The different faces of Islam
March 14 2002 by George W. Braswell Jr. , Special to the Biblical Recorder

The different faces of Islam | Friday, March 15, 2002

Friday, March 15, 2002

The different faces of Islam

By George W. Braswell Jr. Special to the Biblical Recorder

I am in agreement with Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul when he writes, "Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands"(Page xi in Beyond Belief). I come to this agreement after teaching Muslim clergy at the Faculty of Islamic Theology of the University of Teheran, Iran, during 1968-1974, and after attending preaching and praying events in tens of mosques around the world, and after hours of discussions with Muslims in their homes and mosques and around tables of food and cups of tea,

Religions facilitate the display of many faces among their followers and to outsiders. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks upon the United States, many around the world quickly affirmed Islam as a peaceful religion that embraces freedom of religion, emphasizes purity of belief, and has characteristics in common with Judaism and Christianity. These things are true: but Islam has other faces, too. Islam can be warlike, can restrict freedom of religion, can be contaminated by folk religion, and can be seen as vastly different from Judaism and Christianity.

Islam as an aggressive missionary religion Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, founded the first Muslim community (the ummah) in Medina, Saudi Arabia, during the years 622-632 A.D. Muhammed believed he had received revelations from Allah in heaven by means of the angel Gabriel. Muhammad became prophet, judge, leader and commander-in-chief of the community of Muslims. "Islam" meant submission to the straight path of Allah and to follow Muhammad as the final prophet.

Muhammad waged battles against tribes that would not convert to the teachings and practices of Islam or which refused to capitulate to live under its rules and regulations.

Islam advanced rapidly after Muhammad's death in 632 A.D. and became predominant in much of the Middle East, North Africa, Spain and South and Central Asia by 800 A.D. Its advance in recent times has led it to become the world's second largest religion with about 1.3 billion followers.

The heartland of Islam has its origins in the Middle East and the Arabian peninsula, but the four largest populations of Muslims are convert peoples in Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. These represent about 43 percent of Muslim peoples. Islam has become the second largest religion of Europe and the United States.

The worldview of Islam classically has divided the world into the territory of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the territory of the ignorant or the infidel, and consequently of the enemy and war (Dar al-Harb). The missionary imperative of Islam has been founded on this view that it has the correct doctrine, practice, law and way of life that is superlative to any other. Therefore, all peoples should become Muslim or submit to Islam's authority and governance.

Contemporary Islam finds many expressions among Muslim nations and peoples. Saudi Arabia looks to the Quran and the Shariah (law) for its Islamic foundations, allowing no churches upon its soil and permitting no non-Muslims to enter the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Ayatollah Khomeini founded the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, dismissing Christian missionaries and placing restrictions on the native synagogues and churches. The Islamic Republic of the Sudan was founded on an attempt to apply Islamic laws upon the people. Pakistan, since its inception as a new nation breaking away from India in 1947, has struggled from election to election in terms of how Islamic its constitution and governance would be. The Taliban of Afghanistan implemented a view and practice of Islam that included the destruction of Buddhist monuments and the seclusion of women from the public arena.

Since World War II, revolutionary movements in the Levant, Egypt, India, Pakistan and other countries have initiated aggression against their own governments as well as other nations in order to implement their own visions of "ideal Islam" in a political and social order. Names like Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hezbollah and many others have been prevalent in portraying certain Muslim aspirations for a new expression of Islam based on the classical ideas and practices of Prophet Muhammad and the early caliphs.

Is Islam a religion of peace and war? Yes, it is. The thousands of Muslims I have met in classes, homes, mosques, and commerce have been very peaceful people. I could not have met a more hospitable and peaceful people. The very greeting of Muslims is one of peace.

However, the religion Islam was born in an ethos of violence. Its history and expansion have witnessed violence. Much of its missionary approach has emphasized the three options of conversion to Islam, capitulation to its governance with restricted citizenship, or engagement in war through the personal jihad of a Muslim or through a holy war jihad of a Muslim nation or Muslim group.

