THE RELIGION OF ISLAM
To God belong the East and West.
Wheresoe'er ye turn, there is the
Face of God. Verily God is all-embrasing
Qur'an, II, 115
Worship God as if thou sawest
Him, for if thou seest Him not, verily
He seeth thee.
The Prophet Muhammad
Islam is the third of the three Semitic monotheisms.
It has its origin in the revelation which the Prophet Muhammad (571-631)
- scion of a noble Arab tribe (the Quraish) settled in seventh-century
Mecca - received from God through the intermediary of the Archangel
Gabriel. This revelation came upon Muhammad when he was middle life,
and he made it known progressively to his companions over a number
of years. These intermitted utterances of the revelation were subsequently
committed to writing, and constitute the Qur'an , the sacred book
of Islam. For Islam, the Qur'an is the direct and immediate Word
The language of Qur'an is Arabic, which is the sacred language of
Islam. As such, it occupied an even more fundamental position in
Islam than do the various liturgical languages (Latin, Greek etc.)
in Christianity. Its role is more comparable to that of Sanskrit
in Hinduism or Hebrew in Judaism. It is significant that Arabic
is the most archaic of all the living Semitic languages: it's morphology
is to be found in Hammurabi's code which is more or less contemporary
with Abraham. The words of Qur'an have been faithfully preserved
in the form in which they were originally received, even down to
the minutest points of detail, and their recitation constitutes
a 'liturgical' act. For this purpose only the original Arabic may
be used, as translations have no liturgical validity.
Being the 'uncreated Word of God', it is the Qur'an,
and not Muhammad, which is at the centre of the Islamic religion.
This contrasts outwardly with Christianity, where it is Christ,
and not the New Testament, who is at the centre. This contrast is
purely outward, however, as in Christianity Christ is, precisely,
the 'uncreated Word of God', and thus, in this respect, there is
a far-reaching inward analogy. Herein lies the reason why an adherent
of Christianity (which centred on Christ) is called a 'Christian',
whereas an adherent of Islam (which is not, in the first instance,
centred on Muhammad) is not properly designated by the term 'Muhammadan',
but is called a 'Muslim'. 'Muslim' means 'one who submits' and 'Islam'
means 'submission' (i.e. to God).
In Christianity, Christ is 'true Man and true God'. Using the same
terminology, one could say that in Islam Muhammad is 'true Man'
only. As we have seen, it is Qur'an and not Muhammad, that is divine.
As Frithjof Schuon has pointed out, the role of Muhammad in Islam
is in some ways analogous to that of the Virgin Mary in Christianity.
The annunciation to Mary, like the revelation to Muhammad, came
through the Archangel Gabriel. Mary, a virgin, produced a Son, while
Muhammad's 'illiteracy', like Mary's virginity, is of profound metaphysical
and spiritual significance.
Though Muhammad is viewed simply as a man, he is
no ordinary man. Muslims speak of him as a 'jewel amongst stones',
rather as Christians say benedicta tu in mulieribus of Mary.
As another level, of course, there is an obvious analogy between
Muhammad and Christ, as each is the founder and 'revealer' of the
respective religion. And, very characteristically, Muhammad's role
as revealer and legislator is a strongly masculine one.
When one speaks of the 'Semitic monotheisms' (Judaism,
Christianity and Islam), one is contrasting them with the 'Aryan
mythologies', such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Following its revelation
to Muhammad, Islam rapidly spread to become the religion of virtually
all Arabs. Both Jews and Arabs, as Semitic peoples, belong to the
posterity of Abraham, but whereas the Jews trace their descent from
Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, the Arabs (including Muhammad)
are descended from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar. Indeed
the Ka'ba at Mecca was built by Abraham and Ishmael. Thus for Islam,
Ishmael plays a cardinal and prophetic role.
As for Christianity, it was the 'Gentile' (or Aryan)
Europeans who were destined to embrace it and thereby to become
spiritually 'semiticized' - though never entirely losing a certain
Aryan cast of spirit deriving from classical antiquity and moulded
also by their Indo-European languages. A number of other Aryan peoples,
such as the Persian and many Indians, were spiritually semiticized
by their conversion to the religion of the Arab Prophet. In India,
for example, the spiritual and psychological difference between
the Aryan Hindus and the spiritually semiticized Muslims (even both
belong to the selfsame Aryan race) is marked.
As has already been mentioned, the ultimate source of the Islamic
religion is the Qur'an, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. A secondary
source of Muslim doctrine and practice is the Wont (Sunna) of the
Prophet. The Sunna included not only the customs and usages, but
also the Sayings (or Traditions) of the Prophet (ahadith, sing.
hadith). The latter are cardinal source of Muslim teaching. A particularly
important type of hadith is the hadith qudsi in which God Himself
speaks through the mouth of the Prophet. Such sayings, although
of Divine inspiration, are distinct from the Quranic revelation.
