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On Islam



Following are the contents of our exam on Islam, using Huston Smith's The World's Religions as a guidebook in addition to The Koran and other Muslim texts as cited herein. 


ISLAM
1.      What does “Allah” mean? According to Muslim tradition, how are Jews and Muslims related? How would you express the term “the Seal of the Prophets”?

The literal meaning of Allah is “the God,” the definite article al translated as “the,” and llah, translated as God.  The article is “the” and not “a,” because according to Islam there is but one God. 

Islam is one of the three Abrahamic faiths, along with Judaism and Christianity.  The Arabs consider themselves a Semitic people, meaning that they, like the Jews are descended from Shem, the son of Noah (Semite means descendant of Shem).  Muslims believe that Adam was the first man, and his descendants led to Noah, and then Shem.  Abraham was among the descendants of Shem, and Muslims consider themselves sons of Abraham.  This brings to mind the children’s song, Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham, and I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s all praise the Lord!  In fact, the name of the faith, Islam, was inspired by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac.  The root s-l-m means “peace,” but it has another meaning, “surrender,” and so the name Islam in the deepest sense means “the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God.” 

Muhammad is believed by Muslims to be the final and definitive prophet in a line of authentic prophets of God, which includes Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah and Jesus.  Muhammad is “The Seal of the Prophets” because Muslims believe that no other prophet will come after him. 

2.      Read “The Migration that led to Victory.”  Respond to what seems most important here.  After reading this unit, what one thing has challenged or changed your previous ideas about Islam? 

The Hijra took place in the year 622;  Muhammad and seventy families migrated from Mecca to the city that was then known as Yathrib, and was later called Medinat al-Nabi (the City of the Prophet) and eventually Medina (the city). 

The historical thrust of this section is that Islam, as a revolutionary and unifying belief system, needed a safe place to take root and flourish so that it could gain power and momentum.  Muhammad recognized this need and was thus motivated by it, simultaneously with the need to flee for his own safety, to establish Islam in the city of Medina.  In Medina, Muhammad was able to bring the five conflicting tribes of the city (three of which were Jewish) into one cooperative whole.  When he later returned to Mecca, he rededicated the temple there to Allah, and presided over the mass conversion of the city he had fled only eight years before.  What is even more extraordinary is that ten years after the Hijra, he had unified virtually all of Arabia under one ideological banner, the newly established religion of Islam.  The effectiveness of Muhammad’s leadership has been attributed in great part to his extraordinary humility, accessibility and his passion for justice and mercy. 

The one lesson from this section which has most challenged my former ideas about Islam is the fact that it was originally conceived as a unifying tradition, with both secular and religious elements.  I had always thought of Islam as a faith that defined itself by strict orthodoxy and standing apart from all other belief systems, but in its inception Islam brought about unity and peace through fostering cooperation among competing groups. 

3.      What belief concerning the afterlife unifies all Muslims? Consider the quotations from the Qur’ an about the life to come.  Pick one sentence that strikes you most, concerning the afterlife. 
Muslims are united in a belief that in the afterlife, every individual soul will be held accountable for how well it has observed God’s commands during its time on the Earth; so its situation in the afterlife is directly causally connected to everything it has done while living in the world.  Muslims believe in Heaven, Hell and the Day of Judgment.  Personal responsibility is inescapable in Islam, and it is clear that Muslims are to live with the idea of punishment and reward in the afterlife at the forefront of their minds: “We have hung every man’s actions around his neck, and on the last day a wide-open book will be laid before him” (17:13). 

4.      What are the minimum and customary times that a Muslim states the Creed? What is the name of the Creed?
The Creed is the Islam confession of faith, which is known as the Shahadah.  The English translation is this: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet.”  The Creed is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.  Each Muslim is required to recite the Creed “at least once during his or her lifetime…correctly, slowly, thoughtfully, aloud, with full understanding and with heartfelt conviction” (Huston Smith, 244).  In reality, Muslims cite the creed often, as an anchor in the stormy seas of human experience, when troubles of all sorts threaten to overwhelm them; the Creed is recited to gain strength and comfort when loss is experienced, at the time of death and during illness, severe stress or frightening uncertainty.  

