ARCHIVES: A lengthier primer about Islam

 Islam is the 2nd largest religion in the world, 2nd largest in Europe and 3rd largest in the United States.

There are many misconceptions about this religion, chief of which is that a major tenet in which they believe commands the use of terrorism and violence against
non-adherents to Islam.


How big is Islam?

  • 2nd largest religion in the world
  • 2nd largest religion in Europe
  • 3rd largest religion in the United States
  • Majority nationalities that comprise Islam: Asians and Africans; Arabs 23%

Is Islam just one religion?
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has a number of communities or branches

  • Sunni 85%
  • Shiite 15%: [ Ithna Ashari, Ismaili, Zaydi ]
  • Within the two main branches, there are many interpretations (schools of thought)

Is Islam political?

Again Muslim governments span a wide spectrum of Islamic states:

  •           secular
  •           self-described states:
  •                    authoritarian
  •                    democratic
  •                    populist ( right wing like Muammar Qaddafi’s )
  •                    conservative monarchies (Saudi Arabia)
  •                                       theocracies (Iran),
  •                                       Republics (democratic and military-led, Pakistan
  •                                       secular socialist states (the Baathist regime of Syria)
  •                                       secular democracies (Turkey)
  •                                       “limited democracies” (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Malaysia)

The status of women
The status of women, their educational and professional opportunities, and their participation in mosques and societies are as varied as the countries and cultures in which they live.

What is the fundamental belief and practice in Islam?
“Islam” means ‘submission’ to God and ‘peace.’ A Muslim is one who submits to or follows God’s will. The term Islam really reflects both a religion and a way of life. Muslims are a global community (ummah) of believers bound together by a common faith in God and His prophets.

Despite their differences, all Muslims share a common faith in Allah (God) and follow the teachings of the prophet, Muhammad. In addition to their shared belief in God and his prophets, Muslims share the practice of daily prayer, concern and responsibility for the poor with an emphasis on community and family.

What is Islam’s view of God
Just as Moses in Judaism and Jesus in Christianity hold a special place as prophets, primary messengers and models for their communities, Muslims believe that Muhammad is the final prophet of God. First and foremost, he received God’s final and complete message or revelation, the Quran, Islam’s sacred scripture. Second, Muhammad’s life is the “living Quran,” providing the example or model to be emulated by Muslims today as it has down through the ages.

Does Islam share any beliefs or traditions with other religions?
There are many common beliefs and traditions, links between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

  • Muslims, like Jews and Christians, believe that there is one God (Allah, the God), the Creator, Sustainer, and Judge of the universe.
  • Although one can come to know God through the wonders of creation, Muslims believe that God’s will was revealed to a long series of prophets or messengers, first to Adam, Abraham, Noah, and Moses, then to Jesus, and then to Muhammad, the final prophet.
  • Muhammad is of key importance to Muslims as a living example of the “ideal Muslim,” the model for all to learn from and copy.
  • Many Muslims are named after the Prophet as an honour or to pay respect;
    (in some countries all males have the name Muhammad as one of their names)

What is Shariah [Islamic Law] ?
Islam is considered a total way of life. Like Jews, Muslims developed Sharia law (God’s law) as the moral compass for the faithful. Heaven or eternal damnation was dependent on adherence to the law. Hence, it was important to know what that law required. This became problematic as Islam spread across the world, absorbing peoples with different laws and customs and encountering new situations, problems, and questions.

“What should a good Muslim be doing?”
This important question had to be clarified by the ulama, scholars who devoted their lives to study, debate, and spelling out God’s law as the blueprint or moral compass for living. Islamic law covers all aspects of religious life (worship including prayer, fasting, and pilgrimages) and social life (ranging from marriage, divorce, and inheritance to laws governing contracts, criminal punishments, and warfare).

What is the Quran and how is it regionally dependent?
The Quran are the scripture from the Prophet. Because Islam was moving into different parts of the world with different laws, cultures and traditions, the ulama needed to study and interpret the scripture for application to everyday life. Interpretation became subjective as various ulama interpreted in relation to where they lived. So, as an example, the ulama have prohibited the use of drugs by pointing out their similarity to alcohol, which the Quran explicitly bans. Islamic law is relative to the region in which a Muslim is born and how the law has been interpreted for that region.

What is Sufism, Islamic Mysticism or stoicism?
Sufism is Islamic mysticism developed as a guideline for living in the eighth century.

