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What is Islam

Islam-The Universal Faith

Islam, to put it simply, is the way of life God chose for all humanity. It is not just a faith, it is a complete way of life from cradle to grave. Previous to this, there were other revelations God sent down to this earth to guide men on the straight path, but they were confined to specific nations, take for example Judaism, which was meant for the Jews, or Zoroastrianism for the Persians.

This is why all these faiths take their names from their nation or their founders. Judaism takes its name from the tribe of Judah; Likewise Christianity which originally started as a reformist movement within Judaism – remember Jesus said that he was sent not but unto the lost sheep of Israel – takes its name from Christ. Zoroastrianism takes its name from Zoroaster, or to give his proper name Zarathustra, an ancient Persian Prophet. Even if you consider the polytheistic or for that matter the atheistic doctrines of old, they too have their names in their founders or the countries that gave rise to them. So we have Hinduism taking its name from Hind, an old name given to India and Buddhism from the Buddha, an ancient Indian word meaning Enlightened One as applied to its founder Siddharta Gautama. None of them apply or appeal to the whole of mankind.

Islam a Universal Faith

Islam on the other hand claims to be universal, in that it is meant for all humanity. It holds that all revelations from Adam to Muhammad are in essence the same, which is a call to surrender to the Will of the One True God. They may be different at the social, cultural and spiritual level, but these merely reflect the conditions of those peoples to whom it was revealed. Whereas the earlier revelations were limited in time and space, meant as they were for particular peoples living at a particular period of time, this cannot be said of Islam, which not only covers the essence of the earlier faiths, but also prescribes a code of living that is universal in scope. It provides for the needs of all people in every aspect of life for all times till the very end of the world. In other words – a complete way of life from cradle to grave.

Its universal character we can glean from its very name. What is its meaning you may wonder? Well it has a wonderful meaning, so profound that you cannot help but wonder whether it is more than just any religious message or mission. Islam means Surrender, that is, Surrender to the Will of God. This is what Islam means. The word Islam, if you care to dwell deeper, originates from the word aslama which occurs in our Holy book, the Qur’an in verses such as:

To Him has surrendered whatsoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and to Him shall they all be returned

(Family Imraan:83)

The word used for surrender here is aslama, forms of which also occur in other verses of the Qur’an with reference to the earlier prophets, as for instance in the story of Abraham:

When His Lord said unto him surrender (aslim)! he said “I surrender to the Lord of the Worlds (aslamtu li rabbil alameen)

(The Heifer:131)

It even occurs with reference to the Queen of Sheba. Solomon, the story goes, invited her to his palace, but when she saw it, she thought it was a lake of water and tucked up her garment uncovering her legs, only to have Solomon tell her: This is but a palace paved smooth with slabs of glass”. Said she:

O my Lord! I have indeed wronged my soul. I submit (aslamtu) with Solomon to the Lord of the Worlds

(The Ants: 44)

           Who is a Muslim?

If Islam means Surrender, then a Muslim –who takes his name from the word aslama– means One who thus surrenders himself or herself.  So a Muslim is not necessarily one who follows the faith brought by Muhammad. It is anybody who submits to the Will of God. Thus Muslims have been around even before the days of Muhammad. As God says in the Qur’an:

Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian, but he was true in faith and surrendered his will to God’s

(Family Imraan:67)

The word used here is Musliman, from Islam meaning ‘surrender, a Muslim being one who surrenders thus. You’ll be surprised to learn that in the Qur’an the disciples of Jesus are called Muslims. We read in the Holy Book that when Jesus found unbelief on the part of his Jewish compatriots, he asked “Who will be my helpers to (the work of) God?” and the disciples answered:

We are God’s helpers. We believe in God and bear witness that we are Muslims

(Family Imraan:52)

Nay there were Muslims even among the Egyptians of Pharoah’s time. In the Qur’an we read that when Moses defeated the Sorcerers of Pharoah, they fell prostrate in adoration saying “We believe in the Lord of the Worlds”. Hearing this, the tyrant threatened to cut off their hands and feet and nail them on to the cross. But they replied:

Would you wreak your vengeance on us simply because we believed in the Signs of our Lord when they reached us! Our Lord! Pour out on us patience and constancy and take our souls unto Thee as Muslims

(The Heights:120-126)

We also learn that when Joseph’s mistress heard some malicious talk of some city ladies about her seeking to seduce the lad, she invited them to a banquet, gave each of them a knife and told Joseph “Come out before them”. When they saw him, they cut their hands dazzled by his beauty and said: “God preserve us! No mortal is this! This is none other than a noble angel!” (Joseph: 30-31). The word for God the Egyptian ladies use here is Allah.  So there we are. Even some ancient Egyptians lived and died as Muslims or those who surrendered to the Will of God. The Old Testament is silent on these believing Egyptians because the Jews thought only they would be saved as the Chosen People. The Gospel of Jesus eventually reached them before being superseded by Muhammad’s Message in the seventh century.

