VI. Islam
Smith, Huston (2009-03-17). The World's Religions, Revised and Updated (Plus) HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
We can begin with an anomaly. Of all the non-Western religions, Islam stands closest to the West— closest geographically, and also closest ideologically; for religiously it stands in the Abrahamic family of religions, while philosophically it builds on the Greeks. Yet despite this mental and spatial proximity, Islam is the most difficult religion for the West to understand.

Mistakes begin with its very name. Until recently it was called Muhammadanism by the West, which is not only inaccurate but offensive. It is inaccurate, Muslims say, because Muhammad didn’t create this religion; God did— Muhammad was merely God’s mouthpiece. Beyond this, the title is offensive because it conveys the impression that Islam focuses on a man rather than on God.

The proper name of this religion is Islam.
Derived from the root s-l-m, which means primarily “peace”
but in a secondary sense “surrender,” its full connotation is
“the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God.”

This makes Islam— together with Buddhism, from budh, awakening— one of the two religions that is named after the attribute it seeks to cultivate; in Islam’s case, life’s total surrender to God. Those who adhere to Islam are known as Muslims.


The Muslims’ answer is different. Islam begins not with Muhammad in sixth-century Arabia, they say, but with God. “In the beginning God…” the book of Genesis tells us. The Koran agrees. It differs only in using the word Allah. Allah is formed by joining the definite article al (meaning “the”) with Ilah (God). Literally, Allah means “the God.” Not a god, for there is only one. The God.

Here we come to the first divergence between the koranic and biblical accounts. According to the Koran, Ishmael went to the place where Mecca was to rise. His descendants, flourishing in Arabia, become Muslims; whereas those of Isaac, who remained in Palestine, were Hebrews and became Jews.

The Seal of the Prophets

Following Ishmael’s line in Arabia, we come in the latter half of the sixth century A.D. to Muhammad , the prophet through whom Islam reached its definitive form, Muslims believe. There had been authentic prophets of God before him, but he was their culmination; hence he is called “The Seal of the Prophets.” No valid prophets will follow him.

The world into which Muhammad was born is described by subsequent Muslims in a single word: ignorant. Life under the conditions of the desert had never been serene. People felt almost no obligation to anyone outside their tribes. Scarcity of material goods made brigandage a regional institution and the proof of virility. In the sixth century political deadlock and the collapse of the magistrate in the leading city of Mecca aggravated this generally chaotic situation . Drunken orgies were commonplace, and the gaming impulse uncontrolled. The prevailing religion watched from the sidelines, providing no check. Best described as an animistic polytheism, it peopled the sandy wastes with beastly sprites called jinn or demons.

He was born into the leading tribe of Mecca, the Koreish, in approximately A.D. 570, and was named Muhammad, “highly praised,” which name has since been borne by more male children than any other in the world. His early life was cradled in tragedy, for his father died a few days before he was born, his mother when he was six, and his grandfather, who cared for him after his mother’s death, when he was eight. Thereafter he was adopted into his uncle’s home.

Upon reaching maturity he took up the caravan business, and at the age of twenty-five entered the service of a wealthy widow named Khadija. His prudence and integrity impressed her greatly, and gradually their relation deepened into affection, then love. Though she was fifteen years his senior, they were married and the match proved happy in every respect.

Named Allah, he was worshiped by the Meccans not as the only God but as an impressive one nonetheless.

Fearful and wonderful, real as life, real as death, real as the universe he had ordained, Allah (Muhammad was convinced) was far greater than his countrymen supposed. This God, whose majesty overflowed a desert cave to fill all heaven and earth, was surely not a god or even the greatest of gods. He was what his name literally claimed: He was the God , One and only, One without rival. Soon from this mountain cave was to sound the greatest phrase of the Arabic language; the deep, electrifying cry that was to rally a people and explode their power to the limits of the known world:

La ilaha illa ’llah!  There is no god but God!

But first the prophet must receive, around 610, his commission. Gradually, as Muhammad’s visits to the cave became more compelling, the command that he later saw as predestined took form. It was the same command that had fallen earlier on Abraham , Moses, Samuel, Isaiah , and Jesus. Wherever, whenever, this call comes , its form may differ but its essence is the same. A voice falls from heaven saying , “You are the appointed one.”

