What is Islam?
By Paul Salahuddin Armstrong
The word “Islam” is an Arabic word which means “submission to the will of God”. This word comes from the same root as the Arabic word “Salam”, which means “Peace”. As such, the religion of Islam teaches that in order to achieve true peace of mind and surety of heart, one must submit to God and bring one’s life in accordance to the Divine will. The most important truth that God revealed to mankind is that there is nothing divine or worthy of being worshipped except for Almighty God, hence it’s wise to recognise and submit to this truth.
Who are the Muslims?
The word “Muslim” means one who submits to the will of God, regardless of their race, nationality or ethnic background. Being a Muslim entails recognising and submitting to God’s will, while doing one’s level best to live in accordance with His message. Some people mistakenly believe that Islam is just a religion for Arabs, but nothing could be further from the truth. Not only are there converts to Islam in every corner of the world, especially in England and America, but by taking a look at the Muslim World from Bosnia to Nigeria, and from Indonesia to Morocco, one can clearly see that Muslims come from many various races, ethnic groups and nationalities. It is also interesting to note that in actual fact, more than 80% of all Muslims are not Arabs – there are more Muslims in Indonesia than in the whole Arab World! So even though it is true that most Arabs are Muslims, the large majority of Muslims are not Arabs. However, anyone who submits completely to God and worships Him alone is a Muslim.
Islam and the Message of Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus:
In many respects, Islam is not a new religion because recognition of and submitting to the Divine will (i.e. the very definition of “Islam”), is a central message of virtually all holy scriptures, which other religions of the world are based upon. Divine will is itself manifested in natural laws, such as the laws of physics, like gravity and thermodynamics. For this reason, one can say Islam is the “natural religion” and is the same eternal message revealed throughout history to all of God’s creation.
Muslims believe that all of God’s prophets, which include Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon them, brought the same message highlighting the Oneness of God, who is merciful and kind to all His creation. Thus, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was not the founder of a new religion, as many people mistakenly think, but he was the Final Prophet of Islam (i.e. He brought people to and finalised the same Divine message espoused by all true prophets of God).
Through the revelation of His final message to Prophet Muhammad, which is an eternal and universal message for all of mankind, God finally fulfilled the covenant that He made with Abraham, who was one of the earliest and greatest prophets. Suffice to say that the way of Prophet Muhammad is the same as the way of Prophet Abraham, because both the Bible and the Qur’an portray Abraham as a towering example of someone who submitted himself completely to God and worshipped Him in the purest manner, without ascribing any partners to Almighty God.
Once this is realised, it should be clear that Islam has the most continuous and universal religious message throughout history, as all the prophets and messengers were “Muslims”, i.e. in the sense that they submitted to God’s will and promoted “Islam”, i.e. the recognition of and submission to the will of the One true God, a message encouraging conscious of the pure Oneness and Unity of God.
The Oneness of God (or Monotheism):
The foundation of the Islamic faith is a belief in the Oneness of Almighty God – the God of Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus. Islam teaches that a pure belief in One God is intuitive in human beings and thus fulfils the natural inclination of the soul. As such, Islam’s concept of God is straightforward, unambiguous and easy to understand.
Islam teaches that the hearts, minds and souls of human beings are fitting receptacles for clear divine revelation, and that God’s revelations to man are not clouded by self-contradictory mysteries or irrational ideas. As such, Islam teaches that even though God cannot be fully comprehended and grasped by our finite human minds, He also does not expect us to accept absurd or demonstrably false beliefs about Him. According to the teachings of Islam, Almighty God is absolutely One and His Oneness should never be compromised by associating partners with Him – neither in worship nor in belief. Due to this, Muslims are required to maintain a direct relationship with God, and therefore all intermediaries are absolutely forbidden. From the Islamic standpoint, believing in the Oneness of God means to realise that all prayer and worship should be exclusively for God, and that only He alone is truly deserving of such worship.
Some religions, even though they believe in “One God”, do not make all of their worship and prayers for Him alone, even elevating beings that are not All-Knowing, All-Powerful and Un-Changing to divine status, even though such beliefs are untenable according to their own scriptures.
However, Islam teaches it is not enough that people believe that “God is One”, but they should be striving to live in accordance with their beliefs, through how they worship and how they live their daily lives. In short, in the Islamic concept of God, which is completely based on Divine Revelation, there is no ambiguity in divinity – God is God and man is man. Since God is the only Creator and continual Sustainer of the Universe, He cannot be compared or confused with His creation – a comparison between a mushroom and the sun isn’t even touching upon how incomparable a creature is with the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth!