Surrendering to God

In order to be a Muslim, one must surrender oneself to God, and to surrender oneself to God means first and foremost believing in Him as the One True God; that He is the Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. It is equally important to believe in the Oneness of God; that He alone created the universe, governs it and preserves and sustains it; that there is none like Him. The Supreme Oneness who knows no beginning or end, who is birthless and deathless, Who is peerless and absolutely boundless. Let me illustrate this to you by simply citing three verses from the Qur’an which so beautifully sum up His Unity:

                                Say He is God, the One; the Self-Sufficient;  He begets not, nor was He begotten; and there is none equal unto Him

(The Purity of faith:1-4)

Verily Your God is One! Lord of the Heavens and of the earth, and all that is between them, and Lord of every point of the rising of the sun!

(Those Ranged in Ranks: 4-5)

God is He, than whom there is no other god. The Sovereign, the Holy One, the Absolute Peace, the Guardian of Faith, Preserver of Security, Exalted in Might, the Irresistable, the Supreme. Glory to God! Above the partners they attribute to Him. He is God, the Creator, the Evolver, Bestower of Forms. To him belong the Most Beautiful Names

(The Gathering:23-24)

All heavenly bodies and indeed all earthly life are in a constant state of submission to God, each even having its own mode of prayer which man with his limited intellect cannot even comprehend. Take the moon that goes around the sun. Does it not obey the laws of God when doing so? The Qur’an reminds us that even animals like man are in state of submission to God, in a sense also in a state of Islam or Surrender:

Seest thou not that to God bow down in worship all things that are in the heavens and on earth,- the sun, the moon, the stars; the hills, the trees, the animals and a great number among mankind?

(The Pilgrimage:18)

Seest thou not that it is God Whose praises all beings in the heavens and on earth do celebrate, and the birds (of the air) with wings outspread? Each one knows its own (mode of) prayer and praise. And God knows well all that they do

(The Light: 41)

This submission of nature to God’s Law is so complete that it is seen in every age and at every place. None departs from these laws. For example, can trees bear fruit out of season? Can a fish live on land or an elephant in the sea? Thus to depart from God’s laws is to go against the grain and to perish. We also know now that everything in creation, from the atom to the cosmos, are all bound by a law that compels matter to move in a circular, anti-clockwise movement, a fact only recently discovered by science. The electrons of an atom revolve round its nucleus in an anti-clockwise direction. On a larger scale, we find the earth rotating on its own axis to produce night and day and revolving around the sun to give us a year, again taking an anti-clockwise direction. The same holds true of all heavenly bodies. As interestingly, the circumambulation the Muslim performs around the Mosque in Mecca as part of his once a lifetime pilgrimage also takes this counter-clockwise direction, this universal movement ubiquitous all over nature, showing again that the Muslim submits to God like the rest of creation, only willingly.

In the Qur’an, we are told here that all animals bow down to God while it is not all but ‘a great number’ among mankind who do so (The Pilgrimage:18). This is because unlike animals that follow the natural laws ordained by God, man, has a higher purpose and position as Vicegerent of God on earth:

Behold thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth”

(The Heifer:30)

Man unlike the rest of nature has been endowed with a certain amount of free will which he may use for better or worse. Thus a man or woman who beckons to the call of Satan and disobeys his or her Creator is even lower than the most seemingly insignificant creature on earth. As the Qur’an says of such evil persons, they shall be reduced to the Lowest of the Low

We have indeed created man in the best of moulds, then do we abase him the lowest of the low, except such as believe and do righteous deeds

(The Fig: 4-6)

However when man surrenders himself to God willingly he brings his will in conformity with God’s Will, aligning it as it were, thus achieving perfect equilibrium with the Divine scheme of things. Since he submits his will to that of God’s freely he becomes a perfect Muslim. So just as the moon going round the sun is a Muslim because it obeys God’s Laws, a man obeying God without question of his own accord becomes a far superior Muslim because he obeys Him out of the free will given to him. This is why God says in the Qur’an:

So set thou thy face steadily and truly to the Faith, God’s Handiwork according to the pattern on which He has made mankind; no change (let there be) in the work (wrought) by God

(The Romans: 30)

  It is this spirit of submission to the Divine Will that has made Muslims the most God-fearing of peoples. It was this spirit that was captured by that greatest of European thinkers, Wolfgang Goethe when he who wrote in his Divan:

If Islam means submission to God,
We all live and die in Islam.”

