The religion of Islam

By M. Cherif Bassiouni , Professor of Law | Jan 24, 2012

The Creator has periodically chosen human beings to reveal His messages to humankind. Indeed, the Qur'an refers to many Prophets such as Abraham, Noah, David, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus. These messages and revelations culminated in Islam and in Muhammed as the last Prophet. The historical evolution and incorporation of prior messages into Islam are clearly stated in the Qur'an. Thus Islam is not a new religion. The Qur'an refers to Islam as the religion of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets. It is simply the last of the divine messages to reach humankind through Prophet Muhammad, who was chosen by the Creator as the bearer of his last and all-encompassing revelation. This explains why there exists a strong link between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Christians and Jews are referred to in the Qur'an as the "People of the Book" because they are the recipients of the messages of the Creator through Moses and the Old Testament prophets and through Jesus, who is believed in Islam to be the fruit of a miracle birth by the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Qur'an

The Qur'an (literally, recitation) contains 114 chapters revealed to the Prophet during a period of 23 years from 609 to 632, the year of his death. The divine revelations were manifested in divine inspiration, which the Prophet sometimes uttered in the presence of his companions. His words were passed on in the oral tradition of his Arabic culture. Some forty years after his death they were transcribed in the written form that has been preserved to date without change. The 114 Suwar (plural of Surah) chapters were revealed to Muhammad in Mecca and Madina. They vary in length. The Qur'an is arranged not in the chronological order of its revelation but according to the length of each Surah. The longest is first, and the shortest last. No one throughout the history of Islam has challenged the accuracy of the Qur'an.

The Arabian peninsula had a long tradition of literary achievement: Prose and poetry of all types were widely cultivated. The original miracle of the Qur'an, however, is its enduring literary achievement. Many people refuse to believe that any human being, particularly an illiterate man, could have produced it. indeed, the belief that the message was revealed by God contributed to the early conversion to Islam of the pagan tribes in the Arabian peninsula. The fact that Prophet Muhammad was a trustworthy person and that his early followers were people whose rectitude was well- established and enduring among the various Arab tribes also contributed to early conversions.

The Qur'an is written in such a way that it evokes profound emotions in the reader. The analogies, maxims, and stories provide imagery of great "psychological moment." full of an elan which imparts an uplifting sense of great destiny in life and lasting fulfillment in heaven. The richness of its form and content invites constant rereading. Moral values are intertwined with history, and the details of daily life are based on a continuum with life in the hereafter. Its topics range from the most specific to the most general and include the past and future, life on earth, and existence of the soul after death. its topics cover all aspects of human interaction as well as relations between man and his Creator. It is, in short, a comprehensive and integrated guide to life.

A man studies a copy of the Qur'an as he sits by a carved column in the Upper Swat village of Bahrain, south of Kalam, Pakistan. (Aramco World Magazine, January-February 1997; photo Luke Powell).

Say, Oh Muslims, we believe in Alllah and that which is revealed unto Abraham and Isma'il and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes and that which Moses and Jesus received and that which the Prophet received from the Lord. We make no distinction between any of them and unto them we have surrendered. (We are Muslims.)
Qur'an 2:136

The Three Fundamental Unities of Islam: God, Humankind, and Religion

Islam is a universal faith for all times, all places, and all peoples. It is predicated on the belief that there is but one God, Allah, the Creator of the universe and of humankind. The Qur'an opens with the words, "In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate." Mercy and compassion are his principal qualities. The relationship which exists between God and His creation is based on one religion. These fundamental unities are the foundation of faith.

The Qur'an refers to the creation of the earth and other celestial bodies out of the darkness of chaos. Scientific theories that hive evolved about the creation highlight the unity of the universe. If God created this unique universe and shaped humankind to inhabit it, it follows that God would also have communicated with humankind through a single religion, even though it be in successive revelations. Islam is the last and most all- encompassing message of God.

If one believes that there is but one humankind which is part of a single universe created by one God, then one believes in an interrelationship among all created things. Religion in this context is a set of rules that regulate the relationship between the Creator and the created and establish the basis of accountability in the hereafter. It also sets forth the framework for permissible economic, social and political systems and formulates the principles and rules through which people should deal with one another. In effect, it provides a variety of prescriptions and guidelines as well as inspiration.

In this respect, Islam is very much a law-oriented religion. It provides the guidelines and principles upon which laws and regulations can be established. The influence of Islam must not be viewed in a narrowly legalistic light but rather as providing a framework which guarantees basic fairness and justice to all.

Islam is holistic, requiring that its followers have iman (faith) to fulfill the requirements of its religious tenets. The Muslim is required to express his Ibada, service to Allah, through his deeds, conduct, and words. The Qur'an enjoins that Muslims do good and abjure evil. Life in this world is a passage, and the eternal soul shall be judged by the Almighty on Judgment Day by intentions as well as by deeds. Reward and punishment shall be meted out in heaven and hell, but Allah is merciful to those who repent and do good. Repentance and mercy are among Islam's great themes.

"Islam is built on five (pillars) testifying that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, performing the prayers, paying the zakat, making the pilgrimage to the House, and fasting in Ramadan."
The Prophet's Hadith

Bearing Witness to the One and Only God (shehada)

Allah in Arabic implies the one and only true God, the beginning and the end of everything, neither born nor giving birth. The Qur'an states that He is beyond human description, but is referred to in the Qur'an by ninety-nine attributes, such as the merciful, the compassionate, the forgiving. Together with the command to bear witness and acknowledge the singularity, centrality, unity, and uniqueness of God, the believer is enjoined to confess that Muhammad is God's messenger and prophet.

