Events of the past two decades have brought Islam onto the radar of the West with a centrality few could have imagined. The terror attacks by al- Qaeda and other groups; the calamitous invasion of Iraq; the rise of ISIS; the devastation of Syria and the refugee crisis; the caricature-of-the-prophet controversy; the conflicts over burqa and hijab and the role of women; the religious and cultural clashes embroiling Europe: we live with an ominous anticipation—fueled by anxiety and exploited by some politicians—of global religious strife. Our last president said “We are not at war with Islam,” while our current one insists that “Islam hates us.” Donald Trump’s former national-security adviser warned of “a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: radical Islam.” Can you blame Americans for being confused?

Part of the problem is a profusion of terms and concepts not well known to most of us: jihad, fatwas, the caliphate, sharia law, the Sunni-Shia split, and on and on. Even the basics of the religion we are supposedly at war with remain opaque to many Americans. And so I offer a miniature primer for readers looking to familiarize themselves with some of the basic historical, theological, and cultural contours of Islam.  

Jahiliyah: Desert and City in the Arab World before Islam

In order to grasp the impact of Muhammad’s Islamic message, we need to look at the context in which it appeared. The society into which Muhammad was born in 570 AD is often referred to as the Jahiliyah, an Arabic term meaning “the age of ignorance”—that is, ignorance of Islam. The pre-Islamic Arab world was profoundly tribal. In an arid desert setting where resources were scarce and tribes fought over water, food, and control of caravan trade routes, individuals derived their sense of loyalty and identity from their tribe; intertribal vendettas were frequent, and defending a clan’s honor was paramount. Each was led by a sheikh (literally, an “old man”), who presided over the sunnah, the “exemplary way of the elders” that defined customs and ethical behavior for tribal members. The sunnah was transmitted from generation to generation via poetry; each tribe would have at least one poet, whose job it was to glorify and immortalize the deeds—often involving death in combat—of heroic members. 

Glory via poetry was important because of Jahiliyah views on the afterlife, in which good and bad alike were believed to share a cheerless shadow-existence reminiscent of the grey underworld of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic. Given such beliefs, the immortality considered worth striving for was an enduring reputation within one’s tribe. And the way to secure this was to do a deed worthy of a poem. So powerful were the words of the poets that many were believed to be paired with spirit-helpers known as jinns. Those upon whom the spirits descended were deemed majnun—“possessed by a jinn.” The jinns acknowledged by Jahiliyah pagans can be understood as nature spirits: amoral and capricious, able to help or harm depending on their mood. They were believed to inhabit caves, odd rock formations, desert ruins, and dust storms. The Jahiliyah responded to these ubiquitous nature-spirits via ritual, offering libations and animal sacrifice. For moral guidance, however, people looked not to the capricious desert gods but to the sunnah of the tribe. 

Cities also played a vital role in Jahiliyah culture, and two in particular: Mecca, Muhammad’s hometown; and Yathrib (later renamed Medinat al-nabi, “the prophet’s city,” or simply Medina), some 280 miles to the north. Both were located in the Hejaz, the coastal area of the Arabian peninsula near the Red Sea. In the late sixth and early seventh centuries AD, during the time that Muhammad grew up and began his career, Mecca was a center of commerce and pilgrimage. Business interests were dominated by a tribe called the Quraysh, to which Muhammad himself belonged.   

The Quraysh were also custodians of Mecca’s principal shrine, the Kaaba. This site is renowned today as the focal point of the hajj, the pilgrimage all Muslims are required to make. Less well known is that for centuries preceding Islam, Mecca was a center of polytheistic worship, and Jahiliyah Arabs made the hajj just as Muslims do today. For generations before Muhammad, and continuing into his own lifetime, the Kaaba was surrounded by a circle of 360 stone idols, probably representing tribal spirits of outlying desert regions. But the chief pagan divinity, venerated as a creator and sky god, was a deity known as Allah, probably from al-ilah al-akbar, “the greatest god.” Muhammad didn’t introduce the worship of Allah; his accomplishment was to modify the understanding of Allah and Allah’s nature.

