The Great Religions By Which Men Live
Floyd H. Ross and Tynette Hills
19. MOHAMMED SPEAKS FOR ALLAH
Five times a day, devout Moslems everywhere turn their faces toward a small city in Saudi Arabia. Kneeling upon a prayer rug, they pray facing Mecca. Often they use a prayer they call the Fatihah which do they as well know as the Lord’s Prayer is to Christians:
These millions of people are following the Moslem ritual of prayer, laid down some fourteen centuries ago by Mohammed. This is one of the ways in which they show that they agree with what he told his people. Allah, God, is the first reality of their lives. Devoted Moslems can repeat from the Koran sincerely: "Verily, my prayers, and my devotion, and my life, and my death, belong to God."
Many years have passed since Mohammed lived, instructing his followers in what God required of them. But Moslems follow as closely as they can the commands of the Koran, convinced that it contains exactly what Mohammed said. They believe that what he had to say in the sixth century still provides suitable answers to their modern questions. What is God like? What am I? What is my responsibility to God? What will happen after I die? What is the right way to live?
In the darkness of one night in the year 611 A.D., a man of Mecca was keeping a lonely vigil of prayer and meditation in a cave in Mount Hira, just outside the city. Those who knew him well would not have been surprised, for he often retired to this cave for the solitude one needs for deep thought. But this one night -- known by Moslems ever after as the "Night of Power and Excellence" -- was to bring to Mohammed a new experience.
Suddenly he was aroused from his thoughts by an amazing vision. The angel Gabriel appeared, speaking God’s command that Mohammed must call his people to the warship of Allah, the one God of all the world. Overwhelmed, Mohammed spoke of his inability to do such work. In answer, Gabriel repeated the commandment of Allah twice more. Mohammed fled from the cave to the mountain peak, trying to see if the night air would make the strange experience fade away. Even here, he heard a voice, which told him that he was the Prophet of God.
Confused and afraid, Mohammed rushed home to tell his wife, Khadijah, what had happened. Could he be losing his mind? Khadijah reassured him, comforted him, and encouraged him to rest until he was calm again. She thought over the things he told her about that night. She added them to what she knew of her husband’s life. And, quietly, she began to believe that the vision was true.
MOHAMMED, THE RESPECTIVE CITIZEN
Khadijah had long believed that her husband was an unusual man. Since the early days of their acquaintance, when Mohammed’s uncle, Ahu Talib, had recommended him to her as a caravan leader, she had respected his judgment and his character. He had accomplished his duties with success, and respect had developed into a mutual affection. They had married, although she had been a wealthy widow of forty and he only twenty-five. Their marriage of fifteen years had been a happy one, despite the deaths of their two infant sons; Mohammed was devoted to her and to their four daughters.
Khadijah knew that the men of Mohammed’s tribe, the Korcish, agreed with her high estimate of her husband. They knew him as a thoughtful person, given to long periods of silence. They had come to respect him for this, and they often asked his advice when they needed an unprejudiced opinion. He had seemed always slightly different from the people who knew him, from his days as an orphaned child until now. Even as a shepherd boy for his uncle, watching the sheep in the vast and empty spaces of the desert, he had pondered the eternal questions of life and death. When his marriage had released him from the necessity of working, he had begun to take those questions out to the cave for lengthy meditation.
Khadijah, especially, knew the extent of Mohammed’s dissatisfaction with what he saw of the lives of his people as he watched them in their dealings with each other. He had seen innumerable tribal conflicts in which the opposing parties hid their own selfish interests under labels of religion and honor. He had seen them as they traded and celebrated near Mecca, especially during the seasonal fairs, drinking, gambling, and dancing. He had even seen other Arabian fathers bury unwanted infant daughters alive, following a widespread custom. he had watched his people become so absorbed in petty tribal interest that they were unaware of the dangers from aggressive foreign countries.
Most carefully, he had observed their worship at the Ka’aba, the religious shrine in Mecca. Twice a year, the pilgrims came from all over Arabia to offer prayers and gifts to images of their three hundred sixty gods, one for every day of the Arabian year. The square stone building, the Ka’aba, still exists and still shelters the Black Stone, believed to have fallen from Paradise. Arabian legends told how Abraham and Ishman had built the Ka’aba, putting the Black Stone (a meteorite) into its corner. Mohammed had watched the pilgrims there and in the marketplace in Mecca, where they could buy small idols to take home with them.
