Crash Course: Islam

Before taking certain classes in schools, we often need prerequisites. When there are gaps of understanding in the terms at hand, it can often lead to unproductive questions.

So before we ask all kinds of questions about the Religion of Islam, it may be necessary for us to first understand what Religion is.

Why Religion?

It should be said that Religion is not and was never about doing what one feels like doing. It’s not about feeling comfortable or even about feeling happy or good. Religion was never meant to be a hobby like arts and crafts or tae-kwon-do. It was also never really meant to be a simple set of rules by which humans are required to strictly follow. It shouldn’t be a simple dress code and a bunch of slogans.

Religion, is actually about accomplishing a higher purpose. It is often about personal growth and affirming a certain theology and world-view. Religion answers questions related to the unseen realms – questions of consciousness, creation- the hows and whys of life. Religion was often misused in the past and this misuse continues today. Often, there is a blatant disrespect towards followers of any Religion in general, for the onlookers of their religion do not understand or agree with the motives, goals and practices. This has existed since humans first had an inclination to answer questions relating to the existence of their souls, God and the divine and it will continue into the future. For followers of Religion however, being pushed around in this current life is simply ‘temporary’ at worst, for in the eyes of a Believer, purpose is not attained through comfort. I mean, but hey we like to be comfortable.

The Purpose of Islam

In the case of Islam, many Muslims may say this purpose includes or is to know the Creator. Deeper-thinking Muslims may recall the story that at one point, the human souls were gathered and were asked by Allah (the Creator), “Am I not your Lord?” The souls replied, “We testify that indeed that You are our Lord.” The purpose for those Muslims who recall this event depicted in the Quran (7:172) may be to return to the state that they were in their previous life and state, in witness, awe and nearness (not a physical nearness: but nearness in knowing) to Allah.

For Muslims, attempting to attain their purpose of their existence means following the Prophets which we believe were sent by God (Allah, in Muslim terms). We, Muslims believe that we are given peace of mind and spirit when we are connected to and remembering our Merciful God and we experience this regularly on varying levels (we all have ups and downs).

Islam may be a part of our identity, however we believe that it is much deeper than this. We don’t wish to be treated like an ethnic minority group in “western” countries, because we are not. We are a faith group. Some of us, Muslims may even belong to an ethnic majority within “western” countries, such as the United States.

We believe that the life we are given is a test. And as this life comes to an end, we will not be at an infinite loss. We hope that our hearts will say on that day when we die, “Allah is sufficient for us.”

 Islam Explained

Forward

Since the time I was first interested, I found it difficult to find an explanation of Islam that did not shy away from explaining Islam within a historical context. Any pages, websites or pamphlets that explained what Islam supposedly is would seemingly purposely neglect saying which school of thought in Islam they belonged to and why. To find that next level of understanding on the system of Islam, it would be blended in with maybe even hundreds of lectures dealing with practical topics, not once perfectly explained but simply mentioned or referred to. I recall receiving a flyer from a Jehovah’s Witness, finding nowhere a mention of “Jehova’s Witness” except on the contact address on the back. I would ask then were a Christian to receive this flyer, there would not be much there to promote the positive views (assuming there are for convenience sake) held by Jehova’s Witnesses which reject some negative stereotypes by Christians about Christianity. So, the Christian there has nothing to compare what Jehovas Witnesses say to what the other “Christian” group announced recently. The result is a bucket of strange clashing facts according to whims on a religion that contradict themselves with no references, sources or methodology. I am proposing a different approach. Contrary to some of the “Why Islam?” flyers you may find, this text wishes not to go from 1 to 5, but from 0 to 100, to provide a proper and detailed explanation for someone who is ready to understand one common perspective on Islam, namely the classical Sunni tradition in Islam. This text attempts to teach the reader the most important terms along the way. The classical Sunni tradition of Islam is termed the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jammah and is known by it’s chain of teachers and students, all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him).

Basic Foundations

The first thing someone should know about Islam, is that Islam is to believe that there is One God, One Creator that is deserving of all praise and that Muhammad, peace be upon him, was the last Prophet of God.

“There is no god but the one God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”To speak the following words with conviction of the above statement, one becomes Muslim: “La ilaha ila Allah”.

For Muslims, God is something unimaginable. God is not Matter, has no gender, is not limited by time and is without fault. Muslims have 99 Names of God, through which they can approach the understanding of God. Allah is one of them, simply the word for God in Arabic. Others, for instance Ar-Rahman and Ar-Raheem are found with most other names of God in the holy Quran, the scripture that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a longer period through the angel Gabriel (or Jibreel, as would be pronounced in qur’anic Arabic). Muslims are taught humility and thankfulness as they are reminded to pray and surrender themselves to the Most-Loving, Wise and Independent Creator very often.

“Verily, in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest.” Quran 13:28

The basic tenants of practice in Islam are the Shahadah (the testimony of faith), Salah (Prayer), Fasting in the lunar month of Ramadhan (Arabic: Saum), paying Zakat (religious charity), and making pilgrimage to the city of Makkah (Arabic: Hajj), where the Quran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad.

