ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Islam: A Way of Life

More than a religion, Islam is an integral part of the Muslim’s daily life.

“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Messenger.” That simple creed, expressed in eight words of Arabic, declares the religious faith of nearly 800 million Muslims. They are a majority in the Arab world. They are found in the Soviet Union, China, Black Africa, India, the Philippines, Eastern Europe and Malaysia. One out of every five human beings is a Muslim.

Islam once engulfed a large portion of Spain and all of Sicily and the Mediterranean islands. Medieval Christendom feared Islam, much as the West today fears Communism. It was driven out of Western Europe only by force of arms. But the Crusades, launched by the West to wrest the holy places of Jerusalem from its grasp, were finally defeated. Only 100 years before the American Revolution, Muslim armies reached Vienna, where they were routed by the forces of the Catholic King of Poland. It was not until the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the first World War that Islam went into decline.

Today, there is a religious re-awakening in Islam, a new sense of identity and self-awareness. The followers of the Prophet are approximately equal in number to Catholics worldwide. Muslim countries of the Near East control the major sources of the world’s oil. Islam is once again on the march.

Few Americans know any Muslims. Fewer still have visited the countries where Islam predominates. And fewer than those know anything about this religion which shapes and controls the lives, economies, politics and cultures of 20% of the world’s population.

How did it all start? Why is this faith so dynamic?

It started with Muhammad, who was born around 570 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. His father died before Muhammad’s birth; his mother died when he was six years old. Muhammad was raised by his grandfather and later by his uncle, who was a merchant.

The uncle took him on various trips, teaching him the arts of buying and selling. During these trips, the young Muhammad met Christians and Jews and learned something of their differing religious beliefs.

About the year 595, Muhammad was in charge of a caravan owned by a rich woman named Kadija. Impressed by the young merchant’s skill, she proposed marriage. Muhammad accepted, although she was 15 years his senior. They had several children, of which only their daughter, Fatimah, survived.

Muhammad was revolted by the degraded paganism of his fellow citizens of Mecca. They worshipped a variety of “gods” as did the earlier Greeks and Romans. The people were heavily taxed. Most of them were loaded with debts that kept them in virtual slavery. The situation was ripe for change.

When he was 40 years old, Muhammad retired to the grotto of Hira, near Mecca, to search for spiritual peace. There he had a vision of a creature who seemed to be “made of light.”

“He told me he was the angel Gabriel,” Muhammad recounts in the Koran, “and that God had sent him to say that I had been chosen as God’s messenger.”

Only his wife, Kadija, a few friends and relatives supported Muhammad’s belief in this revelation. It was the first of a series that would last throughout his life.

Some of these revelations were kept alive in memory. Others were dictated to scribes, for Muhammad could not write. About the year 650, they were assembled into a book called the Koran, which in Arabic means “recitation.” They remain in their original form to this day. The Koran is the sacred scripture of Islam, and Muhammad declared that he had a divine command to proclaim its message.

In Arabic, the word Islam means “submission.” The true believer submits his life to Allah, the Compassionate, the All-knowing, the Strong, the Protector, the All-powerful. These are among the 99 “most beautiful names” of God.

What do Muslims believe? First and foremost, they believe in the one, true God. In this, they agree with the monotheism of Christians and Jews, but reject the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Muhammad denied Christ’s claim to divinity, although he respected Jesus as a great fellow-prophet and recognized His miracles. Muhammad never claimed divinity for himself.

Islam rests upon the “Five Pillars.” The first is profession of faith in Allah, the one God whose messenger is Muhammad. The second is ritual prayer performed five times daily while bowing towards Mecca. This may be done in a mosque or anywhere else, in public or in private.

The third pillar is almsgiving. Muhammad’s early insistence on obligatory generosity to the poor cost him the allegiance of the wealthy merchants of Mecca, who began to oppose his teachings on this account. Tithing is practiced by poor and rich Muslims alike, and is required of governments as well as individuals. Several Islamic states levy an annual tax of 2.5% for the needs of the community. Saudi Arabia distributes 7% of its gross national product annually to less affluent Muslim states. By contrast, U.S. foreign aid in 1978 amounted to only one-third of 1% of our gross national product.

The fourth pillar is fasting and abstinence. Muslims are forbidden to drink any alcoholic beverage, to eat pork or to gamble. The prohibition of alcohol varies from one country to another. In some, alcohol is available in places frequented by tourists, and the local inhabitants are served as well. In others, prohibition is strictly enforced, and those who use or traffic in alcohol may be given 80 lashes if they are convicted.

