Lecture on Islam: World Masterpieces I: June 10, 2003
M.A.R. Habib

I I’d like to start by reading a selection of the sayings of Muhammad (S), the prophet of Islam, so as to give a sense of the beauty of Islam:

“The world is green and beautiful
and God has appointed you His stewards over it.”

“The best richness is the Richness of the Soul,
The best provision is piety,
The most profound philosophy is the fear of God,
The Exalted,
The Great.”

“God is gentle
and loves gentleness in all things.”

“Charity is incumbent upon every human limb
every day upon which the sun rises.
To bring about a just reconciliation
between two contestants is charity…
A good word is charity…
To remove obstacles in the street is charity,
Smiling upon the face of your brother is charity.”

“The world
and all things in it are valuable
but the most valuable thing in the world is
a virtuous woman.”

“He is not a believer
who eats his fill
while his neighbour
remains hungry by his side.”

(1) Introduction:

The religion of Islam is characterised primarily by its uncompromising monotheism, its absolute insistence that God is One and that the prophet Muhammad was His final messenger to humankind. It sees itself as continuing what is true in Judaism and Christianity and reveres the Hebrew prophets, including Christ. Its main prescriptions and tenets include the profession of faith, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, charity to the poor, humility, honesty in trade, personal cleanliness, and the absolute spiritual equality of all human beings before God.

(2) Definitions:

Islam means “submission” to the will of God; a “Muslim” is a person who submits to the will of God. Islam is sometimes wrongly referred to as “Mohammedanism;” this title is misleading because it implies that Muhammad is somehow worshipped. This is certainly not the case in Islam: Muhammad is viewed as an exemplary and profoundly spiritual human being but he is no more than a human being; he is certainly not divine, and God is absolutely alone in his Unity and divinity. Muhammad’s function was that of a messenger; his task was to bring God’s message to humankind.

(3) History:

The prophet Muhammad was born in the year 570 A.D. in the town of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Mecca at that time was a large trading centre; it was also a centre for religious worship. In the centre of Mecca stood a rectangular sacred building called the Ka’aba, reputedly built by Abraham; by the time of Muhammad, however, Arabian society was polytheistic and idolatrous, and the Ka’aba housed over 360 images of gods and goddesses. Meccan society at that time was divided into a number of tribes and clans; Muhammad belonged to the clan of the Quraish. He was orphaned early in life; his father died before he was born and his mother died when he was six years old. He was cared for by his uncle Abu Talib. As a youth he was nicknamed “Al-Amin,” which means “truthful,” because he never told a lie.

When Muhammad was 25 years old he received a proposal of marriage from a wealthy business woman called Khadijah, who was 15 years his senior. This marriage resulted in his journeying on a number of caravan trading trips to Syria where he had the opportunity to converse with both Jews and Christians who belonged to a sect which did not believe in the Trinity.

Muhammad developed the habit of meditating in the desert outside of Mecca, in a cave called Hira. In the year 610 A.D., when Muhammad was forty years old, he received his first revelation from God. The angel Gabriel appeared before him and gave him the first verses of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is the Islamic sacred scripture and it literally means “recitation”. Wherever Muhammad turned his head he saw the angel. He came back to Mecca, revealing what had happened to his wife and close friends. His wife Khadijah was the first convert to Islam; other converts followed. The new religion of Islam appealed to those who saw the inequalities and iniquities of Arabian society: Islam insisted on improving the treatment of women, orphans, slaves and even animals. It forbade certain practices such as the burying alive of unwanted female babies. It prescribed fairness in business dealings and above all, the absolute sovereignty of God.

The new religion, with its increasingly large following, was a threat to established Meccan economy and customs, as well as to the entire hierarchical social order. The Muslims were persecuted, tortured and killed. Eventually, the Muslims were forced to flee to the city of Medinah in the year 622 A.D. This journey was made by seventy people on foot through 250 miles of burning desert; Muhammad stayed behind in Mecca until all of his followers were safely gone. This journey is called the Hijrah or “flight” to Mecca; so important was this flight to the survival of Islam that Muslims date their calendar from it.

