1What Is This Religion Called Islam?
The religion we know as Islam began in Arabia in the sixth century when a man named Muhammad began to experience a series of "revelations," or communications from the Divine. He was a reluctant prophet at first, even fearing that his own sanity was in question, but his beloved wife, Khadija, said, "Muhammad, a man like you doesn't go crazy." Over a period of twenty-three years he would receive periodic guidance from this Divine Source, often in response to the particular needs of his growing community, in a language of great depth and beauty. This revelation is called the Qur'an and it is the foremost inspiration, reference point, and final authority of the religion of Islam. Here is some of what it says about itself:
God has sent down the best of teaching in a Book fully harmonious with itself, repeating the truth in manifold ways and often repeated in recitation; A Book that causes the skins of all who stand in awe of their Lord to shiver, but in the end their skins and their hearts soften at the remembrance of God. Such is God's guidance. (39:23)
And We have sent down to you, step by step, this Book, to make all matters clear, and as guidance and grace and good tidings unto all who have submitted themselves to God. God commands justice, the doing of good, and giving to one's relatives; and He forbids all that is shameful and runs counter to reason, in addition to aggression. He exhorts you so that you may bear this in mind. (16:90)
Surely it is a sublime Book. No falsehood can ever enter it from before nor behind; it is a bestowal from on high by the One who is All-Wise, ever due to Him all praise. (41:41-42)
It is of great significance that the religion of Islam is founded upon the Qur'an and that all Muslims see this book as the final authority. The Qur'an occupies a position in Islamic civilization similar to the place held by the Constitution within American society. People may debate its meaning and interpret it according to their own views, but finally when they want to establish justice, claim their rights, or justify their actions, they will refer to it. But only a small part of the Qur'an refers to legal or social issues; the greater portion of it is for spiritual guidance.
The Qur'an is not believed to be the voice of Muhammad, but a voice from beyond the human realm. Yet it is addressed to the essential needs of human beings, reminding them of their essential nature, their moral responsibilities, and of the exquisite grace and guidance that the Divine showers upon humanity. It is also full of warning about the ways in which human beings can harm themselves, each other, their world, and finally their own souls.
Muhammad had a voice, too, and his pithy and wise sayings were remembered and recorded, eventually becoming a supplementary source of Islamic practice and conduct. And yet the voice of Muhammad remains indistinct from the voice of the Qur'an. Muhammad's character and behavior became a model for all Muslim behavior, and his conduct and manner of worship became the model of Islamic practice and spirituality. In fact this model has remained so powerful and alive that when the great German poet Rilke visited Egypt in 1900, he observed that the memory of Muhammad was so present, it was as if he had died only last week. Here is some of what the Qur'an says about the Prophet Muhammad:
[He] enjoins upon them [his followers] the doing of what is right and forbids them the doing of what is wrong, and makes lawful to them the good things of life and forbids the bad and impure things, and lifts from them their burdens and the shackles that have been upon them. It is those who believe in him, and honor him, and support him and follow the light which was sent down with him, it is they who will attain to success. (7:157)
The Qur'an and the Prophet exert a powerful influence over the Muslim faithful. Islam's basic tenets and daily practice are more or less agreed upon by the vast majority of Muslims. Whether Shia, Sunni, or Sufi, they read the same holy book, they worship, fast, and make a pilgrimage in the same way. And yet we cannot tell you exactly what Islam is. There is no single religious authority, and it is too broad and deep to be captured in mere concepts and words. Nevertheless, we will do our best to describe some of the basics of this faith and what it feels like to live in an Islamic universe.
There is today a struggle for the meaning of Islam: who will speak for it, what it stands for, and what its essential values are. This book will attempt to present and illuminate the main sources that have guided Islamic civilization for fourteen centuries. It will also to some extent describe the prevailing way of life actually lived by the vast majority of Muslims around the world, for, despite the wide range of cultures embraced by Islamic civilization, there is an identifiable Muslim character and culture that runs through all of them. That is part of Islam's remarkable power. That it has held together with such coherence and cohesion for fourteen centuries is evidence of the power of its inspiration and guiding sources. Yet, inevitably, there is a discrepancy between the ideal of any religion and its actuality. We should keep in mind that extreme deviations from the normative Islam might exist.
