An Overview of Islam (Part 1)
Written by John Macleod
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Reformed Worldviews - Islam

A secular outsider might be concerned primarily to look at Islam in terms of its history, political influence, sociological distinctives or ethnic origins. Clearly, whilst all those aspects of Islam are important, we have a much greater interest in its religious, theological and evangelistic implications. To cover such a vast subject in the detail required is impossible in the space allotted, so I propose to approach the subject at a very simple level and to address, for the benefit of those who have perhaps given the matter little previous study, three simple questions:

Do we know what we’re dealing with in Islam?

Do we understand why it matters?

Have we a God-honouring strategy to address the situation?


What is it? In a nutshell, Islam is a religion which originated with the teachings of Mohammed, a 7th-century Arab religious and political figure. Now, the very name Islam gives us an essential clue to the nature of the religion, because Islam means ‘submission’, or total surrender. Those who follow Islam claim that as Muslims they’re people who have totally surrendered themselves to what they understand to be God.

Where do their beliefs come from? Mohammedans (as we would traditionally call them) or Muslims (as they’d call themselves) do not think of Mohammed (or Muhammad) as having founded their religion but think of him as having been responsible for purifying and restoring a faith stretching back to Abraham and indeed to Adam, but which they imagine to have been distorted by Judaism and Christianity. They believe that God revealed the Qur'an to Muhammad whom they see as God's final prophet, and they regard the Qur'an and the Sunnah (words and deeds of Muhammad) as the basic sources of Islam.

What do they actually believe?

i. About God ? They believe that there is only one God. The Arabic term for God is Allah. The term possibly comes from a contraction of the words al- (the) and 'ilah (deity, masculine form), meaning ‘the God’ (al-ilah). In traditional Islamic theology, God is beyond all comprehension. Mohammedans are not expected to imagine God in any visual form but to worship and adore him as a protector. As you know, although they believe that Jesus was a prophet, they reject entirely the doctrine of the Trinity, which they think of as a form of polytheism. In Islamic thinking, Jesus is a mere man and not the son of God.

ii.        About the Koran? The word Qur'an means ‘recitation’. When they speak about ‘the Qur'an’, they’re not usually talking about the printed book at all, but rather Arabic recitations of it. They reckon that translations are only as commentaries on the Qur'an, or ‘interpretations of its meaning’, not as the Qur'an itself. The Qur'an is divided into 114 suras, or chapters, which combined, contain over 6000 poetic verses. The chronologically-later chapters discuss mainly social and moral issues relevant to the Muslim community. They regard the Qur'an as the source of Islamic principles and values.

iii. About angels?  Belief in angels is absolutely central. The Arabic word for Angels (malak) means ‘messenger’, cf Hebrew (malakh) and Greek (angelos). In Mohammedan thinking angels are perfectly obedient servants of God, communicating revelations from God, glorifying God, recording every person's actions, and taking a person's soul at the time of death. They also believe them to be intercessors on man's behalf.

iv. About the Day of Judgment? The Day of Judgment is something that figures large in their thinking. The Qur'an lists several sins that can allegedly condemn a person to hell, such as disbelief, usury and dishonesty. Muslims view paradise (jannah) as a place of joy and bliss, in terms of physical pleasures to come in the broader context of an ecstatic awareness of God.

v. About Predestination? Here we find a difference between the Shi’a and the Sunni groupings. The Shi'as talk about ‘divine justice’ (Adalah) and stress the importance of man's responsibility for his own actions but, in contrast, the Sunni play down the rôle of individual free will in the context of divine creation of all things and divine foreknowledge of all things.

vi. About the State? In theory Mohammedans make no distinction between ‘matters of church’ and ‘matters of state’. In practice, Mohammedan rulers have historically frequently bypassed the Sharia courts with a parallel system of what were sometimes called ‘Grievance courts’ under their own control and some Mohammedan countries like Turkey are officially secular states.

vii. About the rule of Law? Sharia (which means literally, ‘the path leading to the watering place’) is traditional Islamic law and is regarded as a system of duties that are binding on every Muslim. It covers every aspect of life, from foreign relations to prayer. Some of the matters it covers are not dealt with in detail in the Qur’an itself, so various Islamic scholars have built on their own interpretations in each area of law, based on the Qur’an, the actions and sayings of Mohammed, the general view of legal experts and reason.

viii. About Jihad? Jihad means ‘to strive’ or ‘to struggle’, especially in spiritual terms. Mohammedans think of Jihad as war against the devil, on behalf of Islam. Jihad is the only form of warfare permissible under Islamic law, and the ultimate aim is to establish the universal domination of Islam. For most Shi’as, offensive jihad can be declared only by a divinely appointed leader of the (Mohammedan) community, and as such can’t be engaged in without such a leader. Many Shi’as also make a distinction between the ‘greater jihad’ (jihad al-akbar), which has to do with spiritual self-perfection, and the ‘lesser jihad’ (jihad al-asghar), defined as warfare.

ix. Family life? Islam regards the family as the basic unit of society and defines very tightly the rights and duties of family members. The father is held to be financially responsible for his family. The division of any estate is specified in the Qur'an, which requires that most of it must go to the immediate family. A female's share of inheritance is usually half of what a male would get. Marriage involves the groom paying a dowry (mahr) to the bride, and there’s a formal contract to that effect. A man can have up to four wives but a woman can marry only one man. Divorce is usually very easy and sometimes at the whim of the husband. There is considerable variation in the extent to which it’s believed that women should be isolated from the wider society.

What do they practise? Islam includes a range of religious practices, but followers are generally required to observe specified duties that unite followers of Islam into a community. Islamic law (sharia) has developed a tradition of rulings that touch on virtually all aspects of life and society from practical matters like dietary laws and banking to warfare.

