For many, Islam is tantamount to an insular and backward way of life but nothing could be further from the truth. Islam produced a rich culture which became the wellspring from which most western science, mathematics, and medicine comes. During the Dark ages of Europe, Islamic scientists were building observatories, working out the principles of algebra, and even making attempts at human flight. Though westerners later came to dominate the sciences, they were building on the foundation of Islamic science.
As we look at Islam, we will focus on its founding, its expansion, its central belief system and its many different branches. Finally we will look at the contrasts between Islam and the doctrines of Christianity.
Islam's founder is known as the prophet Muhammad. Muhammad was orphaned by age 6 and was raised by his grandfather and uncle in the commercial center of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Growing up in Mecca, Muhammad lived among Jews, Christians, but mostly idolaters. In fact Mecca was home to 365 idols one for each day of the year. His contact with Jews and Christians helped him grasp the concept of there being only one God but being totally illiterate he was never able to study or search these things out in the scriptures. Muhammad was very committed to the spiritual disciplines of meditation, fasting and prayer and would often retreat into the solitude of desert caves to seek God. When Muhammad was about 40, he was meditating in the cave of Hira when he heard the voice of the angel Gabriel telling him that Allah had appointed him as the Seal of the Prophets (the final person to receive direct revelation from God for the world). Muhammad's first converts were his wife and a wealthy merchant of Mecca named Abu Bakr. Gradually a small group of followers gathered around Muhammad and his teaching but also there was growing opposition which resulted in him fleeing to the city of Medina in 622 AD. There he built a political and religious power base and eight years later returned to Mecca with an army and conquered it. At the same time Muhammad took the Kaaba which was a shrine for idols and made it into a shrine to Allah, the one true God. Muhammad continued to proclaim his new religion until his sudden death in 632 AD.
Typical of most world religions, the influence of Islam did not expand beyond the borders of its geographic birthplace during the lifetime of its founder. When Muhammad died he had no male offspring and did not designate a successor and so over time the continuation of Islam came under the the oversight of Caliphs. The work of the caliph was much like a governor, but, because there is no spiritual/secular dichotomy in Islam, their duties included upholding Islamic teaching and law and defending the faith against infidels.
Many factors contributed to the rapid rise of Islam's power over the middle east, Africa, and Asia. The first factor is simply historic. The main world powers of the time, the Roman, Byzantine, and Persian empires, were in a state of weakness from constant war. They were easy targets for the caliphs seeking to expand their territory and their wealth. The conquered people of these lands were never forced to convert but the legal and economic system was such that remaining outside the pale of Islam was tantamount to becoming a second class citizen and many simply would take the option of conversion. Another factor was the religious climate of the day. All religion, including Judaism and Christianity had been moving in the direction of greater complexity. Islam offered the appealing alternative of simplicity. It was easy to convert, easy to understand, and easy to practice. It also offered the answers to life that were being asked by the common man . Islam's rise to power in Asia came as the result of a cultural revolution. The people of Indonesia were growing increasingly weary of the Hindu and Buddhist caste systems. As Muslim sea traders came into contact with the people of east Asia, the Islamic doctrine of equality and unity among people found a ready audience.
The final reason for the expansion of Islam was its doctrinal appeals to justice, world brotherhood and peace, temperance, and the elevation of women. . Although Islam was unsuccessful in conquering Europe during the Middle Ages, it was the ruling force of the entire Mediterranean world and Middle East by 1453 AD. Through immigration and a more cosmopolitan society, Islam is slowly but surely making gains as a mainstream religion in Europe today.
The foundation of Islam is a belief in the "..transcendence, the power, and the omniscience of Allah (God).." and that the primary act of faith man must perform is submission to the will of Allah. One becomes Islamic through an act of the conscious will. A convert will simply make the profession of faith in the presence of other believers. This profession is simple but theologically profound: "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God."
