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Islam: About Islam

Islam stands as one of the major religions of the world and may possibly be the major religion of the world. Like Christianity and Buddhism, it is an international cultural form that is integrally rooted in the culture of a single people, the Arabs. Unlike Christianity and Buddhism, however, Islam has maintained strong cultural roots in its Arabic origins even down to the language of its foundation. While no Christian alive knows a single word of Christ's teachings in the Aramaic or Hebrew that Christ spoke, and only a few Buddhists can move easily within the Pali that Siddhartha spoke, nearly every Muslim from Muhammad to the present day begins and ends each day with the magisterial cadences of the Arabic words spoken by Muhammad as revelation.

The sacred text of the Muslims, the Qur'an, or "Recitation," is, unlike either the New Testament or the teachings of Buddha, absolutely authoritative and subject to no questions since its redaction only a couple decades after the death of Muhammad. The Christian New Testament, in contrast, circulated in numerous and contradictory formats so that the present version is highly suspect and frequently inharmonious; the various schools of Buddhism are often at loggerheads over the legitimacy of various teachings—these disputed teachings sometimes form the core of separate movements. In addition to language and text, at the heart of Islam is the Arabic vision of the world and society. Codified only a couple hundred years after the foundation of Islam, the Shari'ah, or law of Islam installed permanently the Arabic order of society on subsequent generations. The genius of Islam, then, is fundamentally the genius of the Arabs; the cadences of Islam are the cadences of the Arabic language; the universe of Islam was one forged in the mind of Arabic culture. This is the heritage that we'll explore over countless centuries, this diffusion of Arabic genius throughout the Middle East, Africa, Europe, India, China, and finally, the Americas as a late but integral chapter in the African Diaspora.

We will first start, however, with the Arabs themselves: merchants, raiders, nomads, and city-dwellers, living at the crossroads of empires and cultures. For Arabic culture was a "multiculture," as nomadic, tribal Arabs lived side by side with Jews, Greeks, Christians, and Persians. The unique character of Islam and the real genius of Muhammad will involve the fusion of the multiple cultures into a coherent whole, a vision of the universe and human life that would eventually become the dominant social and religious reality in the human world.

But what is Islam as a faith? How can it be simplified or reduced to a single system? Unlike Christianity and Buddhism, reducing Islam as faith to a single set of principles is relatively easy because the faith has remained relatively intact from its origins to the present day in its fundamentals. While one can clearly distinguish foundational Christianity as a belief system from early Christianity, and modern Christianity as a set of beliefs appears to have almost nothing in common with either foundational or early Christianity, there's a remarkable coherence in the historical development of Islam. While one can speak of foundational Islam and distinguish this from later Islam, for the most part the similarities between the two outnumber the differences. One finds, then, that a definition of foundational Islam as represented in the Qur'an and in the sayings and actions of Muhammad, called the Sunnah, can more or less be applied to Islam as a whole.

Foundational Islam has the following characteristics:

  • Islam is monotheistic. The overwhelming message of Islam is that there is one and only one god, that this god is single and unified (tawhid). This thesis is represented in the first half of the Muslim testament of faith: "there is no god but god." The primary duty of humanity is to remember that there is only one god in all one's thoughts, words, and actions; this remembrance, which is the cornerstone of Islam, is called dhikr. Islam, however, does not reject other religions. Fundamental to the Islamic message is that all religions are based on the singularity and unity of God; some religions, however, have fallen away from this message (such as Christianity which divides God into Father and Son), but the essential message of all religions is this unity of God.

  • Islam is creationist. The universe in Islam is a creation of God and is separate from God. The relationship of the world (including humanity) to God is the relationship between created and creator. While God is not present in the world (immanentalism), still the world reflects the nature and guidance of God.

  • Islam is transcendentalist. Although God created the universe, God is still absolutely separate from creation—to postulate that God was part of the changeable world would be to contradict the unity, singularity, and unchangeableness of God. Transcendentalism, however, postulates more than just an absolute separation. It also describes a relationship between the creator god and creation. In a transcendental relationship, the transcendent term (God) is absolutely independent of the non-transcendent term (creation); however, the non-transcendent term (creation) only has existence, meaning, or value in relationship to the transcendent term (God). To say that God is transcendent in Islam is to say that God is separate, distinct, and independent from the created universe, but that the created universe, though entirely separate from God, is nonetheless dependent on God for its existence and value.

  • Islam is rationalistic. At the foundation of Islam is the principle of iman or faith. This word, however, is untranslatable into English or other European langauges since "faith" is rooted in Christianity. In Christianity, faith is "super-rational," that is, it exists above the level of rationality; human rationality is construed as fundamentally useless foundational Christianity ("the wisdom of the world is the wisdom of fools"). Islam, however, postulates that rationality is the highest function given to human beings and that no "faith" is legitimate without it. What iman means, then, is something closer to "reasoned faith." It is expected that each and every Muslim will carefully weigh the alternatives and, after exercising their reason on the contents of their faith, will be ultimately persuaded of the rightness of their faith.

  • Islam is submission. The word, islam, means "submission," and a muslim is "one who submits." Islam is the submission of one's actions and thoughts to God. In general, submission refers to the ritualistic rules that each and every Muslim must obey; these rituals, however, are primarily symbolic of one's submission to the will of God. Submission to God is displayed in each and every action; the law (Shari'a) built off of the text of the Qur'an and the various precepts in the Sunnah is to be obeyed in every respect.

