To the average American, Islam is a very foreign religion: one that not only conjures up Eastern or “Oriental” overtones, but one that also usually carries negative connotations. These adverse associations have many sources, from the days of the Crusaders in the Middle Ages, to today’s nightly news, where Islam seems to be represented by extremists promoting violent and many times very un- Islamic attitudes.
The truth is that Islam is not foreign to our Judeo-Christian heritage. Islam is actually another facet of the same lineage. Islam considers itself another development from the root of the monotheism of Abraham. Muslims trace their ancestry to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, who was born to Abraham’s Egyptian concubine, Hagar. Ishmael was Abraham’s pride and joy until his wife, Sarah, gave birth at the age of ninety to Isaac. Sarah grew exceedingly jealous of Hagar and worried about the eldest son, Ishmael. She convinced Abraham to send them both away forever. Abraham was hesitant but finally agreed, with God’s promise to take care of them and make Ishmael the father of a great people. Abraham took them into the wilderness of the valley of Mecca and left them there. It is said that when Abraham later returned to see his grown son, together they built the first temple to God, the Ka’bah (Armstrong 161). While Isaac went on to be the patriarch of the Jewish nation, Ishmael fathered the Arab nation, which was not to flower until the seventh century.
The Islamic faith believes in many of the prophets of the Torah, the Old Testament, with special emphasis on Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. It also believes whole-heartedly that Jesus, son of Mary, was a major prophet of God. It breaks with Christianity in not believing in the divinity of Jesus as the son of God. The largest discrepancy with the two previous religions of Abraham comes with Islam’s claim that God sent another prophet, Muhammad, with a new revelation, the Qur’an, to the Arab nation. This is where the remarkable story of Islam begins.
Muhammad was born into a commercial family in the thriving trading city of Mecca, where he was orphaned at an early age and brought up by extended family. Mecca was a community that had undergone considerable change in the previous few generations. Commercial development had transformed the lives of nomadic tribesmen to capitalistic townspeople focused on personal gain and wealth. It was a culture still living deeply tied to tribal and clan allegiances with spiritual traditions rooted in polytheism. People were accustomed to having multiple gods help them in the many hardships they encountered. Internally, the tribes of Arabia were constantly at war with one another; blood-feuds led from one vendetta to another. Externally, both Persian and Byzantine empires were strong in the seventh century but did not consider the Arabian area worth an invasion. It was inconceivable that a new major religion would soon evolve there and then an empire that would dwarf theirs (Armstrong 53-4).
Muhammad worked in the family business; his main job was to guide caravans to Syria and Mesopotamia. He married a woman whom he been working for by the name of Khadija. She was considerably older than he, but proved to be an excellent wife, not only giving him six children but also becoming his most valued companion and supporter. When Muhammad was about forty he began making more frequent spiritual retreats, devoting himself to the worship of Allah, the primary God of Mecca. His first revelation occurred on one of these retreats to Mount Hira on the seventeenth night of Ramadan, 610. He was visited by an angel who commanded him to recite. He was terrified and protested but was unable to refuse, and thus began the revelation of the Qur’an, the Recitation.
Muhammad believed he was fulfilling the role of the prophet of God to the Arabs, who had been left out of previous prophecies. The Arabic Qur’an was the message to the Arabs to fulfill their needs and right their wrongs. It was not a new religion but a continuation of the religion of Abraham, and he was its prophet (Armstrong 82-70). Muhammad could not read or write so he memorized the recitations of the Qur’an as did his followers. This process was seen as an enhancement of the purity of the revelation of the new words of God, which continued to be revealed to him over a period of years. For the first three years Muhammad preached only to a small group of followers including members of his family and some of his friends. His wife, Khadija, was his first and most faithful convert. In 615 he started preaching publicly and began to win converts among the people of Mecca; he also began to split families in their allegiance between his new religion and the traditional multiple gods. At first the religion was fairly well accepted, except for the concept of the Last Judgment; this egalitarian ending of each man’s life, where only good or bad deeds mattered, did not sit too well with wealth-oriented businessmen of the city. But major problems arose in 616 when Muhammad began to stress the absolute monotheism of the faith, insisting that all other gods must be abandoned completely. This created a wide rift between the Muslims and the traditionalists, and the Muslims became a ridiculed minority. A campaign was mounted to rid Mecca of the new religion (Armstrong 105-7). Fortunately, Muhammad had the protection of a powerful clan leader who would have started a bloody vendetta if Muhammad had been killed. To try to drive the Muslims out of Mecca the traditionalists enforced a ban against them that created very difficult conditions for the Muslims, but after two years the ban was ended. However other conditions worsened; Muhammad’s main protector died and Khadija also died, leaving him in a very saddened state.
