by William J. Whalen
Many Americans go through life without ever meeting a Muslim, although the religion of the Muslims — Islam — rivals Christianity in size and influence on the world scene. In the Arab countries North Africa, Pakistan, and Indonesia, the estimated one billion Muslims constitute the dominant faith and way of life.
The religion started in Arabia in the seventh century when a religious genius known as Mohammed proclaimed that God (Allah) is one and that he (Mohammed) is His prophet. Influenced by Judaism and Christianity, Mohammed acknowledged that Abraham, Moses, and Jesus also were prophets, but that Mohammed was the final revelator of God’s will.
Mohammed (probably born in A.D. 570) lived in Mecca, a trading center also known for its religious shrine, the Kaaba. This was a huge, cube-shaped structure full of idols and a black meteorite. Some Jews and a few Christians lived in Mecca, but most of the residents were polytheists.
Mohammed worked as a shepherd, camel driver, and merchant and finally married a widow some fifteen years his elder. He cultivated a deep interest in religion and meditation but despised the idolatry of most of his fellow Meccans. As he later recounted, the Angel Gabriel appeared to him during one of his periods of meditation and began to dictate the words of what became the Muslim Bible, the Qua’ran. These revelations from the angel and from Allah continued for twenty years.
At first Mohammed’s converts consisted of his wife and a few friends, who formed what was almost a secret society in Mecca. As their views became known, the townspeople who profited from the pagan pilgrimages turned against them. Mohammed fled to the city of Yathrib (renamed Medina) in 622, which became the year 1 of the Islamic calendar.
Far more successful in winning converts in Medina, Mohammed led his forces in an attack on Mecca and entered his hometown in triumph in 630. He destroyed the idols in the Kaaba, but retained the black stone as the object of veneration and promised the city fathers to continue the pilgrimages. Before his death in 632 the prophet had unified most of central and southern Arabia. In a few decades his followers, sometimes through the Holy War or Jihad, had won over most of the Middle East and North Africa. The Muslims swept into Spain, Portugal, and France but were defeated by the Franks at the battle of Tours in 732. Almost all the Christian communities of Africa disappeared in the Muslim advance.
Islam means “to submit” to the will of God; Muslims object to being identified as Mohammedans because they insist they follow God (Allah) rather than any man. Mohammed is revered as the greatest prophet but in no sense a divine person or messiah. He never distinguished himself as a miracle worker or ascetic.
Muslims believe God’s final word to mankind is given in the two-thousand-word Qua’ran. The book is mainly a series of maxims grouped in one hundred fourteen chapters or suras. It expresses the simple theology of Islam, that God is one and that Mohammed is His prophet. The anthropomorphic character of Islam startles some Christian observers. For example, the afterlife is described in very human terms. Hell is described in terms of intense heat, scalding water, and hot winds. But the faithful Muslims can anticipate a heaven of gardens, wine, and abundant sexual opportunities.
Islam rejects polytheism as well as the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The religion honors Jesus as one of the messengers of Allah but in no sense a divine person. Islam pays particular respect to Mary as the Mother of Jesus; she is mentioned thirty-four times in the Qua’ran and is honored above Mohammed’s favorite wife and his daughter Fatima. Mohammed taught that Mary and her mother, Anne, were the only women not touched by the power of Satan.
The religious life of the Muslim demands daily prayers, recited at daybreak, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and early evening. The strict fast of Ramadan is imposed on all believers except the sick, aged, very young, and pregnant women. During this lunar month, Muslims must not eat, drink, take medicine, or engage in sexual intercourse between sunrise and sunset. Each Muslim is expected to make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca during his lifetime. All pilgrims wear the identical seamless white robe; they walk seven times around the Kaaba, run seven times between two hills in Mecca, and make a journey to the Mount of Mercy about twenty-five miles away. Unbelievers are forbidden to enter either Mecca or Medina. Other religious requirements of Islam include the declaration of faith (the shahada) and almsgiving.
Islamic culture flourished in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, when the Muslims invented algebra, pioneered in medicine, and made important contributions in art, poetry, and philosophy. The schisms and sects within Islam weakened its impact, but the imposition of colonial rule did more to limit its influence. As foreign rule ended, Islam grew strong in more than a score of independent African and Asian nations.
Islam has had notable success in winning adherents in black Africa. In contrast to Christian missionaries, the Muslims offer a simple theology, easy initiation, no objection to polygamy. Islam has no sacraments or prescribed ritual, no images. Although the Muslims once prospered as slave traders, they do not bear the colonial stigma that handicaps many Christian missionaries in Africa and Asia.
Islamic society is strongly patriarchal. The role of women has been far more subservient than in Judaism or Christianity. Traditionally the Muslims have kept their women in seclusion and heavily veiled; this custom is still strictly observed in a country such as Saudi Arabia, but is ignored in modern Turkey. The Arabs of Mohammed’s day practiced unlimited polygamy. The prophet revealed: “Of women who seem good in your eyes, marry but two, or three, or four; and if ye still fear ye shall not act equitably, then one only.” The devout Muslim will never have more than four legal wives at one time, although divorce is a simple procedure. Economic reasons and the rise of women’s rights movements have discouraged polygamy in most Islamic societies. Mohammed himself had fourteen wives and three concubines.
Like Christianity, Islam has not escaped fragmentation. Besides the majority Sunnites there are the Shi’ites, who predominate in Iran and have constituencies in India and Indonesia. The Kharijites form a Puritan elite, and the Wahhabites seek to reform Islam from the taint of liberal tendencies. The Arab-Israeli war intensified hatreds between these two Semitic people, but both share a number of beliefs and customs. For example, Muslims honor the Old Testament prophets, circumcise boys, forbid pork, worship one God. Muslims, despite the memories of the Crusades, display less animosity toward Christianity.
The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions of Vatican II looks on the Muslims with esteem:
“They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reservation to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds and fasting.
“Over the centuries many quarrels and dissentions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all men, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.”
During his 2001 visit to Syria, John Paul II became the first pope to enter a mosque.
Islam has experienced rapid growth in the United States in recent decades. About two million American Muslims belong to the twelve hundred mosques around the country. Another estimated four million follow the faith of Islam without a formal affiliation. This means Muslims probably outnumber Jews to form the second largest faith community in the country.
Large concentrations of Muslims can be found in California, New York, Illinois, and some major cities. About 42 percent of converts come from African-American backgrounds, and 24 percent have immigrated from such South Asian nations as Pakistan and India. Others have come from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Africa, and Eastern Europe.
Elijah Muhammad founded the Nation of Islam, which gained thousands of converts but was marked by anti-white, anti-Jewish, and anti-Christian rhetoric. After his death, his son brought the group closer to orthodox Islam. As many as five hundred thousand African-Americans belong to this branch of Islam. Perhaps twenty thousand to fifty thousand follow the leadership of Louis Farrakhan, who revived Elijah Muhammad’s original positions.
As American Muslims advance in education, wealth, and political power, they will form an increasingly influential segment of society.
Armstrong, Karen, Islam (New York: Modern Library, 2000).
Brockelmann, Carl, History of the Islamic Peoples (New York: Putnam, 1947).
Cragg, Kenneth, The Call of the Minaret (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).
Lincoln, C. Eric, The Black Muslims in America (Boston: Beacon, 1961).
Smith, Jane I., Islam in America (New York, Columbia University Press, 1999
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