5.      Smith discusses two affirmations in the Muslim Creed: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His prophet.”  Briefly clarify the meaning of these affirmations.
The first affirmation is a definitive statement of the basis of monotheism; there is but one God and that God is Allah.  The second affirmation proclaims the Muslims’ firm belief in the legitimacy of Muhammad and the supreme authority of the Koran, the text he transmitted to humankind.  

6.      What are five prohibitions of traditional Muslim practice?

There are a great number of proscriptions and prohibitions within Islamic law, but five major prohibitions are given extra emphasis, and have specifically ordained punishments called hudud.  The five prohibitions punishable by the hudud are: i) unlawful sexual intercourse, ii) false accusation of unlawful sexual intercourse, iii) consumption of alcohol, iv) theft, and v) highway robbery. 

7.      Smith discusses the status of women in Islam.  Briefly describe the following:

A.    Infanticide: The status of Arabian women before Muhammad was deplorable by any standards.  The birth of a daughter was considered a misfortune, and female infants and small children were often killed as a means to dispose of an unwanted burden.  The koranic reforms forbade infanticide (the intentional killing of infants).  

B.     Marriage: Arabian women were treated as chattel and the sexual act was often perpetrated in violence with no sacred element.  Islam sanctified marriage, making it the only lawful context of sexual intercourse.  The Koran also requires a woman’s free consent before marriage.  Muhammad specified that divorce is only permissible as a last resort.

C.    Polygamy: The more correct term here would by Polygyny, since Islam permits and delineates rules for the practice of a man having more than one wife.  A Muslim man can have up to four wives simultaneously, but monogamy is the ideal relationship described in the Koran.  Historical circumstances often made polygyny the more loving or compassionate arrangement for women; for example, wars that decimated the male population left many women without material support or protection.  The Koran emphasizes the importance of equality of love and esteem whenever there is more than one wife: “If you cannot deal equitably and justly with [more than one wife], you shall marry only one.”  Today, polygyny is uncommon in Muslim communities, and many couples insert a clause in the marriage deed that explicitly forbids the taking of another spouse.

8.      Smith discusses Muslim teachings on the use of force.  Clarify each of these in one sentence each. 

A.    Religious toleration: Muhammad created a charter for governing the city of Medina that included religious toleration as a founding principle; Muslims “regard that document as the first charter of freedom of conscience in human history and the authoritative model for those of every subsequent Muslim state” (Huston Smith, 256). People of other faiths were permitted freedom of worship, equal rights with Muslim citizens with respect to assistance and “good offices,” and they were also protected from harassment and injury.  The Koran teaches along these same lines:
To every one we have given a law and a way….And if God had pleased, he would have made [all humankind] one people [people of one religion]. But he hath done otherwise, that He might try you in that which He hath severally given unto you: wherefore press forward in good works.  Unto God shall ye return, and He will tell you that concerning which ye disagree (5:48). 

B.     Jihad: Muslims “deny that Islam’s record of intolerance and aggression is greater than that of the other major religions” (Huston Smith, 257).  Jihad literally means “exertion.”  The word is usually interpreted to mean “holy war.”  Muslims claim that their highest ideal is peace, and this is reflected in their greeting, as-salamu ‘alaykum, “peace be upon you.”  The most important jihad in Islam is the battle with the enemy that resides with in each of us, the propensity for evil actions. 