In his letters to his friends we find him writing in a similar vein: “And thus we have to remain inside Islam, (in complete submission to the will of God)” and “I cannot tell you more than this that also here I try to remain in Islam“.

This is why you will find Muslims thinking that their faith is the most natural thing in the world. It is not only born Muslims, even those of other faiths who have embraced Islam think so. To put it in the words of Lady Evelyn Zeinab Cobbold, a British convert, or rather revert, since we Muslims hold that we all are born as Muslims and that it is external satanic influences that make us otherwise: “I am often asked when and why I became a Muslim. I can only reply that I do not know the precise moment when the truth of Islam dawned upon me. It seems that I have always been a Muslim. This is not strange when one remembers that Islam is the natural religion that a child, left to itself, would develop”.

Why believe in God?

Now it may be asked, why would God want us to believe in Him while concealing Himself from us, nay not even allowing us to catch a glimpse of Him? This is a question atheists often ask. Let’s look at it this way. God has in His Wisdom placed us in a world where we feel we are all to ourselves without His manifest presence towering over us, and asks us to believe in Him, not because of His powerful presence that in itself is enough to scare us into submission, but by what He has done for us through His Signs apparent everywhere in the universe. What can be more beautiful than this? This is what belief is all about, loving God without seeing Him, the purest form of love there can be!

Yes, God loves man and it is only fair that He expects man to love Him. This is why in Islam, man’s relationship with God is direct. There are no intermediaries like a Holy See, Papal Authority or a Cult of Saints in Islam. The Jews call God Rabb (Lord) and address their priests as Rabbi (My Lord). The Christians call Him Abba (Father in Heaven) and address their priests as Abbe (Father) all meant to reflect the divinity in the priesthood. Not so Islam. Man has a direct connection with God which he establishes through prayer and supplication, not to mention doing good deeds which God rewards generously. Thus in Islam, every man and woman is the high priest of his or her own soul, needing no other intermediary. His or her heart is the temple of the faith dedicated to the One True God.

The Articles of Faith

To believe in God itself is not enough to make one a Muslim.  One must also believe in all that God would have us believe. These are the Six Articles of Faith. God ordains that first and foremost we believe in Him; and secondly in His angels, winged beings created from light that serve Him; and thirdly in the Prophets, pious men He sent to guide mankind; and fourthly in the Scriptures, His Words which He revealed to mankind through His Messengers; and fifthly in the Last Day where humanity will be resurrected to face Divine Justice and rewarded with heavenly bliss or punished in the hellfire; and Sixthly, in the Divine Decree, that what God has Willed must come to pass.

But holding these beliefs alone are not enough to make one a Muslim. One’s heart no doubt is the best repository of faith, but faith must also have a form and it is ritual that best gives form to a faith, helping to perpetuate it in word and deed. Thus Muslims have what is known as the Five Pillars of Islam. The first is the Shahada or Bearing Witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. To believe in God itself is not enough, we must verbally declare that we believe in Him, and that too in a formula we Muslims know as the Kalima or The Word:

La ilaha illallah Muhammadur Rasulullah

(There is no god but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God)

The Kalima consists firstly of negation, La ilaha (No god) followed by affirmation illallah (Except God); thus one negates the existence of other gods before affirming the existence of the One True God. Why, because each person blind to the reality may have had a national god or a personal god before; so one first negates these and then pledges belief in the universal God. How beautiful a formula this is, the chant of all chants, the mantra of all mantras – La ilaha illallah!

The second is the Salat or Prayer. One’s faith in God must also be expressed in deeds, and the best way to express such faith in Him is in one’s Worship of Him, not once a week as many in the West are used to, but five times a day. This is the Salat or Islamic Prayer devoted to God and God alone, cycles of standing, bowing and prostrating on the ground as a sign of utter humility before the One True God.