What he had seen of Arabian religion had left him full of questions and doubts. He had contrasted Meccan worship with his memories from caravan trips to other lands and with what he had learned from Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian visitors to Mecca. What of the Zoroastrian beliefs in a Day of Judgment and the punishment of sinners? Most Arabs lived without regard to where their lives were taking them. What of the sacred books of the Christians and the Jews, which told of revelations God had made to prophets? The Arabs had no revelations to help them.
They had never had a prophet. What of the single God that other peoples worshiped? Arabs gave homage to three hundred sixty gods. Mohammed had pondered these differences for a long time.
THE UNPOPULAR PROPHET
As Khadijah remembered all these things, she was sure that Mohammed’s vision had to be true. From the first, even before Mohammed himself was fully convinced, she believed that her husband was God’s chosen prophet. Her unwavering belief helped him to believe in himself. Soon other visions came to him, giving more details of his mission for Allah. For three years he waited and meditated and spoke of Allah quietly only to relatives and close friends. At the end of that period he had gathered about him a small circle of just thirty followers. The time was ripe for more active work.
Soon he was speaking to small groups of people in the marketplace, in the streets, and in the Ka’aba. He told them that they must give up the worship of their many gods and goddesses and follow the will of Allah, the one God of all the world. If they did not do so, they would suffer dreadful punishments after the Day of Judgment. At first the people listened curiously, for this was a man they knew and respected. When Mohammed continued in his strange sermons, they began to laugh and mock. That they should abandon their old ways of worship was unthinkable. Had not their fathers and their fathers’ fathers worshiped in the same way? The gods and goddesses whose images were in the Ka’aba had always looked after them. Their old rituals and customs were familiar and comfortable. What did they know of Mohammed’s one God?
Some of the tribe began to doubt his sanity, and others became uneasy at his derision of the worship of the idols in the Ka’aba. They made their living by caring for the needs of the pilgrims who came to Mecca for worship. If people did what Mohammed asked, the source of their income would disappear.
Despite growing objection, Mohammed persisted in telling what Allah had revealed to him. He warned his hearers to listen well, for these were the final revelations that God would make to men. Before all things were created, there was a book in Heaven, which contained all truth, Mohammed told them. Part of what the book contained had been revealed to Jews and to Christians through their prophets, including Jesus. But the biggest part of it was being revealed to Mohammed.
Finally the Koreish could stand it no longer. They refused to listen. They began to disrupt his preaching and persecute his converts. They tried every means to discourage him from his task. Since they would no longer listen, he began to talk to strangers in town for trade or pilgrimage. The Koreish warned travelers about him, but their warnings only served to whet the travelers’ curiosity. Visitors carried home stories of this strange preacher, who spoke in defiance of the members of his tribe. Some visitors from a city named Yathrib were especially impressed with what Mohammed preached to them. They were looking for a leader who could help them overcome the effects of a disastrous war between two tribes. They began to think that Mohammed might be a good choice for the responsibility.
At the height of the persecution, Khadijah died. Her death was followed by that of Mohammed’s influential uncle, Abu Talib, who had been his protector, though never his convert. These two losses, added to the increased persecution, troubled Mohammed greatly. He was beginning to doubt that he could ever accomplish his goals in Mecca, where even the safety of his growing band of followers was threatened. These circumstances led to his decision to accept when the citizens of Yathrib invited him to become their leader.
THE ESCAPE TO MEDINA
The departure from Mecca had to be carried out with great secrecy, or the enraged Koreish might do them harm. All the two hundred followers were sent on ahead. Mohammed and a long-time disciple, Abu Bekr, left at the last moment. Despite all the dangers. the whole group got safely to Yathrib. In honor of the arrival of their new leader, the people changed the name of their city to the "City of the Prophet." It is now known as Medina. The movement of the Moslems to Medina is called the Hegira, meaning flight or exodus. It was made in 622 AD and that year became the first year of the Moslem calendar. Mohammed was now in a position to exercise great power. He became ruler and priest, lawgiver and judge, prophet and commander-in-chief for the whole community. He drew up a constitution for his people, trying hard to unite the different groups into a close-knit fellowship. The people were to help each other against all enemies and in all difficulties. They were to abide by the decisions of Allah, as revealed to his prophet, Mohammed.
One of his first acts upon reaching Medina was to construct a simple mosque for the center of the Moslem worship. He preached there frequently. His sermons described simple but firm moral codes of kindness to travelers and loyalty to friends. He urged that they pray often and be faithful in acts of devotion to Allah. In the language of the desert, Mohammed told of rewards for righteous living and punishments for a wasted life. Paradise sounded like an oasis, while hell was a place of heat, thirst, and loneliness.
