With the incredible growth of Islam in America we are being asked more and more often for clarification as to what Islam stands for. Many are becoming confused with their previous misconceptions of Islam as viewed through the eyes of an antagonistic press and the reality of a growing number of 'mainstream' Americans embracing it. We shall endeavor through this column to bring a clearer understanding of basic Islamic principles and practices. - Editor
In a world swayed by misunderstanding of cultural differences, Islam and its adherents often are stereotyped and caricatured, branded with a violent or sexist image. In reality, Islam is no better characterized by acts of Middle Eastern terrorists, for example, than is Christianity by acts of Northern Ireland's terrorists or in America as typified by Klu Klux Klan activities with their burning crosses.
Islam is an ancient religion with profound historical and theological ties to Judaism and Christianity. All three religions worship the same God, acknowledge large parts of the same Bible and revere Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses to name a few of the Prophets. Muslims regard Jesus as one of the greatest prophets.
In fact, Islam teaches that it represents the modern mainstream of a primordial, monotheistic religion that began with the earliest humans. Over millennia, the religion took form with the early Jewish prophets, was modified significantly by Jesus and finally shaped by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the final prophet, who died in 632.
Among Prophet Muhammad's (pbuh) most important acts was rejection of the old Jewish concept of a "chosen people." Instead, he taught that all people are born Muslim (subject to 'submission to God') and that anyone regardless of color, nationality or social standing can join the Muslim community simply by submitting to God and reciting the words known as the Shahada: "There is no deity but Allah (God), and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is His messenger."
Because of its powerful, cross-cultural appeal, Islam has won the hearts and minds of an estimated 1.2 billion people around the world, making it the second largest religion. Christianity has about 2 billion adherents, and Hinduism is third largest with about 800 million.
Despite its association in the Western mind with things Arabic, about 85 percent of Islam's faithful are not Arabs. South Asia has the largest Muslim population, with 275 million believers. Africa is second largest, with 200 million. And, according to the American Muslim Council, China has about as many Muslims as better-known Islamic strongholds such as Iran, Egypt, or Turkey. According to The Muslim Almanac, an estimated 2 percent of Americans, or about 5 million people, are Muslim.
It is difficult to determine the exact number of Muslims anywhere because they do not belong to congregations and because mosques are open to all and do not maintain membership rolls.
Quite apart from its importance to believers, Islam has performed services for which all of humanity is in its debt. When Christian Europe sank into the so-called Dark Ages for about 600 years starting in the late 5th century, Islamic scholars elsewhere maintained high standards of academic study, mathematics, and scientific research.
Islamic libraries in Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus preserved the writings of ancient Greek, Roman and Indian scholars even as Europe's leaders rejected them.
While Europe languished, Islamic mariners, mathematicians, scientists, physicians and engineers made major advances in many fields. Our words algebra and algorithm, for example, were derived from Arabic. When the best European libraries consisted of a few dozen books, Islamic collections held tens of thousands.
When the Renaissance blossomed in Western Europe in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, it found a trove of ancient knowledge and new discoveries in translations from the Arabic and from Islamic libraries.
Islam is an Arabic word derived from the Semitic three-letter root -s-l-m - as the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, often used as a greeting. The meaning of "Islam" encompasses the concepts of peace, greeting, and submission. Thus, a Muslim - the word is derived from the same root -is one who submits to God, a stance enunciated in the traditional profession of faith: "There is no deity but Allah, and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is His messenger."
"Allah" is simply Arabic for "God," the same supreme, supernatural figure worshipped by Christians and Jews. Unlike most other religions, however, Islam has no baptism or other initiation ceremony.
"Membership in the community of Muslims is not conferred by man," Thomas W. Lippman writes in Understanding Islam. "It is acquired by a conscious act of will, the act of submission, summarized in the profession of faith." Also, "to become a Muslim, it is sufficient to make that profession sincerely in the presence of other believers, who will witness it. But to become a Muslim is also to accept a complex interlocking body of beliefs, practices and other ethical standards."
