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Introduction to Islam: Basic Theological Concepts
Review: The Three Major Factors Which Led to the
Development of Islam in the 7th century AD
1) The world of the Arabian peninsula, where the young Muhammad grew
up, was socially and politically chaotic. Tribalism ruled. Arab communities
frequently erupted into blood feuds and conflicts fueled by the fact that
pillaging other tribes’ material goods was common. The prevailing religion
of Arabia could be called “animistic polytheism.” It peopled the world with
beastly spirits called jin or demons. The animalistic spirits inspired neither
exalted sentiments nor moral restraint. The times called for a deliverer.
2) In addition to being an inspired prophet, Muhammad was a gifted
statesman and political leader. He was able to unify different tribes.
3) The Koran, the Holy Book of Islam, was divinely inspired, not corrupted
by human interpretations and written down in language that had great
Review: The Power of the Koran (Qur’an)
Quote from Houston Smith:
“Muslims tend to read the Koran literally. They consider it the earthly
facsimile of an Uncreated Koran in almost exactly the way that
Christians consider Jesus to have been the human incarnation of
God….The created Koran is the formal crystallization of the infinite
reality of the uncreated Koran. Two levels of reality are operative here.
There is the Divine Reality of the Uncreated Koran, and there is the
earthly reality of the created Koran.”
• Muhammad was illiterate. The words of the Koran came to
Muhammad in segments over 223 years through voices that
Muhammad came to realize was the voice of the angel Gabriel.
Review: How the Koran Compares to Jewish and Christian Scriptures
• The Koran continues the Old and New Testaments, God’s earlier revelations and
presents itself as their culmination.
• Although Jews and Christians are included with Muslims as “people of the Book,”
Muslims regard the Old and New Testaments as sharing two defects from which
the Koran is free:
1) They record only portions of Truth, but not the whole Truth
2) Jewish and Christian Bibles were partially corrupted in transmission, a fact
that explains the occasional discrepancies that occur between their accounts and
parallel ones in the Koran.
• Exemptions from these two limitations makes
the Koran the final and infallible revelation of God’s
• The power of the Koran derives not only from the
literal meaning of its words, but also from the Arabic
language in which the Koran is written, including the
sound of the words.
• Translations can’t convey the emotion, the fervor, and the mystery that the Koran
holds in the original Arabic language.
Key Elements of Islamic Faith
• Muhammad’s message was similar to that of the Old
Testament prophets: God is a moral imperative.
• For Muslims there are no obligatory doctrines about
God. The Koran is suspicious of theological
• Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity
are seen as blasphemous
Similarities and Differences Between Islam and Other
Monotheistic Religions
With a few striking exceptions, the basic theological concepts of Islam are virtually
identical with those of Judaism and Christianity, its forerunners.
• God is immaterial and therefore invisible. The innovation of Islam is that it
removed idols from the religious scene and focused the divine in a single
invisible God for everyone.
• Muslims see monotheism as Islam’s contribution not simply to the Arabs, but
to religion in its entirety. Judaism was correctly instructed through its Shema,
but it teachings were confined to the people of Israel.
• Christians compromised their monotheism by deifying Christ. The Koran draws
the line at the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity, seeing these as
inventions that blur the Divine/human distinction. Muslims are not fond of
parental images for God, even when employed metaphorically
The Awesomeness of Allah
• The Koran focuses on the awesomeness of God, God’s fear-inspiring
• Power of this order inspires fear and it is fair to say that Muslims fear
Allah. This is not cringing fear in the face of a capricious tyrant. It is
the only appropriate emotion when human beings face up to the
consequences of being on the right or wrong side of an
uncompromising moral universe.
• In Allah’s universe, good and evil matter. Choices have consequences.
Mistakes could be disastrous. The Koran is like a mountaineers guide
to climbing Mt. Everest. Its majesty is evident, but so are the dangers
it presents.
Allah is Merciful
• Early Western students of the Koran mistakenly believed that the holy
dread of Allah outstrips God’s mercy. Allah was seen to be a stern and
wrathful judge, domineering and ruthless.
• This is a clear misreading of Allah’s compassion and mercy, which are
cited 192 times in the Koran, as against 17 references to God’s wrath.
• Thanks to Allah’s mercy, the world of the Koran is a world of joy.
• A Muslim can at any moment lift his or her heart and soul directly
into the divine presence, and receive strength and guidance for life’s
troubles course.
• No barrier separates the human and the divine.
• The world was created by a deliberate act of Allah’s will.
• The world of matter is both real and important. During the Middle
Ages, Islamic science flourished as nowhere else in Europe or Asia.
• Is Islam there is a confidence in the material aspects of life.
• Foremost among God’s creation is the human self.
• For Muslims, human nature has not been stained by any catastrophic
fall. The closest thing Islam comes to the Christian doctrine of original
sin is the concept of ghaflah, or “forgetting.”
• Human nature is unalterably good and a gift from God.
