Religious Issues Archive
An Introduction to Islam
Dr. Meredith Sprunger
This document contains a brief overview of Islam, its development and history, its basic beliefs, and a brief account of the activities of Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
Related Documents in this archive:
The Social Problems of Religion
Religion in Human Experience
The Religion of Submission to God
Islam is the youngest of the major religions of the world. It is the dominant religion of the third-world nations of the Middle East and Africa and the second largest of the world's religions with 589,143,400 followers. Muslim philosophy is a blend of Arabic, Jewish, and Christian elements and one of the simplest and least complicated of the world's religions.
The basic belief of Islam is that there is only one God, Allah, who is the sole and sovereign ruler of the universe. Allah has made himself known through other prophets at other times; but his best and final revelation was to the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. The central demand of Muslims (submitters) is submission to the will of Allah.
Pre-Islamic Arab religion was an animistic polytheism. Images to these gods were carved and cherished and blood sacrifices were made to them. They recognized one supreme high god whom they called Allah (the God). They venerated a black meteoric stone at Mecca. Legend says the stone fell from heaven during the time of Adam and Eve and that Abraham and Ishmael built the Kaaba around it.
Muhammad was born around 570 A. D. at Mecca. His father died before he was born and his mother died before he was six years old. He was reared by an uncle and had no opportunity for any kind of formal education. He was an illiterate caravan worker and camel driver. In his travels he met Christians, Jews, and perhaps Zoroastrians. Around the age of twenty-five he married a wealthy widow caravan owner, Khadija. During their twenty-five years of marriage she bore him two sons and four daughters; but only one daughter, Fatima, survived him.
In the years following his marriage he began to go into the hills surrounding Mecca to contemplate the fate of his people. Muhammad entered a period of spiritual stress. He was concerned about the idolatry of his people and their fate on the judgment day at the end of the world. As time passed he became. agitated with the thought that the Last Day and Last Judgment might be near at hand. According to Muslim tradition he visited a cave near the base of Mt. Hira north of Mecca for days at a time. Here one night when he was around the age of forty the archangel Gabriel appeared to him. After a series of revelations extending over many years Muhammad became convinced that there was only one God, Allah; and that he was the last and the greatest in a series of prophets (28) of this God--which included Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
Muhammad began to preach but was met with rejection and hostility. His first converts were from the younger and poorer classes in Mecca. As opposition mounted Muhammad received protection from his uncle; however, some of his followers took refuge in Abyssinia. In 619 both his wife and his uncle died. Muhammad tried to move out of Mecca to a nearby town but was rejected.
A fortuitous event took place in 620. Men from Yathrib (Medina) came to seek Muhammad as an impartial judge to settle disputes within the city. It was 622 before Muhammad could leave Mecca. A group of assassins had pledged to kill him but finally Muhammad and his friend and successor, Abu Bakr, escaped to a cave on Mt. Thaur and thence to Medina. The Hijrah (migration) normally took eleven days but they made it in eight. Muslims date their calendars from the Hijrah (A.H.)
At Medina Muhammad set up a theocracy and directed Muslims to pray toward Jerusalem but when he was opposed by the Jews he commanded his followers to pray toward Mecca. The final break with the Jews came when a Jewess, Zainab invited the Prophet and his friends to dinner and fed them poisoned lamb. The Jewish tribes were either expelled from Muslim territory or offered the choice of conversion or death.
Although Muhammad greatly improved the treatment of women, they were still under the rulership of men. Muslims were allowed four wives if all of them were treated the same. A man could divorce his wife by repeating three times, "I divorce you." Muhammad, through special dispensation married eleven wives. When he married his cousin, Zaynab, who had been the wife of his adopted son, Zayd, he was not criticized so much for taking another man's wife as for marrying a cousin which was considered incestuous in the Arab culture.
