What Is Islam? July 15, 2015 · 32 min. read
A few months ago I wrote a post about Buddhism, explaining who Buddha was, how Buddhism came to be and what Buddhists believe. I didn't write it with the idea of converting anybody or selling anybody on the religion; I simply wrote it to inform people. Today I am doing the same thing, but this time about a religion that carries some negative stigma: Islam.
We are living in an exciting time in history where religions are mingling together at an extraordinary pace. However, with the arrival of anything "new" (although Islam is actually over 1,400 years old), people are weary of it. This is particularly true when that "new" thing introduced itself to the West by crashing airplanes into the World Trade Center. Since that fateful day in 2001 many people began asking questions: 'What is Islam? Who is Muhammad? What do Muslims believe in? What do they want?'
To begin, we need to familiarize ourselves with some words used when talking about Islam.
Islam: Islam is religion, as well as a political doctrine. While the West is very much against the idea of Church and State as one, Islam is the embodiment of this. As a result, Islam has become not only a religion, but a way of life and a political body. Islam was founded in 610 CE by Muhammad.
Muhammad: Muhammad is the father of Islam. Originally a caravan man, Muhammad was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and began preaching the words of Allah. In time, he became the leader of the religion. To the Muslims, Muhammad is not seen as "Christ" or a "second Christ", but simply as the last true prophet of Allah.
Allah: This is the Arabic word for "God". A Hebrew version of this is "Yahweh" or "Jehovah". God, Yahweh, Jehovah, and Allah are all different words for the same thing.
Sharia: This is the set of laws and cultural ways of Islam. These include things such as crime punishment, politics, economics, war, marriage, sexual relations, diet, hygiene and prayer. This law is what marries Islamic church and state. These laws can be found in two Islamic books: the Quran (a book written by Muhammad by Gabriel's teachings) and the Hadith (a book written by Muhammad's followers).
Muslim: This is an Arab term used for people who "give themselves up to God". Muslim isn't a religion; it's a state of mind. For example, Jesus Christ would have been considered a Muslim, although he didn't follow Islam.
Moslem: This term was used until the 1960s as being interchangeable with the word "Muslim", however today it is seen as very insulting. While a Muslim is "one who gives themselves up to God", a Moslem is one who is "evil and unjust".
Arab: This is somebody from Arabia, which is the area around the Arabian Peninsula. The term "Arab" is similar to the word "Caribbean" as it describes people from a specific area. Arabs have no fixed religion, government or language. There are Arab Jews, Arab Christians, Arab Muslims and Arab Atheists.
The Middle East: This is a term to the area between the West (Europe) and the Far East (Eastern Asia). The Middle East encompasses 18 countries and span three continents. Contrary to popular belief, Afghanistan and Pakistan are not part of the Middle East.
Who Is Muhammad?
To understand Muhammad, we have to understand the world he grew up in. During the 6th Century, Arabia was a mixing pot of religions and cultures. One group that existed at the time were the Hanif, who were the bloodline of the Biblical Ishmael, Isaac's older brother. While Isaac was the favorited son of Abraham because he was responsible for the covenant between Abraham and God, Ishmael was not. One night after "mocking" Isaac, Abraham banished him and his mother into the desert. This brotherly rivalry is what is responsible for the current conflict between the Jews and Muslims.
By this time, Arabia has absorbed Judaism, Christianity and many other religions. Nomadic tribes that once wandered the desert were now forming cities with the largest being the city of Mecca, which held the holy Kaaba; a mosque. Being the largest city in Arabia, Mecca was frequented by many religions, and they all placed their relics in the Kaaba. In total, the Kaaba held 365 idols.
Muhammad was born around the year 570 CE, to the Hanif tribe Banu Hashim in Mecca. By the age of eight, both his mother, father and grandparents would be dead, leaving him an orphan. It is at this time he went to live with his uncle Abu Talib, who was the leader of Banu Hashim.
While being the leader of the tribe, Abu was also in charge of trade throughout the Middle East, and Muhammad traveled with him. While traveling, Muhammad gained the reputation as being a fair, trustworthy businessman. At the age of 25 he received a marriage proposal from Khadijah, a woman 15 years his senior. Muhammad said yes, and they would raise 5 daughters together.
A decade later, the Kaaba in Mecca was under repair and the idols were temporarily removed. As they were being returned, the tribes couldn't decide who should carry their most precious relic, the Black Stone, back inside. As none of the tribes wanted feuds to form over who carried the stone, they decided to wait until somebody neutral walked past and have that person do it. That person was Muhammad. They stopped Muhammad and told him their problem. He listened intently, and offered a solution. He placed a blanket on the ground, put the stone in the middle of the blanket, and had a member from each tribe hold of a piece of the blanket. Together, the tribal men placed the Black Stone inside the Kaaba, uniting them. Today, that stone still sits in the Kaaba and is seen as a holy site for pilgrimaging Muslims.
