A Primer on Islam: Muslims in Context (Lesson 5 of 6)

Lesson five is a combination of gaining insight into the faith-life of Muslims and some of the practical implications.  It begins with a famous writing involving Muhammad, the “Hadith of Gabriel,” which is used as a traditional method of teaching or describing Islam. I find it useful for helping us to gain a feel for not only the different aspects of Islam, but for how Muslim traditions are passed on through such stories. The story also highlights the traditional mentoring role of Muhammad. The remaining lesson fills out many of these features of Islam, including theological concerns, and even some basic etiquette in relating to Muslims.

A Primer on Islam

Lesson Five: Muslims in Context

by Pastor Bob



Umar ibn al-Khattab said:

One day when we were with God’s messenger, a man with very white clothing and very black hair came up to us. No mark of travel was visible on him, and none of us recognized him. Sitting down before the Prophet, leaning his knees against his, and placing his hands on his thighs, he said, “Tell me, Muhammad, about submission.”

He replied, “Submission means that you should bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is God’s messenger, that you should perform the ritual prayer, pay the alms tax, fast during Ramadan, and make the pilgrimage to the House if you are able to go there.”

The man said, “You have spoken the truth.” We were surprised at this man’s questioning of the Prophet and then declaring that he had spoken the truth. He said, “Now tell me about faith.”

He replied, “Faith means that you have faith in God, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and that you have faith in the measuring out, both its good and its evil.”

Remarking that he had spoken the truth, he then said, “now tell me about doing what is beautiful.”

He replied, “Doing what is beautiful means that you should worship God as if you see Him, for even if you do not see Him, He sees you.”

Then the man said, “Tell me about the Hour.”

The Prophet replied, “About that he who is questioned knows no more than the questioner.”

The man said, “Then tell me about its marks.”

He said, “The slave girl will give birth to her mistress, and you will see the barefoot, the naked, the destitute, and the shepherds vying with each other in building.”

Then the man went away. After I had waited for a long time, the Prophet said to me, “Do you know who the questioner was, ‘Umar?”

I replied, “God and His messenger know best.”

He said, “He was Gabriel. He came to teach you your religion.”



Practices “Pillars” of Muslims

  • Confession of faith (shahada)
  • Prayer (salat)
  • Fasting (sawm) in month of Ramadan
  • Alms (zakat)
  • Pilgrimage (hajj)

Beliefs of Muslims

  • God
  • Angels
  • Prophets
  • Books
  • Day of Judgment

A Muslim is one whose life is one of worship to the one God in their practices of submission (islam), faith or beliefs (iman), and spiritual awareness/beautification of God (ihsan).



Prophets & Scripture:

  • Prophets receive God’s messages and some were entrusted to bring scriptures to their peoples.
  • Moses received the Torah, David the Psalms, Jesus the Gospel (Injil), and Muhammad the Qur’an.
  • Muhammad is believed by Muslims to be the last prophet and the Qur’an the perfection of God’s revelations to humanity. The previous books are believed to have been corrupted.
  • Qur’an considered God’s exact words and the perfect completion of God’s revelation to humanity (correcting all previous texts)

Creation & Humanity

  • God as Creator of the universe (ex nihilo)
  • Creation created “good”
  • Humans given special status as “vice-regents” of the world
  • Similar story of Adam and Eve (7:19-26) who are forced out of the Garden of Eden after being tempted by Satan (though Eve’s name not specifically mentioned in Qur’an)
  • However, humanity not held in permanent “original sin” from a “Fall,” but continues as moral agents given the provisions of the earth and the guidance of God.
  • Therefore, humans remain the same creatures with the moral capacity to choose good or evil.  There is no need for redemption as Christians would believe.

Angels & Jinn

  • Angels are seen as messengers and helpers of God.
  • There are other supernatural beings known as jinn which can be very mischievous.
  • An evil jinn, Satan (Iblis), refused God’s command to bow down to Adam (7:11-18).

