Saturday, November 1, 2008

Islam for beginners

Lecture on Islam- Oct 2008

My talk is in four parts

1. Introduction and prehistory
2. What is the Quran?
3. The life of Mohammed
4. Fundamental Beliefs.

Islam is the third and last of the three Abrahamic Religions. The three religions span a period of around 2600 years but were all focused on the area of the world now known as the Middle East. Abraham is estimated to have lived around 2000 BC, while Moses came 500 years after the birth of Abraham but a considerably shorter time if calculated after his death as he lived to be 175. Jesus came 1500 years after Moses and Mohammed
( SAW) came 600 years after Jesus. It is now almost 1500 years since the death of Mohammed ( SAW).

Although Abraham is acknowledged to be the founder of Monotheism, he in fact did nor start a religion. The reason is that there is no codified book that remains which would explain his religion. It would be unfair to say that Abraham did not start a religion but we certainly do not have people today who could be called followers of his religion. Central in the Quran is the conflict between Abraham and his father, Azar. Azar was an idolater, and Abraham turned away from him, when he could not make his father follow the message of God (

For Islam, Abraham was not the first of the Prophets, Noah and others had preceded him. A Total of 25 prophets have been mentioned in the Quran by name.

The Book of Genesis tells us that Abraham was childless, without hope of children, and that one night God summoned him out of his tent and said to him: “ Look now towards Heaven, and count the stars if thou art able to number them.” And as Abraham gazed up at the stars the voice said: “ so shall thy seed be.”1

At the age of 84, Abraham fathered a son, Ishmael, from Hagar, his second wife and formerly the handmaiden of his first wife Sarah. Thirteen years later Sarah bore him Isaac ….and when he was weaned she told Abraham that Hagar and her son must no longer remain in their household. And Abraham was deeply grieved at this, on account of his love for Ishmael; but again God spoke to him, and told him to follow the counsel of Sarah and not to grieve; and again He promised him that Ishmael should be blessed. Not one but two great nations, were to look back to Abraham as their father- two great nations, that is, two guided powers, two instrument to work the Will of Heaven…2

Moses and Jesus as well as Joseph and Solomon and David were descendents of Isaac while Mohammed, was a descendent of Ishmael. God had fulfilled his promise to Abraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars.

The Quran tells us that God showed him ( Abraham) the exact site, near to the well of Zamzam, upon which he and Ishmael must build a sanctuary; and they were told how it must be built. Its name Ka’bah, cube, is in virtue of it’s shape which is approximately cubic; its four corners are towards the four points of the compass. But the most holy object in that holy place is a celestial stone which it is said was brought by an Angel to Abraham from the nearby hill Abu Qubays, where it had been preserved ever since it had reached the earth .3

Fast forward 2500 years, and the Ka’bah has become a place of pagan worship presided over by the tribe of Quraish. It was populated by Idols and there was an annual pilgrimage to it from various parts of Arabia. The Quraish had become rich from trade and by looking after the holy place of pilgrimage. Mecca had become a thriving mercantile city, but in the aggressive stampede for wealth some of the old tribal values had been lost. Istead of looking after the weaker members of the tribe, as the nomadic code prescribed the Quraish were now intent on making money at the expense of some of the tribe’s poorer family groupings, or clans.4

Not unlike Capitalism today, the Shaikhs of the Quraish had become far more interested in maintaining the apparatus of trade than in caring for the dispossessed. 5

Mohammed belonged to a clan of the tribe of Quraish. He was an orphan and had not been educated and was illiterate. He was how ever well known for being an honest and devout person, who frequently went to mount Hira to meditate.