Five years later, Muhammad had begun taking up habit of going into nearby caves to pray. One night while praying, the Archangel Gabriel appeared before him. Terrified, he fled the cave. While climbing a nearby sand dune to escape, Gabriel appeared before Muhammad again and he froze in his tracks. Gabriel then explained to Muhammad that he was chosen to be a messenger of Allah, and that he had a very important message to deliver to mankind.
Gabriel would come to Muhammad several more times, and Muhammad would write down everything he was told. These messages became the Quran. After several visits from Gabriel, Muhammad was still confused as to what message he was supposed to deliver. Then, as quickly as Gabriel entered his life, the angel was gone, leaving Muhammad confused and worried.
For three years Muhammad would hear nothing from Gabriel, and he began to think Allah and Gabriel had abandoned him, or that he was unworthy as he couldn't understand the message. As despair began to overwhelm him, Gabriel once again appeared, this time with a clear message: Muhammad was to spread the message that there is only one God, Allah, and we are to serve only him.
As Muhammad began to understand the verses revealed to him, he realized Islam was not something new, but was an older, purer religion. Judaism and Christianity had been created with great intentions, but man had corrupted them and ruined them. Islam offered salvation, as it was a fresh start. Soon after, Muhammad became a preacher in Mecca.
While his message wasn't overly radical, many in his audience found it threatening. Mecca had become a pilgrimage site for dozens of different religions, and to claim there was only one god would end the pilgrimages. This would damage the economy, hurt tribal relations and make the jewel of Mecca, the Kaaba, obsolete. The politicians of the city, known as the Quraysh, mocked or criticized Muhammad, but his message continued to spread. Soon, the Quraysh began killing the followers of Islam to send a strict message to Muhammad, because he belonged to the powerful Banu Hashim tribe, he could not be touched.
One night, Muhammad was awoken by Gabriel, who had brought him Buraq, a flying horse. Muhammad mounted the horse and the tree flew to "the furthest mosque", which is believed to be Jerusalem. It was here Muhammad was greeted by past prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus. Then, all seven of them ascended into heaven, and Muhammad found himself face-to-face with Allah. Allah told him what his purpose and message was, and returned Muhammad to earth a changed man.
A year later Banu Hashim's leader, and Muhammad's uncle, Abu Talib died, opening Muhammad up to the prosecution of the Meccans. His wife would die soon after. Knowing he was in danger, as was the message from Allah, Muhammad traveled Arabia looking for a place for his people to live in peace. He finally found it, in an oasis called Yathrib. The people of Yathrib were familiar with monotheism and the Abraham religions, and wanted protection from outside tribes. Muhammad offered that, and so the migration of Islamic followers began.
Once arriving in Yathrib, Muhammad built a city named Medina. To bring the tribes of Yathrib together, Muhammad took many wives, some being as young as 6 or 7. The age of his wives has been somewhat controversial, as Muhammad was over 40 years old at the time. Although he didn't consummate the marriages until his wives were of age (9 to 12), many still criticize him for marrying them to begin with. It's important to remember that both polygamy and young wives were very common at the time. Other biblical characters had multiple wives, such as Abraham (2), Solomon (700, and 300 concubines), and, according to Judaism, even Adam. Another example of a young wife in that time period comes from the Bible, where Mary was 13 but Joseph was said to be over 80.
As Medina grew, an outdoor Islamic temple was built for the Muslims to give worship to Allah. Five times a day the Muslims would bow and pray the direction of Jerusalem. As time passed, Muhammad decided to change this, and since Islam was a new beginning, it would only make sense to bow to where it all started. Although the Meccans had chased out the Muslims, Mecca was still their homeland, so Muhammad changed the direction his people were to bow from Jerusalem to Mecca.
Although the Muslims were welcomed in Medina, they were very poor as they left all their wealth behind. Using verses from the Quran, Muhammad allowed the Muslims to attack caravans coming from Mecca. During the first successful raid, the Muslim began killing the merchants they captured, which was according to Arab tradition. Muhammad immediately put an end to that and stopped the killings of any survivors. He said "whosoever killeth a human being... it shall be as if he had killed all mankind". Muhammad taught Islam would always be a religion of peace, even during war.
Muhammad then planned an attack to the trading post Badr, but the Quraysh learned of this and sent their own army. The Battle of Badr began, and although the Muslims were outnumbered three to one, they defeated the Meccans. This is the first of many of Muhammad's victories over the Meccans, and the military influence of Islam.