9.      Smith describes three Sufi paths.  Describe each in one sentence.

A.    Love: Sufis are very well known for their love poetry.  They believe that God’s love is the primary force in the universe, and that our deepest longing draws us toward the heart of God.  Love as a path to the Divine is the practice of steeping oneself deeply within that longing and feeling of separation, allowing oneself to be thereby drawn further into the deepest form of union, an eternal love affair.  Rumi’s verse summarizes this phenomenon:
Never does the lover seek without being sought by his beloved.  When the lightning of love has shot into this heart, know that there is love in that heart….
Mark well the text: “He loves them and they love Him.” (Koran, 5:59)

B.     Ecstasy: The etymology of the word “ecstatic” teaches us that it refers to a sort of standing outside of oneself (ekstasis in Greek, ek meaning “out” and sta- meaning “to stand”).  Ecstatic Sufis enter into trancelike states where they become completely abstracted from self; they become dissociated from their usual identities, forgetting all self-consciousness and even losing the sense of where they are or what is happening to them.  They look to Muhammad’s Night Journey through the seven heavens and into the Divine Presence as a sort of model for the arrival at their altered state.  Mystical theology uses a phrase, “infused grace,” referring to the gift of this altered state, which is something that is not acquired through strain and effort, but involves a process of receiving.  Huston Smith points out that the benefits of these practices must be brought back down to Earth: “…transcendence must be made immanent; the God who is encountered apart from the world must also be encountered within it” (261). 

C.    Intuition: The Arabic word used to describe this Sufi path is ma’rifah, which means mental knowledge, and refers to a mystical intuitive knowledge of spiritual truth.  This knowledge is acquired through sincere effort and spiritual practice which focuses on the individual’s internal experience.  Ma’rifah requires the use of what Sufis call “the eye of the heart.” The physical eye sees the objects in the world and the eye of the heart is able to recognize the Divine represented thereby; Sufis following this path believe that the physical world functions as a symbol of a more exalted, spiritual reality.  The Sufi mystic al-Ghazali defined symbolism as “the science of the relation between multiple levels of reality” (Huston Smith, 262). For example, Muslims generally interpret the gesture of removing one’s shoes before entering a mosque as a symbol of leaving worldly pursuits at the door before coming into the sacred presence; Sufis go one step further by saying that the gesture also symbolizes the removal of everything which separates the soul from God. 

Sufis following any or all of these three paths are esoteric Muslims, while the majority fall into the category of exoteric Muslims.  Esoteric Muslims developed a doctrine called Fana, meaning “extinction”; it is the quest to transcend the finite self in Allah, so that the Sufi Muslim may rid him or herself of self-consciousness.  This calls to mind the Buddhist belief in “no self,” or the aim of letting go of a separate self with a private agenda.  Sufis claim that if the self becomes empty, only God remains there.  Sufis have gone so far as to the enhance the basic Muslim creed, “There is no God but God,” by saying instead, “There is nothing but God.”  To concretize this reality, Sufis engage in the practice of dhikr, the repetition of God’s name, whenever possible—sometimes silently, sometimes aloud and sometimes chanted within a group.  This is a transformative and often ecstatic practice that works with the subconscious mind to erode the importance of self.  

10.  Why is Sufism considered controversial, or heretical, by Orthodox Islam?
Because Sufism is esoteric, it draws authority from sources other than the Koran and the representation of the external God by traditional Muslim authorities.  Sufis, like the mystics of other traditions, seek to unite with the divine Essence within, and some Muslims see this as blasphemous.  This quote from Huston Smith puts the point very well: Mysticism breaks through the boundaries that protect the faith of the typical believer.  In doing so it moves into an unconfined region that, fulfilling though it is for some, carries dangers for those who are unqualified for its teachings (264).

11.  Describe one feature of the Islamic tradition or teachings that is most meaningful to you personally, and how it relates to your own experience and self-understanding.
Because I already consider myself a mystic, the Sufi tradition of Islam resonates deeply with me.  I am particularly drawn to the Sufi paths of love and intuition as a means of union with the Divine.  I have been a longtime reader of Sufi love poetry, and my own spiritual practices closely mirror many Sufi practices.  I would like to try Sufi whirling, which is an ecstatic movement practice; whirling appeals to me since I find yoga asanas and dance to be spiritual practices.  I also love connecting with God through chanting mantras; when we chanted on the day of our Islam lectures, I found a great sense of peace and connection through that practice.  I truly believe in achieving a heart connection with God by transcending ego and self-consciousness, and I have a particular aversion to faith practices which are solely exoteric and orthodox.  I am grateful for the beautifully enlightening contributions of Sufism to modern spirituality. 