ISIS’s version of sharia is emptied of the attributes of Allah mentioned in the Qur’an: his graciousness and divine mercy

Encounter in the cave: the angel’s revelation and Qur’anic doctrine

As a young man, Muhammad was employed by a wealthy widow, Khadija, who ran a business operating caravans from Mecca to Syria and Yemen, and who eventually became Muhammad’s wife. Upon returning to Mecca from his merchant travels, Muhammad often retreated to a cave on nearby Mount Hira’ for solitary prayer. It was there, in the year 610, at the age of forty, that he experienced what he subsequently believed to be the da‘wah: the “call” or divine “summons” to preach Islam. According to early Muslim sources, Muhammad was alone in the cave when a stranger mysteriously appeared and uttered a one-word command: Iqra’ (“Recite!”) the word from which is derived the name of Islam’s scripture, the Qur’an or “Recitation.” The stranger dictated a number of verses in prose-rhyme—verses later revered as the initial revelations of the Qur’an—and then vanished. 

Muhammad was left alone in the cave, unnerved and afraid he was becoming majnun—a shattering thought, since he mistrusted both jinns and ecstatic poets. It was his wife, Khadija, who reassured him. She consulted her cousin Waraqa ibn Naufal, a Christian, who announced that the stranger in the cave was none other than the angel Gabriel. Thereafter, for twelve years, Muhammad preached to his Meccan neighbors the messages revealed to him by Gabriel. These revelations, gathered together into what would become known as the Qur’an, combined Jahiliyah traditions with elements of the Jewish and Christian faiths.

Central to Muhammad’s message was tawhid, “the assertion of absolute oneness” summarized in the creedal statement La ilaha illa Allah: “There is no god except Allah.” Rather than deny the reality of the Meccans’ chief deity, the Qur’an confirmed this god, acknowledging Allah’s traditional attributes as creator and bestower of rainfall. But Muhammad modified pagan understandings, insisting that Allah was “gracious and merciful”—traits not often associated with Jahiliyah gods—and also “master of the Day of Judgment.” As in Judaism and Christianity, the implication was that at death each soul would account for its individual actions and be rewarded accordingly with either heaven or hell. 

La ilaha illa Allah is the first half of the shahadah or Islamic creedal statement. The second half is Muhammad rasul Allah: “Muhammad is Allah’s messenger.” This assertion introduces the doctrine of prophethood, another concept derived from Judaism and Christianity. The Qur’an emphasizes that humans are transgressive by nature and neglectful of their duties to Allah; throughout history, prophets have been dispatched to us, all bearing the same Islamic message, reminding us to submit to Allah. 

Abraham, Moses, Jesus: Qur’anic understandings of Biblical figures

A pilgrimage center on a vital trade corridor, Mecca was a wealthy place, subject to fresh influxes of people and ideas. Part of the region’s cultural-religious mix was a substantial presence of Jews and Christians in pre-Islamic Arabia. Jews lived as merchants and traders in and around Medina; many of their families traced their lineage to the diaspora that resulted from the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Christians were also a significant presence in Jahiliyah Arabia. Particularly impressive to the pagan Arabs of the time were the desert monks who sometimes welcomed travelers at their hermitage dwellings. According to the earliest Muslim biography, as a young man—years before becoming the prophet of Islam—Muhammad journeyed in a merchant caravan to Syria, and near the city of Busra, a monk named Bahira emerged from his monastery cell to offer food and engage him in conversation. And the annual fair of ‘Ukaz, near Meccca, where tribal poets competed in verse competitions, was frequented by a Christian priest who, perched high on a camel, addressed the crowds in cadenced prose-rhyme, preaching to them on mortality and life’s fleeting quality. Among those who listened, Muslim sources tell us, was Muhammad himself; he came away impressed by the Christian’s teachings. 

Given this background, it’s not surprising that among the prophets in the Qur’an are names familiar from the Bible: Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Each is said to have been a Muslim prophet, sent to a particular people to preach tawhid so that they would accept Islam. But most listeners spitefully responded with tahrif, the willful distortion of Allah’s message. Thus Moses is said to have received from Allah the Torah and preached it to the “Children of Israel.” Originally good Muslims, the Israelites—says the Qur’an—distorted the Torah, worshipped the Golden Calf, and fell away from Islam into Judaism. This necessitated another Muslim prophet—Jesus—and another tawhidic revelation. Unto Jesus, says the Qur’an, was revealed the Injil, a term derived from the Greek Evangelion. His followers, too, were originally good Muslims, but distorted the Injil, engaged in Trinitarianism, and fell away from Islam into Christianity. Hence the need for one final and eternally uncorrupted scriptural revelation—the Qur’an.

