A Concise Introduction to Islam by Richard T. Nolan
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Tue Oct 2 03:17:24 EDT 2001
A concise introduction to Islam
by Richard T. Nolan
[ENS] "Islam" is derived from the Arabic root salaama meaning peace,
purity, submission and obedience. Islam stands for making peace by
submitting to the will of God and obeying His law. Jews and Christians
view Islam as the latest of the world's great religions. However,
worldwide Muslims (sometimes written "Moslems") understand their
universal religion as the "final religion" and the "primal religion."
As "final," Islam is God's final revelation of prophetic religion, in
fulfillment of all that had preceded. Moses was given the Law; David
was given the Psalms; Jesus was given the Gospel. Judaism offers God's
message of justice, and Christianity proclaims the love of God. To
Mohammed (570-632 A.D.; spelled in a variety of ways) the God of
Abraham and Jesus revealed the Qur'an (Arabic for "recital," sometimes
written Koran). The Qur'an, written in Arabic, is the Sacred Scripture
of Islam, the perfection of all previous divine revelations, and is to
be understood literally as the direct words of God. In this sense of
scriptural literalism, all Muslims may be called "fundamentalists."
However, when referring to the aggressive behaviors of a few,
"militants" and "extremists" are better categories.
Muslims believe in all prophets of the Bible. The Qur'an itself
mentions the Torah and the Gospel as scriptures revealed by God to
Moses and Jesus. However, the Qur'an indicates that over time, changes
were made to the actual biblical texts, because of commentary blended
with the original text, as well as losses to the texts through
transmission and other causes. For these reasons, Muslims cannot rely
absolutely on the Torah and Gospels as sources of revelation, unless
they confirm what is in the Qur'an or at least are in harmony with it.
As "Seal of the Prophets" and apostle of Allah (which means "the God"
in Arabic), Mohammed is neither divine nor the focal point of Islam;
therefore, the religion should not be called Mohammedanism. For the one
billion or more Muslims (about six million in the United States), who
are of many racial and ethnic backgrounds--Arabs being a minority--
Islam is the middle way between Judaism and Christianity; it restores
the unity of the children of Abraham and overcomes the limitations of
Judaism and Christianity. Jesus, the prophet to "the lost sheep of
Israel," limits Christianity; Judaism is similarly limited. Islam
proclaims a practical synthesis of Judaism and Christianity for all
humanity. Overcoming the incompleteness of the justice of Judaism and
the idealistic love of Christianity, Islam brings to fulfillment all
that Judaism and Christianity anticipated. For the Muslim believer,
Islam is perfected Judaism and perfected Christianity.
As "primal," Islam is the authentic religion of Adam, of Abraham, and
of human nature. Islam is not younger than Judaism and Christianity; it
preceded both. Not only is it the religion of the "Spoken Book" (the
Qur'an), it is as well the religion of the "Created Book" (the fabric
of the universe itself). According to the Muslim faith, every person is
born a Muslim, and distortions of one's environment lead a person
astray to become a Christian, a Jew, or an unbeliever. To be human
means to be Muslim.
The doctrines underlying Islam include (1) belief in the God of
Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed; (2) belief in the Qur'an, which is
verbally infallible. According to the account, the angel Gabriel
appeared and revealed to Mohammed the contents of this sacred book over
several years. (3) belief in the prophets of Allah, of whom Mohammed is
the last and greatest and the one commissioned to deliver Allah's
message to humanity. Abraham, Moses, and Jesus of Nazareth also are
recognized prophets. Moreover, in the Qur'an Jesus is recognized as the
Messiah, and Mary is highly respected. (4) Belief in an afterlife when
all people will be judged for their deeds and brought to heaven or
condemned to hell.
Islam also teaches that peace should be established in the human
societies of this world. To participate with God in the establishment
of peace, Muslims are called upon to be engaged in jihad, meaning
"striving." The basic jihad is the struggle of the self, to speak about
one's faith, to bring it in obedience to God, and to make sure that one
is living a holy and righteous life. Another struggle is jihad as "holy
war" fought only when the faith is being attacked or when Muslims are
not allowed to practice their faith. Very few Muslims call for the
"jihad of the sword" even in circumstances they believe to be wrongful.
