In 1990, U.S. President George Bush was faced with an international crisis that he felt warranted an immediate and decisive military response. Under the direction of Saddam Hussein, Iraq invaded the small, bordering nation of Kuwait. Iraq’s massive military, with its superior weaponry, experienced little difficulty occupying and controlling Kuwait. The threat of destabilization in this oil-rich region prompted President Bush to dispatch thousands of troops into Saudi Arabia, which began Operation Desert Shield. In early 1991, U.S. and allied troops successfully defeated Iraq’s feared military in the now-famous Operation Desert Storm, and drove back the remnants of Hussein’s tattered troops to Baghdad, the capital of Iraq.
During this conflict, which potentially threatened global peace, millions in the U.S. were glued to their television sets by anxiety over the fates of their fellow citizens. Technology and dauntless reporters kept us abreast of practically every frightening clash between Iraqi and allied forces. In the course of this continuous news coverage, Westerners not only were confronted with Saddam Hussein’s dreaded military, but also were exposed to a culture that is dominated by an unfamiliar religion—Islam. With the increasing awareness of our global society, and with the worldwide proliferation of this religion, it is important for Christians to understand and respond to Islam.
ORIGIN OF ISLAM
Such a task must begin with Islam’s origin and nature. The immensity of the subject and space restrictions preclude an exhaustive treatment of these points. Hence, only a broad survey of the origin and contours of Islamic thought and practices will be presented.
Muhammad, Founder of Islam
The origin of Islam can be traced back to Muhammad (var. sp.: Muhammed, Mohammed), who was born c. A.D. 570 at Mecca, the holy city in western Saudi Arabia. Muhammad’s practically unknown father died before his birth, and his mother died when he was only six. The early orphaned Muhammad was reared by his grandfather and uncle who, though disputed by some Western scholars, appear to have been prominent members of the Qurayah tribe. This Arabian clan was the guardian of the Kaabah (var. sp.: Ka’bah), the great shrine at Mecca in whose walls the sacred black stone was embedded. According to Arabian tradition, the black stone fell from heaven in the time of Adam, a possible indication that it was a meteorite that landed in the sands of Arabia (Humble, 1980, 4:52). Muslims believe that, on his pilgrimage to Mecca with Ishmael, Abraham built the Kaabah and positioned the meteorite within its walls. This shrine, which figures prominently in Muhammad’s life and the establishment and development of Islam, was dedicated to the Arabs’ pantheon of deities.
While Muhammad’s early life is somewhat obscure, apparently he was employed by a rich widow, Khadija, who entrusted him with her caravans. Khadija was so impressed with his dependable and conscientious service that she married Muhammad, provided him with wealth and success, and encouraged his religious inclinations. With his wife’s support, Muhammad increasingly withdrew from business affairs, and spent much of his time in the seclusion of the desert meditating and reflecting on life (Schmalfuss, 1982, p. 311). During this process, Muhammad developed a passionate monotheistic belief, and became extremely frustrated with the polytheism and superstitions of his fellow Arabs. Though it is difficult to determine the extent to which variant shades of Christianity and Judaism influenced the development of Muhammad’s strict monotheism, it is clear that ”at some period of his life he absorbed much teaching from Talmudic sources and had contact with some form of Christianity” (Anderson, 1975, p. 93).
Muhammad’s Revelations and the Qur’an
According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad, at the age of forty, began to receive revelations from God through the angel Gabriel. His first alleged encounter with the heavenly messenger was quite violent. While Muhammad was in a deep trance, Gabriel appeared to him and, either by choking or some other life-threatening gesture, forced Muhammad into submission. “Read,” Gabriel demanded, “in the name of thy Lord, who created man from clots of blood” (sura 96:1; cf., Schmalfuss, 1982, p. 311). Since the encounter was both violent and accompanied by convulsions that sent him into an unconscious trance, Muhammad at first was unsure of the source of his vision. He feared that he possessed one of the jinn (demons) commonly believed to inhabit Arab poets and soothsayers (Anderson, 1975, p. 94). Khadija and others, however, assured Muhammad of the divine source of his visions. Once convinced of his prophetic call, Muhammad’s revelations occurred with increasing frequency.
Since, as many Muslims argue, Muhammad was illiterate, he did not record these revelations personally. During his lifetime, however, his followers transcribed and collected much of Muhammad’s oral teachings into the Qur’an (var. sp.: Koran), though many passages were preserved only in the memory of his followers and were committed to writing after his death (Shorrosh, 1988, p. 24). The word Qur’an derives from the Arabic word qara’a (“to recite”), a designation consistent with the recurring mandate for Muhammad to “proclaim” (i.e., “recite” or “read”) the words of Allah. Consisting of 114 chapters (called suras), the Qur’an is a non-chronological collection of verses, reflecting various periods in Muhammad’s life. Each sura of the Qur’an is subdivided into verses (ayat). Interestingly, the Arabic word ayat carries with it the meaning of “a miracle.” For those seeking certification of his claims, Muhammad would appeal to the Qur’an itself as miraculous confirmation of his divine appointment to the prophetic office (Wilson, 1982, p. 315). All Muslims, regardless of their sectarian affiliation, continue to regard the Qur’an as their sacred and authoritative text.
