Islām—The Way to God by Submission
“IN THE name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.” This sentence translates the Arabic text, above, from the Qurʼān. It continues: “Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds: The Beneficent, the Merciful: Owner of the Day of Judgement. Thee (alone) we worship; Thee (alone) we ask for help. Show us the straight path: The path of those whom Thou hast favoured; Not (the path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.”—The Qurʼān, surah 1:1-7, MMP.
These words form Al-Fātiḥah (“The Opening”), the first chapter, or surah, of the Muslim holy book, the Holy Qurʼān, or Koran. Since more than 1 in 6 of the world’s population is Muslim and devout Muslims repeat these verses more than once in each of their five daily prayers, these must be among the most recited words on earth.
According to one source, there are over 900 million Muslims in the world, making Islām second only to the Roman Catholic Church in numbers. It is perhaps the fastest growing major religion in the world, with an expanding Muslim movement in Africa and the Western world.
The name Islām is significant to a Muslim, for it means “submission,” “surrender,” or “commitment” to Allāh, and according to one historian, “it expresses the innermost attitude of those who have hearkened to the preaching of Mohammed.” “Muslim” means ‘one who makes or does Islām.’
Muslims believe that their faith is the culmination of the revelations given to the faithful Hebrews and Christians of old. However, their teachings diverge from the Bible on some points, even though they cite both the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures in the Qurʼān. (See box, page 285.) To understand the Muslim faith better, we need to know how, where, and when this religion started.
Muḥammad was born in Mecca (Arabic, Makkah), Saudi Arabia, about 570 C.E. His father, ʽAbd Allāh, died before Muḥammad’s birth. His mother, Āminah, died when he was about six years old. At that time the Arabs practiced a form of worship of Allāh that was centered in the Mecca valley, at the sacred site of the Kaʽbah, a simple cubelike building where a black meteorite was revered. According to Islāmic tradition, “the Kaʽbah was originally built by Adam according to a celestial prototype and after the Deluge rebuilt by Abraham and Ishmael.” (History of the Arabs, by Philip K. Hitti) It became a sanctuary for 360 idols, one for each day of the lunar year.
As Muḥammad grew up, he questioned the religious practices of his day. John Noss, in his book Man’s Religions, states: “[Muḥammad] was disturbed by incessant quarreling in the avowed interests of religion and honor among the Quraysh chiefs [Muḥammad belonged to that tribe]. Stronger still was his dissatisfaction with the primitive survivals in Arabian religion, the idolatrous polytheism and animism, the immorality at religious convocations and fairs, the drinking, gambling, and dancing that were fashionable, and the burial alive of unwanted infant daughters practiced not only in Mecca but throughout Arabia.”—Surah 6:137.
Muḥammad’s call to be a prophet took place when he was about 40 years of age. He had the custom of going alone to a nearby mountain cave, called Ghār Ḥirāʼ, for meditation, and he claimed that it was on one of these occasions that he received the call to be a prophet. Muslim tradition relates that while he was there, an angel, later identified as Gabriel, commanded him to recite in the name of Allāh. Muḥammad failed to respond, so the angel ‘caught him forcefully and pressed him so hard that he could not bear it anymore.’ Then the angel repeated the command. Again, Muḥammad failed to react, so the angel ‘choked him’ again. This occurred three times before Muḥammad started to recite what came to be viewed as the first of a series of revelations that constitute the Qurʼān. Another tradition relates that divine inspiration was revealed to Muḥammad like the ringing of a bell.—The Book of Revelation from Ṣaḥīḥ Al-Bukhārī.
Revelation of the Qurʼān
What is said to have been the first revelation received by Muḥammad? Islāmic authorities generally agree that it was the first five verses of surah 96, entitled Al-‘Alaq, “The Clot [of Blood],” which reads:
“In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
Read: In the name of thy Lord who created.
Created man from a clot.
Read: And thy Lord is the Most Bounteous,
Who taught by the pen,
Taught man that which he knew not.”—MMP.
According to the Arabic source The Book of Revelation, Muḥammad answered, “I do not know how to read.” Therefore, he had to memorize the revelations so that he could repeat and recite them. The Arabs were skilled in the use of memory, and Muḥammad was no exception. How long did it take for him to receive the complete message of the Qurʼān? It is generally believed that the revelations came during a period of some 20 to 23 years, from about 610 C.E. to his death in 632 C.E.
Muslim sources explain that upon receiving each revelation, Muḥammad immediately recited it to those who happened to be near. These in turn committed the revelation to memory and by recitation kept it alive. Since the manufacture of paper was unknown to the Arabs, Muḥammad had the revelations written down by scribes on the primitive materials then available, such as shoulder blades of camels, palm leaves, wood, and parchment. However, it was not until after the prophet’s death that the Qurʼān took its present form, under the guidance of Muḥammad’s successors and companions. This was during the rule of the first three caliphs, or Muslim leaders.