On that first Night of Power, as Muhammad lay on the floor of the cave, his mind locked in deepest contemplation, there came to him an angel in the form of a man. The angel said to him: “Proclaim!” 7 and he said: “I am not a proclaimer”; whereupon, as Muhammad was himself to report, “the Angel took me and whelmed me in his embrace until he had reached the limit of my endurance. Then he released me and said again, ‘Proclaim!’ Again I said: ‘I am not a proclaimer,’ and again he whelmed me in his embrace. When again he had reached the limit of my endurance he said ‘Proclaim!,’ and when I again protested, he whelmed me for a third time, this time saying: Proclaim in the name of your Lord who created! Created man from a clot of blood. Proclaim: Your Lord is the Most Generous, Who teaches by the pen; Teaches man what he knew not.” (Koran 96: 1– 3)

Muhammad’s life was no more his own. From that time forth it was given to God and to humanity, preaching with unswerving purpose in the face of relentless persecution, insult, and outrage, the words that God was to transmit for twenty-three years.

In an age charged with supernaturalism, when miracles were accepted as the stock-in-trade of the most ordinary saint, Muhammad refused to pander to human credulity. To miracle-hungry idolaters seeking signs and portents, he cut the issue clean: “God has not sent me to work wonders; He has sent me to preach to you. My Lord; be praised! Am I more than a man sent as an apostle?” 
From first to last he resisted every impulse to inflate his own image.

In an age of credulity, Muhammad taught respect for the world’s incontrovertible order, a respect that was to bring Muslims to science before it did Christians.

Apart from his nocturnal ascent through the heavens, which will be mentioned, he claimed only one miracle, that of the Koran itself. That he with his own resources could have produced such truth— this was the one naturalistic hypothesis he could not accept.

At first the odds were so heavily against him that he made few converts; three long years of heartbreaking effort yielded less than forty.

The Migration That Led to Victory

By this time the Meccan nobility was alarmed. What had begun as a pretentious prophetic claim on the part of a half-crazed camel driver had turned into a serious revolutionary movement that was threatening their very existence . They were determined to rid themselves of the troublemaker for good.
When the Meccan leaders got wind of the exodus they did everything in their power to prevent his going; but, together with his close companion Abu Bakr, he eluded their watch and set out for Yathrib , taking refuge on the way in a crevice south of the city.

The year was 622. The migration, known in Arabic as the Hijra, is regarded by Muslims as the turning point in world history and is the year from which they date their calendar. Yathrib soon came to be known as Medinat al-Nabi, the City of the Prophet, and then by contraction simply to Medina, “the city.”

For the remaining ten years of his life, his personal history merged with that of the Medinese commonwealth of which he was the center. Exercising superb statecraft, he welded the five heterogeneous and conflicting tribes of the city, three of which were Jewish, into an orderly confederation. The task was not an easy one, but in the end he succeeded in awakening in the citizens a spirit of cooperation unknown in the city’s history. His reputation spread and people began to flock from every part of Arabia to see the man who had wrought this “miracle.”

The Meccans did not follow up their victory until two years later, when they laid siege to Medina in a last desperate effort to force the Muslims to capitulate. The failure of this effort turned the tide permanently in Muhammad’s favor; and within three years— eight years after his Migration from Mecca— he who had left as a fugitive returned as conqueror. The city that had treated him cruelly now lay at his feet, with his former persecutors at his mercy. Typically, however, he did not press his victory. In the hour of his triumph the past was forgiven. Making his way to the famous Ka’ba, a cubical temple (said to have been built by Abraham) that Muhammad rededicated to Allah and adopted as Islam’s focus, he accepted the virtual mass conversion of the city. Himself, he returned to Medina.

Two years later, in A.D. 632 (10 A.H., After the Hijra), Muhammad died with virtually all of Arabia under his control.

Before the century closed his followers had conquered Armenia, Persia, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, North Africa, and Spain, and had crossed the Pyrenees into France. But for their defeat by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours in 733, the entire Western world might today be Muslim.

In The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, Michael Hart places Muhammad first. His “unparalleled combination of secular and religious influence entitles Muhammad to be considered the most influential single figure in human history,” Hart writes. 14 The explanation that Muslims give for that verdict is simple. The entire work, they say, was the work of God.

The Standing Miracle

Not only was he a shepherd, merchant, hermit, exile, soldier, lawmaker, prophet-priest-king, and mystic; he was also an orphan, for many years the husband of one wife much older than himself, a many times bereaved father, a widower, and finally the husband of many wives, some much younger than himself. In all of these roles he was exemplary.

Literally, the word
al-qur’an in Arabic (and hence “koran,”) means a recitation. Fulfilling that purpose, the Koran is perhaps the most recited ( as well as read) book in the world. Certainly, it is the world’s most memorized book, and possibly the one that exerts the most influence on those who read it . So great was Muhammad’s regard for its contents that (as we have seen) he considered it the only major miracle God worked through him —God’s “standing miracle,” as he called it.