THE TRIUMPHANT PROPHET
Mohammed had always confidently expected that Jews and Christians would accept him and his message as the next chapter in a book of revelations that they all held in common. Thus, when he went to Medina, he was prepared to be very patient in his efforts to win over the Jewish citizens to the new Medina agreement. He even asked his followers to pray facing Jerusalem, and he emphasized the common elements in their traditions.
However, it soon became apparent that the Jews living there had no intention of calling Mohammed their prophet. A good many of them even ridiculed his revelations. Relationships took a turn for the worse when some of the Jews violated the terms of their agreement with Mohammed. The prophet then issued a demand that they either join in Islam or leave the area. The order was carried out by Mohammed’s armies. It was the first of a long list of Moslem victories over opponents. Moslems have always claimed that such moves were necessary to protect the development of their religious community.
Actually, this marks an even more important point in the history of Islam. Mohammed had begun to see that his prophecies were not going to be accepted readily by non-Arab peoples. Islam gradually was directed more and more to Arabs. Jewish and Christian traditions were minimized and Arab traditions stressed from then on. Moslems were no longer to pray toward Jerusalem. They were to face Mecca. And Mohammed and his followers looked with increasing eagerness toward the time when they could go to Mecca once again.
As the fame of the prophet spread throughout Arabia, more people became converts to the new religion. Finally, Mohammed felt that it was necessary for the welfare of his followers that he takes Mecca with his armies. So, eight years after he had barely escaped from Mecca with his life, he re-entered it as a conqueror. As always, he was generous with his foes, forgiving most of them. They had only to confess their faith in Allah and in his prophet.
Mohammed went immediately to the shrine. He stripped the idols from the Ka’aba, declaring it a place for the worship of Allah. Mecca became the holy city of Islam.
The fall of Mecca caused many other communities to declare their submission to the prophet’s religion and rule. For some time Mohammed had been convinced that his chief mission was to unify the Arab tribes by bringing them together into a nation governed by the will of Allah. When tribes did not pledge their allegiance, they were put to the sword and overcome in holy war, which the Moslems believed represented the will of Allah. Gradually the far-flung tribes united into what was to be the nation of Arabia.
To keep a promise he had made to the faithful, Mohammed went back to live in Medina. But he made pilgrimages to Mecca, and he always looked upon that as the rightful center of the worship of Allah. On his last pilgrimage, he preached a sermon that was to be one of his best remembered. In it, he declared that all believers were brothers, and as such must ceaselessly help and respect each other.
MOHAMMED’S GIFTS TO ISLAM
Not long after his return to Medina from that last pilgrimage, Mohammed died. He was sixty-two years old. Much had happened since he had sat alone in the cave near Mecca and thought of the meaning of life. Allah’s message had been given and received enthusiastically. The Arabs had turned from idols to the worship of Allah.
They no longer fought, tribe against tribe. They were all brothers. They no longer danced and drank and gambled in riotous celebrations. They prayed and fasted and felt the presence of Allah close beside them.
The legacy Mohammed left to his followers was very great. He left them united and strong enough to resist foreign aggression. He left them a faith, which they found clear and satisfying. He left them a zeal for that faith that led them to prescribe it for all other people. He left them trained disciples to carry on the movement. He left an army capable of spreading Islam to other lands in holy wars. He left them the example of his life, which had been fully devoted to the will of Allah.
Abu Bekr, who had often assisted in services, was a natural choice for the prophet’s successor, or caliph. And, after a short period of mourning, Islam went on as before toward the realization of all the prophet’s dreams. History was changed. People were changed. They were changed not alone through experience with the man Mohammed but through the creed he taught them. It is the creed that millions of Moslems still follow, declaring with complete faith: "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet."
20. MOSLEMS HEAR AND OBEY
Most modem world religions became organized religions by an accident of history. In many cases, their roots are buried so deep in time that we cannot know the incidents that helped them to develop. But Islam was distinguished by two facts from the start. First, it became a religion as the result of deliberate planning and well-considered efforts. Second, its whole development took place after world history had begun to be carefully recorded.
In a short span of years, Mohammed had lifted himself to a unique position of leadership among his people. He had had the time and the opportunity to plan thoroughly to meet all the social and spiritual needs of his fellow men. Mohammed, convinced that be spoke for Allah, had given rules for beliefs, for religious duties, and for proper conduct. As a result, Moslems found themselves with a guide to almost every activity or situation undertaken by human beings.
WHAT MUST I BELIEVE?
