Friday, July 15, 2011

Religion Friday: Islam

Oh, Islam. That religion everyone around here talks about but few actually know. Actually, over a billion followers know quite a bit. It is the second largest and the fastest growing religion in the world. And like every large religion, it has its share of fundamentalists that has given the faith an extreme and suspicious reputation.

But Islam is one of the religions of Abraham, meaning there is plenty in common for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to share. Islam was founded by the prophet Mohammad. In 610, he was visiting a cave on the outskirts of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where he was visited by an angel who told him that he was to be a prophet. He preached that people should follow the one true God (Allah) instead of pagan gods or materialism. He was believed to be the last of a long line of prophets, including Moses and Jesus. It’s interesting to note here that Muslims believe Jesus to be a prophet; they believe in the virgin birth and that he did many miracles, just not that He is the son of God. Of all non-Christian faiths, I’d say Islam views Jesus the most favorably.

Islamic practices center around the 5 Pillars: confession of faith, prayer (5 times a day), fasting, pilgrimage, alms. Ramadan is the month of fasting, where adults abstain from sunrise to sunset. It falls on the ninth month of their calendar, marking the month the Koran was revealed to the people. The Koran is the sacred text which is believed to have been revealed to Mohammad over his life’s work as prophet. Muslims believe the text to be literally from Allah, therefore, it remains in its original seventh century Arabic. This universal use of traditional Arabic for religious purposes, in my opinion, is what makes the Islamic faith so strong across so many of the Arab states. Just as Catholic Mass is pretty much the same universally, reading of the Koran is familiar across the borders of nation or language.

Islam literally means “submission,” which basically sums up the faith. The purpose of life is to submit to Allah through the 5 Pillars to attain His favor. Humans are born good, but are distracted from Allah by material or selfish means. Submission will fix the soul.

Muslims face toward Mecca during their five daily prayers, as this is where Mohammad first spoke with the angel. They worship in mosques led by imams, or spiritual leaders, but there is no hierarchy beyond that in the faith (although some nations that are Muslim have political/spiritual hierarchies). There are two main braches of Islam: Sunni and Shiite which split over the debate of who would lead the faith after the death of Mohammad.

While the West generally holds a negative view of Islam for cultural reasons (sexism, polygamy, distrust of West, fundamental jihadists), there is some aspects of Islam I admire, specifically the concentration of submission. While a relationship with God should be personal, it’s not all about you. Faith should bring you peace, but it doesn’t guarantee you get what you want. Many Christians see the rapid growth and spread of Islam (especially into Europe) and the jihadists and think Islam is Christianity biggest enemy. I would place it third. It certainly had the momentum to take over Europe, which has been the Christian stronghold for centuries. In that respect, I would acknowledge it as a threat. Number two would be secularism. Islam is only taking over Europe because natural-born Europeans have rapidly declining faith (and birth rate). Secularism is what takes Christians away. The lack of belief in anything is also growing rapidly. The mistrust of religious institutions, the doubts of the supernatural, the arrogance of not acknowledging a higher being is a threat to all religions, not just Christianity. But threat number one to Christianity as an institution, of course, is ourselves. The fractioning and inner-fighting among Christians pushes people away. How can Christianity be The Way, The Truth when there are over 30,000 ways and 30,000 variations of truth? And the number one threat to Christianity as a faith is forgetting the basics: belief, devotion, humility, charity. If we paid attention to our Muslim neighbors instead of protest against their veils and mosques, maybe we could learn some valuable lessons in submission, inshallah.

Next Friday: Druze

[The star and crescent symbol is the most well-known symbol for Islam, appearing on many Muslim nations’ flags. However, it is not a religious symbol, but a leftover icon of the Ottoman Empire, who used the symbol wherever it spread the faith. The image itself was probably taken by the empire from an earlier, polytheistic faith.]

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