The tenants of beliefs in Islam are the belief in Allah (God, in Arabic), Prophets, holy Scripture(s), belief in the Angels, belief in the Day of Judgement and to know that everything is known and predetermined by Allah.

Grasping the Meaning of these Foundations

Spiritually, Islam is a journey towards knowing the divine. It attempts to bring the best of people out by encouraging good character and ridding ourselves of oppressive and selfish behavior. Religion that is based on existent physical proofs, as well as deductive reasoning creates for man a metaphysical intersection of logic and morality. Islam is neither a rejection of spiritual importance, nor a rejection of the passing world (or, as we would put it, dunya). Islam is a religion of sincerity, in which one strives to do things not purely for the sake of other humans, but primarily for the sake of God. Being sources of good to all creations of God (Allah) (including other humans, the planet and animals) is natural to come for someone who has given up on their own arrogance and who wishes to take this path of Islam.

Islam is also the final acceptance of one’s destiny. It is to accept God’s will and to be pleased with all that happens, to recognize all created events as divine communication of God’s greatest attributes, to show us a glimpse of God’s greatness. Islam is known as the faith and way of the primordial human and as a return to the natural and pure perspective and way of the human in obedience with their souls over their animalistic and worst qualities.

Relation to Other Religions

From the Muslim perspective, many older religions were once the religion of Islam for their time, namely the religion of Jesus, Moses, Abraham. Islam, taught by the Prophet Muhammad is simply the newest update to our previous traditions. We find often even many similarities between these older religions and Islam, although there are often distinct differences. The most obvious difference between Islam and Christianity is that while Christians will claim that Jesus was an incarnate of God, Muslims believe that Jesus, peace be upon him, was a true Prophet of God, who taught his people monotheism and high standards of respect, love and morality. We may even say things like, “The Shari’ah of Prophet Jesus”, which simply refers to the teachings of Jesus, which may be the Ten Commandments, for example.

Classical Sunni Tradition

The Ahlus Sunnah wal Jammah is the name of the classical Sunni Tradition in Islam. This means roughly in Arabic, “The People and Community/followers of the Sunnah (Traditions) of the Prophet”. I would like to shed light to the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jammah in its classical sense. As mentioned earlier, the classical Sunni tradition is known and developed through its chain of teachers and students, going back to the Prophet Muhammad himself. This means that the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jammah has existed ever since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, therefore being a true ‘orthodoxy’ of Islam.

Various schools of thought within the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jammah have been developed and recognized by the consensus of (Sunni) Muslims to be authentic paths of religious tradition. Orthodox Islam has spread from Mauritania in West Africa to the eastern most islands of Indonesia in the Philippines, from Tanzania to Russia and China. Orthodox Islam, in comparison to modern fundamentalist movements that reject the tradition of Islam, has a history of adapting well to the culture of the areas and in turn had developed their own style for each part of the world, yet adhering nonetheless to and united by the same orthodox Ahlus Sunnah wal Jammah. Thus, “Unity in diversity.”

Knowledge and Islamic Sciences

Allah, the One, Pre-Eternal and Post-Eternal Creator mentions in His Eternal Speech, the Quran: “…. Ask ahl al-dhikr if you do not know”. (Quran 16:43) “…. Ask ahl al-dhikr if you do not know”. (Quran 21:07)

Ahl al Dhikr are the people of knowledge of Allah and the religion of Islam. Likely in response to these verses of the Quran, the Islamic tradition is based upon various principals that have been formulated and used since the time of the Prophet of Islam himself. The Islamic tradition essentially suggests that knowledge is passed down through generation to generation at the hands of those who have been given certification of their knowledge from a qualified teacher who also had received this certification. This also however does not mean that we believe our scholars to be infallible, nor are we bound to specific opinions of single scholars. There are varying degrees of scholarship which warrant different capabilities in issuing legal, theological, methodological, interpretational or even spiritual ‘rulings.’

Iman, Islam, Ihsan and the Sciences towards achieving them

The last Prophet of God, Muhammad (peace be upon him) mentions that the Religion of Islam is made up of the following categories: Iman (loosely translated as faith, belief), Islam (referring to the practical implementation of religious code) and Ihsan (spiritual awareness of Allah, consciousness and the inner dimension). The scholars, theologians and preservers of our Religion have created sciences which enable the Muslim to easily follow and apply these categories of Islam Muslims to be the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jammah.

For Iman (loosely translated as faith, belief, there came the science of Aqeedah, of which the Ashari and Maturidi schools of thought have been accepted. For Islam (referring to the practical implementation of religious code), there came the science of Fiqh, of which the following four schools are accepted: Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali.

Lastly, the science of Tasawwuf was created to help Muslims attain Ihsan. Major Imams (religious leaders) in this science (Tasawwuf) were, for example Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali and Imam Junaid al-Baghdadi. Today, we find many paths that attempt to help Muslims attain higher levels of
spirituality, namely, something called “Tarikah”. Tarikah is the word for “path” in Arabic. Common Tarikah today are for instance Naqshbandi, Ba’adawi, Shadhili, Idrissi and of course others. Tarikah is not as practiced today as it maybe once was and is often only sought out by followers wishing to make deeper advancements into their religion. Tarikah is known as an application of Taswwuf amongst others. Muslims interested in Tasawwuf, but not in Tarikah may attempt to improve their character by learning the known “diseases of the heart” and their cures as explored by Muslim ascetics and theologians and seeking to improve themselves for the sake of Allah.