Somewhere along in life, every thoughtful person wonders about the power or force responsible for the creation of everything that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. What kind of power or force is it? When and how does it operate? What caused it to operate in the first place?
Mohammed had faced these wonderings as a young man. Through his visions, he believed that he had found the answers. He unhesitatingly recommended these answers for everyone else. Allah, the Eternal, is the source of all creation. The central confession of all believers is belief in Allah: "I bear witness that there is no God but Allah."
Allah is just and merciful. He sees and hears everything. His presence is everywhere. He knows all a person’ s acts, good or evil. On the Day of Judgment, Allah judges the lives of men. In the beginning, he ordained the way all things should have their existence. In the end, he determines eternal destiny.
Mohammed believed that the world, in its orderliness and dependability, told the story of a personal, purposeful God. Allah had created all things and had predestined all events. Yet men can reach him through prayer, and men are free to work out their own lives. However, they must know that the consequences of paradise or hell wait.
Since Allah long ago removed himself from active direction of his creation, it might be difficult for men to know how to do his will. But Allah understood man’s need. He established three ways to reveal his will to men: a prophet, the Koran, and the angels.
The first of these ways is expressed in the second part of the Moslem statement of faith: "I bear witness that there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet."
Moslems respect other prophets -- including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. But Mohammed is the last of the prophets, the "seal." No other prophet ever spoke with such authority. No other had such a complete revelation from God. -
Mohammed never claimed to be more than an ordinary man. His chief quarrel with Christians was that many of them worshiped a Son, as well as a Father-God. This was an addition that he could not tolerate. "There is none in the heavens or the earth but comes before the Merciful as a servant."
Mohammed’s revelations have been preserved in the Koran for the enlightenment of all succeeding generations. The Koran is a particularly significant book to Moslems because it is identical with another book, which many Moslems believe has existed in Heaven since the beginning of time. In this heavenly book, the will of Allah is recorded. The same revelations contained in it are the ones given to Mohammed and written in the Koran. The Koran is God’s whole message to men.
Orthodox Moslems have never doubted that the text of their sacred book is correct. "Memorizers" learned the things Mohammed said. Soon after his death, his words were written down in a single copy. This made it possible for Moslems, almost from the start of their religion, to have a sacred scripture.
The third means of knowing the will of Allah is through angels. To Moslems the most important is Gabriel, known to them as the "angel of revelation." It was Gabriel who brought Allah’s messages to Mohammed. Gabriel and the other angels surround the throne of Allah, in the "seventh heaven" of paradise, doing Allah’s will and ministering to his decrees.
Another angel -- or really an ex-angel -- is the Devil, who was banished from heaven because of his pride. Moslems believe that he is in charge of hell and, with his assistants, works to thwart the will of Allah by tempting men into evil ways. However, Allah is all-powerful and all determining. So the Devil’s work is limited to what he can do in the framework of Allah’s plans. The Devil can never really thwart Allah, for Allah’s plans include letting the Devil do his work of temptation.
God is just, but life does not always offer rewards and punishments in accord with the quality of a person’s living. Must not the good be rewarded and the evil punished? The Koran tells Moslems that a Last Judgment will come at the end of this age and the beginning of eternity, when Allah will judge all souls. Each will be tried on the record of his life. Allah is merciful, and a good person’s reward is greater than he deserves. But punishment for evil will be exactly what the sinner merits.
Those believers who have followed the will of Allah will be eternally rewarded by residence in paradise. The Koran’s description of this heavenly dwelling sounds like a magnificent oasis, with flowing waters, refreshing beverages, fruits and fowl, and youths and maidens serving the needs of the residents. Thoughtful Moslems believe that the real appeal of paradise is the eternal presence of Allah.
Hell has been prepared for those who decline to submit to the will of Allah. Again, the description is one such as a desert-dweller might imagine. The damned suffer eternally in fire and heat. What they eat and drink is like boiling water. When they call for aid, that aid becomes a further torment. Some Moslems say that the Koran is using picturesque language to describe the total lack of joy in existing without Allah’ s presence.
Allah, the prophet, the Koran, angels, and the Last Judgment -- these things a man must believe. There is a sixth essential belief: in Allah’s complete power and boundlessness. Actually this is a repetition of some of the characteristics of Allah, pointing out the necessity of utter obedience on the part of men. A man does not need to understand the will of God -- in fact, it is impossible. But he must submit to it. "I hear and obey," describes the relationship of man to God.
The name Moslem means "submitter," while Islam means "submission to Allah’s will." Moslems believe that submission brings peace and fulfillment. The object to the terms "Mohammedan" and "Mohammedanism" because they imply a worship of Mohammed. Moslems worship only Allah.