Translator Muhammad Pickthall writes: “All the surahs of the Qurʼan had been recorded in writing before the Prophet’s death, and many Muslims had committed the whole Qurʼan to memory. But the written surahs were dispersed among the people; and when, in a battle . . . a large number of those who knew the whole Qurʼan by heart were killed, a collection of the whole Qurʼan was made and put in writing.”
Islāmic life is governed by three authorities—the Qurʼān, the Ḥadīth, and the Sharīʽah. Muslims believe that the Qurʼān in Arabic is the purest form of the revelation, since, they say, it was the language used by God in speaking through Gabriel. Surah 43:3 states: “We have made it a Qur-ān in Arabic, that ye may be able to understand (and learn wisdom).” (AYA) Thus, any translation is viewed as only a dilution that involves a loss of purity. In fact, some Islāmic scholars refuse to translate the Qurʼān. Their viewpoint is that “to translate is always to betray,” and therefore, “Muslims have always deprecated and at times prohibited any attempt to render it in another language,” states Dr. J. A. Williams, lecturer on Islāmic history.
Muḥammad founded his new faith against great odds. The people of Mecca, even of his own tribe, rejected him. After 13 years of persecution and hatred, he moved his center of activity north to Yathrib, which then became known as al-Madīnah (Medina), the city of the prophet. This emigration, or the hijrah, in 622 C.E. marked a significant point in Islāmic history, and the date was later adopted as the starting point for the Islāmic calendar.
Eventually, Muḥammad achieved dominance when Mecca surrendered to him in January of 630 C.E. (8 A.H.) and he became its ruler. With the reins of secular and religious control in his hands, he was able to clean out the idolatrous images from the Kaʽbah and establish it as the focal point for pilgrimages to Mecca that continue down to this day.—See pages 289, 303.
Within a few decades of Muḥammad’s death in 632 C.E., Islām had spread as far as Afghanistan and even to Tunisia in North Africa. By the early eighth century, the faith of the Qurʼān had penetrated into Spain and was at the French border. As Professor Ninian Smart stated in his book Background to the Long Search: “Looked at from a human point of view, the achievement of an Arabian prophet living in the sixth and seventh centuries after Christ is staggering. Humanly, it was from him that a new civilisation flowed. But of course for the Muslim the work was divine and the achievement that of Allah.
”Muḥammad’s Death Leads to Division...
The prophet’s death provoked a crisis. He died without any male progeny and without a clearly designated successor. As Philip Hitti states: “The caliphate [office of caliph] is therefore the oldest problem Islam had to face. It is still a living issue. . . . In the words of Muslim historian al-Shahrastāni [1086-1153]: ‘Never was there an Islamic issue which brought about more bloodshed than the caliphate (imāmah).’” How was the problem solved back there in 632 C.E.? “Abu-Bakr . . . was designated (June 8, 632) Muḥammad’s successor by some form of election in which those leaders present at the capital, al-Madīnah, took part.”—History of the Arabs.
The successor to the prophet would be a ruler, a khalīfah, or caliph. However, the question of the true successors to Muḥammad became a cause for divisions in the ranks of Islām. The Sunnī Muslims accept the principle of elective office rather than blood descent from the prophet. Therefore they believe that the first three caliphs, Abū Bakr (Muḥammad’s father-in-law), ʽUmar (the prophet’s adviser), and ʽUthmān (the prophet’s son-in-law), were the legitimate successors to Muḥammad.
That claim is contested by the Shīʽite Muslims, who say that the true leadership comes through the prophet’s blood line and through his cousin and son-in-law, ʽAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, the first imām (leader and successor), who married Muḥammad’s favorite daughter, Fāṭimah. Their marriage produced Muḥammad’s grandsons Ḥasan and Ḥusayn. The Shīʽites also claim “that from the beginning Allah and His Prophet had clearly designated ʽAli as the only legitimate successor but that the first three caliphs had cheated him out of his rightful office.” (History of the Arabs) Of course, the Sunnī Muslims view that differently.
What happened to ʽAlī? During his rule as the fourth caliph (656-661 C.E.), a struggle over leadership arose between him and the governor of Syria, Muʽāwiyah. They joined battle, and then to spare further Muslim bloodshed, they threw their dispute open to arbitration. ʽAlī’s acceptance of arbitration weakened his case and alienated many of his followers, including the Khawārij (Seceders), who became his deadly foes. In the year 661 C.E., ʽAlī was murdered with a poisoned sabre by a Khārijī zealot. The two groups (the Sunnī and the Shīʽah) were at loggerheads. The Sunnī branch of Islām then chose a leader from the Umayyads, wealthy Meccan chiefs, who were outside of the prophet’s family.