Followers of Islam believe in a resurrection of the dead by God for final judgment according to their deeds both good and bad and either punishment or bliss will be their reward. Islamic people are responsible to God alone. While there are teachers, there are no real structures or clergy that serve as intermediaries of the covenant.
It is taught and believed that Islam was the original religion which predates Judaism and Christianity. It traces back to Adam by way of Abraham and his son Ishmael. The biblical persons of Moses, David, Job, and Jesus are considered prophets in Islamic thought. Muhammad was the final prophet, appointed by Allah to correct the errors of man that had crept in to the original, heavenly religion.
The most well known of Islamic literature is the Qu'ran. It is not the "Muslim Bible" but rather a continuation of the Holy Bible in a new revelation for the people of Arabia. Islam views the books of Moses, the Psalms, and the Gospels as authentic revelation from God as well. However, the Qu'ran supercedes them and where there is disagreement with the Bible it is to be understood that this is because of corruptions in the biblical text. A central doctrine concerning the Qu'ran is that it was dictated verbatim by God in Arabic to Muhammad. Because of this, translations of the Qu'ran in other languages are called interpretations since it is impossible to translate perfectly the revelation of God. Islamic education in any country stresses learning Arabic as the key to reading the Qu'ran and no matter what the local language, the Qu'ran is always chanted in Arabic. This is a common cultural bond among all Muslims .
Since Muhammad could not read or write, the text of the Qu'ran was assembled by his successors after his death. People who witnessed his teaching did commit it to writing and these fragments were assembled in topical order and by length. Any fragment that was considered unreliable was simply excluded. Once the text was complete and approved, the originals were destroyed. Since that time the Qu'ran has remained unchanged.
The core of Islamic orthodoxy is what are known as the five pillars. "The five pillars are the profession of faith, daily prayer, payment of the zakat (alms-tax), fasting in the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca." These pillars are universally agreed upon by all of Islam no matter what branch, sect, or nation. The pillars are the obligation of every Muslim believer but are not considered the way of virtue. Individual charity and justice practiced in the community are what defines virtue in this religion.
The first pillar is known as the Shahada or profession of faith. The God of the Islamic faith is the God of the Jews and Christians as was taught by Muhammad. The Islamic emphasis on the oneness of God precludes any idea of a trinity or son of God. According to Islamic doctrine Jesus was a great prophet but not God's only son. To believe this would be polytheism which is unforgivable before Allah.
Ritual prayer is the second pillar of Islam. Believers are called to pray 5 times a day, however Muslims are encouraged to be in prayer constantly. While there is no set location for prayer, it is to be done facing east towards Mecca and is not personal prayer but ritual prayers praising God for mercy and declaring His glory. Prayer in a mosque is required on Fridays and on high holy days. In the mosque there are no seats provided and no shoes are permitted. This is a sign of equality among believers. All must find a spot and all must come before God on an equal footing. The minaret or tower on the mosque serves the dual purpose of providing a high place for the call to prayer to played over a loudspeaker or done live by a person and also it is on the east side of the building so the person coming to pray can orient himself correctly.
The third pillar of Islam is the payment of alms for the poor. In some Islamic countries this has been institutionalized into a tax while in others it is still a voluntary. No set amount is prescribed however the Qu'ran and other revered Muslim literature suggests something in the neighborhood of 2.5% of ones savings annually. The main issue is that the Islamic believer cares for those less fortunate for himself.
Pillar four of the Islamic faith is fasting during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan marks the time when Gabriel spoke to Muhammad and told him he was God's final prophet. During this month all eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual relations, are forbidden during the daylight hours. At night the fast is broken and often a meal is shared among friends. The purpose of the fasts is not aesceticism, but rather a controlling of the appetites. It also builds community within the faithful.
The last pillar of Islam is known as the Hajj or pilgrimage. Every Islamic believer is to take at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia in his lifetime. While in Mecca the Kaaba shrine is visited and many spiritual exercises are done that will enhance one's communion with Allah. Once again, as people from around the world come together in Mecca, it promotes equality and brotherhood within Islam.