The leaders of Medinah had been involved in irreconcilable disputes among themselves; having heard of Muhammad’s integrity and leadership skills, they invited him to come to Medinah to act as a mediator. He agreed, on condition that they converted to Islam, a condition to which most of them freely acceded. The religion grew stronger in power and numbers in Medinah, so much so that the Meccans, in order to defend their interests, decided to conduct outright war against the Muslims. Initial hostilities eventually resulted in the Battle of Badr, fought in 624 A.D. Though the Muslims were heavily outnumbered, they were victorious and the religion found even more supporters. However, in the following year the Meccans avenged their loss at the Battle of Uhud which the Muslims forfeited due to their failure to adhere to the prophet’s military stratagem. For the next few years the Muslims were denied access to the Ka’aba, the holy shrine in Mecca. However, during these years the Muslims made so many converts that in the year 630 A.D. Muhammad marched peacefully into Mecca at the head of ten thousand men and retook the city. In a deeply symbolic gesture, all of the idols were thrown out of the Ka’aba and smashed; Mecca became the central point worship for Muslims and remains so today. The mosque there can hold over a million people.

In 632 A.D. Muhammad died; his leadership was taken over by Abu Bakr who became the first Caliph or Regent of the Islamic world. The Islamic empire spread raidly, first overtaking the whole of Arabia; and then, in what was perhaps the most rapid military conquest in history, conquering the Byzantine Empire to the West and the Persian Empire to the North and East. Islamic civilisation reached its height as a world empire during the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, with dazzling capitals first in Damascus and then in Baghdad. The Islamic world produced great scientists, astronomers, mathematicians, philosophers and poets. The Arabs, who translated the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, were responsible for the transmission of the works of these thinkers to the Western world in the Middle Ages. Various Islamic empires continued until the early part of the twentieth century when the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

(4) Sources of Authority in Islam:

There are four basic souces of authority in Islam: the first is the Qur’an which Muslims believe to be the direct Word of God as revealed to Muhammad. All the revelations to Muhammad during his lifetime were compiled shortly after his death into the Qur’an, a book whose Arabic text has survived unchanged for over fourteen centuries. The next source of authority is the Sunnah, which refers to the example of the prophet. The Sunnah is known partly through the Hadith which is a collection of sayings attributed to Muhammad. The third source of authority is the Shari’ah, which refers to the body of Islamic law as developed by theologians and jurists over the centuries. Finally, there is ijma, which refers to the consensus of Islamic scholars and theologians on a given issue.

(5) The Five Pillars of Islam:

Islam is often characterised as having five basic pillars. These are: (i) Shahadah or “profession of faith” as in the formula “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Messenger;” (ii) prayer, five times every day: at sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset and night. The idea behind regular prayer is that people don’t forget God; (iii) fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan: this is the month during which the prohet received his first revelation. The purpose of fasting is to promote self-control, spirituality and empathy for the hungry; fasting occurs from sunrise to sunset. During this time, one is not allowed to eat or drink (not even water), to engage in sexual relations or profanities or any kind of indulgence. Pregnant women are forbidden to fast, and children or ill people are exempted; (iv) the fourth pillar is charity or almsgiving; Islam lays great stress on care for the poor and needy; (v) the fifth pillar is the requirement that every Muslim perform a pilgrimage to Mecca once in his or her lifetime.

(6) Islam, Judaism and Christianity:

It is important to realise that Islam is not in principle opposed to Judaism and Christianity; indeed, it sees itself as continuing and reaffirming what is true in these religions. Islam rejects the Christian concepts of the Trinity and the Incarnation: it inisists that God is absolutely One (not three), but it accepts Jesus as a prophet of God. Hence, Jesus, like all the Hebrew prophets, is also a prophet of Islam. When the Qur’an criticises Jews and Christians, it does so for their failure to observe their own faiths. Sometimes the Qur’an speaks very antagonistically about them: it must be remembered that these injunctions originated in particular and unique circumstances and were not intended as stratagems of general policy. The acceptability of these religions to Islam is demonstrated in the fact that a Muslim man is allowed to marry a Jewish or Chrsitian woman.

(7) Islam and Women:

One of the most stubbornly controversial issues concerning Islam is the status of women. Many commentators have held that Islam vastly improved the conditions of women in Mediaeval Arabia, restricting polygamy, abolishing female infanticide, granting women free will in marriage and the ability to initiate divorce, giving them rights of property and inheritance (though not equal to those of men), and even permitting women to assume political government. This argument rests on the view that in pre-Islamic Arabia women had virtually no rights and were treated as chattel, comprising part of the estates of their husbands and fathers. Even Islam’s allowing men to take four wives has been justified by the fact that polygamy was to some extent a solution to the number of excess women who were in need of support. Modern scholars tend to view the nature of the changes between pre-Islamic and Islamic eras as somewhat more complex, claiming for example that before Islam, women performed certain crucial functions as priestesses, prophets and warriors and that Islam narrowed this range of roles.

