We study different religious faiths in order to understand other people. Many people have strong religious convictions, and it would be impossible to understand them without first understanding their beliefs.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are monotheistic faiths practiced by about half of the world’s population. Monotheism refers to the belief in one God. The faiths are often called western religions to distinguish them from the eastern religions practiced primarily in Asia. Believers in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are found on every populated continent, but tend to be concentrated in North and South America, Europe, Australia, Western Asia and North Africa. Christianity and Islam are growing influences in sub-Saharan Africa, often replacing indigenous faiths.
While western religions are centered on the belief in one God, many believers of eastern religions seek to find enlightenment by looking within themselves. Hinduism and Buddhism are popular faiths in India, Southeast Asia, and Japan. Shinto is the traditional religion of many Japanese people, but the practice of Shintoism has declined since Japan’s defeat in World War II. Since becoming a communist nation in 1949, China has discouraged religion. Many people in China practice the teachings of Confucius. Confucius was not a religious leader, but he was a wise man who was concerned with how people treated one another. Taoism is another philosophy centered in China.
Indigenous religions are practiced throughout the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Indigenous faiths are often animistic. Animism is the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself possess souls or consciousness. This is similar to the traditional beliefs of the Native Americans in North and South America.
People are often mistreated for their beliefs. In the last century as many as six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Religious conflicts persist in Ireland, the Middle East and in many other parts of the world. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 are likely the result of religious conflicts. By understanding one another, we can hope to develop tolerance and respect for all people.
Judaism is the oldest religion of the western world and has influenced Christianity and Islam. There are approximately fifteen million Jews throughout the world.
The Hebrews were the ancestors of the Jewish people and trace their ancestry to Abraham, who left his home in the Mesopotamian city of Ur about 2200bc. The Hebrews were different from others of their time because they were monotheistic; they believed in only one God. The Hebrews believed they had a special relationship with their God and that they were his chosen people.
The Star of David
The most recognized symbol of Judaism is the six pointed Star of David. Jewish legend says that a Hebrew king named David went into battle with the hexagram on his shield. Later, when Jews were minorities in Christian and Muslim nations, they were forced to wear the star on their clothing to identify themselves.
Today you will see the hexagram used to identify synagogues and Jewish organizations. The symbol that was once used to separate Jews from the rest of society is now flown on the flag of Judaism’s homeland, Israel.
T he Hebrews established a nation they called Israel on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. About 1300bce, many Hebrews moved to Egypt to escape a famine. A famine is a great hunger. At first, the Hebrews were treated well in Egypt, but in time they were enslaved by the Egyptians. According to Hebrew tradition, God sent ten deadly plagues to Egypt when the Egyptians would not release the Hebrew slaves. When the Hebrews did escape, tradition states that Moses, the leader of the Hebrews, parted the Red Sea for just enough time to allow the Hebrews to pass. Once the Hebrews reached the other side, tradition states that the waters returned and the Egyptian army drowned. After their escape across the Red Sea 1250bce, God revealed Ten Commandments to Moses. The Ten Commandments formed the basis of Mosaic Law and are the model for both Jewish and Christian moral thought.
The Hebrews returned to Israel, but they were conquered by several other cultures. In time, most of the Hebrews were forced to leave Israel, beginning a period known as the Diaspora. The Hebrews were forced to live as minorities in many different lands until the creation of the Jewish nation of Israel in 1948.
Jewish people have often faced severe mistreatment. European Jews were ordered to leave Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, and faced organized massacres called pogroms in many nations, particularly in Eastern Europe. In this century, as many as six million Jews were murdered in what we now call the Holocaust, where the Nazi party in Germany attempted genocide, or the planned killing of a whole group of people because of their religion or nationality.
Jews worship in synagogues led by a rabbi. Rabbi is a Hebrew word that means “master.” Their holiest period is the weekly Shabbat, which lasts from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. Other important Jewish holidays include Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (a Day of Atonement or confession), Simchat Torah (celebrating receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai), Chanukah (a celebration of a military victory), and Passover (a remembrance of the time the Hebrews lived in Egypt).