Religious Tax (zakat)

Although required by the Qur'an, zakat is specified in detail only in the practice and teachings of the Prophet and in later interpretations. It is the payment of a certain percentage of one's income to support the needy and to fulfill other objectives of the community. While this can be rightly equated to a combination of taxation and charity, zakat is different from sadaqa, charity, which is equally mandated by the Qur'an but left to the discretion of the individual Muslim, depending upon circumstances. Sadaqa is both tangible and intangible a kind word, for example, may be a form of Sadaqa. But Zakat is tangible. It is paid at the end of the Ramadan fast. Non-Muslims, the people of the book (Christians and Jews), are not required to pay Zakat but another tax, called Jizyah.

Fasting during Ramadan (siyam)

Fasting from dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, is required of those whose health permits. (The Islamic lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, thus the annual shift of Ramadan's occurrence in relationship to the Gregorian calendar.) It is a complete fast, requiring that nothing be taken into the body but needed medication. During Ramadan there is an emphasis on piety and religious observances. Those who are ill or traveling do not have to fast during Ramadan but must compensate by fasting and by contributing to the Zakat.

Ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, That ye may (learn) self-restraint,...
Qur'an 2:183

The Pilgrimage (hajj)

The pilgrimage to Mecca once in one's lifetime is required of all those who have the physical and financial ability to make the journey. The practice derives from the divine mandate given Muhammad to rebuild the first temple of worship to God in Mecca. The pilgrimage requirement makes this desert city a gathering place for people from all parts of the world once a year. The rituals of the hajj were established by the Prophet. They emphasize repentance, resulting in forgiveness by God. The practice also strengthens the bond among the faithful from all walks of life and regions of the world. It is performed during the Islamic lunar month of Dhu al-hijja.

Makkah al-Mukarramah—"Makkah the Honored"—was the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad in 570. Within today's city, at the center of the Sacred Mosque is the focal point of Islamic prayer worldwide—the Ka'ba. The 15-meter-high (48'), roughly cubical structure was first built as a place for worship of the one God by Ibrahim (Abraham) and Isma'il (Ishmael), and it is thus a physical reminder of the links between Islam and the dawn of monotheism, between the Qur'an and previous revelations, and between the Prophet Muhammad and earlier Messengers of God. (Aramco World Magazine, January-February 1999; photo Peter Sanders).

And remember Abraham and Isma'il raised the foundations of the House (With this prayer): "Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: For Thou art the All-Hearing, the All-knowing.
Qur'an 2:127

Prayers (salat)

The Qur'an does not state the number and manner of prayers; these were established by the Prophet. The required individual prayers are said five times a day: at dawn, noon (when the sun is at the center of the sky), afternoon (when the sun is halfway to sunset) sunset, and night (after sunset but before sunrise). The only required communal prayer is the Friday noon prayer. Like the Christians' Sunday or the Jews' Sabbath, Muslims consider Friday the last day of Creation.

Prayers can also be communal; that is, in fact, the preferred way. When so conducted, the prayers are led by an im am, who is usually either a person schooled in Islam or simply one among the group who is more knowledgeable, older, or recognized by the others as being especially pious.

Muslims stand shoulder to shoulder and kneel a number of times, depending on whether it is the morning prayer (twice) or the late-night prayer (four times). Standing shoulder to shoulder, irrespective of status in life, symbolizes equality before God. In Islam, as the Prophet said, no man is better than another save for his piety, which only Allah can judge. At each kneeling, the Muslim places his forehead on the ground, a symbol of the equality of all men, humility, worship of the Creator, and the fact that from earth we come and to earth we return. All praying Muslims face Mecca, where the Ka'ba is located. It is the qibla (the direction) which provides unity and uniformity for all Muslims. At an earlier time, it was the practice to face Jerusalem, the second holiest city in Islam. The Ka'ba holds the remnants of Abraham's temple.

In the only European nation with a Muslim majority, Albania's population again throngs to the mosques since the downfall of Communism in 1990. (Aramco World Magazine, July-August 1992; photo Larry Luxner).
The imam does not necessarily have any special religious status in Sunni tradition just because he is the prayer leader However, he could be a person whose schooling or training conferred on him special status, as is the case with the ulema (or scholars, plural of alem). One attains this status after having pursued an extensive education in theology throughout secondary, college, and graduate study at a theological university.

Before prayers, Muslims are required to perform ablutions, which include washing the face, arms, and feet in a ritual prescribed by the Prophet. This is not only for the purposes of cleanliness, but to provide a break from prior activity. Before ablutions and prayers, a Muslim must confirm within himself his intention to pray.

The prayers are usually announced by means of a summons or call to prayer (the adhan) by the muadhin, who chants or intones it. There is no particular religious status conveyed by this responsibility; the muadhin is usually a pious member of the community who has a particularly strong or resonant voice. The call to prayer starts with "Allahu akbar" (God is great), words frequently used by Muslims either in prayers or in other contexts as a reaffirmation of the oneness and omnipotence of the Creator. The expression "al-hamdu lillah" (thanks be to God) is also among the phrases most commonly used by Muslims. They are used in any situation in which a grateful or thankful response is apposite. They are a reminder that God's will and bounty are everything.

The mosque is a symbol of the uncompromising nature of Islamic monotheism. It has a distinctive architecture, which includes a minaret for the call to prayer. It does not contain any images that might be associated with religious idolatry, which Islam forbids. The architecture of mosques built over fourteen centuries in various parts of the Muslim world is an unsurpassed artistic legacy. The floors of mosque are sometimes covered with straw mats or rugs. Muslims remove their shoes before entering so as not to soil the place where they touch their foreheads to the floor to pray.

Let there be no no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And God heareth and knoweth all things.
Qur'an 2:256

"The best of you are those who have the most excellent morals."
The Prophet's Hadith

Read more: