Islam, like Buddhism—and Christianity to a large extent—, is a religion
promulgated by one person, Mohammed (570-632 CE), born at Mecca in
Arabia. Mohammed wrote down the Koran as a divine revelation, through
the archangel Gabriel, as the word of God; as well as sayings and deeds
(Sunna) which form the basis of the beliefs and practices of Islam. The
word Islam itself means “surrender to God’s will.” The first text of the Koran
was established by 650.
Mohammed was also a political and military leader as well as a religious
leader, and founded Islam in the city of Medina in 622AD.
The words of the Koran came to Muhammad while he was in a trance;
while his words, when no physical change was apparent in him, are called
Mohammed was illiterate, and as he recited new passages, his believers
wrote them down for him. The final compilation of these recitations is called
the Koran, Islam’s holy book.
Mohammed was aware of Judaism and Christianity, and accepted all
biblical prophets as messengers from God. Jesus is acknowledged as a
prophet, but rejected as a son of God.
The general Muslim belief is that Jesus was not crucified but was raised to
heaven and will reappear on Earth.
He considered Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians “peoples of the Book”,
and afforded them special privileges.
Muslims consider non-Muslims “infidels”, just as many Christians
consider non-Christians “infidels”.
Mohammed began to preach at Mecca about 610, and by 622 had aroused
so much opposition that the people of Mecca plotted to assassinate him.
He therefore fled to Medina July 16, 622, the starting date of the Islamic
calendar, a lunar calendar like the Jewish one.
Originally, Mecca was a watering hole for caravans travelling through the
heart of Arabia because of its underground spring. It was also holy to the
Bedouins because the “Kabah” was located there, a cube-shaped granite
building that was tended by Mohammed’s tribe, the Quraysh.
At that time, the Meccans worshipped 3 stone goddesses which were
housed in the Kabah, and Mohammed and his followers had to fight his
own tribe and its guardians, the Quraysh tribe, for possession.
He then removed the stone goddesses and pagan pictures from its
interior, and turned it into the destination, for annual pilgrimages, as the
most sacred spot on earth; placed a black basalt stone (the Black Stone) in
its eastern wall, to be kissed and touched by the pilgrims as they encircle
the Kabah seven times. Those who do so have their sins forgiven.
Moslems point themselves toward Mecca with its Kabah for their five times
a day prayers, and bury their dead facing it.
The God of Islam is strictly monotheistic, though there are angels and
jinns, both good and evil, and the devil.
Muslim theology is based upon five articles: belief (1) in one God, Allah, (2)
in angels, (3) in the revealed books, (4) in the prophets and (5) in the Day of
Their duties include praying (toward Mecca) the prayer “There is no God
but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet” five times a day; profess publicly
once in their lifetime that “There is no God but Allah”; give a regular portion
of one’s goods to charity; and fast during the day, from sunrise to sunset,
in the month of Ramadan (the month of heat).
Man is limited, and commits sin, and is misled by Satan, an evil spirit.
Those who repent, and sincerely submit to Allah, return to a state of
sinlessness. People are judged according to their deeds.
At the end, the sinless go to Paradise, a place of physical and spiritual
pleasure, and the wicked burn in hell.
Islam has strict obligatory duties which must be performed in a precise
manner as established by tradition.
Foremost, a Muslim must make a sincere oral profession of faith as least
once in a lifetime.
Secondly, public collective prayers are required five times a day –– before
sunrise, just after noon, immediately after sunset, and then two hours later.
These prayers are led by an imam, and all ablutions, postures and materials
have been fixed by tradition, including the requirement that the participants
face towards Mecca (location of the Ka‘ba). The Ka’ba sanctuary in Mecca
is considered the “Home of God”, i.e. the point of divine contact with earth.
Tradition states that this Ka’ba temple was built by Abraham for the
worship of the “One God”, Allah. Prior to Muhammad, pagan idolatry was
practiced there. The temple surrounds a black basalt stone, similar to the
black basalt stone at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
On Fridays, the noontime prayer service includes a sermon.