The Qur’an denies Jesus’ salvific death on the Cross, his identity as a person of the Trinity, and his status as Son of God; nor is reference made to his compassionate suffering in solidarity with created beings. More intriguing is the Qur’an’s treatment of Abraham. Borrowing from the Haggadah, the ancient Jewish folklore tradition, Islamic scripture tells how Abraham as a young man denounced his own tribe’s polytheistic practice and smashed the idols they worshipped. Outraged, his family threw him into a fire, from which he was rescued by Allah. Abraham’s defiance of his father, family, and clan is an endorsement of the primacy of individual conscience over collective identity—a shocking sermon for Muhammad’s Jahiliyah audience in Mecca, rooted as it was in tribal solidarity and the authority of the sheikhs.

But the Qur’an also uses Abraham to integrate Jahiliyah Meccan tradition into Islam. Together with his son Isma‘il (the Biblical Ishmael, ancestor of the Arabs), Abraham is said to have built the Kaaba as a monotheistic shrine to Allah—an assertion that ultimately saved the Meccans’ favorite place of worship from destruction when Muhammad finally triumphed.

Exodus and triumph: the Muslim community in Medina

Most Meccans rejected Muhammad’s message, and in 622 he undertook a hijrah (exodus or emigration) to Medina, where together with other exiles from Mecca he established the Islamic ummah, or community of believers. Initially Muhammad hoped that Medina’s Jews and Christians would embrace Islam and accept him as a prophet; indeed, for the first sixteen and a half months after the hijrah, he mandated that his followers’ qiblah—the direction of Muslim prayer—be toward Jerusalem. But when Medina’s Jews and Christians weren’t impressed with this nod to their sacred city, he abruptly switched the qiblah to Mecca—an index of his increasing frustration with the “People of the Book.” 

The Qur’anic revelations Muhammad is said to have received in Medina during the last decade of his life differ notably in tone and theme from the earlier, Meccan verses. Those Meccan revelations focus on universal doctrinal points: tawhid, personal accountability, heaven and hell. In Medina Muhammad became not only a civic and religious leader but a warlord, engaged in jihad (holy “struggle” or divinely mandated warfare) against the pagan Meccans. From this period comes the verse that tells Muhammad’s followers, “Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them.” Also from this period are verses on how to distribute plunder from the battlefield, and the order to fight the People of the Book “until they pay the jizyah [a discriminatory tax] and feel themselves humiliated.” And finally, it is during this Medinan period, when Muhammad commanded a Muslim army of fervent followers, that he authorized the assassination and beheading of opponents—including Jewish prisoners of war accused of collaborating with Meccans, as well as storytellers and poets who had defied Muhammad in verse.

Conquest and caliphate

In the year 630 Muhammad conquered his enemies, re-entered Mecca in triumph, and “purified” the Kaaba for Muslim worship by breaking its circle of idols. And in the last years before his death, Muhammad began a series of attacks against Christian outposts of the Byzantine Empire, in order to enlarge the ever-widening “House of Islam.” This militant tradition was continued by the caliphs—a word derived from khalifat rasul Allah, “the successor of Allah’s messenger”—who became the political-military leaders of the ummah after Muhammad’s death. As they conquered lands that resisted Muslim rule, the caliphs imposed a system of sharia, or Islamic law, that drew from the Qur’an and the sunnah. Rather than signifying “exemplary tribal custom,” as it had during the Jahiliyah, sunnah now referred to the exemplary lifestyle—the sayings and doings—of just one man: the prophet Muhammad. 

