Islam is one of the world’s most popular religions, but it’s also among the most complex and misunderstood faith systems. This fact remains, despite its prominence in terms of the number of adherents and its prevalence in mainstream news media. When considering an overall analysis, there are a wide variety of reasons why the Muslim faith is so difficult to pin down.
To begin, political events (September 11 and international terror incidents) have helped to color the public’s sometimes negative perception of the faith. As a result, there’s an overwhelming tendency to view the Muslim religion as a singular entity — however, this oversimplifies the dynamics both within and surrounding the faith.
Considering Islam’s wide reach into diverse territories, there are a multitude of traditions, beliefs and customs that can be found within the Muslim umbrella. Many times, media report about the Islamic faith as though it is overwhelmingly linear. But, like many other religious traditions, the customs and practices that are undertaken by adherents greatly differ — as do the interpretations of its central commandments.
Operating as though all Muslims are coequal in terms of theology and outward expression is akin to claiming that all Protestants and Catholics believe in the same worship mechanisms and doctrine. Just as there are multiple denominations within the Christian and Jewish realm, so are there in the Islamic sphere.
Exploring the Muslim faith, then, can’t be done using a cookie-cutter approach. One must contextualize and consider all of the attributes that lead to the multitude of interpretations that exist within the religious structure.
After all, context is key. This is the same ideological construct one would use when exploring differing Christian ideals. There are specific historical and cultural happenings that led to different Christ-centric denominations. This is the same ideal governing Islam. While the majority of Muslims are people who would never subscribe to violence to advance a cause, many groups and, subsequently, individuals who embrace more radical interpretations of the faith would — and, in fact, do use horrific tactics.
Today, 1.6 billion individuals around the world call themselves Muslims (23.4 percent of the overall global population). The BBC has a list that helps to frame the faith’s central components in some quick-and-easy bullet points:
- Muslims believe that Islam was revealed over 1400 years ago in Mecca, Arabia.
- Followers of Islam are called Muslims.
- Muslims believe that there is only One God.
- The Arabic word for God is Allah.
- According to Muslims, God sent a number of prophets to mankind to teach them how to live according to His law.
- Jesus, Moses and Abraham are respected as prophets of God.
- They believe that the final Prophet was Muhammad.
- Muslims believe that Islam has always existed, but for practical purposes, date their religion from the time of the migration of Muhammad.
- Muslims base their laws on their holy book the Qur’an, and the Sunnah.
- Muslims believe the Sunnah is the practical example of Prophet Muhammad and that there are five basic Pillars of Islam.
- These pillars are the declaration of faith, praying five times a day, giving money to charity, fasting and a pilgrimage to Mecca (atleast once).
We will be exploring many of these sentiments, but, to begin, let’s take a look at a brief history of Islam.
THE HISTORY OF ISLAM
“Islam,” which means ”acceptance,” “surrender,” “submission,” or “commitment” in Arabic, can be traced back to Muhammad’s birth around 570 A.D. At the time of the prophet’s emergence, the Arabian Peninsula was overwhelmingly animistic and polytheistic, but the presence of this leader in the region changed that dynamic (Christian and Jewish sects did reside in the region, although they comprised a minority of the people).
Considering that Christians and Jews were already present, it’s interesting to note that this third monotheistic religion was created and caught on so feverishly. When one understands the context, it becomes clear why Muhammad launched the Islamic faith. Feeling as though the scriptures governing the faiths that preceded Islam had gone astray and were corrupted, Muhammad contended (or Muslims, at the least, now believ)e, that he was called as the final prophet to correct the record of theology.
The true founding of the faith can be traced back to the “Night of Power,” a pivotal event during which Muhammad was given a vision by God. The faith leader went to the caves of Mount Hira near Mecca, where he sought to meditate and perform vigils, Patheos writes. It was there that the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him and allegedly commanded him to “recite” in the name of God, at one point choking the prophet until he complied.
