Comments on Islam

Muhammad had one notable daughter. That was Fatima, after whom the town of Fatima in Portugal was named.

In his excellent article “Islam: An Introduction for Priests” in the September 2015 issue of The Priest magazine, Father Vincent O’Malley, C.M., correctly notes that many Meccan merchants opposed Muhammad because they feared losing the pilgrimage trade to Mecca (Makkah) if monotheism prevailed. People from all over Arabia went to the Ka’bah in Mecca to worship one or several of numerous deities there. If the many gods were rejected in favor of one God, there might be a significant loss of business. Who would want to visit the Ka’bah if their favorite god or goddess was missing? Pacts of protection had made visiting the Ka’bah safer than visiting other shrines. Muhammad was opposed because of his teaching, but due to the protection afforded him by his uncle Abu Taleb, he was not physically attacked. However, his followers who were not treated as well fled to Ethiopia.

Yathrib (Medina) proved to be a very different situation for Muhammad. A delegation of Medinese came looking for him in the hope that he could solve a conflict situation in their city. When Muhammad came to Yathrib, the city fathers accepted him as their political leader, as well as their religious leader.

‘People of the Book’

When Muhammad returned to Mecca eight years later, he was not only the politico–religious leader of Medina, but he also held the same position regarding the bulk of Arabia. Muhammad gave the polytheists of Mecca several weeks in which to convert to Islam. If they did not they would be attacked as enemies of the state. He showed a different attitude toward Christians and Jews. They were “people of the Book,” people who accepted monotheism. They did not have to convert, just pay a small poll tax.

One of the first things Muhammad did upon entering Mecca was to visit the Ka’bah and smash the icons of all the gods and goddesses there. He was so enthusiastic in his effort that he even destroyed the icons of Abraham and angels that were there. Allah was imageless.

Islam’s form of monotheism excludes the possibility that Jesus could be Son of God and divine. Interestingly, however, Gabriel, the instrument of revelation for Muhammad, is sometimes referred to as the holy spirit. He is not, however, a person of the Trinity.

Muslims hold that the entirety of the Quran is words of God dictated by Him through the angel Gabriel. Muhammad was in a trance when he received them. But upon awakening he recited what he received to those around him. Mostly the words were memorized by friend and foe alike. But they were also written down on the available materials of the day: ribs of palm branches, camel’s shoulder blades, animal shins, etc.

The Hadith, or Sayings of the Prophet, also carry authority in Islam but not nearly the weight of the Quran. They contain the personal teachings of Muhammad and his example, sometimes implicit as when he did not challenge an existing custom. The Hadith also contain the practices of Muhammad’s close associates. The most reliable of the traditions given in the Hadith are those that reinforced by multiple attestations.

In the first couple of centuries after the Prophet’s death, when a person declared something about Muhammad, it was asked whether the declarer was reliable. Then it was asked whether he got the information from a competent and reliable person. If the statement could be traced back from one reliable person to another, clear back to Muhammad himself, then it became a reliable tradition. Otherwise it was not. Only the most reliable traditions are part of the true Hadith.

Quran Not Revelation of God

Islam is legalistic. The Quran, though viewed by Muslims as the Word of God, is not perceived as revelation of God. It is revelation from God, but not of God. God does not so much reveal things about himself as what he expects of people. The Quran (and Islam as a whole) does not portray God as Father in relationship with people as His children. It portrays him as Master in relation to people as slaves or servants. That close relationship between the Creator and his intelligent, submissive creature is missing, especially as seen in terms of father–son or father–daughter. For the Sufis, however, God seeks a close, loving relationship with human beings. The Sufis are not the most intellectual branch of Islam, but they are the most Christlike branch. They are the mystics of Islam.

There are Sunni mystics and Shiite mystics. The Sunnis are the majority sect of Islam; 80 to 90 percent of all Muslims are Sunnis. Ten to 20 percent are Shiites who are are found mostly in Iraq and Iran. The main historical difference between the two branches is that Shiites believed it was Muhammad’s intent that his representatives, the caliphs, be chosen from his family. Since the first three caliphs were not, the Shiites rejected their authority, accepting only the authority of Ali, the fourth caliph. Both Ali and his son were killed by the Sunnis, establishing an early rift between the two branches. Yet the Sunnis have always regarded the Shiites as a legitimate dimension of Islam.

There are other differences between Shiites and Sunnis. The Shiites require fewer moments of prayer during the day than the Sunnis. They also recognize temporary marriage, wherein marriage can be of any length as long as the parties involved agree to terms and sign a contract to that effect.

Regarding Jesus, Islam considers Him as being among the greater prophets, not God’s son but great just the same. However, Islam has a curious view of Jesus and the crucifixion; it does not believe that Jesus was ever crucified. Islam teaches that executioners requested that a citizen assist Jesus in carrying the cross. The citizen did so reluctantly. When he was finished, the citizen was confused with Jesus and executed instead of him. As a result Jesus never underwent crucifixion.

Muhammad’s daughter Fatima would never qualify as the subject for a Catholic–Muslim dialogue. But the Blessed Virgin Mary, greatly respected in both religions, might indeed qualify. Such a discussion could lead to an investigation of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima and to the phenomenon of the spinning sun of October 1917.

DR. DECELLES taught Islam at the college level and has published a booklet and several articles on the subject.