The third is the Zakat or Alms Tax. Just as prayer is needed for the individual to gain the pleasure of God and attain spiritual felicity, the Alms Tax cleanses one’s soul of worldly dross and purifies one’s wealth. By stipulating that an individual sacrifice a certain portion of one’s wealth for the sake of God and for the good of the community, Islam impresses on him or her the need not to be too engrossed with material pursuits, which are, after all, fleeting moments in this worldly life, and to be more conscious of the needs of the community, for to give to man is to give God.

The fourth is the Saum or Fasting. Man is a material being satisfying his needs from the bounties God has blessed the earth with, eating, drinking and fulfilling his sexual needs. These are of course essential needs he cannot do without, but at the same time to be too dependent on these and enjoying these solely as pleasures rather than for survival-like eating and drinking- and procreation -like sex- could weaken our spiritual ascent and prevent us from drawing closer to God. What we enjoy in this life are only a foretaste of the pleasures to come in paradise and it is good that we eschew these every once in a while. Islam sets aside an entire month where the Muslim, man or woman, gives these up for the sake of God from dawn to dusk.

The fifth is the Hajj or Pilgrimage. This involves visiting at least once in a lifetime the great temple in the Holy City of Mecca known as the Ka’aba and engaging in the hallowed and sacrosanct rituals that form part of it. This temple is a very ancient one, built by the Prophets Abraham and his son Ishmael, Upon Whom Be Peace, and dedicated to the worship of the One True God over three thousand years ago. It is also the birthplace of our Prophet Muhammad, Upon whom be the Peace, who was descended from these patriarchs and whom we Muslims regard as the Final Messenger of God. The pilgrimage brings together all men and women as one nation, wearing simple garments and praying together irrespective of race or social status. They are all equal before God.

But remember these are only the pillars of Islam; they are what support the superstructure that is Islam, holding firm the house of Islam. But I ask you, can you live in a house that has only pillars ? Nay, a house needs a foundation, walls and a roof and so it is with Islam. Islam in its totality embraces much more than these five pillars and involves man’s fulfilling his obligations to God, to his fellow man and to his fellow creatures to earn God’s Pleasure. Submitting to God’s Will is the foundation of Islam and earning his Pleasure the highest aim, the loftiest pinnacle a believer can aspire to reach; in a sense it is the roof of the house of Islam. Fulfilling one’s obligations to God, one’s fellow men and fellow creatures are likewise important duties, like the walls of a house providing a sense of comfort and fortification for the believer. A fault in the walls cannot in any way harm the foundation, but if allowed to crack could even bring the roof down so that the whole purpose of our worldly existence, to earn God’s Pleasure, is lost.

Why we need to have faith?

Remember that the life of this world is not the end of it all. This world is nothing but a battleground between good and evil. It is a test to determine whether we are fit for a better world.  If we obey God and do good, we pass this test and earn the bliss of paradise as its reward and if we persist in disobeying him and doing evil, we fail the test and reap its consequences, the scourge of hell. God has made it easy for us to understand what this hereafter is all about. To put it simply, the good things in life are a foretaste of the things to come in paradise, and the bad things in life are a foretaste of the things to come in hell.

But remember, heaven itself is not the aim of the believer; it is the recompense he or she gets for his or her efforts to earn God’s Pleasure. As a pious Muslim lady many centuries ago, one Rabia very beautifully put it: “O God if I worship Thee for fear of hell, burn me in hell. If I worship Thee in hope of paradise exclude me thence, but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, withhold not from me Thine eternal beauty”. Thus we have not only to fear God, but we also have to love Him and be grateful to Him, constantly remembering Him in our hearts, the temples of our faith. Such love we can only give Him and none else. As God tells us in the Qur’an:

There are some who take to themselves others besides God, loving them as they should love God. But those of faith are overflowing in their love for God

(The Heifer:165)

But Islam does not stop at merely fulfilling this spiritual longing for God. Everything in Islam from personal cleanliness to a happy family life has been designed in such a way as to be conducive to God’s Remembrance. It is a whole way of life from cradle to grave by which we can live a rich and contented life as a community looking after the needs of one another, the closest, if I may say so, to an utopia in this worldly life. After all, it is the only faith that, within the lifetime of its Prophet, could turn a rude and crude race of barbarians who even buried alive their infant daughters to a wise, polite and cultured nation that went on to excel in the arts and sciences within less than a century.