In 620 Muhammad experienced his most mystical encounter, now called “The Night Flight.” He was awakened from his sleep by the angel Gabriel, who flew him to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount where they were greeted by Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and a group of other prophets. Later he climbed a ladder into the seven levels of heaven and finally stood before the Throne of God. It was a validating experience that became immensely important in Islamic spirituality, particularly in some of the Sufi traditions. Some Muslims insist that Muhammad made the journey to God’s Throne in body, but others believe that the Night Journey and Ascension were purely spiritual experiences (Armstrong 138-40).
Mecca was home to one of Arabia’s most sacred sites, the ancient temple called the Ka’bah, dedicated to a primary god of Mecca, al- Llah, and also many minor deities. The Ka’bah was the primary focus of an annual pilgrimage, the hajj, that involved people from throughout the region. Pilgrims from the northern oasis community of Medina met Muhammad during the hajj and were very impressed with him. They began negotiations that led to the immigration of many of the persecuted Muslims of Mecca to Medina. In 622 Muhammad’s remaining protector died and an alliance of clans organized an assassination plot against Muhammad. He narrowly escaped and found his way to Medina where he was welcomed as an arbiter between warring groups that were destroying the community.
Muhammad gained stature in Medina and began to organize raids on the caravans of Mecca as a source of income for the Muslims and retribution against the Meccans. This led to the Battle of Badr where Muhammad led 350 Muslims to capture a caravan, and an army of 1000 from Mecca attempted to stop them. The Meccans were not experienced warriors and Muhammad made some excellent tactical decisions resulting in the defeat and rout of the Meccans. It was an incredible morale boost for the Muslims in Medina. The battle of Badr was seen as a sign of salvation from God (Armstrong 176).
This victory set the conditions for the inevitable vengeance of the Meccans as Muhammad continued his raids on the caravans of Mecca. In 625 the Meccans led a 3,000 man army against Medina. Muhammad confronted them with an army of 1,000 men. The battle did not go well; Muhammad was wounded leaving the Muslims in disarray. Fortunately, the Meccans were also disorganized. Thinking Muhammad had been killed, they did not follow the Muslims, who retreated back to Medina.
In 627 the Meccans marched against Medina with 10,000 men. Muhammad mustered about 3,000 in defense. The Muslims barricaded themselves in the city and dug a trench on a vulnerable front. Each family was responsible for a certain amount of the excavation. Muhammad himself worked on the trench. The Meccans were unable to breach the trench and a violent turn in the weather led them to give up the siege and return to Mecca. During the siege a Jewish tribe within Medina had conspired with the Meccans to betray the Muslims. As punishment all the 700 men of the tribe were executed and the women and children were sold into slavery. Muhammad’s victory over the Meccans and his harsh treatment of the traitors led him to be regarded as the leader of the most powerful group in Arabia (Armstrong 203-8).
At this point Muhammad was more certain of the Muslim’s survival and began taking a very different strategy. In 628 he announced he was to make pilgrimage to the Ka’bah and invited the Muslims to join him. They went without armor and only lightly armed. Outside Mecca in the neutral area where no fighting was allowed, they were stopped and not permitted to enter the city. After much tension and negotiation Muhammad agreed to return to Medina, but not before negotiating a ten-year truce between Mecca and Medina and the right to return during next year’s hajj to the Ka’bah, when the Meccans would abandon the area for three days for the use of the Muslims. Some Muslims were furious with the generous terms of the treaty but Muhammad persisted and continued with his long-term strategy of winning over more people to Islam by its dedication to the ancient ways of the Ka’bah. It was a practical decision that would have tangible gains far greater than immediate military ones (Armstrong 214-20).