Although Islam has taken root in diverse cultures such as those of Egypt, China, and the United States, with some cultural aspects being integrated in each region, Islamic scholars say Muslims everywhere share a core of basic principles, the "five pillars" of the faith.
The first pillar is the profession of faith or, in Arabic, the Shahada which is "There is no deity but Allah, and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is His messenger." This is called by many as the central theme of Islam because many Muslims repeat it, in Arabic, several times a day to remind themselves of God's central position in their lives.
The second pillar is ritual worship, or salah (prayer). Muslims are required to pray formally five times a day - at dawn, midday, afternoon, evening and night. In Islamic countries, a man summons believers to prayer by calling from atop the mosque's tower, or minaret, or by using loudspeakers. Or as is becoming common in the western world...a computer program or an Islamic watch calls out the 'adhan' (call to prayer) at the proper time.
Muslims may pray alone or in a group as long as they face the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)'s birthplace and the holiest city of Islam. It is common in many predominantly Islamic countries to see Muslims performing the salah wherever they happen to be at the appropriate time.
Unlike most Christian or Jewish prayers, the salah requires more than words. The whole body performs the ritual. It begins as worshipers raise their hands and say "Allahu Akbar," which translates as "God is the greatest." Worshippers then bend with hands on knees, kneel with hands on thighs, and finally bow their heads to touch the floor. Each motion is accompanied by verses from the Qur'an. A person, sometimes called an imam, may lead the service.
The third pillar is fasting, or sawm, during the month of Ramadan. Because Islam uses a lunar calendar, its year is 11 days shorter than that of the solar calendar governing most worldly affairs. As a result, Ramadan comes 11 days earlier each year. The month is sacred because, as Muslims believe, God first revealed verses of the Qur'an to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) during Ramadan.
During Ramadan, Muslims are to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex from dawn to sunset. Typically during Ramadan, Muslims have breakfast before dawn and do not eat again until after sunset. This is a special time of happiness for Muslims and gatherings at the Mosques for communal fast breaking and special prayers make it particularly festive and joyful.
The fourth pillar is almsgiving, called zakah (charity) in Arabic. Muslims pay a specified amount of money, typically 2.5 percent of one's accumulated wealth each year, to assist the poor and sick. The money is not to support the mosque or Islamic leaders. The Qur'an does not say how much should be given. In some Muslim countries, it is voluntary, while in others, the government enforces it.
The fifth pillar is the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam requires every believer make at least one visit to Mecca in a lifetime if physically and financially able to do so. The spectacular hajj now brings together more than two million Muslims in a religious gathering that has continued without interruption for about 1,400 years. The hajj commemorates the sacrifices, faith, and obedience of Abraham; his second wife, Hagar; and their son, Ishmael, at Mecca. It is the largest, regularly scheduled international gathering on Earth.
When the pilgrims arrive, they don special clothing. Men wear two seamless white sheets, and women usually wear a modest white dress. In this uniform attire, the pilgrims feel that they are equal before the eyes of God and that only virtue and devotion will set one apart from others. The demanding rites and prayers last for days. According to Islamic scholars, the pilgrims hope that God will accept their effort, after which they can commence life afresh with a slate wiped clean of sins.
The focus of worship in Mecca is the Ka'ba, an empty, cubical stone structure covered by an embroidered black cloth in the courtyard of the Great Mosque. Ka'ba is the source of the word "cube." The Ka'ba is believed to have been built on the site of an original structure made by Abraham more than 4,000 years ago, and Muslims consider it the original house of God on Earth. This is what the pilgrims are circling during the Hajj pilgrimage one sees in news photos.
