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.