Yesterday we began a series on the Cross and the Crescent. Today that discussion continues as we endeavor to answer the question “What is Islam?” The word Islam means “submission or surrender.” A Muslim is one who submits. Islam began with the supernatural visions and revelations that Muhammad claimed he received from God through the angel Gabriel (Jibril) beginning in AD 610. The Islamic holy book is the Qur’an, and that word means “the reciting” or “the reading.” The Qur’an is Muhammad’s, who was illiterate, reciting of the revelations given to him. He dictated parts of the Qur’an, while the rest came from the writings of disciples who remembered his teachings.
Six Core Beliefs
#1 – Allah
There is one God and his name is Allah; an Arabic term that literally means “the deity.” Muhammad was reared in a culture of pervasive polytheism. His central message to this polytheistic culture was that there was one God who had revealed himself through the prophets. The one unforgivable sin in Islam is shirk which is worshipping other gods besides or in addition to Allah, to blaspheme Allah, or assign “partners” to Allah. Christians are guilty of shirk when they worship Jesus as the divine Son of God or prayer in Jesus’ name.
#2 – The Prophets
Muslims believe that Allah has sent 124,000 prophets (nabi – “prophet”; rasul – “apostle”), beginning with Adam and ending with Muhammad, who is the seal of the prophets. Muslims identify 25 primary prophets; which are the ones mentioned in the Qur’an. 22 of those are found in the Bible. Every prophet preached a consistent message: repent and return to Allah. Each prophet had a specific task. For example, Noah was “the preacher”, Moses “the lawgiver”, Jesus “the Word”, and Muhammad “the seal” (the final prophet). Each prophet added something new to the body of revelation until Muhammad, who completed the revelation with the Qur’an.
#3 – Angelic Beings
Muslims strongly believe in an active spirit world. From Jibril who appeared to Muhammad, to the fallen angel Shaitan (from the Hebrew Satan), and to demons called jinns. Many Muslims believe that two angels sit on each shoulder, one recording their good deeds and the other their bad. During prayer they will turn and address these two angels.
#4 – The Holy Books
Muslims believe that the messages of the prophets are found primarily in four holy books: the Taurat (Torah), the Zabur (Psalms of David), the Injil (Gospels), and the Qur’an. Each book, when given, was an accurate and authoritative word from God, but the first three have been corrupted by the Jews and Christians. The Qur’an was given to restore the message, and unlike the other holy books its message cannot be corrupted because of Allah’s supernatural protection is upon it. Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the words of Allah, not the words of Muhammad, and that its content has eternally existed in heaven and in Arabic. For this reason any translation of the Qur’an out of Arabic is not considered the word of Allah. The vast majority of Muslims are not Arabic speakers. They still quote and pray the Qur’an in Arabic, even if they don’t understand the words they are quoting, because they believe the words of the Qur’an have their power when they are spoken or written in Arabic, whether or not the hearer understands them!
The Qur’an is about four-fifths the size of the New Testament. It contains 114 suras (chapters) and around 6,000 ayats (verses). Ayat means “sign”; thus an ayatollah (a religious leader among the Shiites) is believed to be “the sign of Allah.” The Qur’an is arranged by size, largest sura to smallest, except for the first, brief introductory sura. Since it’s a collection of recitations, there is no narrative order and very little historical context. It is mostly a collection of prohibitions, instructions, and condemnations with a few allusions to the stories of the prophets, and celebration of Allah.
The Qur’an contradicts itself. In the early suras it speaks of Christians and Jews as “people of the book” who have, in the case of Jews especially, strayed far from Allah. Christians were considered the Muslims’ “nearest friends.” For example, Sura 5:82:
Strongest among men in enmity to the believers (Muslims) wilt thou find the Jews and the Pagans; and nearest among them in love to the believers wilt thou find those who say, “We are Christians”: because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant. And when they listen to the revelation received by the Messenger, thou wilt see their eyes overflowing with tears, for they recognise the truth: they pray: “Our Lord! we believe; write us down among the witnesses.
The Qur’an even tells Muslims that if they doubt the message Muhammad gives them to check with the Christians, “those who have been reading the Book from before thee” (10:94). But in other places it commands Muslims to slay unbelievers.
#5 – Final Judgment
On the day of final judgment Allah’s verdict on the final destiny of every soul will be revealed. For those who followed Islam faithfully a paradise awaits. Some Muslims believe that through heaven there flows three rivers: one of pure milk, one of pure water, and one of whiskey (a strictly forbidden substance on earth). Faithful Muslim men are awaited by 70 eternal virgins. Just what faithful Muslim women have to look forward to in heaven is unclear! Muhammad evidently didn’t talk much about women, and he said that more women go to hell than men.
Most Muslims believe each person must walk a tightrope over hell into eternity, carrying their bad works on their backs. Therefore, the more bad works you have done, the more likely you are to topple into hell. They also believe that most people will spend some time in hell before going on to heaven.
#6 – Decree
Allah has decreed all things – good and bad. This is the doctrine of fate; specifically a fatalism that is prevalent in Islamic society. From this core belief has arisen the common Islamic phrase, “If it is Allah’s will.”
Five Pillars of Islam
#1 – Shahada
This is the Islamic confession of faith. You may have heard it before: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” This is the basis for everything Muslims teach and believe. This acknowledges the absolute oneness of God (tawhid). He has no equals, partners, or competitors. They believe Christian’s are polytheists because we worship Jesus as God. The confession of faith is literally sewn into the Saudi Arabian flag.
To become a Muslim simply repeat the shahada three times. This confession is whispered to newborns; repeated throughout life and in daily prayers; recited over a Muslim’s dead body which is about to be buried. Simply put, this the heart of Islam.
#2 – Salat
The ritual prayers which must be offered five times daily – just before dawn, at noon, at mid-afternoon, just after sunset, and sometime around midnight – while facing towards Mecca. Different physical postures are required during the prayer time, and ritualistic cleansing (wudu) precedes the prayers. The prayers are seen as a means of earning merit and removing sin, and prayers offered in a mosque are worth 25 times a prayer said at home or in the market. Friday is designated for congregational prayer in a mosque. Men are required to attend but not women.
#3 – Sawm
This is the ritual fasting during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month on the Islamic calendar. During this month – which occurs at various seasons of the year since the Muslim year is lunar – Muslims are not allowed to touch food or water, or be intimate with their spouse from sun-up to sun-down. Of course, before the sun rises and after it sets they eat like kings. Some reports indicate that food consumption during Ramadan goes up not down.
Ramadan is special because it is believed to be the month that Gabriel first appeared to Muhammad. Performing this fast is a great source of pride to Muslims. It distinguishes them from the followers of other religions and proves, they believe, their moral superiority.
#4 – Zakat
Muslims are expected to give alms, specifically 2.5% of their overall estate, and other freewill offerings are encouraged. The Qur’an places alms giving as central to a Muslim’s salvation, zakat means “purification.”
#5 – Hajj
Every Muslim is expected, at least once in life, to take a pilgrimage to Mecca. This is the highlight of a Muslim’s life, and poor Muslims will save their entire lives for this trip. A trip to Mecca accords the same merit as 50,000 prayers in a mosque. Some Muslims believe that every step taken toward Mecca in the course of the pilgrimage blots out a sin committed in the past, while to die en route is to be included in the number of the martyrs. Heaven guaranteed.
This has been a general description of basic Islamic beliefs. Hopefully, this will aid you a little in understanding what Islam is. Next week we’ll answer the question: “Where is Islam?”