ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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The World of Islam

With the world’s current focus on the turbulent Middle East, the author discusses its predominant faith.

These past few years, we in the West have heard a good deal more about Islam than we have heard before. We have been concerned with the availability and price of oil coming from the Arab states of the Middle East. We have read of the wars between Iraq and Iran and have gone to war against Iraq. We have heard of hostages being taken by various Islamic groups and our media have reported the railings of some Islamic religious leaders against the Great Satan of the West.

Tumultuous events in the Middle East have focused our view on the Arab world. However, nations with the largest Muslim populations are non-Arabic – Indonesia (145 million), Pakistan (92 million), Bangladesh (90 million), India (90 million), the Soviet Union (50 million) and Turkey (50 million).

Islam is a monotheistic religion with some 800 million adherents concentrated in a belt across the globe extending from Morocco east to the archipelago nation of Indonesia. Migrant populations of Muslims are found in other nations around the world; there are about 2.5 million in the United States, according to the latest census findings.

What is Islam and what do Muslims believe? In the view of the believing Muslim, Islam is understood as part of God’s merciful providence present from all eternity but revealed to humankind through his chosen prophets. Several figures of the Old and New Testaments are honored as prophets by Muslims: Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Job, Solomon, David, Joseph, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus. However, Muslims say, the last of the prophets who sealed God’s covenant with humankind is Mohammed, who lived from c.570 to 632.

Islam did not spring forth as a fully developed religion and way of life; rather, it developed out of the travail and mystery of the life of Mohammed, who was a native of the city of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. He was a businessman, successfully working the caravans from Arabia to Asia Minor. Around the age of 40 this merchant began to receive revelations in the form of a voice and a vision. For 22 years, Mohammed received from God the Qur’an (the Recitation), which was given as the culmination of all previous prophetic revelations. Although given in Arabic, it was addressed to all people and has thus cast Islam as a universalist religion, just as is Christianity (“go and teach all nations.”). Mohammed was the passive receiver of the revelation, the messenger of God who is the seal of the prophets. With Mohammed, according to Muslims, this revelation is closed.

It is of interest that both the Virgin Mary and Jesus receive extensive treatment in the Qur’an, the Virgin being mentioned more than 33 times, while Jesus is esteemed as a prophet. For a brief moment, it is wise for the reader to realize that in the time of Mohammed, the city of Mecca was a commercial and religious center of the western part of the Arabian peninsula. In that region were the ancient polytheistic religions, the Jews of the community of commerce, and the newly-arrived Christians. To the heady theological mix was added the Zoroastrians of Persia (Iran). It is fascinating that from the Ur of Chaldea (Iraq) on the fertile crescent through Mecca and Jerusalem, humanity has been driven with the concept of monotheism.

According to Mohammed, there is only one God, Allah in Arabic. The message of Islam is submission to the will of God, which is the very meaning of the word. Humankind is to recognize the rights of the Creator over his creatures. For the one who submits, who is called a Muslim, there is an eternal reward in Paradise, while for the disbeliever, or infidel (kafir), there is only damnation in Hell.

For the believer it is necessary to profess faith in one God, recognizing Mohammed as his messenger. This is the first of the “five pillars of Islam.” The second is the prayer called salat, said five times daily at appointed hours. The noon prayer on Friday; the weekly holy day of Islam, is held in common, usually in a mosque. In former times a muezzin would climb the minaret of the mosque to call the faithful to prayer. Today, more often, a recording is broadcast from the minaret to summon Muslims, just as recorded carillons boom out from the steeples of churches.

The third pillar is the giving of alms in the form of a tithe in income. This is called zakat. Fasting and abstinence during the lunar month of Ramadan constitutes the fourth pillar of Islam. The final pillar is to make at least one pilgrimage to Mohammed’s native city, Mecca, if it is at all possible. This is called Al-Hajj.

The Qur’an, along with the hadith (sayings and customs of Mohammed), constitutes the basis for the detailed prescriptions which form the way of life in Islam, just as does the Torah and Talmud of Judaism. They deal with matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, criminal prosecution, the care of the poor and unfortunate and numerous other duties and responsibilities having to do with human relationships, both to God and to fellow creatures. Thus, the Qur’an and the hadith constitute the basis of the shari’a, which is the comprehensive guide for personal and social ethics as well as an instruction on how God is to be worshipped.

As with so many of humankind’s efforts to know and understand God and one’s relationship to God, many commentaries have been developed concerning the interpretation and application of shari’a. These are the opinions and writings of schools of jurisprudence called fiqh, which add flexibility to Islam’s ability to adapt to changing times.

In the teaching of Islam, the individual has direct access to God. There is no clergy, priesthood or institutionalized hierarchy as we know it in some western and eastern churches. There is no liturgy, nor are there sacraments in Islam. The spiritual leader, the imam, is a teacher, more like a rabbi than a priest. The muftis are legal authorities in Sunni Islam, as are the mullahs and ayatollahs in Shi’ite Islam.

As in Christianity there are diverse groups within Islam. The vast majority are Sunni, but there are other groups, such as the Shi’ites. The interpretation of the human adventure leads to diversity. Even within the Sunni majority (some 90 percent) four major schools of thought predominate: the Hanafi of the Middle East and India; the Maliki of North, Central and West Africa; the Shafii of East Africa and Southeast Asia; and the Hanbali of Saudi Arabia.

Here in the United States we have seen the genesis of Islam as an ideological framework for resistance against white racism. At various times American Muslims have been known as the Nation of Islam, the American Bilalian Community, the World Community of Islam in the West and the American Muslim Mission.

Islam has engendered a strong sense of belonging to a world community rather than a church or religious sect. Its teachings foster a spirit of brotherhood, rejecting distinctions based on race or ethnicity. Thus, Islam has had a positive appeal to peoples struggling against colonial oppression, which in the present has led to confrontations and tensions between many Muslims and the technologically advanced West. Certainly Muslims find great dissatisfaction with the materialism of the West, as well as communism.

In recent times these tensions have occurred in various parts of the Middle East, where it has been perceived that Western imperialism has exploited ethnic groups, regional or national aspirations. One hears the call for a jihad, or holy war, against the materialistic West. Jihad is not restricted to military combat, but more generally extends to the struggle for righteousness. The struggle may also be that of an individual striving against his faults and weaknesses. Some groups can work toward the establishment of the shari’a as the legal code of an Islamic state.

The separation of political ideology from the beliefs of religion often becomes a very tenuous and difficult task. When do the teachings of peace and justice find harmony with proper political process? When can religion be properly used and when is the role of religion abused? An article of this brevity cannot possibly explore the depth of these questions. Suffice it to say that, as in the past, tensions have existed among the three major monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Extremists on all sides use religion to disguise political movements, or, in some cases, to circumvent due process.

But the astute historian knows that there have been extended periods of peace and prosperity for all concerned when leadership has chosen to take the best of each religious tradition. Extremists, known in the West as “Islamic fundamentalists,” strive to make the shari’a the law of the land, and in doing so raise many questions concerning minority religions.

There must be room for negotiation and compromise. It is in that spirit of understanding that in the publication of the councilar decree, Noster Aetate (Declaration of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, 1965) that the council fathers of the Catholic Church stated, “Although in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, the Council urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all mankind, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom.”

Brother Carroll, the Association’s director of information services, co-chairs the Islamic-Roman Catholic Dialogue of the Archdiocese of New York.

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