humans are called to be passive before God, following the Divine Will, and active and engaged in the world.

COSMOS. Muslims understand all reality to have its origin and end in Allah. "Nature is a book whose ayat (a sign) are to be read like the ayat of the Qur'an and in fact can only be read thanks to the latter for only revelation can unveil the inner meaning of the cosmic text."3 God's presence can be discovered in one's natural surroundings. Even the movement of the sun and moon play a role in ordering a Muslim's life. The sun serves as indicator of times for daily prayer, and the moon's cycle serves as guide in determining months.

JUDGMENT. Every Muslim expects to stand before God who will judge his or her surrender to God. Those who are found wanting will suffer the pangs of hell, a state vividly depicted in the Qur'an. The true Muslim, one who has surrendered to God, will enjoy the comforts of paradise, also depicted in the Qur'an. Muslims also expect the ultimate end of all human history with the coming of a Messiah figure, known as Mahdi. This person will re-establish religion as the dominant force in the world. Muslims also expect Christ to return to Jerusalem, and his return will initiate the Day of Final Judgment.

These basic beliefs are embedded in the Qur'an in ways that invite the Muslim into deep contemplation of Allah and the human's relationship to Allah. The deep impact of the Qur'an on the devout Muslim is evident in word and action. One only has to listen to the Muslim who uses Qur'anic phrases as part of his or her everyday vocabulary. "In a sense, the soul of the Muslim is woven of verses and expressions drawn from the Qur'an. Such expressions, as insh' Allah, "if God wills"; al-hamdu li'Llah, "thanks be to God"' bismi'Llah, "in the Name of God," all used by Arab as well as non-Arab Muslims alike, punctuate the whole of life and determine the texture of the soul of the Muslim."4 The Qur'an provides the Muslim soul a guide for his or life on the Straight Path.
A word that often appears in describing the Islamic way of life is "Unity." The Quranic term for "unity" is the Arabic phrase, al-tawhid. An entire surah (Qur'anic chapter) is dedicated to proclaiming God's oneness. The Unity or Absolute Oneness of God permeates the created order providing a fundamental unity that grounds the world's diversity. Thus, the Muslim may speak of human's original unity with God, the unity within one's self that balances the inner and outer realities of a person's life, and unity in a society under Allah. The way one comes to experience this Unity is by following the Straight Path as revealed in the Qur'an and further explained in the Hadith. While it is up to every individual to follow this Straight Path, Muslims recognize the importance of a community of support. For most Muslims, this community includes the state that abides by and encourages Islamic practices. This section of the overview will examine both individual and societal practices identified with Islam.

As already suggested in the previous section, the central Islamic practices involve the recitation and study of the Qur'an. From a very early age, Muslim children, especially boys, begin the memorization and recitation of surahs from the Qur'an. Muslims who go on to study the Qur'an in a Muslim university can expect to find two academic approaches. One concentrates on the "outer" aspects of the text in terms of language, grammar, sacred history, and theological teaching. The other concentrates on the inner aspects, the mystical or esoteric dimensions, that are revealed to only a few. (We have had two other parallel examples--in Buddhism, the Tibetan tradition, --in Judaism, the cabbalah.) These two approaches are so well established that Muslim scholars have specific designations for them. The outer is "tafsir", and the inner is "ta'wil". While every Muslim learns to recite at least some portions of the Qur'an, not all engage in the in depth study of its outer and inner meanings.

Every Muslim, in addition to recitation of the Qur'an, must also observe certain other specific practices. These practices are known as the Five Pillars of Islam, because the entire tradition rests on these observances. The first duty is the proclamation of the Muslim basic statement of faith, the Muslim "creed," the shahadah. The shahadah proclaims: There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is God's prophet [messenger]." In arabic, la ilaha illa'Llah, wa Muhammad(um) rasul Allah". A Muslim recites this frequently---at significant events such as births, deaths, weddings. More importantly, the shahadah is pronounced daily during the prescribed prayers, know as salat.