Islam teaches that God has a unique nature and that He is free from gender, human weaknesses and beyond anything which human beings can imagine. The Qur’an teaches us that the signs and proofs of God’s wisdom, power and existence are evident in the world around us. As such, God calls on man to ponder over the creation in order to build a better understanding of his Creator. Muslims believe that God is Loving, Compassionate and Merciful, and that He is concerned with the daily affairs of human beings. In this, Islam strikes a unique balance between false religious and philosophical extremes. While some religions and philosophies portray God as just an impersonal “Higher Power” who is uninterested or even unaware of the lives of each individual human being, other religions tend to give God human qualities and teach that He is present in His creation, by being incarnate in someone, something – or even everything.
Islam stresses that Almighty God has clarified the truth, by letting mankind know that He is Compassionate, Merciful, Loving and the Answerer of Prayers. But that God also emphasised strongly that “there is nothing like unto Him” and that He is in no way dependent upon time, space and His creation; rather all creation is completely dependent upon the Creator.
Finally, it should be mentioned that the God which Muslims worship, is the same God that Jews and Christians worship – as there is indeed only One God. It is unfortunate that some people mistakenly believe that Muslims worship a different God than Jews and Christians, and that “Allah” is just the “god of the Arabs”. This myth, which has been propagated by the enemies of Islam, is completely false, since the word “Allah” is simply the name “God” in Arabic. Indeed, Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians use the same name “Allah” in their own prayers, and Christians even call Jesus “ibn Allah” – “son of God”.
However, it should be clarified, that even though Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians, there is some variation in the conception of God in the beliefs of each of these religions. Jews and Muslims for instance, reject the Christian belief that God is a Trinity, not only because both the Torah and Qur’an reject this, but also because if this was God’s true nature, He would surely have revealed this clearly to Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus and all of the other prophets.
The Holy Qur’an:
The Arabic words “Al Qur’an” literally mean “the recitation”. When used in regards to Islam, the word Qur’an means God’s final message to mankind that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an, sometimes spelled Koran, is believed by Muslims to be the literal word of God – as it clearly says time and time again. Unlike other sacred scriptures, the Qur’an has been perfectly preserved in both its words and meaning in a living language. The Qur’an is a living miracle in the Arabic language; and is known to be inimitable in its style, form and spiritual impact. God’s final revelation to mankind, the Qur’an, was revealed to Prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years. The Qur’an, in contrast to many other religious books, was always considered to be the Word of God by those who believed in it, i.e. it wasn’t something decreed by a religious council many years after being written. Also, the Qur’an was recited publicly in front of both Muslim and non-Muslim communities during the life of Prophet Muhammad.
The entire Qur’an was completely written down during the lifetime of the Prophet, and numerous companions of the Prophet memorised the entire Qur’an word-for-word as it was revealed. So unlike other scriptures, the Qur’an was always in the hands of the common people, it was always thought to be God’s word and due to wide-spread memorisation, it was perfectly preserved. In regards to the teachings of the Qur’an – it is a universal scripture, and is addressed to all of mankind, not to a particular tribe or “chosen people”. The message that it brings is nothing new, but the same message of all the prophets – submit to Almighty God and worship Him alone. As such, God’s revelation in the Qur’an focuses on teaching human beings the importance of believing in the Unity of God and framing their lives around the guidance which He has sent.
Additionally, the Qur’an contains the stories of previous prophets, such as Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus; as well as many commands and prohibitions from God. In modern times, when so many people are caught up in doubt, spiritual despair and “political correctness”, the Qur’anic teachings offer solutions to the emptiness of our lives and the turmoil that is gripping the world today. In short, the Qur’an is the book of guidance par excellence.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him):
Unlike the founders of many religions, the final prophet of Islam is a real documented and historical figure. He lived in the full light of history and many of the smallest details of his life are known. Not only do Muslims have the complete text of God’s words that were revealed to Muhammad, but they preserved many of his sayings and traditions in what is called the “Hadith” literature, also known as “Sunnah” (“example” or “way”). Having said this, it should be understood that Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad was a man created by God, and that he is not divine in any way. In order to avoid the misguided wish to deify him, even Prophet Muhammad taught Muslims to refer to him as “God’s Messenger and His Servant”.
