Islam is the religion of the allegiance to God and to his prophet Muhammad. It is believed by followers to be the religion that God always intended for his creation, but which is derived in its present form from the prophetic ministry of Muhammad (c.570-632 AD), and from the revelation mediated through him, the Qur’an, or Koran. The verbal noun islam appears eight times in the Qur’an, and is derived from the identical Semitic root as the Hebrew shalom (peace). It means entering into a condition of peace and security with God, through allegiance and surrender to him.
Historically, Islam began in the quest of Muhammad to find the absolute truth of God in midst of the many conflicting claims concerning the nature of God which he encountered in his environment. Muhammad questioned; if Jews (Judaism), Christians, Meccan idol-worshippers and others claimed to be worshipping God, then it is God that they must be worshipping, if so, then how could so many conflicts in their claims arise? Influenced by earlier monotheists who adhered to the religion of Abraham Muhammad began spending periods of increasing isolation in which he strived at finding the truth. At first, in a cave on Mount Hira, he felt an overwhelming sense of reality pressing upon him, and the first utterances which later became the Qur’an were spoken through him. Allah derived the insistence which is characteristic of Islam; if God is indeed God, then there can be only what God is, the One who is the source of all creation and the disposer of all events and lives within. Thus, the life of Muhammad and the message of the Qur’an became the working out and application of this fundamental vision: all people (currently divided from each other as they are) should become a single community, umma, and every action and every aspect of life should become an act of witness that “there is no God but God… Muhammad is his messenger.”
There are latter affirmations which compose the basic witness, al Shahada, that form the first of the Five Pillars of Islam, which together give form and structure to all Muslim lives. Muslim life and belief are derived directly from the Qur’an, but since the Qur’an does not directly deal with every issue or question which Muslims might wish to ask, authoritative guidance is derived also from the traditions, hadith, concerning the words, deeds, and silences of Muhammad and his companions; they were, in effect, a living commentary on the Qur’an leaving a wide scope for application and interpretation. There emerged major schools of interpretation, which developed interpretative methods as well as drawing up law-codes that governed Muslim life.
At Muhammad’s death no provision had been made for selecting his successor to lead the new community, although Muhammad had asked, during his final illness, Abu Bakr to lead the prayers, salat, in his place.
There were two major forms of leadership in the Arabian communities at that time: one looked for a person of high qualities in time of crisis, and gave him allegiance for the duration of the crisis; on that basis, when Muhammad died, there was no succession problem, because the tribes simply with their allegiance and reverted to their old ways; however, those who had grasped the message of giving allegiance, islam, to God immediately pursued them and brought them back into the fold (so that the first event in Muslin history is the War of Apostasy, al Ridda); those who thought that way adopted the first form of leadership and chose Abu Bakr as their leader, known as caliph or khalifa. But there was also the second and more normal form of leadership, which was more concerned with the running of daily life in a community, and which was hereditary: the obvious candidate for those thinking this way should have been, the model, Muhammad’s son-in-law, and nearest surviving relative Ali. Although there were four immediate successors before the final split, the strains were too great, and the party of Ali broke away from those claiming to be following the custom (sunna) of the Prophet, therefore creating a divide between the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims which still currently exists.
Islam spread very rapidly during the hundred years following Muhammad’s death; it reached the Atlantic in one direction to the borders of China in the other. The relative simplicity of its requirements accounts for millions accepting it. At one stage, during the ninth through the thirteenth centuries, the Muslim delight in creation led it to a passionate commitment to knowledge which in turn led muslims into spectacular achievement philosophy falsafa) and natural sciences, not only rescuing the Greek foundations that were in danger of being lost forever, but making advances of their own. The advancement of such knowledge into Christian Europe had repercussions.
The first reaction was the growing suspicion that perhaps the achievements of the human mind were taking priority over the revelation from God, and that philosophy was subjecting God to that final judgment which was prerogative alone to exercise. Thus the Muslim educational and philosophical advancements were short-lived.
The second important reaction was the reinforcement of the Muslim lifestyle and devotion which is known as Sufism. Sufism is an interior attachment to God in love and worship which is said to be seen in the person’s exterior life. Sufism may, to many, seem to be more than a traditional faith, and it is this appearance which has attracted many, if not most, Muslims to some degree of membership. A.G.H.
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