12.  Identify the following names:

Muhammad: Born in the year 570 in the Arabian city of Mecca, Muhammad (also written, Mohammed) is the Prophet of Islam, referred to by Muslims as “The Seal of the Prophets” since he is considered the ultimate in the line of prophets going all the way back to Abraham.  He is the founder of the Islamic faith, which he instituted after he transmitted the Koran.  His name means, “Praiseworthy.”

Khadija: She was Muhammad’s first wife, and a very successful and well-respected businesswoman.  He was fifteen years her junior and worked in her service in the caravan business before marrying her.  Muhammad was Khadija’s third husband, and she had children by both previous marriages.  Their marriage was a very happy one, and she comforted and supported him as he prepared for his ministry.  “Rejoice, O dear husband, and be of good cheer.  You will be the prophet of this people.” She is sometimes called the Mother of Islam. 

Fatimah: She was a daughter of Muhammad and Khadija, wife of Ali and mother of Hasan and Husain.  She is the only member of Muhammad’s family that gave him descendants.  She was very close to her father’s side and supported him in his various trials.  She is greatly venerated by Muslims, and verses from the Koran are associated with her and her household, although she is not mentioned by name in the Koran. 

13.  What are the Five Pillars of Islam?

The foundational requirements for any practicing Muslim are referred to as “The Five Pillars of Islam.” 
i.                    Shahadah: This is a profession of belief in Allah, the one true God, and his Messenger, Muhammad.  This powerful testament of faith underlies every other belief and practice within Islam.  It consists of one sentence which every Muslim must state at least once in his/her lifetime in Arabic, aloud, with complete sincerity and full understanding: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger.”  In Arabic: Ashhadu Alla Ilaha Illa Allah Wa Ashhadu Anna Muhammad Rasulu Allah.  In actuality, Muslims pronounce these words many times over the course of a lifetime, especially the first half, at any time when they are crying out to God, in praise, in despair, in awe or in fear, or asking for divine intervention: La ilaha illa ‘llah.
ii.                  Salah: Prayer is to be a constant and foundational practice in the life of every Muslim, to maintain connection to and consciousness of God and to keep all of life in perspective.  The Prophet Muhammad (Sal Allahu Alayhi Wa Sallam) said, “The first act that the slave (of Allah) will be accountable for on the day of judgement will be the prayer. If it is good, then the rest of his acts will be good. And if it is evil, then the rest of his acts will be evil” (Hadith Qudsi 9, from 40 Hadith Qudsi).[1]  Salah means “prayer,” and Muslims are asked to pray five times per day, at dawn (Salat al-Fajr), mid day (Salat al-Zuhr), late afternoon (Salat al-Asr), sunset (Salat al-Maghrib) and nightfall (Salat al-Isha).  These particular times for prayer are not strictly binding--flexibility in going about one’s daily duties and activities in the secular world is factored into contemporary Muslim practice, but under normal conditions Muslims should engage in prayers five times per day.  Within Islam, congregational worship is not as important as it is in Judaism and Christianity; however, the Friday noon prayer brings Muslims to their mosques in large numbers where they can be seen standing shoulder to shoulder kneeling and prostrating toward Mecca, their foreheads repeatedly touching the floor.  Praying in the direction of Mecca gives all Muslims a sense of common fellowship with brothers and sisters around the world, even when praying alone.  Praise, gratitude and supplication are the common elements of all Muslim prayer. 
iii.                Zakah: The third pillar of Islam is charity.  The word zakat means “growth” and “purification,” emphasizing the increased social welfare and economic growth that result from charitable giving, as well as the purification of the possessions of those who give.  Charitable giving is required of all Muslims, and this applies to holdings as well as material goods; middle and upper income people are to give one fortieth of the value of all they possess.  Zakat is not comparable to the tithe of Jews and Christians because it is not primarily directed at the maintenance of religious institutions. 
iv.                Sawm: Every year, during the month of Ramadan, Muslims must observe Sawm by abstaining from food, drink and sexual intercourse from dawn until dusk.  In addition, Muslims are expected to refrain from anger, envy, greed, lust, gossip, violence, bad language and other inappropriate thoughts and actions. Fasting is meant to encourage Muslims to seek nearness to Allah, be patient, and learn the hardships faced by the less fortunate.  Sawm, and really any kind of religious fasting, teaches self-discipline, reminds believers of their dependence on God and sensitizes compassion. 
v.                  Hajj: The fifth pillar is pilgrimage.  Every Muslim who is economically and physically able to do so is expected to journey to Mecca, the place of Allah’s climactic revelation.  Hajj occurs every year during the month of Dhu’l-Hijjah.  The driving purpose behind the pilgrimage requirement is to strengthen and emphasize the pilgrim’s devotion to God, but additional benefits include a reminder of human equality and the bolstering of peaceful international and intercultural relations. 