The term Sufi derives from the Arabic word for “wool,” because the first Sufis wore coarse woolen garments. Reacting to the excesses of imperial lifestyles and luxuries, the Sufi philosophy became a kind of stoicism, an ascetic path and meditation with devotional love of God in the quest for a more personal and direct experience of God. The reformers rejected the materialism of the world.

By the twelfth century, Sufism dominated the Islamic landscape as it adapted to and absorbed local non-Muslim customs and practices. Their esthetic practices helped them become a popular mass movement.

The Five Pillars of Islam

  1. Profession of Faith (Shahada)

The profession or declaration of faith (shahada, to bear witness): “There is no God but God and Muhammad is the Prophet (or messenger) of God” is the gateway to membership in the Muslim community.

  1. Prayer or Worship (Salat)

Five times each day, wherever they are, Muslims face Mecca and worship God and in praying thus, Muslims believe that they are in the presence of their Lord.

Prayer consists of the recitation of verses from the Quran with a series of prostrations before God.

On Friday, Muslims perform the noon prayer, which includes a sermon (khutba), in a congregation (juma) at their local mosque.

In America, Muslims, who are not able to get away from their jobs to pray at their mosque on Friday, gather on Sunday to worship and socialize as a community.

  1. Almsgiving (Zakat)

Almsgiving (zakat), the third pillar of Islam, is an obligation which instills and reinforces a sense of community identity and responsibility.

Islam teaches that God is the creator of the world and all the wealth in it. This wealth ultimately belongs to God. Human beings are simply its caretakers and are given an opportunity to share in and use it. The pursuit and accumulation of wealth by Muslims has always been recognized as an acceptable and noble endeavor. Muhammad himself was a businessperson, working in his wife’s caravan business. Throughout history, merchants and traders have been a respected class in the Muslim community, providing support for religious institutions and activities.

Wealth also brings responsibility. Therefore, tithing is a duty for all who are financially capable to pay; in Sunni Islam, it is an annual 2.5% percent wealth tax to be distributed to address the needs of less fortunate members of the community.

Payment of the zakat is an act of worship and it is a way that Muslims thank God for their material success and well-being. The Quran and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad emphasize socioeconomic justice and denounce exploitation of the poor, weak, women, widows, orphans, and slaves and the hoarding of wealth are condemned.

  1. Fasting (Sawm) in Ramadan

Once a year, all adult Muslims, who are physically able, fast during the month of Ramadan, a time to thank God for his blessings, repent and atone for sins, discipline the body to strengthen moral character, remember one’s ultimate dependence upon God, and respond to the needs of the poor and hungry. For one month, each day from dawn to dusk Muslims abstain from eating or drinking anything, even water.

As Ramadan nears its end (on the twenty‑seventh day), Muslims commemorate the “Night of Power and Excellence,” the night when Muhammad first received God’s revelation. The month of Ramadan comes to a close with a grand celebration, the Feast of Breaking of the Fast (id al‑Fitr). This joyful celebration is similar to Christmas or Hanukkah, as families come together to celebrate, wear their finest clothing, feast, and exchange gifts in a three‑day affair that sometimes stretches into a week or more.

  1. Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj)

Every Muslim who has the health and financial ability is obliged to make the pilgrimage, or hajj, once in his or her lifetime. Each year more than two million Muslims from all over the world congregate in Mecca, Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj. As pilgrims from all over the world near Mecca their excitement erupts into joyous shouts of “I am here, 0 Lord, I am here!” Whatever their backgrounds and social class, all are equal before God. Fine clothes, jewelry, and perfume are set aside. All don the simple garments of the pilgrim as a symbol of the unity and equality of the Muslim community. During the pilgrimage, participants visit sacred sites associated with Abraham, Ishmael, and Muhammad and ritually re-enact and commemorate sacred events.

The pilgrimage ends with the Feast of Sacrifice (Id al-Adha), which commemorates God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Ishmael (as is written in the Bible where Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac.) Just as God permitted Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead of his son, so too Muslims sacrifice animals (sheep, goats, camels) in memory of Abraham’s sacrifice to God. Whatever meat is not consumed is distributed to the poor.

How do Muslims live in the worldwide community?
Muslims, however devout or non-observant they may be, are acutely aware of their common bond with other Muslims throughout the world. They share a common faith and a common sense of a rich and vibrant religious history. The spreading Islamic empires brought with them the development of a rich Islamic civilization that made major contributions to the arts, mathematics and sciences: development of algebra, contributions to medicine, astronomy, philosophy, and literature.

