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An Outsiders Perspective on Islam: Part I

October 21, 2006

What follows is a very very basic introduction to the religion of Islam. It contains a brief description, history of the life of Muhammed (pbuh), beliefs and practises, and a list of holidays. My sources for this are at the bottom of this article.

Islam is one of the big 3 Abrahamic religions, which contitutes about 20% of the worlds religious and growing faster than any other. Founded in 622CE by Muhammed the Prophet (pbuh), Islam is also the youngest of the big 3 and is arguably the most misunderstood religion of our time. Islam translates roughly to “peaceful submission to the will of God”, and Muslims are “those that submit to the will of God”.

Being a religion descended from that of Abraham (the other two being Judaism and Christianity), Islam is strictly monotheistic. Although many of the traditions of Christianity and Judaism are honored, such as the Talmud or the Virgin Birth of Jesus, Muslims believe others have been corrected with the Qur’an. Muhammed (pbuh) is considered the last and most important in a long line of prophets, including Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus (pbut), and his Revelation of the word of God listed in the Qur’an is considered by Muslims to be the final authoritative law of God.

Muhammed

Muhammed (pbuh) was born in Mecca ~570CE, and was shortly given to a desert nomad and wetnurse to teach him the ways of the desert. At age 6, he was orphaned and sent to live with his uncle, who raised him and trained him as a shepherd and camel driver. In young adulthood, Muhammed (pbuh) drove cattle on the trade routes between Syria and Arabia. His contact with many people of different cultures allowed him to learn about different religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and many Pagan traditions.

When he was 40, Muhammed (pbuh) was visited in Hira, a cave outside of Mecca where he went to meditate, by the Angel Jibril (Gabriel). It was then that Jibril gave Muhammed the First Revelation, the word of Allah to be collected in the Qur’an. According to the Religious Tolerance site, Muhammed (pbuh) had “developed the conviction that he had been oradined a prophet and given the task of converting his countrymen from their Pagan, polytheistic beliefs and what he regarded as moral decadence, idolatry, hedonism, and materialism.” (link)

Muhammed (pbuh) tried to spread his word to the people of Mecca, but it was met with intense opposition eventually forcing him to leave Mecca for Medina in 622CE. This journey from Mecca to Medina is called the Hegira. The people of Medina were more receptive to Muhammeds (pbuh) ideas, and there he was able to gain a following large enough to return to Mecca where he regained entry through a mix of diplomacy and military action. Once that was attained, he began to spread his word throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

The Five Pillars

The Five Pillars are the basic acts of the religion. They are as follows:

Shahadah
This is the recitation of the Muslim creed, “There is no God but God, and Muhammed is his Prophet.” The sincere recitation of this phrase must be done once in the life of a Muslim, but is often done on a daily basis. The Shahadah is the acknowledgement of “Allah as the sole Creator of all, and the Supreme Authority over everything and everyone in the universe. Consequently the Muslim closes his/her heart and mind to loyalty, devotion and obedience to, trust in, reliance on, and worship of anything or anyone other than Allah.” (link)

Salat
Salat is the act of prayer five times per day. The Mulsim faces in the direction of Qibia (towards the Ka’ba in Mecca) to pray. The obligatory times of paryer are: Fajr (between the break of dawn and sunrise), Zuhr (between midday and afternoon), ‘Asr (between late afternoon and sunset), Maghrib (between sunset and darkness), and Isha (just before sleep). The calling of the failthful to prayer is called the Adhan, and the one who calls the faithful is the Muadhin. Prayer is led by an Imam, or teacher, and is not an official position; the Imam is selected by the faithful based on his knowledge of the Qur’an.

Siyam
Also called Sawm, Siyam is the act of religious fasting. Muslims are required to fast in between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramadan, and several other days during the year. The fast includes food and drink, sexual relations, lying, gossip, and quarreling. The old and infirm are excepted from the fast of food and drink.

Zakat
Also called the Zakah, Zakat is a 2.5% charity tax on income and property that is distributed according to the Shariyah, or Islamic law. This is used to even wealthe among the rich and poor, and can be used for community welfare projects.

Hajj
Hajj is a journey to the Ka’ba at Mecca that all financially and physically able Muslims must make once in their lives.

Muslim Holidays
Muslims follow a lunar calendar which satarted with the Hegira. Their holy days are:
Rais Al-Sannah – Also called Al-Hijral Muharram, is the Muslim New Year
‘Ashura – honors the martyrdom of Imam Husain, grandson of Muhammed (pbuh) and 70 others for refusing to submit to the Umayyad Kaliphah
Mawlid Al-Nabi – the birthday of Muhammed, this holiday was first celebrated in the 13th century. Mawlid Al-Nabi is considered idolatrous by some of the more conservative Muslim sects
Ramadan – this most sacred of Muslim holidays runs through the 9th lunar month and honors the time of the First Revelation
‘Id Al-Fitr – the first day after Ramadan is celebrated as a time of joy with decorating and gift-giving
‘Id Al-Adha – Day of Sacrifice recalls when Abraham was instructed by God to sacrifice his son. This is the traditional time for the Hajj.

Schools of Islam
Sunni – represent 90% of Muslim society, and considered the mainstream traditionals. The Sunni tend to be more comfortable with different, including secular, cultures.
Shia – The Shi-ites represent a small minority of the Muslim population and follow a strict interpretation of the Qur’an and Shariyah. The Shi’ites split from the Sunni due to a conflict of succession of the Kaliphah.
Sufi – The Sufi concentrate on a personal relationship with God, and use a combination of ritual, dane, and mediatation to commune with Him. To me, this seems to be an interesting parallel to Christian Gnostics. There are Sufi Muslims in the Shia and Sunni schools.
Although there are different schools of Islam, mosques are non-denominational and any Muslim may worship in any Mosque.

References:
Religious Tolerance Website – Introduction to Islam – by B. A. Robinson
The Wisdom Fund – The Truth About Islam – by Enver Masud
Islamic Affairs Department – Introduction to Islam – by the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
Mideast Institute – Introduction to Islam – by M. Cherif Bassiouini

Well, there’s the basics that I have learned so far about Islam. All intelligent discussion, including critique and error reports is welcome in the Comments section.

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