Salat is the second pillar of Islam. Muslims are called to prayer five times a day: sunrise, noon, mid-afternoon, dusk, and night. In countries where Muslims are in the majority, the people are called to prayer at the prescribed times. The prayer itself follows a precise pattern that originated with Muhammad. Prayer always begins with a ritual cleansing of the arms, lower half of the face, the legs and feet. Mosques make available running water, but even in the desert Muslims partake in the ritual cleansing, using sand or a stone to signify their preparation for prayer. After preparing themselves, Muslims engage in the seven steps of the salat.

First as in all Muslim prayer, they faced the qiblah, that is, toward the Ka'ba in Mecca, cups their hands around their ears, and speaks the words of praise, "God is Great!" ("Allahu Akabar"). Then the persons falls silent in preparation for the next step. Step 2, "the standing," refers to proclaiming the al-Fatiha, the first surah (chapter) of the Quran.

In the name of Allah, most Gracious, most Merciful

All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds

The most Gracious, the most Merciful.

Lord of the Day of Judgment

You alone we worship

and from You alone we seek help

Guide us on the right path,

the path of those on whom you have bestowed grace,

not of those with whom you have been displeased,

nor those who have gone astray.

The second step ends with the recitation of other verses from the Quran. The third step involves announcing again "Allahu Akabar" while bowing and placing the hands on the knees. In this bent position, those at prayer continue to praise God. During the fourth step, the pray-ers return to standing position and then prostate themselves, kneeling with foreheads touching the ground to indicate that they are Muslims, people who surrender to God's will. The worshippers than raise themselves to a sitting position to enunciate more praise of Allah. This proclamation of praise completes the fifth step. Immediately following these praises, the Muslims at prayer then bow again to touch their foreheads to the ground continuing their praises of God. The last step brings the persons into sitting position where personal prayers are said. Finally each individual turns his or her head to the right and left to greet other pray-ers with the word salam (peace) to end the prayer. This pattern is followed four other times in the day.5

The first two practices of the Five Pillars demand a daily commitment of the Muslim. The next two involve a yearly commitment. The third of the Five Pillars is fasting during the entire month of Ramadan, the month of the first revelation of the Qur'an. The fasting prescribed begins at sunrise and ends with sundown. One is forbidden to eat or drink anything during that period. Even a sip of water is prohibited. The practice combats humans' forgetfulness relative to the Divine reality. (See previous section under "humans.") It also cleanses and disciplines the person striving to remain on the Straight Path.

The fourth is the practice of zakat. The term zakat literally means purification. It actually refers to the practice of giving a percentage of one's wealth back to the community to serve the needs of the poor and the needs of students, travellers, and the sick. The practice originates from verses in the Qur'an and reflect Muhammad's own actions to address injustices in his society.

The fifth of the Pillars is the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is required of each Muslim at least once in his or her life unless finances or other impediments prevent such a journey. The practice is modelled on Muhammad's pilgrimage to Mecca just prior to his death. Like the ritual prayer, the hajj has very distinct stages. Upon arrival at Mecca, the pilgrims change into the prescribed dress to mark their entrance into ihram, a personal sacred space. The men put on a two piece white garment made without seams. Women wear a simple dress and cover their heads. The pilgrims must refrain from all forms of vanity such as shaving or wearing jewelry, from violence, and from sexual involvements. The first stop on the pilgrimage is the Ka'ba, the center of the Islamic universe. Here the pilgrim circles the sacred cubicle seven times. Departing from the Ka'ba, the participants move to a nearby area and run between two points, Safa and Marwa. This run memorializes Hagar's desperate search for water for her son, Ishmael, Abraham's other male child, and the partriarch of the Arabs. The end of the run is a well, called Zam-Zam. Here Hagar found water mercifully provided by God. Pilgrims drink of this water and return home with vials of the water for family and friends. The pilgrims then depart Mecca for Mina, where they spend the night. In the morning, they all go to the plains of Arafat for a day of prayer called the "Standing" since all participants remain standing as long as possible. At sunset, people travel to an area between Mina and the plains called Muzdalifah. Here they sleep. In the morning they return to Mina where they throw stones at three pillars--the action demonstrates their rejection of evil. The pigrimage ends with a sacrifice of a goat or sheep recalling Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. The pilgrims leave the state of ihram (sacredness) by circling the Ka'ba once again seven times. They then retreat to another spot in the same courtyard as the Ka'ba, known as "the Place of Abraham," for a final act of worship.6

All of these practices reflect jihad which means exertion. Though in contemporary culture jihad is associated with militant actions by Islamic factions or Islamic states, the term has other more spiritual meanings. Muhammad himself noted that the lesser jihad is the military actions, exertion on behalf of a just social order, and the greater jihad is the internal effort which each individual must exert to remain on the Straight Path.

