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Wraps up our world in ribbons of faith
Article on Islam
Alastair Sawday, Guide to Morocco, 2003 Edition

Each day as the dawn light ripples around the world, it awakens a continuous chant of morning prayer from the thirteen hundred million Muslim believers that are spread over our globe. For the last 1400 years there has not been so much as a second, let alone a minute, when this community is not offering up praise to the divinity. The public call to prayer that echoes out from the minarets of all the great mosques of Islam is like a circular beacon that wraps up our world in ribbons of faith.

However, it would be unwise to imagine that worldwide Islam, which includes the Brazilians of West African descent, the Uighurs of Chinese Central Asia, Malay villagers, the highlanders of the Yemen, the Moors of Ceylon, the Asian Muslim community within South Africa, the citizens of Turkey’s secular republic, the well-healed Persian expatriate community in California or the converted followers of a Sufi sheikh in Britain could ever be viewed as members of a single culture.

However, what these Muslims share is much more important that any common material culture, language or social customs. It is the animating glow of faith. Islam is quite literally a matter of trust, a complete submission to the infinite power and knowledge of a God who is known to be ever merciful and compassionate and who loathes injustice and oppression of the weak. This knowledge of an all-powerful but intimately present God (who is ‘closer to you than your jugular vein’) has been preached to mankind through many hundreds, if not thousands of historical prophets before it was articulated by the Prophet Muhammad in 6th century Arabia.

Muhammad was proud to be numbered in the long line of prophets which stretches back through the Jewish, Christian and Arab traditions to include Issa (Jesus), Yahya (John the Baptist), Sulaiman (King Solomon), Daoud (King David), Musa (Moses), Harun (Aaron) as well Yunus (Jonah), Noah, Abraham (Ibrahim), Abraham’s son Ishmael and our first parents Adam and Eve. The testaments of all these prophets of God, most noticeably the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels, are honoured by a true Muslim athough they also believe that the Koran (also spelled Qoran or Qur’an) is the definitive revelation which supersedes all others.

I recently saw this summarised by the shelving labels of a Muslim bookshop which stocked copies of the, ‘The Old Testament’ and ‘The New Testament’ and ‘The Living Testament’.

In his own life, the Prophet Muhammad’s tolerance of the different patterns of belief amongst the Jews and Christians of Arabia is revealed when he answered some theological quibble with, ‘Will you dispute with us about God? When he is our Lord and your Lord! We have our words and you have your words but we are sincerely his’. This must still remain the answer to any inter-faith dialogue, not with the triumph of one belief or the emergence of some well-worded compromise, but the life-long struggle of a believer to fully understand their own faith tradition. We might also wish to take comfort from Sura 5, verse 82 that declares, “And you will find the closest of them in love to the believers are those who say, ‘We are Christians” and Sura 42, verse 15, “There is no argument between us and you. God will bring us together, for the journey is to Him.”

There are six basic principles that define a Muslim.

  • 1 - The first and most important is the belief in the absolute oneness of God, the unitary nature of the divinity that allows for no pantheon of saints, demigods or divine consorts and children.
  • 2 - Second is the understanding that Muhammad, though just a mortal man like any one of us, is the messenger of God. In his own words, “I too am a man like you” who declared that he had no supernatural powers and that the only miracle He is the seal of the prophets, the last to be granted a divine revelation before the end of the world.
  • 3- The third principle is that the Koran is the word of God dictated to Muhammad through the archangel Gabriel. The 114 different chapters (sura) and 6,236 component verses of the Koran were delivered over a twenty-two year period. The first revelation came upon Muhammad as a forty-year-old merchant of Mecca (and father of four daughters) in 610, the last was delivered in the final year of his life, in Medina in 632 AD. The various sayings, traditions and recorded actions from the life of the Prophet constitute a secondary body of inspirational literature, usually known as the Hadith. It is important to realise that this great body can only be used to better understand the Koran – and must never be allowed to supplant it. Nor should any Muslim set themselves up to be an arbiter of Gods word and raise one verse above another. The Koran has to be absorbed in all its dazzling diversity of verses – or not at all. The much quoted verse of the sword, sura 4, 89 “if they turn back, seize them and slay them wherever you find them, and do no take any of them as friends and helpers” must be balanced by 129 seperate exhortations to peace.
  • 4 - The fourth principle is belief in angelic presences on this earth and that Satan (Shaitan or Iblis) and his demons who tempt us to sin are fallen angels.
  • 5 - The fifth principle is an acceptance that sin exists and that mortals can actively choose between doing good or evil.
  • 6 - The sixth principle is the existence of a final judgement and the division of mankind between heaven and a hell.