  • Islam is androcentric. The most important aspect of creation in Islam is humanity, which is the "viceregent of God on earth." While Islam adopts the Judeo-Christian idea of the fall, humanity is in general glorified in foundational and later Islam. Despite the Fall, humanity has the power to discern the unity of God and the reflection of the nature of God in creation. At the core of the Islamic message is that it is possible for human beings to live a perfect life in relationship to God—the life of Muhammad was one such perfect life and the concern with recording and remembering all of Muhammad's actions argues that each individual Muslim could imitate Muhammad. In Islam, the dignity of humanity is one of the most recurring themes of the religion.

  • Islam is world-affirming. As a corollary to the generally optimistic view that Islam takes towards humanity, it also construes the created world as fundamentally a good place that was designed for the use and enjoyment of humanity. The use and enjoyment of the world, then, is not a spiritual falling-away, as it is in Christianity, but an active part of the religious life if it is used with the right intention. This includes sexuality, for even Muhammad was married and had sexual relations. This world-affirming aspect of Islam would have far-reaching consequences in the culture of Islam. While Christian Europe, for instance, largely abandoned Greek and Roman science and mercantilism, both of these were preserved and thrived in the Islamic world.

  • Islam is an afterlife religion. Strictly speaking, Islam is not a "salvation" religion even though the religion is ruthlessly focussed on the afterlife. The goal of individual life is to attain an afterlife within one of the heavens described in the Qur'an and to avoid one of the numerous hells. Salvation religions, however, postulate that admission to paradise or a good afterlife is almost solely in the control of god or some god; in Islam, however, one's afterlife is in large part determined by the sum of one's activities in this life over which one has complete responsibility. In that sense, it's not fair to describe Islam as a salvation religion; unlike salvation religions, Islam requires the active, ethical participation of the faithful in every circumstance of the conduct of their lives.

  • Islam is eschatological. In the Islamic view of history, time is finite and follows an overall, predetermined course. Each human age begins with the foundation of a new religion founded on the unity of God; each new religion is introduced by a rasul or "messenger." Following the introduction of this new monotheism, humanity gradually falls away and the religion becomes corrupt. Periodically, God sends "prophets" to renew the original vigor of the monotheistic religion, but the overall course is a decline in the monotheistic vision. At the lowest stage of decline, God sends another "messenger" that renews monotheism by creating a new religion; the sixth "messenger" was Jesus Christ and the seventh, and last, was Muhammad. At the end of the seventh period, when the new religion has declined, history will come to an end. At the end of history, all humans will be judged based on the contents of their lives, both in terms of faith, submission, and ethical actions, and will be permanently assigned to a place of punishment or one of many paradises.

  • Islam is ethical. Like Christianity, foundational Islam is overwhelmingly concerned with individuals as ethical agents. The Qur'an itself deals primarily with two subjects: the unity of God and human ethical responsibilities to the community. In addition, the Sunnah, being both sayings and actions of Muhammad, is meant to be a guide to practical living in the here and now. The Qur'an, then, in most of its history has been primarily used as a guide for behavior and social organization. Unlike foundational Christianity, the ethical imperatives of Islam are communal rather than individualistic.

  • Islam is societistic. Perhaps stemming from the fact that Islam arises in a predominately tribal culture organized around kinship lines, the religion is primarily focused on the community and society rather than the individual. While the individual is responsible for his or her salvation, Islam requires that each individual participate in the moral life of the community. If one were to sum up the societistic responsibility of the Muslim it would be this: it is incumbent on each Muslim to "islamicize" society, that is, to bring the life of society in line with the ethical philosophy contained in the Qur'an and the Sunnah.

  • Islam is primarily exoteric. Islam is primarily an exoteric religion: it is focussed on the community of the faithful rather than limited to exceptional individuals. The rituals and ethical guidelines are meant for everybody and salvation through individual exertion is available to all. Foundational and later Islam, however, does recognize a hierarchy among the faithful: there are the "nobility," or spiritually more perfect, and the "common" faithful, or spiritually less perfect.

  • Islam is both exterioristic and interioristic. Islam requires of its believers both an outward and an inward conformance to the rules and practices of the faith. Unlike foundational Christianity, Islam doesn't fully reject the rigorous and faithful observance of rituals and ethical practices, but like Christianity, Islam understands that these rituals and ethical practices can be done mechanically, that is, that they don't reflect the interior state of the individual. For this reason, Islam requires that all rituals and behaviors be accompanied by the "right intention." While this can't be measured by exterior actions, anyone wo doesn't perform the rituals and ethical behaviors are certainly proving that they don't have the right intentions.

  • Islam is egalitarian. Like Christianity, Islam is based on the fundamental notion that each human being is spiritually equal to every other human being in the eyes of God. The rituals of Islam, from daily prayers to the pilgrimage to Mecca, are meant to stress this spiritual egalitarianism. This spiritual egalitarianism, however, does not mean social egalitarianism. Social distinctions and subordination, such as the subordination of women to men, are seen as necessary to the maintenance of society, order, and morality.

Sources: Islam from Washington State University, ©Richard Hooker, reprinted by permission.