Your Neighbors, the Muslims
Islam is the third of the great monotheistic religions that trace their ancestry back to Abraham, the other two being Judaism and Christianity. Next to Christianity, Islam is the largest world religion, with 1.8 billion adherents. For the last hundred years or so, it has been the fastest-growing world religion with majority populations in 56 of the 195 countries recognized by the United Nations. Significant Islamic minorities also exist in Europe and North America.
The origins of Islam, which means “submission to the will of God,” go back to the Prophet Muhammad (571–632), who was born into the most prominent and powerful tribe in Mecca, the Quraysh. Mecca, a trading town in Arabia, had an ancient shrine called Ka‘bah, containing images of many gods. Today, it houses fragments of the famous Black Stone, the origin of which, according to various Islamic legends, goes back to Adam and Eve.
Because Muhammad was orphaned at an early age, he was brought up first by his grandfather and then by his uncle, Abu Talib. As he grew up, he often accompanied Meccan caravans to Syria and Mesopotamia. In time, Muhammad became the business manager for the caravans of the wealthy widow Khadija, whom he eventually married. Being a religiously inclined person, Muhammad frequently retreated to a cave outside of Mecca to meditate on the meaning of life.
Around 610, on a night that Muslims call the “Night of Power and Excellence,” Muhammad the caravan leader became “Muhammad the Messenger of God.” He heard a voice commanding “Recite.” When he asked what to recite, the angel Gabriel appeared before him and commanded him to recite the first lines of Surah 96 of the Qur’an: “Proclaim in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created man, out of a clot of congealed blood: Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful—He Who taught . . . man that which he knew not” (Surah 96:1–5). Gabriel also told him that he was to be the messenger of God.
For the next 22 years, until he died, Muhammad received further revelations that affirmed the power and mercy of the one God—Allah. He denounced idolatry, called on people to live uprightly, and warned of the coming judgment. These messages were later compiled in the Qur’an.
About 20 years after Muhammad’s death in 632, the Muslim community split into Sunni and Shia factions. Sunni Muslims adopted the belief that the leadership should go to the most qualified person. The prophet’s companions selected Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s close companion and trusted advisor to be the first caliph (632–634). Shia Muslims believed that succession should be hereditary within the prophet’s family; consequently, they were happy when after the death of the third caliph, the companions chose ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s first cousin and son-in-law, to be the fourth caliph (656-661). Since Ali’s death in 661, his descendants have led Shia Muslims. Today, about 85 percent of Muslims are Sunni, and 15 percent are Shia. In living out their faith, Sunni Muslims rely primarily on the Sunna, the record of the teachings and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, while Shia Muslims rely more heavily on their ayatollahs, whom they see as a sign of God on earth.
The Qur’an is the central religious text of Islam, which Muslims believe to be a revelation from Allah to Muhammad, who dictated the revelations to others. It is widely regarded as the finest work in classical Arabic literature. Therefore, it can be fully experienced only in Arabic. While most Muslims do not speak Arabic, they learn to pray in Arabic, and they understand the call to prayer and the chanting in Arabic.
Slightly shorter than the New Testament, the Qur’an is organized in 114 chapters (Suras) and about 6,000 verses called ayat. It is compiled not according to chronology or subject matter, but according to the length of the Suras, with the shorter chapters at the end. Most Suras begin with the invocation “In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the most Merciful.” The Qur’an contains theological passages, laws, narratives, and poetic imagery. It emphasizes that God can forgive anything if a person genuinely repents and seeks mercy. The only unforgivable sin is shirk (“sharing”), which denotes putting something else on the level with Allah. This means not just other deities, but also money, power, or fame.
The Qur’an also contains specific rules that need to be followed. For example, the Qur’an forbids the drinking of alcohol and the eating of pork or meat that is not slaughtered in a ritually required way, similar to Judaism. While women have some legal rights in regard to inheritance and divorce, the Qur’an states: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means” (Surah 4:34a).” Therefore, a man can banish wives, refuse to share their beds, and beat them (lightly)” (Surah 4:34b). Although a man can have four wives, most Muslims today are monogamous. Poverty and social justice are also prominent themes in the Qur’an (Surah 2:177; 70:24, 25).
The Qur’an stresses pluralism and tolerance. “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Surah 2:256a). Jews and Christians are regarded as “People of the Book!” (Surah 5:19a) who have also received a revelation and Scripture from God (Injeel [“Gospel”] refers to both Old Testament and New Testament). “On them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (Surah 5:69).