The Torah is the most holy book of Judaism. The Torah is also holy to Christians, who include it as the Old Testament of their Bible. The Talmud is another holy book in Judaism. The Talmud is a collection of the laws and customs of the Jewish people.
Most Jews live in the United States (5.8 million) and Israel (4.8 million). Europe was once home to millions of Jewish people, but most of the survivors of the Holocaust immigrated to other nations. Today only 2.3 million Jews remain in Europe.
Christians and the Cross
Christians believe that Jesus Christ was both a man and the son of God. They believe God sent Jesus as a messiah, or messenger. The Roman governor of Palestine executed Jesus by nailing him to a cross.
Today the cross is Christianity’s most important icon. Most Christians have crosses in and on top of their churches. Some Christians wear a cross as a necklace. The cross symbolizes a Christian’s connection with Jesus.
Christianity is based of the teachings of Jesus Christ, a Jew who lived about 2000 years ago in what we now call Israel. Jesus taught his followers to "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
The followers of Jesus called him Christ. Christ is a Greek word that means, “chosen one.” They believed he was the son of God. In time followers of Jesus became known as Christians. Early Christians taught that the sins of the people would be forgiven if they became Christian.
Some years after Jesus died, Christians combined the stories of the life and wisdom of Jesus into four books known as the Gospels. Gospel means “good news.” The holy book of Christianity is known as the Bible and has two parts. The Old Testament consists of the sacred writings of the Jewish people, and was written mostly in Hebrew long before Jesus. The New Testament of the Bible includes the Gospels, along with letters by Christian writers. The Bible has been translated into more than 1,500 languages and has been read by more people than any other book.
Almost two billion Christians live on every continent. They comprise the majority of people living in the United States and Canada (86%), Latin America (92%), Europe (76%) and Australia (85%). Christianity is also the most prevalent faith in Africa (48%). Christianity is a dominant force on every continent but Asia (9%). Most of the world’s population is in Asia, so only one-third of the world's population is Christian.
Christianity is divided into many sects. About half of the world’s Christian population is Roman Catholic. Pope John Paul II is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic is a Latin word that means “universal,” and at one time it was the faith of almost all Christians. Roman refers to the fact that the Pope has lived in Rome for over five hundred years. Most Christians in Eastern Europe belong to Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Orthodox churches split with the Roman church in the Middle Ages. Many European leaders, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, protested against the Pope in a period known as the Reformation. The churches they started became known as Protestant sects. Major Protestant sects in America today are the Baptists (34 million), Methodists (13 million), Lutherans (8 million), Presbyterians (4 million), Episcopalians (2.5 million), and Pentecostals (2.4 million).
Christians worship in churches led by ministers and priests. Most Christians practice acts of religious significance called sacraments. The sacraments include baptism, when a Christian joins the church; confirmation, when a Christian confirms his or her faith; and matrimony. The Eucharist is the holiest of Christian sacraments in many Christian churches. During the service, members of a church will eat a small wafer of bread. Christian tradition states that at the Last Supper before his execution, Jesus asked his followers to think of the meal as the body and blood he would soon sacrifice.
Christian holy days include Christmas (the birth of Jesus), Easter (when Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven), and Lent, a forty-day holy period of penitence and self-denial.
How Do You Spell That?
The Quran is spelled many different ways because it is an Arabic word. Arabic is written in a different script than English. The generally accepted spelling for the Quran is with a 'Q' to represent the glottal 'K' sound. You will often see the holy book of Islam spelled Qur’ran or Koran.
Many words associated with Islam have more than one accepted spelling. Muslim is more common than Moslem, and Mohammad is more common than Muhammad.
Islam is an Arabic word that means “surrender to God.” Believers in Islam are called Muslims, or “those who surrender." Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last of a series of holy prophets that included Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. A prophet is a holy messenger. Christians believe that Jesus is God, while Muslims believe Allah is the only God and that Muhammad was his messenger. Allah is an Arabic term that means "the God" (al-El).
