What is Islam?

My dear Randaians. Randairs? Randos? Lovely cast members of the Randai. I apologize for the lack of updates and articles on this website. The semester got a bit away from me there at the end. Now that I have bested the semester like a knight bests a fierce dragon, there will be many more updates. A long with the promised information about Islam.

Sadly Islam and Muslims after 9-11 have had a rather negative picture painted of them in the West. However, since you, my dear friends, are all educated and mature adults you all know that, much like Timothy McVeigh and/or members of the KKK, individuals or even small subsets of a religion cannot represent the religion as a whole. There are somewhere around 900 million Muslims in the world who speak different languages and come from differing cultures and backgrounds and a small group simply cannot represent them as a whole. What I hope to paint for you here are the basics of a religion that was meant to bring people closer to God and closer to each other in a religious community. While I have done my research, not just now but over the years as well, I do not claim that I can show what each one of the millions of muslims believes nor do I claim to know everything about this religion. I do, however, hope to provide more information to those of you who would like it.

So where do we begin? The most logical place is to start from the beginning and the place some people seem to forget and/or refuse to acknowledge. Islam shares the same history with Christianity as well as Judaism. Muslims (those who follow the Islamic faith) worship the same one God (Allah) and even recognizes Jesus of Nazareth as a prophet. Muslims are monotheists who believe in the same creator as other “people of the book” or Christians and Jews. Islam as a word means “the willing and active recognition of and submission to the Command of the One, Allah.” They also believe in heaven, hell, angels, the judgement day, as well as the information given in the Torah, Psalms, and the Gospels. Islam originated in Mecca in the Middle East and with revelations given to Muhammad. The same way Moses received revelations in the Torah and Jesus received revelations in the Gospels. Please note that In Islam this means Jesus is not the son of God but a prophet on the same level as Moses. Translated evidence puts Muhammad’s birth at around 570 A.D. in the town of Mecca (Mecca is located in current Saudi Arabia). However it was not until Muhammad was nearly forty that he received his first revelation. The angel Gabriel came to Muhammad and repeated the following words to him:

Read in the name of your Lord you created,
Who created man of a clot of blood,
Read! Your Lord is the most beneficent,Who taught by the pen,
Taught Man what he knew not. (96:1-5)

Muhammad would receive revelations for the next twenty years of his life until his death in 632 A.D in Medina. Muhammad is viewed in Islam as the last of the prophets. His new found purpose after the beginning of his revelations was to restore the religion of the one true God (the religion passed down from Allah through the likes of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus). Revelations were given to Muhammad because man had strayed from the path of that religion and the word of God. Over time the word of God had been neglected, distorted and twisted by man. Muhammad set forth to not only disperse the word of Allah but to also live as a model of Allah’s word. Muhammad is often referenced as the “living Quran” (The Quran is the written holy text of Islam) because of his continuous efforts to live the word of Allah. Since Muhammad was considered the “living Quran” much of his advice, opinions, and actions were recorded during his life. Detailed stories exist of Muhammad’s beliefs and rituals regarding eating, dress, hygiene, marriage and treatment of spouses, interactions with family, warfare, and diplomacy. These are called the Sunnah or the Prophet’s example. Not only is the Sunnah an interesting part of Islamic history it is also seen as a model example of how to live Allah’s word to the Muslim community.

Muhammad revelations were not always met with kindness and acceptance. Much like with many other prophets, these new revelations threatened the power of certain groups. The tribal elders of Mecca did not like the idea of a judging God who took the power of justice out of their hands. Also, many Meccan’s were polytheistic and had their own ways of life and their own gods they worshiped. In a manner of speaking they were set in their ways and changing either the gods they worshiped or their power structure seemed too hard or was not worth their time since the current belief was only fate and time controlled what happened in a Meccan’s life. This lack of interest slowly turned to mockery and then mockery quickly turned to anger. For those who did not already believe in the one God, Muhammad’s God was not just claiming supremacy but this God was claiming to be the only God. That stance was both threatening and insulting. However, Muhammad was not alone in his stance, he had two main supporters against the anger he came across. His beloved uncle, Abu Talib, and his first wife, Khadijah, were strong supporters of him in Mecca. When offered bribes and power Muhammad and his supporters turned them down and continued to profess the revelations. Muhammad followed his call from God while in Mecca to “to call men to Allah and to endure insult and forgive the innocent.” However, once his two biggest supporters died Muhammad migrated to Medina to avoid persecution of himself and his followers. Muhammad continued to receive revelations until his death in Medina in 632 A.D. By the time of Muhammad’s passing nearly the entire Arabian peninsula had converted to Islam.