• Gratitude for the life that has been received
• Surrender. To be a slave to Allah is to be freed from other forms of slavery,
or to the desire for personal status.
• Islam is a religion that aims at total commitment, in which nothing is
withheld from the Divine.
• This explains why Abraham is the most important figure in the Koran.
• Judgement. Islam and its Semitic allies regard individuality as not only real,
but good in principle.
• The individuality of the human soul is everlasting, for once it is created, it
never dies.
• Is the soul free? In Islam human freedom stands in tension with God’s
omnipotence, which points toward predestination.
• The workings of the Divine Decree remain a mystery, but humans are
granted sufficient freedom and responsibility to make genuine moral and
spiritual decisions.
Heaven and Hell Are For Real
• There is a sense or urgency in the Koran. Life is a brief but immensely
precious opportunity, offering a once-and-for-all choice.
• Depending on how it fares in its Reckoning, the soul will end up either in
heaven or hell, which, in the Koran, are described in vivid, concrete and
sensual imagery.
• The sharpness of the contrast between heaven and hell is intended to pull
the hearer/reader of the Koran out of the spiritual lethargy that ghaflah,
forgetfulness induces.
• Underlying the differences of interpretation is the belief that unites all
Muslims – that in the afterlife each soul will be held accountable for its
actions on earth with its future dependent upon how well it has observed
God’s commands.
The Umma
• Islam brought peoples from all tribes, nations, ethnic groups and races into a new grouping
based only on faith in the one living God.
• This grouping was called the Umma.
• Muslims believe that it is only a matter of time before the
whole world will recognize that its best choice is Islam.
• At the same time, there is no way in which Muslims should try
to force their religion upon the rest of the world.
• They tolerate other religious communities, although they
believe that, finally, all religions except Islam will disappear.
Diversity Within the Umma
• Sunni Muslims represent 90% of the world-wide community of Islam. The call
themselves the People of the Sunna, that is, those who respect and follow the
normative example of the Prophet Muhammad.
• It is not correct to call Sunnis “orthodox” Muslims because Islam has no central
authority to define an “orthodox” position.
• In the 7th and 8th centuries a party of Muslims emerged who felt that the leadership of
the community belonged rightly in the hands of a member of the Prophet
Muhammad’s family.
• Sunnis believed that any properly qualified and universally respected Muslim could be
a leader.
• After the death of the prophet Muhammad, the first few leaders of the Umma were
chosen by the consensus of the people since Muhammad did not name a successor.
The Shia, or partisans of the Prophet’s Household, maintained that Muhammad really
did prefer his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, and that this preference was suppressed by
leaders who had another opinion on the succession. When Ali was finally chosen as
the fourth caliph, his partisans thought they had achieved victory for their leader.
However, Ali only governed from 656 to 661 before he was assassinated.
The Origins of the Shi’ite Party
• The Shia remained a minority and would develop a piety of protest, typified by the
tragic figure of Muhammad’s grandson, Husain (Ali’s son), who refused to accept
the Sunni Ummayads (party of Muawiya) and was killed with his small band of
supporters on the battlefield of Karbala (in present day Iraq) by the Ummayad
caliph, Yazid in 680. Hussain became the hero of the Shiite party. Shi’ites celebrate
the first ten days of the first month of the Islamic liturgical year by
commemorating the martyrdom of Husain. This observance is marked by
communal lamentations as Shi’ite believers re-inact the tragic events that took
place on the battlefield of Karbala. As part of the
ceremonies (called Ashura) in some places men express
the intensity of their mourning by flagellating
themselves. This ceremony could described as
a kind of passion play involving much of the community.
• After the death of Husain in 680, the next years proved
tragic and violent for the partisans of Ali as they pursued
their policy of promoting the interests of Muhammad’s family.
• Despite this divergent view of leadership, Sunnis and Shias are in basic agreement
in matters of doctrine and practice.
Main Points of Shi’ite Belief
1. Even as God sent a prophet in the person of Muhammad, so He appoints
representatives of the Prophet, called Imams, to continue the Prophet’s work:
guiding the people and upholding justice. These individuals are believed to be
• Shi’ite Imams should not be confused with the
imams, known throughout the Muslim world as
the individuals who lead communal prayers.
• According to the Shi’a of Iran, there have been
twelve Imams, the last of whom was born in the
year 870 AD. He went into concealment when he
was only eight years old and is expected to return in the future as the restorer of
faith and justice to the world.
• Until the now-concealed Imam reappears, he is represented by the legal
specialists and scholars who are his intermediaries in the community. In Iran
these figures are called Ayatollahs.
Distinctive Aspects of Shi’ism
2. An important part of the Imam’s task was to interpret the Koran in its
spiritual, inner meaning, as well as in its outer, literal meaning.
• When joined with the events of their history, these distinctive beliefs
have caused the Shi’a to develop an outlook that differs from that of
the Sunnis.
• The elements of unity, described earlier, hold Sunnis and Shi’a
together more strongly than their divergences keep them apart.