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Shedding Light on Islam

What Is Islam?

Article #: 16601  
Issue Date: 9 / 1997 Start Page: 26
Author: Abdulaziz Sachedina
Abdulaziz Sachedina is professor of religion at the University of Virginia.
Islam, a great monotheistic religion, provides spiritual and moral life, and cultural and sometimes national identity, to more than a billion people.

       In the mass media, Islam and Muslims are frequently depicted as the "other" in global politics and cultural warfare. The Iranian revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978--79, the tragic death of 241 marines near Beirut airport in 1983, and the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993 are among the violent images associated with Muslims. But those images resonate poorly with the majority of Muslims. Most Muslims, like other human beings, are engaged in their day-to-day life in this world, struggling to provide for their usually large extended families, working for peaceful resolution to the conflicts that face them, and committed to honor universal human values of freedom and peace with justice.
               Muslims in general take their religion seriously. For many it is the central focus of their spiritual and moral life. For others, less religiously inclined, it remains a source of their cultural and sometimes national identity. So the word Islam carries broader ramifications than is usually recognized in the media. As the name of the religion, Islam means "submission to God's will." It is also applied to cultures and civilizations that developed under its religious impulse.
               Historically as well as psychologically, Islam shares the monotheistic religious genome with Judaism and Christianity. Islamic civilization has acted as the repository of the Hebrew, Persian, Indian, and Hellenistic intellectual traditions and cultures.
       Historical development
                Islam was proclaimed by Muhammad (570--632), the Prophet of Islam and the founder of Islamic polity, in Arabia. Seventh-century Arabia was socially and politically ripe for the emergence of new leadership. When Muhammad was growing up in Mecca, by then an important center of flourishing trade between Byzantium and the Indian Ocean, he was aware of the social inequities and injustices that existed in the tribal society dominated by a political oligarchy.
               Before Islam, religious practices and attitudes were determined by the tribal aristocracy, who also upheld tribal values--bravery in battle, patience in misfortune, persistence in revenge, protection of the weak, defiance of the strong, generosity, and hospitality--as part of their moral code. The growth of Mecca as a commercial center had weakened this tribal moral code and concern for the less fortunate in society, leaving them without any security. It was in the midst of a serious socioeconomic imbalance between the rich and the poor, between extreme forms of individualism and tyrannical tribal solidarity, that Islam came to proclaim an ethical order based on interpersonal justice.
       The founder and his community
                Muhammad's father died before he was born, and his mother died when he was only six years old. In accordance with Arab tribal norms, he was brought up first by his grandfather and then, following his grandfather's death, by his uncle, with whom he traveled on trade missions to Syria. As a young man he was employed by a wealthy Meccan woman, Khadija, as her trade agent. He was twenty-five when he accepted a marriage offer from Khadija, who was fifteen years his senior. When Muhammad received his prophetic call at the age of forty, Khadija was the first person to become "Muslim" ("believer in Islam").
               Meccan leadership resisted Muhammad and persecuted him and his followers, who were drawn mainly from among the poor and disenfranchised. Muhammad decided to emigrate to Medina, an oasis town in the north. This emigration in 622 marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar, as well as the genesis of the first Islamic polity. (Muslims marked their new year, 1418, on May 8, 1997.)
               Muhammad as a statesman instituted a series of reforms to create his community, the Umma, on the basis of religious affiliation. This also established a distinctive feature of Islamic faith, which does not admit any separation between the religious and temporal spheres of human activity and has insisted on the ideal unity of civil and moral authority under the divinely ordained legal system, the Shari'ah.
               At Muhammad's death, he had brought the whole of Arabia under the Medina government, but he apparently left no explicit instruction regarding succession to his religious-political authority. The early Muslim leaders who succeeded him as caliph (meaning political and spiritual "successor") exercised Muhammad's political authority, making political and military decisions that led to the expansion of their domain beyond Arabia. Within a century Muslim armies had conquered the region from the Nile in North Africa to the Amu Darya in Central Asia east to India.
               This phenomenal growth into a vast empire required an Islamic legal system for the administration of the highly developed political systems of the conquered Persian and Byzantine regions. Muslim jurists therefore formulated a comprehensive legal code, using the ethical and legal principles set forth in the Qur'an.
               Differences of opinion on certain critical issues emerged as soon as Muhammad died. The question of succession was one of the major issues that divided the community into the Sunni and the Shiites. Those supporting the candidacy of Abu Bakr (ca. 573--634), an elderly associate of the Prophet, as caliph formed the majority of the community and gradually came to be known as the Sunni ("people of tradition"); those who acclaimed 'Ali (ca. 600--661), Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, as the "imam" (religious and political leader) designated by the Prophet formed the minority group, known as the Shiites ("partisans").