14.  Define “Purdah”: This word from the Persian language means “curtain,” and refers to the Muslim practice of concealing women from men.  Within different cultural and national Muslim groups, the practice of purdah varies widely, and takes two main forms: a) a requirement for women to conceal and cover their bodies, and b) the physical segregation of the sexes.  The example of purdah most familiar to us in the West is the female practice of covering the head and neck with a scarf or other fabric in any location outside of the home. 

15.  Write a response to a selection of your choice from The Koran.

And they say, ‘None shall enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian.’ These are their wishful beliefs. Say, ‘Produce your evidence if what you say is true!’
Nay, whosoever surrenders his whole being unto God, and is a doer of good, shall have his reward from his Lord; on them shall be no fear, neither shall they sorrow.’ ‘The Jews say, ‘The Christians have no valid grounds’; the Christians say, ‘The Jews have no valid grounds’; and both quote the Book [of God]. So do those who have no knowledge [of the Book] speak like them. But it is God who will decide between them on the Day of Resurrection about all on which they differ (al-Baqarah 2: 111-13).

This passage from the longest chapter of the Koran is perfectly suited to our interfaith studies in the pursuit of common understanding and shared values.  It perfectly situates Islam as third in the line of the Abrahamic traditions, following Judaism and Christianity.  Just as the Jews were quick to condemn Christian beliefs and the Christians insisted that a religion based on Christ was the only way to salvation, the newer religion of Islam was inevitably attacked by both groups.  I am reminded of what is written above under Question 8 regarding the peaceful coexistence of many faiths, and the idea, from the Koran, that God Himself gave the various religions severally to the world’s peoples--it would be in vain that we try to answer questions for all of humanity which God alone can answer according to His own timing.  This passage underscores a universally relevant and practical teaching for believers of all faiths: our religious devotion and spiritual practice are designed to bring us nearer to God and to thereby improve our relationships with our world and with one another, and any time we may spend opposing or finding fault with other traditions is wasted time.  Nothing positive can come of dogmatic insistence on the superiority of any faith; our time is better spent perfecting our own devotion and supporting all others who share with us a belief in the Divine and the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. 

16.  Write a description of your Islam site visit.

I attended Juma service at a Sufi worship center in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City.  The Nur Ashki Jerrahi Community was recommended to me by a classmate who shares my predilection for mystical spiritual practices and beliefs, and this was the main reason I chose to visit a Sufi order rather than worship in a more traditional mosque, although I must admit that I did try contacting two mosques in my area about attending prayer services as a visitor, and never received a call back or an e-mail reply. 

