Below you will find my notes and random observations from the book indicated by the title of this post. It is hoped that it will be effortless to differentiate between those locations in which I provide information from the book proper and those in which I offer personal observation, illumination or pose further lines of inquiry. Whenever any doubt is evident it should be assumed that anything even remotely factual should be attributed to the author of the book and anything that would be construed as otherwise can be attributed to me personally.
Links to related posts: (Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 [Part 1][Part 2][Part 3])
It is evident early on that “Islam: The Straight Path” is authored by one who is himself a believer in the Muslim faith. Similarly, it will become quickly evident that your commentator is not a believer in the Muslim faith or, in fact, a believer in any faith at all. As such, the book’s author and the blog’s author will be quickly distinguishable. While the author of the blog will do everything in his power to maintain respectful of all possible beliefs, it is of fundamental importance that we all deal with this important area of study as frankly and openly as possible.
The book opens with a few simple numerical facts and some historical background. The adherents of the Muslim faith number 900 million strong with 85% belonging to the Sunni division and 15% to the Shii. Before Muhammad, Arabian society was tribal in nature. Nomadic herders wandered the desert tending their flocks moving from one oasis to the next. Rule of law was primarily enforced by the threat of retaliation. Social structure was familial in nature with many families combining to form a clan and several clans forming a tribe. Leadership of the tribe was determined by a vote of senior members of each family. Warfare was common but generally focused on assimilation rather than annihilation. Religious practices were polytheistic with Allah at the center but different tribes adopted different members of the pantheon as their patron or preferred objects of worship.
Muhammad was called to be the prophet of Allah in 610 C.E. at the age of 40. He was orphaned at a young age but married at the age of 25 and had 3 sons (all of whom died as infants) and 4 daughters by the time of his calling. He often retreated into the mountains to contemplate life and its injustices and it was on one of the retreats during the month of Ramadan that he received his first prophetic message from the Angel Gabriel. Over the next 22 years Muhammad continued to receive prophecy from Allah and these prophecies and teachings were compiled into the Quran or, “The Recitation”.
At first, as with most prophets, Muhammad thought himself crazy. Luckily, his wife and her Christian friend (ironic) were able to convince him that he was in fact not crazy but instead the chosen one of God. As time went on and his following grew, Muhammad and his teachings also came under the scrutiny of government representatives who resented his insistence on justice in public affairs that ran afoul of the typically corrupt practices of the time. After 10 years of preaching in Mecca, Muhammad was invited to migrate to Medina to solve a dispute(?) for a public official there. It is this migration to Medina in 622 that is viewed as the true beginning of the Muslim faith. Muhammad quickly gained influence in Medina and wages periodic war with his previous home, Mecca. In 630 Mecca finally capitulates but Muhammad doesn’t have long to celebrate as he dies not long thereafter in 632.
Culturally, Muhammad is held up as the example in all things good and pure in Muslim culture from hygiene to politics and prayer. Contrary to popular Western opinion, Muhammad is not the founder of Islam so much as the one who brought the previously polytheistic Islamic culture back into line with the classic monotheistic beliefs of Abraham from which all Arabs draw their lineage. The Muslim faith existed before Muhammad but needed correction in the same way that Muslims believe that Judaism and Christianity need correction to bring them into line with the will of Allah. Muslims share many common aspects of their faith with their Christian and Jewish neighbors and even go so far as to compare themselves to the oppressed followers of Moses in the Old Testament.
The schism between Islam and the other religions of the region are, unsurprisingly, blamed on Jewish influence. Muhammad attempted to approach his Jewish neighbors in an attempt to “correct” their belief systems and even went so far as to suggest that Muslims should direct their daily prayers toward Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the Jewish populace refused these “corrections” and prayers were then redirected to Mecca as they remain today. Since this rejection of sharia (“The Straight Path”) by Jewish leaders, the Muslim mujahidin (holy warriors) wage jihad against their Jewish oppressors. The martyrs in this war, or shahid (literally: witnesses), are viewed as heroes since they gave all defending the truth of Allah.
The Quran, dictated to Muhammad over the period of 22 years is seen as absolute and incorruptible. Its 114 chapters are arranged in ascending order of length and were collected after Muhammad’s death. Like the Bible, the Quran considers itself self-evident. Anyone seeking validation of the Quran need merely look around at nature and the world around us or the history of the world in which the unjust are repeatedly smote by Allah. Of the Jewish faith, the Quran claims that the Torah was indeed originally the word of God but was unfortunately corrupted by the desire of mankind. Christians seem to be viewed as idolaters who have placed Jesus, who is acknowledged as a prophet of God, above God himself. The Quran, by contrast, is the centerpiece of not only Muslim faith but the Arabic language. The Quran is viewed as the very epitome of perfect and unsurpassable literature not only for its content but because it is written in Arabic, the one true language of God.
As a text, the Quran bears many similarities to the Bible but also bears some striking differences. For example, the Quran repeats the famous episode in which Abraham is called upon to sacrifice Isaac but in the Quran’s version it is Ismail who is to be sacrificed instead. Where the Bible and the Quran are the same, it is claimed, they are the divinely inspired word of God. Where they differ, it is a corruption. Most pointedly, the Quran specifically points out the uniqueness and oneness of Allah. Allah has no sons. No partners. This seems to invalidate the entire Christian religion in one small sentence. One can see why there’s conflict.
The Quranic universe is composed of three principle parts: heaven, earth and hell. Heaven is represented as a mansion surrounded by peaceful bliss and flowing rivers. It’s inhabited by nubile young women and they’re apparently not shy yet still perpetually virginal. In typical fashion hell is a rain of torment and fire. Earth is the domain of man and the jinn. Jinn are intelligent spirits that roam the Earth and, like man, will be judged on the day of reckoning as they can be either of good or evil varieties. Joining these we have the typical angels and of course Satan. Satan, or Iblis, seems to have a different story than the Biblical one. When Allah created man, he commanded all the angels to bow down but Satan refused (presumably as an act of jealousy). For this refusal Allah cast Satan out but Satan managed to negotiate his punishment so that he was allowed roam the earth until the judgment day. Presumably for the purpose of tempting mankind into hell.
Finally, the difference that I suspect causes the most trouble (aside from the blatant denial of Jesus’ position as son of God) is the concept of the fundamental nature of mankind. From Biblical tradition we have an inherited evil or sin for each man or woman on the planet. The missteps of Eve haunt us all even to this day. The Quranic tradition seems much more forgiving and frankly, much more just. In the Quran there is no original sin. Each man is good or sinful based on his own actions. Man is an agent of Allah’s will and will be judged based on his own ability to carry out that will, not based on some inherited debt of virtue over which is has no control. Even more galling perhaps, in the Quran’s telling of man’s expulsion from the Garden, it’s not Eve who gives in to temptation first but Adam.
In conclusion (at least for this chapter) I find a lot of this fairly typical. The Quran is deemed perfect in the same way that the Bible is deemed perfect since God will watch over his word for Christians. Islam claims the flag of “absolutely and completely right” while the Bible does the same. Clearly one or the other must be flawed but the decision for that seems to have much more to do with what you were raised believing than any real qualitative differences. They are two very similar documents cut from very similar cloth with just enough niggling differences to make the adherents of each really, really dislike each other. I will say that the Quran seems much more fair than the Bible, at least based on this small overview. The abolishment of original sin and introduction of personal responsibility ring very true with me. The sociopolitical revolution of Islam that brought order to a tribal society is deeply important and should be recognized. The historical importance of Islam should not be diminished by any perceptions of its negative influence on current events.