As salaamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu.
Or, may the peace, mercy and blessings of God be with you.
Reading through my blog, you’ll quickly discover that I’m a Muslim.
It is probably fair to say that at this moment in time, there is no faith as misunderstood as Islam. Unfortunately, some believe that Islam is an intolerant faith, which produces harsh, aggresive individuals, whose goal in life is to make the world bend their knee to its totalitarianism. It is also sometimes said that Islam is a dry, law-bound faith, which does not (and cannot) ‘live in the Spirit’ (to borrow a Christian phrase). As this blog aims to demonstrate, both of these ideas are mistaken.
So, before you carry on, if you’re new to Islam (and Muslims), please spend a moment or two reading through this very brief introduction to Islam (whose adherents number approximately 1.2 billion).
For a number of historical reasons, Europe has tended to see Islam (and Muslims) as the radically other. Given this, Islam’s main beliefs and tenets have been somewhat obscured. In other words, Islam has acquired the image of being very different and foreign. In actual fact, its teachings are much closer to the Judaeo-Christian background of the West than either Buddhism or Hinduism. Many of its principles are shared with Christianity and Judaism, whilst it counts both of these faiths as being of divine origin. Christians and Jews are thus ‘Peoples of the Book’, to use a Quranic description.
But, what then is Islam? Well, firstly, the word itself comes from a root meaning ‘peace’ and ‘surrender’. In a religious context, Islam is about the peace which comes from submitting to the Divine Will.
What image of God, then, does Islam convey? Within the Islamic tradition, God is believed to be radically One, without a partner of any kind; there is nothing like God, who alone is Unique. God is called Allah in the Quran. This Arabic word simply means ‘the God’ (‘al-Ilah’), and is connected to words for the Deity in other related Semitic languages (such as Elohim in Hebrew and Alaha in Aramaic).
God is also described by a plethora of other names in the Quran (the scripture of Islam): He is called al-Rahman (the Merciful), al-Quddus (the Holy), al-Aziz (the Almighty) and many others besides. These names are an integral part of Islamic theological thought (which we won’t pursue here) and reflect Islam’s beliefs about the nature of God. To summarise, God’s essence is believed to be utterly unknowable, but He can be described with these Names (or Attributes).
The Quran (which I’ve just referred to) is Islam’s scripture. It occupies the very heart of Islam and is believed to be the literal, spoken Word of God (in each letter). The Quran thus holds a unique authority and is therefore the primary foundation of Islamic thought, religious ideas and law (shariah).
According to Islam, the Quran was delivered to humanity through the Prophet Muhammad. Unlike Christ in Christian thought, Muhammad is firmly human, though he is held to be the ‘best of creation’. He is believed to be the final Prophet of God to humanity and as such, was sent to the whole universe. He is thus an example to all Muslims (and this goes some way to explaining his significance).
Islam also teaches belief in Angels, Divine Books and the existence and mission of other prophets (most of whom appear in the Judeao-Christian heritage). In other words, Islam sees itself as the primordial religion of all of God’s messengers (peace be upon them all), who include: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Soloman, Jesus and Muhammad.
Islam is said to be based upon ‘five pillars’. These are: the testification of faith (shahadah), the ritual prayer (salah), compulsory charity (zakat), fasting in the month of Ramadan (sawm) and the pilgrimage to Mecca for those who can afford it (hajj).
The Shahadah involves the belief and public declaration of the following tenets: there is none worthy of worship except Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. In Arabic this runs as follows: la ilaha ill Allah Muhammadur Rasul Allah. There are five ritual prayers each day (before dawn, just after the sun has reached its zenith, in the late afternoon, just after sunset and during the night), which must be prayed by each adult, sane Muslim.
The compulsory charity (zakat) is 2.5% of a Muslim’s surplus wealth (over a certain necessary limit) and does not include living expenses. The fast of Ramadan runs for 30 days from before sunrise to after sunset, whilst the pilgrimage to Mecca is an obligation for any adult Muslim able to afford it.
These are the basics. The Islamic tradition however exhorts Muslims to go beyond this and to perform extra acts of worship. Moreover, Islam contains a very highly developed sense of ethical conduct (akhlaq in Arabic). This is focused on two levels: personal interactions and society at large.
A common phrase you will hear Muslims say is bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, which means ‘In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate’. Generally speaking, these are said when beginning something, whilst al hamdu lillah (‘Praise be to God’) is said when completing something.
If you would like some further information on Islam, I’ve uploaded some Power Point slides which you can download for free: An Introduction to Islam
Ma’as salama (peace be with you),
(‘Servant of the Merciful’)