The Quran

In one of his visits to Hira, Mohammed had a frightening experience. There came to him an angel in the form of a man, who squeezed him very firmly and asked him to recite. Even as Mohammed protested that he could not recite, the angel squeezed him hard three times and demanded that he recite. On the third occasion, the Angel said,

Recite in the name of thy Lord who created!
He created man from a clot of blood,
Recite; and thy Lord is the most Bountiful,
He who had taught by the pen,
Taught man what he knew not, 6

This was the first revelation to Mohammed ( SAW) one of many that were to follow which would eventually be codified into what we know today as the Quran. The Quran was revealed in its entirety over a period of 23 years in the form of verses and guidance to Mohammed ( SAW) and was memorized by followers as it was revealed. In this way it is today in it’s original form unlike the other Religious books, which were not codified until much later and many of which have several versions. The Quran continues in it’s original version and is therefore revered by Muslims as the direct Word of God as revealed to Mohammed ( SAW). People may argue about how to interpret the words, but the words cannot be debated. Since it was revealed in Arabic, the only other point of contention can be relating to it’s translation into another language and whether it loses any sense in the translation.

From time immemorial we have evidence of God directly communicating with chosen humans in order to guide them as to the origin and purpose of creation. There is clearly a plan that God has. Creation is not an accident, man is not without purpose. Evil and temptation are deliberate forces that man is intended to battle. When he fails to do this and becomes unjust and exploitative, God first warns him through chosen prophets and then destroys civilizations that are too embedded in bad ways to be able to reform themselves.

The Quran is the only document which is available in it’s original form that records God’s conversation with His prophet in all it’s detail. In order to understand the context of these revelations one must also know the background and history of these revelations. The Quran needs to be read with Historical Commentaries including legitimate Hadith. Hadith are the conversations between Mohammed and his followers when they sought clarifications from him about the meaning of various verses. The Quran is full of Symbols, metaphors and parables, which means that it’s words cannot always be taken literally.

According to Muslim belief, the Quran is the last guidance that mankind will receive from God, it is final and for all times. There will be no updates or upgrades. The challenge to Muslims is therefore to be able to seek guidance from the Quran for contemporary issues.

Islam has no formal clergy or theological hierarchy to guide it and therefore it becomes incumbent upon every Muslim to read the Quran , understand it and be guided by it.

The Quran says, "This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt,"1. for those who fear Allah.2. Who believe in the Unseen,3. are steadfast in prayer,4. and spend out of what We have provided for them;5. And who believe in the Revelation sent to thee, and sent before thy time,6. and (in their hearts) have the assurance of the Hereafter. 7

Mohammed ( SAW)
Mohammed’s rise, from an illiterate orphan of a relatively unimportant tribe in lowly Arabia in terms of world hierarchy to the most influential person in the world is underestimated today amongst any but Muslims. Prophet hood did not start for Mohammed until the Angel Gabriel appeared to him and at that time he was already 40 years old. He died at the age of 63 and within 23 years had transformed the world for ever. At last count Islam had 1.2 billion followers and was the fastest growing religion in the world.

For the first two years after the encounter on Mount Hira, Mohammed limited his preaching’s to friends and family. He did not exactly jump at the responsibility placed on him. He suffered from doubts about the meaning of his experience and was not sure about how he could deal with the awesome responsibility being placed on him. Unlike Moses, he was not an insider with the powerful of his Society.

In this respect he was right. The moment he went public with his message, there was not only resistance but personal abuse, the setting up of road blocks and attempted assassinations. Originally, the Quraish regarded him as a nuisance but as more and more people started heeding his message they became very alarmed and wanted to put a stop to his activities by eliminating him if necessary. The time came when Mohammed had to flee Mecca with his followers or risk getting killed. The Meccan period however lasted 13 years and in this period God revealed to Mohammed the spirit of Islam. The Meccan verses are all spiritual while the Medina verses have more to do with guidance on setting up a state with laws on Inheritance, marriage, Women’s rights, dealing with non Muslims, dietary restrictions, taxation and other economic matters, rules of engagement with the enemy, a judicial system etc.

