Islam, a major world religion, belongs to the Semitic family; it is the third greatest prophetic religion. The Prophet Muhammad promulgated it in the 7th century AD in Arabia on the base of revelations received directly from God (Allah). The Arabic term Islam means “surrender,” and explains the fundamental religious idea of Islam: the believer accepts “surrender to the will of Allah.” Allah is viewed as the sole God (creator, sustainer, and restorer of the world). The will of Allah, to which man must submit, is made known through the sacred scriptures, the Qur’an (Koran) which Allah revealed to his messenger, Muhammad.
It was written shortly after Muhammad’s death. In Islam Muhammad is considered the last of a series of prophets (including Adam, Noah, Jesus, and others), and his message abrogates the “revelations” attributed to earlier prophets. With its emphasis on monotheism and a strict adherence to certain religious practices, the religion taught by Muhammad to a small group of followers spread rapidly through the Middle East to Africa, Europe, the Indian subcontinent, the Malay Peninsula, and China.
Fundamental practices and institutions of Islam
After the death of the Prophet, certain features of the religious-social organization of Islam were decreed to be the “Pillars of Islam.”
The five Pillars in which every Muslim must believe are:
a- shahadah, the Muslim profession of faith.
b- salat, or ritual prayer, performed in a prescribed manner five times each day.
c- zakat, the alms tax levied to benefit the poor and the needy.
d- sawm, fasting during the month of Ramadan.
e- Hajj, the major pilgrimage to Mecca.
To these five pillars, the Khawarij sect added a sixth pillar, the jihad or “Holy War” (to spread Islam) that, however, is not accepted by the general community. The first Pillar is the profession of faith or shahadah: “There is no god but God; Muhammad is the prophet of God,” upon which depends the membership in the community.
Allah is the Arabic word for “God” and is used by Arab Christians as well as by Muslims.
Allah is the pivot of the Muslim faith. The Muslim Holy Scripture, the Qur’an, constantly preaches Allah’s reality, his inaccessible mystery, his various names, and his actions on behalf of his creatures. Three themes preponderate:
– Allah is creator, judge, and rewarder.
– He is unique (wahid) and inherently one (ahad).
– He is omnipotent and all merciful. God, says the Qur’an, “loves those who do good,” and two passages in the Qur’an express a mutual love between God and man.
The emphasis is on God’s inscrutable sovereignty, to which one must abandon oneself. Muslim piety has collected, in the Qur’an and in the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), the 99 “most beautiful names” (al-asma’ al-husna) of God, and these names have become objects of devoted recitation and meditation. The profession of faith (shahadah) by which a person is introduced into the Muslim community, consists of the affirmation that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is his prophet. For pious Muslims, every action is opened by an invocation of the divine name (basmalah) with the formula “insha’a Allah” or “if God wills”.
The divine law
The aim of the divine law is to assure the happiness of all members of the community. This requires everyone to profess belief in the basic principles of religion as enunciated in the Qur’an, the Hadith, and the ijma’ (consensus) and to perform all obligatory acts of worship.
The only other requirement is that each Muslim must pursue knowledge as far as his natural capacity permit. The few who are endowed with the capacity for the highest knowledge are under a divine legal obligation to pursue the highest wisdom, which is philosophy.
The foundations of Islam – The legacy of Muhammad
From the beginning of Islam, Muhammad imposed a sense of brotherhood and a bond of faith among his followers. In AD 622, when the Prophet fled to Medina, his preaching was soon accepted, and the community-state of Islam emerged. There is not only an Islamic religious institution but also an Islamic law, state, and other institutions governing the society.
This dual religious and social character of Islam explains the astonishing success of the early generations of Muslims. Within a century after the Prophet’s death in AD 632, they had brought a large part of the globe (from Spain across Central Asia to India) under a new Arab Muslim empire. The period of Islamic conquests and empire building mark the first phase of the expansion of Islam as a religion. A much more massive expansion of Islam after the 12th century was spearheaded by the Sufis (Muslim mystics); they were mainly responsible for the spread of Islam in India, Central Asia, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa. There are about 600,000,000 to 700,000,000 Muslims worldwide. The faith of Islam helped various Muslim peoples in their struggle to gain political freedom in the mid-20th century and the unity of Islam contributed to later political solidarity.
