Thursday, December 18, 2008

UNDERSTANDING ISLAM


Islam which means ‘peace’ or ‘submission’ to the will of Allah, is the fastest growing religion in the world-second after Christianity in population, with more than 1.2 billion adherents worldwide and an estimated 5 million residing in the U.S. and growing. A monotheistic religion that has its roots in the Middle East especially in the City of Mecca in Saudi Arabia where it initially originated, majority of followers are concentrated in the Middle East, Africa, in Central Asia, Africa, and in Indonesia with a population of about 200 million with a further 120 million found in India. Islam can be traced back to the religions of Adam and Abraham and is prophesied as a continuation of Judaism and Christianity with Moses and Jesus enjoying higher statuses.

Muslims, adherents of Islam, abide by the Quran and the Sunna-traditions of Prophet Muhammad-both written in the Arabic script. Thus, Islam is a supranational religion-meaning a religion that transcends borders through missionary activities and religious propagation. Islam has been described as “the misunderstood religion” by the West despite being closest in proximity. It is nearer to the West ideologically and geographically. Previously, the West referred to Islam as “Mohammedanism”-a connotation that caused a chorus of disapproval among Muslims who believe that Muhammad was a mouthpiece of Allah, a warner, and a teacher who was sent to deliver a message from the Almighty Allah who is the Creator, Cherisher, and Sustainer of the Heavens and the Earth.

Muslims worship Allah who has no gender, no partner, no associate or helper in His affairs, and who is established on the “Throne of Authority” known as “Arsh” and reclines on a “Kursi” or seat. Islamic belief is centered on the principle of believe in Allah, the angels, the revealed books, the prophets, and the existence of the Day of Judgment.

Muslims believe Adam was the first prophet and the first man created by Allah. He was then followed by a succession of prophets including Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Noah, David, Solomon, Jonah, Zachariah, Moses, Jesus, and many others without making any distinction between them with Muhammad being the last of the prophets or “the Seal of the Prophets.” Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was born in Mecca in 570 C.E. in the “Year of the Elephant” at a time when Arabia was embroiled in antagonism, brigandage, male chauvinism, idol worship, nihilism, gambling and addiction to alcohol. In this period of time known as “Ayamul Jahiliya” in Arabic which translates to “the Era of Ignorance”, there was the absence of law and order and girls were buried alive. It fell in an era when the Kaaba housed 360 idols (one for every day of the lunar year) worshiped by the tribes of Arabia; it was a period of turmoil and paganism and fire worshiping was widespread in the surrounding sphere of influences ruled by ruthless emperors and dangerous feudal warlords.

This year was named the “Year of the Elephant” because, the Viceroy of the Abyssinian Negus in Yemen, Abraha Al- Ashram, incensed by the presence of the Kaaba and its veneration by the Arabian tribes, embarked on a sacrilegious war assisted by thirteen elephants. Earlier, Abraha constructed a colossal temple in Yemen to serve as a substitute of the Kaaba after its total obliteration by his army. Abraha left his power base in Yemen heavily armed with the intention of bringing the forces of Arabia under his supreme command. Consequently, Abraha’s ill-fated show aggression ended in a debacle as divine punishment befell the warring army when a flock of birds known as “Ababeel” rained flaming brimstones that totally annihilated them with the exception of an elephant known as “Mahmud” who disobeyed the command of demolishing the Kaaba. Abraha and his army perished in the surroundings of the Kaaba without fulfilling their distorted designs and outlandish prophesy.

Muhammad was a posthumous child as he never saw his father. While in the care of Halima, an Arab woman who cared for him in his early years, a strange incident happened when an angel split his chest open, removed his heart, washed it in Zamzam (water well near the Kaaba) water and then replaced it. This incident signified the purification of his heart and the removal of all evil. After this incident, Muhammad was returned to his mother, Amina, who then died when he was six and his grandfather, when he was eight. After all these childhood agonies, Muhammad was nurtured by his powerful protector, erudite, and brave uncle Abu Talib. At the age of twenty five, Muhammad married Khadija, a woman with extraordinary business aptitude, veracity, and nobility and who was forty years old at that time. At that time, caravans of merchants traversed the Arabian Peninsula to as far as Syria creating heavy routes between the major cities and the well fortified domains of the Persian and Byzantine Empires, bringing in assortment of goods that proliferated the Arabian markets with food, clothing, and other necessities that boosted tribal demagoguery and hegemony over the less fortunate in the land of the Arabs swollen with pride.