The revelations given to Muhammad were recorded into the Islamic holy text or the Quran (sometimes written Qur’an or Koran) in Arabic. Quran is the Arabic word for recitation. Muhammad, who was illiterate, was only told to recite the word of Allah. Therefore, he is neither the author or creator of the Quran, only the messenger. So to Muslims the Quran is the literal word of God. Which is why the Quran is preserved in the original Arabic so the word of God remains in its original form. Although the Quran has been translated into many languages all Muslims learn the entire Quran in its original Arabic. This is one element of the Quran that confuses non-arabic speakers and non-Muslims, the other troubling factor is the Quran’s 114 chapters are organized by length not by theme or date. The Quran is described not as stories like in the Torah or Gospels but rather as statements of Allah’s wisdom. Many Muslims do find the organization of the Quran beneficial since they can turn to any page or any paragraph and find some part of wisdom to recite and recitation is a very large part of the Islamic faith. Muhammad said to the people “Beautify the Quran with your voices, for the beautiful voice increases the beauty of the Quran.”

Besides recitation and and following the traditions of the Prophet, Muslims follow 5 Pillars of Islam. Those pillars are:

1. Declaration of Faith

2. Prayer

3. Zakat

4. Fast of Ramadan

5. Hajj

In order to be a Muslim you must meet the requirements of the first pillar and testify that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of God. This is called the shahada or the testimony. The second pillar is prayer. Prayer for Muslims occurs five times a days at: daybreak, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening. In many areas where Muslims are a large part of the population a “call to prayer” echos from the minarets of mosques as a reminder to pray or worship five times a day. Prayer begins by facing Mecca and declaring “God is most great” or “Allahu Akbar.” Mecca remains an important focal point of Islam as not only the birth place of the Prophet Muhammad but also as the location of the Kaaba. Prayer then consists of recitation from the Quran (in Arabic of course) accompanied with a sequence of movements: standing, bowing, kneeling, touching your forehead to the ground, and sitting. The combination of the recitations and movements express not only the faith of the person praying but also humility and their admiration of Allah. At the end of prayer the declaration of faith is said and the “peace greeting” is said twice—“Peace be upon all of you and the mercy and blessings of God.”

The third pillar is called Zakat or purification. Zakat is a request by God to show thanksgiving by supporting the poor. This is not only an individual responsibility but also the responsibility of the Muslim community as a whole. Zakat differs with different sects of Islam but the general idea of Zakat is that it is not viewed as “charity” but as an obligation for those who have received good from God to give to those less fortunate. Zakat requires a contribution of 2.5% of an individuals wealth and assets. Yes, including assets not just your personal income.

The fourth pillar is the Fast of Ramadan. Ramadan occurs during the ninth month of the Islamic year. For Muslims, whose health permits, the month of Ramadan consists of fasting (abstaining from eating, drinking, and sexual activity) from sunrise to sunset. This is meant to help Muslims reflect on human frailty, dependance on God, and to focus on spirituality and their relationship with God. The month of Ramadan ends with the popular holiday of Eid al-Fitr or Breaking of the Fast. This can be accompanied by special celebrations, large gatherings, and gift giving.

The fifth pillar of Islam is the Pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca. Once in every adult Muslim’s lifetime (if they are physically and financially able) they are required to make a pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca. The Kaaba, meaning cube but known as the House of God, is located inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca and said to have been built by Adam and later rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ismail. The Kaaba is considered to be the first house of worship of the one true God. The hajj is seen as a sacrifice of time, money, and comfort to show your devotion to God. There are many steps and details to the hajj and if anyone is interested in learning more an entire article could be written on both Ramadan and the Hajj.

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The Kaaba in Mecca

Now if you’ll notice the life of Muhammad and the main pillars of Islam talk about devotion and helping the poor. So non-Muslims begin to question is the violence and terrorism we have seen on the news allowed under Islamic law and/or in the Islamic religion? In this dramaturge’s humble opinion the answer is absolutely no. A big word that gets thrown around recently is jihad. Jihad is actually defined as a struggle that pertains to the difficulty and complexity of living a good life. The struggle against the evil that is in you, the struggle to do good work, to fight against oppression and injustice, to defend Islam, and to create a just society. Some have pushed that to “defend Islam” means to take a holy war to the world which is obsessed with Western culture and values that hurt Islam despite the fact that jihad is not supposed to be used for aggressive warfare. It is meant for defense. The Quran states “And fight in the way of God with those who fight you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors” (22:39-40). While, like with many religious texts, there are verses (see the “sword verses” for more information) that have been taken out of the Quran and used to justify violence the Quran in general calls for peace and not warfare. Typically those that call for violent jihads are violating many verses and requirements of a jihad in the first place. For example, the Quran even specifically denounces suicide (4:29) which rules out suicide-bombing as a legitimate jihad.

This is of course only a very short introduction to Islam. If you would like to know more or for me to expand on a specific part of this article please email me and let me know. I will be following up with some more information on the different sects of Islam and information on the history of Islam in Indonesia. Enjoy.

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