Day of Judgment

  • Muhammad’s early preaching warned particularly of the coming Judgment
  • Classical Tradition (many modern Muslims would not take these signs to be literally true, yet these signs create an ironic framework for a modern world)
  1. Mahdi: A sign of the final Judgment, the Mahdi is a liberating figure, who born from the family of the Prophet, will establish justice and spread Islam. Not a Qur’anic idea, but the Shi’a Muslims consider their hidden Imam, the 12th leader of the Shi’ites, to be the Mahdi.
  2. Jesus: He will return in the Last Times to preach, break all the crosses, kill all the swine, and after establishing the Kingdom of God, die.
  3. Dajjal: Not mentioned in the Qur’an, tradition has it that Dajjal, an ally of Satan, is reddish and one-eyed with “KFR” inscribed on his forehead implying he is an unbeliever. Coming from the East and riding a donkey, he will successfully tempt many with works of miracles and eventually conquer the earth except for Mecca and Medina. Either the Mahdi or Jesus will vanquish Dajjal.
  4. Yajuj and Majuj: The Qur’an only briefly mentions them as enemies and spoilers of the land, while Hadith describes that they will attack Palestine and trouble Jesus and his companions. Jesus will ask God to destroy them.
  5. Trial and Judgment: After the resurrection, everyone will be judged by God. The imagery is of a great scale in which each person’s books recording their good deeds are put on one side and each person’s books recording their bad deeds are put on the other. If the good deeds are heavy enough, that person will be eligible for Paradise while those who are heavy with evil will be condemned to Hell. Finally, everyone will cross the narrow bridge between Paradise and Hell. Unbelievers and sinners will fall into Hell, though it is speculated that some not too bad Muslims may spend a little time in Hell and then go to Paradise—Finally, it is a matter of God’s will and mercy.

Two key Theological Schools of Thought within Islam

  • Mu‘tazilites
  1. Reason is given priority (even over revelation)
  2. Tawhid rigorously upheld, affirming the unity of God
  3. Created Qur’an (Protecting the transcendence of God)
  4. Free Will: Humans are capable of creating and doing both good and evil.
  5. Combined with the power of a few Abbasid caliphs, theologians (like ibn Hanbal) who disagreed with the Mu’tazilites were persecuted.
  • Ash‘arites
  1. Revelation favored over reason
  2. Qur’an is eternal, uncreated word of God
  3. Theory of kasb (acquisition): Humans do not have power to originate or complete an act, only God. However, humans have ability to choose freely between right and wrong and are therefore responsible for their choices.
  4. The Ash’arites will come to dominate Sunni Islam and the Mu’tazilites will fade into history, however elements of Mu’tazilism will continue within certain groups and contexts particularly with regard to the valuing of reason and free will.

Classification of Actions for Muslims

  • Classified into a set of categories ranging from obligatory to forbidden.
  1. wajib or fard: obligatory
  2. mustahabb: recommended
  3. mubah: neutral
  4. makruh: disliked
  5. haraam: forbidden
  • Often related to food
  1. halal: permitted/legal
  2. haraam: prohibited/forbidden