Muhammad lived about 600 years after Jesus in what we now call Saudi Arabia. Muslims believe that Muhammad was visited in a cave by an angel. Muhammad repeated the words of the angel to others who learned them by heart. Eventually, Mohammad's followers collected these messages and gathered them into a book known as the Quran. The Quran is the holy book of Islam. It has been translated into many languages, but many Muslims believe that the only true version of the Quran is written in Arabic. This is why Arabic spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Often Muslims will learn Arabic as a second language, as a Jew would learn Hebrew.
The crescent, star, and the color green are symbols often associated with Islam. The star represents knowledge and light, and the crescent represents progress. You will find these symbols on the flags of many Muslim nations.
Islamic art includes calligraphy, or decorative penmanship, but no images of people. The Quran forbids recreating any living thing because no one should copy what Allah has made. This is why you will not find a picture of Muhammad in Islamic literature.
The Islamic house of worship is a mosque. Unlike Jews and Christians, Muslims do not have a holy day, but many Muslims gather in mosques on Friday afternoon for prayers. Muhammad taught that believers should pray five times every day. Faithful Muslims will stop whatever they are doing and bow down to pray.
Mecca is a holy city to Muslims because it is the site of the Kaaba, a small shrine that Muslims believe to be the most sacred spot on earth. Muslims orient themselves toward the Kaaba during their daily prayers. Every Muslim who makes the pilgrimage to Mecca walks around the Kaaba seven times. Islamic tradition states that the stone was originally white, but it had become black by absorbing the sins of the millions of pilgrims who have kissed and touched it.
Ramadan is a sacred month to Muslims, and faithful Muslims fast between dawn and dusk during Ramadan. To fast means to abstain from eating. Ramadan is sacred because it is the month in which the Quran was revealed to Muhammad. Muslims use a lunar calendar, so Ramadan falls at different times each year. Ramadan will begin November 17, 2001.
There are more than one billion Muslims, but only five million live in the United States. Nations with large Muslim populations include Indonesia (180 million), Pakistan (125 million), Bangladesh (109 million), India (84 million), Iran (66 million), Egypt (60 million), Turkey (60 million), Nigeria (52 million), Algeria (29 million), Morocco (29 million), Ethiopia (24 million), Sudan (22 million), Afghanistan (22 million), Iraq (20 million) and Saudi Arabia (19 million). Russia also has a large Muslim population, but estimates on its size vary.
The following is from the Revised Standard Version of the Christian Bible.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other Gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.
-Exodus 20: 2-17
The Teaching of the Quran The following translations from the Quran help define Islam for the non-Muslim. Many Muslims believe that the only true version of the Quran is written in Arabic, and that the word of Allah is lost when translated into another language. There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger. Muhammad is only a messenger, and many messengers have gone before him.
Pay homage to Allah and be good to your parents and relatives, the orphans and the needy and the neighbors who are your relatives, and the neighbors who are your strangers and the friend by your side, the traveler and your servants.
Give in charity what is good of the things you have earned, and of what you produce; do not choose to give what is bad as donations, that is, things you would not accept yourself.
It is good to give donations openly, but it is better to give to the poor in secret.
Be good to your parents. Look after them with kindness and respect.
Give full measure when you are measuring, and weigh with a balanced scale.
You may dislike something even if it is good for you, but other things that please you may be bad for you.
Allah is with those who preserve themselves from evil and do right.
The Five Pillars of Islam Shahada – The expression of faith. “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”
Salat – Muslims pray five times every day—dawn, midday, late afternoon, sunset, and at night. Muslims always face toward the holy city of Mecca.
Zakat – Muslims give a portion of their income to the poor and to public charities.
Sawm – Muslims do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan. Ramadan is the holy month when the Quran was revealed to Muhammad.
Hajj – If they are in good health and can afford it, Muslims are expected to journey to Mecca once in their lifetime.
1997-2001 Mike Dowling, www.mrdowling.com. All rights reserved. Page of 4