The Basic Concepts in Islam

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The word Islam is derived from the triliteral root SLM, which means "submission" or "peace," in this case, something to the effect of "the peace that comes through submission to God." A Muslim, therefore, is "one who submits." Semitic language patterns (Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew) are interrelated and very similar to one another: the Hebrew Shalom ("peace"), for example, is derived from the same triliteral root (iSLaM, muSLiM, SaLaM, ShaLoM).

The central human/historical figure of Islam is the prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE). According to tradition, in 610 CE Muhammad heard a voice that called upon him "to recite." "What shall I recite?" he asked. The answer came in the form of revelations and visions from God (Allah) through the angel Gabriel over the next twenty-plus years, beginning in Mecca, in what we know today as Saudi Arabia. For twelve years Muhammad preached Allah's message in Mecca; but because of the increasingly hostile reaction to his message, Muhammad was forced to flee to Medina (Yathrib) in 622 CE. In Medina, Muhammad connected with a community that was enveloped in divisive tribal controversy, and therefore requested his unifying leadership.  As this was the pivotal time in the history of Islam, the Muslim calendar regards the year 622 CE as the year 1 (the year of Hijrah, or "migration"). There in Medina, he developed and nurtured a large following and an army that, after eight years of struggle for the very soul of Arabia, defeated his opponents at Mecca. Upon his victorious return to Mecca in 630 CE, Muhammad purified the holy Kaaba (discussed below) by destroying its idols, condemning its polytheistic practices, and re-consecrating it to Allah, the one and only God. As the Islamic Confession goes, "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet." It is therefore both inaccurate and irreverent to refer to Islam as "Muhammadanism," as Westerners have traditionally done, for this places the emphasis on Muhammad, and not on God. As a prophet, Muhammad is but the channel or the vehicle for the revelations of Allah. With virtually all of Arabia under his control, Muhammad returned to Medina where he died in 632 CE.


What was this message that Allah revealed to Muhammad? Tradition holds that Muhammad was the human instrument through which Allah recited (through Gabriel) and created the basic scriptural text of Islam: the Qur'an. Qur'an (sometimes spelled Koran) means "recitation," in reference to (a) the divine recitation to Muhammad; (b) the divine call for Muhammad to recite or proclaim this message to the world; and (c) the belief that the Qur'an is best expressing its divine reality when it is recited or read aloud. The Qur'an is sometimes referred to as "the final revelation;" it does not deny the existence and importance of the Hebrew Torah and the Christian Gospels. But, says the Qur'an, their development through long periods of oral tradition, multiple translations and multiple sources has corrupted them so that they are incomplete in form and content. The Qur'an also differs from the Judeo-Christian texts in that its format is not narrative (i.e., history and story), but declarative (i.e., instructive pronouncements from God).
Fundamental to Islamic doctrine and practice are "The Five Pillars." These constitute the five basic responsibilities of every devout Muslim. They are as follows:
  • Confession (Shahada): "There is no god but God (Allah), and Muhammad is his final prophet" (the final, not the only).
  • Prayer (Salat): five times per day, facing the city of Mecca (early morning, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, bedtime).
  • Charity (Zakat): a systemic annual assessment of 1/40 (2.5%) of one's material assets for the benefit of the poor. Some sources place the amount at somewhere between 2.5% and 10%.
  • Fasting (Sawm/Sayam): during the month of Ramadan,* from sunrise to sunset; in addition to abstinence from food, drink and sexual relations, this also implies a "fasting" from harsh thoughts, practices, attitudes, etc.
  • Pilgrimage (Hajj): at least once in one's lifetime (if it is economically feasible), the trip to the Great Mosque at Mecca, during the month of Dhu al-Hijah (approximately two months after Ramadan).
*Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, commemorates Muhammad's initial revelation from Allah.
There are two fundamental sects of Islam (details concerning the origin and nature of these sects will be explained further in class):
  • Sunni ("the community of consensus"): representing the majority in Islam, the Sunnis comprise about eighty percent of all Muslims.
  • Shi'a ("partisan"): the more conservative minority in Islam (approx. twenty percent), Shi'ites claim a descendency in spiritual leadership that goes back to Ali, the cousin/son-in-law of Muhammad. This sect is prominent primarily in Iran, with minorities in the nations of Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, to name a few.
Islam is often criticized in regard to its perceived treatment of women. Such practices as veiling, seclusion, etc. are oftentimes more cultural than religious in origin. Where they are Qur'anic in origin, such practices are intended as respectful protection from danger, sexual objectification, etc., and not as imposed isolation from the outside world. Women are afforded the same fundamental rights as men (to divorce, to own property, etc.).  A Muslim man may have up to four wives, but the Qur'an states that he must be able to provide equal care and support for all of them.  This practice stems initially from the early days of Islamic culture and expansion, when it became apparent that the widows of Muslim men who had died in battle, etc. needed to be cared for and protected so that they would not become destitute.  To the oft-heard Western critique of polygyny as an "immoral practice," the Muslim has been known to point out simply that what he does simultaneously, the "Westerner" tends to do successively (referring to the West's rather deplorable rate of marriage-divorce-remarriage-redivorce, etc.).  Most married Muslim men, however, do have only one wife.

