Suggestion: A brief history of the Muslim faith and the Quran and a discussion of its differences and similarities to Christianity and the Bible…
Our last session offered a brief overview of the history Islam. We recall that Muhammad became the prophet of Islam after receiving religious visions from the angel Gabriel outside Mecca around the year of 610 AD. His preaching in Mecca resulted in his expulsion from the city, and he took his family and band of followers to Medina (called the Hijra, the beginning of the Muslim calendar). There Muhammad grew in power and influence, continued to receive visions, united the various Arab tribes of the area, and eventually reentered Mecca victorious before he died. His Muslim followers established powerful empires throughout the Middle East and North Africa in generations after his death, despite numerous cultural battles between them. In the Modern Era with the ascendancy of Western European colonialism, the Islamic empires were fading. In the 20th century new balances of power prevailed, and with the decline of colonialism and the influx of petroleum wealth, Islam once again became a more powerful world influence. Increasing radicalization of some sects of Islam have put them on a collision course with the West. Now the United States and much of the world finds itself in numerous conflicts related to Islam, especially with regard to issues related to radical Islamic terrorism, rising nationalism in states like Iran, and the perennially difficult questions stemming from the creation of the nation state of Israel in the midst of Muslim nations.
Muhammad himself could neither read nor write. His first vision in the cave of Hira outside Mecca began with the voice of Gabriel awakening him with a startling command, “Read!” Muhammad protested three times that he could not read, but the force of the vision suggests that Allah would give people his words to read through Muhammad as his prophet. Thus in the Arabic language the word Quran means something like “what is read.” Muhammad received numerous revelations throughout his lifetime. He did not write them down himself, but recited them to his followers, who did record them. After his death, the writings were compared by his disciples and compiled into the official format of the Quran, which is considered by Muslims as absolutely fixed and unchangeable, the version which existed in the mind of God from eternity past.
The Quran is divided into 114 suras, which are somewhat like chapters. In general, the longest chapters are at the front of the Quran, and the briefest at the end. Each sura bears a title, often from key statements or themes that catch attention or open the sura. Each sura is divided into ayat, which are brief, like verses.
The content of the Quran can be difficult to assess by the untrained learner. It does not have the variety of literature we find in the Bible, for instance, a collection which was written by numerous authors over hundreds of years for different purposes. Instead, the Quran reads as poetic words, perhaps most closely akin to later OT prophets. The style seems decidedly polemical, as if there is always an opponent to be addressed. Often these opponents are the idolaters of Arabia, or often the Jews or Christians (referred to as “people of the book” or “Scriptures”) whose religions are being critiqued and revised into Islam. The recurring theme of submission to God pounds like a drumbeat. The day of judgment looms large, when the righteous will be separated from the wicked, and repeated warnings of graphic doom and promises of blissful paradise relate to this.
Muslim scholars from the very beginning have commented upon the Quran to seek its interpretation and application. This tradition even begins with Muhammad himself, who gave the verses as inspired revelations, memorized them and taught them to his disciples who recited them. Then he would expound on them, and the disciples would discuss them with him. So the Quran was viewed as the very words of God, not as Muhammad’s own.
The Quran was recorded in classic Arabic, and only the Arabic version is properly considered the Quran. Translations are not considered authoritative, and only allowed as a kind of commentary on the Arabic Quran for the sake of those who do not understand it. All recitation and prayers from the Quran used in worship are performed in Arabic, regardless of the language of the people who are worshipping. This raises a large need for Arabic schools to train students in the reading of the Quran and the ways of Islam, called Madrasahs (simply the word for “school”).
The Hadith are additional narrations about the life of Muhammad and the early days of Islam recorded by his disciples. These are voluminous, and inform Islamic practice and Sharia law, their official codes of conduct. Different branches of Islam maintain different collections of these documents, and differ in approaches to enforcing Islam in society.
There are a variety of schools of thought within Islam. Two main branches we hear about are the Sunni, which is the majority, and Shia, which are found primarily in and around Iran. These divided centuries ago over disputes related to leadership. Another well-known form of Islam is the Sufi, which is a mystical branch. Known for its “whirling dervishes” who would dance in a dizzying manner, Sufis seek a deeper, spiritual meaning to the Quran and believe in seeking peaceful brotherhood with people of all religions (and are often looked upon as heretical by more orthodox Muslims). Within Sunni Islam there are several schools of thought as well. An influential movement known as Wahhabi follows the strict teachings of an 18th century leader from Saudi Arabia, and it is this branch of Islam that currently maintains the holy sites in Arabia and often contributes to the fundamentalist interpretations of Islam that advocate violent jihad and threaten the status quo of secular Islamic states.