Lesson 49: What is Islam?

Before starting a new online course, let me offer few words about Islam. Lately people have been asking if there something about it that fosters the violence of its radical fundamentalists. I often ask the same thing about Christianity that I regard as a loving peace movement.

It is easy to come up with scholarly answers, but my friend, Bruce Schein, used to caution against this. Before he died a couple decades ago Bruce was known as Lutheranism’s unofficial ambassador to Islam. He observed Islam is a lay religion without benefit of clergy, and so more about practice than doctrine. There are all sorts of Muslims and therefore many versions of Islam. Arguing that Islam means simply “submission”, Bruce defined a Muslim as anyone who submitted to God by observing the Five Pillars of the Faith. These create a rhythm giving God a place in our lives. Usually at this point Bruce would shrug his shoulders and claim he could be regarded as a Lutheran Muslim.

The First Pillar is Faith that confesses “None is worthy of worship except God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” To make this confession is regarded as believing the only purpose of life is to serve and obey God. This is achieved through the teachings and practices of the Last Prophet.

The Second Pillar is Prayer that is to be performed five times during the day when the Call to Prayer is heard. “God is Great. I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God. Come to prayer! Come to success! God is Great! There is none worthy of worship except God.” A Muslim stops wherever he is and remembers God. It is believed this rhythm keeps people in contact with God and his will.

The Third Pillar is Alms. Islam, like the other religions founded on Abraham, proclaims social justice that includes care of the needy. In many ways, ethics is epitomized by how Muslims use their finances. They believe everything belongs to God and is to be managed according to his will. I think every Muslim is supposed to give at least a fortieth of his capital to one of the many alms societies. It is expected they will give more voluntarily.

The Fourth Pillar is Fasting that takes place during the month of Ramadan. All abstain from food, drink, and sexual relations from dawn to dusk. This self-purification and self-restraint is supposed to facilitate an awareness of the presence of God and his purposes in life.

The Fifth Pillar is Pilgrimage or the hajj. Each Muslim is expected, if physically and financially able, to make the journey to Mecca once in a life time. This provides witness to the international nature of the faith as well as to the ultimate equality of all before God. During the Hajj all dress alike without distinctions of class and culture.

Bruce was always reminding me all religions change due to historical circumstances. Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity enabled its people to break the cycle of violence that was destroying their society. During some periods it was more tolerant, scholarly, and just than Christianity. He blamed much of the current attitudes and actions on the effects of colonialism and the way the Christian world has treated the Islamic.

I am not sure Bruce offers the last word in understanding Islam. However, I am certain he offers a more reasonable beginning of our conversation than what we have been hearing from too many religious and political celebrity types.

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