               The civil strife in Muslim polity gave rise to two distinct, and in some ways contradictory, attitudes among Muslims that can be observed even today: quietist and activist. Those upholding a quietist posture supported an authoritarian stance, to the point of feigning unquestioning and immediate obedience to almost any nominally Muslim political authority. Exponents of an activist posture supported radical politics and taught that under certain circumstances people had the right to revolt against evil Muslim rulers.
               Gradually the quietist and authoritarian stance became associated with the majority Sunni Muslims, although every now and then they had their share of radicalism, as seen in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. The activist-radical stance came to be associated with Shiite Islam, represented by Iran today.
               The Muslim community has continued to live in the shadow of the idealized history of early Islam, when religious and secular authority was united under pious caliphs. Efforts to actualize this ideal today give rise to radical politics among a number of religious-minded Muslim groups, usually designated pejoratively as "fundamentalists," who regard jihad (war) against their corrupt rulers as a legitimate tool for change.
       What do Muslims believe?
                Muslims derive their religious beliefs and practices from two sources: the Qur'an, which they regard as the "Book of God," and the Sunna, or the exemplary conduct of the Prophet. The Qur'an consists of the revelations Muhammad received intermittently over the twenty-two years from the time of his calling in 610 until his death. Muslims believe that the Qur'an was directly communicated by God through the archangel Gabriel, and accordingly, it is regarded as inerrant and immutably preserved. It has served as the normative source for deriving principal theological, ethical, and legal doctrines. The Sunna (meaning "trodden path") has functioned as the elaboration of the Qur'anic revelation. It provides details about each and every precept and deed attributed to Muhammad. The narratives that carried such information are known as hadith. In the ninth century, Muslim scholars developed an elaborate system for the theological and legal classification of these hadith to derive certain beliefs and practices.
               In this connection it is relevant to remember the Rushdie affair of the 1980s. Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was directed toward discrediting both the Qur'an and the Prophet as the normative sources for Muslim religiosity, which, understandably, enraged billions of Muslims around the world. And while many Muslims may not have endorsed the death sentence passed on Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini, they unanimously condemned the novel for its profanity in connection with the founder of Islam and Muslim scriptures.
       The Five Pillars of Islam
                The Muslim faith is built upon Five Pillars, as follow:
               The First Pillar is the shahada, the profession of faith: "There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God." This is the formula through which a person converts to Islam. Belief in God constitutes the integrity of human existence, individually and as a member of society. The Qur'an speaks about God as the being whose presence is felt in everything that exists; everything that happens is an indicator of the divine. God is the "knower of the Unseen and the Visible; ... the All-merciful, the All-compassionate, ... the Sovereign Lord, the All-holy, the Giver of peace, the Keeper of faith, the All-preserver, the All-mighty, the All-powerful, the Most High" (Qur'an, 59:23). Faith in God results in being safe, well integrated, sound, and at peace.
               Human beings are not born in sin, but they are forgetful. To help them realize their potential God sends prophets to "remind" humanity of their covenant with God (7:172). Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad are regarded as "messengers" sent to organize their people on the basis of the guidance revealed by God.
               The Second Pillar is daily worship (salat), required five times a day: at dawn, midday, afternoon, evening, and night. These prayers are short and require bowing and prostrations. Muslims may worship anywhere, preferably in congregation, facing Mecca. They are required to worship as a community on Fridays at midday and on two major religious holidays.
               The Third Pillar is the mandatory "alms-levy" (zakat). The obligation to share what one possesses with those less fortunate is stressed throughout the Qur'an. The Muslim definition of the virtuous life includes charitable support of widows, wayfarers, orphans, and the needy. Although zakat has for the most part been left to the conscience of Muslims, the obligation to be charitable and contribute to the general welfare of the community continues to be emphasized. In a number of poor Muslim countries this benevolence provided by wealthy individuals has underwritten badly needed social services for those who cannot afford them.
               The Fourth Pillar is the fast during the month of Ramadan, observed according to the Muslim lunar calendar, which has been in use since the seventh century. Since the lunar year is some ten days shorter than the solar year, the fasting and all Muslim festivals occur in different seasons. During the fast, which lasts from dawn to dusk, Muslims are required not only to refrain from eating, smoking, and drinking; they are also to refrain from sexual intercourse and acts leading to sensual behavior. The end of the month is marked by a festival, Eid al-Fitr, after which life returns to normal.
               The Fifth Pillar is the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, which all Muslims are required to undertake once in their lives, provided they have the financial means. The pilgrimage brings together Muslims of diverse cultures and nationalities to achieve a purity of existence and a communion with God that will exalt the pilgrims for the rest of their lives.