With rampant incredulity in the social fabric of that time, the termination of religious belief due to general human disobedience, and dissatisfaction with the spiritual guidance that existed and the dissipation of adherence to morality, there was need for heavenly intervention. A glimmer of hope started enveloping over Arabia when Muhammad, who was regarded as “The Highly Praised”, “The True”, “The Upright”, and “The Trustworthy One”, progressed into meditation and solitude in a well known cave within Mount Hira in the vicinity of Mecca. Therefore, on the first Night of Power (Leilatul Qadr), when Muhammad had attained age forty, Archangel Gabriel instructed him to: “Proclaim!” and he responded by saying:” I am not a proclaimer.” Thereupon the Angel pressed him harder and harder every time the prophet failed to proclaim until the third time when he was instructed to:
“Proclaim in the name of the Lord who created!
Created man from a clot of blood.
Proclaim: Your Lord is the most Generous,
Who teaches by the pen;
Teaches man what he knew not.” (Qur’an 96:1-3)

It was Khadija, his lovely wife, who turned out to be the first to embrace Muhammad’s teachings as she turned all his burdens into light. Thus, began a chain of revelations that led to the completion of the Qur’an in a period spanning twenty three years in an atmosphere of ridicule, pinpricks of laughter, petty insults and hoots of mockery. Muhammad preached equality of races before the Lord, led an administration that was a blend of justice and mercy, and created a superb statecraft that united a five heterogeneous society, in the City of Medina-three of which were Jews, into a solid and organized confederacy. In 622, Muhammad, preceded by an entourage of migrants, settled in Yathrib, also known as Medinat-al-Nabi (City of the Prophet) later changing name simply to Medina, “the city.” However, as was established by the Lord, Muhammad departed the world in A.D.632 (10 A.H. after the Hijra) with almost all of Arabia under his command.

The ensuing years saw the expansion of Islam under the rightly-guided Caliphs: Abu-Bakr, Omar, Othman, and Ali. Driven by religious passion and absolute heroism in the battleground, the Islamic Caliphate finally reached Palestine, Armenia, Persia, Syria, Iraq, North Africa, and Spain finally crossing into the Pyrenees in France. The Battle of Tours under Charles Martel in 1733 halted the penetration of Muslim forces to their desired destinations otherwise the entire West would have been under Islamic rule today.

The Five Pillars of Islam
For one to be part of the Islamic community it is a requirement upon the sane and the able-bodied, male and female, to declare with honesty and assurance, the ‘creed’ or ‘shahada’ (profession of faith)- which is the fundamental obligation before one can be called a Muslim. “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger” is the first testimony of faith.

The second pillar of Islam is ‘Salat’ or Prayer which requires a continuous observation of the five daily obligatory prayers that fall under the basic requirements. These daily prayers are to be strictly observed at certain timings of the day in congregations inside of a mosque or in solitude at home or at work during the hours of dawn, at noon, in mid-afternoon, at sundown and at night. Regardless of where one is located in the world, these prayers are compulsory until death. All Muslims turn their faces toward the Kaaba in Mecca whether performing obligatory or supererogatory prayers. Also, the faces of the dead must be directed toward Mecca at burial. It has been proven beyond reasonable doubt that prayers inculcate compassion and honesty, guard mental and body health, increase cleanliness and hygienic adherence, and deter evil inclinations.

The third pillar of Islam is alms giving also known as Zakat and it is a form of social interdependence where the wealthy give a share of their wealth to the needy so as to eliminate poverty, destitution, and other factors that may be an obstacle to the welfare of the Muslim community and the world at large. A financially able Muslim is required to give away 2.5% of his/her wealth in charity every year in the month of Zakat. Also, Muslims are encouraged to contribute or donate to mosques, charity organizations, to the wayfarers, the orphans, and to the insolvent on a continuous basis. There are several verses in the Quran that exhort Muslims to donate as this act carries a great reward before Allah. Thus, ‘Zakat’ equally applies to the ruler of the state and the income generating able-bodied laborer regardless of age, gender, national origin, or race.

The fourth pillar of Islam is to fast (Sawm) thirty days in the month of Ramadan. This is the month the Holy Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad by Allah. In this month, Muslims abstain from food, drinks, smoking, vulgar language, and sexual intercourse with partners during daytime. It begins at dawn and runs up to sunset when Muslims break their fast with dates, water, and other available edible foods.
The fifth pillar of Islam calls for financially able Muslims to perform the once-in-a-lifetime ‘Hajj’ or pilgrimage to Mecca. This act is a continuation of the tradition of Prophet Abraham. Muslims from all walks of life converge on to Mecca and then onto Medina in Saudi Arabia to give thanks to the creator and Sustainer of the universe and also to show gratitude and acknowledge His Oneness. The Hajj is considered the largest social gathering according to universal consensus.
Compassion and Social Justice.

Besides the five pillars of Islam, Muslims have other obligations to Allah and to humankind. Compassion and social justice is outlined in a system of laws known as ‘Shariah’ which requires the wealthy to donate generously to the poor so that no stomach sleeps hungry.

Jihad
The most misunderstood concept about Islam is the term ‘Jihad’ which has caused great uproar in the world. It generally means a rigorous fight against all sorts of discrimination. The first and foremost requirement of a Muslim is to wage war against one’s own prejudice, transgression, and constraint before looking at the social evils that bedevil others. Listening to the kind words of those endowed with knowledge as they rehearse and interpret the authentic verses of the Holy Quran will best alleviate the wrong misconceptions about Islamic monotheism.

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