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THE RELIGION OF ISLAM


To God belong the East and West.
Wheresoe'er ye turn, there is the
Face of God. Verily God is all-embrasing
and all-knowing.

Qur'an, II, 115

Worship God as if thou sawest
Him, for if thou seest Him not, verily
He seeth thee.

The Prophet Muhammad

 


Islam is the third of the three Semitic monotheisms. It has its origin in the revelation which the Prophet Muhammad (571-631) - scion of a noble Arab tribe (the Quraish) settled in seventh-century Mecca - received from God through the intermediary of the Archangel Gabriel. This revelation came upon Muhammad when he was middle life, and he made it known progressively to his companions over a number of years. These intermitted utterances of the revelation were subsequently committed to writing, and constitute the Qur'an , the sacred book of Islam. For Islam, the Qur'an is the direct and immediate Word of God.


The language of Qur'an is Arabic, which is the sacred language of Islam. As such, it occupied an even more fundamental position in Islam than do the various liturgical languages (Latin, Greek etc.) in Christianity. Its role is more comparable to that of Sanskrit in Hinduism or Hebrew in Judaism. It is significant that Arabic is the most archaic of all the living Semitic languages: it's morphology is to be found in Hammurabi's code which is more or less contemporary with Abraham. The words of Qur'an have been faithfully preserved in the form in which they were originally received, even down to the minutest points of detail, and their recitation constitutes a 'liturgical' act. For this purpose only the original Arabic may be used, as translations have no liturgical validity.

Being the 'uncreated Word of God', it is the Qur'an, and not Muhammad, which is at the centre of the Islamic religion. This contrasts outwardly with Christianity, where it is Christ, and not the New Testament, who is at the centre. This contrast is purely outward, however, as in Christianity Christ is, precisely, the 'uncreated Word of God', and thus, in this respect, there is a far-reaching inward analogy. Herein lies the reason why an adherent of Christianity (which centred on Christ) is called a 'Christian', whereas an adherent of Islam (which is not, in the first instance, centred on Muhammad) is not properly designated by the term 'Muhammadan', but is called a 'Muslim'. 'Muslim' means 'one who submits' and 'Islam' means 'submission' (i.e. to God).
In Christianity, Christ is 'true Man and true God'. Using the same terminology, one could say that in Islam Muhammad is 'true Man' only. As we have seen, it is Qur'an and not Muhammad, that is divine. As Frithjof Schuon has pointed out, the role of Muhammad in Islam is in some ways analogous to that of the Virgin Mary in Christianity. The annunciation to Mary, like the revelation to Muhammad, came through the Archangel Gabriel. Mary, a virgin, produced a Son, while Muhammad's 'illiteracy', like Mary's virginity, is of profound metaphysical and spiritual significance.

Though Muhammad is viewed simply as a man, he is no ordinary man. Muslims speak of him as a 'jewel amongst stones', rather as Christians say benedicta tu in mulieribus of Mary.
As another level, of course, there is an obvious analogy between Muhammad and Christ, as each is the founder and 'revealer' of the respective religion. And, very characteristically, Muhammad's role as revealer and legislator is a strongly masculine one.

When one speaks of the 'Semitic monotheisms' (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), one is contrasting them with the 'Aryan mythologies', such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Following its revelation to Muhammad, Islam rapidly spread to become the religion of virtually all Arabs. Both Jews and Arabs, as Semitic peoples, belong to the posterity of Abraham, but whereas the Jews trace their descent from Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, the Arabs (including Muhammad) are descended from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar. Indeed the Ka'ba at Mecca was built by Abraham and Ishmael. Thus for Islam, Ishmael plays a cardinal and prophetic role.

As for Christianity, it was the 'Gentile' (or Aryan) Europeans who were destined to embrace it and thereby to become spiritually 'semiticized' - though never entirely losing a certain Aryan cast of spirit deriving from classical antiquity and moulded also by their Indo-European languages. A number of other Aryan peoples, such as the Persian and many Indians, were spiritually semiticized by their conversion to the religion of the Arab Prophet. In India, for example, the spiritual and psychological difference between the Aryan Hindus and the spiritually semiticized Muslims (even both belong to the selfsame Aryan race) is marked.
As has already been mentioned, the ultimate source of the Islamic religion is the Qur'an, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. A secondary source of Muslim doctrine and practice is the Wont (Sunna) of the Prophet. The Sunna included not only the customs and usages, but also the Sayings (or Traditions) of the Prophet (ahadith, sing. hadith). The latter are cardinal source of Muslim teaching. A particularly important type of hadith is the hadith qudsi in which God Himself speaks through the mouth of the Prophet. Such sayings, although of Divine inspiration, are distinct from the Quranic revelation.