This event apparently launched the faith, as Muhammad began teaching his followers after it unfolded. The vision purportedly occurred around 610 A.D. (when he was 40) and the faith leader is said to have continued receiving revelations until 632 A.D., when he died.
THE KORAN & THE HADITH
The central holy book in Islam is the Koran (also: Quran, meaning “recitation”) — considered so sacred that it is sometimes hung from the ceiling or placed at the top of a book shelf (so that no other book is centered above it). Unlike the Bible, which Christians read and study intensely, the Koran is said to be best communicated when it is orally presented.
Interestingly, the only time the book is considered legitimate and in its true form is when it is delivered in Arabic; all other translations are considered subpar. In fact, any non-Arabic version of the Koran is considered only an interpretation and is not revered as God’s literal commentary to humanity. However, the book has been translated into every language and, since most Muslims live outside of the Middle East, it’s likely that many people are reading the non-Arabic versions.
The history of how the book came to be is a fascinating one. While the Bible is reliant upon Jesus’ own words (Christ, being part of the Trinity and, thus, a portion of the Almighty), the Koran documents God’s words purportedly being spoken and delivered through Muhammad. These “revelations” that came through the prophet were originally orally recited and then codified in a more complete form following the prophet’s death. Patheos has more on the history:
The Quran contains a record of the revelations recited by the prophet Muhammad over a period of approximately twenty-two years in piecemeal, from 610 to 632. Muhammad commissioned scribes to record the revelations in writing, and at the time of his death, a number of his followers had memorized the entire text. As Muhammad’s followers began to die, the community became concerned that variations on the revelations would proliferate, and the original, authentic revelation would become obscured. Work began on producing an authoritative version, starting with the time-consuming task of gathering all the revelations from both written and oral sources. Muhammad’s wives, companions, and scribes all owned partial versions. The challenge was to correlate all the partial versions, decide between variations, and produce an authoritative version. Under Uthman, the third caliph, a team of scholars led by one of Muhammad’s companions completed the task by around 650.
The book has 115 chapters, which are called “surahs.” Like Biblical chapters, these surahs contain between three and 286 verses each. Similar to many Christians who believe that the Bible is the direct and perfect word of God, so do Muslims view the Koran as the literal word of Allah (but, again, only the Arabic version). Thus, the original version of the book exists either in heaven or in the mind of the Lord.
While the Koran is the only official Islamic holy book when it comes to exploring life matters, adherents also look to the hadith, a record of Muhammad’s traditions and sayings. The hadith is the basis for religious law and moral guidance and, though it comes second to the Koran, it is extremely important in Muslim societies. The University of Georgia explains the important social and legal regulatory structures presented in it:
A hadith is a saying of Muhammad or a report about something he did. Over time, during the first few centuries of Islam, it became obvious that many so-called hadith were in fact spurious sayings that had been fabricated for various motives, at best to encourage believers to act righteously and at worse to corrupt believers’ understanding of Islam and to lead them astray. Since Islamic legal scholars were utilizing hadith as an adjunct to the Qur’an in their development of the Islamic legal system, it became critically important to have reliable collections of hadith.While the early collections of hadith often contained hadith that were of questionable origin, gradually collections of authenticated hadith called sahih (lit. true, correct) were compiled. Such collections were made possible by the development of the science of hadith criticism, a science at the basis of which was a critical analysis of the chain of (oral) transmission (isnad) of the hadith going all the way back to Muhammad. The two most highly respected collections of hadith are the authenticated collections the Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. (Sahih literally means “correct, true, valid, or sound.”)In addition to these, four other collections came to be well-respected, although not to the degree of Bukhari and Muslim’s sahih collections. These four other collections are the Sunan of Tirmidhi, Nasa’i, Ibn Majah, and Abu Da’ud. Together these four and the two sahih collections are called the “six books” (al-kutub al-sitta). Two other important collections, in particular, are the Muwatta of Ibn Malik, the founder of the Maliki school of law, and the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the founder of the Hanbali school of law.
