This week, millions of Muslims are in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the Hajj, an annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest place. With much of the world watching their journey, we decided to take a two-part look “Inside Islam.” Today: Islam’s core beliefs. Tomorrow: its early history.
More than a billion people call themselves Muslim. Of all the world’s religions, only Christianity claims more believers. So, what’s Islam all about? In a word, “surrender.”
In the Beginning
Islam began with the visions of Muhammad (“the Prophet”), a merchant born in the year 570 in Mecca, Arabia (now Saudi Arabia). One day, at the age of 40, Muhammad was meditating in the mountains surrounding Mecca when an angel appeared to him and said, “You are the messenger of God.” Until his death in 632, Muhammad frequently experienced visions that he believed came either directly from God or from the angel Gabriel.
The term “Islam,” Arabic for “surrender” or “submission,” suggests much of what Muhammad saw in his visions. Humans were created to serve and be obedient to God, but in their pride they presume equal partnership with the divine, or reject God entirely. The believer, by contrast, finds salvation in surrendering to God’s will.
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None of this should sound foreign to Jewish or Christian ears. In fact, Muhammad accepted much of the religious history of Judaism and Christianity, but said those religions had failed to fully accept God’s word. Muslims view Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as prophets in a series that culminated in the last prophet, Muhammad, who proclaimed Allah’s religion in its final and most perfect form.
“There Is No God But God”
Islam’s scripture is called the Qur’an (“reading”). Originally memorized and communicated orally, it was written down a few decades after Muhammad’s death. The words of the Qur’an are believed to be God’s own, dictated to Muhammad for him to learn verse by verse. Because of this, Muslims believe it cannot be successfully translated from Arabic. Translations of the Qur’an into other languages are regarded as paraphrases and not used for ritual purposes.
Muslims can also look for guidance in the Hadith (“report”), a collection of the words and deeds of the Prophet and his family. A third source of guidance, known as ijma (“consensus”), began to develop in the 8th century to standardize Islamic law and belief. Between the Qur’an, Hadith, and ijma, Islam is held to provide a complete blueprint for human society, encompassing guidelines not only for belief and behavior but for society and government as well.
The Qur’an and Hadith spell out the essential duties of a Muslim, known as the Five Pillars of Islam. These duties are:
1. Shahada, the profession of faith that “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.” This profession of faith must be pronounced at least once in a lifetime, with a full understanding of its meaning and inner assent to its truth.
2. Salat, the ritual prayer performed five times a day–at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, evening, and night–while facing toward Mecca. On Fridays, there are services in the mosque, with sermons based on verses from the Qur’an.
3. Zakat, alms to benefit the poor and needy. Islam regards charity and other social service as essential; prayer and professed faith are nothing in the absence of good works.
4. Sawm, fasting, obligatory between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramadan and recommended at other times. All healthy adult Muslims, excluding pregnant women, abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex during the fast.
5. Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims must perform at least once in their lives if they can afford it. More than 2 million Muslims converge on Mecca each year.
For some Muslims, jihad (“fighting” or “striving”) represents a virtual sixth pillar, though the concept has been interpreted in various ways. Islamic tradition says that jihad can be fulfilled by the heart (struggling against one’s own evil impulses); by the tongue and the hand (supporting what is right and correcting what is wrong); or by the sword (combating the enemies of Islam).
People of the Book
From its beginning, Islam has had a special relationship with Judaism and Christianity. Jews and Christians are numbered among the “people of the Book” (that is, they too have a relationship with God), and while they do not enjoy full rights in Muslim states, tradition dictates that as long as they pay a special tax (the jizya), their beliefs should be tolerated.
The three religions overlap in space as well. The most sacred place for Muslims is the Sacred Mosque at Mecca, which contains an ancient shrine known as the Ka’ba believed to have been built by Abraham. Second in sanctity is the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, where Muhammad is buried. Jerusalem is also a holy city and the place from which Muhammad is said to have made an ascent into heaven.
Sunni or Shi’ite?
After Muhammad died, the struggle to determine who would lead his followers was long and violent. Eventually, the community chose a leader, called the caliph, to rule the temporal and spiritual affairs of all Muslims. The fourth caliph was Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, but he was killed trying to maintain his authority, and the caliphate passed to people not related to Muhammad.
This led to the first and greatest split within the Muslim community. Shi’ite Muslims hold that only descendents of Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law (and, they believe, chosen successor), can rule as caliph. The majority Sunnis, on the other hand, will accept the authority of any caliph who rules according to Islamic precepts. Over time, the Sunnis and Shi’ites have developed doctrinal differences as well. Most notably, Shi’ites believe that a messianic figure called the Mahdi will return at the end of time to institute a golden age and usher in God’s judgment.
January 10, 2006
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