Are they all the same? The two major groupings among Mohammedans – Sunni and Shi'a – date back to the 7th century and came about because of disagreements over the religious and political leadership of the community. Roughly 85% of Mohammedans are Sunni and 15% are Shi'a. There are important differences in belief and thinking and practice between the Sunni Mohammedans and the Shi’a ones. The Five Pillars of Islam are five practices essential to Sunni Islam. Shi'a Muslims subscribe to eight ritual practices which substantially overlap with the Five Pillars. They are:

* The shahadah, which is the basic creed or tenet of Islam: ‘I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God'.

* Salah, or ritual prayer, which must be performed five times a day. (However, the Shi'a are permitted to run together the noon with the afternoon prayers, and the evening with the night prayers). Each salah is done facing towards the Kaaba in Mecca. Salah is intended to focus the mind on the deity, and is seen as a personal communication with him that expresses gratitude and worship. Salah is compulsory but flexibility in the specifics is allowed depending on circumstances. In many Islamic countries, reminders or calls to prayer are broadcast publicly from local mosques at the appropriate times. The so-called ‘prayers’ are recited in the Arabic language, and consist of repeating verses from the Qur'an.

* Zakat, or alms-giving. This involves giving in relation to one’s assets and is obligatory. A fixed percentage is spent to help the poor or needy and to help propagate Islam. The zakat is not considered to be charity but rather a religious obligation on the well-off because their wealth is seen as a trust. They are also expected to give further amounts as voluntary donations and Shi'ites are expected to pay an additional amount in the form of a khums tax at 20% which goes into the hands of the Imams.

* Sawm, or fasting during the month of Ramadan. Muslims must not eat or drink (among other things) from dawn to dusk during this month, and must be mindful of other sins. The fast is supposed to encourage a feeling of nearness to Allah, and during it Mohammedans are expected to express their gratitude and dependence on him, atone for their past sins, and think of the needy. Sawm is not obligatory for people for whom it would constitute an undue burden. For others, flexibility is allowed depending on circumstances, but missed fasts usually must be made up quickly.

* The Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca. Every able-bodied individual who can afford it must make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. It is a very ritualistic activity – when the pilgrim is about six miles from Mecca, he must dress in two white seamless sheets. The pilgrim must walk seven times around the Kaaba, touching the Black Stone, run seven times between Mount Safa and Mount Marwah, and symbolically stone the devil.

In addition to the khums tax, Shi'a Muslims consider three additional practices essential to the religion of Islam. The first is jihad, which is also important to the Sunni, but not considered a pillar. The second is the requirement to live a virtuous life and to encourage others to do the same. The third is to refrain from vice and from evil actions and to also encourage others to do the same.

What’s their background? Within 100 years of Mohammed's time a Mohammedan empire covered an area from Central Asia to the Atlantic Ocean, but there was a lot of discord within it. Even so, the spread continued into several parts of Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. A dispute over leadership led to the split between the Sunnis and the Shi’as, so that division is almost as old as the religion. From very early on there was a distinctly racist streak in Mohammedan thinking and non-Arabs who converted to Mohammedanism weren’t treated as being on a par with Arabs.

Supporters of Islam sometimes think of the period from 750 to 1258 as being the Golden Age of Islam with their empire centred on Baghdad. But central control got weaker and weaker, although the total area controlled by Islam expanded, stretching across North Africa and up into Europe.

From the 9th century on, the territory that they’d conquered in Europe began to be reclaimed from them. Their hold on Spain was loosened and they lost their Italian possessions.

From the 11th Century there were constant struggles with the Crusaders but generals such as Saladin had remarkable success, recapturing Jerusalem during the Second Crusade. That whole era came to an end with the Battle of Baghdad in 1258, when the Mohammedans were overrun by the Mongol Empire and indeed just before that they’d lost control in Egypt to slave-soldiers by the name of Mamluks in 1250.

Baghdad had fallen – but that didn’t mean the end of Mohammedanism. Far from it. In the 13th and 14th centuries the Ottoman empire went on the rampage with a string of aggressive conquests which included the Balkans, and parts of Greece. In 1453 they captured Constantinople. They captured Egypt in 1517, and then launched a European campaign which got as far as Vienna in 1529.

At the same time a rather different Shi'ite dynasty assumed control in Persia and established Shi'a Islam as the official religion there and there were other Islamic dynasties ruling over many areas right down into the Indian sub-continent, such as the Mogul (Mughal) emperors, though in India they were somewhat syncretistic in their religious practices.

Things began to fall apart in the Ottoman empire – in the 19th Century, Greece and several of the Balkan states got their independence; at the end of World War1 the Ottoman empire came to an end. Since then Mohammedan society has been politically and religiously somewhat fragmented.

Some of their groupings see Western ideas and culture as a threat. In countries like Iran and Afghanistan (with the Taliban), revolutionary movements created Islamic states. Groups like al-Qaeda have engaged in international terrorism in an attempt to bring about the establishment of global Islamic power. Some other Mohammedan groupings would try to reconcile their religion with the idea of secular governments and human rights in the way that they’d be understood in the Western world.

How many of them are there? Estimates vary widely, but in round terms we could talk about 1,000,000,000. There are perhaps 40 countries where they are in the majority. About 20% of them are Arabs. About 300,000,000 of them are in the Indian sub-continent. In Europe there are about 30,000,000 of them, perhaps 2.5% of the total number.

Rev. John Macleod is the pastor of the Tarbat Free Church of Scotland Continuing, in Portmahomack, Scotland, UK.   This article was previously printed in the Free Church Witness and is republished here with permission.