       Muslim moral and legal guidance
                The Islamic ethical-legal system, known as the Shari'ah, was developed to determine normative Islamic conduct. The Shari'ah is the divinely ordained blueprint for human conduct, which is inherently and essentially religious. The juridical inquiry in discovering the Shari'ah code was comprehensive because it necessarily dealt with every case of conscience covering God-human relations, as well as the ethical content of interpersonal relations in every possible sphere of human activity. Most of the legal activity, however, went into settling more formal interpersonal activities that affected the morals of the community. These activities dealt with the obligation to do good to Muslims and guard the interests of the community.
               Islamic legal theory recognized four sources on the basis of which judicial decisions could be deduced: the Qur'an, the Sunna, consensus of the early community of Muslims, and analogical reasoning, which attempts to discover the unknown from the known precedent. Ash-Shafi'i (767--820), a rigorous legal thinker, systematically and comprehensively linked the four sources to derive the entire legal system covering all possible contingencies. The legal precedents and principles provided by the Qur'an and Sunna were used to develop an elaborate system of rules of jurisprudence. Human conduct was to be determined in terms of how much legal weight was borne by a particular rule that rendered a given practice obligatory or merely recommended.
               As Islamic law became a highly technical process, disputes about method and judicial opinions crystallized into legal schools designated by the names of prominent jurists. The legal school that followed the Iraqi tradition was called "Hanifah," after Abu Hanifah (699--767), the great imam in Iraq. Those who adhered to the rulings of Malik ibn Anas (ca.715--795), in Arabia and elsewhere, were known as "Malikis." Ash-Shafi'i founded a legal school in Egypt whose influence spread widely to other regions of the Muslim world. His followers were known as Shafi'is. Another school was associated with Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780--855), who compiled a work on traditions that became the source for juridical decisions for Hanbalis.
               The Shiites developed their own legal school, whose leading authority was Imam Ja'far ibn Muhammad (ca. 702--765). Normally, Muslims accept one of the legal schools prevalent in their region. Most of the Sunni follow Hanifah or Shafi'i, whereas the Shiites follow the Ja'fari school. In the absence of an organized "church" and ordained "clergy" in Islam, determination of valid religious practice is left to the qualified scholar of religious law known as a mufti (the one who issues a fatwa, or decree).
       Muslim family law
                In Islamic family law, the rights of women, children, and other dependents are protected against the male head of the family, who, on the average, is stronger than a woman and more independent, since he is free of pregnancy and immediate care of children. Islamic marital rules encourage individual responsibility by strengthening the nuclear family. The Shari'ah protects male prerogative as the one who is required to support the household, whereas a woman is protected primarily by her family. All schools give a husband one-sided divorce privileges, because for a woman to divorce a man would mean to unsettle her husband's economic investment. Under these rules a husband could divorce a wife almost at will, but a wife who wished to leave her husband had to show good reason. The main legal check upon the man in divorce is essentially financial and a matter of contract between equal parties that includes a provision about the bridal gift. The man pays part of the gift, which might be substantial, at the time of marriage; if he divorces her without special reason, he has to pay her the rest.
               The Muslim woman can own property, and it cannot be touched by any male relative, including her husband, who is required to support her from his own funds. Moreover, she has a personal status that might allow her to go into business on her own. However, this potential feminine independence was curbed primarily by cultural means, keeping marriages within the extended family, so that family property would not leave the family through women marrying out.
               All schools of Islam, although tending to give men an extensive prerogative, presupposed a considerable social role for women. The Qur'anic injunction to propriety was stretched by means of the Sunna to impose seclusion. The veil for women was presented simply in terms of personal modesty, the female apartments in terms of family privacy.
               In the patriarchal family structures, and not necessarily in the Shari'ah, women were assigned a subordinate role in the household and community. Here, the term Islam is being used in the sense of culture or local tradition. And it is precisely in the confusion between normative Islam and cultural practices that we find tension in ethical and legal formulations among Muslims.
               In some parts of the Muslim world women are victims of traditional practices that are often harmful to them and to their children's well-being. One controversial and persistent practice is female circumcision (khafd or khifad), without which it is believed that girls could not attain the status of womanhood. Islamic views on female circumcision are ambiguous. The operation was performed long before the rise of Islam, and it is not a practice in many Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Iran, and Turkey. There is nothing in the Qur'an that sanctions female circumcision, especially its most severe form, infibulation. The Prophet opposed the custom, found among pre-Islamic Arabs, since he considered it harmful to women's sexual well-being. Yet the official position adopted by a majority of Sunni jurists is that female circumcision is sanctioned by the tradition. They concede, however, that the Shari'ah does not regard it as an obligatory requirement.
       Are humans free agents of God?
