Islam, toward understanding

By Glenda | September 14, 2010

Of the major Semitic religions, many westerners no doubt know the least about Islam, which, in fact, comprises some 20% of the world’s population.  Unfortunately too few people actually know the connections between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  This gulf of ignorance has led to a great deal of prejudice and stereotypes.

For example, many people equate Muslims with Arabs.  This is not true.  In fact,  Arab countries make up a relatively small percent of the Muslim population.

The Arab-speaking population is made of the countries in the Arabian Peninsula, including Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Egypt, and most of North Africa.  A majority of the population in these countries is Muslim, but by no means all of the populations of these countries.

On the other hand, the vast majority of Muslims do not live in Arab countries.  There are many other countries that contain large Muslim populations.  India. Pakistan and Africa have more Muslims than the Middle Eastern countries, while China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the United States, the European countries, and several of the countries of the former Soviet Republic have large Muslim populations.  The international Muslim community is rich and varied in culture and nationality.

Many westerners may also be surprised to actually learn about the teachings and practices of the Muslims.  It serves the cause of peace to begin to be better informed.

It is instructive to know, for example, that Muslims do not worship Muhammad, but consider him merely the “messenger” of God, a prophet, like the prophets of the Old Testament of the Christian and Jewish traditions.  Indeed, Muhammad taught and Muslims believe that the revelation that came to Muhammad was sent to him, like that of the revelations to the prophets of the Hebrews, because the original messages of Hebrews and Christians were valid but  had been distorted and abandoned and that people needed to get back to the right way of the original teachings.  Muhammad is thus seen as one in a long line of prophets, but the latest and most significant.  Muslims do not deny the teachings of Judaism or Christianity.

These are  the “five pillars of Islam, ” or the requirements for Muslims, as taught by Muhammad and practiced by Muslims even today.

The first pillar is the reciting before all important events a brief prayer proclaiming the oneness of God.   This prayer comes down in the Arabic language of Muhammad, in which the word Allah is the Arabic word for God, and this Allah was considered by Muhammad and his followers to be the same God that was worshipped by Hebrews and Christians alike. The prayer simply states, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

The second pillar requires Muslims to pray five times a day, traditional while turned toward Mecca, the holy city of Muhammad, at sunset, in the evening, at dawn, at noon, and in the afternoon.  In predominantly Muslim countries, the call to prayer is announced from a minaret atop a mosque.  A mosque is where Muslims gather to pray, although it is acceptable to pray alone.  The prayer time involves laying out a prayer mat, kneeling, bowing, and proclaiming, “God is Great!” (Allahu Akbar!), reciting the first verse of the Koran, continued prayer, and at the end, turning to either side to wish another person peace and blessings.

The third pillar is almsgiving.  Muslims are expected to give generously to the poor and sick.

The fourth pillar is fasting, especially during the month of Ramadan.  During this month-long period, food and drink are not allowed between dawn and sunset.  After sunset, only light snacks are allowed.  This is a special time of purification and religious devotion.  Alcohol and tobacco are forbidden during the month.  This is a demanding requirement of Muslims, and it shows their devotion and commitment to God and community.

The fifth pillar is the making of a pilgrimage to a sacred place or shrine, and to Mecca, the holy city, at least once in a Muslim’s life.

Muhammad’s revelations and teachings and leadership began the formal Muslim religion, which was actually an extension of  Judaism and Christianity since Muhammad considered his revelations to be clarifications and purifications of these religions in his own day (750-632 CE).

Like Judaism and Christianity, both of which  experienced internal schisms, divisions, and  holy wars, resulting in various denominations and conflicting beliefs, Muhammad’s Islam also fell into divisions after his death.

In an over-simplified statement, one could say that the two main groups are the “Shiite” group who are believed to be direct descendants of Muhammad’s relatives, and the “Sunnis,” who do not believe that the Islamic leader must be a direct physical descendant of Muhammad.

The Shiite group believes in the power of their leaders (equivalent in many ways to the power of the Catholic Pope during the Middle Ages).  The Sunnis, on the other hand, elect leaders on the basis of merit and ability, and do not put strong emphasis on the power of the leadership (perhaps like the Protestants in the Christian tradition).

Muslim leaders may be called “caliph,” (meaning successor, either of direct lineage as in Shiite or direct lineage of the teaching itself as in Sunnis), or Imams (who may or may not be successors, but are preachers).

As in Christian history, there has been much civil war between these two divisions of Muslims, the Shiites and the Sunnis, continuing into the present day, where so much of the extremist violence is against other Muslims by one group or the other.

Among the many other branches of Islam that formed after the initial division, Sufism is an important group.  It is basically the mystical branch of the religion.  And indeed, Sufism does not limit itself to Muslims, but takes in all spiritual believers in its devotional and mystical practices.  The great Sufi teacher and poet Rumi, for example, has become beloved to millions of non-Muslims the world over.

Since there has been so much controversy of late about the building of mosques, it is perhaps important to examine what a mosque is.  A mosque is the place of worship for Muslims.  Like the synagogue for Jews and the church for Christians, Muslims gather at the mosque to pray in union.  The most important gathering occurs each Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, when a sermon is given by a preacher, or Imam.

Unlike the priest or rabbi, however, the imam does not hold special status apart from other followers.  Rather, he is elected by merit of his scholarship and dedication to Islam.

Most mosques are quite small, serving local populations, but there are larger ones, often built around a large dome.  The interior is plainly furnished and the floor is covered with prayer rugs.  This allows followers to prostrate themselves in prayer.  Most mosques also provide running water or pools used for ritual washing before prayer.