At the end of 629, when the Meccans broke the treaty with Medina, Muhammad organized an army of 10,000 to march on Mecca. After one small skirmish, the city of Mecca gave way to his bloodless conquest. He did not force Islam on them but he did destroy all the idols around the Ka’bah. He granted a general amnesty to people of Mecca with the exception of a Black List of about ten people who were executed (Armstrong 243).
Muhammad’s total victory in Mecca led tribes throughout Arabia to join in allegiances with him and adopt Islam, although many times nominally. In the ten years since he fled from Mecca to Medina, he had managed to create an Arab unity that was unimaginable before. He set up a system that was to govern a huge empire for the next thousand years. Islam was not a faith that expected God to do for them. It was a practical and realistic faith that believed they would need to work with divine guidance to make things happen. Muhammad was not a removed mystic communing with God but a very practical, political, and spiritual leader doing what needed to be done within the rather grim framework of tribal traditions (Armstrong 250).
In 632 Muhammad led the pilgrims to Mecca for the last time. Near Mount Arafat Muhammad preached his farewell sermon. He told them to deal justly with one another, treat women kindly, abandon all blood-feuds from the pagan period, and remember that all Muslims are brothers — the brethren of Islam was the new allegiance.
After returning to Mecca he began having severe incapacitating headaches; he grew increasingly ill and died. He was succeeded by his follower, Abu Bakr, who took the title of Caliph, or Representative of Muhammad. Abu Bakr was careful to stay in the tradition of Muhammad and declared he was fit to lead only as long as he followed the way of the Qur’an and the Prophet and if he should go astray, he should be removed. He ruled for only two years, until his death, and was followed by a quick succession of three more Caliphs who all ruled in accordance with the principles of Muhammad and are known as the Rightly Guided Caliphs. This period has been called the Golden Age as many of the following Caliphs did not live up to Muhammad’s high standards of equality and justice (Armstrong 258).
If one were considering Muhammad’s remarkable political career alone, he would be a fascinating historical figure. He set the model for future Islamic rulers and beyond that he became one of Islam’s most unifying factors. He is seen as the example that all good Muslims should try to emulate, but his main contribution was in the new revelation he left the Arab people and the world, the Qur’an.
The Qur’an is a continuation of the revelation of God as seen in the Torah and Gospels but with a very distinct Arabic voice, as in the following Surah (chapter) 22: verses 5-6:
If you have any doubt, O men,
about being raised to life again,
(remember) that We created you
then a drop of semen, then an
embryo, then a chewed up lump
of flesh, shaped and shapeless
that We may reveal (the various
steps) to you.
We keep what We please in the
womb for a certain time,
then you come out as a child,
then reach the prime of age.
Some of you die, some reach
the age of dotage when they
forget what they knew, having
known it once.
You see the earth all withered,
then We will send down rain
upon it, and it bestirs itself,
swells, and brings forth every
kind of beauteous verdure.
That is so for God is the
It is He who brings the dead to
For He has the power over every
It is difficult for a non-Muslim and non-Arabic speaker and reader to gain any of the true impact of the Qur’an. From the beginning the revelation of the Qur’an is spoken of with a deep reverence. Unbelievers heard it and cried, won over by the tremendous poetry and power of the verses. This is still the impact of the writings for the devoted Muslim, who is moved not just by the content of the words but by the overall aesthetic experience of the spoken or recited verses.
But aside from the artistic beauty of the Qur’an, its importance in the life of a Muslim is readily discernible. The Qur’an builds on the morals and ethics of the Torah and the Gospels but goes far beyond to set up a structured set of duties and responsibilities for the believer beginning with the Five Principles. The Muslim must believe in these five articles of faith: God, His Angels, His Prophets, His Books, and Life after Death (Ali 100).
The belief in God is a total and complete surrender to the one supreme God, Allah. The word Islam means surrender, submission, and peace. The word Muslim means one who has surrendered. This act of surrender is especially important as Muslims believe all God’s creatures except man are naturally subordinate to His will and live according to His divine plan; only man was given free will and has the responsibility to become a Muslim, to submit to God’s will (Armstrong 166). The focus on the one God underlies the unity Islam strives to create in spiritual and social matters. In Muhammad’s revelations of the seventh century, the Qur’an gives a truly startling message of the unity of all the human race, regardless of racial or ethnic background. The theme of the one God is a recurring refrain throughout the Qur’an and the prayers of Islam:
There is no god but God,
and God is all-mighty and all-
This monotheism was undoubtedly to counter the multiple-god
worship of the traditionalists of Muhammad’s time but today Muslims see it just as relevant as a reminder against the multiple gods of materialism.