The caliphate lasted from the seventh century to the twentieth, changing capitals from Arabia to Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Istanbul. In 1924, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, eager to discard pan-Islamism and create a modern Turkish state that was secular and nationalist, led the movement that abolished the caliphate. But as we see today, this did not spell the end of the pan-Islamic dream. In 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), declared the revival of the caliphate and the implementation of sharia in territories conquered by his followers. The thousands of Muslims who flocked to the new caliphate from throughout the world testify to the concept’s lingering attractiveness—an attractiveness enhanced by the Islamic themes deployed by ISIS propagandists. How truly Islamic is the harsh sharia system imposed by ISIS? Certainly in beheading prisoners, enslaving unbelievers, and relegating Jews and Christians to discriminatory second-class status, it can point to examples from the sunnah of Muhammad; and like other Islamic terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS uses confrontational Qur’anic verses drawn from the Medinan phase of the prophet’s career to justify its own brutality. Yet ISIS’s version of sharia—which is supposed to be Allah’s will made manifest on earth—is a legal system conspicuously emptied of those attributes of Allah most frequently mentioned in the Qur’an: his graciousness and divine mercy.

The Kaaba, at Islam's most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca / Wikipedia

Religious authority in Islam

Within the religion itself, questions of contending versions or values of Islam are left to a method of doctrinal discernment and structures of religious authority that differ in key ways from those familiar to Christians. Islam doesn’t recognize the concept of ordination or priesthood. Instead, religious authority inheres in those recognized for conspicuous piety and learning. Traditionally, the path to religious leadership begins in the madrasah—a “place of study” or Islamic school—where individuals study the Qur’an, hadith (accounts of the prophet Muhammad’s deeds and sayings), and sharia. During the centuries of the caliphate, many madrasahs were run by the state, and graduates could look forward to roles in state-sponsored religious establishments as religious scholars, or as muftis—those authorized to issue fatwas, learned opinions or decrees on how to live a religiously observant life. 

[See sidebar: Ritual Practice]

The minority denomination of Shia Islam, predominant in Iran, recognizes a formal hierarchy of scholars, with the highest ranks (ayatollah and ayatollah ‘uzma, or “grand ayatollah”) having supreme authority. But Sunni Islam—the majoritarian form of the faith—is more decentralized. Religious scholars compete for credibility and congregations; and charismatic imams can establish themselves as self-appointed authorities. Thus many Muslim clerics were dismayed when al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a Sunni who lacked formal religious credentials, took it upon himself to publish internet fatwas calling on Muslims to attack unbelievers. Such developments illustrate a challenge and major source of contention in the Muslim world today: Who, exactly, is authorized to speak for Islam? That question animates the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia for example.

According to the principles of Islamic jurisprudence, when a mufti promulgates a fatwa that’s incorrect or misguided, it’s the responsibility of other clerics to issue a counter-fatwa educating the Muslim public on the proper application of the faith to conduct. This learned debate on contentious issues is how doctrine is derived in Islam, on theological matters as well as broader cultural issues such as the proper role of women in Islamic ritual and in society more generally. Here the received tradition includes norms that many Western Christians find vexing. The Qur’an asserts that men and women are spiritual equals, equally expected to devote themselves to Allah. But traditionally, only men are required to pray at the mosque, while women have been expected to pray at home. Mosque prayer is gender-segregated. Typically, there is a relatively small space at the back of a mosque set aside for women. And menstruating women—viewed as najis, or ritually unclean—are forbidden to enter a mosque at all. Institutionally, for centuries men alone have held the positions of preacher, imam, and muezzin (who gives the call to prayer) within the congregation. But in recent years, investigative journalist Asra Nomani and Qur’an scholar Amina Wadud have argued for the right of women to have greater visibility and a larger public role in Islamic prayer life.

The existence of such voices suggests a greater diversity of views and potentials within Islam than the more alarmist views in Europe and the United States allow. Still, the challenge facing the Muslim world is clear and formidable. In the face of the intimidation and coercion practiced by ISIS, can Muslims articulate an alternative Islamic vision? One way would be to turn away from the militancy of the Qur’an’s Medinan verses, and back toward the universalist teachings of the earlier, Meccan ones. It’s there, as noted earlier, that we find the example of Abraham, who had the courage to stand alone and resist the pull of the group. Today more Abrahams are needed—figures of conscience who denounce the cruelties of religious tribalism. Perhaps 2017—the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s transformative religious movement—might mark the start of Islam’s own Reformation.

David Pinault’s latest book is the novel Providence Blue: A Fantasy Quest (Ignatius Press). He is an emeritus professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University. Contact him at [email protected].

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Published in the March 24, 2017 issue: View Contents
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