Perhaps Islam's most distinctive attribute is a belief descended from that of the ancient Jews and akin to that of early Unitarians in a single deity, whether the name be Jehovah, Allah or God. At many times throughout history, this has been a radical claim because most other religions believe in many Gods, a position called polytheism. Islamic monotheism goes even further than its Christian counterpart by rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, which holds that Jesus also is a deity, along with a third entity called the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit.
The Qur'an is the dominant scripture. It is considered the literal word of God, dictated by the Angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) over the course of 23 years. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was illiterate, but his followers memorized the revelations and scribes set them down in writing. The Qur'an is viewed as the authoritative guide to proper living, along with the Hadeeth, which is based on the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and Sunnah which is based on the actions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Muslims view life as a test. It is a person's responsibility to live as closely as possible by the words of God in preparation for a "Day of Judgment" much like the one in which Christians believe. Muslims say the world someday will be destroyed and the dead resurrected, judged and sent to heaven or to hell.
However, sinners may take heart because, according to the Islamic council's handbook, "the infinite mercy of God is demonstrated in the Qur'anic statement that those who have even a mustard seed's weight of belief in God will eventually be admitted into Heaven."
Islam also teaches that each person has a direct relationship with God and that no intermediary is needed. As a result, Islam has no priests or other clergy. Some people, however, are considered experts on the Qur'an and serve as leaders of the community. Some, for example, are trained to judge how the Qur'an applies to social and personal issues. Another leader, called an imam, leads daily prayer, gives sermons, officiates at marriages, and performs other clerical duties.
Muslims believe that God has sent many messengers to all people in all times for the purpose of guiding them to the right path of God. Among these many messengers were Adam, Abraham, Noah, Lut, Jacob, Issac, Ishmail, Joseph, David, Soloman, Elisha, Jonah, Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus, with the final prophet being Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Like some Christians, many Muslims believe that human history began with Adam and Eve, but they do not believe in "original sin," the Christian doctrine that all human beings inherit a state of sin from that first couple's disobedience of the command not to eat the forbidden fruit.
Because Islam does not accept the concept of original sin, humanity did not need a savior whose death wiped away this sin. Jesus was not crucified, the religion teaches. Being sinless, he did not need to die and was taken bodily to heaven, as Catholics believe his mother Mary was.
Incidentally, the Qur'an teaches that God made Adam and Eve simultaneously by splitting one human soul, not by making the woman from a part of the man, as the Jewish and Christian traditions hold. The Qur'an also teaches that the serpent in the Garden of Eden seduced both Adam and Eve and that both were equally guilty. Muslims often cite this teaching in defense against assertions that Islam is inherently sexist.
No understanding of Islam is complete without knowledge of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), who was not the founder of Islam. Rather, they hold, he was guided by God to help humanity return to the original, true religion. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was born about 570 in Mecca in what now is Saudi Arabia. Europe was entering the Dark Ages. Throughout the world, empires were collapsing, new societies emerging, and religions spreading. The region's dominant religions were polytheistic, worshipping many deities and idols.
Orphaned by age 6, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was raised by his grandfather and by his uncle after his grandfather died. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) grew up to be a thoughtful, well respected, and honest businessman. He married and became the father of six children, two of whom died young. At the age of 40, he retreated to a cave outside Mecca to meditate. It was there, Islam teaches, that the angel Gabriel visited him and communicated the first of God's words to him. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) continued to receive these revelations from God for the remaining 23 years of his life.
God instructed Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to convey the message of Islam to the people of his region. This was not easily done. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) asked the people to abandon their many idols and recognize Allah as the one God. He was met with reactions ranging from amusement to anger. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) also taught two revolutionary principles - that Islam was the source not just of spiritual authority but also political authority and that the bond uniting people should not be tribal but shared religion.