    Souls are believed to remain in the grave until the great day of judgement when even your limbs will be free to testify against you and a balance made between your sins and good deeds. Though even the most virtuous will have to rely on God’s mercy and be forced to cross over the mouth of Hell (jahannam) on a fiery bridge as narrow as the edge of a sword. The Hell beneath this bridge is visualised as a vast fiery pit made up of seven ever-deeper terraces of progressive damnation each guarded by gates. However, there are verses that seem to promise ultimate redemption when even Satan will be forgiven by the overflowing mercy of God. Heaven is imagined as a reverse of Hell, a pyramid of shaded garden terraces filled with rivers of sweet water, milk, wine and honey though elsewhere the Prophet declared, ‘What is paradise? It is what eye hath not seen, nor the ear heard, nor ever flashed across the mind of Man’.

    The essential duties of a Muslim are set out in the five pillars of Islam.

  • 1 - The initial profession of faith: ‘There is no divinity but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet (Ila ilaha ill’Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah) is known as the shahada (the testimony)’. It is made at the time of your entry to Islam and henceforth repeated at the end of each of the daily prayers.
  • 2- The second pillar is the practice of daily prayer. In the lifetime of the Prophet public prayers seems to have occurred at dusk (the start of the Muslim day), just before dawn and at noon, times of the day which any believer could calculate for themselves without the intervention of any priesthood. Later this practice was extended to five times a day, so that Maghreb is held four minutes after sunset, Esha when it is quite dark, Sobh Fejr at dawn, Duhe at noon and Asr at the end of the siesta hour - halfway between noon and sunset.
  • 3 - The third pillar is that of almsgiving, providing for the less fortunate in society, the sick, the old, orphans and travellers with food, gifts and shelter. This would later be codified in an annual tax, a tithe of the harvest or a fortieth of your portable wealth, which allowed for centralised care on behalf of the whole community.
  • 4 - The fourth pillar is the annual fast during the ninth lunar month of the Muslim year at Ramadan when the entire Muslim community abstains from food, drink, sex and smoking during the daylight hours. It allows the community, whatever their wealth, to share deprivation and taste absolute poverty. It is also a time of all night prayer sessions and public readings of the Koran mixed up with a carnival-like atmosphere at dusk when the daily fast ends.
  • 5 - The fifth pillar is the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca for all who are strong and wealthy enough to perform it. This can only be made in the twelth lunar month of the Muslim year, the Dhu al-Hijjah, and involves five days of proscribed duties such as the Day of Standing (wukuf) beside the Hill of Arafat, the stoning of Satan and culminates in the Day of Sacrifice (commemorating Abrahams willingness to offer up his son Ishmael to God) which is celebrated by the worldwide community of Islam. The meat is shared and most of it given to the poor.

    For a true Muslim can always be recognized by their relationship to poverty. For not only will a sincere believer help all those that are disadvantaged in society; the sick, ill, the outsider, the poor and the old, they also recognize that material poverty is a gift from God that can allow a true believer a clearer vision away from the corrupting distractions of this world. The Prophet Muhammad loathed the pride of the rich and the powerful and defined this sin as ‘What is pride? Holding another man in contempt.’ On other occasions he declared that ‘poverty is my pride’ and prayed to God, ‘O Lord keep me alive a poor man, and let me die poor; and raise me amongst the poor’.

    In conclusion, whether we are Atheists, Agnostics, Christians, Jews, Buddhists or Hindus, there are five great distinctions from the teaching and example of true Islam that I believe we can all applaud as both an advance in spiritual understanding and an advance in humanity.

  • 1 – the honouring of poverty
  • 2 – the universality of prophecy
  • 3 – the complete spiritual equality of the sexes and races
  • 4 – the simplicity and lack of any mediating priestcraft
  • 5 – personal responsibility for moral choice.

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