Questions of freedom of religion Prophet Muhammad established his religion in the face of much hostility, opposition and violence. From his birthplace in Mecca, he preached against the polytheism of his kinsmen and other tribes. They threatened his life and the lives of his few followers so that Muhammad fled to Medina, where he established his Islamic community founded on the revelations later codified in the Quran. Various tribes around Medina, including Jewish tribes, were approached to join the new Muslim "nation." Muhammad unleashed his warriors against those who did not, leading his warriors into some 27 battles himself and sending them into 39 other battles. By his death in 632 A.D., Muhammed had recaptured Mecca, cleansed it of its polytheistic idols, and established it and the Kaba, a holy site, as the direction of prayer five times a day for all Muslims. Also, Muslims were to make their pilgrimage to this holy city.

Jews and Christians who would not convert were tolerated by the Muslim authorities as "People of the Book," and required to pay a poll tax and live under certain restrictions as minorities within the Islamic community, being prohibited from proselytizing Muslims.

Thus the policy of convert, capitulate or conflict was Muhammed's pattern in relations to non-Muslims.

Throughout its history, Islam has faced a challenge in its relations with non-Muslims, and with its own Muslims who desired to leave Islam for another religious tradition. The apostasy of Muslims leaving their religion has been dwelt with harshly. Punishments have included banishments from the home and community, beatings, imprisonment and death. When in the majority, with political, constitutional and police power, Islam has exemplified a pattern of the subjugation of non-Muslims. Likewise, it has imposed great restrictions upon non-Muslims to practice their religions in liberty and freedom.

Islamic orthodoxy and Muslim folk religion Islam is the religion par excellence with prescriptions for religious life. Muslims know exactly what practices they must do, for the Quran tells them. They do not have to wonder or guess what is pleasing to Allah, for they have a daily, monthly and yearly calendar to follow. Rituals and ceremonies are explicitly detailed in the Quran.

Six orthodox practices prescribed are confession (shahada), giving (zakat), prayers (salat), fasting (ramadan), pilgrimage (haj), and both offensive and defensive struggle and warfare on behalf of Allah (jihad).

These practices are founded upon belief in Allah as the god who does not share his nature with anyone or anything. Muslims also believe in angels, in prophets with Muhammad being the final prophet, in sacred scriptures with the Quran being the inerrant, infallible and last perfect word from Allah, and in a great judgment for all humankind that results in assignment to either paradise or hell.

All Muslims of every race, nation and language must believe and practice these essentials of the religion. Non-Arab Muslims must become Arabized to the extent that they memorize enough Arabic language to say the formal prayers five times daily, to claim the Arab history of their Prophet Muhammad and Islam's centuries of growth and expansion, and to adopt the holy Arab places of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. The majority of the Muslims of the world are not Arab; however, they must be deeply influenced and committed to Arab language, history and places.

Most Muslims of the world are converts made by Arab warriors, merchants and missionaries. For example, Indonesia and Iran are convert peoples who brought traditions of their own cultures and religions into their acceptance of Islam. The same is true of other peoples of Africa and Asia. As a result, the orthodoxy of Islam has been influenced by traditions such as venerating and praying to saints.

This blend of orthodoxy and popular religion is called folk Islam. A Muslim may say highly formal and structured prayers in the Arabic language five times a day in a mosque led by the Imam and also in the same day offer prayers to a saint in the vernacular language voicing concerns of need from the heart. In short, many Muslims pray formally to Allah out of Quranic command and traditional habit, while at the same time they practice an informal religion of voicing needs from the heart to someone who they expect will hear them and respond. It may be said that millions of Muslims practice a folk religion of Islam mixed with magic, superstition, the occult and a variety of Muslim folk heroes and saints.

Kenneth Cragg, eminent Christian missiologist and Islamic scholar, has pointed out that although the concept of Allah is deep and complex, the many names of Allah do not describe his essence but only his will and law. Allah is independent of his creation. He gives his law. People are to submit to it. Allah cannot be called father; neither can he share his nature. He is one, sovereign and lord (al-Rabb), while humans are slave servants (Abd) who respond in submission (Islam).

Islam's affirmations and denials of Jesus Since Islam's inception between 622 and 623 A.D., relations between Christianity and Islam have been at best lukewarm and at worst have been of ignorance and conflict. Both Christians and Muslims remember the era of the crusades as the most troublesome of times.