The hadith are the basis of shariah (political and religious law). Unlike the Koran, which — as a reminder — focuses upon God’s alleged words, the hadith delve into Muhammad’s statements, deeds and other important information about the time during which Islam was founded. Since, as Patheos notes, Muhammad is the model Muslim, the hadith allow contemporary believers to study his ways in an effort to learn how they can mimic his behaviors.
FIVE PILLARS OF THE ISLAMIC FAITH
When examining Islam, there are five pillars — or five core beliefs — that are generally embraced by believers. The first pillar is the profession of faith, called the “shahadah.” This belief contains two central components. According to Beliefnet it reads, ”There is no deity but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.” This is a phrase that some believers recite throughout the day to remind themselves of God’s importance.
Then, there’s “salah,” or “ritual worship.” Adherents pray five times per day (at dawn, midday, afternoon, evening and night). The third pillar is “zakah” or the giving of alms. Muslims are required to give a portion of their wealth — generally 2.5 percent — to help the poor.
Fasting (“sawn”), too, is one of the Islamic faith’s central tenets. During Ramadan, Beliefnet explains that Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, sexual activity and smoking from dawn to sunset. About.com has more about Ramadan:
Muslims are called upon to use this month to re-evaluate their lives in light of Islamic guidance. We are to make peace with those who have wronged us, strengthen ties with family and friends, do away with bad habits — essentially to clean up our lives, our thoughts, and our feelings. The Arabic word for “fasting” (sawm) literally means “to refrain” – and it means not only refraining from food and drink, but from evil actions, thoughts, and words.During Ramadan, every part of the body must be restrained. The tongue must be restrained from backbiting and gossip. The eyes must restrain themselves from looking at unlawful things. The hand must not touch or take anything that does not belong to it. The ears must refrain from listening to idle talk or obscene words. The feet must refrain from going to sinful places. In such a way, every part of the body observes the fast.
The fifth and final pillar is the “hajj,” also known as the Pilgrimage to Mecca. If people have the ability and means, they are required to travel to the holy city at least one time during their lives.
Considering context, there are different methods of observing the Islamic faith. As a result, not every Muslim would potentially practice all of these ideals. However, the five pillars are among the most common Islamic practices.
In the post-9/11 world, “jihad” has become one of the most commonly-discussed sentiments associated with the Muslim faith. While some Americans may assume that the meaning of the word is entirely based upon the need for Muslims to use violence to spread their faith, reality paints a different picture. Beliefnet explains:
In Islam, struggle “in the path of God” or to “make God’s cause succeed” (Qur’an 9:40). In the Qur’an, jihad is connected with the imperative to command good and forbid evil (3:104, 110), especially with reference to the struggle of believers against persecution and idolatry.
Patheos adds to this definition, placing a focus on an internal battle that is associated with the word. On the web site’s online glossary, it defines “jihad” as follows: “An important theme in Islamic spirituality stressing the battling against one’s own inner negative tendencies.” However, the word has also come to be known as a tool and catalyst for war. Dictionary.com adds this description: “A holy war against infidels undertaken by Muslims in defense of the Islamic faith.”
The BBC attempts to summarize the three main meanings that jihad has for most Muslims (it is the third point that ends up, among more radical groups, being a problematic catalyst for international and domestic furor):
- A believer’s internal struggle to live out the Muslim faith as well as possible
- The struggle to build a good Muslim society
- Holy war: the struggle to defend Islam, with force if necessary
BBC also notes that it is not incorrect to associate this last point — the holy war factor — with jihad. The outlet continues, highlighting some of the debate surrounding how Muhammad allegedly framed the “greater” and the “lesser” jihad:
The Prophet is said to have called the internal Jihad the “greater Jihad”.On his return from a battle, the Prophet said: “We are finished with the lesser jihad; now we are starting the greater jihad.” He explained to his followers that fighting against an outer enemy is the lesser jihad and fighting against one’s self is the greater jihad (holy war).This quotation is regarded as unreliable by some scholars. They regard the use of jihad as meaning ‘holy war’ as the more important.However the quotation has been very influential among some Muslims, particularly Sufis.