Three years after the Battle of Badr, the Quraysh surrendered, claiming Muhammad was speaking the truth and there was only one God. Soon, Muhammad returned to Mecca with an army of 10,000 soldiers. Nobody fought against him as he rode through the city, and nobody stopped him as he walked into the Kaaba. Muhammad, along with his army, then proceeded to destroy all 365 idols, claiming: "the truth has arrived and vanquished falsehood".
It's important to note that Muhammad did this not because the other religions were inferior, but because the Kaaba was a mosque and was tainted by the other gods. In fact, Muhammad taught respect for other religions, as long as they respected his own.
Muhammad taught many things throughout Arabia, such as prohibiting the mockery of another's beliefs, prevention of the destruction of the environment, the safety of the elderly, children and women, and the equality of all races. He taught black people have no power over white people, and white people have no power over black people. The only exception is through religious standing or the good actions. He also taught that men can have up to four wives, but only if they are able to support and love them all equally.
By 632, twenty-two years after his first vision, Muhammad brought peace to Arabia. That year, at the age of 62 or 63, Muhammad died. His final request was for his gold to be given away to his people, as he would have no need for it, and his dying wish was that his grave was not to be turned into a place of worship. Today he is buried in Medina.
What Does Islam Teach?
Many believe Islam teaches violence, war and bloodshed, but this is not true. Much like Judaism and Christianity, the followers of Islam are human, and humanity finds unique ways to interpret the lessons of their teachers. Christianity, for example, was taught the basic rule of "Do unto others as I have done onto you", which means to respect and care for other humans. Yet, Christianity has been known for its Crusades, its Inquisition, and its violent colonization. Islam is no different. It's a religion of peace, with a teacher who taught kindness and tolerance, yet radical followers twisted his words and used the verses of justness for acts of evil.
Muhammad teaches that: "You shall have your religion and I shall have my religion" which is to say we should respect all religions. A Muslim will never change their belief, and they respect that other religions will not change theirs. This seems very strange when we hear on the news of extremists killing non-believers, but it is equally as strange when we see Catholic priests convicted of crimes against children, as Jesus loved all children and said "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven". Religion is pure, but humanity is not.
Another thing Islam teaches is not to force people into converting to their religion. The Quran specifically says "Let be there no compulsion in religion", and "Let those who wish to believe in it do so, and let those who wish to reject it do so." Islam is also against forcing the youth into religious orders, as he says they should not decide this until they are twenty years old. Islam then says that when Judgement Day comes, Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims will be judged according to their own religion, and will have to answer for their own sins, not those of others.
Islam also teaches about us about women's rights. It's best to remember that during the time period Islam was founded, women had no rights at all. While these rights seem universal now, they were radical up until a few hundred years ago. Some of these include the right to own property, the right to their own money, the right to work, the right to practice medicine, and the right to be political leaders. In fact, one of the reasons Muhammad had so many wives was so that other women would feel more comfortable talking to them.
Islam does not teach women should cover themselves with scarves or veils. This is a misconception. This belief is one of all Abrahamic religions, and you can see similar clothing worn by Christian nuns, for example. In fact, from the 13th Century onwards until the 1970s, women were not forced to wear hijabs or burkas. They are an unfortunate modern trend from a bygone era.
Islamic women can also file divorce, something that Christian women couldn't do for almost two millenniums.
When it comes to war, Islam also reaches us about respecting and caring for prisoners of war, the elderly, the children, people with special needs and the environment. These are things that many modern countries struggle with today.
Islam's "Golden Years"
Once Muhammad died, Islam entered what is considered its "golden years". In need of a new ruler, Muhammad's father-in-law Abu Bakr was chosen. This is where a sub-branch of Islam began. The Sunnis believe Abu Bakr should be the first caliph, or Islamic king, but the Shai believe it should have been Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib. Ali would eventually lead Islam as he would be the fourth caliph, but the feud remains nevertheless.
The first four caliphs of Islam are called the "Righteously Guided Caliphs", and they formed the caliphate, or kingdom, of Islam. They used war, trade, religious ideology and their legacy to conquer land from Spain to India. This caliphate would mix with other cultures, and would help with the progression of science, medicine, astrology, chemistry and architecture. They also created the first hospital and the first degree-granting university.
Like all kingdoms, however, the caliphate would fall. It would rule until the 13th Century when the Mongols would appear in Europe, sacking and destroying villages wherever they went. The caliphate lasted longer than most European countries due to its size and southern proximity, but it too feel to the Mongols.
