Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.
Islam is the last of the three Western religions to form, so its basic tenets reflect Judaism and Christianity to some extent. Islam shares some features with Judaism and Christianity:
1. Islam is a historic religion rather than a mythical religion, so it matters the key figures actually lived.
2. Islam has a clear concept of law, giving its followers guidelines for daily life and worship.
3. Islam is a religion of the Book – the Koran. The scriptures of Islam are clearly defined, coming from one source, the prophet Mohammed.
People often think of Islam as being invented by the prophet Mohammed, but it would be more responsible to view the religion as a reform of Bedouin polytheism, adopting many of the existing terms and traditions.
The Prophet Mohammed
The prophet Mohammed had an unusual childhood, his father dead before he was born in 570, his mother dying when he was a young child, his grandfather passing on when the boy still needed a family. His uncles introduced him to trading, and he learned rapidly about camel caravans. In Mecca, Mohammed was considered a dreamer and looked down upon for his lack of wealth, position, and military prowess. These attitudes greatly influenced future events.
Mohammed met and married a wealthy woman 15 years his senior. His marriage hurt him in the eyes of his contemporaries, but it gave Mohammed his first chance to make a mark in the world of trade, where he was successful in managing his wife’s business. He began to have visions and announced that he was the prophet of God, appointed by Gabriel. Most people dismissed him as a crank or a mental case, but he began to draw a group of followers around himself, starting with his wife and relatives.
Most people think that Mohammed did not write down his visions but recited them to his followers, who wrote them down and codified them in the Koran. Mohammed was skillful in his use of the Arabic style of poetry, but he was probably scorned for being unable to write. Poets and storytellers vied with each other for the esteem of the public. Mohammed had many rivals in this popular culture.
Tensions built up in Mecca, especially after the death of Mohammed’s first wife. Her family stopped protecting Mohammed, so it was wise for him to leave the city. He settled in Medina, making it the second holy city for Islam. From Medina Mohammed staged raids on the camel caravans of his rivals in Mecca, even during the holy season of Ramadan. Some of the first efforts were not successful, but they proved annoying to the Mecca merchants. Mohammed surprisingly defeated the Mecca army sent to destroy him and his followers. Mecca then capitulated to Mohammed and accepted his rule. After Mohammed’s death in 632 there was another attempt to sweep Islam from the country. Instead, Islamic forces won the day and began an expansion that took Jerusalem a few years later, then grew until Constantinople fell in 1453. Vienna itself was threatened in 1530.
Islamic military might was so great during the Reformation that it helped establish the Lutheran Church in Germany. Charles V, the Catholic ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, wanted to destroy Luther and the Reformation in Germany. However, he was so busy fighting the Islamic armies that the Lutherans and other Protestants were able to establish their teaching, churches, and colleges.
Bedouin Religion before Mohammed
The moon-god Allah already existed before Mohammed declared him to be the only god. The Kaaba shrine was already established in Mecca. The Kaaba is probably a meteorite. They were worshiped in ancient times as sacred objects. Mohammed’s innovation was to denounce the many deities worshiped at the Kaaba. At one point he allowed for the daughters of Allah (who were especially venerated) in the Koran, but those verses were removed later and called “The Satanic Verses.” That is the origin of the controversial book by Salmon Rushie.
The practice of walking around the Kaaba was well established before Mohammed. The circumambulation is still one of the features of the pilgrimage (Hadj) today. The pilgrimage is an obligation of Islamic men, earning them the right to add Hadj to their names. This led to one of the more interesting episodes in Arizona history. The government tried to create a camel corps in Arizona, bringing several herds over with a native driver. His name was Hadj-Ali, so he was nicknamed Hi Jolly. The monument to Hi Jolly can be found on the border of Arizona and California, in Quartzite, a town that seems to have been imported from Arabia.
The Five Pillars of Islam
Pilgrimage is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The other four are:
1. Imam – Faith in the One God.
2. Salah – Prayer five times a day.
3. Zakah – Charity.
4. Sawm – Fasting during Ramadan.
Islam is relatively easy to study and to teach, because the basic doctrines are codified and relatively standard. One can even get on the Internet and calculate his Zakah obligation for the year, based on income, animal herds, 401k plans, and property.
Some will claim that Islam has no priesthood, but in fact the religious leaders of Islam are also political leaders as well. Although the influence of Islam varies in each country, no other world religion is so closely tied with political rule in so many areas.
1. What are you learning new about Islam this week? How is this helping your understanding?
2. Which of the Five Pillars of Islam is the most mysterious to you? Pretend you are teaching the class in person. Which pillar would make you study more.
3. Explain what is most interesting to you about the life of Mohammed?