Keeping the pillars however must be done from the heart and in a spirit of submission to Allah if they are to be of any benefit to the believer. They will be of no use if they are practiced by someone who does not believe or puts not trust in God.
As a religion, Islam has several main branches. The largest of these are the Sunnis or "way of the Prophet". As a group they represent 85% of Islamic people. Sunni Muslims are very focused on keeping the teachings and rules of the Qu'ran and also are the branch that followed the Caliphs who succeeded Muhammad. Sunni Muslims are known for being very philosophical about life and detached from their passions.
Shiite Muslims are the predominate group in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Lebanon. They derive their name from Shiat Ali who was Muhammad's cousin and the last caliph from Saudi Arabia. Since Ali was murdered this group places a high emphasis on martyrdom and are the ones who are radical and known for putting themselves in harm's way. As a group they have an infallible spiritual leader whom they call an Imam. He has divine right to lead all Shiites in matters of faith and practice.
In contrast to these larger groups are the Sufi Muslims so called because their founders wore dark woolen robes which in Arabic are known as Sufis. This sector of Islam places its emphasis on love and mystical communion with Allah as opposed to submission alone. Sufis organize as brotherhoods and often as secret societies since their beliefs differ so much from Islamic orthodoxy. Within this group are the well known "Whirling Dervishes" of Turkey and Southern Russia who have added ecstatic dancing and chanting to their worship of Allah.
Islam and Orthodox Christianity have several points of commonality and several points of strong disagreement. Certainly the emphasis on submission to the will of God, having a relationship with God without the need of mediating human structures, concerns for equality among the brethren and care for the needy would be points of contact for the Christian and the Islamic believer. There is also the shared belief in the final judgment of all mankind for good or evil by a just and holy God.
The points of disagreement between Islam and Christianity however, are deep and profound. Concerning God, Islam emphasizes the utter oneness of God and His unity. Christianity teaches God is triune; One God known in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Islam, the Qu'ran is God's final revelation to man through the prophet Muhammad. The Holy Bible has some revelation but also many corruptions which needed correction. The New Testament, which predates Islam, teaches that God's final revelation to mankind was His Son Jesus Christ and that messages which teach the contrary are to be rejected. Additionally, Christian doctrine requires scripture inspired by God to be without contradiction or error. The Qu'ran produces no evidence or reasons why the Bible has been corrupted. Jesus Christ is a sinless prophet and not the Son of God in Islam. He will return to Earth one day and make the whole world an Islamic Kingdom. Jesus also was never crucified, buried or resurrected but rather put Judas Iscariot on the cross instead and ascended to heaven. Christianity is built on the uniqueness of Christ as the only Son of God who died to make payment for our sins and was resurrected from the dead. So central is this belief that if it can be proven false, Christianity as a religion cannot stand. Lastly, Islam and Christianity differ greatly on the issue of sin and salvation. In Islam, men are sinners by violating the law of God. They are saved by good works and keeping the pillars of Islam. Christian doctrine teaches that men are sinners by nature and that salvation is a free gift through faith in Christ and given by the grace of God.
Since both Christianity and Islam make exclusive claims to being the fullest expression of God's will for mankind and require complete obedience of their adherents, the argument for or against one or the other comes down to their source--Jesus Christ or Muhammad. Muhammad claimed himself a prophet, set up a religious system which contradicts most of everything God had previously taught, and died suddenly. Jesus Christ claimed He was the son of God and the fulfillment of the Old Testament law. He never claimed He was speaking for God, He claimed He was God. His death and resurrection have been attested to by eyewitnesses and this event has been historically verified many times over. Christ teaches a radically different path to a relationship with God than Muhammad. Only one of them can be true and the weight of evidence strongly favors Jesus of Nazareth.
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