The second article of faith is the belief in God’s angels. Angels, creatures God created of light, are more forces of nature than human-like. They are made only to obey the will of God and be intermediaries between God and humans. Their most important function has been to bring God’s revelation to humans. It is believed that the stronger a person’s righteousness becomes, the stronger the person’s connection with the angels. It is said that every good or noble deed is stimulated by an angel and that angels are also the recorders of people’s deeds for the final reckoning. Associated with angels are their opposites, jinn, or devils. These creatures, made of fire, urge us to follow the lower passions of life rather than the higher spiritual passions that lead to God (Ali 134-43).
The third article of faith is the belief in the prophets of God. Islam believes that every nation has had its prophet of God and pays special attention to the prophets of Judaism and Christianity, who are seen as part of their lineage:
We believe in God
and what has been sent
down to us,
and what has been revealed
to Abraham and Ishmael
and Isaac and Jacob and their
progeny, and what was given to
Moses and Christ,
and to all the other prophets of
We make no distinctions among
and we submit to Him. (2:136)
But the focus of belief in prophets lies with Muhammad, who has the distinction of not only being a prophet of God but also of being the last prophet of God. Muslims believe that God’s revelation reached its perfection with Muhammad and there is no need for any further prophets after him (Ali 158).
The fourth article of faith in Islam is the belief in God’s books. As with the belief in prophets, Muslims pay special tribute to the Torah and Gospels as revelation brought down to the two previous religions of Abraham, but the focus for belief is in the perfect book as revealed by Muhammad, the Qur’an itself. While the Qur’an relates some of the same stories as the Torah it often gives different versions, many times omitting any of the weaknesses or sins of the prophets, believing them to be “defects” in the originals and smears on the divine revelation of the prophets (Ali 160). The Qur’an is considered to be the greatest miracle of Islam, a miracle that has the power to transform individuals, families, societies, and nations not only on a spiritual level but also on moral, intellectual, and material levels as well.
The fifth and final article of faith is the belief in life after death. The importance of this article has been well stated by the Muslim scholar Maulana Muhammad Ali:
The greater the faith in the good or bad consequences of a deed, the greater is the incentive which urges a man to or withholds him from that deed. Therefore this belief is both the greatest impetus towards good and noble, and the greatest restraint upon evil or irresponsible deeds. But more than this, such a belief purifies the motives with which the deed is done. It makes a man work with the most selfless motives, for he seeks no reward for what he does; his work is for higher and nobler ends relating to the life beyond the grave (200).
The Qur’an weaves the themes of heaven and hell through many of its chapters from beginning to end. Heaven is depicted as a cool garden with running water, shade, and pleasant company; while hell is described sometimes in brutal detail with punishments one would certainly want to avoid:
Before him is Hell, and he will
get putrid liquid to drink
He will sip it,
yet not be able to gulp it down.
Death will crowd him upon every
side, but he will not die.
A terrible torrent trails him.
The Islamic concept of the afterlife does have some interesting characteristics. Hell is a place of retribution for past evil deeds but it is also a place for purification. The punishments of hell eventually rid people of their sins and there is a chance for spiritual advancement and eventual release from hell (Ali 229). Heaven, on the other hand, is not considered a stagnant place but a higher life of increasing advancement, rising higher and higher as new accomplishments are made (Ali 226). At the time of each individual’s Last Judgment and Resurrection a book of his or her good and bad deeds is revealed. No outside reckoning is necessary; it will be so obvious to each person that they will pass judgment on themselves (Ali 215).