Certainly, some of the important early women of Islam played a vital part in the growth of the religion. The prophet’s first wife Khadija, a prominent businesswoman, was the first convert to Islam and undoubtedly her social status aided Muhammad in that initial decisive period. Muhammad’s final and youngest wife ‘Aisha, who survived him by many years, was acknowledged as a source of authority regarding the authenticity of the Hadith and was regularly consulted on matters of religious law and custom. She played a decisive part in the first civil war in Islam, over the succession to the Caliphate (official governership of Islam), which generated the schism between Sunni Muslims (followers of the Sunnah or “way” of the prophet) and Shi’ahs or Shi’ites (“followers” of ‘Ali, the first cousin of Muhammad, whose succession they advocated). Other notable women in Islam have included the Sufi mystic Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya (d. 801) of Basra, and the distinguished scholars Umm Hani (d. 1466) and Hajar (b. 1388). The male mystical philosopher Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240) stressed the complementary nature of the sexes as well as the feminine dimension of the Divine.

In modern times, especially from the late nineteenth century onwards, some male modernists such as Muhammad ‘Abduh included among their modernising proposals calls for the reform of women’s education and of laws concerning marriage and divorce. A feminist landmark in Arab society was Qassim Amin’s Tahrir al-Mar’a (The Liberation of Woman) (1899) which generated heated dispute. Feminists of the early twentieth century included Huda Sha’rawi, a founder of the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women (1914), who espoused a Westernised feminism, and Malak Hifni Nassef whose feminism shunned “Western” imperatives such as unveiling. Prominent women writers in the Islamic world have included: the Indian-born novelist Qurratulain Haider; the Irani poet Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-67); and Iraqi-born Nazik Al-Mala’ika (b. 1923), a seminal figure in Modern Arab poetry. More recently, the novelist Nawal El-Saadawi has attempted to expose the psychological and physical abuse of women; the Pakistani poets Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed have explored sensual themes and the psychology of male-female relationships; the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen is currently facing fierce public and governmental anatgonism for her outspoken feminism and atheism. Writers such as Rana Kabbani have pleaded, on the basis of their experience of Western and Islamic cultures, for a dialogue between the values enshrined in each.

Prominent among recent feminist studies of Islam are Fatima Mernissi’s The Veil and the Male Elite (1991) and Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam (1992). Situating Islam’s prescriptions concerning women in historical context, Mernissi’s stimulating book argues that the spirit of Islam’s intentions was to procure equality for women. Ahmed’s treatment of the subject, to which part of the foregoing account is indebted, is also historical. She traces the varying status of women from pre-Islamic times in the Middle East through the gender configurations of successive periods of Islam to the present. At the core of her argument is that while Islam secluded women from a range of activities, Islam has embraced a tension between its “stubbornly egalitarian” ethical vision and the hierarchical structures of marriage pragmatically instituted in Islamic societies. She points out that the Qur’an is remarkable among religious texts in that it is addressed to women as well as men and traces in detail the developments outlined above such as crucial role of women in constructing the verbal texts of Islam and the growth of feminism in the Arab world. She also argues insightfully against a Western-style feminism which uncritically inscribes itself into the old imperialist narratives: Western women assume that they can pursue feminist goals by redefining their cultural heritage but Muslim women, it is implied, can seek such goals only by rejecting their own culture for Western ideals. She also observes the historical linkage of feminism and imperialism: in the late nineteenth century, some male imperialists, such as Lord Cromer, the British Consul General in Egypt, led the attack abroad against Muslim “degradation” of women while being staunchly resistant to feminism at home. Equally, however, Ahmed criticises the stagnant assumption of Islamists that the meaning of gender in the initiatory Islamic society was somehow unambiguous; this meaning, states Ahmed, was contested from the beginning. What we need, she asserts, is a feminism which is informed and vigilantly self-aware. Ahmed’s arguments call for a sensitivity to the cultural construction of values and images: for example, the veil, a symbol in the West for downright oppression in Islam, has a very different range of significance — including that of resistance to oppression — in the Arab world.

(8) Islam and Forgiveness

The Qur’an urges Muslims to forgive Jews and Christians who attempt to turn them away from their faith (II. 109). The Qur’an states that God will forgive all sins except the sin of setting up partners beside God (IV. 48). This represents an idolatrous rebellion against God. In a later chapter the same thing is stated with qualification: “God forgives not The sin of joining other gods With Him; but He forgives Whom he pleases other sins Than this: one who joins Other Gods with God, Has strayed far, far away [From the Right] (IV. 116).

