A Layman's Islam

Many people know that al-Islam begins and ends with the Law: salvation depends entirely upon how well humans keep this law. Al-Islam translates, “The Submission” (i.e. to God, and to nature). Yet, like Christians, they regard God (“Allah”) to be merciful. Despite divergent beliefs, Islamic thought and practice have a markedly Christian ‘look and feel’; and if we brush back to find our common roots, we may realize just how much this is so. Al-Islam follows a continuum of prophets elected by God to mediate divine oracles and to catalyze reformation in the religious context of their day; to save people from Hell, and lead them to God’s presence in Heaven. Their list includes familiar names as Noah, Moses, Solomon, and Jesus; therefore, Christians and Jews are fellow people with revealed truths (even if, as Muslims believe, their respective teachers had corrupted the prophets’ words along the way). As a result, Allah sent Mohammad as the final apostle to end all questions about the true religion. The Muslim creed (inscribed on the flag of Syria) is simple enough: “There is no god but Allah; Mohammed is His prophet”.

Muslims pray, fast, and gather regularly for fellowship. But these days and rituals are markedly different: Friday is their Sunday; the month of Ramadan (early-late summer, according to the lunar cycle) is their Lent; and pork is off-limits perpetually. Unlike Christians, Islamic fasts and hours of prayer are both obligatory and meant to be witnessed by others.

Like Christians, Muslims honour Jesus and New Testament saints like the Virgin Mary and Gabriel, though their beliefs around these figures varies somewhat. Jesus (“Isa”) was a prophet, born of a virgin. But Isa’s divinity and his humiliation on the cross are believed to be fabrications of his followers. Similar to his function in the Bible, Gabriel announces oracles to humanity; according to Muslim thought, he recited the Qur’an before Muhammad directly. For this reason, “Qur’an” means literally “The Recitation”.

The opening chapter of the Qur’an (the “Fatihah”) is not only the shortest, but one of great importance to the faith. Throughout history, devout Muslims have committed it to memory and recite it before going on long journeys, making pacts, and other societal functions. Similar to the Lord’s Prayer, which is made up of seven petitions, the Fatihah contains seven verses: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate! Praise be to God of all creation, the Merciful, the Compassionate, king of Judgement Day. We worship You; we ask You for help. Guide us along the straight path, the path of those You have favoured, those who incur no anger and do not go astray.”

Contradictions within Islamic thought—for instance, the differences between Muslim and Kosher eating—are dealt with through the principle of abrogation. Any doctrine or practice that was developed later supplants one that came before it. Therefore, the Qur’an supersedes the Gospel and the Pentateuch. Mohammed’s earliest disciples foresaw doctrinal disputes in the future, and elected a Caliph (successor) in the cities of Mecca to guard a proper understanding of the Qur’an, supposedly handed down from the companions of Mohammad. This makes his intended function similar to the Roman Catholic Pope.

Muslims in the largest communion are known as “Sunni,” named for the associated headdress. The Ottomans primarily belong to Sunni, as do the most famous law schools and philosophical tracts of al-Islam; however, this tradition is no stranger to ascetic mysticism. This broadness of belief casts the umbrella over names such as scholar Averroes (who directly influenced Thomas Aquinas) and erotic poet Rumi. Also, medieval Muslims and Christians co-founded the university. Today there exist tensions between orthodox Muslims over whether antiquated or new theories are more trustworthy, and where the line within scripture divides the literal from the adaptable.

If Sunnis correspond to Western Christianity, then Shi’ites are Eastern. They represent a reasonably radical sect (whose orthodoxy is nonetheless recognized) that broke off long ago from the majority over Mohammed’s line of succession. Many know the special emphasis Shi’itism places on martyrdom and theocracy. Most followers of Shi’itism were the Safavids, remembered for their policies of eradicating the different-believing peoples they conquered. Because the Safavids are ancestors of modern Iraq and Iran, we often imagine Shi’ites when we think Islam. But, like the Crusaders of old or the more contemporary Ku Klux Klan, their minority and extremism are worth noting.

The resemblance between Christianity and al-Islam is a thing I will take with me into the wide world. The two faiths are so similar that for centuries, influential Christian writers, fathers and reformers categorized Islam as a heresy that did not confess the divinity of Christ. Perhaps, by tracing our own ancestry and traditions, we can present a Christianity that is relatable to Muslims. Knowing this, they may become more equipped to distinguish the church of Jesus from that of Isa. Jesus “keeps no record of wrongs” (Psalm 130; 1 John 1:9), he is the summary of Scripture (John 5), and reconciles God with man (Col. 1:20; Romans 5:1; John 5:18). Despite the similarities, to my mind these doctrines make all the difference.

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