The Sunna constitutes a norm form the whole of Islamic
civilisation. Love of the Prophet (who is usually referred to as
the 'Messenger of God', Rasulu' Llah) is much cultivated in Islam,
and classically takes the form of conformity to his Sunna or Wont.
The central Message (risala) of Islam is the declaration
of faith (shahada): ' There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger
of God'. ( La ilaha illa 'Llah: Muhammadur Rasulu 'Llah). All Muslim
doctrine and, above all, Sufi doctrine, derives from the shahada.
The Islamic Law or shari'a is characterised by the
'Five Pillars (arkan) of Islam'. These are faith, prayer, fasting,
almsgiving and pilgrimage. Faith (iman) is assent to the shahada.
Prayer (salat) is the canonical prayer that is observed five times
daily (at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and night). Fasting (sawm)
is the abstention from food and drink from dawn to sunset observed
during the month of Ramadan. Almsgiving (zakat) is the giving of
a portion of one's goods for charitable purposes. Pilgrimage (hajj)
is the pilgrimage to the Ka'ba at Mecca which a Muslim should make,
if possible, at least once in his lifetime. Sufism adds to the literal
meaning of each of the Five Pillars a metaphysical and spiritual
In addition to the Five Pillars of Islam, one should
also mention the well-known Muslim prohibition of wine and pork.
Wine is a 'good' thing in itself, as is proved by the fact that
it is promised the faithful in Paradise, and also by the positive
use which many Sufis have made of the imagery of wine and drunkenness
to symbolise mystical states. In its negative aspect, however, it
is the symbol of confusion or error. In the Semitic perspective
it has a positive symbolism, although it should be noted that the
wild boar is not covered by the prohibition. Gambling and usury
are also forbidden by Islamic law. An interesting sidelight on Islamic
attitudes is provided by fact that it is forbidden to men to wear
gold and silk. These two precious substances are reserved for the
use of women.
Another well known Islamic concept is that of the
'holy war' (jihad). Outwardly, this refers to the defence of the
Islamic community. Inwardly or spiritually, it refers to the unseen
warfare against the ego. The Prophet indicated the relationship
of these two aspects of the holy when he remarked to his companions
following a battle: 'We are returning from the lesser holy war (against
our outward enemies), to the greater holy war (against ourselves)!'.
Islam accepts, and incorporates into itself, all
antecedent prophets of Abrahamic lineage, up to and including Jesus
and Mary. There are more references in the Qur'an to the Virgin
Mary (Sayyidat-na Maryam) than in the New Testament. One of its
chapters is even called after her.
The only important 'division' within Islam is that between Sunnis
and Shi'is. Orthodox (Sunni) Islam recognises that the immediate
successors (khalifas) to the Prophet Muhammad, as head of the Islamic
community, are the four Caliphs, Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and 'Ali.
The establishment and subsequent development of Islam as a world
religion rests on the pattern set by these four holy patriarchs.
Shi'is, on the contrary, reject the first three Caliphs and regard
the fourth Caliph 'Ali as the only legitimate immediate successor
to the Prophet, the chief reason being that 'Ali was of the 'family
of the Prophet', since he was the latter's son-in-law.
The name Shi'a (the general term for Shi'is) comes
from shi'atu 'Ali, 'the party of 'Ali. Though 'schismatical' from
the Sunni point of view, Shi'ism retains virtually all the orthodox
doctrines and practices of Islam apart, of course, from the major
matter of rejecting the first three Caliphs. By diverging thus from
official Islam, Shi'ism has developed a characteristic religious
climate of its own - one which can be witnessed in Persia (where
Shi'is predominate) and the other scattered areas where Shi'is are
to be found. The great Sufi poets of Persia, however, such as Jalal
ad-Din Rumi and Omar Khayyam were Sunnis.
From the time of the Crusades many Christians have
considered Islam, bordering as it does on Christendom, to be a threat
and rival to the latter. And yet Islam's record towards Christianity
is a good one, and its age-old tolerance of Christians and Jewish
communities ('People of the Book', ahl al-kitab) living in its midst
is well known. Islam's attitude to Christianity has its root in
Qur'an: 'You will find that the best friends of believers are those
who say: "We are Christians". This is because there are
priests and monks amongst them, and because they are not proud'.