For the Shīʽah, ʽAlī’s firstborn, Ḥasan, the prophet’s grandson, was the true successor. However, he resigned and was murdered. His brother Ḥusayn became the new imām, but he too was killed, by Umayyad troops on October 10, 680 C.E. His death or martyrdom, as the Shīʽah view it, has had a significant effect on the Shīʽat ʽAlī, the party of ʽAlī, down to this day. They believe that ʽAlī was the true successor to Muḥammad and the first “imām [leader] divinely protected against error and sin.” ʽAlī and his successors were considered by the Shīʽah to be infallible teachers with “the divine gift of impeccability.” The largest segment of the Shīʽah believe that there have been only 12 true imāms, and the last of these, Muḥammad al-Muntaẓar, disappeared (878 C.E.) “in the cave of the great mosque at Sāmarra without leaving offspring.” Thus “he became ‘the hidden (mustatir)’ or ‘the expected (muntaẓar) imām.’ . . . In due time he will appear as the Mahdi (divinely guided one) to restore true Islam, conquer the whole world and usher in a short millennium before the end of all things.”—History of the Arabs.
Every year, the Shīʽah commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn. They have processions in which some cut themselves with knives and swords and otherwise inflict suffering on themselves. In more modern times, Shīʽite Muslims have received much publicity because of their zeal for Islāmic causes. However, they represent only about 20 percent of the world’s Muslims, the majority being Sunnī Muslims. But now, let us turn to some of the teachings of Islām and note how the Islāmic faith affects the daily conduct of Muslims.
God Is Supreme, Not Jesus
The three major monotheistic religions of the world are Judaism, Christianity, and Islām. But by the time Muḥammad appeared toward the beginning of the seventh century C.E., the first two religions, as far as he was concerned, had wandered from the path of truth. In fact, according to some Islāmic commentators, the Qurʼān implies rejection of Jews and of Christians in stating: “Not (the path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.” (Surah 1:7, MMP) Why is that?
A Qurʼānic commentary states: “The People of the Book went wrong: The Jews in breaking their Covenant, and slandering Mary and Jesus . . . and the Christians in raising Jesus the Apostle to equality with God” by means of the Trinity doctrine.—Surah 4:153-176, AYA.
The principal teaching of Islām, for utter simplicity, is what is known as the shahādah, or confession of faith, which every Muslim knows by heart: “La ilāh illa Allāh; Muḥammad rasūl Allāh” (No god but Allah; Muḥammad is the messenger of Allah). This agrees with the Qurʼānic expression, “Your God is One God; there is no God save Him, the Beneficent, the Merciful.” (Surah 2:163, MMP) This thought was stated 2,000 years earlier with the ancient call to Israel: “Listen, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) Jesus repeated this foremost command, which is recorded at Mark 12:29, about 600 years before Muḥammad, and nowhere did Jesus claim to be God or to be equal to Him.—Mark 13:32; John 14:28; 1 Corinthians 15:28.
Regarding God’s uniqueness, the Qurʼān states: “So believe in God and His apostles. Say not ‘Trinity’: desist: it will be better for you: for God is One God.” (Surah 4:171, AYA) However, we should note that true Christianity does not teach a Trinity. That is a doctrine of pagan origin introduced by apostates of Christendom after the death of Christ and the apostles.—See Chapter 11.
Soul, Resurrection, Paradise, and Hellfire.
Islām teaches that man has a soul that goes on to a hereafter. The Qurʼān states: “Allah receiveth (men’s) souls at the time of their death, and that (soul) which dieth not (yet) in its sleep. He keepeth that (soul) for which He hath ordained death.” (Surah 39:42, MMP) At the same time, surah 75 is entirely devoted to “Qiyāmat, or the Resurrection” (AYA), or “The Rising of the Dead” (MMP). In part it says: “I do call to witness the Resurrection Day . . . Does man think that We cannot assemble his bones? . . . He questions: ‘When is the Day of Resurrection?’ . . . Has not He [Allāh] the power to give life to the dead?”—Surah 75:1, 3, 6, 40, AYA.
