The Harmony Project

by Peter Occhiogrosso

Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves.

Islam is a great spiritual tradition that has much more in common with Judaism and Christianity than most Westerners realize. Among other things, Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews (Allah is Arabic for “the God”) and revere many of the same patriarchs and prophets, including Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jacob, John the Baptist, and Jesus and his mother, Mary, whom Islam holds in special regard. Indeed, Islam counts Abraham as its patriarch, as well as the father of the Arab people, and so all three traditions are called “Abrahamic.” Muslims view their religion accordingly as the third and final installment in the scriptural revelation that began with the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels of the New Testament. They believe that the Qur'an was sent by God to the Prophet Muhammad to correct misconceptions that had crept into the previous religions. Even the Muslim conception of God who is present in history, and who intervenes to shape the course of events is also at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity.

And yet few non-Muslims are aware of the close historical and theological ties among these three monotheistic traditions, or are conversant with even the most basic teachings and principles of Islam. As a result, misconceptions abound not only about Islam but also about the more than one billion Muslims throughout the world who practice this religion. As an example, Islam is no longer primarily the Middle Eastern religion it is perceived to be, since only about 20 percent of the world's Muslims live in the Middle East or are Arabs; the majority are found in Indonesia and South Asia. There are now about seven million Muslims living in the U.S.--roughly the same as the number of American Jews and somewhat more than either Presbyterians or Episcopalians. Because of the political conflict that has set the Middle East against Europe and America, and because of the militant actions of certain Muslim extremists, some Westerners view Islam as a warlike religion-a view that is completely at odds with the basic tenets of Islam, and even with the word “Islam” itself, which in Arabic can mean both “surrender” and “peace.”

In the Qur'an, which Muslims believe consists entirely of the word of God, as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, Allah plainly announces the concept of a continuum of revelation. Speaking in Arabic, He uses both the first and third person, and sometimes, as in this passage, the royal plural:

We have sent revelations to you (Muhammad) as We sent revelations to Noah and the prophets (who came) after him; and we sent revelations to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob, and their offspring... and to Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and to David we gave the Book of Psalms... Then in their train we sent our apostles, and succeeding them Jesus, son of Mary, and gave him the Gospel, and put into the hearts of his followers compassion and kindness.

Muslims believe that God revealed the same message anew to successive prophets with the aim of reforming a wandering humanity, but that each message was gradually distorted by the people who received it. Muhammad saw himself in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, and the revelation that he conveyed does include elements that would sound familiar to most Christians: the Last Day, the Resurrection of the Dead, Final Judgment, the rewards of Paradise and the punishments of Hell, and the Second Coming of Jesus. Muhammad himself proclaimed that the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is “the highest of the women of the people of Paradise,” and the Qur'an affirms the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus.

Islam was born in what is now Saudi Arabia about 600 years after the death of Jesus, in a culture that was lagging behind other parts of the world financially and socially. Tribal warfare, blood feuds, and vendettas made life unstable, especially for anyone who lacked the support of a powerful clan, or extended family. Because of the harsh desert climate, the Arabs had been unable to generate the agricultural abundance that could produce wealth and allow it to progress economically and culturally. When Muhammad was born, idolatry, drunkenness, and the harsh treatment of women, orphans, and the poor threatened to undermine Arabian society.

The Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad over a period of 22 years, and apart from its already familiar doctrine of monotheism, it also laid the foundation for a religion that initiated important social reforms. Some scholars believe that Muhammad was as much a social reformer as a mystic and theologian, and perhaps more so. The Qur'an makes frequent reference to zakat, the requirement to give a fixed portion of one's annual income to the poor, and this became a cornerstone of Islam, along with a special concern for the unprotected, especially orphans and women, who would have difficulty surviving in a tribal society. Addressing the horrendous treatment of women in Arab culture at the time, Muhammad forbade female infanticide and the prostitution of slave-women, and introduced the right of women to inherit a half-share of their father's estate, whereas before they got nothing. He insisted that married couples have reciprocal duties and rights, and that women should be educated, and limited the number of wives a man may lawfully have to four (although he himself had more). In practice, Muhammad gave something close to equal status to women in the first Muslim community and drew great strength from his first wife, Khadija, during the time he first began receiving his revelation and implementing the basic principles of Islam. (The fact that his treatment of women was not carried on with the same generosity by his followers makes Islam vulnerable to some of the same criticisms as Christianity, because Christ's followers have not always practiced his radical teachings on nonviolence and compassion for others.)