The Sunna constitutes a norm form the whole of Islamic civilisation. Love of the Prophet (who is usually referred to as the 'Messenger of God', Rasulu' Llah) is much cultivated in Islam, and classically takes the form of conformity to his Sunna or Wont.

The central Message (risala) of Islam is the declaration of faith (shahada): ' There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God'. ( La ilaha illa 'Llah: Muhammadur Rasulu 'Llah). All Muslim doctrine and, above all, Sufi doctrine, derives from the shahada.

The Islamic Law or shari'a is characterised by the 'Five Pillars (arkan) of Islam'. These are faith, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage. Faith (iman) is assent to the shahada. Prayer (salat) is the canonical prayer that is observed five times daily (at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and night). Fasting (sawm) is the abstention from food and drink from dawn to sunset observed during the month of Ramadan. Almsgiving (zakat) is the giving of a portion of one's goods for charitable purposes. Pilgrimage (hajj) is the pilgrimage to the Ka'ba at Mecca which a Muslim should make, if possible, at least once in his lifetime. Sufism adds to the literal meaning of each of the Five Pillars a metaphysical and spiritual interpretation.

In addition to the Five Pillars of Islam, one should also mention the well-known Muslim prohibition of wine and pork. Wine is a 'good' thing in itself, as is proved by the fact that it is promised the faithful in Paradise, and also by the positive use which many Sufis have made of the imagery of wine and drunkenness to symbolise mystical states. In its negative aspect, however, it is the symbol of confusion or error. In the Semitic perspective it has a positive symbolism, although it should be noted that the wild boar is not covered by the prohibition. Gambling and usury are also forbidden by Islamic law. An interesting sidelight on Islamic attitudes is provided by fact that it is forbidden to men to wear gold and silk. These two precious substances are reserved for the use of women.

Another well known Islamic concept is that of the 'holy war' (jihad). Outwardly, this refers to the defence of the Islamic community. Inwardly or spiritually, it refers to the unseen warfare against the ego. The Prophet indicated the relationship of these two aspects of the holy when he remarked to his companions following a battle: 'We are returning from the lesser holy war (against our outward enemies), to the greater holy war (against ourselves)!'.

Islam accepts, and incorporates into itself, all antecedent prophets of Abrahamic lineage, up to and including Jesus and Mary. There are more references in the Qur'an to the Virgin Mary (Sayyidat-na Maryam) than in the New Testament. One of its chapters is even called after her.
The only important 'division' within Islam is that between Sunnis and Shi'is. Orthodox (Sunni) Islam recognises that the immediate successors (khalifas) to the Prophet Muhammad, as head of the Islamic community, are the four Caliphs, Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and 'Ali. The establishment and subsequent development of Islam as a world religion rests on the pattern set by these four holy patriarchs. Shi'is, on the contrary, reject the first three Caliphs and regard the fourth Caliph 'Ali as the only legitimate immediate successor to the Prophet, the chief reason being that 'Ali was of the 'family of the Prophet', since he was the latter's son-in-law.

The name Shi'a (the general term for Shi'is) comes from shi'atu 'Ali, 'the party of 'Ali. Though 'schismatical' from the Sunni point of view, Shi'ism retains virtually all the orthodox doctrines and practices of Islam apart, of course, from the major matter of rejecting the first three Caliphs. By diverging thus from official Islam, Shi'ism has developed a characteristic religious climate of its own - one which can be witnessed in Persia (where Shi'is predominate) and the other scattered areas where Shi'is are to be found. The great Sufi poets of Persia, however, such as Jalal ad-Din Rumi and Omar Khayyam were Sunnis.

From the time of the Crusades many Christians have considered Islam, bordering as it does on Christendom, to be a threat and rival to the latter. And yet Islam's record towards Christianity is a good one, and its age-old tolerance of Christians and Jewish communities ('People of the Book', ahl al-kitab) living in its midst is well known. Islam's attitude to Christianity has its root in Qur'an: 'You will find that the best friends of believers are those who say: "We are Christians". This is because there are priests and monks amongst them, and because they are not proud'. (Sura of the Table Spread, 85)

A modern testimony regarding one part of the Muslim world comes from a Catholic missionary: 'One can safely say.....that in Africa's Moslem millions there is a great fund of sincere religious sentiment and of good will towards non-Moslems'. The late Sir Abubakar Tafewa Balewa of Nigeria, on receiving a message of blessing from Pope Pius XII, kept the Bishops who presented it to him standing while he read and re-read the message, with tears flowing from his eyes.

Many of the Scholastic philosophers knew and valued the works of Islamic theologians. Dante used Islamic sources in the Divine Comedy. In more modern times, Pope Pius XI in despatching his Apostolic Delegate to Libya, said to them: 'Do not think you are going amongst infidels. Muslims attain to Salvation. The ways of God are infinite'. Pope Pius XII remarked how consoling it was to know that, all over the world, there were millions of people who, five times a day, bow down before God. Not long ago the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria, in the concluding words of a joint Pastoral Letter, afforded a good example of a just Christian attitude towards Islam: 'We express sentiment of fraternal love towards our Muslim fellow-citizens...... We appreciate their deep spirit of prayer and fasting..... We are united against tendencies towards materialism and secularism.'