At the heart of Islam is an experience of awe before the One, All-powerful, Mysterious Creator Allah. Thus, its dominant theme has been surrender to God. It has also created mystics to whom the mysterious and awesome God has revealed himself through created things.
Allah controls man’s destiny, whether to salvation or damnation, which points to the ultimacy of God, to his majesty, and power. The concept of heaven inspires warriors to fight to the death; the concept of hell encourages loyalty by showing what terrible punishments awaited the disloyal. The Qur’an (the Islamic sacred scriptures) is regarded as an infallible book -a transcript of a tablet that is eternal in the heavens. The concept and practice of holy warfare in the context of Islam implies sensitivity to evil, and a conviction that evil has to be resisted and overcome in a total dedication. To other religions Islam has shown itself to be very conservative, with a distrust of compromise and a passionate desire to proselytise.
There is no issue upon which Islam is so intransigent as the one of monotheism. The profession of faith, the first of the so-called Five Pillars of Islam, states clearly and unambiguously that “there is no God but Allah” and, in accordance with this principle, the religion knows no greater sin than shirk (“partnership”), the attribution of partners to Allah; that is to say, polytheism.
Theism in Islam
The Muslim faith centres on a transcendent personal deity. It rejects incarnation doctrines as a form of blasphemy. However, while insisting that God is all in all, it sometimes tends to represent all of man’s own actions as the action of God within him, and thus has some tendency to identify man with God. In its main form, Islam, with its quite exceptional sense of the transcendence of God, is one of the most distinctively theistic religions.
Islamic dietary laws
Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was a political leader who welded a nation out of the warring tribes of Arabia. His religious ideology legitimated the unification of these autonomous tribes. The main religious tenets of Islam were derived from Judaism and early Christianity, and it is clear from the Qur’an that Islam was intended to encompass all aspects of life. Its dietary regulations borrow heavily from Mosaic Law. Specifically, Muhammad proscribed for Muslims the flesh of animals that are found dead, blood, swine’s flesh, and food that had been offered or sacrificed to idols. Jews frown upon alcoholicbeverages, but they do not forbid them, and wine is an important element in many rituals and feasts; Muhammad, however, absolutely forbade any such beverages.
Fasting during the month of Ramadan (ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar) is laid down in the Qur’an. It is the fourth pillar of the faith. Fasting begins at daybreak and ends at sunset and, during the day, eating, drinking, and smoking are forbidden. The Qur’an states that it was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was revealed. For a person who is sick, or on a journey, fasting may be postponed until “another equal number of days.” The elderly and the incurably sick are exempted, but they must provide food to one poor person.
Islamic myth and legend
The strict monotheism of Islam does not allow for much mythological embellishment. However, in the first three centuries, a number of ideas from the ancient Near East, from Hellenistic, and especially from Judeo-Christian traditions, were absorbed into Islam and given partial sanction by the theologians. At the same time, legends were woven around the Prophet Muhammad and the members of his family. The qussas, or storytellers, made the Qur’anic revelation more understandable to the masses by filling-in short texts with detailed descriptions that were not found in scripture.
Tales and legends concerning religious figures
The majority of popular legends concern the leading personalities of Islam such as Muhammad, whose only miracle, according to his own words, was the bringing of the Qur’an. However, he is credited with innumerable miracles and is associated with a variety of miraculous occurrences: his finger split the moon, the cooked poisoned meat warned him not to touch it, the palm trunk sighed, the gazelle spoke for him; he casts no shadow; from his perspiration the rose was created, etc. His ascension to heaven (mi’raj) is still celebrated: he rode the winged horse Buraq in the company of the angel Gabriel through the seven spheres, meeting the other prophets there, until he reached the divine presence, alone, even without the angel of inspiration.
