Introduction to Islam (Part 1 of 5: Muhammad)
I started preparing this series of entries around the time of the media storm from the “Burn a Qur’an Day“. I was rather surprised by the reaction of many Christians to this dispute, but what I found even more troubling was their apparent lack of basic familiarity with the religion of Islam.
In this series of posts I will not be disputing any assertion made by Islam. I only intend to provide a brief sketch of the religion. I would like this to be an introduction and brief overview for the average Christian who is unaware of Islam’s claims.
Please note, I have done my best to ensure factual accuracy in all these posts and have used Islamic sources as much as possible to ensure that I’m not propagating Christian misconceptions of Islam. I did send this to some Muslim friends for comment, but I have yet to hear back. If you are a follower of Islam and believe that I have misrepresented your religion, please drop me an email and I will remedy the situation.
Islam (“submission to God”) was founded by Muhammad in the early 7th Century, a little over six hundred years after Jesus’ ministry, seven hundred and sixty-six miles away from Jerusalem in Arabia. In the early part of Muhammad’s life he was a successful trader and then, through marriage to a wealthy widow, he became an important figure.
Thanks to his wealth, at the age of forty, Muhammad was able to spend much of his time in meditation in a cave on the outskirts of Mecca. It is said that it was during this time that he began to receive messages from Allah (God) through Jibril (the Archangel Gabriel). He was told that these messages were to be preached to all mankind. They were subsequently written down by his companions and collected together to form the Muslim holy book: the Qur’an/Koran (literally “the recitation”).
Muhammad’s followers were initially fairly small in number, consisting mainly of his own family. There were soon violent persecutions in Mecca against the Muslims, causing Muhammad to move to Medina where Islam was more favourably received. A little later, the first jihad (holy war) took place. Muhammad returned to Mecca and destroyed the idols there and within eight years Muslim armies had conquered (and effectively converted) the whole of Arabia.
Islam and “The People of the Book”
Islam’s relationship with Judaism and Christianity is somewhat complex and I have heard differing explanations from different Muslims with whom I’ve spoken.
Originally, Jerusalem was the chosen qibla (direction) in which Muslims faced in prayer and Muhammad adopted several Jewish practices. In addition, the earlier passages in the Qur’an appear to recognise the validity of the Jewish and Christian faiths and even say to consult Jews and Christians to confirm Allah’s revelation (Surah 10:94). It is also asserted that Mohammad is foretold in the Jewish and Christian scriptures (Surah 7:157).
However, the Jews did not recognize Muhammad as a prophet. Christians rejected his understanding of God since he denied the Trinity (Surah 4:171, Surah 5:72-75). The Christians also rejected his understanding of Jesus since Muhammad asserted that Jesus was only a mortal prophet (Surah 5:116) and one who only appeared to have been crucified (Surah 4:157). Eventually, the qibla then became Mecca. The latter portions of the Qur’an assert that Islam is, in fact, a restoration of the religion that Abraham professed and that the Tawrat (the Torah) and Injil (the Christian Gospels) have been “distorted” by Jews and Christians. It is asserted that the Qur’an, on the other hand, has been preserved from all error and is the final revelation from God.
Muhammad’s Death and Legacy
Muhammad died in 632 AD. Islam is now the world’s fastest-growing religion and, at the present time, second largest, embracing about 22% of the world’s population.
Twenty years after his death, Muhammad’s fourth successor was not universally accepted and, as a result, Muslims divided into two factions: Sunni (~85%) and Shia (~15%). Shia Muslims believe that only a descendant of Muhammad can be imam (leader) and that, as imam, he is infallible and sinless. Since then, there have been some further subdivisions.
Muslims hold Muhammad in tremendously high respect – it’s really not possible to over-emphasize this. A pious Muslim, after saying Muhammad’s name, will always add, often in Arabic, “Peace be upon him”. This is even done in writing, with “(pbuh)” appearing after any mention of Muhammad’s name. Any depictions or visual representations of Muhammad are strictly prohibited. For example, in the The Message, the movie telling the story of the founding of Islam, we never actually see Muhammad on screen or even hear him speak – an interesting challenge for a film maker wishing to tell the story of his life!
In Part 2 of this series, I intend to look at Islamic Revelation and the Qur’an itself.