WHAT MUST I DO?
Part of Islam’s rapid spread across the world was due to its simplicity. The creed is clearly stated in six beliefs, as we have seen. The religious duties of believers are just as clearly stated in five requirements, which are known as the "Five Pillars" of Islam.
Declaration of Belief. First, a Moslem must declare his faith and pledge his loyalty. "I bear witness that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is the prophet of Allah." Spoken before witnesses, this declaration can admit a new believer into the fellowship of Islam.
Prayer. The chief religious discipline of the Moslem is prayer. Mohammed named five times a day for formal prayer, and he encouraged private prayer as a continual practice of the presence of Allah. At sunrise, at noon, in mid-afternoon, at sunset, and at nightfall Moslems are called to prayer. From the minarets, "pillars" of prayer, the call floats out to millions of devoted Moslems:
First, there is the ritual of cleansing and the placing of the prayer rug. Then the Moslem kneels down, bowing in the direction of Mecca. The prayer often takes the form of a renewal of submission to Allah’s will. Often it is an expression of praise. For some it is recognition of the fact of God’s constant presence. This last most nearly meets the wish of Mohammed, who hoped that all believers might know Allah as the real experience of life.
Moslems try to be in a mosque for prayers whenever possible. These simple buildings are designed so that the worshipers face Mecca. All decorations are of geometric designs, in accordance with Mohammed’s insistence that no images be made. Fridays are special days for public prayer in the mosques. Men who go to the mosque perform the cleansing ritual, perhaps gather about in groups to hear readings from the Koran, and then participate in the prayer service. In each mosque, a leader directs the public worship and gives weekly sermons on Moslem beliefs.
Usually the congregations are made up of men, most Moslems believing that women should worship at home. Mohammed himself declared that such private devotions were better for women. If they do attend the services, they are usually seated behind screens.
Fasting. Fasting is a frequent religious act of devout Moslems. There is one fast that is necessary for all believers, except those excused for physical conditions or special activities. This fast occurs during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Moslem year. During the fast of Ramadan, food and drink may not he taken between sunrise and sunset. Moslems believe that fasting is a good reminder to put spiritual things first. They try to read or hear the whole Koran during the month and to be in the mosque often.
Almsgiving. Belief in the brotherhood of all Moslems has helped to continue an early custom of sharing their goods and money with the needy. For a time, sharing was legally required in the form of a yearly "tax." Now it is often paid in the form of a voluntary pledge, to help the needy and to support Moslem schools and mosques. Although a person may choose not to pay it, very few do. Their friends expect it, and they believe that their generosity to others will bring Allah’s generosity to them.
Pilgrimage. Every Moslem lives with one dream and expectation for this life uppermost in his thoughts. That is the pilgrimage to Mecca, a city so sacred that non-believers are not admitted. Annually, during the twelfth month of the Moslem calendar, the paths to Mecca are choked with pilgrims. They hurry to join in the ceremonies centering around the ancient Ka’aba and the Mosque of Mecca. Mohammed urged his followers to make the pilgrimage every year. Now, due to the wideness of the Moslem fellowship, each person is asked to go once a lifetime. While there are many who are never able to make the trip, it remains the life goal of most Moslems.
Once arrived, the pilgrims enter the sacred bounds of Mecca, each wearing a garment designed to make all Moslems, rich or poor, appear the same. Rank and race and wealth forgotten, the pilgrims join in the sacred rituals of the pilgrimage. They fast and thirst all day; they dramatize traditional legends; they honor the Black Stone in the Ka’aba. Having made the pilgrimage, the Moslem is forever after a respected person among his fellows.
The pilgrimage has been an important unifying agent for Islam. Mohammed probably emphasized it because he expected that it would serve the cause of unity among the Arab tribes. It still helps to strengthen the bond of fellowship among Moslems.
WHAT THE MOSLEMS OWES TO OTHERS
For the guide to his daily living, the Moslem has to look no farther than the Koran. A large part of the fuel for the fires of Mohammed’s inspiration was the immorality and lack of worthwhile purpose in the lives of his fellow men. The Koran is filled with messages reflecting this concern. Other religions may develop people who live apart from others, putting their personal desires and needs second to a search of the spirit. Islam does not try. Islam tries to make men fit for living with each other.