Social and ethical principles – Family life
A basic social teaching of Islam is the encouragement of marriage, and the Qur’an regards celibacy as something exceptional, to be resorted to only under economic stringency. Thus, monasticism as a way of life was severely criticized by the Qur’an. With the appearance of Sufism, however, many Sufis preferred celibacy, and some even regarded women as an evil distraction from piety, although marriage remained the normal practice also with Sufis.
Polygamy, which was practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia, was permitted by the Qur’an, which, however, limited the number of simultaneous wives to four, and this permission was made dependent upon the condition that justice is done among co-wives. Right of divorce was vested in the husband, who could unilaterally repudiate his wife, although the woman could also sue her husband for divorce before a court on certain grounds. Islam regards the virtue of chastity as of prime importance. The Qur’an states that those guilty of adultery are to be severely punished with 100 lashes. Tradition has upheld this punishment for unmarried persons, but married adulterers are to be stoned to death. A false accusation of adultery is punishable by 80 lashes. The detailed laws of inheritance prescribed by the Qur’an also tend to confirm the idea of a central family -husband, wife, and children, along with the husband’s parents. Easy access to polygamy and easy divorce on the part of the husband led to frequent abuses in the family. In recent times, most Muslim countries have enacted legislation to tighten up marital relationships.
The most sacred place for Muslims is the Ka’bah sanctuary at Mecca, the object of an annual pilgrimage. According to Muslim tradition, Abraham built the Ka’bah. The Prophet’s mosque in Medina is the next in sanctity. Jerusalem follows in third place in sanctity as the first qiblah (i.e., direction in which the Muslims offered prayers before the qiblah was changed to the Ka’bah) and as the place from where Muhammad, according to tradition, made his ascent (mi’raj) to heaven.
Most religions began as radical, agnostic, and mystical organisations to become, after some time, authoritarian institutions under the leadership of Literalists. This is true for Christianity but also for Islam. Islam’s founder was the mystical visionary Muhammad in the 7th century AD. Within a few hundred years it was an authoritarian religion under the leadership of dogmatists who imposed a literal interpretation of Islamic scriptures, and refuted the right to independent thinking. Like Christianity, Islam condemned the Islamic Gnostics, as heretics although these Gnostics too, like the Christians’, did not agree.
Islamic Gnostics, like the Ismaili Shiites and Sufi Sunnis, believe that they are members of the true Islamic tradition and the original Muslims.
There is a strong similarity between the original Christians and the original Muslims. Both are based on Gnostic Judaism. It is obvious that Muhammad’s teaching was strongly influenced by the Ebionite school of Christianity and by Manicheism. Muhammad taught exoteric or “Outer” doctrines to most of his people, but to his closest students he also taught secret esoteric, or “inner” doctrines. This secret teaching was passed down through a line of enlightened masters or Imams, each of which was seen as “the Light of Muhammad”. Sufis still claim that they are the heirs of Muhammad’s secret teachings.
The Islamic Gnostics say that esoteric doctrines are to be found in the Qur’an, but can be understood only by those who have been “initiated”. The deeper meaning of Islam is like the Gnostic philosophy. Allah (meaning “Being and Nothingness” is called the “Mystery of Mysteries” and “He who cannot be reached by the boldness of thoughts”. Christian Gnostics defined God as “Dazzling Darkness” and Muslims see Allah as “Black Light” or “Luminous Night”.
Literalist Muslims, like Literalist Christians, are oppressing women while the original Gnostics of both faiths were egalitarians. As Christians Gnostics took Pagan documents and Christianised them, Islamic Gnostics adopted Christian Gnostic texts and rewrote them in a Muslim context.
Like the original Christians, Islamic Gnostics see Jesus as an image of the Consciousness of God, our shared essential identity; they also see Jesus’ story as allegories. Like the Christian Gnostics Muslim Gnostics took wisdom where they found it without religious, cultural or political restriction. They honoured the Pagan philosophers, they took traditional Gnostic concepts into their myths, they described this world as the underworld of spiritually dead, and they taught that God created the world and the human beings so that he could also know himself.