For most Americans, Islam was a relative unknown until September 11, 2001 when America was dramatically attacked by Islamic terrorists. It was on that day that the followers of the militant Islamic leader, Osama Bin Laden, hijacked planes and flew them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. It was not that people had never heard of this religion, of course. It is just that it was such a small part of American society that its effects were very minute. Islamic beliefs had, literally, no part in the worldview framework of American religion and culture.
While that kind of isolation existed in America, a very active element of Islamic faith and culture was engaged around the world. A faction of this faith group was busy building a militant base and establishing an organization designed to impose itself, along with its beliefs, on the world. This does not mean that all of Islam fits into the category of this radical wing of the religion. However, it is that radical element which has thrust Islam into the center of discussion – not just in America, but throughout the entire world.
As with any belief system, it can be very helpful to grasp the basic doctrines of the faith. And we will do that here a little bit. However, it is even more critical to understand its worldview foundation. With that, we are not only able to grasp what they believe, but why they believe it.
The word Islam means “surrender” or “submission.” A Muslim (sometimes referred to as Moslem) then, is simply “one who submits” to the will of Allah.
Islam is an intensely monotheistic religion whose primary name for God is Allah. It is also strictly unitarian in its understanding of God, as opposed to the Trinitarian understanding of Christianity. Islam combines elements from Judaism and Christianity, and it accepts Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, John and others as prophets. It claims, however, that Mohammed is the last and greatest of the prophets.
The founder of Islam was a man named Mohammed. He was born in the city of Mecca in 570 A.D., in what is now the country of Saudi Arabia. His father died shortly before his birth and his mother died when he was six years old. His grandfather cared for him for a short time, but he was brought up primarily by his uncle. He became a camel driver and his uncle often took him on journeys as far away as Syria and Egypt. Because of this, Mohammed had extensive contacts with people of different religions and nationalities which later influenced his thinking.
When he was 25 years of age, Mohammed was employed by Kahdijah, a wealthy widow in the caravan trade. He served her so well that she decided to marry him. None of their children survived to maturity except a daughter. As Kahdijah’s husband, Mohammed no longer had to work, so he began to spend his time in meditation, reflecting on the meaning of life.
In that era, the Arabian people were polytheistic. Allah was simply one of a large pantheon of gods worshiped by the Arabs. Mohammed was disturbed by the idolatrous practices of his countrymen and came to the conclusion that the God named Allah was the one and only true God. He spent many hours meditating on this in a cave in Mt. Hira, near Mecca. In 610 A.D., when he was 40 years of age, Mohammed began to receive frightening visions from the angel Gabriel which were accompanied by violent seizures. In these visions he was told to recite the revelations he received to his followers. They in turn, after his death, recorded his recitations. It was these writings that later formed the Koran. As a prophet of Allah, Mohammed received visions for 22 years until his death in 632 A.D.
For several years Mohammed had little success in gaining followers, and the ones he did get were strongly persecuted. In fact, on July 16, 622 A.D., he barely managed to escape an assassination attempt on his on life. After that he fled to Medina. This escape was called the Hegira (flight) and marks the official beginning of Islam as a religion. Muslims reckon their calendars from this day using the designation A.H. (in the year of Hegira).
Later, Mohammed became the magistrate of the city of Medina, and under his leadership most of the people became Muslims. To create what he desired, he set up a theocracy which combined politics with his new religion. He, himself, became the king. For a time he tried to win over the Jewish population. But when they rejected him he began to face Mecca, instead of Jerusalem, to pray.
Mohammed replenished the treasury of Medina by plundering the caravans of pilgrims to Mecca. These attacks ultimately led to war. Eventually Mohammed won the war and many Arab tribes, as well as the city of Mecca itself, were captured and forced, under threat of death, to adopt Islam. After Mohammed’s death, his successors continued to conquer by defeating Syria, Jerusalem, Egypt, Persia, and Mesopotamia. This was the primary way the religion was spread.
Main Islamic Groups
Islam consists of several denominations that are similar in their basic beliefs but which have very different ways of approaching theology and law. The largest of these denominations are the Sunni and the Shia. Approximately 85% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and about 14% are Shia. The other 1% fall into various small sects. The division between the Sunni and Shia branches are strong enough that wars have been fought between them over doctrinal positions.
For Sunni Muslims, The Sunnah (the example of Mohammed’s life as recorded in the Koran), and the hadith (explanations attributed to Mohammad – as opposed to the words written in the Koran) are the main foundations of religious doctrine. Sunnis believe that the first four caliphs were the rightful successors to Muhammed. Califs were the religious leaders who succeeded Mohammed as rulers of the Muslim world. It was considered that califs held all of Mohammed’s powers except that of prophecy. Controversy over the selection of the fourth caliph is what ultimately split Islam into the Sunni and Shiite branches. For the Sunnis, since the Koran did not specify any particular leaders to succeed Mohammed, subsequent califs had to be elected.
The Shia, on the other hand, believe that the leaders of Islam must be descendants of Mohammed’s cousin and son-in law, Ali Talib, who was the fourth calif. Most Shia consider Ali to have been the first real Imam (leader) and completely reject the legitimacy of the previous three califs. To the Shia, the Imam rules by divine appointment and holds absolute spiritual authority. He has the final say in matters of doctrine and revelation.
Basic Beliefs and Practices
There are five doctrines and five pillars which form the basis for the Islamic faith.