The Five Pillars of Islam

Among other things, Allah revealed to Muhammad what are now known as the Five Pillars of Islam, which every true Muslim must follow. They can be briefly summarized as:

Saying the profession of unity (tashahhud): “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” This is the keystone of Islamic belief.

The five-times-daily prayer (salat), performed just before dawn, just after noon, in midafternoon, just after sunset, and after nightfall.

The compulsory annual charity (zakat), traditionally one-fortieth of a person's income and distinct from the duty of giving alms on a spot basis to those in need. Muslim tradition insists that one should never refuse a beggar.

The fast from before sunrise to sunset each day for the full lunar month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar (sawm). Because Muslims follow a lunar calendar, Ramadan moves by 11 days each year, and when it falls during the long summer days it can be a challenging spiritual practice.

The Hajj, or pilgrimage to the Kaba in Mecca, which is expected of every healthy and solvent adult at least once in a lifetime.

Islam is a supremely practical religion that has never embraced celibacy or even a priestly class. The imams who lead Friday prayers at the mosque are generally drawn from the local population, although they are expected to have a thorough knowledge of Islamic law and tradition. Moreover, Islam has no central religious leader equivalent to the Pope or the Dalai Lama to give the definitive ruling on points of religious law or moral action. Those are defined by Muslim scholars based on the Qur'an and the example of Muhammad's life as contained in traditions known as hadith. Together these sources make up what is known as Sharia, the Holy Law of Islam, which is subject to interpretation by legal scholars. But as with Christianity and Judaism, scholars don't agree on every aspect of Islamic law. And like those other two faiths, interpretations range from extremely conservative (as with Saudi Arabia and the Taliban) to extremely secularized (as in Turkey).

The Life of the Prophet

Muslims revere Abraham as the father of the Arab people through Ishmael, the son born to him by his wife Sarah's Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar. According to the Hebrew Bible, Hagar and Ishmael were forced to leave Abraham after Sarah finally bore him a son of her own, although the Lord did promise Hagar that her son, too, would be the father of a great people. They settled in the Becca Valley, near Mecca in modern-day Saudi Arabia, and according to Muslim tradition Ishmael later rebuilt the Kaba, the black, cube-shaped monument that was a center of worship long before Muhammad was born. Today the Kaba is the focus of the annual Hajj, in which millions of Muslims participate from all over the world.

Muhammad is believed to have been born around the year 571. His father, Abdallah, died before Muhammad was born, and his mother, Amina, died when he was only six. The boy was taken into the family of his grandfather Abd al-Muttalib, and when he, too, died, Muhammad's Uncle Abu Talib became his guardian. From then until the time of his first marriage at age 25, Muhammad worked the caravans and discussed spiritual beliefs with the Christian monks and gnostic Jewish practitioners who lived in desert caves and remote communities along the caravan routes. Unlettered but gifted with a retentive memory, he learned much about Jewish and Christian scripture and beliefs.

At 25, Muhammad married a wealthy 40-year-old merchant named Khadija, and for the next 15 years managed her caravans and estate. At that time in Arabia, monotheism was one of several belief systems, although not as popular with most desert Arabs as the worship of idols. The Kaba, decorated with hundreds of such idols, was also an important center of pilgrimage and commerce. Muhammad probably already believed in the one God when he began to have visions in his sleep and sought solitude in a cave in Mount Hira. He was about 40 when, in the month of Ramadan, an angel appeared to him in human form in the cave and commanded, “Recite!” Muhammad replied, “I am not a reciter,” perhaps meaning that he could not read, but the angel embraced him and repeated the command three times until he recited as told. As he fled the cave in awe, Muhammad heard a voice telling him, “You are the Messenger of Allah, and I am Gabriel.”