In addition to the five articles of faith are five fundamental religious duties recognized by Islam: prayer, zakat or charity, fasting, pilgrimage, and jihad or struggle. Prayer is the first duty not only in order but also in importance. Prayer is at the very root of Islamic experience. Prayer is the means by which God enters the living force of people. The realization of the Divine comes only through the personal communication of the individual and God. Islam has not left this crucial duty to the discretion of the individual. It has institutionalized prayer into a devotional activity to be performed five times daily: once in the morning before sunrise, another after midday, a third in the afternoon, a fourth at sunset, and a fifth before going to bed. Prayer is an integral part of every day. If possible these prayers are to be done in a mosque as a communal event with fellow believers. In a mosque, which is a prayer hall, every Muslim becomes equal; there is no difference in status, rank, race, or ethnic background. It is to be an experience of complete unity and cohesion of believers. Five times a day this sense of harmony and peace is to take precedence over the everyday life of struggle and inequalities. It is to be a practical lesson in Islamic equality. Due to the nature of these standard prayers which are taken from the Qur’an, the language of Arabic is retained to maintain the purity of the poetry and the beauty of the original revelation in the original language. There is no Sabbath day in Islam; with prayers five times daily, every day becomes God’s day. On Fridays a special sermon is scheduled for the afternoon in the mosque in which the Imam, the leader of prayer, delivers a message on any matter dealing with the life of the Muslims. The mosque is not only the spiritual center of the Muslims but also the cultural center of the community. The only requirement of a mosque is that it face the Ka’bah in Mecca. Traditionally it is a simple structure with open spaces for prayer and prostration. It usually has one or more minarets or raised platforms from which the adhan, the call to prayer, can be given five times daily (Ali 263-82).
The second religious duty of a Muslim is that of charity. There are two kinds of charity in Islam, voluntary and obligatory. In a very broad sense of the word all acts of goodness towards humanity can be seen as charity and such acts are a necessary part of any Muslim’s life. Regarding the matter of wealth, each individual is expected to give to those less fortunate, not as the act of a superior but as a duty imposed by the love of God. The obligatory charity is called the zakat. The zakat is a flat tax of one fortieth of one’s wealth that is to be paid annually to a common fund for the relief of the poor. The unequal distribution of wealth was and is a social problem that Muhammad recognized and sought to lessen (Ali 343-6).
The third duty is that of fasting. Fasting is abstaining — abstaining from food, drink and sexual intercourse from dawn to sunset. In a larger sense, the person fasting is also supposed to abstain from all that is immoral: lying, using bad language, acting unfaithfully, or doing any evil deed. The primary fast of Muslims is the entire month of Ramadzan, the month in which the Qur’an began to be revealed and also the month of the Battle of Badr. Fasting is considered moral training of the individual: learning to suffer when necessary, to undergo trials rather than indulge desires, to control appetites of the body and be their masters instead of them mastering you. Fasting is a practical lesson in facing hardships and increasing the resistance to temptation. The elderly, the ill, and travelers are exempted from the fast, but when possible they are to make up the fast days when they can. In addition to the month of Ramadzan, Muhammad recommended about three days a month as voluntary fast days. He discouraged any excessive fasting as a show of devotion (Ali 358- 65).
The fourth duty of a Muslim is the hajj, the pilgrimage to the Ka’bah. As previously mentioned the Ka’bah has roots that extend before recorded or remembered history. It is a simple structure with the front and back wall forty feet in length, two side walls thirty- five feet in length, and an overall height of fifty feet. The walls of the structure are covered with a black curtain. The east cornerstone is a famous Black Stone that some believe to be a meteorite, a cornerstone directly from God. While circling the Ka’bah is considered to be the highlight of the annual hajj, there are other rituals performed, most predating Muhammad and now incorporated into the Muslim devotional acts. Every Muslim is required to make this pilgrimage once in their lives if it is within their financial and physical means to do so. It is as difficult for an outsider to comprehend the hajj as it is to understand the beauty of the Qur’an. The hajj is another of the Muslims’ creations of an experience of equality. All individuals are to leave all marks of distinction and rank behind. Men all dress in two white sheets and women dress in modest, ordinary clothes. The objective is to have an ultimate spiritual experience as a part of the vast body of Islam. It has been described by the Iranian philosopher Ali Shariati as follows:
As you circumambulate and move closer to the Ka’bah, you feel like a small stream merging with a big river. Carried by a wave you lose touch with the ground. Suddenly, you are floating, carried on by the flood. As you approach the center, the pressure of the crowd squeezes you so hard that you are given a new life. You are now part of the people; you are now a Man, alive and eternal …. The Ka’bah is the world’s sun whose face attracts you into its orbit. You have become part of this universal system. Circumambulating around Allah, you will soon forget yourself …. You have been transformed into a particle that is gradually melting and disappearing. This is absolute love at its peak. (Armstrong 253)
The fifth, final, and most often misunderstood of the duties of a Muslim is the jihad, the struggle. Unfortunately more often jihad is interpreted to mean war rather than struggle. The struggle is the struggle to spread Islam and the struggle against oneself, the devil, and the enemies of Islam. The struggle is to be one of using the weapon of the Qur’an, not the sword. Every Muslim is obligated to spread the message of the Qur’an but not through violent means. War is specifically designated by the Qur’an to be used only for self- defense, never for offensive reasons, never to spread Islam by force. When one is forced into war the Qur’an supports fighting to win for Allah, but as soon as the adversaries sue for peace, Muslims must end hostilities immediately.