Muhammad’s Rejection and Flight from Mecca
Once convinced that his first revelatory experiences in the desert were from God, Muhammad began to denounce openly the polytheism of his people and to proclaim a rigid monotheism. By emphasizing the resurrection of the dead, and the subsequent judgment of God, he challenged the populace to submit to the One (Allah) true God, and to show compassion to the poor. Consistent with this message of submission, the word “Islam” is the infinitive of the Arabic verb “to submit,” and “Muslim” (“one who submits”) is the present participle of the same verb.
Muhammad’s monotheistic message threatened the financial interests of many in Mecca who profited from the regular pilgrimages of polytheists to the Kaabah. As might be expected, Muhammad met with considerable opposition, and succeeded in making only a few converts. Due to the increasingly aggressive hostility directed against him by the traders at Mecca, Muhammad and his small band of followers fled from Mecca to Medina on July 16, 622. This “flight” from Mecca, which Muslims call the “Hijra,” marks the official beginning of the Islamic religion. Reflecting this point of origin, the Islamic calendar is calibrated to the Hijra. According to Islamic chronology, for example, A.D. 630 would be designated 8 A.H. (“in the year of the Hijra”).
Unlike his experience in Mecca, where he was rejected as an eccentric purveyor of an unpopular—and unprofitable—religion, Muhammad enjoyed greater success in Medina. There, he “soon became statesman, legislator and judge—the executive as well as the mouthpiece of the new theocracy” (Anderson, 1975, p. 95). Several suras in the Qur’an, which emphasize obedience to the Prophet and insist on his favorable treatment, reflect Muhammad’s influential position at Medina (cf., 3:29,126; 4:17-18; 24:63-64; 49:2-4; see Geisler and Saleeb, 1993, p. 57).
Though significantly greater than at Mecca, Muhammad’s success at Medina was not as extensive as he desired. He particularly was disappointed at his lack of reception among the Jewish population. Rather than embracing him for his monotheism, the Jews eventually rejected Muhammad’s prophetic claims, and criticized his inaccurate accounts of Old Testament events. It became obvious that there were serious discrepancies between Qur’anic and biblical details of the same incident. To maintain the divine origin of the Qur’an, Muhammad was compelled to charge the Jews with either corrupting, or misquoting, their own scriptures. This allegation further heightened the tension between Muhammad’s followers and the Jews, and eventually precipitated the banishment or massacre of Jewish tribes in that area (Anderson, 1975, p. 95).
The Return to Mecca
Once his relationship with the Jews was severed, Muhammad no longer looked to Jerusalem, but refocused on Mecca as the center of the Islamic religion. Muhammad’s renewed interest in Mecca necessitated his purging the town of its polytheism, thus bringing it into harmony with the monotheism of Islam. Enlisting the help of nomadic Arab tribes, Muhammad led a series of armed raids on Mecca, and in A.D. 630 he captured the city with no resistance. Mecca quickly was purged of all its polytheistic symbols, and the Kaabah became the focal point of the religion of the one true God. Before his death in A.D. 632 (11 A.H.), Muhammad had made great strides in unifying the Arab tribes throughout the Arabian peninsula under the banner of Islam (see Anderson, 1975, p. 96; Noss, as quoted in McDowell, 1983, p. 381).
MAJOR DIVISIONS OF ISLAM
Since Muhammad neither left a male heir nor named a successor, his death created an immediate leadership crisis in Islam. The nature of Islam, however, which encompassed both civil and religious concerns, demanded a successor (Caliph, or Khalifa) to guide its adherents in applying the principles of the Qur’an to contemporary circumstances. Naming such an individual proved to be a difficult and divisive task. Along with other issues of interpretation, the role of, and criteria for appointing, the Caliph eventually fragmented Islam into two major divisions that remain today: Sunni and Shi’a (see Kung, 1986).
The Sunni branch, claiming approximately 90% of all Muslims, argued that the Caliph should belong to Muhammad’s tribe, the Qurayah, and that the community should choose him by the process of consensus (ijma). Since Muhammad was the “Seal of the Prophets,” the Sunnis considered the responsibilities of the Caliph merely to guard—not continue—the prophetic legacy, and to provide “for the administration of community affairs in obedience to the Qur’an and prophetic precedent” (Kerr, 1982, p. 330). Within thirty years of Muhammad’s death, four Caliphs were appointed in succession: Abu Bakr (632-634), ‘Umar (634-644), ‘Uthman (644-656), and ‘Ali (656-661). Sunnis regard these first Islamic leaders as “the four rightly guided Caliphs,” since they lived so close to Muhammad. Because of their chronological proximity to Muhammad, Sunnis believe that the sunna (behavior or practice) of these four Caliphs, together with the Prophet’s, is authoritative for all Muslims. The Sunnis derive their name from this emphasis on the sunna. While there are subdivisions of this group, distinguished by specific points of interpretation, they all call themselves Sunni.