Muhammad launched military campaigns to consolidate their position. At the battle of Badr in 624 the Muslims defeated the Meccans. In another battle the following year the Muslims lost more men than the Meccans. A force of 10,000 Meccans attacked Medina in 627 but no decisive battles were fought and the Meccans withdrew. A peace treaty was worked out which allowed Muslims to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. In 630 Muhammad entered Mecca with an army of 10,000 men as its complete conqueror. He went to the Kaaba and destroyed all of the idols and images. With this symbolic act the Prophet became the sole leader of the Arabian people. At the age of sixty-two in 632 Muhammad led another pilgrimage to Mecca. When he returned he gave a farewell message to Muslims and died in the arms of his wife Aishah. His last words were, "Lord grant me pardon! Join me to the companionship on high! Eternity in Paradise! Pardon! The blessed companionship on high!" Muhammad was a man of unquestioned religious experience, a man of prayer, one utterly devoted to the religious ideal as he saw it. He was an attractive leader and an efficient organizer. At times he was vindictive and autocratic; yet he could say, "There is no compulsion in religion."
Muhammad made no provision for succession. The first four caliphs (deputys) were chosen by election and are often referred to as the "orthodox caliphs" because they were selected from the circle of the friends of the Prophet. Alip the last of the orthodox caliphs, had the caliphate usurped by those who formed the Umayyad dynasty in 661. The Umayyad caliphs ruled from Damascus, Syria from 661 to 750. They were succeeded by the Abbasid dynasty which ruled from Baghdad, Persia between 750 and 1258. This was the golden age of Islam. The Abbasids were replaced by the Mamelukan Turks who ruled from Egyp. They were succeeded in the sixteenth century by the Ottoman Turks who made the caliph title synonymous with that of the sultan of Turkey. When the Ottoman-Empire was broken up after World War I the caliphate ceased to be.
Islam is not a temple-oriented religion; however, Muhammad decreed that Muslims were required to pray together at a mosque on Friday. There an iman leads in prayer; the iman is not a priest but a pious man. The scripture of Islam is the Quran (reading) which is made up of 114 surahs (chapters) arranged according to the length of the surah. The Quran is the Word of God; it is eternal, absolute, and irrevocable. Muhammad acted only as a stenographer for Allah. Probably no scripture has influenced its people more than the Quran. It is dutifully read by Muslims and memorized in its entirety by many. The Quran has twenty-five references to Jesus Christ and represents Jesus as predicting the coming of the founder of Islam.
Essential beliefs of Islam include: (1) The one God, Allah, who is the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient creator and ruler of the universe. He has ninety-nine names which are suggestive of his infinite nature. Allah in referring to himself uses a plural pronoun, "we," like the Hebrew plural "Elohim." (2) Angels of various kinds which are both good and evil. The leader of the demons is Iblis (devil) who was responsible for the fall of Adam and Eve. (3) The Quran and other books such as the Hebrew Law and Psalms and the Evangel to Jesus, (4) Prophets of Allah-- twenty-eight are mentioned in the Quran and Muhammad is the last and the greatest of the prophets. (5) Judgment, Paradise, and Hell--the Islamic Paradise has abundant pleasures such as beautiful gardens with flowing water, large-eyed maidens, and wine with no headaches. Hell is a horrid place filled with scalding winds, black smoke, and brackish water. (6) Divine decrees-things are predestined by the will of Allah. This emphasis gives Islam an atmosphere of fatalism. The most frequent statement among devout Muslims is "if God wills it."
Every Muslim must perform "the five pillars of Islam:" (1) Repeat the creed, "There is no God but Allah; and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah." (2) Prayer--the Quran says three times a day but in later years it was raised to five times each day. The muezzins climb the minarets of mosques five times a day to cry out that it is time for prayer. The Muslim must cleanse himself and face Mecca in a prostrate position for prayer. (3) Almsgiving--a Muslim is expected to share his possessions with the poor of his community. Later almsgiving became obligatory and was assessed as a tax amounting to two or three percent of one's wealth. (4) Fasting is required during the month of Ramadan. Between daylight and dark Muslims are expected to abstain from all food, drink, smoking, and sexual relations. Exceptions are made for those who are sick, nursing mothers, small children, and those who are traveling. Pork, wine, and gambling are also forbidden to Muslims. (5) Pilgrimage (hajj)--once in a lifetime every Muslim is expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Wearing seamless white garments, they will make seven trips around the Kaaba and kiss the sacred black stone. On the tenth day of the hajj they will sacrifice a sheep or goat. They may also visit Medina and perhaps Jerusalem. When the pilgrim returns home he may have the title "hajj" attached to his name.