Etiquette with Muslims

  • Greetings: Be careful of shaking hands with the opposite sex
  1. Traditionally, you would not shake hands with (or hug) a Muslim of the opposite sex. It is best to assume this and only shake the hands of the opposite sex if they initiate it. It depends on how traditional a Muslim is and/or how Americanized they are.
  2. On the other hand, Muslims treat the same sex in an often very casual manner, particularly toward other Muslims.
  3. Muslims will call each other “brother” or “sister” and it is a sign of affection or trust to likewise use this language for a non-Muslim.
  4. Note: Always shake hands with your right hand because the left hand is traditionally associated with hygiene purposes.
  5. When you greet a Muslim, it is polite to offer the greeting: “Asalaamu Alaykum,” which means “Peace be upon you.” For memorizing purposes, one might simply shorten this to “Salaam Alaykum.” The response is “Wa Alaykum Salaam,” which means “And to you peace.”
  • Food & Drink: Always offer a vegetarian option and always serve non-alcoholic beverages (Best: Ask them!)
  1. Muslims, like Jews, are required to have their meat be prepared in a certain way (Kosher for Jews and similarly, Halal for Muslims).
  2. Also like Jews, Muslims are forbidden to eat pork. It is haraam.
  3. Unlike Jews, who cannot eat shellfish, most Muslims can eat any seafood.
  4. It is therefore sensible to always have a vegetarian option and/or simply ask a Muslim what they personally eat. Muslims vary greatly in their personal piety!
  5. Alcohol or any intoxicants are forbidden. Flavorful juices are appreciated!
  • Fasting in Ramadan: Be cognizant of Muslims fasting during the month of Ramadan
  1. Muslims fast from dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan.
  2. Fasting means not eating, drinking, or smoking as well as abstaining from sexual relations.
  3. Like most “rules” in Islam, there is always the practical application of fasting with regard the very young, those who are sick or for those in special circumstances.
  4. Though Muslims will not draw attention to their hunger, it is kind to do most of your work with them during the morning and save lunches for another month.
  5. Ramadan is not only a time of purification and spiritual renewal, but a special time for a Muslim family as they gather for a breakfast before dawn and each night the fast is broken with a dinner called iftar which is often shared in community with readings from the Qur’an.
  6. The end of Ramadan is celebrated with a festival called eid al-fitr (pronounced “eed”), which lasts 3 days. It is celebrated akin to the Christian celebration of Christmas, whereby presents are exchanged, the family feasts together, there is special emphasis in attending the Mosque, and alms are given to the poor.
  7. Ramadan brings the Muslim community together in solidarity as well as helps orient them and identify with the underprivileged.
  • Awareness of Daily Prayers: Do your best to have meetings between the daily prayers
  1. Muslims pray 5 times a day: dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and before bed. They may do some of these prayers in a Mosque, but most likely it will be at home or anywhere there is a clean and respectful place to pray.
  2. The largest block of time between prayers is during the morning and is therefore a good time to set a meeting or an involved project where interruption would be difficult.
  3. Having a meeting or meal after the sunset prayers works best.
  4. Setting aside a clean place on the floor for Muslims to pray (and facilities to clean themselves in preparation for prayers) also works well if prayer times come up during the course of being together.
  • Entering a Mosque and Worship: Modest dress for all and women wear a head scarf
  1. Though there is no consistent dress code for Muslims throughout the world when they are outside the mosque, modest dress is obligatory for anyone inside a mosque or during the prayers.
  2. Men and women are to dress modestly with legs and shoulders covered. Women are to have their heads covered, customarily with a scarf.
  3. Men and women are also separated during worship as it is viewed as unseemly for men to watch a women in the position of prostration as required for the prayers.
  4. The daily prayers, salat, are initiated by the call to prayer by a person called the muezzin and led by a prayer leader (if a community is of sufficient size, it may have an imam who serves as the leader of the community, has some extra training or education, and usually leads the prayers). During the daily prayers, Muslims line up and orient themselves in one direction, towards Mecca (specifically, the Ka’aba).
  5. The noon prayer on Friday, called Jum’ah, is a special time when a sermon is usually offered by the imam or other leader followed by prayer. Friday is not the Muslim “Sabbath,” for Muslims have no equivalent to the Jewish or Christian Sabbath. Muslims technically work 7 days a week, but this is shaped largely by context. When in Rome…


Pastor Bob is a pastor in San Diego.

More in this series:

A Primer on Islam: The Basics (Lesson 1 of 6)

A Primer On Islam: Groups, Sects and Shari’a (Lesson 2 of 6)

A Primer on Islam: Historical Outline (Lesson 3 of 6)

A Primer on Islam: History Behind the News (Lesson 4 of 6)

Primer on Islam: Muslims in North America (Lesson 6 of 6)

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