|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
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.
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
“the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to
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.
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
The Seal of the
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
ilaha illa ’llah! There is no god but God!
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
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.
Migration That Led to Victory
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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
First, God revealed the truth of monotheism, God’s oneness, through
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
every religious tradition it divides. Its main historical division is
between the mainstream
(“ Traditionalists” [from sunnah, tradition] who comprise 87 percent of
all Muslims) and the
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
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.
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.