Islam became the unifying force for Arab people. It conquered all of the Middle East and moved into India, China, Indonesia, and some of the Pacific Islands. In 711 the Muslims entered Spain where they were dominant for the next seven centuries. Europe was saved from further conquest by Charles Martel in 732 at the Battle of Tours. Muslims made real contributions to philosophic thinking during the early Middle Ages. They translated and discussed Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek thinkers and helped preserve this literature during the Dark Ages. Toward the end of the nineteenth century missionary activity began to spread into Africa.
Islam in the modern era has been characterized by extreme conservatism. The Wahhabi movement founded in 1744 opposed all forms of change. They suppressed the Sufis and others who were seeking to grow in the modern world. The isolation of the Muslim world came to an end in the early part of the twentieth century due to involvement in World War I and the need for Arab oil. They achieved wealth and political power almost overnight. This revolutionary upheaval preempting evolutionary development is causing many problems in the Middle East
Like all religious movements Islam is divided into various sects. Around eighty-five percent of all Muslims are classified as Sunnis (traditionalists). They practice their religion exactly as it was established by the Prophet. Certain Quran instructions have presented problems--all thieves, for instance, are to have their hands cut off. To wrestle with these difficulties four schools of thought have developed within the Sunnis group which differ in the interpretations of the life of Islam.
The Shi'ite sect constitutes the second largest group in Islam, making up around fourteen percent of the Muslim world. The Shi'ites live mostly in Iran and Iraq. They believe the descendants of Ali, who was murdered by those establishing the Umayyad dynasty, are the only true claimants to the caliphate. The twelve descendants of Ali are called Imans. The twelfth Iman disappeared in 878 and Shi'ites believe he will return again to lead Islam into a golden age. This messianic figure is called Mahdi. There are many minor sects among the Shi'ites. One group of interest founded by Hasan ibn-al-Sabbah used hashish to psych up followers and while thus intoxicated they were sent out to murder selected victims. They became known as Assassins, and this word was eventually added to the European languages.
Islam, like Judaism, has always been a "this worldly" religion; nevertheless there have always been some Muslim mystics. They are known as Sufis (wool-wearers). They became an organized movement around the ninth century and have produced some of the finest mystic literature of the world. At times the Sufi movement has gone underground and taught its more unorthodox beliefs in secret. During the twelfth century the Sufis began to organize themselves into monastic orders. When a convert came to join the order he was known as a fakir or a dervish (poor man). Sufi monastic practices emphasize discipline, poverty, abstinence, and sometimes celibacy. Some dervishes gained notoriety for their whirling about in ecstasy. Other Sufis became known for their practice of walking on live coals and similar feats. The important contribution of the Sufi movement to religious thought is that union with God may be an authentic inner experience.
Some of the reform efforts in Islam have been syncretistic such as the Baha'i movement. Baha'i began as a sect of Islam but is now a separate religion. The central themes of Baha'i are that all religions of the world spring from the same source, that there is a basic unity in all religious truth, and that all the prophets have had a partial message of this one God. They believe religion must work in harmony with science and education to build a peaceful world order.
Index to the Full Series
I. Hinduism: The Religion of Divine Immanence and an Hereditary Graded Social Structure
II. Jainism: The Religion of Asceticism
III. Buddhism: The Religion of Peaceful, Ethical Self-culture
IV. Sikhism: The Religion of Syncretism
V. Taoism: The Religion of the Divine Way
VI. Confucianism: The Religion of Social Propriety
VII. Shinto: The Religion of Nature Worship, Emperor Worship and Purity
VIII. Zoroastrianism: The Religion of the Free Will Choice Between Good and Evil
IX. Judaism: The Religion of Ethical Monotheism
X. Christianity: The Religion of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man Mediated by Jesus Christ
XI. Islam: The Religion of Submission to God
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