Definitions: What Exactly Is Islam and What Is It Not?
The concept of belief in Islam is very narrowly defined. Rather than a happenstance of birth or geography, it has some very clear requirements. A westerner choosing to define the Islamic faith from the point of his or her own systems of philosophy, faith, lifestyle or mythos can lead to unnecessary misunderstandings in his secular view world as he knows it. The simple truth is that what a Muslim is as unambiguous as what he is not.
Islam is based on five acts which are beliefs. Known as ‘pillars of faith’, if understood properly, they define not only what a Muslim must believe but what he must do as part of his belief. The pillars are mentioned in the Quran and defined in detail by the Prophet Muhammad in his oral traditions (the Ahadith). Before I attempt to briefly explain them, it is important to note that the Quran itself is a book of laws which are understood in the context of the Prophet’s life. Like Jesus, the Prophet had a group of loyal followers around him called Sahabah (companions). Similar to Jesus’ disciple’s, the Sahabah made a record of what the Prophet did and said to practice the law laid out in the Quran (known as the Sunnah)—the circumstances and particulars when applied comprised the Ahadith. In order to be Muslim (or be called one) belief in the Quran and its implementation through the Ahadith is the sine qua non of the Islamic faith.
Beliefs and conditions of being ‘Muslim’ are itemized in the following “Articles of Faith”:
- Shahaddah: this is the testimony of belief done before witnesses that one believes Allah is ‘the deity’ (in a monotheistic scheme of things) and that the Prophet Muhammad was his last prophet and messenger. This requirement is unconditional and entails that the Quran is the indisputable work of Allah (which embodies the belief system of Islam).
- Salat, the Arabic word for prayer. Muslims are obligated to perform it five times a day according to the position of the sun. Young children, the insane and those who are unconscious are exempt.
- Zakat: aka paying the poor due on 2.5% of your earning each year above and beyond your debts. Poor people don’t have to pay it but receive it.
- Siyam: fasting the month of Ramadan. Once a year as specified by the lunar calendar. Muslims abstain from food, water or sex from sunrise to sunset. If you’re sick; insane or just incapable of doing it, you don’t have to.
- Hajj: known as the pilgrimage to Mecca must be undertaken once in the life of a Muslim if he can afford it.
All the acts are conditional but the Shahaddah. The four acts that follow must be believed (after faith) as a requirement of faith if a Muslim is capable of performing them even if he never does. Not to do any act one is capable is a sin but not to believe negates belief.
Before the Prophet’s death, his Sahabah were charged with teaching the religion locally and abroad. Later after the Prophet’s demise, scholars of the knowledge began to collect it from the Sahabah in different parts of the empire. Skilled at the scholarly particulars of jurisprudence, they were able to author books that preserved the information so it could be used to be systematically disseminated to people long after the Sahabah died. These teachings became known erroneously as “schools of thought” . Each were named after the Muftis (judges) that wrote legal briefs based on the information they collected (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi, etc.).
These scholars considered themselves collectors of knowledge rather than spinners of their point of view of the truth. Several of them knew each other and even ‘talked shop’. They all made the same declaration that if someone came across any Quran and Sunnah that contradicted their rulings, the former should be taken. Contrary to what some believe, their differences were minor and had nothing to do with practice or view. It might help to try to think of them as judges giving their opinions on different points of law. More often than not these scholars agreed with each others judgements. The practice of Islam and the definition of belief never changed through the delineation of their scholarship.
Since this understanding of faith (called Akeedah) is the same with every Muslim, whether a Muslim travels to Illinois or Bombay, everyone makes prayer, fasts, buries and marries and judges right and wrong under the same rules. Since Akeedah has stubbornly persisted among most of the Muslim population throughout the millennium or so Islam rose out of the Arabian Peninsula, what defines a Muslim to the vast majority of the faithful is a commonly understood concept. The belief in the existence of Allah and the Prophet Muhammed is an unconditional requirement of faith as well as acting and believing in the rest of the four pillars (and all they entail) which is essential to being define as a Muslim. It is important to understand that ‘faith’ in Islam is a legal definition which if altered in anyway (intentionally) can invalidates or negate the condition of belief.
Sounds complicated huh? Many people get intimidated by the technicality and complexities in Islam when they first encounter it. Like hillbillies frustrated trying to make sense of Sanskrit, some just throw up their hands and decide to let some scholar interpret the overwhelming strangeness for them like the neighborhood priest used to. Such people tend to never practice Islam because to so thinking about something long enough to comprehend it. Part of the requirement to practice Islamic knowledge is to understand its circumstance and application –and the other is to validate the source. Even if the information is true, if the source has dubious origins (a liar, a thief, etc), one shouldn’t accept it. In other words, the boy who falsely cried wolf once would not be a good candidate for sighting the Ramadan moon.
This makes the religion easy to practice because you don’t have to practice what you don’t understand and you are not responsible for what you don’t know.
Examples of What Islam is Not
It has been my experience when people vary from the established definition of faith in Islam, they usually attempt to alter the understanding of the first pillar (there is no deity, in that no deity exists but Allah, and that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is his last prophet and messenger).For example, commonly thought to be a program of mis-information concocted by the Jews in the early days of the Islam, Shiism purports that Ali, a Sahabah and ruler of the Muslim empire after the Prophet’s demise, should have received the Quran instead of Muhammad—a belief that finally found a home in some remote part of Egypt during the Khalifate of Ali. Since this violates the meaning of the first pillar, Shiites who believe it are not Muslim though they may dress like them and follow some or all of the pillars.