There are similarities between the two religions. They include belief in one God, angels, prophets, a sacred book, and a worldview and practice of similar ethics and morality with emphasis on prayer and family values. However, there are significant differences within these beliefs and practices.

Perhaps the greatest point of divergence between Islam and Christianity is the belief about the nature and mission of Jesus. The Quran states many positive and significant beliefs about Jesus, and every Muslim must accept them because the Quran says so. Jesus is one of the prophets. He is called messiah, word of God, spirit of God and born of the Virgin Mary. The Quran states that Jesus performed miracles and raised someone from the dead. Prophet Muhammad is given none of these titles and descriptions in the Quran.

Islam thus calls upon Muslims to honor their prophets, including Jesus, and attributes to Jesus reverential descriptions.

Traditions about Jesus outside the Quran have also influenced Muslims. They include views of Jesus returning from heaven at judgment time to defeat the antichrist, become a Muslim, kill all swine, break all crosses, marry and have children, and assist Allah in the final judgment day.

As much as Islam affirms some significant attributes of Jesus in the Quran, it denies the very beliefs about Jesus upon which Christian faith and practice are founded. The Quran denies the divinity of Jesus, the incarnation of Jesus, the Trinitarian understanding of Jesus, the crucifixion of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. In these great denials, Islam has no room in its teachings about God sending his Son into the world because of humanity's sinfulness and making possible the forgiveness of sin with the Son's death on the cross through crucifixion. Nor does it have room for the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb for victory over sin and death. Where Roman historians and the biblical record and other spokespersons of other world religions acknowledge the fact of the crucifixion, Islam denies it because the Quran says so.

Thus, Islam differs with biblical Christianity not only in its understanding and description of Jesus, but also in its own theology of the concept of God, of humanity, of sin and of salvation. Islam believes humanity's problem is one of basic ignorance, which can be overcome by proper knowledge and the straight path of the beliefs and strict practices of Islamic law, rituals and ceremonies.

Conclusion Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, after it became clear that Islamic extremists were responsible, much was said about the peacefulness of the religion Islam and that the terrorists were a miniscule representation of Muslim peoples.

Muslim spokespersons often condemned the attack upon America, saying that Islam was a peaceful religion and that innocent people were never to be attacked in such a way. Others said that although the attack was to be condemned, there were reasons for it including American foreign policy of favoritism of Israel against the Palestinian people and the lack of American support for Muslim people and their plights around the world. It was difficult to find any Muslim spokesperson in the mass media to unequivocally condemn the attack and to state that the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad and the traditions (Hadith) emphatically condemned such action.

In my study and experience with Islam and with Muslim people, there often has been a vast difference between official Islam and popular Islam, between what the Quran and the Hadith state and what Muslims in their homes and classes and at work say. I know peaceful Muslims. I have known angry, agitated and hostile Muslims in their views of what they called western imperialism and colonialism and a corrupted Judaism and Christianity. I have known Muslims who respected me as a Christian and a follower of Jesus (Isa). I have known some Muslims who voiced the superiority of Islam over all other religions and political and cultural systems and indicated that one day it would be triumphant.

History has taught that Islam is an aggressive religion, having become the second largest in the world. Examples of Islam around the globe where it has predominance in numbers and political power demonstrate that it has difficulty dealing with the questions of freedom of religion. Tens of millions of Muslims practice some form of folk Islam that deviates from orthodoxy and introduces into their lives a need that official Islam seemingly does not meet. And Christianity and Islam, although neighbors in similarities of religious history and views about Bible figures and Jesus, are vastly dissimilar in their beliefs about the nature and mission of Jesus and about the meaning of sin and salvation. The two religions are worlds apart on matters of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and therefore on the nature of sin and its remedy in the salvation offered in Jesus Christ.

(EDITOR'S NOTE - George W. Braswell is Distinguished Professor of Missions and World Religions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Further information on Islam and Muslim peoples may be found in his books Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics, and Power [Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1996] and What You Need To Know About Islam and Muslims [Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2000.)

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3/14/2002 11:00:00 PM by George W. Braswell Jr. , Special to the Biblical Recorder | with 0 comments
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