Knowing Islam

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This is the first in a series of posts about Islam. For more articles in this series, click on the links at the end of this article.

Many people say they don’t need to know the tenets of other religions or worldviews, but they only need to know the Bible. They might even cite the anecdote of how bank tellers recognize a fake $20 bill by immersing themselves in knowing how real $20 bills look and feel.

This logic has many fallacies. For example, a physician spends years learning how the human body functions (basic anatomy and physiology), but he spends even more years learning how the body dysfunctions (pathophysiology) so that he can diagnose and treat. Similarly, a lawyer studies court cases, not just the law. Likewise, a Christian needs to be immersed in the truth of the word of God, but should also be exposed to, even study, other worldviews, religions, and heresies. Such knowledge would better dispose us to engage in a more informed way, to reason well, and to defend our faith winsomely.

Today we hear a lot about Islam. We work and live around Muslims. And it would benefit us to be acquainted with the basics of this large religion that makes up 24% of the current world population. Let’s start with the basics.

Basic Beliefs

Muslims believe that God created everyone in a state of submission, a state of Islam. This is what the word Muslim means: one who is in submission. As such, Islam teaches that everyone is technically a Muslim at birth, but due to upbringing in non-Muslim households or nations, a person is no longer in a state of Islam. The word Islam (submission) is very close to the word salam or shalom, meaning peace. Peace is in fact a state of perfect harmony for the Muslim. 

Historical Origins

The religion dates to around 600 A.D. in Mecca and Medina located within the modern day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

Muhammad ibn Abdullah is its prophet. He is not considered to be its founder because Muslims believe that Islam is the one true religion, dating back to creation. Muhammad is considered to be the last prophet of Islam, the seal of the prophets. 

The Quran is the main book in Islam. There are other authoritative writings such as the Hadith (literally, “sayings”) which are sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad that were in later generations compiled into writings. 

Islam is influenced by Judaism and Arabian pagan polytheism which led to the monotheistic reform Muhammad led in the Arabian Peninsula. 

Five Core Doctrines

Belief in Allah, that he is one. The Arabic word is tawhid, which means absolute unity, oneness, and singularity of Allah. When Muslims say LA ILAH ILLA ALLAH (there is no God but Allah), they are performing the act of Tawhid. Hence the sin of association (shirk) of partners to the worship of Allah is completely refused by Muslims. This is the main contention with Christians who believe in a Triune God.

Belief in angels. They are primarily considered as good messengers. Muslims also believe in spirits (djinn) which can be either good or bad. 

Belief in divinely-inspired scriptures. Islam in principle recognizes the Torah (Tawrat), the Psalms (Zabur) and the gospel (Injil). The Quran holds the highest position while the others are said to have been corrupted, a common accusation made by Muslims and a main reason why they do not read the Bible.

Belief in prophets and messengers. Prophets deliver messages from Allah. But messengers hold a higher status (apostles) and are given books. As Moses is a messenger to the Jews, so Muhammad is a messenger to Muslims. There are 25 prophets mentioned in the Quran, 24 of whom are found in the Bible. Only 13 are also messengers: Nuh (Noah), Hud (Eber), Saleh (Shelah), Lut (Lot), Ibrahim (Abraham), Ismail (Ishmael), Yusuf (Joseph), Musa (Moses), Shuayb (Jethro), Ilyas (Elijah), Yunus (Jonah), Isa (Jesus), and Muhammad. 

Belief in the resurrection and judgment. The dead will be raised and all will receive either reward or punishment based at least in part on deeds. There is a paradise and a hell. 

Muslims also believe in God’s decree of foreordination and predestination. Everything happens according to the will of Allah; hence the frequent use of the word inshallah, “if Allah wills it.”

Five Pillars

Profession of faith (shahadah). “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” This is essential to Muslims and to becoming a Muslim. It has to be recited and witnessed by two people to be valid. 

Prayer (salat). Five times daily at sunrise, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, evening. They can be done anywhere. Men are supposed to attend the weekly Friday noon prayer at the mosque. Purification is achieved by washing of mouth, hands and feet, and the prayer has to be done while facing Mecca. These are not petitions but rather prescribed prayers that are recited. 

Giving of alms (zakat). It is mandatory, but no amount is specified. Tradition dictates that 2.5% of wealth needs to be given annually. 

Fasting during the month of Ramadan (sawm). From sunrise to sundown. Exceptions are allowed for reasons of sickness, pregnancy, and travel. Ramadan varies yearly because it follows a lunar calendar, so the days can be very long in the summer. The end is marked by Eid al-Fitr, a great celebratory feast. 

Pilgrimage (hajj). It is a 5 to 6-day journey to Mecca every able man has to perform at least once in a lifetime during the 12th month of the calendar (Dhu al-Hijjah). Exceptions are allowed for reasons of health, poverty etc. There are prescribed rituals, such as circling the Kaaba (the house of Allah) and throwing stones at three pillars that represent Satan. The third day of Hajj is marked by Eid al-Adha which commemorates the time Abraham was called by Allah to sacrifice his son Ishmael, but he provided a substitutionary Lamb.  After the pilgrimage, many go to Medina to visit Muhammad’s mosque and tomb. 

For more articles in this series on Islam, click on the links below:

Part 2 | 3

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