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The Background of Islam

Mark Bair and Dennis McCallum

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I. History and Events

Muhammad, the founder of Islam was born in Mecca (in modern day Saudi Arabia) in A.D. 570. At that time, the religious setting of the Arabian Peninsula was "a rather primitive polydemonism and worship of stones, stars, caves and trees.1 Around A.D. 610 he came to believe he was receiving visions, which he claimed were from the angel Gabriel. The Islamic scriptures, known as the "Koran," are the "reciting" of the revelations he claimed to have received for the next 22 years.

Muhammad's preaching of these visions in Mecca met with considerable resistance. The reason for this was because Muhammad's message threatened not only popular polytheism, but the political and economic powers. As a result, Muhammad found his first followers among the lower class and those who were ripe for a new social order.

In 622 he traveled to Yathrib, which is now called Medina. This event, called the "Hejira," is viewed as the turning point of Islam. From then on, Islam was no longer just a religion but a distinct political power. In Medina, the community of believers became a state with Muhammad as its religious and political leader.2

In 630, Muhammad and his followers took over Mecca without resistance. Muhammad declared the Kaaba (the temple in Mecca) was the holiest shrine in Islam. To this day, Muslims direct their prayers facing the city of Mecca and the shrine of Kaaba.3

By the time Muhammad died in 632, Islam had already reached large portions of Asia, Africa and part of Europe. Today, Islam claims over 450 million followers.4 According to Carmody and Carmody, "Islam is the world's fastest growing religion today. It is a great force in Africa, a middling presence in China and the Soviet Union, a shareholder in the petropolitics of the Middle East, a huge presence in Indonesia, and the religion of more than 6 million North Americans."5

II. Teachings of Islam

"The faith and practice of Islam are governed by the two great branches of Muslim learning, theology and jurisprudence, to both of which some reference has already been made. Muslim theology (usually called "Tawhid" from its central doctrine of the Unity of the Godhead) defines all that a man should believe, while the law (Shari'a) prescribes everything that he should do. There is no priesthood and no sacraments... Unlike any other system in the world today the Shari'a embraces every detail of human life, from the prohibition of crime to the use of the toothpick, from the organization of the State to the most sacred intimacies -- or unsavory aberrations -- of family life."6

These practices are mainly true of Sunni Islam, not of the divergent sects.

A. The Articles of Faith

These are basic doctrines every Muslim is required to believe.

"O believers, believe in God and His messenger and the Book He has sent down before. Whoso disbelieves in God and his angels and His books, and His Messengers, and the Last Day, has surely gone astray into far error. Those who believe, and then disbelieve, then believe, then disbelieve, and then increase in unbelief--God is not likely to forgive them, neither to guide them on any way." (The Koran, Sura 4:135)

  1. God-- There is one true God and His name is "Allah"; Allah is all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-powerful. Yet, Allah is not a personable, but a transcendent God, for He is so far above man that He is not personally knowable.

    "Say: 'He is God, One, God, the Everlasting Refuge, who has not begotten, and was not begotten, and equal to Him is not any one."7
  2. Angels-- The chief angel is Gabriel, who was instrumental in revealing the visions to Muhammad. Different than angels are the jinn (jeanies or demons). The leader of the jinn is Shaitan (Satan).
  3. Scripture-- There are four books Muslims consider inspired: the Torah of Moses (first five books of the Old Testament), the Zabur (Psalms of David), the Injil, (the gospel of Jesus) and the Koran. Muslims believe the former three contain error because they have been tampered with by Jews and Christians. Since the Koran is God's most recent and final word, it is viewed as superior to all other writings.

    When asked for a miracle to attest his claim to be a prophet, Muhammad would refer to the miracle of the Koran. "Qur'an" (or "Koran") is an Arabic word which means "recite."

    "It is seen as a perfect revelation of God, faithful reproduction of an original engraved on a tablet in heaven which has existed from all eternity. Copies of the Qur'an are therefore venerated very highly and are only touched and read by Muslims after ceremonial cleansing. According to Islamic tradition, the Qur'an was originally written on palm leaves, on shoulder-blade bones of camels and on stones.

    Following Muhammad's death in A.D. 632, tradition states that the first caliph, Abu Bakr, ordered Muhammad's former secretary, Zaid, to collect and arrange writings. This was done in cooperation with other and finally an authorized revision of the text was established by Caliph Uthman. Other versions in existence were ordered to be destroyed." 8
  4. Judgment Day --On the last day the dead will be resurrected. Allah will judge each person according to their deeds, sending them to heaven or hell. Heaven is a place of sensual pleasure.

    "For many men the best part of the heavenly garden was the bur: dark-eyed buxom virgins. In addition to his earthly wife, each male in heaven could expect to have seventy bur. They would never be sick, menstruating, pregnant (unless he wished), bad-tempered, or jealous." He would be able to de-flower them at will, and return to find them virgins again. 9
  5. Prophets -- The Koran lists 28 prophets, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jonah and Jesus. Muhammad is the last and greatest prophet.10
  6. Predestination --Allah has determined what he pleases and no one can change what he has decreed.11 This is a sixth article of faith that is considered by many to be part of the five articles.