The Five Doctrines:
1. Allah is the one true God.
2. Allah has sent many prophets to guide men. The Koran mentions 28 of these, most of whom are found in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus was considered to be a sinless prophet, but Mohammed was the last and greatest.
3. Of the four inspired books, the Koran is the most important. The other three are the Tauret (the Pentateuch), the Zabur (Psalms), and the Injil (Evangel) of Jesus.
4. There are many intermediary beings (angels). There are also fallen angels (demons).
5. There will be a day of judgment, a resurrection, and there exists a heaven and hell. Each man’s deeds which are conducted in physical life will be weighed on a set of balances to determine his eternal destiny. Heaven is understood to be a place of sensuous delight and gratification.
The Five Pillars:
1. Recitation of Islam’s creed (the Shahadah) – There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.
2. The practice of prayer five times a day facing Mecca.
3. The practice of almsgiving.
4. The purification of fasting during the month of Ramadan.
5. The pilgrimage to Mecca (at least once in a person’s lifetime for all who are able).
There is only one God and his name is Allah. The Christian idea of God as a Trinity is considered to be polytheism. Allah is understood to be so transcendent that he acts impersonally. Islam believes in a rigid doctrine of predestination and considers that both evil and good come from Allah. Whatever Allah chooses is right, and this can change in various situations.
Man is not sinful by nature, only by act. He has no need to be saved from sin, only to act correctly.
Correct actions are defined by the Koran. As a person lives life, God is keeping track of the right and wrong acts of each individual. At death, the good and bad will be weighed in a balance and those with greater good than bad will enter heaven.
1. What is the most fundamental reality? (Ultimate reality)
Islam recognizes that there is a single infinite God who is Creator and Sustainer, and whose name is Allah. He is absolutely transcendent (unknowable) and has no personal interaction with humanity. Muslims claim to have a knowledge of Allah, but it is a knowledge of truth about him which is revealed in the Koran, not the knowledge of him as a person. Allah does not reveal himself to people, he only reveals his will.
2. What is the nature of our material reality? (Material reality)
Material reality is recognized to be a special creation that was intentionally designed by Allah to accomplish a specific purpose.
3. What is a human being? (Humanity)
Human beings are a special creation of Allah and are essentially good and pure, although weak and forgetful. Humanity’s present separation from Allah is due to his transcendence, not man’s sinful human nature. Humans have the moral power not to sin and all that is needed to accomplish this is simply guidance from Allah. This gives individuals the ability to live a life of submission that pleases him. Humanity’s present situation is the normal human condition.
4. What happens to a person at death? (Death)
There is only one material life and at the end of it there will be a Day of Judgment. At that day, people will be evaluated on the basis of the deeds they performed while on earth. Based on those deeds, individuals will either achieve reward in heaven or punishment in hell.
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? (Knowledge)
Allah created mankind the way he is, which includes the ability to have knowledge.
6. How do we know what is right and wrong? (Morality)
Allah has provided the guidance needed to help people live in perfect submission to himself. That guidance can be found, to a degree, in the Torah and the Gospels. But the final word comes from the Koran. The Koran, together with the traditions (hadiths) concerning what Mohammed said and did, and certain other sources, constitute the religious law. This law is considered to literally be the utterances of God.
7. What is the meaning of human history? (History)
History is seen to be a linear succession of events which began with Allah’s creation of material reality. It is moving toward a final end which will fulfill the purposes for which it was made.
The Koran is the authoritative scripture of Islam. It is believed to have an absolutely unique and divine status. Parts were compiled by followers after Mohammed’s death from notes and writings which he left. The rest is based on his oral teachings which were written from memory by his disciples after his death. It is taught by Islam that the Koran was dictated directly, word-for-word, from Gabriel to Mohammed in the Arabic language. As such, it is essential to read the Koran in Arabic in order to authoritatively interpret it.
Evidence for the Authority
Evidence for the validity of the Koran is very weak on a couple of different fronts. First of all, it is said to have been a word-for-word the message from God dictated by Gabriel to Mohammed. This was, then, passed on to Mohammed’s disciples who didn’t write it down until after his death, years later. Muslims consider this to be a miracle, but it is highly unlikely that this kind of literal word-for-word recreation of the prophet’s sayings actually happened. In fact, over the years there have been many revisions, corrections, alterations, interpolations, and changes in the wording of the Koran.
A second problem relates to the actual content of the Koran. There is a great deal of contradiction within the text, itself. Koranic interpreters work very hard to play this down and interpret around the contradictions. But the attempts at doing interpretation this way creates great difficulty in understanding what is really taught and it denigrates the nature of the authority.
Certainly, not all Muslims are of the militant variety. It is the militants who, in our day, dominate the news because of their violent attempts to impose Islamic beliefs on the world. The large majority of Muslims do not follow that path.
But the real worldview issue related to Islam does not rest on how the various groups believe and act regarding their methodology for imposing their beliefs on the world. The real issue relates to the question, “Is it true?”
There are very serious problems related to the validity of the Islamic faith system as the evidence presented to back it up is very weak. There is a significant gap between the giving of the teachings found in the Koran to Mohammed and its actual writing. There have also been changes to the text and there are massive contradictions within the text itself.
Over the centuries, Islam has spread throughout a very large portion of the world. Unfortunately, the expansion has been largely due to force. As large as Islam is in the world today, there are huge problems related to its claim to be the truth about the structure of reality.
© 2009 Freddy Davis