It cannot be said too often that the religion of Islam stems entirely from the Qur'an. One of its translators, Marmaduke Pickthall, called it 'that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy'. In order to let the reader taste a little of the flavour of the Qur'an as directly as possible, this chapter will end with two characteristic passages, firstly in the original Arabic, and then in English translation.


Inna 'l-muslimina wa 'l-muslimati
wa 'l-mu'minina wa 'l-mu'minati
wa 'l-qanitina wa 'l-qanitati
wa 'sh-shadiqina wa 'sh-shadiqati
wa 'sh-shabirina wa 'sh-shabirati
wa 'l-khashi'ina wa 'l-khashi'ati
wa 'l-mutasaddiqina wa 'l-mutasaddiqati
wa 'sh-sha'imina wa 'sh-sha'imati
wa 'l-hafizina furuja-hum wa 'l-hafizati
wa 'dh-dharkirina 'Llaha kathiran wa 'dh-dhakirati
a' adda 'Llahu la-hum maghfiratan wa ajran 'aziman


Surat al-Ahzap, 35


Verily men who submit [to God] and women who submit,
and men who believe and women who believe,
and men who are devout and women who are devout,
and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth,
and men who are patient and women who are patient,
and men who are humble and women who are humble,
and men who give alms and women who give alms,
and men who fast and women who fast,
and men who guard their modesty and women who guard,
and men who remember God much and women who remember,
God has prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.

Sura of the Confederates, 35


Wa 'd-duha,
wa 'l-laili idha saja,
ma wadda'a-ka rabbu-ka wa ma qala,
wa la 'l-akhiratu khairun la-ka min al-ula,
wa la-saufa yu'ti-ka rabbu-ka fa-tarda
a lam yajid-ka yatiman fa-awa?
Wa wajada-ka dallan fa-hada?
Wa wajada-ka 'a'ilan fa-aghna?
Fa-amma 'l-yatima fa-la taqhar,
wa amma 's-sa'ila fa-la tanhar,
wa amma bi-ni'mati rabbi-ka fa-haddith.


Surat ad-Duha

By the brightness of day,
and by the night when it covereth,
thy Lord hath not forsaken thee nor doth He hate thee,
and verily the next world will be better for thee than this one,
and verily thy Lord will give unto thee so that thou wilt be content.
Did He not find thee an orphan and protect thee?
Did He not find thee wandering and direct thee?
Did He not find thee destitute and enrich thee?
Therefore the orphan oppress not,
therefore the beggar turn not away,
therefore of the bounty of Thy Lord be thy discourse.


Sura of the Brightness of Day


Selection of quotations relating to Sufism

(a) from the Qur'an

In the name of God, the Clement, the Merciful,
Praise be to God, the Lord of the worlds,
The Clement, the Merciful,
The owner of the Day of Judgement,
Thee we worship and in Thee we seek refuge.
Guide us upon the straight path
The path of those to whom Thou art gracious,
Not of those upon whom Thine anger hath fallen,
Nor of those who are astray.
The Opening Sura

He (God) is the First and the Last, the Outwardly Manifest
and the Inwardly Hidden.
Sura of Iron, 3

We (God) are nearer to him (man) than his jugular vein.
Sura of Qaf, 16
God is the light of the Heavens and the earth.
Sura of Light, 35

And bear with those who call on their Lord, morning and evening,
seeking His Face.
Sura of the Cave, 28

It is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts.
Sura of the Pilgrimage, 46


(b) from the Traditions (ahadith)

Verily My mercy taketh precedence over My wrath.
hadith qudsi

My Heaven cannot contain Me, nor can My earth, but the heart of My believing slave can contain Me.
hadith qudsi

God is beautiful, and He loves beauty.

All that is beautiful comes from the beauty of God.

The heart of man is the Throne of God.

Whose knoweth himself, knoweth his Lord.

Be in this world as a stranger or as a passer-by.


(c) from the Sufis


My heart has opened unto every form: it is a pasture for gazelles, a cloister for Christian monks, a temple for idols, the Ka'ba of the pilgrim, the tables of the Torah and the book of Qur'an. I practice the religion of Love; in whatsoever directions its caravans advance, the religion of Love shall be my religion and my faith.
Muhyi 'd-Din ibn 'Arabi (d.1240)


The end of knowledge is that man comes to the point where he was at the origin.
Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d. 875)


I saw my Lord with the eye of the heart. I said: Who art Thou?
He answered: Thou.
Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 922)

 



 
Last updated: May 9, 2004
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