I was very optimistic and excited about my visit to the Juma service because of everything I was able to read on the Nur Ashki Jerrahi website, and also because a local friend who shares my passion for religion and spirituality made the trip into the city with me.  We ended up staying for two services and all in all it was a wonderful, memorable day. 

Juma’h simply means “the gathering on Friday,” and refers to the noontime prayer and worship service which includes a sermon.  The building was situated between two bar/restaurants on a typical NYC block, and no one would know that it was a Sufi Muslim worship center were it not for the small, unobtrusive sign on the door, and a poster of Rumi with a verse that I neglected to remember or write down.  My friend and I covered our heads and necks with scarves before entering with a group of Muslim men.  Once we were inside, a white, American male introduced himself to us and showed us a spot to leave our shoes and belongings.  He explained that as women, we would remain separate from the men in the service and sit in a designated area in the back.  He was very friendly and welcoming and offered to answer any questions we may have after the service.  We promptly went inside and sat down on the floor which was covered with a very large Persian rug.  Another woman came in after us and performed a few discreet prayers and prostrations.  She smiled sweetly at us.  Men continued to file into the worship space, coming from work or school.  The room began to fill up quickly so the Imam instructed the men to move up and get closer together on the floor.  There were chairs lined up along the sides of the room where elderly or more infirm men were seated. 

The services consisted of a call to prayer (azaan), followed by two sermons (khutba) , in English, followed by a short formal worship (salat) in congregation.  We heard two different Imams give sermons since we stayed for both services.  The most remarkable aspects of the visit for me were i) the experience of being one of the very few women present (in the second service there were two other women, and only one in the first), ii) the experience of praying and worshipping with a large group of men who were for the most part ethnically and racially all different from me (there were five total white men out of a group of about 60 men), and iii) the physical experience of standing shoulder to shoulder with Muslims, facing the East, and touching my forehead to the floor repeatedly during the Salat.  I very much enjoyed the services and delighted in the experience of being different yet clearly welcomed.  At the end of the first service the Muslim woman who had prayed next to us kissed us each on the cheek and introduced herself.  The other women had warm smiles and the man who welcomed us to worship gave me a business card following the service and offered to be contacted for further questions or an interview. 

Both sermons were perfectly in line with what I would have expected from Sufis, focusing on consciousness of and devotion to God in spite of the many distractions of our human life, and reminding us all of God’s continual love, forgiveness, mercy and grace. 
In fact, during the first service we were told that this is the month of mercy and grace in Islam.  It had been a week of rainy days, and the Imam likened the rain to the mercy and grace of Allah poured out over the Earth, to revitalize it, and poured out over us to revitalize our faith.  He also warned us against descending into despair when we lose consciousness of God.  He spoke about doubt, fear and depression as symptoms of being overly focused on ourselves and on the material world rather than keeping our focus on Allah.  He said that God dispenses His mercy and grace to those who remain conscious of Him, and this consciousness was not described as a sort of remembrance of religious actions, but rather as a devotional way of life and a remembrance of the divine within as well as without.  The Imam who delivered the second message spoke about seeing the face of Allah in whichever direction we turn, East, West, North and South.  He referenced a saying of Mohammed that true religion comes from the heart.  He spoke of human beings as clay vessels, as God formed the first man, Adam, from clay.  He asked, “Who is in that vessel?  Who is seeing with these eyes and hearing with these ears, and whose heart is it in this clay vessel?”  He suggested that it is Allah who animates our souls, and Allah who moves within us from our hearts.  He said that if we cannot witness Allah in our own hearts, it is because we are distracted by the world and struggling to become conscious of Allah.  Similarly to many modern spiritual teachers in diverse traditions, he counseled reducing distractions and living more mindfully so that we can become more conscious of the presence of God in our hearts. 







[1] A “Hadith” is a narrative record of the sayings or customs of Muhammad and his companions, and “Qudsi” means “sacred.”

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