Sources of Islam

Firstly, the Quran, sent to the Prophet Muhammad as the Eternal Speech of God is the first source from which the Islamic sciences are based on in Sunni tradition. Secondly, there are transmitted narrations of the Prophet Muhammad on which he spoke of specific religious matters – these are known as Hadith. Sunni Muslims try to emulate the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him), be it in the rules he was commanded by Allah to encourage and in his spirit and mercy. Next, there is the concept of Ijmaa, or consensus, namely of certified scholars. The fourth most important source of Islam is in Qiyaas, or analogical reasoning.

Principles of traditional, orthodox Sunni Islam

Each of the different schools in Islam have different formulas and approaches to the four sources, some placing more importance on some sources as others, thus arises a variety of differences. We believe that, however through the process of scholarly Ijtihad, a process of deriving rulings from the sources for someone who has achieved the prerequisites of being a Mujtahid (or a highly-qualified scholar), much of the variety of opinions is a mercy and not a source of argumentation or fanaticism. Thus, we do not frown on those following different opinions, given that these opinions are established authentically.
To summarize, I am promoting the traditional path in Islam, the way of most the Muslims throughout history. The traditional path is not a modern movement or a reformist group; we don’t really believe in reforms or a reformation, because we believe that Islam as a religion is not understood through learning texts, rather as a tradition passed down from generation. This also means that we follow and have high respect for books that were written and for principals and schools of methodology that were well formulated even before 1200 years at times. These same methodologies have been developed and improved up until today, as the process is still (slowly) moving forward.

From one perspective, one could say, that is too old and there must be a new understanding of Islam for today’s time and century. The fact of the matter is also that the Muslims themselves are always in need of self-reflection and criticism. Also, at the same time, the tradition of Islam is meant to be understood whilst taking the surroundings and culture of the region into account, thus forming an orthodox Islam that is also interacting freely and often taking on the greatest qualities of the region which the Muslims are found. Traditional Muslims are not attempting to adopt Arab culture, in fact there are many different cultural traditions found in the Muslim world whilst the same orthodox Islam is practiced. Muslims generally are most likely neglecting some part of their religion at some point or another. For this reason, we may see even some actions that go against Islam, yet are even assumed to be a part of Islam. These actions are often addressed by the scholars of Islam, which is why I would say, learn Islam from the real teachers and (spiritual) leaders of the Muslims, not from the common practice of Muslims.

Other types of “Islam”

Some groups of Muslims opt for different approaches than the traditional Islam, for sure. For instance, there are Shia and some who call themselves Salafi, and among those groups mentioned, there are a number of different approaches. Most Shia are found in Iran and Lebanon, while the main Salafi leaders are based in Saudi Arabia. There are plenty of new groups which have arisen within recent decades, such as Quranists, who deny the validity of Hadith.

The main difference between Sunni Muslims and Shia, is that the Shia believe that the Muslims were meant to be lead by the cousin of the Prophet, Ali (Allah be pleased with him) and then to be followed by the ancestors of the Prophet. The Sunni Muslims accept the leaders of the Muslims after the time the Prophet (peace be upon him) left this world. From the perspective of the Sunni Muslims, Shia are considered, depending on the community which they are talking of, to be strange. I might call them the conspiracy theorists of Islam, but it is important for us to attempt to live in peace with each other as best as possible, despite theological differences.

“Salaf” refers to the first few generations of Islam after the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Those who call themselves Salafi attempt to skip the tradition of the Muslims after this first time and try to understand Islam through early texts, aside from a small number of scholars up until the 18th century, when the salafi way first began to gain more popularity. The Salafi groups generally prefer a more literalistic approach and tend to be more open to interpreting the Quran without receiving a specific level of scholarship, while there are many clear leaders within many of the different salafi groups. Salafi will tend to refer to themselves as Sunni Muslims, yet they are very critical and dismissive of traditional Muslims, whom they may refer to as apostates or innovators in Islam. The history of salafi Islam has proven itself to be rather diverse, yet most of it has lead to increased levels of extremism and violence, from the perspective of the traditional (otherwise referred to as ‘ashari‘) Muslims.

Recap

I have spoken quite theoretically about the basics of Islam. The truth is that Islam and particularly traditional Islam is not as some people view it today. Even our own followers of Islam are often confused about what Islam is. Actually, Islam to restate is about something deeper than following rules and reiterating the basic statements of belief. Islam is a journey towards knowing the divine. It attempts to bring the best of people out by encouraging good character and being sources of good to all creations of Allah. Islam is also the final acceptance of one’s destiny. It is to accept God’s will and to be pleased with all that happens, to recognize all created events as divine communication of God’s greatest attributes, to show us a glimpse of God’s greatness. Islam is known as the faith and way of the primordial human and as a return to the natural and pure perspective and way of the human in obedience with their souls over their animal and worst qualities.

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