The concept of Jihad (literally, "striving" or "struggle," but often employed in the political context of "holy war"): the return of good for evil when circumstances warrant does not mean that one should passively allow evil and wrongdoing to take place. A holy war is a righteous war, intended as either defensive or to right a wrong. While one might perceive Islam as a religion that was spread by the sword, it should be remembered that idolatry against and infidelity to God are seen as enemies against whom one must defend him/herself. Westerners should likewise remember how deeply their assumptions are shaped by their Western and/or European heritage. Since the Middle Ages, Islam has been portrayed in literature and history as an ultimate evil that threatened the very life and breath of Christendom. Therefore, from a historical perspective, at least some of Islam's reputation for violence must be seen in light of, or as a response to, European Christendom's often excessive violence against them.

But the most important and immediate jihad, Muslims say, (and more in keeping to its true meaning) is the one that takes place daily within the heart of the individual self in striving to be a a faithful Muslim.  This is in fact called the "Greater Jihad," while that of the overt, political nature is referred to as the "Lesser Jihad."

The Muslim place of worship is called a mosque (from masjid, "a place for prostration/bowing down").  Traditionally domed in the center, its most impressive characteristic is space. While there may be a pulpit-like structure from which a sermon may be delivered during Friday prayer, the only other physical characteristic is the mihrab, a niche-like indentation in the wall, called the Qibla wall, that indicates the direction of the holy city of Mecca. It is like a compass point for prayer. As the prayer leader faces this indentation, along with the rest of the worshippers, it also serves a practical function as a kind of "resonator" that helps to project his voice to the group behind him.  Outside of a mosque is often a minaret, or a high tower from the top of which a muezzin ("announcer" or "caller") traditionally calls Muslims to prayer.

Central to Islamic worship and consciousness is the Kaaba, a large stone structure located within the confines of the Great Mosque in Mecca. Kaaba means "cube," as this is its overall shape. Its dimensions are 40' long x 35' wide x 50' high. Its origin and traditions predate Islamic history. The Kaaba is said to have been built and rebuilt ten times, first by angels and finally by 7th century Muslim leaders. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the Kaaba was a temple of sorts that housed the images of several gods or jinns, i.e., local village and/or nature spirits, among which Allah was included, probably as a primary local deity of a Meccan tribe known as the Quraish. Regarded as the traditional descendants of Abraham and Ishmael (Isaac is recognized as the source of the Hebraic line; see Genesis 16.1-15; 21.1-21), the Quraish appointed the priests and guardians of the Kaaba. Muhammad was a descendent of this tribe. It was likely, therefore, that Muhammad was making waves and challenging his own tribal traditions when he began to proclaim the monotheistic doctrines that led to his expulsion from Mecca.

At the lower southeast corner of the Kaaba at a height of about five feet is "The Black Stone." As Muslim worshippers circumambulate the Kaaba, they will touch and/or kiss the Black Stone. Likely a portion of an ancient meteorite, it is revered as a symbol of that line of Abraham's progeny (Ishmael) that was rejected by Israel. To support this belief, Muslims will offer a compelling interpretation of Psalm 118.22-23 in the Hebrew scriptures: "The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this is the LORD'S doing. . ." (the traditional Jewish interpretation of this is that the "stone" is a reference to Israel herself, while the traditional Christian perspective is that it is a messianic reference to Jesus).

When Muhammad returned victorious to Mecca in 630 CE, he destroyed the idols in the Kaaba, proclaiming Allah as the one God. He sanctioned the kissing of the Black Stone, declared Mecca the Holy City of Islam, and decreed that no unbeliever should ever be allowed to set foot on its soil. Hence, only Muslims are allowed at the Great Mosque of Mecca during the pilgrimage of the month of Dhu al-Hijah.

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