Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Muslim Creed, Part 1

It is in fact impossible to explain the Islamic religion in a way most Westerners would understand. The Arabic word for religion is din, which is better translated as ‘submission to law and order’, as opposed to gahl (un­discipl­­ined).[1] Din refers not only to the individual’s belief, but also to a way of living in a very specific manner, according to strict rules laid out by the Koran and suppl­e­mented by trad­itions.

Islam is essentially a layman’s religion with no pope or other undisputed high­­est authority, no ordained priesthood, no hierarchy and no sacraments. The individual Muslim is allowed to form his own opinion on his religious beliefs, as long as he does not criticise the orthodox belief to any major extent, that is beyond the hudud (the sacred limits). Although there are many theological differ­ences (for example between Sunnis and Shiites) there are several fundamental bel­iefs which every Muslim accepts.

The Muslim belief is a collection of various frag­ments of express­ion, made by Muhammed or found in the Koran. In the narrow­est sense, the Muslim central belief would be the shahada, the confession of ‘Allah’s’ unity and Muhammed’s Prophethood, which is the first pillar of faith in Islam. An unbel­iever can convert to Islam by reciting this simple phrase in the presence of two Musl­ims: “I confess that there is no god but ‘Allah’ and Muhammed is the messenger of Allah” (‘la ilaha illa allah; Muh­ammed­on rasul Allah). However, to remain a Muslim he also has to accept the other four pillars of Sunni Islam, and combined they are known as ibadah or ‘holy serf­dom’.

The ibadah was first required by Muhammed during his exile in Medina. The Muslim community (umma) had grown to become a large body of believers, which also included hypocrites, who had embraced Islam for political or economic reasons. Muhammed, and later his most pious followers, used the ibadah to separ­ate the faith­ful from the hypocrites and purify the community. It consists of the five ‘pillars’ of Islam: the shahada, ritual prayers (salat), payments of the poor-tax (zakat), fasting the entire month of Ramadan between sunrise and sunset each day (sayam) and pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime (hajj), if one can afford it. In add­ition to those five, many Muslim scholars have added the compulsion to wage a jihad. Yet these five (six) pillars are only the basic oblig­ations of every Muslim.


[1] Bravmann, The Spiritual Background, 34-36.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What is Islam? Part III.

The concept ‘islam’ has its antagonistic term in Islamic theology. That is the shirk, which theological meaning is to associate ‘Allah’ with another gods. To describe a term such as shirk one has to cover a wide range of explan­ations and theological commentaries.
The core of the Muslim understanding of shirk is the condemnation of anyone who commits such an atrocity, which ‘Allah’ could never forgive.

According to the Koran, ‘Allah’ is one and no other god can be associated with him. This concept was most likely adopted from the South Arabian moon-god ar-Rahman (the Merciful), whose name was later adopted by Muslims as one of ‘Allah’s’ titles. C. C. Torrey states:

The South Arabian inscriptions have brought to light a highly interesting parall­el. In a number of them there is mention of the God, who is styled ‘the Rah­man’ (Merciful). A monument in the British Museum... is espec­ially remark­able. Here we find clearly indicated the doctrines of the divine forgive­ness of sins, the acceptance of sacrifice, the contrast between this world and the next, and the evil of ‘associating’ other deities with the Rahman.[1]

The theological concept of shirk, however, goes beyond the simple denial of ‘Allah’s’ unity. It can also be a superficial piety of Muslims who fulfil their prayer oblig­ation due to peer pressure, force of habit, or some other hypocritical reason. How­ever, there exist two relevant concepts called ‘lesser shirk’ (al-shirk al-asghar) and ‘hidden shirk’ (al-shirk al-khafiy), in the depths of the human’s soul.[2]

Shirk can be almost any­thing if consider­ed in this per­spect­ive. Indeed, Ibn Ishaq tells us about the erection of Medina’s first mosque, when Muhammed worked side-by-side with his followers. One of the Muslim rhymed, “If we sat down while the prophet worked — it could be said that we had shirked.”[3] However, shirk seems to be applied, in the contemporary Musl­im theology, almost exclusively to the original meaning of the word —the association of other gods with ‘Allah’.

Muhammed probably committed this interpretation of shirk when he assumingly associated three Arabian goddesses with ‘Allah’, which is called the ‘affair of the Satanic verses’. Muhammed’s troubles had started when Abu Jahl, one of his most fierce adversaries in Mecca, came to him and demanded that he would stop cursing their gods. Although Muhammed hated polytheism, he had a great respect for the Kaaba, the Meccan place of idol worship, and, at this stage, could not afford to invoke any further hostility. Thus he declared:

Do not revile the idols which they invoke besides Allah, lest in their ignorance they revile Allah with rancour. Thus have We made the actions of all men seem pleasing to themselves. To their Lord they shall return, and We will declare to them all that they have done.[4]

According to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammed then refrained from cursing the Meccan idols, but called them all by the same name, ’Allah’.[5] Muhammed had now merged all the 300-some idols at the Kaaba into the city’s chief deity, calling all of them by the same name.

Thus Islam is the religion of ‘oneness’ as opposite to shirk, which literally means to ‘join together’ or ‘participate’. That implies, that there is no other true religion, and to Islam all men should surrender in submission, in order not to commit shirk and become zindiqs (those who reject ‘Allah’s’ oneness) kafirs (infidels, lit. unbelievers; kufr=unbelief) or mulids (atheists). The Muslim author Fatima Mernissi discuss­es these terms and, after having declared the opposition of islam and shirk, states:

Shirk is the most appropriate word for translating the word “freedom” in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, which is posed as an ideal to be attained. “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this includes freedom to change his religion...”[6]

Thus, if shirk, as the opposite term for islam, stands for freedom of thought, conscience and religion, it is not surprising that Islam has had some problems with facing the Western way of thought, with its democracy and varieties of ‘freedoms’.


[1] Charles Cutler Torrey, The Jewish Foundation of Islam (New York, 1933), 55.
[2] Goldziher, Introduction, 42.
[3] Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, 228.
[4] The Koran 6:108.
[5] Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, 162.
[6] Fatima Mernissi, Islam and Democracy. Fear of the Modern World (London, 1993), 87.