Preface: What follows is the first segment to a multi-part “Introduction to Islam” series in which I hope to discuss issues of general interest to a non-Muslim audience: Islamic doctrine, sacred law, women’s rights, the laws of war, Islam’s view of terrorism, faith and science, the American Muslim experience, and related issues. My decision to take on this project was the result of long and arduous deliberation. I have always resented evangelical religion of any variety, be it of an Islamic or Christian character, and thus I emphatically hope that I will not be lumped together with those bent upon “converting” others to their respective faiths.
Like other sacred traditions, Islam grants all human beings an absolute and unalienable right to freedom of conscience by which one has the right to choose to believe (or disbelieve) any faith they desire. Rather, as stated in my “About” section, I hope to play a modest role in fostering interfaith dialogue and political reconciliation, particularly between the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities in the West. I believe that understanding Islam, which is often a source of considerable misunderstanding and even demonization, is an indispensable first-step towards that end. I hope that my professed commitment to interfaith harmony will be seen as an honest one.
An Introduction to Islamic Doctrine: A Young Muslim’s Perspective
Islam represents one of the largest and most ethnically diverse sacred traditions in human history. The foundational teaching of Islam is most elegantly expressed in the Islamic declaration of faith known as the Shahada. One enters the fold of Islam by declaring that, “There is no deity worthy of worship except God and Muhammad is His [last and final] messenger.” Islam teaches that if this belief is sincerely held by a human being, salvation in the afterlife “is a promise from God in truth” (Qur’an 4:122). In addition to belief in Muhammad’s Prophethood, Islam requires belief in all of the Prophets of the Jewish and Christian tradition, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, Issac, Jacob, Solomon, David, and Jesus. Islam teaches that these Prophets brought one universal message of pure monotheism, that is, a belief in One God, not complicated by intermediaries, sons, daughters, or indeed any conduit that would impede direct worship between a servant and His Maker. In this vein, Jews and Muslims adhere to a remarkably similar conception of the Divine. Islam insists upon a direct and personal relationship with God without an ecclesiastical hierarchy or any form of intercession; as such, it is uncompromisingly “monotheistic” and strongly discourages excessive theological speculation about Divine nature that, Muslims believe, caused prior religions communities to blur the distinction between God and Man, mostly notably through the apotheosis of Christ. In requiring belief in One God, Muslims believe that Islam subscribes to a highly rational theology that is capable of being understood by all human beings. Islam teaches that the exercise of one’s ratiocinative faculties and innate intelligence can enable one to come to a realization of the Divine (Qur’an 38:29); that said, the Qur’an insists that belief in the “Unseen” is an inescapable component of the Islamic faith and that a full understanding of the nature of the universe rests with God alone (Qur’an 2: 1-3; 72:26).
In much the same way that Islam rejects the deification of Christ, a Muslim is categorically prohibited from worshiping the Prophet Muhammad and forbidden from elevating his status above any of his prophetic predecessors. (Quran 2:136). Indeed, it is noteworthy that most sacred traditions are often named after their purported founders or points of geographic origin: Christianity (Christ), Buddhism (Buddha), Judaism (tribe of Judah), Hinduism (descendents of the “Sindhu” River), Confucianism (Confucius). By contrast, Islam is not named after the Prophet Muhammad or pre-modern Arabia, but rather encompasses a broad and universal meaning that transcends all individual and geographic demarcations. The word “Islam” translates as “submission to the Will of God,” whose etymology traces to the word “salaam,” meaning peace. In addition, although a common source of misunderstanding, the word “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God, much like “Dieu” denotes God in French, or “Elohim” in Hebrew. Indeed, the name for God in the language purportedly spoken by Christ in the New Testament, Aramaic, is “Alaha,” which is nearly phonetically identical to its Arabic counterpart. In short, “Allah” is used by both Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims to refer to the One Monotheistic God worshiped by the Prophet Abraham.