Besides the Qur’an, the words and actions of the prophet, known as Sunna, were passed down orally before being collected in the Hadith (“news, story”). It constitutes the major source of guidance for Muslims apart from the Qur’an.
The Five Pillars of Islam
The unifying factors for Muslims are a set of beliefs and practices, obligatory for all believers. At the top of the list are the five pillars of Islam:
1. The first pillar is the declaration of faith (the Shahadah), “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger.” This affirms Islam’s absolute monotheism, there is only one God and His name is Allah. To become a Muslim, one needs only to make this confession of faith.
2. The second pillar of Islam is prayer (Salat). The ideal is to pray five times during the day: at daybreak, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening. The prayers consist of recitations from the Qur’an in Arabic, accompanied by standing, bowing, kneeling, touching the ground with one’s forehead, and sitting. While one can pray alone, it is considered more meritorious to pray with others, demonstrating brotherhood and equality. When praying, Muslims face Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, which houses the Ka‘bah (the house of God, believed to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael). On Fridays, the noon prayer is a congregational prayer in a mosque.
3. The third pillar is “almsgiving” (Zakat, which means “giving charity to the poor”). Muslims are expected to give annually around 2.5 percent of their wealth, not just of their annual income. It is an obligation to support the needs of the poor, the widows and orphans, and Islam.
4. The fourth pillar is the fast (Sawm) during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, in which Muhammad received his first revelation. Because Muslims use a lunar calendar, consisting of 12 lunar months with 29 or 30 days, Ramadan varies through the solar year and is each year at a different date. During Ramadan, adult Muslims, except the sick, abstain from food, drink, and sex from dawn to sunset. It is a discipline intended to stimulate religious reflection on human frailty and dependence on God. Ramadan ends with the biggest holiday (one to three days) of the Islamic year, called Eid al-Fitr. It resembles Christmas in its religious celebration and gift-giving.
5. The fifth pillar of Islam is the “pilgrimage” (Hajj) to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which all Muslims, who are physically and financially able, are expected to make at least once in their lives. Each year, two to three million Muslims travel from all over the world to Mecca. During the Hajj, the pilgrims wear white ritual clothing that many save and use again as their funeral shroud.
The Muslim Golden Age
From the eighth to the 13th centuries (the Dark Ages in Europe), Muslims would create the most advanced culture in the world. During that time, Baghdad became a center of culture, scholarship, and science. In Muslim Spain there was extensive cooperation among Muslims, Jews, and Christians. “In Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate, Muslim scholars preserved and translated ancient Greek and Roman texts, thus enabling classical philosophy to survive (paving the way for the European Renaissance). We owe an invaluable debt to the thinkers of this time and place: Arabic numerals, algebra, developments in medicine; gains in optics and hygiene; the creation of teaching hospitals; and during this period, Islamic law schools developed.”*
Some Differences Between Muslims and Christians
Muslims believe that Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus were prophets of God. Although they accept the revelations of Judaism and Christianity as authentic reminders from God, they believe that the Qur’an is the only perfect revelation, because human involvement brought errors into the Torah and the Bible. The Qur’an was sent as a correction to these books.
Muslims believe that Jesus, known as ‘Isa, was born of a virgin, that he worked miracles and that he will return at the end of time, but they do not believe that he was divine. Hence, they reject the Trinity and do not believe that Jesus died on the Cross. “That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Apostle of Allah”—but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, . . . Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power” (Surah 4:157-158). Consequently, in contrast to Christianity, Islam does not accept Christ’s vicarious suffering and the atonement.
Although Islam believes in heaven and hell, and the final judgment, it is a religion of works; there is no need of a savior. Man is born with a neutral nature and is capable of both good and evil. He is given both rational power and divine guidance through the prophets to induce him to choose the good and forsake the bad. Salvation in Islam is mostly an escape from the “wrath to come” by joining oneself to Islam and its teachings. The Islamic doctrine of fitrah [“original innocence”] means that Muslims see themselves as essentially good, although slightly lacking in guidance. They believe that it is within them to save themselves by following the guidance of Allah. Consequently, they do not need an external Savior.
* Mark Berkson, Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-educated Person Should Know (audio book/CD) (Chantilly, Va.: The Teaching Company, 2012), 150. Other sources used are: John L. Esposito, Great World Religions: Islam, one of The Great Courses on video/DVD (Chantilly, Va.: The Teaching Company, 2003), 1–87; Grant Hardy, Sacred Texts of the World, one of The Great Courses on video/DVD (Chantilly, Va.: The Teaching Company, 2014); Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an (Beltsville, Md.: Amana, 2004), 213–234.