Long ago Mohammed forbade gambling and intoxicating beverages to believers. Probably, at the time he did so, he was thinking back to the scenes of riot and revelry at the seasonal fairs near Mecca. If the rules against gambling and intoxication caused a change in the lives of his followers, even more so did his statements in regard to women. Men who had been able to divorce and marry wives at will were asked to consider women as creatures of the same Creator, with rights of their own. Husbands must respect wives’ rights to their own dowries and must abide by certain rules on divorce and remarriage. Mohammed urged every effort to prevent a divorce, for nothing else was so displeasing to Allah.
Americans are often startled by the Moslem practice of polygamy. The Moslem, according to the Koran, may take four wives. (Mohammed at one time, through Allah’s special permission, had ten.) However, Mohammed asked that men examine their circumstances and their temperaments very carefully before they did so. If they could not treat all equally in care and affection, they should have only one.
More and more Moslem men are marrying only one wife, either because it is what they believe or what they can afford. Many Moslems now try to understand the spirit or intention of the laws of the Koran. The more liberal believers assert that monogamy is in the spirit of the Koran. They realize that times have changed since Mohammed makes the laws about wives. Then the proportion of women to men was greater than now. Moreover, according to the old tribal customs, the only way a man could aid a poverty-stricken or widowed woman was by marrying her.
Although Mohammed’s life and work insured to the Moslem woman many privileges she had not enjoyed before, she still was expected to be retiring and modest. Her religious acts were better done in private. It was more fitting that she keeps to the seclusion of her home than that she flits about. She was not to be hidden from all eyes, but modesty and quietness were her most becoming qualities.
In earlier days, Moslems owed a responsibility to their brothers to fight if necessary. Mohammed said that a war of defense was permissible, but that one must attack only when fighting for Allah. Such holy wars spread Islam over a large portion of the globe in a very little time. Mohammed taught that Moslems must be gracious to the conquered, bearing no hostility.
Actually, all the rules about the way a good Moslem lives his life stem from one of the last things that Mohammed said to his followers. During his last sermon at Mecca, he made the famous declaration of the brotherhood of all believers. Stronger than family ties even were the ties of the brotherhood. All believers were sacred and all men equal in the sight of Allah. For this reason alone, kindness and respect were due to parents and children, to slaves, and to all others.
Moslems must be faithful in their promises to each other. They respect each other’s lives and property. The measure of a man’s goodness is the way he acts toward his brothers. All a man believes can be told from what he does, as this Moslem proverb shows: "No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself."
Today, when people have long been accustomed to living as nations, social responsibility is well known. But the Arabs of Mohammed’s time had spent their days in constant, petty bickering and fighting among tribes. Mohammed was saying that a person’s responsibility was not limited to those who lived in his town or belonged to his tribe. He was responsible for his share in the welfare of all those who had values, interests, and goals in common with him.
Mohammed had enlarged the concerns of his people, turned their gaze outward to the rest of the world, and helped them to fit themselves for a place in the world. All this was done in the short space of twenty years. The average Moslem learned his lesson well. The Moslem who follows the prophet’s teachings about brotherhood is a good citizen in the world.
21. THE BROTHERHOOD OF ISLAM
During Mohammed’s life, disagreements among his followers were largely discouraged because of the unifying effect he had upon them. But upon his death, his people -- like people everywhere -- discovered that there would be some lack of accord in carrying out the rest of the goals of Islam. There was some discussion in the beginning about the person to take Mohammed’s place in leading the faithful. It was settled without much difficulty with the selection of the trusted Abu Bekr as caliph. Unfortunately, succeeding vacancies in the caliphate were not to be filled so easily. As the Moslem empire grew, so did disagreements.
There were several groups with definite ideas about the best method of selecting the caliph. The Companions, who had been Mohammed’s closest associates, thought that the caliph should be one of their number. Some thought that the leadership should stay in Mohammed’s family. The Koreish thought that they, as the tribe of Mohammed, should have control of the caliphate.
THE SPREAD OF ISLAM
Under Abu Bekr the Moslems attacked Syria in the first holy war against a foreign country. The Moslem conquests had begun. Under the second caliph, Omar, Moslem armies marched in other wars, which were eventually to bring into the Moslem fold parts of Africa and India and all of Mongolia and Spain.
The most dramatic chapters in the history of Islam were written about the fierce warriors who streamed out of their Arabia into conquest of the world. Devout Moslems claim that they did so in a sincere effort to save the whole world from the Last Judgment. The prophet had made them feel that it was their mission, and if necessary they would force the world into this salvation. Force was almost always necessary. It became customary to offer three options to non-Moslems -- acceptance of the Koran, the payment of a special tax for the privilege of remaining non-Moslems, or lastly the sword. Primitive as were their equipment and supplies, the Moslems continued to win, inspired by their conviction of a mission and by other less religious reasons. By Moslem law, the soldiers could keep four-fifths of the booty won in a holy war. If he survived, a soldier could become very wealthy. If he died, he had won direct entrance into paradise.