                Muslims, like Christians, have raised critical questions about human responsibility in view of God's overpowering will. In the first half of the eighth century, the rudiments of the earliest systematic theology were developed by a group called the Mu'tazilites. Before them, some Muslim thinkers had developed theological arguments, including a doctrine of God and human responsibility. The Mu'tazilites undertook to show that there was nothing repugnant to reason in the Islamic revelation. Their theological system was worked out under five headings: (1) belief in God's unity, which rejected anything that smacked of anthropomorphism; (2) the justice of God, which denied any ascriptions of injustice to God's judgment of human beings, with the consequence that humans alone were responsible for all their acts and thus punishable for evil actions; (3) the impending judgment, which underscored the importance of daily righteousness and rejected laxity in matters of faith; (4) the middle position of the Muslim sinner, who, because of disobeying God's commandments was neither condemned to hell nor rewarded with paradise; and (5) the duty to command the good and forbid evil to ensure an ethical social order.
               The traditionalist Ash'arites, reacting to Mu'tazilite rationalism, limited speculative theology to a defense of the doctrines given in the hadith, which were regarded as more reliable than abstract reason in deriving individual doctrines. The Ash'arites emphasized the absolute will and power of God and denied nature and humankind any decisive role. In their effort to maintain the effectiveness of a God who could and did intervene in human affairs, they maintained that good and evil are what God decrees them to be. Accordingly, good and evil cannot be known from nature but must be discovered in the Qur'an and the tradition. Ash'arite theological views have remained dominant throughout Islamic history, well into modern times, and had a profound effect upon scientific theory and practice among the Sunni.
               The attitude of resignation, a by-product of belief in predestination, is summed up in the Sunni creedal confession: "What reaches you could not possibly have missed you; and what misses you could not possibly have reached you" (Fiqh akbar, Article 3).
               The Shiite Muslims, on the other hand, have developed a rational theology and ethical doctrines resembling those of the Mu'tazilites. Hence, they believe that humans are free agents of God who are responsible for their own actions. Moreover, the justice of God requires that God provide a constant source of guidance through reason and exemplary leaders, known as imams, for human advancement toward perfection. This belief is the source of the emergence of Khomeini-like leadership in Shiite Iran today.

       Mystical dimension of Islam
                From the early days of the Islamic empire (eighth century) the ascetic reaction to growing worldliness in the Muslim community took the form of mysticism of personality in Islam, whose goal was spiritual and moral perfection of an individual. Sufism, as Islamic mysticism came to be known, aimed to internalize the ritual acts by emphasizing rigorous self-assessment and self-discipline. In its early form Sufism was mainly a form of ascetic piety that involved ridding oneself of any dependence on satisfying one's desire, in order to devote oneself entirely to God. Mystical practices developed by the Sufi masters comprised a moral process to gain the relative personal clarity that comes at moments of retreat and reflection.
               From daily moments of reflection the mystic experienced more intense levels of awareness, which could take ecstatic forms, including ecstatic love of God. This aspect of Sufism brought the mystics into direct conflict with the traditionalist Muslims, who emphasized active obedience to God as the highest goal of religious meaning and purpose.
               By the eleventh century, the Sufi masters had developed a new form of religious orientation that brought about the acceptance of Sufism by the ordinary people in many places. Near the end of the twelfth century, the Sufi organized several formal brotherhoods or orders (tariqa) in which women also participated. Each order taught a pattern of invocation and meditation that used devotional practices to organize a group of novices under a master. Through special control of breath and bodily posture accompanied by invocative words or syllables, they developed more intense concentration.
               These brotherhoods, however, degenerated into antisocial groups that caused much damage to the teachings of Islam about societal and familial obligations. Moreover, because of their unquestioning devotion to the Sufi masters, both living and dead, a shrine culture leading to almost saint worship took deep roots among ordinary peoples attracted to this folk Islam. This condition elicited a strong reaction against Sufism in the Muslim world in modern times. Both the traditionalist reformers, like the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, and the champions of secularist modernism, like the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk (1881--1938), disbanded Sufism as being totally un-Islamic.
               Nevertheless, the formal approval of Sufism as a genuine form of Islamic piety by the great scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058--1111), who taught Islamic law and theology in Baghdad, has been revived in many countries. There Sufism continues to thrive as a bastion of religious tolerance and free-spirited religiosity.
       Islam today
                Islam as a religion, culture, and civilization continues to inspire a billion people worldwide to take up the challenge to go beyond one's self-centered existence to establish a just society that will reflect "submission to God's will." As an Abrahamic faith, Islam has accepted the pluralism of human responses to spiritual guidance as a divine mystery. And although its interaction with history is not free of tension, and even contradictions, on the whole Islam has developed an enviable system of coexistence among religious communities. Its vision of a global community working toward the common good of humanity has been overshadowed by political upheavals in the postcolonial Muslim world. Unless the violated justice of the ordinary people is restored, like its other Abrahamic forebears Islam will continue to inspire activist response to social and political injustices in the Muslim world.

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