Charity is required by the payment of the Zakat tax, a percentage of the
value of food grain, money, etc. owned for a year, for the benefit of the poor
Fasting is required for the entire month of Ramadan, the month “in which
the Koran was sent down.” From daybreak to sunset all eating and
drinking and sex is forbidden.
Lastly, all (who can afford it) must perform the pilgrimage to Mecca (the
Hajj) once in their lifetime. This pilgrimage occurs at a fixed time each year,
with definite proscribed ceremonies and duties.
Islam is regulated by the shari’a, religious law that describes explicitly the
total way of life for believers and makes no allowance for differences
between religion and state. In this, one can correctly refer to a Muslim
world, as adherents conform to this religious law governing their behavior
and attitudes both towards believers and the non-Muslim world. Islam
includes a system for the organization of the community. Missionary work
in Muslim countries is strictly forbidden, and any Muslim who converts to
another religion is subject to the death penalty.
With few exceptions, the jurists of all Sunni and Shiite schools prescribe
execution for all adults who leave the faith not under duress; the
recommended punishment is beheading at the hands of a cleric, although
in recent years there have been both stoning and hangings.
For example, in Iran in 1994, the intervention of Pope John Paul II and
others won a Christian convert a last-minute reprieve, but the man was
abducted and killed shortly after his release.
(Edward N. Luttwak, New York Times, May 12, 2008)
There are four bases for the shari’a; the Koran, the Sunna (the Way) of the
Prophet Mohammed as recorded in the Tradition (Hadith); the ijma’, the
universal agreement on what the Koran and Sunna mean; and the qiyas, i.
e. analogical reasoning.
As for the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Prophet Mohammed is said
to have ascended to heaven from, and returned to, this rock while riding a
The Sunnis are followers of the Prophet’s Way (Sunna), and constitute the
vast majority of Muslims. Shi’ites are “the party of Ali”, referring to a battle
in 657 over the succession to the caliphate, which they conceived as an
infallible imam. Today, most Shi’ites are “Twelvers”, meaning that they
believe the Twelfth and last imam, Mahdi, is still living and will appear
before the last day to save the world and bring justice to the world. They
are found mostly in Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and southern Lebanon and number
about 35 million. It is the state creed of Iran. They have their own system of
law and their own canonized collection of the Tradition (Hadith).
Tens of thousands of pilgrims go to the Jamkaran mosque near Qum each
year, where they believe the iman will appear.
Interestingly, they have a custom of “hiding”, or hiding their real beliefs in
a hostile society. This reminds one of the Jewish “Kol Nidre” prayer.
Shit’ites have also modified the Muslim religious duties. Visits to the
tombs of the Shit’ite saints can be substituted for the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Public, collective prayers are not obligatory, as they believe there is no
legitimate imam at present.
Sufism, the yearning for a personal union with God, created a complete
chasm between the law and themselves, and evolved into mysticism and
dervish orders. It is called tariqat, the Sufi way.
Islam is indebted to the Old Testament laws for many of its characteristics.
“No graven images” means that no actual thing can be drawn, and
“arabesques” constitute Muslim art. In recent times, photographs of
objects have been permitted. Eating pork is forbidden.
As for adultery of married people, stoning is the penalty. Four wives are
permitted, and can be divorced by the husband by the mere recital of the
words “I divorce thee.”
Usury is forbidden, as is the drinking of alcohol, and gambling.
In theory, all members of an Islamic community are equals. Women are
raised to legal equality with men, but men are considered “a degree higher”
It is tiresome to read in the New York Times again (2/16/09) an implied
criticism of Islam concerning its treatment of women. Like Judaism, and
evangelical Christians, women are subserviant to men, and are subject to
the authority of the male mullahs, as are Jews to the male orthodox rabbis,
or Catholics to the male Catholic priests.
At least, every day in their daily prayers, the Moslem men do not pray as
the Jewish men do “I thank God that He did not make me a woman”.
With all three religions, the religious authorities are the only ones with the
power to interpret laws.
In 2007 there were 1.3 billion adherents. They describe themselves as a ”
umma”, which means “people”. In this context, it means the community of
Moslems, i.e. the totality of all Moslems.