Similarly, the British back when they were weaning most heathens with Christianity in the Far East found adherents to Islam extremely resistant to the missionaries’ charms in India. They tried to corrupt the text of the Quran (translating it into English and distributing their version of it), legislating and administrating a translated Shariat and were even moderately successful in for a time getting Indian Muslims to call themselves “Mohammadins.”
Perhaps the most successful British scheme was recruiting an Indian national by the name of Golem Ahmed and helping him establish a new Muslim sect in a bid to control the Muslim population. The Ahmediyyahs claimed that Ahmed was the next prophet and produced Quran-like verse to prove it. Once again because the first pillar specifies the Prophet Muhammad was the last prophet sent by Allah with wahy (revelation), the Ahmediyyahs don’t qualify to be called “Muslims.”
Also developing around the same geography from an apparent reluctance of some Indians to part with Hindu mysticism, Sufism claims the Prophet Muhammad was an adept mystic and through his teachings one could ‘merge’ (as he did) with Allah and obtain a form of cosmic consciousness. He would then be able to speak to the dead and perform spiritual and supernatural feats through chants, talismans and rituals falsely attributed to the Prophet Muhammad as well as previous prophets and holy men (real or imagined) endowed with mystic wisdom and powers. To get to the higher ranks of this sect, one must submit his understanding and reasoning to a scholar (fledging Muslims commonly get spooked into this because of their unfamiliarity with the knowledge they crave) whom will guide him to the mystic path. The biggest problem with Sufism (besides the scholar-guide as oppose to scholar teacher) is that Allah is emphatic about being separate from is creations in the Quran and Sunnah. ‘Merging’, marrying and having brothers and cousins or sons (demigods) spiritual or otherwise contradicts the ‘one deity’ part of the Shahaddah.
Some Sufi sects which blend certain mystic elements and ideas that advocate purification of the self believe “the lesser Jihad” (holy war) should take a back seat to what Prophet Muhammad considered “the greater Jihad” (purification) and have sought purity of the soul as a pre-requisite to the physical act of resisting and defending Muslim lands. Allah forgave Muslims for fighting in the wars the Quran talks about. This belief in effect changes the application of the Sunnah since, (according to it) the Prophet established Islam by doing just the opposite (fighting being also a part of Islamic spiritual purification). Once again — a done deal just on the first pillar.
In the west, Islamic scholarship is the big gold ring on the money carousel of the cult business.
Particularly in the US, cults which find it difficult to compete with the dynamic nature of authentic Islam often mix the spiritual definition of Islam with their own agenda and claim the mission of Islam to be their own. The most famous example of this is the Black Nationalist movement, the Nation of Islam which attests that Elijah Muhammad (aka Elijah Poole) was given the Quran by Allah who had visited him in the form of Fard Muhammad, a man of Indian descent. Elijah claimed to be the Prophet Muhammad in the Quran, a no brainer first pillar violation.
In the confusion and resulting scandals and conflicts caused by the aforementioned confidence schemes, many Christian groups and cults have attributed the activities of these false Islamic groups to the practices of true Muslims. I find it humorous that these same groups don’t see Jimmy Swaggart’s adultery or Jim Jones’ mass suicide as an indication of the ills Christianity produces in practice. One doesn’t hear people accusing the US Military of moral depravity because soldiers Jeffery Dahmer killed and ate men in Milwaukee and Timothy McVeigh blew up a nursery in Oklahoma City. America dropped two atom bombs on Japan and it is barely mentioned in most western history books about World War II. Yet when the Shiites put a hit on Salman Rushdie’s and practice temporary marriages or Sadaam Hussein socks it to the Kurds, it is blamed on every Muslim that lives today or who has ever walked the earth.
Isolated from the rest of the world by two oceans and a censored media with a population that has an illiteracy rate the highest of any modern industrialized country, it is easy to see why such groups thrive and flourish in the US more than any other place in the world.
Marx said once that “religion is the opium of the masses.” In this, I agree with him. The mistake most people make is defining Islam as a religion and attempting to use it to replace the components of the scams they were following to be true to God. An Elijah Poole follower would not be able to simply make a few minor adjustments and become a practicing authentic Muslim. His mislabeling concepts of what faith was and his day to day orientation would have to be relearned because Islam isn’t a religion but a way of life that is practiced every day of the week—not just on the Sabbath.
In order to understand and practice it takes sincerity, humility and a willingness to remodel yourself on the truth found and comprehended while taking life’s lessons with it. Being Muslim makes you a member of group only in the sense that if they follow the truth you are with them. Not being bullied by people who claim to have ‘big’ knowledge and authority is usually the most decisive measure to avoid the snare of deviant sects. It is important to know Allah doesn’t hold you to account for what you don’t know or understand. This sometimes means not belonging to so called ‘Islamic’ groups and having the courage and fortitude to be okay with it. It may help to note that the Sahabah (the source of information about the Prophet’s practice of Islam) had various degrees of knowledge yet they were all considered the Prophet’s exalted companions without going through the formal system in vogue today for Islamic learning. I believe the reason for their rank in the spiritual history is simply they practice what they knew and knew what they practice. Faith was what they were– not just information committed to memory in the erudite Muslim communities.
It is easy to see that in today’s world of gangs, cults, military advisors and ‘big brother’ governments, the trial of faith (as prophesized in the last days of man’s life on earth) on the surface can be more scary than the approach of one’s own death.