The mission of the last and final prophet of God was to simply teach that “there is nothing divine or worthy of being worshipped except for Almighty God”, as well as being a living example of God’s revelation. In simple terms, God sent the revelation to Muhammad, who in turn taught it, preached it, lived it and put it into practice. In this way, Muhammad was more than just a “prophet” in the sense of many of the Biblical prophets, since he was also a statesman and ruler. He was a man who lived a humble life in the service of God, and established an all-encompassing religion and way of life by showing what it means to be an ideal friend, husband, teacher, ruler, warrior and judge. For this reason, Muslims follow him not for his own sake, but in obedience to God, because Muhammad not only showed us how to deal with our fellow human beings, but more importantly, he showed us how to relate to and worship God, in the best of ways.
Like other prophets, Muhammad faced a great deal of opposition and persecution during his mission. However, he was always patient and just, he even treated his enemies well. The results of his mission were very successful, and even though his mission started in one of the most backward and remote places on Earth, within a hundred years of the death of Muhammad, Islam had spread from Spain to China. Prophet Muhammad was the greatest of all of God’s messengers, not because he had new doctrines or greater miracles, but because the results of his mission have enabled more human beings to become conscious of the One True God, than any other prophet.
The Islamic Way of Life (Minhaj):
In the Holy Qur’an, God teaches human beings that they were created in order to worship Him, and that the basis of all true worship is God-consciousness. Since the teachings of Islam encompass all aspects of life and ethics, God-consciousness is encouraged in all human affairs. Islam makes it clear that all human acts are acts of worship if they are done for God alone and in accordance with His Divine will. As such, worship in Islam is not limited to religious rituals. The teachings of Islam are a mercy and healing for the human soul, and such qualities as humility, sincerity, patience and charity are strongly encouraged. Additionally, Islam condemns pride and self-righteousness, since Almighty God is the only judge of human righteousness.
The Islamic view of the nature of man is also realistic and well-balanced. Human beings are not believed to be inherently sinful, but are seen as equally capable of both good and evil. Islam also teaches that faith and action go hand-in-hand. God has given people free-will, that a measure of one’s faith is one’s deeds and actions. However, human beings have also been created weak and regularly fall into sin. This is the nature of the human being as created by God in His Wisdom, and it is not inherently “corrupt” or in need of repair. This is because the avenue of repentance is always open to everyone, and Almighty God loves the repentant sinner more than one who does not sin at all.
The true balance of an Islamic life is established by having a healthy fear of God as well as a sincere belief in His infinite Mercy. A life without any fear of God can lead to sin and disobedience, while believing that we have sinned so much that God will not possibly forgive us only leads to despair. In light of this, Islam teaches that: only the misguided despair of the Mercy of God.
Additionally, the Holy Qur’an contains many references to the life hereafter and the Day of Judgement. Muslims believe that all human beings will ultimately have to give an account to God, for their beliefs and actions during their earthly lives. But, through the Mercy of God, human beings will only be held accountable for what they were truly capable of. Suffice it to say that Islam teaches that life is a test, and that everyone will be held to account before God. A sincere belief in God and the life to come, is key to leading a well-balanced life which is morally and ethically sound. Otherwise, there is a tendency in people to view life as an end in itself, which causes human beings to become more selfish, materialistic and immoral.
Islam for a Better Life:
Islam teaches that true happiness and peace of mind, is only obtained through living a life conscious of God, and through being satisfied with what God has given us. Additionally, true “freedom” is freedom from being controlled by our base desires and being ruled by man-made ideologies. This stands in stark contrast to the view of many people today, who consider “freedom” to be the ability to satisfy all of their desires without any inhibitions.
The clear and comprehensive guidance of Islam, gives human beings a well-defined purpose and direction in life. In addition to highlighting the fact we are all members of one human family, its well-balanced and practical teachings are a source of spiritual comfort, guidance and morality. A direct and clear relationship with God, as well as a sense of purpose and belonging that one feels as a Muslim, frees an individual from the many worries of everyday life. In short, the Islamic way of life is pure and wholesome. This builds self-discipline and self-control through regular prayer and fasting, freeing human beings from superstition and all sorts of racial, ethnic and national prejudices. By accepting to live a God-conscious life, and realising that the only thing that distinguishes people in the sight of God is their consciousness of Him, a person’s true human dignity and potential is realised.