However, as stated in Chapter IV. 18, God accepts the repentance of those who do evil in ignorance and thereafter repent. The Qur’an urges: “seek the forgiveness of God; for God is Often-forgiving, Most Merciful”(IV. 106). Again, it states: “If any one does evil Or wrongs his own soul But afterwards seeks God’s forgiveness, he will find God Often-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (IV. 110). Moreover, those people who support and follow the truth of Divine revelation will have even the worst of their deeds overlooked and will be judged on the basis of their best deeds (XXXIX. 33-35). Even to those who have “transgressed against their souls,” the Qur’an offers encouragement, saying “Do not despair of the Mercy Of God: for God forgives All sins” (XXXIX. 53). Even the angels, the noblest and purest beings, “celebrate The Praises of their Lord, And pray for forgiveness For [all] beings on earth” (XLII. 5), proclaiming thereby God’s infinite mercy. And indeed, those who avoid the major sins will be forgiven (XLII. 37). However, the Qur’an also warns people, that while their sins may be forgiven after repentance, they should not attempt to justify themselves for God “knows best who it is That guards against evil” (LIII. 32). This verse effectively reminds us that God can see into our inmost being, into our deepest minds and our real intentions. The Qur’an also makes it clear that to seek forgiveness from God is to choose the path of God over earthly pleasures and vanities. It states that “The life of this world Is but play and amusement, Pomp and mutual boasting…Be ye foremost [in seeking] Forgiveness from your Lord, And a Garden [of Bliss], Whose width is As the width of Heaven and Earth Prepared for those who believe In God and His apostles; That is the grace of God, Which He bestows on whom He pleases: and God is The Lord of Grace abounding” (LVII.20-21).

In general, people who forgive others will themselves be forgiven, as shown in the following verse: “that [life] Which is with God…Is…for Those who avoid the greater Crimes and Shameful deeds, And, even when they are angry, forgive” (XLII. 36-37). Believers are allowed to defend themselves against tyranny and oppression; they are allowed recompense for wrongs done to them. However, even here the Qur’an lays stress on forgiveness and forbearance, as shown by these words: “if a person Forgives and makes reconciliation, His reward is due From God (XLII. 40). Another verse states: “But indeed if any Show patience and forgive, That would truly be An exercise of courageous will And resolution in the conduct of affairs” (XLII. 43).

There is a very interesting verse in the Qur’an which seems pertinent today: “Tell those who believe, To forgive those who Do not look forward To the Days of God: It is for Him to recompense [for good or ill] each People According to what They have earned (XLV.14). The verses continue: “If anyone does A righteous deed, It endures to the benefit Of his own soul; If he does evil, It works against [His own soul]. In the end will you [All] be brought back to your Lord (XLV. 15). These verses clearly state that believers should not pass judgment on those who are considered unbelievers, and that judgment is the prerogative of God. We should display tolerance and forbearance, recognising that the good or evil that people do will provide its own consequence for them through the agency of the Divine.

Not surprisingly, The Qur’an enjoins the prophet Muhammad to “hold to forgiveness; Command what is right; But turn away from the ignorant” (VII. 199). The practice of forgiveness in the prophet’s own life is often overlooked, even by Muslims. There are numerous examples, of which I will only cite two. When the prophet entered Mecca in 630 A.D. at the head of ten thousand men, he declared a general amnesty for those who had opposed him. He even forgave those who had conspired to assassinate him. A second example is from the early days of the prophet’s mission, when there were many people in Mecca who opposed Islam. One woman in particular hated the prophet; and each day, as he passed her house, she made a habit of throwing garbage upon him. He made no response, except to continue walking. She would pile this garbage up daily in readiness. One day, as the prophet was walking past her house, he noticed that there was no garbage, and inquired as to the woman’s whereabouts. He was told that she was too sick to get up. He went into the woman’s house and spoke kindly to her; his compassion overwhelmed her and she accepted Islam.