The preceding emphasis on the individual's commitment to Islam must be placed within the context of the Muslim's commitment to the wider Islamic community, the Ummah, usually translated as "Brotherhood." Muhammad himself set the example in Medina where the entire social order reflected the ways of Islam. If one accepts that all reality is dependent upon the absolute Unity of God, then it would naturally follow that the state exists in this same relationship of dependency. Muhammad made very clear, however, that Islamic rulers had no right to force people's adherence to Islam. He committed himself to this position because of God's revelation now found in the Qur'an.

Individuals who do commit themselves to Islam within an Islamic community or state also commit themselves to a whole compendium of laws based upon the Qur'an and the Hadith. This collection of laws, known as Shari'ah, consists of two major divisions, laws pertaining to worship, and laws pertaining to transactions (social interactions). References made to Islamic law or Islamic courts in contemporary news concerns a Muslim's adherence to Shiri'ah. The word itself comes from the shr which means road. The Shiri'ah, therefore, lays out "the Straight Path" for the Muslim in his or her journey with Allah. The Islamic jurists (like lawyers who apply the laws to particular situations) have identified five types of laws: the required like salat, the recommended like charity, the indifferent like how one exercises, the condemned but not forbidden like divorce, and the prohibited like eating pork.7

All Muslims follow the Straight Path as described in all the preceding discussion. Yet there do exist real divisions within Islam dating back to the time of Muhammad's death. The major division arose because of a disagreement over who should succeed Muhammad. One group identified Muhammad's faithful companion, Abu Bakr, as the logical successor. Another faction argued that Muhammad had appointed his son-in-law, Ali, to be his successor. At a deeper level, the central issue concerned the type of person who should succeed Muhammad.

The followers of Ali argued that the leader must not only enforce Islamic law and maintain social order but also interpret the Qur'an in its external and internal reform. These followers became known as Shi'ites which literally means "follower." Their leader know as imam (meaning "leader") serves as religious guide and ruler of the state. Shi'ites compose about 12% of the population, and live throughout Middle Eastern countries. The most visible Shi'ite presence is in Iran, where under the spiritual guidance of the Ayotollah Khomeni, Shi'ites overthrew the aristocracy and continue to rule to this day. (Ayotollah is a title that indicates the person represents the "hidden imam," a Mahdi (Messiah) figure who will appear in the end times.) Strong mystical elements underlie much of Shi'ite theology and interpretation of the Shari'ah

The majority of Muslims fall under the designation, Sunni, which refers to their focus upon following the Sunnah (the actions of Muhammad). Sunni Muslims compose about 88% of the Islamic population and are noted for their extensive work on applying the Shiri'ah to new situations that arise in Muslim society. Many notable philosophers and theologians have arisen among the Sunnis. Islam, in fact, has inspired rich and varied cultures readily apparent in exquisite calligraphic art as well as elegant architecture. Besides its legal and philosophical traditions, Islam has also enriched the world's mathematical and astronomical knowledge. The rich culture, the ancient social practices, the deep commitment of individual Muslims explains in part the tensions felt when the West attempts to transform an Islamic nation according to its culture and social practices. The tensions will continue as Islam like the rest of the global community enters the twenty first century in search of unity.

1 . See "Islam" by Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Our Religions, Arvind Sharma, ed. (HarpersCollins, 1993), p. 445 ff.

2 . "Islam," by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p. 458.

3 . "Islam," by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p. 462.

4 . "Islam," by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p. 446.

5 . Adapted from The Religious World. Richard C. Bush, et. al., eds. (MacMillan, 1993 edition), pp. 375-376.

66 . Adapted from Religious World, pp. 378-381.

77Adapted from "Islam," by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p. 465.

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