The other major branch of Islam, which claims about 10% of the Muslim population and exists primarily in Iraq and Iran, is the more militant Shi’a. The Shi’ites, as those comprising the Shi’a sect are called, splintered from the Sunnis primarily over the question of the Caliphate. Regarding this matter, there are specifically two points of disagreement between Shi’ites and Sunnis. First, the Shi’ites place more rigid genealogical restrictions on the Caliph than do the Sunnis. On the one hand, Sunnis believe that the Caliph should be a descendent of Muhammad’s tribe. On the other hand, Shi’ites argue that the Caliph should descend specifically from ‘Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law. In fact, the word Shi’ite means “partisan” and indicates that Shi’ites are “partisans of ‘Ali” (Rood, 1994). Second, the Shi’ites differ with the Sunnis regarding the authority of the Caliph. Unlike the Sunnis, Shi’ite Muslims believe that the Islamic leader, whom they call the imam, is more than merely a guardian of Muhammad’s prophetic legacy. Rather, Muhammad bequeathed ‘Ali with his wilaya (i.e., his “spiritual abilities”), enabling him to interpret the Qur’an and to lead the Islamic community infallibly. Though there are various interpretations, Shi’ites generally believe that the wilaya has been passed down through the subsequent generations of ‘Ali’s descendants. They further believe that this “cycle of the wilaya” will continue until the last day when humankind will be resurrected and judged (see Kerr, 1982, p. 331).
The majority faction within the Shi’a branch, known as the Imamis (most of whom live in Iran), believes that the completion of the wilaya cycle will end with the messianic return of the twelfth imam. According to this sect, the twelfth imam has been in “occultation” (the state of hiding) since the third century of Islam. They believe, however, that the ayatollahs (senior experts in Islamic law) have access to the hidden imam, and thus, have the right to interpret Islamic law and make religious rulings (Kerr, 1982, p. 331). The late Ayatollah Khomeini, perhaps the most widely remembered Shi’ite leader among contemporary Westerners, was considered to be the spokesman for the hidden imam.
Though more a movement within, rather than a sect of, Islam, a third identifiable group that should be mentioned is the Sufis. Reacting to the externally oriented, and legalistic disposition of the Islamic religious system, Sufis seek a mystical experience of God. The word Sufism usually is translated “mysticism,” which reflects this emphasis on a personal religious experience. Since Sufis, who belong to either the Sunni or Shi’a sect, desire more than an intellectual knowledge of Allah, they are prone to a number of superstitious practices (Rood, 1994).
BASIC BELIEFS OF ISLAM
As might be expected, in light of the vast diversity in Islam, there are many variant beliefs among Muslims worldwide. Though there are differences of opinion surrounding their application, six articles of faith form the core of the Islamic religion.
1. Monotheism. As indicated earlier, pre-Islamic Arabs were polytheists. Due to Muhammad’s successful monotheistic campaign, Muslims recognize and devote themselves to only one God, whom they call Allah. Worshiping or attributing deity to any other being is considered by Muslims to be shirk, or blasphemy.
2. Angels and jinn. Muslims believe in a well-structured organization of angelic beings. At the lowest level in the hierarchy of spirit beings in Islamic thought are the jinn, who are capable both of committing good and evil deeds, and of inhabiting human beings. After his first frightening encounter with Gabriel, Muhammad feared that he was possessed by one of these potentially fiendish beings. The angels of God are above the jinn in rank. In Islamic angelology, each Muslim is accompanied by two angels—one on the right, the other on the left. This angelic pair is responsible for recording the good and evil deeds of the Muslim, respectively.
3. God’s holy books. The Qur’an refers to numerous other volumes that Muslims consider as God’s holy books. Chief among these Islamic sacred texts are: the Mosaic Law; the Davidic Psalms; the Gospel (Injil) given to Jesus; and the Qur’an revealed to Muhammad. Muslims, following Muhammad’s allegation, contend that the original Torah (Pentateuch), Psalms, and Gospels have been corrupted by Christian and Jewish writers, and essentially lost. As the final revelation from God, the Qur’an supersedes all previous revelations and truth claims (Shorrosh, 1988, p. 30).