Others explain that part of the Moslems’ interest in widespread conquest lay in the fact that their existence up to now had been limited to the boundaries of their own infertile desert land. Before them now lay the riches of land and of culture of the fertile and prosperous Mediterranean civilizations. Not only the produce of the land attracted them, but treasures of science, art, and philosophy as well.
It was during this time that the treasury in Medina began to reach the bursting point. Who had ever dreamed of such riches as were pouring in from the conquered countries? And the caliph was in charge of the way it was to be spent. To many, it became a matter of utmost concern to be able to share in decisions concerning the selection of caliphs. The lives of a good many caliphs were sacrificed to the ambition and greed of some unscrupulous groups.
As Islam became widespread, including more and more non-Arabs, agreement became difficult and at last impossible. For centuries, however, the more orthodox Moslems insisted on one religious leader for the whole Moslem world. But times and situations had changed and were still changing. Finally in 1924 the caliphate came to an end.
During the early years after Mohammed’s death, questions were raised which resulted in a major division among Moslems. This division has lasted until today. Both groups consider that their way of thinking and acting is in close accord with the revelations of Mohammed. Both groups believe that their movements represent the correct development of the Moslem religion.
The orthodox or conservative branch of Islam is known as the Sunna, so named for its emphasis on a collection of Moslem traditions called by the same name. Sunnis believe that what is contained in the Koran and in the Sunna define the limits of beliefs and actions for Moslems. The Koran tells the word of Allah. The Sunna tells of actions and sayings of Mohammed and of early customs of Moslems.
For a time, the Sunnis believed that the Koran and the traditions must be interpreted exactly as they were written. An honored teacher named Ashari helped the Sunnis to develop slightly different beliefs, which would allow the use of reason in interpretation. He explained some of the seemingly contradictory beliefs by saying that Allah was all. Allah had created everything and all acts, and therefore Allah was responsible for both good and evil. Men must accept that, without debating about whether it is possible.
Some had wondered how the Koran could be eternal, as Mohammed had taught them. If that were so, would that not be setting up something else alongside of God? And was not the worst sin of all the worship of more than one God? Ashari taught that the Koran in the form that Moslems have is not eternal. But in the form in which it first existed in the mind of Allah, it is eternal.
There are always some people who are not chiefly interested in ritual or religious law or in theology. There have been many Moslems of this temperament. Some of them began to express their faith in ways they saw among people of other religions. They felt that religious truth was not confined solely to creeds and rituals. Truth could be gained from direct communion with God. And so some began to practice the meditation and other devotional exercises of the mystics.
At first they must have been greeted with raised eyebrows, since they were going beyond the usual religious practices of the Moslems. Like some self-denying members of other faiths, they put on uncomfortable wool robes and paid no attention to their physical and social needs. They were dubbed Sufis, meaning "wool-wearers." As their number increased, they began to gather into brotherhoods, emphasizing utter devotion to God. Their goal was union with Allah in this life, not waiting until after death.
The Sufis gradually gained respect from orthodox Moslems. One of the first to understand the worth of their path to God was Ghazzali, a Moslem teacher who has been called "restorer of religion." Ghazzali watched the mystics in their devotions and himself became a Sufi. He saw the value in the life of complete devotion.
He began to teach a modified Sunna theology, based largely on Ashari’s doctrines, but including the mystic emphasis on loving devotion. He believed that a person was not a believer in a religion until he had felt a religious experience. A religion has to change something about the life of a believer. Without this change, a person was only on the surface of religion, not at the heart of it.
Real religion was arrived at through three steps. First of all, a person must feel sorry for his past sins. There must be a need for a change. This is repentance. Then a person must center his life around God, seeing that nothing is important but this devotion. Then the believer must strive to live a life free from sin. The Pillars of the Faith will help him in this. And the disciplines of the Sufis will further help him.
Ghazzali’s chief target in Islam was the emphasis upon reasoning as the only method for learning God’s will. He said that people must be always ready to give obedience to Allah, whether they understand or not. Although Ghazzali formulated his teaching late in the eleventh century, it is still the final authority for Sunnis.