Dissenters taunted Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) with demands that he work miracles to demonstrate authenticity. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) claimed that only Allah could perform miracles. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) insisted that every aspect of nature was an example of God's power. This did little to win converts. After 11 years of mounting hostility towards him, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his small band of followers emigrated to the city of Yathrib, about 200 miles away. There the people embraced his teachings. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) established himself as the city's political leader and promulgated Islamic teachings. The city was renamed Medina, meaning "city of the prophet." After several years, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his followers returned to Mecca, conquered it and established Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as both religious and political leader of his people. By the time he died at age 63, Islam was established throughout the Arabian Peninsula.
Within a century of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)'s death, Islam had spread west to Spain and Portugal and northeast to Central Asia, establishing Islam as a formidable world empire. Islamic rule also pushed into northern Africa and other parts of the Mediterranean basin within the first 20 years of its establishment. With every advance, Islam adopted and adapted features of many other cultures. By the Middle Ages, Islam was established in parts of Europe, for example, Spain in the west and the former Yugoslavia in the east.
In the 1500s, Hispano-Arab Muslim explorers arrived in America from Spain. In the early 1700s, the slave trade brought the first Muslims, captured African slaves, to this part of the world. By the end of the 19th century, free Muslim immigrants were reaching North America from the Middle East and other Muslim lands. Today, more than 1,300 years after Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Islam continues to thrive, a growing, global religion with a powerful ideology that now binds one-fifth of the human race in a common system of beliefs.
Muslims were the inheritors and guardians of the body of knowledge that created modern society and are credited with having kept scholarship alive through the Dark Ages. After the decline of Roman government and civic order in the 5th century, Europe turned from the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Indians. Elsewhere, however, Islam's large universities continued to advance these intellectual interests. Although the Renaissance, which occurred between the 14th and 16th centuries, is considered the period of revival of art, science, and literature, historians say its roots can be found in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Then, medieval scholars began to question traditional ways of viewing knowledge and regained access to important classical and Islamic texts.
European scholars came to Muslim cities to use the vast libraries. They translated Arabic works into Latin and, often inadvertently, soaked up Muslim culture. This was a pivotal time as the legacies of several cultures began to mingle, most notably, Greek, Persian, Indian, European, and Islamic. During this epoch when intellectual curiosity was at a peak, education was introduced to those outside the Catholic Church hierarchy, creating a professional class of intellectuals. Visiting European scholars returned home and helped to establish universities based on what they had translated from Islamic texts and what they had experienced from their immersion in Muslim culture. As a result, large bodies of Islamic knowledge subsequently were transferred to the rest of the European world.
Traveling through the Islamic world, visitors notice that the status of women changes drastically from country to country. Westerners question why Muslim women cover their heads and most of their bodies. They question the nature of freedom where women have very little political power or social clout. In many cases, the differences are based on local customs and culture only. Wearing veils over the face for example, is not required by the Qur'an but in some places is local custom. Islam requires that women dress and behave modestly. Historians note that, before the rise of Islamic culture in the 7th century, women in much of the world had few rights and were considered little more than chattel. Against that background, the Qur'an and Islamic tradition were positively revolutionary in teaching that men and women are spiritually equal and that women have the right to own and inherit property, seek divorce, gain an education, retain one's family name after marriage and the right to vote.
Muslims such as Rkia Cornell, who teaches Asian and African languages and literature at Duke University, argue that "every culture is inherently sexist to some degree." Cornell insists that, as a Muslim woman, she still has the freedom to control her own life. "Muslim women historically have had a strong role in Islamic society." What some see as oppressive, Muslims view as protective. While Americans may regard a Muslim woman's attire as stifling, Muslims may view the way American women generally dress as sexist and compromising, devaluing the woman to a sex object.
The Prophet (SAW) said to make use of these five things
before you are overpowered by the other five:
LIFE before you are overcome by DEAT
HEALTH before you are overcome by SICKNESS
YOUTH before you are overcome by OLD AGE
TIME before you are overcome by OCCUPATION
WEALTH before you are overcome by POVERTY
The Islamic Bulletin
P.O. Box 410186, San Francisco, CA 94141-0186
Jumaada Awal 1419
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