The ummah, or Islamic community or state, is the vibrant avenue for the
realization of God's Will and should serve as an example to the rest of
the world. In Islamic social theory, the ummah is formed from the
threefold consensus of its members: consensus of the mind, consensus of
the heart, and consensus of arms. The ummah is formed from the
consensus of minds in that all the members of the society share the
same view of reality. It is formed from the consensus of hearts in that
all members hold the same values. It is formed from the consensus of
arms in that all members exert themselves to actualize their values.
The Qur'an states plainly that the ummah is the preeminent of all human
communities given to mankind by God.
The "Five Pillars of Islam" (obligations or duties) are 1) the
confession of faith: "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his
messenger"; 2) prayer five times a day; 3) sharing of wealth or
almsgiving, practiced in a variety of ways; 4) fasting for reflection
and self-discipline during the month of Ramadan; and 5) pilgrimage to
Mecca, at least once in one's lifetime, if possible. Although there are
no clergy as such, a clerical class of religious scholars and local
religious leaders evolved. Muslims are called to prayer five times each
day, and on Friday it is preferred that the noon prayer be said in a
mosque (a place of gathering).
Shi'ites and Sunnis
After Mohammed died, a division arose over succession to the Prophet.
This resulted in the emergence of the Sunnis--now constituting about 90
percent of all Muslims--who consider themselves the orthodox branch of
Islam. The other group, the Shi'ites, who primarily live in Iran, also
consider themselves as authentic Muslims. Sunnis and Shi'ites differ on
the issue of succession and in some of their interpretations of the
Shari'ah (the straight path), a comprehensive code of morality and
religious duties based on the Qur'an and the Hadith (traditions of the
prophet's words and deeds). Characteristics of Shi'ite Islam include a
tradition of honorable martyrdom and, in times of crisis, the need to
employ strong action, including holy war. According to Shi'ite beliefs,
the government of a nation should be a theocracy--a government ruled by
God through the Imam (a special spiritual leader). As with any group,
Shi'ites include moderates and extremists.
Contemporary Islamic Issues
Issues facing Muslims on a global basis are of a practical nature and
have to do with Muslim society. Philosophical and theological concerns
continue to be of secondary importance, for the faith has already been
delivered in final form. However, there is conflict between
traditionalists and modernists.
Traditionalists are committed to the original beliefs and practices of
Islam, including faithfulness to a literal understanding of Qur'anic
law and its applications to contemporary life. Modernists believe that
the principles, goals, and fundamental purposes of religious law are
unchanging, but the specific forms in which the eternal truths are
expressed must change constantly in the face of changing human
Muslim leaders are divided over national loyalties. As a result of
colonialism, the Muslim world has broken into many nation states. Some
leaders approve of this development, but others fear that the unifying
spirit of Islam is betrayed by political nationalism. Although it has
had no centralized authority for centuries, Islam has retained a
remarkable spirit of unity. With the emerging variety of political
structures in the Muslim world, however, some believers-- probably a
minority--would prefer a more centralized leadership for religious
unity. Others believe that God alone should rule without any earthly
mediating authority. For their insights on file I am especially
grateful to my former Hartford Seminary colleagues, now retired, Drs.
Willem A. Bijlefeld and Marston Speight; and to Dr. Ingrid Mattson,
professor of Islamic Studies, Hartford Seminary.
http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/fund.html The Duncan
Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian- Muslim
Relations: http://macdonald.hartsem.edu/- See items by Bijlefeld,
Speight and Kerr in the contents on the left.
[The Rev. Dr. Richard T. Nolan is an Episcopal priest and an adjunct
professor of philosophy at Palm Beach Community College. This article
was originally written for The Net, the newspaper of the Episcopal
Diocese of Southeast Florida]
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