Mohammed was different from his predecessor prophets in that in the last 10 years of his prophet hood, he was required to form and run a nation state. He left behind therefore a template of proper governance. Islam evolved from being a Religion to a way of life. All through this process God was by his side, guiding him and sometimes reprimanding him. Mohammed was an ordinary human being like any other. Unlike Moses or Jesus, he was not required to perform miracles. His task was not only to bring about social justice but hold up the Quran as a text which would provide guidance to coming generations on Social Justice.

Islam believes ingoing to war in self defense. He fought two battles with the Quraish. The first one( The battle of Badr). in which he was hopelessly outnumbered, resulted in a crushing victory for him. The second one ( the Battle of Uhud) , when he was in a much stronger position resulted in a stalemate. His biggest victory was how ever on the diplomatic front. The treaty of Hudaybia, which was regarded by his followers as too conciliatory ultimately turned itself in to the means by which the Quresh ended up accepting him as their leader. I will not cover details of the two battles or the treaty of Hudaybia in the interest of time but these events are worth studying as a critical part of the story of Mohammed.


The fundamentals beliefs of Islam are as follows;

1.The oneness of God, and ascribing no partners to Him
2. Life after death and Accountability
3.Accountability, reward and punishment
4. Balancing worldliness and spirituality
5.Social Justice
6. Belief in all the prophets preceding Mohammed and the revelations sent to them.
7.Neccessary Rituals

1.The oneness of God, and ascribing no partners to Him

Allah forgiveth not ( the sin of) joining other gods with Him;
but He forgiveth whome He pleaseth other sins….

Surah Al Nisa 4/116

The first lesson is that before me and before every one there was GOD and after everything there will be God. He is the creator and to Him we will all return. So before reading the Quran, before dealing with any issue we must develop the right attitude, get into the right spirit, feel the humbleness of who we are and who we must look to for the right result.

“ Islam began by freeing the human conscience from servitude to any one except that of Allah and from submission to any save Him. There is no supreme authority anywhere except that of Allah nor can any other grant life or death. None save He can supply provision of anything in earth or heaven, nor can there be any mediator or power, and all others are subject to Him, without ownership either of themselves or of others.” 8

2. Life after death and Accountability

The Quran repeatedly reminds us that we were once a mere clot of blood and that we will one day be dust. Not only that but that we will be held accountable for what we did in the “appointed time” that was allotted to us. If we do not forget this, we will be in a better frame of mind to deal with the issues which have to be dealt with in any case. We will then deal with them in a spirit of humility and generosity.

All our lives we deal with issues. Issues of survival, food, shelter, clothing. Issues of emotions, like love, revenge, friendship. Intellectual issues like women’s rights, freedom, discrimination. These issues are all consuming and we get caught up in them and forget, forget where we came from and where we are going.

The Quran is emphatic that we should not be in any doubt about the final meeting with our creator. For Muslims, it is one of the cardinal principles. The concept of self accountability flows from it and is very powerful.Sura Ali Imran Verse 4/ 185 ( translation Abdullah Yusuf Ali )“Every soul shall have a taste of death: Verse 4/185“ taste of death” is a vivid description suggesting that death is simply an event in our journey and certainly not a permanent event. And only on the Day of Judgment shall you be paid your full recompense.Only he who is saved Far from the fire and admitted to the Garden will have attainedthe object (of Life).

3.Accountability, reward and punishmentThere should also be no doubt about the punishment for falling prey to the temptations of this world.[Naba 78:21] Indeed hell is lying in ambush.[Naba 78:22] The destination of the rebellious.
The reckoning will be fair and every detail of our acts will be available.[Zilzal 99:7] So whoever does a good deed equal to the weight of the minutest particle, will see it.[Zilzal 99:8] And whoever does an evil deed equal to the weight of the minutest particle, will see it. At the end of the game, there is no judge. The results can almost be automatically calculated. The system is very precise. Our deeds are all documented. Our bodies will bear testimony. In no other system is there a method of self accountability such as the one above.