In addition to these five duties there are other regulations and rules in Islam. Muslims are prohibited from the use of any intoxicants. Forbidden food includes pork and animals that die a natural death or that have been sacrificed to another god. The Qur’an puts a great stress on cleanliness, both physical and mental. Modesty and moderation are promoted in all matters. Arrogance and extravagance are condemned. Truthfulness, perseverance, and courage are all basic characteristics that the Muslim should develop and foster.
Parents are encouraged to be kind and gentle with their children. In return children are to show the same love and respect to their parents when they grow old as is reflected in this wonderful passage from the Qur’an:
So your Lord decreed: Do not worship anyone but Him, and be good to your parents. If one or both of them grow old in your presence, do not say fie to them, nor reprove them, but say gentle words to them and look after them with kindness and love, and say: “O Lord have mercy on them as they nourished me when I was small.” (17:23-4)
Muslims are warned against deriding others, looking down on others, seeking faults, and being suspicious of others. They are encouraged to express kindness, generosity, and compassion to all, whether neighbor, servant, or, in days past, slave. As guidance in these matters, Muslims look to the life of Muhammad, who exemplified these traits. He lived very modestly and frugally. He had one set of coarse commoner’s clothes. He milked his own goat, cared for his own camel, mended his own clothes and shoes, did the shopping for his house and neighbors, and helped with household chores. He rejected any special treatment. He was always smiling and friendly to all. He loved children and helped with their care. He demanded complete justice for friend or foe and was careful of how he dispensed it as the following story illustrates:
The Holy Prophet Muhammad was once requested by an aged woman to speak to her son, who spent all his daily wages on the fruit of the date palm, leaving her penniless. The Prophet promised to do so after a five week interval.
On the appointed day the boy was brought before the Prophet, who spoke to him very kindly, saying, “You are such a sensible lad that you ought to remember that your mother has endured much suffering to bring you up; and now she is so old and you are in a position to support her, you are squandering your money on dates. Is this right? I hope, by the grace and mercy of Allah, you will give up this habit.” The boy listened very attentively and profited by what he heard.
The disciples of the Prophet wondered and asked why the reproof was delayed for thirty-five days. The Holy Prophet explained saying, “I myself am fond of dates, and I felt as if I had no right to advise the lad to abstain from them until I myself refrained from eating them for five weeks.” (Khan II, 30)
One of the aspects of Islam often questioned in modern times is the position of women in the faith. When Muhammad founded Islam women were treated as property of men. They had no rights at all. As part of Islam’s social reforms women gained considerably more rights and influence. They were given the right to own property, to inherit property, to earn property, and to give and receive property as gifts. Instead of being property women had the power of property at their disposal, as all were endowed at marriage with property that was exclusively their own. From modern Western standards women of Muhammad’s world were not “liberated,” but they were far advanced from women in the Christian communities of the time and for many centuries thereafter. Traditions of all women wearing a veil and the separation of women from men in the home and mosque were instituted generations after Muhammad and have no basis in the Qur’an. They may have been influenced by Byzantium or Persia where such treatment was common (Armstrong 198).
The Qur’an was and is the fundamental and primary source of Islamic teachings. A secondary source is the Sunnah, practice, and the Hadith, sayings, of Muhammad. These writings are careful compilations of the words and actions of Muhammad used as guidance for Muslims. The following is an example of one of the sayings of Muhammad:
Hadith: Al-Bukhari and Muslim, in the authority of ‘Abd- Allah Ibn ‘Umar, The Messenger of Allah, may benediction and salutation of Allah be upon him, said: “Verily, each of you is a shepherd, and each of you is responsible for his flock. So, the leader who is placed over the people is a shepherd responsible for his flock — a man is placed over the members of his family and he is responsible for his flock; a woman is placed over the family of her husband and his children and she is responsible for them; a servant of a man is placed over the property of his master and he is responsible for it; undoubtedly, each one of you is a shepherd, and each one of you is responsible for his flock.” (Doi 87)
One of Muhammad’s primary goals was to maintain the unity of the Muslims, and unity is still stronger in Islam than in many fragmented religions such as Christianity or Buddhism. But there was still a major rift in the followers of Muhammad when a group broke away from the main body of the Muslims, called the Sunnah, and formed Shiah-i Ali, the party of Ali, who believed that only the descendants of Ali, one of Muhammad’s followers, should rule. This split led to the Sunnis and Shi’ites of today. Another aspect of Islam that is represented in both the Sunni and Shi’ite groups is that of the Sufis, or Sufism. In its most basic definition a Sufi is a Muslim ascetic who wears coarse wool (suf) garments as a sign of his/her renunciation of worldly pleasures. While so much of Islam is very outward, practical, and worldly oriented, Sufism takes Islam on an inward journey to find the true nature of God, humans, and the universe. One Sufi Master put it as follows:
The soul is an immense thing; it is the whole cosmos, since it is a copy of it. Everything which is in the cosmos is to be found in the soul; equally everything in the soul is in the cosmos. Because of this fact, he who masters his soul most certainly masters the cosmos, just as he who is dominated by his soul is certainly dominated by the whole cosmos. (Nasr 29)
Sufism is a mystical quest for knowledge and understanding that has spawned many orders and versions of Sufism from the seventh century to today. Although it is primarily an inward quest, by its nature it has greatly influenced all aspects of Islamic culture. Education, science, and all areas of the arts have been the beneficiaries of the Sufis and their search for knowledge, wisdom, and beauty (Nasr 16-19). There have been thousands of great Sufi sages and poets through the centuries. The following are a sampling of quotes from a few:
El-Ghazali (twelfth century)
I should like to know what a man who has no knowledge has really gained, and what a man of knowledge has not gained. (Shah 57)
A man who is being delivered from the danger of a fierce lion does not object, whether this service is performed by an unknown or an illustrious individual. Why, therefore, do people seek knowledge from celebrities. (Shah 54)
Attar of Nishapur (thirteenth century)
Some Israelites reviled Jesus one day as he was walking through their part of town. But he answered them by repeating prayers in theirname.
Someone said to him:
“You prayed for these men, did you not feel incensed against them?”
“I could spend only what I had in my purse.” (Shah 63)
Saadi of Shiraz (thirteenth century)
Dominion of the world from end to end
Is worth less than a drip of blood on the earth. (Shah 84)
He who has self-conceit in his head —
Do not imagine that he will ever hear the truth. (Shah 85)
Whoever gives advice to a heedless man is himself in need of advice. (Shah 92)
Hakim Jami (fifteenth century)
Do not boast that you have no pride because it is less visible than an ant’s foot on a black stone in a dark night.
And do not think that bringing it out from within is easy, for it is easier to extract a mountain from the earth with a needle. (Shah 97)
And finally, and quite extensively, a more contemporary Sufi, Hazrat Inayat Khan, from the early twentieth century:
God made man, and man made good and evil. (7)
The closer one approaches reality, the nearer one comes to unity. (11)
Man makes his reasons to suit himself. (13)
Many feel, a few think, and fewer still there are who can express their thoughts. (14)
Every moment of your life is more valuable than anything else in the world. (21)
The present spirit of humanity has commercialism as its crown and materialism as its throne. (31)
The secret of life is balance, and the absence of balance is life’s destruction. (32)
The true sword of Muhammad was the charm of his personality. (35)
To make God intelligible you must make a God of your own. (39)
Success gives an appearance of the reality even to false things. (40)
Goodness and wickedness both exist in human nature at the same time; only when one is manifest the other is hidden, like the lining inside the coat. (46)
Happy is he who does good to others, and miserable is he who expects good from others. (70)
Verily, every atom sets in motion each atom of the universe. (99)
Verily, man is his own mind. (99)
Art is dear to my heart, but nature is dear to my soul. (114)
All men are equal in truth, not in fact. (116)
It is unjust to be rich when others are poor, and it is fatal to be poor when others are rich. (130)
Criticism, indifference, pessimism are the three things which close the door to the heart. (138)
God created man in His own image, and man made God in his own likeness. (138)
What pleasure is there in a useless action?
What interest is there in a senseless speech?
What joy is there in a depthless thought?
What happiness is there in a loveless feeling? (138)
So few in this world discriminate properly between their want and their need. (143)
To express an impulse gives relief, but to control it gives strength. (145)
If a dog barks at the elephant, it takes no notice and goes on its way; so do the wise when attacked by the ignorant. (146)
The man who tries to prove his belief superior to the faith of another, does not know the meaning of religion. (147)
There can be no comparison between art and nature, for art is as limited as man, but nature is as perfect as God. (148)
Woman, whom destiny has made to be man’s superior, by trying to become his equal, falls beneath his estimation. (151)
An optimist takes the chance of losing; a pessimist loses the chance of gaining. (174)
Tolerance is the sign of an evolved soul. A soul gives the proof of its evolution in the degree of the tolerance it shows. (192)
It is not what Christ taught that makes his devotees love him. They dispute over these things in vain. It is what he himself was that is loved and admired by them. (212)
The mystic seeks God both within and without; he recognizes God in both unity and in variety. (216)
Our virtues are made by love, and our sins caused by the lack of it. (230)
It is not solid wood that can become a flute; it is the empty reed. (260)
Islam is a faith with a history of remarkable success, from the time of its founder in the seventh century to the remarkable expansion of its empire that finally ebbed in the eighteenth century. This success is one of the aspects of Islam that makes it seem suspicious to some people. Islam’s predecessor faiths of Abraham did not enjoy such attainment. Judaism has spent most of its long history as a captive religion forced to exist under domination, and managing to do so with awesome tenacity. Christianity was a faith born in worldly failure and raised in persecution. When it did finally gain political power it was so distorted to fit the material needs of the power elite that it was a faith that would be unrecognizable to Jesus. Islam on the other hand grew with spiritual and political power as partners and created a faith that was also a governing body. Separation of religion and state was unthinkable.
Islam is a religion that has opportunities for those who would wish to use it for their own gain. There are aspects of Islam that might invite absolute thinking and intolerance. Muhammad’s use of war to protect his growing faith in a time of violence can, and often has, been misinterpreted as an excuse to use Islam as a tool of imperialism, personal profit, or vengeance. This has been true from the beginning of Islam to violent radicals of the Middle East today. But all religions have the same problem of manipulation by the unscrupulous. While the Euro-American culture of materialism has seemed to overcome some of the momentum of the Islamic movement in the twentieth century, recent decades have shown the beginnings of a reversal of the trend. And even in the United States, the heart of materialism, the fastest growing faith is Islam.
At its foundation Islam is a remarkable faith of equality and unity — a faith that, if lived as Muhammad designed, creates a life of goodness, compassion, and justice.
Ali, Maulana Muhammad, The Religion of Islam. Columbus, Ohio: The Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam, sixth edition, 1990.
Armstrong, Karen, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. San Francisco: Harper, 1992.
Doi, Rahman, I., Hadith: An Introduction. Kazi Publications, 1980.
Khan, Hazrat Inayat, The Complete Sayings of Hazrat Inayat Khan. New Lebanon, NY: Omega Publications, 1978.
Khan [II], Hazrat Inayat, Tales. New Lebanon, NY: Omega Publications, 1980.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Sufi Essays. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1972.
Shah, Idries, The Way of the Sufi. London: The Octagon Press, 1980.
All quotes from the Qur’an from:
The Qur’an. translated by Ahmed Ali, Sacred Writings, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1992.
Full Book Version of Designs of Faith available at Amazon.com
1993 copyright Mark W. McGinnis