As the revelations continued, the angel Gabriel showed Muhammad the ritual ablution with water before worship and the prayer postures that are now part of Muslim practice: standing, inclining, prostrating, sitting. Ramadan was already the traditional Arabic month of retreat, but with divine guidance Muhammad instituted the practice of fasting from before sunrise to sunset. Although the new beliefs caught on among Muhammad's immediate family and a circle of friends, many of the members of his own clan opposed his new teaching, fearing it would discourage other Arabs from visiting the Kaba and might reduce their wealth. Sentiments against Muhammad and his radical teachings ran so high that his life was in danger and he was forced to flee Mecca. He took refuge in an oasis to the north now known as Medina, where his teachings were accepted openly and he was able to gather his forces and repel the anti-Muslim Arabs. (His flight from Mecca, known in Arabic as the hijra, took place in the year 622 of the Christian calendar, which subsequently became the year 1 of the Muslim calendar.)

During the years of warfare ensued, many lives were lost on both sides, but Muhammad emerged victorious and returned to capture Mecca with virtually no bloodshed. Instead of following the Arab custom of slaughtering the defeated parties, Muhammad spared them, and this act of compassion led many to convert to Islam immediately. Following Muhammad's death in 632, Islam began to be spread beyond Arabia. During the seventh and eighth centuries, Muslim armies took the new religion and its culture west across North Africa as far as Spain, and east across Iran and Iraq to India, and, in later years, as far as the Malayan archipelago.

Islam in the Wider World

During the Middle Ages, as Western and Northern Europe struggled to recover from the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Islam often led the way in science and medicine, and Muslim scholars preserved and translated the works of Greek philosophers. Sufism blossomed as a profound mystical tradition within Islam, generating its own great mystics, including poets such as Rumi and Kabir. But after dominating much of the civilized world for more than a thousand years, Islam began to decline in military power, wealth, and cultural significance.

The West was evolving a new technology and a new market system based on investment capital that would gradually replace the old agrarian way of life. Over a period of more than three centuries, these developments helped to create an ever greater reliance on democratic and increasingly secular government to help capitalism and industrialism grow. Aided by advances in science and industrial technology, the West soon outstripped Muslim culture. By the middle of the 18th century, European cultural powers had begun to displace or colonize Muslim countries, beginning with the British in India and the Middle East and the French in North Africa. As the colonizers sought to develop only those aspects of these nations that would serve their own economic interests, they left the Muslim countries weakened and less able to develop the industrial and financial infrastructure of their own that they would need to compete in the modern marketplace. Muslim religious restrictions on lending money at interest have further complicated their ability to catch up with the West.

Scholars such as Bernard Lewis have argued that the reversal of fortune of so many Middle Eastern nations--from being part of a dominant culture to being in the shadow of the Christian West--has left Muslims with a profound sense of shock and resentment. This feeling of exploitation, magnified by revulsion at the West's blatantly secular culture, has fueled Muslim rage. The presence of autocratic rulers and a vast gulf between the oil-rich royal families of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and their impoverished populations have also fueled the growth of Muslim fundamentalism. Alongside the more visible war being waged by a network of extremists against the U.S. and other Western powers, Islam is also engaged in a struggle within itself over how to adapt to modern cultural realities without losing its spiritual identity. Many Muslim political leaders who were reluctant to support the American-led assault on Afghanistan, or to lump their condemnation of the Sept. 11 attacks with a condemnation of Palestinian violence, have to contend with large internal fundamentalist movements that could threaten the stability of their own governments. Especially in the Middle East, Muslim governments vary from monarchy to republic to theocratic republic; apart from Turkey, none of the nations has anything resembling a Western democracy. Of course, a genuinely Western-style democracy might not fit precisely with the Muslim understanding of law, since for Islam, absolute authority must reside not in the public but in God. Yet Islam also was founded on the basis of respect for all individuals within society, including the disadvantaged, and Islamic law does admit some freedom of interpretation and consensus. There would seem to be a viable middle path between absolute theocratic rule--or monarchy or dictatorship—at one end of the spectrum, and all-out secular democracy at the other end.