The Ottoman Empire would rebuild out of the ruins of the caliphate in the year 1299 and would rule until the end of World War I. The Ottoman Empire would almost extend as far as the original caliphate, and reach areas as far as modern day Algeria, Somalia and Hungary.
The Ottoman Empire lost land overtime, and was much smaller when the 20th Century began. When World War I ended in 1918, the Ottoman Empire fell under the Treaty of Sèvres and was minimized into a size that was no longer a threat to Europe. Turkey took advantage of the weakened Ottoman Empire, and declared its independence. This, and revolutions within the country, caused the Ottoman Empire to end on March 3rd, 1924, throwing the Middle East into chaos.
The Allies, after having just made peace in Europe, set out to do the same in the Middle East. The British and French then took control and throughout the next twenty years borders were redrawn and countries were recreated. These countries looked good on paper, but did not respect millennium old cultures or feuds.
World War II broke out in 1936, and when it ended parts of the Middle East had to be redrawn again, such as the countries of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Cyprus and Israel, which was a primary Muslim. After the horrors of the Holocaust, the Allies pushed the Muslims out of Israel and brought in a flux of Jewish refugees. This exodus of Muslims into nearby countries is one of the reasons for the conflicts we see today.
The following decades would bring many bloodied wars, both because of Western industrialization and their thirst for cheap oil, and for cultural and religious reasons. Some sections of countries wanted independence, while others wanted to join other countries. At times, countries were even split in half. For the majority, however, the Middle East grew alongside the West in technology, human rights and equality, and Middle Eastern peace was very much a possibility.
This changed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The United States would counter this by starting Operation Cyclone, an operation to funnel money and weapons to the Afghanistan rebels, or mujahideen, who fought against the Soviets. These rebel forces would soon have the name "Al-Qaeda", and Afghanistan would fall into shambles. Once the war was over, Al- Qaeda would slither into nearby countries, killing whoever opposed them.
In the 1990s, violence once again rocked Afghanistan with the insurgence of a militia wanting to overthrow the government. This group was called the Taliban, and wished to enforce strict Sharia law. This, in addition to the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, brought the United States military into Afghanistan and started the Afghanistan War.
The 2010s saw the arrival of the Arab Spring to the Middle East, with many countries rising up and doing away with their old dictators. The Arab Spring's dream was for the people of the Middle East to take back their destiny, but that dream soon turned into a nightmare. Some countries saw a successful transformation, such as Tunisia, while others saw their country turned over to the military such as Egypt and Libya. Many others found themselves in horrendous civil wars.
With the withdrawal of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Taliban militias appear. With money coming in from the United Nations to help with the overthrow the dictatorship of some countries, and these militias appearing in countries that have a very weak government, wealthy terrorist organizations formed, with one being the Islamic State, who wishes to recreate the "Golden Years" of Islam.
Today, if you look at the Middle East, you will see nothing but violence and war. Some might say the Middle East has always been at war, and that Islam is the culprit, but this isn't true. The world has always been at war, and the Middle East is part of the world. While Islam is the prominent religion and can be used as an excuse for violence, the same can be said for Christianity in places like Africa and the Americas. The reality is that the Middle East is going through a transformation, and in an attempt to find itself, the old blood ties have reappeared. Some countries are rising up as significant powers, such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, while others are falling into pandemonium.
As we watch the news and we see violence in the Middle East, we need to remember that Islam, in its core elements, is a religion of peace, equality and prayer. It's a religion that fought for its freedom and is proud of its heritage. Unfortunately, much like how humanity corrupted Judaism and Christianity, humanity has blotted out the purity of Islam. While Islam doesn't always agree with Western customs, neither does Christianity and Judaism. The world is not the way it was 2,000 years ago, and people have changed with it. What we are seeing today in the Islamic world is this change finally taking hold. As we hear about the violence in the Middle East, and we witness the effects of it on our own shores, we can only hope Muhammad's peaceful lessons live on, and his teachings are heard above the gunfire. After all, "…Forgiveness is better." - The Holy Qur'an 5:32
I have never been to the Middle East, so I had to use images from other sites. I hope they do not mind.
Cover image of Medina "20 Mesmerizing Mosqaues That Highlight the Wonders of Islam"
Medina from the inside from "The risk from Saudis on Masjid an-Nabawî"
The Kaaba in Mecca from "Life As I See It Ramadan Special 2014"
The Ottoman Empire from "Is Obama Helping To Recurrent The Ottoman Empire?"
The image of the Quaran is from Quranalyze It
The image of Istanbul from Julie Powell
A big thank you to my sister Krystal Safinuk for proof reading this article. I love you.
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