Another important feature of a mosque is a tall, slender tower called a minaret.  Five times a day the call to prayer is chanted from atop the minaret by a person known as a muezzin; in many modern cities, the muezzin’s voice comes through a loudspeaker, filtering through the streets.

When Muslims pray in a mosque, they face a mihrab, a small alcove or niche, marking the direction of Mecca.  Another common feature of a mosque is a pulpit for the imam who preaches the Friday sermon.  The walls and ceilings of mosques are often inlaid with beautifully designed calligraphic inscriptions from the Koran, the Muslim holy book of the teachings of Muhammad.

Muslims believe the Koran follows the Torah and the Gospels of the New Testament in a series of holy books.  (They believe, as many Jews and Christians do) that the original teachings of the Torah and the Gospels, have been corrupted, and so they believe Muhammad’s revelation was from God, (as were, for example, Luther’s) meant to clarify and purify the meanings of the earlier revelations.  They believe the Koran is literally the Word of God as received by Muhammad.

The Koran is central to the education of a Muslim.  At an early age they begin reciting from the scripture and memorizing common prayers.  The mos t popular phrase translates, “in the name of Allah (God), the Compassionate, the Merciful.”  These words are used as daily prayers, when entering structures, and before meals. Like the Torah, the Koran has instructions for domestic life, religious practice, marriage, inheritance, duties to the poor, etc.  And like the Torah and the New Testament, the Koran has many faces, some of them gentle reminders of the loving God, some challenging and frightening reminders of what will happen in the afterlife to unbelievers and those who trespass God’s laws.

Sadly, in our time, many extremists have taken it upon themselves to extend ‘holy war’ (jihad) against unbelievers, usurping the judgment of God and taking vengence into their own hands.  Much like the Christians of the Inquisition who burned innocents whom they proclaimed to be witches, or like Nazis who exterminated Jews, or like Christian Americans who considered Native Americans to be vermin and less than human and killed them and took their land, there are Muslims who have violated the teachings of the Muslim religion and who practice terrorism and create hostility toward Islam. But such violence is not what traditional Islam teaches.

We in America are caught up in a time of great struggle between extremists of various sects and relgions, not between the teachings of Christianity, Judaism or Islam.  This is an important distinction.  People of good faith in all traditions are needed to increase their understanding of each other’s religions, as well as all spiritual traditions, to seek common ground, to live in peace, and to bring extremists back to a place of understanding and peace within themselves.

This website is meant to provide tools for this to happen.   Perhaps this post will aid in that.  For truly, we can all agree, “God IS Great,” and any messenger of that who comes in peace is a welcome voice.

(See also the entry “Islam” by clicking on “Spiritual Traditions” above.)

2 comments | Add One

  1. MaryElizabeth - 09/14/2010 at 12:30 pm

    Thank you. I will share this.

  2. Diego Fontana - 09/18/2010 at 3:46 pm

    In those days, the closest village was a hefty walking trip away, over trodden powdery paths or stony trails, in a time before transportation when the only choice of travel arrangements was what speed of foot to use.  

    We cannot properly imagine how things were then, since we have lost touch with the generations of superstitions and talismans buried so long ago, along with all the pottery shards we left laying around for us to find and study in the future.

    There were people of other totems over the horizon, and we were over their horizon.  Some of them showed up, the explorers and traders, even war parties, and our own people came back from those faraway places, both sides telling stories, like the bees do, with gestures and dance, of enemies and friends, and feats of renown.  From these stories we learned who we were in the world.  And who to welcome and who to fear.  And where to find the “honey”.

    The “once upon a time” spirit of a story-telling beckons us to hear the recounting of events that show the truthful meanings in life that we can all agree upon.  It gives us peace to have shared meaning.  So it was in those days that the whole village sat together, and old stories were retold in dramatic fashion, and new stories were introduced with the heartiest of embellishment.  Probably around a fire.  

    And the best stories became our creed, our agreed upon belief system.  Our stories became a passionate “church” of oration and dance, whose Holy Book of tales were page after page of lessons expressed in the Stone Age performing arts of the time, the chanting and dancing and the art we now call primitive.

    The “creators” of the stories were the witnesses, the ones who saw the events or the dreams, or they were the ones who beheld a Vision…or thought up a lie.  The “performers” of the stories were the ones with a flare for the expressive arts of dancing and acting and design. 

    Those who could both create and perform arose among us, and so it was that among the great people, the liars and actors were able to win the confidence of the people through their imagery and performance (smoke and mirrors) and they wielded the power as they chose.  They exploited our religious nature with their feathered performances for the benefit of their own primitive schemes.  Stone Age politics.  It was no different than what we have today.

    But today there is no longer an horizon between the peoples in this electronically interconnected world, yet still we continue our isolated-village dances and invoke the Great Spirit, who we like to think favors our village above all the others.

    But the One Great Spirit resides in all people, and all people reside in the One Great Spirit.  We learned that in Spirituality 1-A, which, by the way, we tend to ignore when the “anointed (appointed) holy” among us claim the exclusive right to the Truth and then assume permission to promote that Truth on others with deadly force, or even intrusive proselytizing at the front door.

    But the Spirit is still alive today in the storied deeds and life dances of those whose vision has risen above the considerations of creed and race…and whose actions transcend the Stone Age, isolated-village politics.  Those are the stories that the able among us must tell.  And whoever can listen, will.

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