Four-fifths the length of the New Testament, the Koran is divided into 114 chapters or surahs, which (with the exception of the short first chapter that figures in the Muslim’s daily prayers) are arranged in order of decreasing length.

The words of the Koran came to Muhammad in manageable segments over twenty-three years through voices that seemed at first to vary and sometimes sounded like “the reverberating of bells ,” but which gradually condensed into a single voice that identified itself as Gabriel’s.

Crowds in Cairo, Damascus, or Baghdad can be stirred to the highest emotional pitch by statements that, when translated, seem banal. The rhythm, melodic cadence , the rhyme produce a powerful hypnotic effect. Thus the power of the koranic revelation lies not only in the literal meaning of its words but also in the language in which this meaning incorporated, including its sound. The Koran was from the first a vocal phenomenon; we remember that we are to “recite” in the name of the Lord! Because content and container are here inseparably fused, translations cannot possibly convey the emotion , the fervor, and the mystery that the Koran holds in the original . This is why, in sharp contrast to Christians, who have translated their Bible into every known script , Muslims have preferred to teach others the language in which they believe God spoke finally with incomparable force and directness.

Basic Theological Concepts

With a few striking exceptions, which will be noted, the basic theological concepts of Islam are virtually identical with those of Judaism and Christianity, its forerunners. We shall confine our attention in this section to four that are the most important: God, Creation, the Human Self, and the Day of Judgment.

Muslims are not fond of parental images for
God, even when employed metaphorically. To speak of human beings as “God’s children” casts God in too human a mode. It is anthropomorphic.

Allah was seen to be a stern and wrathful judge, domineering and ruthless. This is a clear misreading; God’s compassion and mercy are cited 192 times in the Koran, as against 17 references to his wrath and vengeance.

Standing beneath God’s gracious skies , the Muslim can at any moment lift heart and soul directly into the divine presence, there to receive both strength and guidance for life’s troubled course.

From God we can turn to
Creation as our second theological concept . The Koran abounds in lyrical descriptions of the natural world. Here, though, the point is that that world is not presented as emerging from the divine by some process of inbuilt emanation, as Hindu texts suggest. It was created by a deliberate act of Allah’s will: “He has created the heavens and the earth” (16: 3). This fact carries two important consequences. First, the world of matter is both real and important. Herein lies one of the sources of Islamic science, which during Europe’s Dark Ages flourished as nowhere else on earth. Second, being the handiwork of Allah, who is perfect in both goodness and power, the material world must likewise be good.

Foremost among God’s creations is the human self, whose nature, koranically defined, is our third doctrinal subject. “He has created man,” we read in Surah 16: 3, and the first thing that we note about this creation is its sound constitution.

The individuality of the human soul is everlasting, for once it is created it never dies. Never , though, is its distinctness more acutely sensed than on the
Day of Judgment.

Depending on how it fares in its Reckoning, the soul will repair to either the heavens or the hells, which in the Koran are described in vivid, concrete, and sensual imagery. The masses of the faithful consider them to be actual places, which is perhaps the inevitable consequence of such depiction.

The sharpness of the contrast between heaven and hell is intended to pull the hearer/ reader of the Koran out of the spiritual lethargy that ghaflah, forgetfulness, induces.

The Five Pillars

Compared with other religions, Islam spells out the way of life it proposes; it pinpoints it, nailing it down through clear injunctions.God’s revelation to humankind, they say, has proceeded through four great stages.
First, God revealed the truth of monotheism, God’s oneness, through Abraham.
Second, God revealed the Ten Commandments through Moses.
Third, God revealed the Golden Rule  through Jesus.
“The glory of Islam consists in having embodied the beautiful sentiments of Jesus in definite laws.”

The first of the Five Pillars is Islam’s creed, or confession of faith known as the Shahadah. Brief, simple, and explicit, it consists of a single sentence: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet.” At least once during his or her lifetime a Muslim must say the Shahadah correctly, slowly, thoughtfully, aloud, with full understanding and with heartfelt conviction.