If any do deeds of righteousness-
Be they male or female-
And have faith,
They will enter Heaven,
And not the least injustice
Will be done to them.
(Al Nisa 4/124)

4. Balancing worldliness and spirituality

For the life of this world is but goods and chattels of deception. “ goods and chattels of deception “, suggests that you could become so enamored with the life of this world that you begin to deny that there could be anything better.

This verse is not intended to discourage humans from worldliness but to warn them from losing perspective. It is possible to become drunk with worldly success. It is possible to gauge success and failure in material terms.. When we see some one materially successful or unsuccessful we tend to assume that the path they took is worth following or avoiding.

God has a measure of success which is not material and He warns mankind not to lose sight of the measure that He will employ.

For the human soul, the life of this world will present many temptations. Material belongings, desires that satisfy the ego, accumulation of wealth and influence, all have the power to make a human being lose focus on the object of life.

5.Social Justice

Islam believes in wealth creation, free enterprise, ownership of property but also strongly advocates support for the economically challenged. The concept of Zakat places responsibility on the individual rather than the state for a certain redistribution of wealth. Zakat is separate from taxes and intended to help the really needy. Charity and zakat are so important in Islam that I will go into the details of Zakat.
There is an assumption is Islam that those who have wealth and power have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that they share their wealth with those less fortunate. A 2.5% voluntary but compulsory tax is applicable to all who have the means.

Those who have a claim on Zakat are;

1. The poor or those whose income does not permit them to enjoy the bare essentials of life.
2. The destitute or those who possess nothing at all.
3. Converts to Islam who need to get established and stand on their own feet.
4. Slaves, in order that they may get their freedom and set themselves up.
5. Those who are indebted because of their poverty.
6.For work to be done to improve the lot of the community.
7.The refugee. The wayfarer or traveler who is away from home or has been made homeless by others.
8. The orphan and those that take care of the orphan.

Zakat is the minimum standard of wealth redistribution. If the practice of Zakat does not alleviate economic hardship, then both the wealthy and the more fortunate and the Government must find the means to fill the gap.
Islam disapproved of the existence of class distinction where some live on a standard of luxury and others on a standard of hardship. 9

6. Belief in all the prophets preceding Mohmmed and all that was revealed to them.

"The Messenger believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the men of faith. Each one of them believes in God, His angels, His books, and His Messengers. They say: 'We make no distinction between one and another of His Messengers.' And they say: 'We hear, and we obey. We seek Thy forgiveness, Our Lord, and to Thee is the end of all journeys.'" (Al-Baqarah, 2:285)

There is great emphasis in Islam about the continuity that Islam represents with the other two religions. The so called Judeo Christian tradition excludes Islam and Islam was strongly resisted by the Christians in their Crusades against it. It was seen by the Church as being a threat to Christiandom.

7.Neccessary Rituals

Muslims are obligated to pursue certain acts which are called the five pillars of Islam. These are;
1. Belief in One God and the message conveyed through Mohammed.
2. Performing prayers 5 times a day,
3. The Giving of Zakat, charity for the poor and needy.
4. Performing Hadj once in a life time,
5. Observance of fasting during the month of Ramdhan,

If there was just the observance of these pillars, a Muslim would not pass the test of goodness. The form is the means to an end. The practice of the form is intended to create the spirit within you, to be virtuous.
“ It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces toward East or West; but it is righteousness to believe in Allah and the Last Day and the Angels and the Book and the Messengers; to spend of your substance out of love for Him for your kin for orphans for the needy for the wayfarer for those who ask and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient in pain (or suffering) and adversity and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth the Allah-fearing.” ( 2/177)

1. Martin Ling, Muhammed
2. Martin Ling, Muhammed
3. Martin Ling, Muhammed
4. Raza Aslan,
5. Raza Aslan, No God but God.
6. Quran, Surah al Iqra.
7. Quran, Surah Al Baqara.
8. Sayyid Qutb, Social Justice in Islam.
9. Sayyid Qutb, Social Justice in Islam

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