Because Muslims belong to the ummah, a worldwide community based on faith, they are concerned about what is happening to Muslims in other parts of the world. Thus, events as widespread as the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979, the Iranian Revolution of 1978 ‑1979, the plight of Muslims in Palestine and Kashmir, post 9/11 invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the condition of Muslims in Europe and America are followed closely by Muslims worldwide.

The Resurgence of Islam in Muslim Politics and Society
In many parts of the world in recent years, many Muslims have become more conscious of their Islamic faith and identity, and this religious reawakening has expressed itself in a variety of ways in Muslim life. Many Muslims have become more religiously observant, expressing their faith through prayer, fasting, and Islamic dress and values. This is reflected in an increase in the number of mosques, religious schools, and organizations. Not only has mosque attendance increased, but also a growing number of Muslim women, both overseas and in the United States, choose to wear Islamic dress, in particular a headscarf, or hijab, as a sign of modesty.

Diversity has opened less desirable factions of Islam
The growth of diversity of opinion and activity has opened the Muslim world to some leaders and movements such as Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda with their use of violence and terrorism to achieve their goals. The majority of Islamic activists wish to live peacefully in societies that ‘are more firmly grounded in their faith and that are socially just.’ This majority calls upon Muslims to become better or more observant believers and to work to transform their societies. They emphasize education in order to produce a sector of society that is well‑educated but oriented toward Islamic values, rather than secular ones.

World activism

  • Islamic activists in Turkey, Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Yemen, Pakistan, and Malaysia have peacefully pressed for the implementation of religion within the state and society. Members of Islamic organizations have been elected to parliaments.
  • Extremist groups have engaged in acts of violence and terror.
  • Social action: Islamic associations provide social services, inexpensive and efficient educational, legal and medical services in the slums and many lower middle class neighborhoods of Cairo and Algiers, Beirut and Mindanao, the West Bank and Gaza.
  • Terrorists, in the name of Islam, hijacked commercial airlines and flew into New York’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., resulting in the loss of some 3,000 lives.
  • Religious hijackers who committed this act reflected a religious radicalism that has threatened many regimes in the Muslim world and Western governments.

Islamic Reform in the 21st Century
The struggle for Islamic reform has taken two broad directions:

  • A conservative return to and re-appropriation of an often romanticized and in some cases “reimagined” past;
  • A more modernist or liberal return to the past for inspiration in order to the reinterpret and reform Islam in the 21st Century

Muslim understanding and interpretations of Islam, attitudes towards change and modernization, reveal a broad religious diversity of perspective.

  • Secularists reemphasize that the future development of Muslim societies is contingent upon the separation of religion and politics.
  • Conservatives and traditionalists reaffirm the continued relevance of Islamic faith and traditions amidst rapid, predominantly western-oriented change whose secularism and material excesses they reject.
  • Modernist reformers, advocate an Islamic reformation, a fresh reinterpretation or reconstruction of religious thought and the transformation of Muslim societies, based upon a selective synthesis of aspects of Islamic and Western as well as other cultures.
  • Islamic political activists, sometimes referred to as Islamists, maintain that reform is possible by returning to the sources of Islam, the Quran and Sunnah of the Prophet to revitalize and reform Muslim societies.

The voices of change are not restricted to the ulama. Many reformers are modern educated and Islam oriented laymen and women who assert their competence to address issues as diverse as bioethics and medical ethics (birth control, abortion, cloning), gender, violence and religious extremism, democratization and pluralism. Some are popular tele-preachers, clerical and lay, who, like Christian televangelists, preach their messages of reform employing the latest technologies of the Internet and social media.

However different, many Muslim countries face the same long-term issues of authoritarianism, legitimacy, security and terrorism.

  • Secularists argue for the separation of religion and the state;
  • Islamic reformers call for greater democratization in the name of Islam;
  • rejectionists believe that Islam is incompatible with democracy.

Islamic extremists
At the same time, terrorist attacks in America, Europe and across the Muslim world have demonstrated religious extremist organizations and movements remain a threat in many societies. Like Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, they “hijack” their religion using it to justify their “unholy” wars of violence and terrorism, calling for a jihad against their own societies, as well as against America and Europe. While jihad, to “struggle or exert” oneself in the path of God has multiple meanings: to lead a good life, to defend Islam or the Muslim community from oppression and injustice, extremists manipulate its meaning. They argue that they are fighting oppression and injustice, that they are waging a holy war against the enemies of God and regard all who disagree with them, whether Jews, Christians or other Muslims, as enemies who are to be fought and killed. They ignore other clear teachings of the Quran and Islamic law that forbid killing non-combatants.

Key sources:  m/faiths/islam/2001/09/an-islam-primer.aspx

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