(9) Islam and Knowledge

An important aspect of Islam that is often overlooked, both by detractors who attempt to present this religion in its worst light and by those who claim to act in its name, is its emphasis on knowledge. As an historical phenomenon, Islam began with the word “Read” or “Recite,” the first word of revelation from the archangel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad (S). The prophet himself was later to affirm: “The ink of a scholar is more precious than the blood of a martyr,” and “The superiority of a learned man over one who only worships is like the superiority of the moon when it is full, covering the stars” (Mishkat ul-Masabih, Vol. I, 133). Indeed, “acquiring knowledge in company for an hour in the night is better than spending the whole night in prayer” (MM, 147). He insisted that the “search for knowledge is a sacred duty imposed upon every Muslim.” He is also reported as saying: “only two persons are to be envied: the person on whom God bestowed riches, empowering him to spend in the path of righteousness; and the person to whom God gave wisdom, with which he judges, and which he teaches to others” (MM, 126). In another comparison between the person of wealth and the person of knowledge, the prophet (S) stated: “There are two avaricious persons who are never contented. The man of learning and the man of the world, but the two are not equal; the man of knowledge increases in submission to God, while the man of thw world becomes headstrong and defiant” (MM, 149). Indeed, Muhammad (S) stated that the legacy of the prophets was knowledge, and that his own function was that of a teacher (MM, 134, 148).

The prophet (S) made some statements which should be borne in mind by those who claim to represent Islam. Interestingly, he said that a “single scholar of religion is more formidable against a devil than a thousand devout persons” (MM, 135). He suggests that understanding of religion will be refined and renovated over time: God will send to the community “at the end of every century one (scholar or group of scholars) who will give new life to its religion” (MM, 143). These authentic scholars will “rectify the distortions of the extremists, and the falsification of the falsifiers and the interpretations of the ignorant” (MM, 144). However, he warns against abusing the message of the Qur’an and merely pretending to have knowledge of it, for the purposes of personal gain, reputation or inciting quarrels: “He who speaks about the Qur’an without sound knowledge of it will find his abode in hell-fire” (MM, 140). We should talk about anything only if we have knowledge of it; if we do not have knowledge, we should simply state that “It is God who knows best” (MM, 153).

The prophet defined “learned people” as “[t]hose who act according to what they know.” But those who, having knowledge, act wickedly are the worst people of all: “Behold, the worst beings are the wicked among the learned ones and the best are the virtuous among the learned” (MM, 151). The most hateful in the eyes of God, he points out, are the “reciters of the Qur’an who are hypocritical in their actions” (MM, 154). In fact, both those who claim to be genuine reciters and interpreters of the Qur’an and those who claim to martyr themselves in the cause of Islam will be questioned by God: the first person to be questioned on the day of resurrection will be the martyr, who deceitfully says to God: “I fought in Thy cause and died as a martyr.” God will reply: “You are lying: you fought that you might be called a hero, and this was in fact said about you.” God will command that this “martyr” be taken to hell. He will also question the reciter of the Qur’an, who will say to God: “I acquired knowledge and then taught it and recited the Qur’an for Thy pleasure.” God will respond: “You lie. You of course acquired knowledge that you might be called a scholar, and you recited the Qur’an that you might be called the reciter, and you were in fact thus called.” This person, too, was taken to hell (MM, 128-129).

Hence the prophet (S) issues a due caution: “You must carefully see from whom you are receiving knowledge of your religion” (MM, 153). I think that this would be a good starting point for all of us in attempting to understand not only the beliefs of others but our own beliefs and identity. The events of September 11 and after have shown us that we can no longer rely on the visions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam offered by many politicians and certain news networks, people with self-interested political and economic agendas, people whose loud assertiveness is often fuelled by ignorance and promotes ignorance. The so-called “war” between Islam and the West is of their concoction: it has no basis in the beliefs of Islam or in the true character of a democracy. The suicide bomber who claims to act in the name of Islam will find no sanction in the life of the prophet Muhammad, in the Qur’an or in the traditions of Islamic jurisprudence. The TV personalities who present Islam as an essentially violent religion remain wilfully unaware of the complex contexts in which the Qur’an was revealed, as well as of the vast traditions of Islamic philosophy, theology poetry and law.

Fortunately, there are good people – of all creeds – who are attempting to address this problem of ignorance. Many American churches have entered into inter-faith dialogues with Mosques and their congregations are anxious to learn about Islam and its affiliations with Christianity and Judaism. American universities and schools are increasingly fostering a knowledge of various cultures and religions. For their part, many scholars – Muslim and non-Muslim – are writing intelligently on many aspects of Islam, including the status it gives to women, the true meanings of jihad, its emphasis on tolerance and forgiveness, and its connections with other religions. If we wish truly to honour those who have died for the causes of freedom, tolerance and compassion, we must accept a responsibility to do our part in promoting understanding between people of different faiths and cultures, and in acquiring the knowledge that will enable us to do this.