Vol 3 Feb 2003       

15th century Islamic painting
The Way of

by Carol Hiltner

with Qazi Asad


Islam is the youngest and second largest of the world's religions, with almost 600 million followers. Muslim philosophy is a blend of Arabic, Jewish, and Christian elements, and is one of the least complicated of the world's religions.

The following represents a narrative explanation of Islam based upon research and an interview with Qazi Asad, president of the Muslim Interfaith Clergy Council of America.[1]

Asad's most urgent message to our readers was this:  "When the name Muslim comes up, right away people think of a person of Arab descent. People need to know that many Muslims are Caucasian or African-American. In fact, the majority of Muslims are in other parts of the world — Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, China, Russia, Western Europe — everywhere."

At the core of Islam is the belief that "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger." All Muslims must make this declaration — called Shahada — as the first of the Five Pillars of Islam.

Allah is the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient creator and ruler of the universe, and so the central requirement for Muslims is submission to the will of Allah. Everything is predestined by the will of Allah. The most frequent statement among devout Muslims is "If God wills it" — which does give Islam an aspect of fatalism.

In Islam, angels can be good or evil. The leader of the demons, Iblis (devil), was responsible for the fall of Adam and Eve. At death, there is Judgment leading to Paradise or Hell. Paradise has abundant pleasures such as beautiful gardens with flowing water, lovely maidens, and wine (with no hangover). Hell is a horrid place filled with scalding winds, black smoke, and brackish water.

Muhammad, Prophet of God

Twenty-eight prophets of Allah — including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus — are mentioned in the Qur'an (which has been westernized to "Koran"). Muhammad, who lived in the seventh century AD, is the last and the greatest of these prophets.

Muhammad was a man of unquestioned religious experience, a man of prayer, utterly devoted to the religious ideal as he saw it. He was an attractive leader and an efficient organizer. At times he was vindictive and autocratic; yet he could say, "There is no compulsion in religion."

As a young man, Muhammad was an illiterate caravan worker and camel driver. In his travels he met Christians, Jews, and perhaps Zoroastrians.

Later, he became concerned about the idolatry of his people and their fate on the Judgment Day at the end of the world. According to Muslim tradition, he visited a cave near Mecca for days at a time. Here, one night when he was around the age of forty, Archangel Gabriel appeared to him.

Although Muhammad's first preaching was met with rejection and hostility, a fortuitous event took place in 620. Men from Medina came to seek Muhammad as an impartial judge to settle disputes within the city. However, it was 622 before Muhammad could leave Mecca to help settle the dispute. In the meantime, a group of assassins pledged to kill him.

Finally, Muhammad escaped to Medina. This Hijrah (migration) would normally have taken eleven days, but he made it in eight. So Muslims date their calendars from the Hijrah (A.H.).

At Medina, Muhammad set up a theocracy and directed his followers to pray toward Mecca.

Muhammad launched military campaigns to consolidate their position. In 630 he conquered Mecca, then went to the Ka'ba and destroyed all of the idols and images. With this symbolic act, the Prophet became the sole leader of the Arabian people.

Islam as a World Force

As Islam became the unifying force for Arab people, it conquered all of the Middle East and moved into India, China, Indonesia, and some of the Pacific Islands. In 711 the Muslims entered Spain where they were dominant for the next seven centuries.

Muslims made real contributions to philosophic thinking during the early Middle Ages. They translated and discussed Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek thinkers, and helped preserve this literature during the Dark Ages. Yet Islam in the modern era has been characterized by extreme conservatism.

Like all religious movements, Islam is divided into various sects. Around eighty-five percent of all Muslims are classified as Sunnis (traditionalists). The Shi'ite sect constitutes the second largest group in Islam, making up around fourteen percent of the Muslim world, mostly in Iran and Iraq.

Like Judaism, Islam has always been a "this world" religion; nevertheless there have always been some Muslim mystics, known as Sufis (wool-wearers). The important contribution of the Sufi movement to religious thought is that union with God may be an authentic inner experience.

In Asad's words: "More people have turned themselves toward Islam. They realize that Islam and the people who follow Islam — the Muslims — are the most peace-loving people. This is the saying of the holy Prophet: 'You kill one person, you kill the whole of mankind. You save one person, you have saved the whole of mankind.'"