While jihad is certainly associated with Islam’s theology, it becomes problematic when radical groups take the commandment in a literal form and subsequently use it to launch attacks across the globe. While some believe that Islam breeds violence, others argue these violent groups often operate in a contradictory manner to what the Islamic faith would technically allow.
For instance, the BBC reports that, under Islamic regulations, war should only be conducted in self-defense, when other nations have waged an attack on a Muslim state or when another state is going after its own Muslim population. Also, there are apparent guidelines for how war should be carried out if, and when, it’s appropriate.
BBC claims it should be done “in a disciplined way.” Additionally, it should avoid injuring “non-combatants.” Also, attacks should be conducted with minimum force, without anger and with humane treatment towards captured peoples. Obviously, these sentiments fall on deaf ears when considering the al-Qaeda’s tactics, among other militant groups’ exploits.
Technically, the so called “lesser jihad” shouldn’t be used to convert others to the faith, to colonize other countries, to capture land for merely economic reasons or to showcase the extent of a leader’s power.
Jihad, contrary to popular belief, is not considered one of the faith system’s five pillars.
SALVATION, SIN & THE AFTERLIFE
For many Christians, salvation is something that is attained in the afterlife when an individual accepts Jesus Christ as both God’s son and the savior of mankind. In addition to accepting this belief, one would generally also need to live in accordance to Jesus’ words and Biblical tenets. In Islam, salvation takes on a bit of a different meaning.
Patheos points out that Muslims believe in the Day of Judgement, heaven and hell. These sentiments are also embraced by Christians. But the salvation portion is radically different. Muslims view Christ as one of the prophets — not the son of God. Adherents generally believe that heaven and hell is dependent upon the degree to which an individual acts in accordance to God’s desires and will (mainly, whether a person treated others with justice and mercy).
If a person lives in accordance to the revelations that came through the Islamic prophets, then he or she will likely enter heaven; if not, then hell (a place called “Jahannam”) may be a more fitting reality for this individual (however, some people who do evil can still, according to Patheos, potentially make their way into heaven).
Unlike Christians, who have Jesus as an intercessor, Muslims tackle sin in a very different way. In Islam, people are viewed as being born without sin. This is to say that they are holy and pure and, as they develop and experience life, that’s when the opportunity to make mistakes presents itself. While Christians embrace the notion of Adam’s original sin being passed on to future generations, in Islam, mankind’s first sin wasn’t contagious. Patheos has more:
Islam does not teach that humans need intercession, although some traditions have allowed that Muhammad might intercede with God on humanity’s behalf. No one can know God, but at the same time, no one stands between the individual Muslim and God. If individuals find that they have sinned, they may sincerely apologize, and through remorse, receive forgiveness. The slate is clean, and they may begin again. This will likely happen many times in a life, because humans are not perfect. But on the Last Day [of Judgement], there are no excuses. God has sent many prophets to remind humans of their duty and to wake them up when they forget their dependence on God. As a result, the punishment on the Last Day is just.
So, the most radical differences between the Christian and the Islamic faiths is the method through which salvation is attained and the obvious fact that Jesus, in Islamic text and theology, is merely a prophet and not the son of God.
Studying Islam isn’t a simple task, particularly in today’s world, where the faith is so intimately attached to emotionally-charged political events. Perhaps the most important element to remember is that, like any faith, there are a multitude of interpretations associated with Islam. Context, specifically culture and geographic location, plays a key role in shaping how Muslims practice, observe and view their faith.
Unfortunately, there are a plethora of radicalized sects who take the “lesser jihad” to mean that they must murder, pillage and use destruction to force conversions and to destroy seemingly negative influences — particularly the West and Israel. Because of this dynamic, Islam has become a political tool and, in many cases, a distrusted religious entity.
But, as we will continue to explore, the complicated nature of the situation requires a fair and balanced look at the religion’s central tenets and of the many groups that comprise it.