4. God’s prophets. Muslims believe that there has been a long succession of prophets through whom Allah revealed his will. While there is no consensus regarding the exact number of prophets, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are considered the five prophetic predecessors to Muhammad. There seems to be universal agreement among Muslims that Muhammad was God’s supreme and final prophet—the “seal” of the prophets.
5. Resurrection and Judgment. Similar to elements of Christian eschatology, Muslims believe in a general resurrection of humankind, followed by a final judgment. In this connection, human works are central. How successful a Muslim was at keeping the mandates of Islamic law determines his or her eternal fate. Those who have accomplished more good deeds than bad will be admitted into paradise, a place abounding with sensual pleasures (e.g., luxury, physical comfort, abundant food, lovely maidens, etc., see sura 4:57-58; 37:45-48). Those who are deficient in good deeds will be consigned to hell in which, among other excruciating torments, they will be attired in fiery garments (sura 22:19-20; cf., 18:28-29).
6. Predestination. Though not a mandatory doctrine, most Muslims accept a rigid form of predestination reflected in the comment made by the devout: “If Allah wills it.” This belief holds that all events, good or bad, are determined directly by Allah. It is thus the function of the dedicated Muslim to “submit to that divine determination with obedient thankfulness,” though he or she still must face Allah’s strict justice (Shorrosh, 1988, p. 32).
BASIC PRACTICES OF ISLAM
As already indicated, human works play a crucial role in Islam. The most important works or duties generally acknowledged by Muslims may be summarized in what are commonly called the “Five Pillars of Islam.”
1. The creed (kalima or shahada). “La ilaha il’ Allah, Muhammadan Rasoulu Allah.” These words, translated, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah,” constitute the essential creed of Islam. This is the first duty of every Muslim, for it is necessary to recite this creed before at least two witnesses to become a Muslim. And, the faithful Muslim will repeat this creed constantly.
2. Prayers (salat). Muslims, regardless of their social or economic status, submit to a rigorous daily regimen of prayer. Five times a day (only three for Shi’ites), Muslims respond to the call to prayer by the muezzin (a Muslim crier) from a tower called a minaret, which is part of the mosque (the place of public worship). They recite prescribed prayers together with the appropriate action of placing the forehead to the ground. Regardless of their geographic location, the faithful Muslim will face toward Mecca and perform this prayer ritual at the appropriate intervals. It is further incumbent on all adult male Muslims to gather each Friday at noon for community prayer, and to hear a weekly sermon.
3. Almsgiving (zakat and sadaqa). Orphaned himself at a young age, Muhammad was very sensitive to the plight of the destitute. Though some do so more extensively than others, several Qur’anic suras emphasize the duty of Muslims to give alms (2,4,19,23,33,107). Almsgiving is divided into two broad categories. The zakat are the legal alms, which require that Muslims allocate 2.5% (one-fortieth) of their income and merchandise for this charitable purpose. Different percentages are assigned to agricultural produce and cattle. The sadaqa are free-will offerings that are above and beyond the legally binding proportion of almsgiving.
4. Fasting (Ramadan). During the month of Ramadan (the ninth lunar month of the Islamic year), all healthy, adult Muslims (except pregnant women, nursing mothers, and travelers) are required to abstain from food, liquids, and sexual intercourse during daylight hours. There are both historical and theological reasons for Ramadan. Historically, Muslims believe that during the ninth lunar month, Muhammad received the first revelations from God and that during this same month, he and his followers made their historic escape from Mecca to Medina. Theologically, the fast helps develop a Muslim’s self-control, reliance on Allah, and sympathy for the poor.
5. The Pilgrimage (Hajj). Every Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. Since the rituals involved in the pilgrimage are physically demanding, the old or infirm can perform this duty by proxy. The Hajj serves to solidify Islamic faith, and to promote the ideas of worldwide unity and equality among Muslims (Rood, 1994; McDowell, 1983, p. 392).
6. The Holy War (jihad). Though not a part of the Five Pillars, the jihad is a duty usually associated with them. The word means “exertion” or “struggle” on behalf of God. Muslims are divided regarding the Qur’an’s call to jihad. Extremists interpret jihad as literal warfare against non-Muslims, and believe that Muslims who die in a holy war are assured of a place in paradise. More moderate interpreters suggest that the Qur’an’s call to arms refers to a specific incident of Muhammad’s armed conflict with his enemies, and should neither be applied universally nor pressed literally (Al-Ashmawy, 1995, p. 158).
In addition to these basic beliefs and practices, Muslims are guided by numerous laws and traditions contained in the hadith. The hadith, which was compiled after the Qur’an was completed, reportedly contains Muhammad’s examples and statements regarding various topics. The Qur’an and hadith address virtually every aspect of life, making Islam not just a religion, but an all-encompassing way of life.
In this installment, I have surveyed briefly the complex landscape of Islam. In the following article, I will attempt to identify the points of tension between Christianity and Islam, and offer a response to the latter’s core beliefs.
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