    This strong fatalism has played a central role in Muslim culture, and may be connected to the lack of modern progress that has characterized Muslim countries until recently.

B. The Five Pillars of Faith

  1. The Creed (Shahada)-- "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet." This must be stated publicly to become a Muslim. The creed is repeated regularly by worshipers.
  2. Prayer (Salat)-- "The practice of prayer (salat) is five times a day (upon rising, at noon, in midafternoon, after sunset, and before retiring). The worshiper must recite the prescribed prayers (the first surah and other selections from the Koran) in Arabic while facing the Ka'aba in Mecca. The Hadith (book of tradition) has turned these prayers into a mechanical procedure of standing, kneeling, hands and face on the ground, and so forth. The call to prayer is sounded by the muezzin (a Muslim crier) from a tower called a minaret which is part of the mosque (the place of public worship)"12
  3. Almsgiving (Zakat)-- Muslims are required to give one-fortieth of their income to help the poor.
  4. Fasting (Ramadan)-- Faithful Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset everyday during this holy month.
  5. The Pilgrimage (Hajj)-- The Pilgrimage to Mecca is expected of every Muslim at least once in their lifetime, unless prevented by war or other conditions beyond the worshipper's control. "It is the duty of all men towards God to come to the House a pilgrim, if he is able to make it there."13 "The Kaaba (in Mecca) is the most sacred place for believers. Much more than a mosque, it is believed to be the place where heavenly power touches the earth directly. "14

C. Holy War

There is a sixth religious duty associated with the Five Pillars, Jihad or Holy War.

The Koran teaches:

"Prescribed for you is fighting, though it be hateful to you. Yet it may happen that you will hate a thing which is better for you; and it may happen that you will love a thing which is worse for you; God knows, and you know not.

They will question thee concerning the holy month, and fighting in it. Say: `Fighting in it is a heinous thing, but to bar from God's way, and disbelief in Him, and the Holy Mosque, and to expel its people from it--that is more heinous in God's sight; and persecution is more heinous than slaying. They will not cease to fight with you..." (Sura 2:212).

"So let them fight in the way of God who sell the the present life for the world to come; and whosoever fight in the way of God is slain, or conquers, We shall bring him a mighty wage. How is it with you, that you do not fight in the way of God, and for the men, women, and children who, being abased, say, `Our Lord, bring us forth from this city whose people are evildoers, and appoint to us a protector from Thee, and appoint to us from Thee a helper'? The believers fight in the way of God, and the unbelievers fight in the idols' way. Fight you therefore against the friends of Satan; surely the guile of Satan is ever feeble" (Sura 4:77).

Islamic scholars explain:

"Jihad literally means an effort or striving. It includes a religious war against unbelievers with the object of converting them to Islam or subduing all opposition. (See Koran 9:5; 4:76; 2:214; 8:39.) It is the sacred duty of the Muslim nation to ensure that Islam triumphs over all religions. It is considered a general duty of the nation as a whole, not of individuals. Furthermore, it is a duty which relates only to religion. It has nothing to do with economic exploitation, political repression or imperialism in any form.

In his early career Mohammed spread Islam by teaching and persuasion: several early Meccan suras stated that he was sent only to preach. When, at Medina, he declared that God had allowed him and his followers to defend themselves against infidels, and later when he proclaimed that he had divine leave to attack them and set up the true faith by the sword. Muhammad himself fought in nine battles and ordered many more."15

III. Islam and Christianity

  1. God-- Muslims deny the doctrine of the trinity, considering it polytheistic. They consider it blasphemous to call God "Father" because it implies to them that He had sexual relations.

    "This doctrine, which makes God different from His creatures, is strong in Islam. Allah is so different that it makes it (1) difficult to really know very much about him, and (2) unlikely that he is affected by his creatures' attitudes or actions. Although Allah is said to be loving, this aspect of his nature is almost ignored, and his supreme attribute of justice is thought to overrule love. "16
  2. The Bible-- The Muslims trace their roots to the Bible, but feel free to pick and choose the parts that support their view. Islam, for example, would not consider our New Testament to be the Injil (gospel of Jesus). It is not the words of Jesus, it is others' words about Jesus. His original words have been corrupted and many have been lost. Only the Qur'an is infallible. Muhammad and the Qur'an are that which Islam is to follow.

    "It is well known that at many points the Qur'an does not agree with the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Therefore, from the Muslim point of view, it follows of necessity that these Scriptures must have been corrupted. Historical evidence makes no impression on the crushing force of the syllogism. So it is, and it can be no other way. The Muslim controversialist feels no need to study evidence in detail. The only valid picture of Jesus Christ is that which is to be found in the pages of the Qur'an."17