About one-fifth of the world’s Moslems belong to the non-conforming, unorthodox group called the Shia. Principally located in Persia, the Shi’ites trace their beliefs back to the prophecies of Mohammed and to the Koran, too. However, the main thing dividing them from the Sunnis is their belief in a tradition that Mohammed left the guidance of the faithful in the care of his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Ali, they say, was the divinely appointed leader, the Imam, of the Moslem community. The leadership of Islam should have centered in Mohammed’s family. Shi’ites believe that the three caliphs preceding All held the caliphate unlawfully and in disregard for Mohammed’s wishes. For this reason, may Shi’ites curse these men in their daily prayers.
Shi’ites have honored the descendants of Mohammed by making them religious -- and sometimes political -- nobility. Each sect has named certain of these descendants as the divine Imams for each generation, believing that each of the Imarns was infallible and sinless. The sects have not always agreed about who was Imams and when. Neither have they agreed upon just when the line of divinely appointed Imams ended.
Some of the Shi’ites believe that the last of the Imams did not die. He went into hiding and he will reappear just before the Last Judgment. Until that time, some Shi’ites are confident that the "hidden Imam" will appoint representatives on earth, in order that the people may have his guidance. The Shahs of Persia (Iran), who claim to descend from the seventh Imam, are supposed to be the representatives of the "hidden Imam."
The Shi’ite sects have survived the long centuries of their disagreement with the larger number of Moslems because they have clung persistently to their beliefs. Sometimes they have survived persecution by appearing to conform, while carrying their beliefs "underground." Modern Sunnis are inclined to be tolerant toward these unorthodox Moslems.
Any religion that attracts the loyalty of a large number of people is bound to accumulate prescribed creeds, rituals, and customs. Soon there are those who see that such organization has come to preoccupy the believers, so that the original inspiration and purpose have been forgotten. Sometimes these observant ones start a movement to purify the religion of the externals and get back to the fundamental faith.
Such a purifying movement was launched in Islam in the eighteenth century. Some of its effects still linger. The people who supported it had become distressed at the increasing tendency to revere important teachers and theologians, even Mohammed. They felt that this was coming very close to worship of several gods. "Get back to Allah and to the Koran" was their passionate advice to Moslems. The movement attracted support in Saudi Arabia, where historical markers were removed from the graves of Mohammed’s family and other central figures.
CHANGES IN ISLAM
Almost in spite of itself, Islam has changed somewhat from its original course. For a time, change in Islam was considered to be evil. This is the religion that for years forbade the translation of the Koran from the Arabic because Allah had given it in Arabic, and it must not be altered. But changes have come.
Countries of the Near East have become increasingly interested in modernization, industrialization, or Westernization -- call it what we will. Today most Moslems feel their first loyalty to the country where they live, rather than to the whole Moslem brotherhood. These facts of the "shrinking" of the twentieth-century world have forced Islam to become more tolerant of other beliefs and less brittle about its own creed.
Two forces, however, have worked in the opposite direction. One of these is the creation of Pakistan in India, the outgrowth of Moslem-Hindu bitterness. In two parts -- one to the west of India, and a smaller section to the east -- Pakistan is an interesting experiment in the relief of religious conflicts. The emigration of Moslems into Pakistan has made them increasingly conscious of differences between Islam and other religions.
The other force counteracting change has been the creation of the Jewish state of Israel, with the accompanying movement of thousands of Arabs out of the area where their homes had been. Moslems were highly displeased with the decision. Whenever people have an enemy in common, they stress the other things they share. Thus, Moslems have re-emphasized their beliefs and customs.
CONTRIBUTIONS OF ISLAM
The world long ago became accustomed to what the Arab Moslems had done to it. World history was changed when the first Moslem armies marched against Syria. Despite the complaints of the conquered, Moslems brought forces for good. Wherever they went, they furthered the arts and sciences and medicine. They kept order and morality in society.
Those who accepted the Allah they worshiped came to revere a God of dignity and majesty -- ever ready to be approached by the lowliest of men. For truly, in Allah’s eyes, no men are lowly. All are equal. The brotherhood of Islam has not stopped at boundaries of nation, race, or wealth. For Moslems believe that the eyes of Allah do not see the senseless differences sometimes imagined by men.
All this stemmed from the inspiration of a man of Mecca who felt a responsibility to lift his people up from the worship of idols to the worship of the one god, Allah. Toward the end of his life, he looked out over his followers and prayed: ‘0h Lord! I have delivered my message and accomplished my work."
Moslems answered with their voices then and have answered with their lives ever since: "Yea, verily, thou hast."
Sincere thanks to Venerable
Thich Tam Quang for making this digital version available.
(Bình Anson, 05-2004)
last updated: 26-05-2004