The second pillar of Islam is the canonical prayer, in which the Koran adjures the faithful to “be constant” (29: 45). Muslims are admonished to be constant in prayer to keep their lives in perspective. The Koran considers this the most difficult lesson people must learn. The number remained fixed at five.  The times of the five prayers are likewise stipulated: on arising, when the sun reaches its zenith, its mid-decline, sunset, and before retiring.
The third pillar of Islam is charity. Material things are important in life, but some people have more than others. Poorer people owe nothing, but those in the middle and upper income brackets should annually distribute among the poor onefortieth of the value of all they possess.
The fourth pillar of Islam is the observance of Ramadan. Ramadan is a month in the Islamic calendar— Islam’s holy month, because during it Muhammad received his initial revelation and (ten years later) made his historic Hijrah (migration) from Mecca to Medina.
Islam’s fifth pillar is pilgrimage. Once during his or her lifetime every Muslim who is physically and economically in a position to do so is expected to journey to Mecca, where God’s climactic revelation was first disclosed.

There are also things they should not do. Gambling, thieving, lying, eating pork, drinking intoxicants, and being sexually promiscuous are some of these. Even Muslims who transgress these rulings acknowledge their acts as transgressions.

Social Teachings

“O men! listen to my words and take them to heart! Know ye that every Muslim is a brother to every other Muslim, and that you are now one brotherhood.”

The distinctive thing about Islam is not its ideal but the detailed prescriptions it sets forth for achieving it.

Islamic law is of enormous scope. It will be enough for our purposes if we summarize its provisions in four areas of collective life.
1. Economics. Islam is acutely aware of the physical foundations of life. Until bodily needs are met, higher concerns cannot flower.
2. The Status of Women. Chiefly because it permits a plurality of wives, the West has accused Islam of degrading women. There remains, however, the issue of polygamy, or more precisely polygyny. It is true that the Koran permits a man to have up to four wives simultaneously, but there is a growing consensus that a careful reading of its regulations on the matter point toward monogamy as the ideal.
3. Race Relations. Islam stresses racial equality and “has achieved a remarkable degree of interracial coexistence.”
4. The Use of Force.   Objective historians are of one mind in their verdict that, to put the matter minimally, Islam’s record on the use of force is no darker than that of Christianity. It was Christians, not Muslims, we are reminded, who in the fifteenth century expelled the Jews from Spain where, under Islamic rule, they had enjoyed one of their golden ages. Laying aside comparisons, Muslims admit that their own record respecting force is not exemplary. Every religion at some stages in its career has been used by its professed adherents to mask aggression, and Islam is no exception.


Like every religious tradition it divides. Its main historical division is between the mainstream Sunnis (“ Traditionalists” [from sunnah, tradition] who comprise 87 percent of all Muslims) and the Shi’ites . Geographically, the Shi’ites cluster in and around Iraq and Iran, while the Sunnis flank them to the West (the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa) and to the East (through the Indian subcontinent, which includes Pakistan and Bangladesh, on through Malaysia, and into Indonesia, where alone there are more Muslims than in the entire Arab world). It is the vertical division between the mystics of Islam, called Sufis, and the remaining majority of the faith, who are equally good Muslims but are not mystics.

The root meaning of the word Sufi is wool, suf. A century or two after Muhammad’s death, those within the Islamic community who bore the inner message of Islam came to be known as Sufis. Many of them donned coarse woolen garments to protest the silks and satins of sultans and califs.

They developed three overlapping but distinguishable routes. We can call these the mysticisms
of love, of ecstasy, and of intuition.

Particularly shocking to some is the fact that the Sufi often claims, if only by implication, an authority derived directly from God and a knowledge given from above rather than learned in the schools. An undercurrent of opposition to Sufism within sections of the Islamic community has served as a necessary curb on the mystics, without this undercurrent having been strong enough to prevent those who have had a genuine vocation for a Sufi path from following their destiny.

Whither Islam?

For long periods since Muhammad called his people to God’s oneness, Muslims have wandered from the spirit of the Prophet. Their leaders are the first to admit that practice has often been replaced by mere profession, and that fervor has waned. Viewed as a whole, however, Islam unrolls before us one of the most remarkable panoramas in all history. We have spoken of its early greatness. Had we pursued its history there would have been sections on the Muslim empire, which, a century after Muhammad’s death, stretched from the bay of Biscay to the Indus and the frontiers of China, from the Aral Sea to the upper Nile. More important would have been the sections describing the spread of Muslim ideas: the development of a fabulous culture, the rise of literature, science, medicine, art, and architecture; the glory of Damascus, Baghdad, and Egypt, and the splendor of Spain under the Moors. There would have been the story of how, during Europe’s Dark Ages, Muslim philosophers and scientists kept the lamp of learning bright, ready to spark the Western mind when it roused from its long sleep.

God is most great.
God is most great.
I testify that there is no god but God.
I testify that Muhammad is the Prophet of God.
Arise and pray;
God is most great.
God is most great.
There is no god but God.