A strict fast is enjoined during the entire month of Ramadan in the Lunar Calendar followed by Muslims. During that month, from sunup to sundown, the faithful are forbidden to eat, drink, smoke or engage in sexual relations. In strict Muslim countries, Ramadan involves a great social change. Cafes and restaurants are closed all day long. When Ramadan falls in the intense heat of summer, radio and TV exhort the faithful to courage, because it is difficult not to drink water in the hot tropical climate of many Muslim countries.

The fifth pillar is the pilgrimage to “the House of God” in Mecca. Every Muslim who is physically and financially able is required to make this pilgrimage once during his life. This is an essential act of worship for Muslims. It is not an act of optional devotion, like a visit to Lourdes by a Catholic.

The object of the pilgrimage is a visit to the Kaaba, a shrine said to have been built by Adam and reconstructed by Abraham after he found it in ruins. It was at the Kaaba, Muhammad taught, that Abraham was called by God to sacrifice his son. The shrine is now situated in the center of a grand mosque, and also houses the “Black Stone”, which the pilgrims strive to kiss. The numbers making the Hajj, as the pilgrimage is called, increased to 2 million in 1978.

How does one explain the dynamism of Islam? This is a complex question that has no completely satisfactory answer.

When Islam was first introduced to the peasants and nomads of the East, it brought them relief and hope. It did away with the notion that the poor are inferior to the rich. It promoted an ideal of brotherhood, equality, and aid to the needy. In place of numerous taxes, it substituted a single tribute levied on all to support the Caliphate. Thus Islam gave a measure of freedom to people who had long felt oppressed and despised.

Islam is a total way of life. It penetrates and shapes every facet of the everyday life of the faithful. One cannot be Muslim only on their Sabbath, which is Friday, in the way that we know of “Sunday Christians.” Islam is more akin to Medieval Christendom than to contemporary Christianity. Anyone who would desert the faith, if he should escape with his life, is completely ostracized. In an orthodox Muslim country, one who renounced the faith would have to leave.

Islam has spiritual standards and values that make it hostile both to the materialism of the West and to atheistic Communism. There is a great tension between the modernization of Western technological culture and the more simple familial and communitarian society of the Muslim world.

Islam engenders a strong sense of belonging to a world community rather than to a church or a sect. It fosters a spirit of brotherhood and rejects distinctions based on race or ethnic origin. The Black Muslims of the U.S., for example, were not recognized as true believers until they abandoned their policy of admitting only Blacks. Every Muslim feels he belongs to a world-wide brotherhood.

While there is a high level of scholarship in Islam, the faith proclaimed by its missionaries is simple, comprehensible and attractive to the peasants and nomads among whom it flourishes. It brings a sense of dignity and purpose to their lives. It provides answers to the questions of suffering, death and the afterlife. It answers the longing of the heart for God and makes it possible and easy to communicate with Him.

Direct access to God is unquestionably a source of the strength of Islam.

Muhammad was not an intermediary, but a messenger. Thus Muslims do not like to be called Muhammadans. The Imam, the head of the mosque, is a teacher and a guide, not a priest. He is more akin to the Jewish rabbi. While Islam has a liturgy, it has neither priesthood nor sacraments.

Popular speech reflects this awareness of God’s presence. “If God wills it,” “Thanks be to God,” “In the name of God,” are phrases heard on all sides in the world of Islam just as they are among devout Catholics in Ireland and Poland.

Islam gives the faithful a creed, a code and a cult to live by and, if need be, to die for. The Jihad or “Holy War” was practiced by Muhammad, who spread the message by the sword and became the most powerful military leader in the Arabia of his time. Among his notable followers were military giants, like Saladin, who planted the Crescent of Islam by means of force and defeated the Crusaders.

Yet the idea of Jihad is not restricted to military combat. It extends to any struggle for righteousness, whether in the individual striving against his faults and passions or in the community working for a more perfect realization of Shari’a – the legal code which is a composite of the Koran, the explanations of Muhammad and the traditional interpretations of Islamic wisdom.

The attitude of the Church toward Islam has developed and changed over the centuries. Its most contemporary expression was in Vatican Council II:

“Upon the Moslems, …the Church looks with esteem. They adore one God. …Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. The also honor Mary, His virgin mother; at times they call on her, too, with devotion. …Although in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this most sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding.”*

*Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.

Father Donlan is Officer for Public Education of Catholic Relief Services, the overseas aid and development agency of the American Catholic Church.

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