(Sura of the Table Spread, 85)
A modern testimony regarding one part of the Muslim
world comes from a Catholic missionary: 'One can safely say.....that
in Africa's Moslem millions there is a great fund of sincere religious
sentiment and of good will towards non-Moslems'. The late Sir Abubakar
Tafewa Balewa of Nigeria, on receiving a message of blessing from
Pope Pius XII, kept the Bishops who presented it to him standing
while he read and re-read the message, with tears flowing from his
Many of the Scholastic philosophers knew and valued
the works of Islamic theologians. Dante used Islamic sources in
the Divine Comedy. In more modern times, Pope Pius XI in despatching
his Apostolic Delegate to Libya, said to them: 'Do not think you
are going amongst infidels. Muslims attain to Salvation. The ways
of God are infinite'. Pope Pius XII remarked how consoling it was
to know that, all over the world, there were millions of people
who, five times a day, bow down before God. Not long ago the Catholic
Bishops of Nigeria, in the concluding words of a joint Pastoral
Letter, afforded a good example of a just Christian attitude towards
Islam: 'We express sentiment of fraternal love towards our Muslim
fellow-citizens...... We appreciate their deep spirit of prayer
and fasting..... We are united against tendencies towards materialism
It cannot be said too often that the religion of
Islam stems entirely from the Qur'an. One of its translators, Marmaduke
Pickthall, called it 'that inimitable symphony, the very sounds
of which move men to tears and ecstasy'. In order to let the reader
taste a little of the flavour of the Qur'an as directly as possible,
this chapter will end with two characteristic passages, firstly
in the original Arabic, and then in English translation.
Inna 'l-muslimina wa 'l-muslimati
wa 'l-mu'minina wa 'l-mu'minati
wa 'l-qanitina wa 'l-qanitati
wa 'sh-shadiqina wa 'sh-shadiqati
wa 'sh-shabirina wa 'sh-shabirati
wa 'l-khashi'ina wa 'l-khashi'ati
wa 'l-mutasaddiqina wa 'l-mutasaddiqati
wa 'sh-sha'imina wa 'sh-sha'imati
wa 'l-hafizina furuja-hum wa 'l-hafizati
wa 'dh-dharkirina 'Llaha kathiran wa 'dh-dhakirati
a' adda 'Llahu la-hum maghfiratan wa ajran 'aziman
Surat al-Ahzap, 35
Verily men who submit [to God] and women who submit,
and men who believe and women who believe,
and men who are devout and women who are devout,
and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth,
and men who are patient and women who are patient,
and men who are humble and women who are humble,
and men who give alms and women who give alms,
and men who fast and women who fast,
and men who guard their modesty and women who guard,
and men who remember God much and women who remember,
God has prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.
Sura of the Confederates, 35
wa 'l-laili idha saja,
ma wadda'a-ka rabbu-ka wa ma qala,
wa la 'l-akhiratu khairun la-ka min al-ula,
wa la-saufa yu'ti-ka rabbu-ka fa-tarda
a lam yajid-ka yatiman fa-awa?
Wa wajada-ka dallan fa-hada?
Wa wajada-ka 'a'ilan fa-aghna?
Fa-amma 'l-yatima fa-la taqhar,
wa amma 's-sa'ila fa-la tanhar,
wa amma bi-ni'mati rabbi-ka fa-haddith.
By the brightness of day,
and by the night when it covereth,
thy Lord hath not forsaken thee nor doth He hate thee,
and verily the next world will be better for thee than this one,
and verily thy Lord will give unto thee so that thou wilt be content.
Did He not find thee an orphan and protect thee?
Did He not find thee wandering and direct thee?
Did He not find thee destitute and enrich thee?
Therefore the orphan oppress not,
therefore the beggar turn not away,
therefore of the bounty of Thy Lord be thy discourse.
Sura of the Brightness of Day
Selection of quotations relating
(a) from the Qur'an
In the name of God, the Clement, the Merciful,
Praise be to God, the Lord of the worlds,
The Clement, the Merciful,
The owner of the Day of Judgement,
Thee we worship and in Thee we seek refuge.
Guide us upon the straight path
The path of those to whom Thou art gracious,
Not of those upon whom Thine anger hath fallen,
Nor of those who are astray.
The Opening Sura
He (God) is the First and the Last, the Outwardly
and the Inwardly Hidden.
Sura of Iron, 3
We (God) are nearer to him (man) than his jugular
Sura of Qaf, 16
God is the light of the Heavens and the earth.
Sura of Light, 35
And bear with those who call on their Lord, morning
seeking His Face.
Sura of the Cave, 28
It is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts.
Sura of the Pilgrimage, 46
(b) from the Traditions (ahadith)
Verily My mercy taketh precedence over My wrath.
My Heaven cannot contain Me, nor can My earth, but
the heart of My believing slave can contain Me.
God is beautiful, and He loves beauty.
All that is beautiful comes from the beauty of God.
The heart of man is the Throne of God.
Whose knoweth himself, knoweth his Lord.
Be in this world as a stranger or as a passer-by.
(c) from the Sufis
My heart has opened unto every form: it is a pasture for gazelles,
a cloister for Christian monks, a temple for idols, the Ka'ba of
the pilgrim, the tables of the Torah and the book of Qur'an. I practice
the religion of Love; in whatsoever directions its caravans advance,
the religion of Love shall be my religion and my faith.
Muhyi 'd-Din ibn 'Arabi (d.1240)
The end of knowledge is that man comes to the point where he was
at the origin.
Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d. 875)
I saw my Lord with the eye of the heart. I said: Who art Thou?
He answered: Thou.
Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 922)