Bear in mind that Islam is more a way of life than a theology. Muslims are in agreement on what the basic practices are: they offer essentially the same prayers at the same times, fast in the same way, and read the same Holy Book. This accounts for a high degree of similarity across diverse cultures. Furthermore, Islam touches upon every aspect of life--not only worship and religious ceremony, but economics, conjugal and family relations, diet, hospitality, art, and science.
In the domain of beliefs, the propositions are also relatively few and simple. There is one God who has sent countless messengers to humanity, of which Muhammad is the last, confirming the truth of previous messengers. As human beings, we will be accountable here and hereafter for our actions, and what matters most is our mindfulness of God (taqwa
) and the goodness of our actions.
The Qur'an and the sayings of Muhammad address the human condition with certain proposals about what is of ultimate importance, what human well-being consists of, what kinds of mistakes human beings have made, and how we have harmed ourselves, each other, and our environment. Its central message, however, is essentially this: to keep God at the center of one's consciousness, or, in other words, to be thankful, aware, just, patient, forgiving, and generous in God's name.
"Islam" actually means "submission," and Islam is at its heart the submission of the human being to God. The Arabic root word, islam, is, however, related to salam
, which means "peace" and/or "security." Thus, Islam can be defined as the attainment of inner peace and security through submission to God. Yet Islam is hardly a dictatorship of the Divine. Islam holds that, since God is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, it is only natural that our own well-being has something to do with being in relationship with the Divine. A Muslim is one who consciously submits to the divine order. In a sense, every living being on earth, and everything that exists, is "muslim" insofar as it is subject to the laws of nature, which are part of the divine order.
Human beings are in a unique position, however, for with us this submission is left as a voluntary act. We have the free will to live either in faith and submission or in denial and resistance.
The Qur'an describes three categories of human beings: the faithful, the deniers, and the hypocrites. The first two categories are usually mistranslated as "believers" and "unbelievers." The reason these are inadequate translations is that "faith," in the Islamic sense of the word, cannot be equated with "belief." Faith has more to do with an inner conviction of the heart, a sense of the meaningful order of existence and the beneficence of the Divine. The faithful have this conviction. A saying of the Prophet Muhammad defines "faith" in this way: "Faith is a confession of the tongue, a verification with the heart, and an action with the body."
The deniers, on the other hand, willfully turn their backs on the Divine and aggressively pursue their own self-interest or get lost in their own confusion. The hypocrites, of course, pretend to be faithful while actually being entirely preoccupied with their own self-interest.
The Arabic word for faith is iman
, and the faithful person is called a mu'min
. The fundamental meaning of the word is to be in a state of security through having verified for oneself that the Divine can be trusted. The word for denial or misbelief is kufr
and the denier is the kafir
. It implies being in denial, covering up, and being ungrateful. These two kinds of people, those who keep faith and those who live in rebellious denial, can be found professing a variety of religious beliefs, including Islam. One's nominal beliefs are not the ultimate saving criteria. According to the Qur'an, a person's spiritual well-being or salvation, to use a Christian term, depends on one's mindfulness of God (taqwa
) and one's righteous actions (salihati
When the word "Islam" is used in the Qur'an, it is not so much a religion beginning with Muhammad--after all the religion had hardly taken shape yet--but the primordial religion of humanity, the religion of all the prophets that God sent to humanity throughout the ages, beginning with Adam and culminating with Muhammad. In fact, many verses of the Qur'an clearly indicate as much:
With God, the [only] religion is submission [or "surrender," i.e., Islam]. (3:19)
The Prophet Jacob, upon his deathbed, counseled his sons to follow the faith of his fathers, Islam:"O my children! Behold, God has granted you the purest faith; so do not allow death to overtake you before you have submitted yourselves unto Him."