Purpose of Life

Everything laid down in Islam for living this worldly life has a purpose, which is to get closer to God and to earn his pleasure, while at the same time benefiting us earthlings in ways more than we can ever, ever, imagine. To go out of it is to invite unhappiness. The truth is that man is about the only creature still uncertain of his role in the universe; and in his uncertainty, he has been looking for answers to the almost eternal questions: Who am I?  Why am I here? He is curious to know the answers, not even knowing where this wellspring of his curiosity lies.

Science, skeptical as it is of everything, cannot answer these questions, only revelation can. God asks us rather rhetorically in the Qur’an, His Word which he sent mankind “Did you think that We had created you without purpose, and that you would not be brought back to Us?”. Now, what is this purpose God is telling us about? He Himself answers this in His Own Words when he tells us rather tellingly:

I created not Jinn and Men except that they should serve Me

(The Scattering Winds:56)

We created not the heavens, the earth, and all between them merely in sport. We created them not except for just ends, but most of them understand not

(The Smoke:38-39)

Thus if we think that enjoying life is the sole purpose of existence or that God created us simply to enjoy life, you are sadly mistaken. There is a higher purpose and it is when you lose sight of this higher purpose that life becomes really meaningless. You don’t have far to look. Take the number of your celebrities in the West who get so fed up with living their mundane existence that they take their own lives. It seems that life is simply not worth living for these people. This is what happens when you lust after material pleasures. You lose your spiritual values, the values that God decreed for you, and so you hasten your downfall. Worldly pleasures, however much you have of it, can never give you true happiness. As I told you, there is a purpose and everything in this world is meant to achieve that purpose. The laws of nature God created in His Wisdom bear testimony to this truth.

Take marriage. God has decreed marriage for man and woman. It unites two hearts in love and leads to a rich companionship only those who are married can really feel. It steers the ship of love to carry us through the stormy sea of lust. Married people are much more likely to be happier than the unmarried, despite the fact that they may squabble once in a while. Even the latest findings in the West prove this point and so let me dwell no further on it. Marriage also helps as a conduit for satisfying one’s sexual feelings, which is a most natural desire. Sex is in a way a divine blessing. It entices humans to procreate, thereby ensuring the survival of the human race. If not for this strong feeling between man and woman the human race, including you and I, would not have come into being.  In Islam, however, the pleasure one gets from sex is more than this. It is a foretaste of the delights of paradise which one can only achieve by pleasing God and doing good to one’s fellow creatures. Sex is a good thing as long as it is confined to marriage- the more the merrier!

Now suppose we depart from this divinely ordained institution of marriage, so divinely instituted indeed that it has come to be accepted as the proper way in all human societies. Indeed, even polytheists who worship many gods or for that matter even atheists who worship none believe in its need for achieving happiness and for the survival of the human race. Suppose we departed from it, as many hedonists of our age do today, just to achieve sexual satisfaction. What do you suppose would be the outcome? For one thing, there would not be this thing we call civilization within a few generations; it would only be chaos, chaos and chaos, for the simple reason that sex outside marriage destroys the family which nurtures the young and instills in them the proper values to be decent human beings. In fact those who engage in sex outside marriage most often have no desire for offspring. It is merely a question of satisfying their carnal lusts, irrespective of the consequences.

Secondly, promiscuity leads to destruction by way of terrible diseases that have arisen whenever people engaged in it. Sooner or later it got them. Take the venereal diseases of the olden days, take Syphillis and Gonorrhoea; and when it became treatable what did we have- AIDS for which there is still no cure. Strangely, there is a saying our beloved Prophet uttered 1400 years ago, which we even in our modern age should seriously ponder over:

Sexual immorality never appears among people to such an extent that they commit it openly except that they will be afflicted by plagues and diseases unknown to their forefathers

(Ibn Majah)

So if religious commandments don’t ensure men follow the ordained path, then the fear of contracting these diseases will. Thus marriage has to exist in this modern age as it did centuries, nay millennia go, ever since the days of Adam and Eve. It has to exist as it is the only way man can live a civilized life and serve God. To go out of it only invites destruction, and this God ensures in a most strange way. And we still wonder why these sexually transmitted diseases plague us. They are a Godsend, my friend, and however much suffering they cause they are there to ensure men don’t trod the path of destruction for themselves and their species.

Whether they like it or not, they are bound to live as God wants them to live. They have a choice to make; either way they reap the fruit of their actions, the good or the bad, which is evident to us even in this earthly life. This life is, after all, a fleeting one; it is only a test, a battleground, to determine whether we are fit for the good life which God promises us.