One positive result of this ongoing internal conflict has been the emergence of moderate voices within Islam pushing for long-overdue political and religious reforms. This is especially true among Muslims living in the West, including many feminist Muslim women, who had previously been reluctant to publicly question the reactionary trend. Many orthodox Muslim authorities in the Middle East did speak out forcefully against the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, pointing out that Muhammad, who won victory for Islam principally through non-violence, had explicitly forbidden the murder of civilians or even the destruction of property during war. They have emphasized the Qur'an's statement that in matters of religion, there can never be any compulsion. And yet the Arab street seems to have accepted the use of violence in preserving Islam against Western and Jewish interests, leaving opinion divided.

The Third Way

Solutions to this political-religious dilemma have been hard to come by, yet one of the most promising has been promoted by a Muslim scholar. Farid Esack, a prominent South African Muslim educated in Pakistan and Great Britain, has called for a return to what he labels “Islam's third way.” Esack says that Muslims often look to the life of Muhammad to determine whether certain behaviors were sanctioned by the Prophet or by early Muslims. But, he acknowledges, Muslims face a problem in that they have only two theological precedents on which to base their lives: One is the paradigm of a community of oppressed people in Mecca, during the time that Muhammad and his followers were under attack by Arabs opposed to the new religion. And the other is of the Muslim community that took control in Medina, the city where Muhammad fled to build his following in relative safety. What Muslims today don't have, Esack admits, is a model for coexisting peacefully with other religions in a situation of true equality.

But there is a third way, according to Esack, which he calls the “Abyssinian paradigm.” He refers to the time when Muhammad sent a group of his followers from Mecca to dwell in Abyssinia, a Christian kingdom to the south, where they lived peacefully for many years--and from which some did not return, even after Muslims were in power in Mecca. “They did not make any attempts to turn Abyssinia into an Islamic state,” Esack concludes. “They sent good reports back about the king under whom they were living, and how happy they were living there. This is the third paradigm that Muslims today more than ever need to revive because it is crucial for the sake of human survival and coexistence. Until recently the notion of coexistence and cultural tolerance was pretty controversial for mainstream Islamic thinkers, but I was surprised at a recent Muslim conference to hear more and more people talking about the need to revive this Abyssinian paradigm.”

Although, from a Muslim perspective, Islamic beliefs and customs do not need to be defended or explained, non-Muslims find much about the culture perplexing; Western women feel especially threatened by Islamic customs such as veiling and polygamy. And yet there is much to recommend Islam--moderate, tolerant Islam--to the forward-looking Western consciousness. For one thing, Islam is a full-time religion that requires one to focus explicitly on the Divine at least five different times during the day. Its prayer forms are physical--perhaps not as elaborate and health-conscious as yoga or qigong, but they do require standing, kneeling, and prostrating oneself in a way that involves the entire body in worship. These attributes are similar to those that many Westerners, disenchanted with the relatively mechanistic, once-a-week worship of their birth religions, find attractive in, say, Buddhist mindfulness practice, Hindu mantra, or the Eastern Orthodox prayer of the heart. And the Sufi tradition--which bares much the same relationship to orthodox Islam as mystical Christianity does to mainstream Catholicism or Protestantism--offers even more profound levels of practice to deepen one's experience of Islam. Finally, Islam values compassion for the less fortunate, incorporated into Muslim law as well as custom and tradition, in a way that should recommend it to a Western sensibility.

However Islam continues to be viewed by the West, and however successful Muslim moderates are in changing from within Islam's attitudes to the West, one thing is certain. As Islam continues to be the fastest growing religion in the world, non-Muslims will need to establish and maintain an ongoing dialogue with Muslims throughout the world.

The two meanings that its name conveys in Arabic: “surrender” (to God) and “peace.” For although Islam was born in battle in the deserts of Arabia, it has a long tradition of peace and accommodation with Judaism and Christianity, the two religions with which Islam has the most in common

Indeed, in the Qur'an, Allah (whose name in Arabic means simply “the God”) identifies Himself as the same divinity who revealed Himself to the Jews and the Christians, whom Muslims still refer to as the “people of the book,” because they too had received scripture from God.

Peter is the author of The Joy of Sects and lives and works in Woodstock, NY.

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