New Internationalist

Islam - The basics

Issue 345

The word ‘Islam’ has the dual meaning of ‘peace’ and ‘submission to the will of God’.

Islam is a monotheistic religion, believing there is only one God. It traces its lineage right back to Prophets Abraham and Adam and describes itself as a continuation of the message of Judaism and Christianity. Both Jesus and Moses are seen as Prophets and have exalted positions in Islam. The religious texts of Islam are the Qur’an and the biography of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Qur'an

Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the Word of God. It is also a commentary on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. So the Qur’an is understood and interpreted in the light of the Sunnah — the sayings, examples and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Many people compare the Qur’an with the Bible. But the Qur’an is not like the Bible, or indeed any other conventional book. While the Qur’an does contain some Biblical stories, such as those of the Prophets Noah and Lot, they are not found in a single place. They occur in bits and are repeated throughout the entire book. So, at first sight, it looks like the Qur’an is full of repetitions.

This is because it is, above all, an oral text. It’s like a musical symphony. Just like the notes in symphony may be repeated, so the verses in the Qur’an are frequently repeated. That also makes it very easy to memorize and recite. At any given time, there are hun-dreds of millions of Muslims who have memorized the Qur’an. They carry it, as the Muslim tradition says, in ‘their heart’.

But the Qur’an is unlike any other text for another rea-son. It is spread over a period of 23 years. That is, as a text it was revealed over a period of 23 years, the period during which the Prophet Muhammad received the revelation, and has to be seen in the context of those 23 years. But the arrange-ment of the verses does not follow a chronological order. Many of its verses are commenting on the action that is taking place in a particular time in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. This is why it is easy, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to quote the Qur’an out of context.

Roughly a third of the Qur’an is devoted to the discussion of the attributes of God. A third is devoted to extolling the virtues of reason, thinking, reflection, study, knowledge and wisdom. And a third is devoted to issues of law, legislation and public policy.

Some verses from the Qur'an

God loves those who judge equitably.’ (5:42).

‘God loves the patient.’ (3:145)

‘And one of His signs is the creation of the heaven and earth and the diversity of your languages and colours; surely there are signs in this for the learned.’ (30:22)

‘Even if you stretch out your hand against me to kill me, I shall not stretch out my hand against you to kill you. I fear Allah, the Lord of the World.’(5: 28)

‘Whosoever does a good deed, male or female — those shall enter paradise, therein provided without reckoning.’(40:40)

‘Take to forgiveness and enjoin good and turn aside from the ignorant.’(7:199)

The attributes of God

Islam insists that God cannot be understood or described in human terms. It is only through his attributes and signs that we can appreciate the absolute and unique nature of God. The attributes of God can be seen in the 99 Beautiful Names of God, which include: the Creator, the Sustainer, the Cherisher, the Compassionate, the First and the Last. The most frequently used attributes of God are found in the formula that most Muslims utter numerous times a day: ‘In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.’

The sayings of Prophet Muhammad

The hadith, or the traditions, of the Prophet Muhammad are, after the Qur’an, the second main source of guidance for Muslims. They communicate the spirit of Islam — what faith and living a good life should mean. They also provide insight into the personality of Muhammad, his compassion, gentle sense of humour, intense honesty and humility. Muslims developed a highly elaborate and sophisticated science of hadith criticism to distinguish authentic hadith from fabrications. It involved tracing the chains of narrators, examin-ing their context and character, chronological accuracy, textual analysis and authentication of oral and written records.

Some authentic hadith of the Prophet Muhammad

The world is green and beautiful and God has appointed you his trustee over it.’

‘Little, but sufficient, is better than the abundant and the alluring.’

‘The search for knowledge is a sacred duty imposed upon every Muslim.’

‘God is gentle and loves gentleness in all things.’

‘Pay the worker before his sweat dries.’

‘He is not a believer who eats his fill while his neighbour remains hungry by his side.’

‘As you are, so you will have rulers over you.’

‘The special character of Islam is modesty.’

The Five Pillars

These are the basic religious obligations laid down for all Muslims:

1 The affirmation of faith or the Shahadah — literally ‘bearing witness’ — in the creed of Islam: ‘There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.’

2 Performing prayers, according to prescribed fashion, five times daily.

3 Fasting during the month of Ramadan — that is, refraining from eating, drinking, smoking or having sex during the hours from sunrise to sunset. The conclusion of the month of Ramadan marks one of the main festivals in Islamic calendar, Eid al Fitr.

4 Paying the zakat, or the ‘poor due’, once a year. This is not charity but the right of the poor and is fixed at the minimum of 2.5 per cent of one’s earnings.

5 Going for hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, once in a lifetime if one is physically and financially able. Each year, during the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar, over two million Muslims come together in the birthplace of Islam to perform the hajj.

Basic Concepts

Some of the significant principles of Islam are embodied in a number of overlapping and interconnecting concepts. Islam teaches that both individual and collective life should be shaped according to these concepts. Tawheed: the central concept of Islam literally means ‘unity of God’ but also implies the unity and equality of all humanity.

Khalifah defines our position in the cosmos as ‘trustees’ of God. As trustees, we have the responsibility to safeguard nature and resources of the planet, and will be accountable for their abuse both in this world and the Hereafter.

Akharah or ‘the Hereafter’ — the idea that we are all responsi-ble and accountable for our actions in the Hereafter.

Ilm, meaning knowledge, the pursuit of which is a duty for all Muslims, male and females.

Adl or to do justice, in the most wide-ranging sense of the word, in every aspect of individual and social life is a primary obligation for all Muslims.

Shura, or consultation, is the basis of all Muslim social and political behaviour.

Ijma, or consensus, which should be the basis for all Muslim social and political action.

Ijtihad, literally ‘reasoned struggle’ necessary to comprehend the meaning and implication of Islamic principles in contempo-rary circumstances.

Jihad, or righteous struggle, against all variety of injustice. The greatest jihad is the struggle against one’s own limitation, inadequacies and wrongdoing. The most excellent person, said the Prophet Muhammad, is the one ‘who strives hard in the way of God with his person and his property’. Social, economic, intel-lectual and cultural struggle against injustice are considered as important as ‘speaking the truth in the face of an unjust tyrant’.

Istislah, or public interest, a fundamental source of Islamic law, makes it a responsibility of individuals, communities and the state to consider the common good and welfare of the society and the planet as a whole.

Ihsan, meaning kindness, is a principle that should guide all human behaviour towards others and the natural world.

Hikma, or wisdom, is essential for a religious life and to discern the difference between good, better, best and that which is bad and worse.

Ummah, the term for the global brotherhood and sisterhood of Islam. All Muslims, said the Prophet, are like a single body: if one part is hurt the whole body feels the pain.

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