Nay, but you [yourselves, O children of Israel] bear witness that when death was approaching Jacob, he said unto his sons: "Whom will you worship after I am gone?"
They answered: "We will worship your God, the God of your forefathers Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac, the One God; and unto Him will we surrender ourselves."
The Arabic text of this verse has the Prophet Jacob telling his children, literally, "then die not except in a state of submission [to God]." The apostles of Jesus also bore witness that they followed the religion of Islam, i.e., they submitted themselves to God:And when Jesus became aware of their refusal to acknowledge the truth, he asked: "Who will be my helpers in God's cause?"
The white-garbed ones [Jesus' disciples] replied: "We shall be your helpers in the cause of God! We are faithful to God: and may you bear witness that we have submitted ourselves unto Him!"
Again, the literal translation is "bear witness that we are in submission." The particulars of submission have differed according to time and place, but the core message of Islam preached by every prophet was the same:Their brother Salih said unto them: "Will you not be conscious of God? Behold, I am a prophet [sent by Him] to you, worthy of your trust: be, then, conscious of God, and pay heed unto me!
"And no reward whatever do I ask of you for it: my reward rests with none but the Sustainer of all the worlds."
As the last of the Abrahamic faiths to arrive on the scene, Islam sees itself as the final culmination of the message of all the prophets.
A Meeting With Gabriel
An event that is enshrined in Muslim memory from the time of the Prophet Muhammad will help us to understand the cardinal points of Islamic faith and practice. Here is the story as it is recorded in an early collection of the Prophet's sayings, Sahih Bukhari:
One day the Prophet came out before the people gathered to meet him, and a man came up to him and said: "What is faith [iman
He replied: "Faith means that you have faith in God, His angels, His Books, in [your] meeting Him, in His prophets, and in the Resurrection."
Then he asked: "What is islam?
He answered: "Islam
is that you worship God and don't associate anything with Him, that you perform the prayer [salah
], give in charity, and fast during the month of Ramadan."
Then he asked: "What is the most beautiful conduct [ihsan
He replied: "To worship and serve God as though you see Him. And even if you don't see Him, surely He sees you."
Then he went off, and the Prophet said: "Bring him back." But they couldn't find him. Then he said: "That was Gabriel, who came to teach the people their Religion [din
This story succinctly presents three dimensions of the religion of Islam. The idea of a distinct religion named Islam is a concept that was developed gradually over the course of the twenty-three years during which the Qur'an was gradually revealed. In the earliest revelations the word din
, here translated as religion, has a wider, more universal dimension. It suggests a very fundamental relationship with the Divine, and the beliefs and practices that go with it. Din
also carries the sense of a reckoning. In other words, it initially meant the bottom line, what a human life adds up to, the fundamental value of one's existence. In other words, if we fail to include the eternal, spiritual dimension into our accounting, it will be way off. We will have missed the point of life.
Here, however, the religion that is being taught is addressed to the community of Muhammad, summarizing all that has been revealed and all that is expected of the faithful.
The passage begins with a description of the basic spiritual context, iman
(faith), then describes the essential practice, islam
, and ends with the most essential, i.e. spiritual, understanding of the whole matter, ihsan
, a word whose root meaning suggests conducting oneself in both the most righteous and beautiful manner. The reference in the hadith, or prophetic utterance, is certainly to the Qur'anic usage of the term, where "those who do ihsan
" are referred to at least twenty-five times with the highest praise. Even more strikingly, the Qur'an insists that "verily God is with those who act in awareness of Him and the muhsinun
[righteous]" (16:128; 29:69); "Do ihsan
, truly God loves the muhsinun
" (2:195). God's profoundest Love (hubb
) is given to them and this is repeated in 3:134, 3:148, 5:13, 5:93; and "God's Lovingkindness (rahma
) is near to the muhsinun
Excerpted from The Beliefnet Guide to Islam by Hesham A. Hassaballa and Kabir Helminski. Copyright © 2006 by Hesham A. Hassaballa. Excerpted by permission of Three Leaves, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.