Islam demystified

Islam demystified December 12, 2013

Dan Wilkinson’s recent review of the book The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World provoked, in its commons section, exchanges about Islam that proved, shall we say, quite spirited.

A very close friend of mine, Pastor Bob, is a Lutheran pastor and expert on Muslim-Christian relations. Bob has a master’s degree in Islamic studies, and is just now finishing his Ph.D. in comparative religion; his doctoral thesis is on the common historical roots of Christianity and Islam.

Bob teaches a well-respected class on Islam. Below is the outline for the first of the six sessions of that class. It’s not a quick read; you have to think in order to fill in its blanks and follow along. But it’s deep, covers a lot of vital ground, and I think is as fine a treatment of its subject as I’ve seen. So I wanted to offer it here for anyone who is sincerely interested in learning more about Islam.

A Primer on Islam.

Islam: One of the monotheistic religions closely related to Judaism and Christianity.

  • “Islam” means to “surrender” or to “submit” to the will of God.

Muslim: A person who is a follower of Islam.

  • A “Muslim” is literally one who surrenders to the will of God.

Allah: God.

  • “Allah” is a contraction of the Arabic al-ilah (“The God”).
  • Arab Christians call God “Allah.”

tawhid: Arabic word for affirming the unity of God (Allah).

  • Literally means “making one” or “asserting oneness.”
  • The word is technically not in the Qur’an, but its principle is found throughout.
  • Often mistranslated as “monotheism.” However, tawhid is not a static description, but rather dynamic action that is lived throughout one’s lifetime in faith and worship.

shahada: Basic Islamic Creed (“La ilaha illa Allah wa Muhammadu Rasul Allah”)

  • “There is no god except God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”
  • The first part of the shahada (“There is no god but God”) is the witness of tawhid.
  • Part of daily prayers (salat), tawhid, as expressed in the shahada, is heard at least 5 times/day.
  • The shahada expresses some fundamental ideas:
  1. Strict monotheism: Muslims are very careful to declare that there is only one God. Muslims believe that Christians wrongly worship Jesus as God.
  2. Universality of Islam: Islam is meant to be embraced by all people as the one true religion. Roughly 20%-25% of the world’s population declares themselves to be Muslim.
  3. Importance of Muhammad: As the last “Messenger of God” Muhammad is highly regarded and his name brings to the lips of a Muslim: “peace be upon him.”
  4. Egalitarian nature of Islam: Anyone confessing this creed is considered a Muslim. All Muslims are regarded as equal including Muhammad.

Muhammad: The founder of the Islamic faith. He is considered by Muslims to be the final prophet from God to whom God’s final revelation was expressed.

  • An Arab businessman born in 571 AD, he later in life began withdrawing to the hills for contemplation and beginning at age 40, he received a series of revelations through the angel Gabriel (later written by his followers as the “Qur’an”). Muhammad couldn’t read or write.
  • These revelations from God among other things called for the denunciation of paganism and polytheism focusing instead on the existence of the one true God, the need for repentance and the Day of Judgment.
  • Muhammad was both a prophet and a statesman and with his followers, an empire was rapidly built with Islam its professed religion.
  • Muhammad is beloved by Muslims. The Christian equivalent would be devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus—an example to be emulated but not a substitute for worshipping God. Muhammad is most commonly referred to as “the Prophet.”

Prophets in Judaism, Christianity and Islam:

  • Muslims believe that God sent prophets all through the ages to lead people back to the one God. Beginning with Adam and including prophets such as Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist and Jesus, this message of tawhid was the same with its final form given through Muhammad.
  • Muslims therefore view Islam as being in continuity with Judaism and Christianity.

Qur’an: The sacred book for Muslims and is written in Arabic.

  • “Qur’an” literally means “recitation”
  • Its words are regarded as those words spoken directly by God to Muhammad and therefore it is considered complete and perfect.

Hadith: The written sayings and activities of Muhammad.

  • These writings are very important and are considered second in importance only to the Qur’an.

Shari’a: Holy law of Islam

  • It is meant to dictate all aspects of social, religious and political life.
  • There are 5 major schools of Shari’a expressing a range of opinions (sometimes contrary) with certain schools influencing certain regions of the world (refer to lesson two for more details).
  • The vast majority of Muslim-Americans deeply appreciate the American Constitution-based legal system; contrary to wanting to supplant or supersede it, they find it complementary to living in accordance with the values of Shari’a.

Sunni Muslims: The majority of Muslims (85%).

  • Essentially “mainstream” Islam. They follow the “sunnah” (the way) of the Prophet.
  • Regard tradition and communal consensus when making decisions.
  • They tend to have a practical, shari’a-oriented approach to life where God has set the rules and a good Muslim simply follows them.

Shi’a Muslims: The next largest group of Muslims.

  • Referred to as the Shi’ites.
  • Found largely in Iran and southern Iraq.
  • Rely on inspired teachers who are related to Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali.
  • “Twelvers” refers to the majority of Shi’a Muslims who regard the twelve principle Imams. Iran is 90% “twelver” Shi’ites.

Sufi Muslims: Focused on mysticism, this group is comprised of both Sunni & Shi’a Muslims.

  • Famous poet, Rumi, was a “Whirling Dervish” Sufi.

