ORIGINS AND TENETS OF ISLAM
With about 1.2 billion adherents (compared to 2.1 billion for all religions based on Christ), Muslims hold the majority in over 40 nations and are strong minorities in several more. If we believe these people are lost, we must certainly try to learn more about them and how to approach them with the gospel of Christ. This rather sketchy description of Islam is intended as an introduction to two articles by men who have had much real-life experience in efforts to convert Muslims to Christ.
Islam’s Founder, Muhammad
Muhammad was born about 570 A.D. in Mecca. His father died before he was born, and his mother died a few years later. He was brought up by various relatives in a prominent tribe that followed the ways of the nomadic Bedouins. Young Muhammad led caravans for merchants and became noted for his honesty and his shrewdness in business.
In 595 A.D. he married his rich employer, Khadija, a widow 15 years his senior. Apparently he was faithful to her until her death about 619 A.D. He was a meditative person, often withdrawing outside Mecca to deliberate, and at the age of 40 he claimed to have had his first “ecstatic experience” out in the desert.
He feared that he had gone mad or was possessed by an evil spirit, but his wife and one of her relatives convinced him that he had received a revelation from God. After a few more “revelations” some people began regarding him as an apostle of God. Among the many experiences he claimed to have had was one in which he was taken by an angel through the seven heavens, seeing Jesus, Moses, and other Bible characters along the way. He said he had never seen a man more like himself than Abraham. He began public preaching, and it was six years before he met much opposition. But some merchants in Mecca who dealt in pagan shrines felt threatened by his monotheistic preaching. After a three-year power struggle he fled from Mecca, about 622 A.D., to foil an assassination plot against him, and began serving as arbitrator for warring tribes at Yathrib, later called Medina, about 200 miles away.
After Khadija’s death, Muhammad had 11 wives and at least two concubines. One of his marriages was to a six-year-old girl. Muslim apologists say the marriage was not consummated until she was nine, but seem rather quiet about the character of a 52-year-old man who would have a nine-year-old wife. Another wife was his cousin, who, in an arranged marriage, had been the wife of Zaid, Muhammad’s adopted son. That marriage soon soured. Muhammad was disturbed at the idea of marrying his daughter-in-law but came up with a “revelation” from Allah approving it (Koran chapter 33:37).
Muhammad reported a few revelations apparently designed to quiet doubters about his pursuit of women. One of his favorite wives (that youngest one) was said to have remarked, “It seems to me that your Lord hastens to satisfy your desire.” All this happened despite Muhammad’s decree that Muslim men should have only four wives, but he claimed a revelation making it okay for him to be the exception to that rule. He even claimed that on his flight into the seven heavens, God had married him to Mary, the mother of Jesus; to Miriam, sister of Moses; and to “Assiya,” wife of a Pharaoh!
At some point Muhammad lost the ability to support his large family by the caravan trade, so he and some of his followers began robbing caravans. They reasoned that they were doing this for the cause of Allah. For Muslims who objected, Muhammad brought out more words from Allah which not only sanctioned jihad (fighting, holy war), but offered higher standing to those who fought (Koran, 4:95-96; 3:195; 2:216-217; 9:5, etc.). With Muhammad setting the example, Islam’s history is stained by trails of blood. Their most successful evangelizing has been with the sword. It was between 616 and 622 that Islam first declared itself the exclusive, true religion. It showed no tolerance for opposition and its leader ruthlessly killed critics for speaking their minds.
By 630 A.D. Muhammad could lead 10,000 men to Mecca, where he took control without a fight. In 632, still a resident of Medina, he fell ill and died, at age 62. His failure to make provision for leadership succession resulted in struggles among Muslims that have never been resolved, notably the continual warfare between Sunnis, the majority sect, and Shi’ites, the largest of numerous minority sects.
The Qur’an (Koran)
The average Western reader will find the Koran puzzling, hard to read and hard to understand. We usually expect written matter to present points in some discernible pattern. But the Koran is simply the purported sayings of Muhammad, either what he said or what some of his compatriots claimed he had said.
Some Muslims say the revelations were miraculously written down by an illiterate Muhammad, through the angel Gabriel. Others claim that Muhammad memorized the words and his friends wrote them down. He sometimes expressed doubt about his “revelations” and modified them or readily accepted modifications suggested by others.