Muslims believe that the Qur’an represents the final revelation sent to humankind. That said, the Qur’an confers the reverent title of “People of the Scripture” upon Jews and Christians, which speaks to the fact that the both religious communities were recipients of Divine Revelation. Islam commands a Muslim to believe in previously-revealed holy scriptures, including the Torah, Psalms, and the Gospel of Christ, known as the “Injeel” in Arabic and “Evangelion” in Greek. Notwithstanding this commandment, the Islamic tradition teaches that prior revelations were subjected to interpolation and alternation through succeeding centuries and thus calls upon Muslims to judge altered religious texts by the standard of the Qur’an, which is sometimes referred to as the “Final Revelation” or “The Criterion” (Arabic: Al-Furqan). Given the common Abrahamic lineage between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, one will find that much of what exists in the present-day Old and New Testaments fully comports with the Qur’anic ethos, a fact perhaps best reflected by the famous Sermon of the Mount reported in the Gospel of Matthew. Indeed, insofar as “Christian” translates as “follower of Christ,” a Muslim steadfastly regards himself as a follower of Jesus and his message of pure monotheism found in the New Testament (Luke 18:19).
Similarly, both Islam and Christianity subscribe to a conception of God whose paramount attribute is Divine Mercy and Grace. Nevertheless, from a believing Muslim’s perspective, Islam’s view of salvation and forgiveness departs from the Christian tradition in important ways. In contrast to the Christian doctrine of “Vicarious Sacrifice,” Islam maintains that each individual is responsible for his own sins (Qur’an 6:164) and that it is not through the shedding of blood, but rather non-conditional Divine Mercy, that God forgives sin. While honoring the Christian tradition, Islam does not subscribe to the notion that God demands a quid pro quo to forgive sin. Rather, Islamic tradition teaches that God has stated “My Mercy is greater than My Justice,” and thus, recognizing man’s frailty and propensity for sin, forgives without demanding recompense of any sort. It is important to emphasize that despite these theological differences, a Muslim is strictly forbidden from disparaging any faith (Qur’an: 6: 108) and must honor and respect religious diversity; moreover, the Qur’an is emphatic that freedom of conscience and the right to choose one’s faith, or no faith at all, is a divine right that may not be stripped of any human being (Qur’an 2:256 & 109:6).
Like many other world religions Islam provides believers with a sacred law that contains a general prohibition against pork, alcohol, gambling, etc. However, the essence of the Islamic ethos is not adherence to divine law, but rather faith and belief in God, His Signs, His Prophets, His Revelations and striving to live a life characterized by humility, selflessness, love, and always caring for the weakest members of society. Like previous Abrahamic prophets. Muslims believe these virtues were most beautifully exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad during his twenty-three year ministry, which was a period marked by immense political turmoil and persecution. The Prophet Muhammad’s example of moral uprightness in the midst of a highly patriarchal and primitive seventh-century Arabian society reinforces a Muslim’s belief that his is a noble example most worthy of emulation. The diversity and richness of the Prophet Muhammad’s life in his role as a father, a son, an orphan, a husband, a statesman, and a religious figure, provides succeeding generations of Muslims with a model of moral excellence to follow in all realms of human endeavor. Similar to the Christian adage, “What would Jesus do?” a Muslim is taught to ask, “What would God’s prophets do?,” which includes not just Muhammad, but Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus, and others.
Islamic doctrine is clear that it is not by one’s good works, but God’s Mercy that one achieves salvation. As the Prophet Muhammad famously said, “Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately, and rejoice, for no one’s good deeds will put him in Paradise. His Companions asked: ‘Not even you, Oh Messenger of God?’ He replied: “Not even me, unless God bestowed His Grace and Mercy upon me.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 8, No. 474). Although Islam discourages vice, many Muslims, both today and even during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, continually fell into a state of “sinfulness,” which included the consumption of alcohol, fornication, and the like. Muslims are encouraged to do their level best to live a life of God-consciousness and conform one’s actions to sacred law, but a Muslim is taught not to despair if he finds himself struggling in his adherence to legal injunctions (Qur’an 2:222). Islam teaches that faith is to be a source of spiritual nourishment and beauty, not a suffocating tradition that robs life of all its zest. Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad himself strongly encouraged entertainment and lightheartedness, particularly on festive occasions such as weddings and religious celebrations. In so doing, he explicitly rejected the extreme forms of asceticism that caused man to cut himself off from the blessings of the material world. Islam seeks to strike a practical balance between excessive materialism and monastic life. In this vein, western scholars often noted that Islam was a beautiful manifestation of Aristotle’s “Golden Mean.”
“Mankind, We created you from a male and female, and made you into distinct nations and tribes so that you might come to know each other. The noblest among you in God’s sight is the one who is best in conduct.” (Qur’an 49:13)