Asad believes that education and information are the shortest route to peace, and in today's tense political environment, he puts his beliefs into action by organizing interfaith events in Los Angeles that draw more than 10,000 people a day.

The Five Pillars of Islam

Right Action for a Muslim is embodied in The Five Pillars of Islam. The First Pillar, mentioned above, is the Shahada — the declaration of faith.

The Second Pillar is Salat — prayers that are a direct link between the worshiper and God. Muslims are called to prayer five times each day, and each person must cleanse himself and face Mecca in a prostrate position for prayer. This is because at Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, there is a black meteoric stone that legend says fell from heaven during the time of Adam and Eve, and Abraham and Ishmael built the Ka'ba around this stone.

Except for the orientation toward Mecca, Islam is not a temple-oriented religion. But Muhammad did decree that Muslims were required to pray together at a mosque on Friday. There, an iman leads in prayer. The iman is a pious man, but he is not a priest.

The Third Pillar is the principle that all things belong to God. So a Muslim is expected to share his possessions with the poor of his community. This sharing is called Zakat, which means both "purification" and "sharing." Like the pruning of a plant, Zakat — which involves the annual payment of 2.5 percent of one's capital — balances and encourages new growth. Larger contributions are called Sadaga, which means "voluntary charity," and include behavior as well as money.

Zakat (from the Qur'an)

The Prophet said, "Charity is a necessity for every Muslim."

"What if a person has nothing?" he was asked.

The Prophet answered, "He should work with his own hands for his benefit and then give something out of such earnings in charity."

The Companions asked, "What if he is not able to work?"

The Prophet said, "He should help poor and needy persons."

The Companions further asked, "What if he cannot do even that?"

The Prophet said, "He should urge others to do good."

The Companions said, "What if he lacks that also?"

And the Prophet said, "He should check himself from doing evil. That is also a charity."

The Fourth Pillar is that fasting is required every year during the month of Ramadan. Between first light and sundown, Muslims are expected to abstain from all food, drink, smoking, and sexual relations. Ramadan is within a lunar calender, so it falls at a different time each solar year.

This fasting is regarded principally as a method of self-purification and an opportunity for spiritual growth, but it also expresses true empathy with those who go hungry.

Those who are sick or elderly, nursing mothers, and those who are traveling are permitted to break the fast and make up the days later in the year. If they are physically unable to do this, they must feed a needy person for every day that they missed.

Pork, wine, and gambling also are forbidden to Muslims — at all times.

The Fifth Pillar of Islam is the Hajj, the pilgrimage every Muslim is expected to make to Mecca once in a lifetime. Wearing seamless white garments, they will make seven trips around the Ka'ba and kiss the sacred black stone. Then the pilgrims will stand together on the wide plains of Arafa and pray for God's forgiveness, in what is often thought of as a preview of the Last Judgment.

The close of the Hajj is celebrated with the festival of Eid al-Adha — a time of prayers and gift-giving in Muslim communities everywhere.

Pilgrims also may visit Medina and perhaps Jerusalem. When the pilgrim returns home he may have the title "Hajj" attached to his name.

The Qur'an

The Qur'an, the sacred text of Islam, contains the revelations made by Allah to Mohammed over a period of 23 years. For Muslims, the Qur'an is the Word of God; it is eternal, absolute, and irrevocable. The book is made up of 114 surahs (chapters) arranged according to the length of the surah.

Probably no scripture has influenced its people more than the Qur'an. It is dutifully read by Muslims, and many memorize it entirely.

Islam shares a common history with both Judaism and Christianity, so other books such as the Hebrew Law and Psalms and the Evangel to Jesus are also sacred to Muslims. The Qur'an has twenty-five references to Jesus Christ and represents Jesus as predicting the coming of the founder of Islam.

The commonalities between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity point to the possibility of real peace, especially when, as Qazi Assad says, "Islam doesn't say, 'Go kill the Christians and the Jews, and the Hindus and Buddhists.' There is no such thing. That idea comes from people who have a political motive, and they bring their religion in."

Qazi Asad is president of the Muslim Interfaith Clergy Council of America, which is affiliated with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department Clergy Council.

In addition to our interview with Asad, this article contains information derived from several Internet sources, including IslamWorld.net and Dr. Meredith Sprunger's article An Introduction to Islam.