According to the Qurʼān, the soul can have different destinies, which can be either a heavenly garden of paradise or the punishment of a burning hell. As the Qurʼān states: “They ask: When is the Day of Judgement? (It is) the day when they will be tormented at the Fire, (and it will be said unto them): Taste your torment (which ye inflicted).” (Surah 51:12-14, MMP) “For them [the sinners] is torment in the life of the world, and verily the doom of the Hereafter is more painful, and they have no defender from Allah.” (Surah 13:34, MMP) The question is asked: “And what will explain to thee what this is? (It is) a Fire blazing fiercely!” (Surah 101:10, 11, AYA) This dire fate is described in detail: “Lo! Those who disbelieve Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment. Lo! Allah is ever Mighty, Wise.” (Surah 4:56, MMP) A further description states: “Lo! hell lurketh in ambush . . . They will abide therein for ages. Therein taste they neither coolness nor (any) drink save boiling water and a paralysing cold.”—Surah 78:21, 23-25, MMP.
Muslims believe that a dead person’s soul goes to the Barzakh, or “Partition,” “the place or state in which people will be after death and before Judgment.” (Surah 23:99, 100, AYA, footnote) The soul is conscious there experiencing what is termed the “Chastisement of the Tomb” if the person had been wicked, or enjoying happiness if he had been faithful. But the faithful ones must also experience some torment because of their few sins while alive. On the judgment day, each faces his eternal destiny, which ends that intermediate state.
In contrast, the righteous are promised heavenly gardens of paradise: “And as for those who believe and do good works, We shall make them enter Gardens underneath which rivers flow to dwell therein for ever.” (Surah 4:57, MMP) “On that day the dwellers of Paradise shall think of nothing but their bliss. Together with their wives, they shall recline in shady groves upon soft couches.” (Surah 36:55, 56, NJD) “Before this We wrote in the Psalms, after the Message (given to Moses): ‘My servants, the righteous, shall inherit the earth.’” The footnote to this surah refers the reader to Psalm 25:13 and 37:11, 29, as well as to the words of Jesus at Matthew 5:5. (Surah 21:105, AYA) The reference to wives now makes us turn to another question.
Monogamy or Polygamy?
Is polygamy the rule among Muslims? While the Qurʼān permits polygamy, many Muslims have only one wife. Because of the numerous widows that were left after costly battles, the Qurʼān made room for polygamy: “And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hands possess.” (Surah 4:3, MMP) A biography of Muḥammad by Ibn-Hishām mentions that Muḥammad married a wealthy widow, Khadījah, 15 years his senior. After her death he married many women. When he died he left nine widows.
Another form of marriage in Islām is called mutʽah. It is defined as “a special contract concluded between a man and a woman through offer and acceptance of marriage for a limited period and with a specified dowry like the contract for permanent marriage.” (Islamuna, by Muṣṭafā al-Rāfiʽī) The Sunnīs call it a marriage for pleasure, and the Shīʽah, a marriage to be terminated in a specific period. States the same source: “The children [of such marriages] are legitimate and have the same rights as the children of a permanent marriage.” Apparently this form of temporary marriage was practiced in Muḥammad’s day, and he allowed it. Sunnīs insist that it was prohibited later, while the Imāmīs, the largest Shīʽite group, believe that it is still in effect. In fact, many practice it, especially when a man is absent from his wife for a long period of time.
Islām and Daily Life
Islām involves five pillars, or principal obligations, and six basic beliefs. (See boxes, pages 296, 303.) One of the obligations is that the devout Muslim turn to Mecca five times a day in prayer (ṣalāt). On the Muslim sabbath (Friday), the men flock to the mosque for prayer when they hear the haunting call of the muezzin from the minaret of the mosque. Nowadays many mosques play a recording rather than have a live voice give the call.
The mosque (Arabic, masjid) is the Muslim place of worship, described by King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia as “the cornerstone for the call to God.” He defined the mosque as “a place of prayer, study, legal and judicial activities, consultation, preaching, guidance, education and preparation. . . . The mosque is the heart of Muslim society.” These places of worship are now found all over the world. One of the most famous in history is the Mezquita (Mosque) of Córdoba, Spain, which for centuries was the largest in the world. Its central portion is now occupied by a Catholic cathedral.
Conflict With and Within Christendom...
Beginning in the seventh century, Islām spread westward into North Africa, eastward to Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, and down to Indonesia. As it did so, it entered into conflict with a militant Catholic Church, which organized Crusades to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims. In 1492 Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain completed the Catholic reconquest of Spain. Muslims and Jews had to convert or be expelled from Spain. The mutual tolerance that had existed under Muslim rule in Spain later evaporated under the influence of the Catholic Inquisition. However, Islām survived and in the 20th century has experienced resurgence and great growth.
While Islām was expanding, the Catholic Church was going through its own turmoil, trying to keep unity in its ranks. But two powerful influences were about to burst on the scene, and they would shatter even further the monolithic image of that church. They were the printing press and the Bible in the language of the people.