Jesus (Isa)

  • Traditional Muslim understanding of Jesus: A great prophet.
  • Miraculous:
  1. Jesus born a virgin birth from Mary (Maryam)—only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an
  2. As a youth: fashions a bird of clay and breathes life into it
  3. Later cures a leper and a man born blind
  4. Through God, raises the dead
  5. Causes a table spread with a feast to descend from heaven to feed his Apostles
  • No crucifixion (God would never allow a prophet to die such a shameful death):
  1. In his stead it was possibly Simon of Cyrene or an Apostle
  2. Jesus ascends to heaven at this time
  • At end of time:
  1. Comes back, vanquishes anti-Christ and ushers in an age of justice
  2. After 40 years will die and be buried in Medina with Muhammad
  3. God will then raise Jesus with everyone else in the general resurrection
  • What makes Jesus special within Islam?
  1. Does not die (common interpretation of the Qur’an 4:156-158)
  2. Names for Jesus: Spirit of God, Word, Messenger, Prophet, Servant, Son of Mary and Messiah (Christ)—but not the same as the Christian understanding of messiah.
  3. Titles for Jesus: a ‘sign’, a ‘mercy’, a ‘witness’ and an ‘example.’
  4. Jesus is beloved by Muslims.

Plurality of Faiths

  • Islam is not compulsory. The Qur’an directly addresses a plurality of people and faiths: “God could have created one single community but rather created many communities so that they would strive to work together and outdo each other in good deeds” (49:13).

shirk: To “associate” someone or something with God.

  • The opposite of tawhid and the one unforgivable sin according to Islam.
  • During the expansion of Islam in the 700’s the Muslims established protection for the “People of the Book”: Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, and were charged a poll or head tax. They did not pay the required Muslim alms, but were not allowed to spread their faith. They became islands of faith communities and some have continued to this day (i.e. Egyptian Copts, Palestinian Christians).
  • Non-Muslims were offered three choices: (1) convert to Islam and become full members in the Muslim community; (2) retain one’s faith (if People of the Book) and pay a poll tax; or (3), be subject to warfare until Islamic rule was accepted. Note that “Islamic rule” does not mean forced conversion to the faith of Islam. Many Hindus, Buddhists, etc., would live under Muslim rule.
  • While tawhid unites Muslims with remarkable equality, tawhid also separates out non-Muslims and particularly those who commit shirk.
  • For Muslims, tawhid expresses right relationship with God and defines our humanity. To move away from tawhid is essentially to move away from our humanity. If taken to its extreme as in the case of militant, radical Islam, there can then only be two “abodes”: the house of Islam (Dar al-Islam) where tawhid is observed or the house of war (Dar al-Harb) where tawhid must be struggled for through jihad.
  • Middle ground: Dar al-Sulh (“house of contract”). The portion of the world that is not Muslim, but is in good relationship with Muslims.

jihad: Literally means “to strive” (or “to struggle”) and more specifically, to strive to do the will of God. The Muslim community is “to enjoin good and forbid evil” (Qur’an 3:110).

  • There are several meanings:
  • Strive to lead a good, virtuous life through self-discipline.
  • Strive for a moral and just society.
  • Strive to defend Islam through preaching, teaching or armed struggle.
  • With respect to suicide bombings: It is prohibited to kill women and children. Also, suicide is prohibited in Islam. Those who commit suicide are condemned to repeat that act for eternity. However, those who die defending the faith are considered martyrs…and this is where it gets complicated. Somehow, those who are participating in the suicide bombings believe that they are fighting evil (regardless of the civilian casualties!) and consider their actions as legitimate jihad. Some have labeled this as “neo-jihad,” others as simply un-Islamic terrorism.

Role of Women in Islam:

Most importantly: As with any faith tradition, the role of women varies with context. Some Muslim women are extremely restricted while others enjoy great freedom (a former prime minister of Pakistan was a women—Benazir Bhutto).

  • Qur’an: Adam and his wife (she is not named “Eve” in the Qur’an) are created at the same time and both eat from the forbidden tree (she does not tempt Adam).
  • Muhammad: He was actually a progressive reformer of women’s rights in his time. Under his leadership, female infanticide was shunned and women gained the right to retain inheritance and their dowry during marriage as well as to divorce.
  • Polygamy: Today, it is uncommon and often illegal or considered socially unacceptable. According to the Qur’an, a man may marry up to four wives if he can treat them all equally (a practical impossibility). Islamic law (Shari’a) restricts polygamy further by requiring permission from the first wife. Interestingly, though Muhammad was allowed 13 wives, he remained faithful to his first wife, Khadija until her death, 25 years later, and then married mostly widows (two of which were Jewish) who had lost their husbands in the course of Muslim battles. After Khadija, only one of Muhammad’s wives bore him a child, a son who died at a young age.
  • Clothing: A complex and contextual issue. All Muslims are to dress modestly and both men and women are to be covered in the Mosque with women additionally wearing a scarf to cover their hair. The wearing of a veil is not mentioned in the Qur’an and the Muslim community during Muhammad’s time rarely wore veils. A couple centuries later (as Islam had expanded and come into contact with many cultures), the wearing of veils was associated with prestige, wealth, and later, modesty and piety. Today, wearing a veil is contextual as is dress in general.
  • Clothing terms: Hijab (General term for “covering” of head and body); Khimar (Headscarf hanging down to just above the waist—most common); Chador (A loose-fitting, black cloak covering the head and body—Iran); Abaya (A loose-fitting, head-to-toe black robe—worn mostly in Saudi Arabia); Burqa (Heavier and larger version of the Chador with a sewn-in mesh covering for the eyes—Taliban-controlled Afghanistan & parts of Pakistan and India).
  • An appraisal: Because of the real tension between the conceptually egalitarian nature of Islam and the patriarchal nature of its practice, the Islamic community has responded to women in varying ways over the centuries. Women are considered fundamentally equal as Muslims, but in practice, they are kept separate from men in public life (particularly worship) and play a largely subordinate role to men (not unlike many Christian women around the world). However, there have been great women scholars, politicians, etc. who have and continue to play a significant role within Islam. Women’s rights are becoming an increasingly important issue within the Islamic context.
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