His survivors had the task of collecting and arranging his sayings, and they came up with a unique structure. The first chapter (“sura,” or “surah”), called “The Opening,” is very brief, consisting of only seven brief parts. After that, the remaining 113 chapters are arranged by length, from longest to shortest, without regard for chronology. Generally, the early chapters are said to include more emphasis on monotheism and morals, with later chapters dealing mostly with legal and administrative matters, controversies with the Jews and Christians, preoccupation with war, and the universal nature of Islam. Throughout the Koran are words addressed to Muhammad as a prophet, and he is often mentioned along with Allah as one to be obeyed.
It is doubtful that Muhammad ever saw a Bible in his language, making him dependent on oral sources for whatever information he had about it and perhaps accounting for many of the glaring discrepancies between his account and the Bible’s. Examples: He has Moses adopted by Pharaoh’s wife, instead of his daughter; Haman, a servant of Pharaoh, building a tower to ascend to God (the tower of Babel occurred long before there were pharaohs, and Haman was the villain in the book of Esther); Ishmael (not Isaac) sacrificed by Abraham; Saul leading Gideon’s army; and – most glaring of all – that Jesus was not crucified but was taken to heaven, to come back later and eventually be buried near Muhammad. Muhammad considered himself the illustrious descendant of Ishmael and Abraham. The Koran includes several references to Ishmael, who is listed among the patriarchs and called an apostle and prophet (19:54, 55). The annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which every Muslim is supposed to make at least once, includes rites memorializing Ishmael.
Other Governing Books
During the century after Muhammad’s death, while Islam’s armies were sweeping away opposition on several fronts, Muslim scholars collected a large body of material called “traditions,” which they refined in various ways and which were canonized as officially approved Written Traditions, called Hadith in Arabic.
At the same time, there were Muslims devising Islamic laws based on those traditions. Their work became known as the Shariah. One writer points out, “And so, as the Muslims armies successfully conquered others, they themselves were gradually being conquered by legalists who brought them into bondage to the most exacting kind of law.” The Sunnis and Shi’ites follow their own separate versions of Shariah.
Islamic Creed and Duties
In brief, the Muslims observe five articles of faith, requiring belief in God, angels, the holy books, prophets, the day of judgment and the decrees of God. They practice the “Pillars of Islam”: recitation of the creed, performance of ritual prayers, giving of alms, keeping the fast, and going on the pilgrimage. (Some add going on holy war as a sixth pillar.)
The creed is short and to the point: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” Its sincere recitation is said to make one a Muslim. These are the first words a newborn baby hears and the last recited in the ears of the dying. Muslims must memorize them in their original language, Arabic, and recite them every day.
There are five obligatory times of daily prayer: early morning before sunrise, just past noon, in the afternoon, just after sunset, and after twilight has faded. Prayer seems not to be a personal conversation with God, but an external practice full of detailed, formal requirements. Muslims must cleanse themselves ritually before prayer, by washing their hands up to the wrists three times, rinsing the mouth three times, and so on. Those not living in the Middle East have the added burden of reciting their prayers in Arabic, a language most do not know.
Differences between Islam and the Bible are too numerous to enumerate here, but two must be mentioned. Their Allah is not the God we serve. He is a distant sovereign, a fierce warrior, a cold judge who hates unbelievers. But God is close, dwelling with us; he is the Father, a loving parent; he is the God of love.
To Islam, Jesus is not the eternal Son of God, but just a man who spent his life spreading the gospel of Islam. And so it goes in this crude distortion of Bible teaching.
When followers of the Prince of Peace seek to win converts with the sword, they always fail, and the dark period of the Crusades still haunts and hurts efforts to evangelize the Muslim world. The Crusades’ beginning date is usually given as 1095, after the reigning pope, Urban II, rallied armies of Catholics to try to reclaim lost territory and avenge wrongs in the Middle East. The battles continued intermittently for almost two hundred years, and were marked by brutality on both sides. Neither side won, but at least the Christians learned that war was not the way to combat a false religion.
Any chance we have of liberating Muslims from their benighted bondage depends entirely on presenting the Good News with what Peter called “gentleness and respect.” The articles which follow will elaborate on that theme.
—ByTravis Allen, a former editor of Gospel Tidings and a member of the South Fulton Street congregation.