Reflections on Islam and the Koran
la ilaha illa’Llah
“There is no god but God”
Background of Islam
The word “Islam” is derived from the root s-l-m. which means “peace” or “surrender”: “the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God.” “Allah” comes from joining al (the) with Ilah (God).
According to tradition, the Arab Muslims descended from Ishmael, who was Abraham’s son by Hagar, his second wife. Abraham’s first wife, Sarah, also bore a son and demanded that Abraham exile Hagar and Ishmael. They left Palestine and settled in Mecca.
Muhammad was born into the leading tribe of Mecca, the Koreish, around 570 AD. He is known as “The Seal of the Prophets” – the final authentic prophet. He grew up during a time of tribal turmoil.
Muhammad’s childhood was characterised by loss. His father died not long before he was born, and his mother passed away when he was six years old. His grandfather took over his care but died when he was eight years old. Muhammad then went to live with his uncle, whose family received him with warmth and love. Muhammad worked for his uncle as a shepherd.
Muhammad entered the caravan business and at the age of 25 he went to work for a wealthy widow, Khadija. Although she was 15 years older than him, they fell in love and married. Over the next 15 years Khadija supported Muhammad emotionally and financially as he began to take frequent retreats in a cave on Mount Hira on the outskirts of Mecca. He pondered good and evil and was unable to come to terms with the violence of his contemporaries. Muhammad did not take another wife as long as Khadija was alive.
At the time, the people of Mecca worshipped a variety of gods including Allah. Muhammad was one of the hanifs who exclusively worshipped Allah. Then around 610 AD on what is now known as The Night of Power, “the Book was opened to a ready soul.” (Le Gai Eaton, 1985: 103). Muhammad, at the age of about 40 years, received a visitation from an angel who told him that he was to be a proclaimer of God. Muhammad returned to his wife in a terror. He told her what had happened and she believed him, telling him that he would be the Prophet of his people.
After the Night of Power, Muhammad’s first “converts” were his wife Khadija, his good friend Abu Bakr, and his cousin ‘Ali. Gradually the circle expanded, which brought the pressure of the tribal rulers against him because he was preaching a wholesale revolution to their way of life. Muhammad’s teachings included the destruction of the idols which the tribal rulers used as the spiritual seat of their power: Mecca garnered significant revenue from pilgrimages made to its 360 shrines (one for every day of the lunar calendar). Muhammad also taught fraternal equality, challenging the class hierarchy of Mecca.
The Meccan rulers ridiculed the Muslims, then began to stone them, jail them, or starve them out through sanctions. As with early Christians, persecution only made the Muslims more determined. After three years of this, Muhammad had only managed to gather about 40 followers. But slow and steady wins the race. After ten years, several hundred families acknowledge him as the Prophet.
The Meccan rulers decided to assassinate Muhammad. But a delegation from the city Yathrib (later renamed “the city of the Prophet,” Medina) invited him to migrate there and become their ruler. Yathrib was riven with internal strife and needed a strong leader with no conflicting loyalties. Muhammad’s message had reached Yathrib and gained ground there.
Muhammad accepted the invitation and set out in June 622 AD. 70 families preceded him. When the MEccan rulers discovered what was happening, they tries to stop them, but Muhammad and his friend Abu Bakr hid en route to Yathrib while Meccan militants scoured the countryside for him. After three days, they managed to obtain two camels and use the back routes to reach Yathrib.
The date of his move to Medina, known as the Hijrah, represents the start of the Islamic calendar. Muhammad became the administrator of Medina: judge, military leader, policy maker and Prophet of God.
Muhammad became the public administrator: a “masterful politician; the prophet was transformed into statesmen.” (Smith). He continued to live in a modest way, setting the example for the city. It appears the Muhammad blended justice and mercy and this is palpable in the Koranic teachings about punishments for crimes to be tempered with compassion. During his management of the city, Muhammad managed to overcome the tribal conflicts (including with the Jewish tribes of the city) and unite the city into an orderly confederation. He appears to have been a great leader: someone who captured the hearts and minds of his followers, and used his power for good.
The Meccan tribes attacked Medina a number of times, but the Medina Muslims consistently won against Meccan armies which outnumbered the Muslims. When reading the Koran, you can see the passages which are to do with the just war against the Meccans, exhorting the Muslims to fight the Meccans but within the rules of a humane warfare.
Other tribes of Arabia began to pay allegiance to Muhammad until eventually the Meccan tribes also followed suit after a final failed attempt to take Medina. In 630 AD, Muhammad marched into Mecca in triumph and forgiveness. After this, the Prophet Islamised the north. Ten years later he returned to Mecca to make the hajj. He returned to Medina, fell ill and died in 632 AD.
The word al-qur’an means a recitation. Thus the Qu’ran or Koran is the book which contains Muhammad’s revelations from Allah. It contains 114 chapters or surahs which, after the first surah, are ordered by decreasing length.
Muhammad received the Koran over 23 years. He would enter a trance-like state whilst his followers would transcribe or memorise his words. The Koran covers ethical, legal teachings, spiritual insights.
Similar to Christianity, compassion and love are the core teachings of Islam. Muhammad however had a longer life than Christ and more opportunity to articulate and apply his revelations to real world situations. According to Smith, “If Jesus had had a longer career, or if the Jews had not been so socially powerless at the time, Jesus might have systematised his teaching more.” (Smith). The Koran is the key Islamic text accompanied by the hadith which are texts describing Muhammad’s actions.
According to Huston Smith, Muslims tend to read the Koran as literally the words of God. To them the earthly Koran is the “instantiation, in letters and sounds, of the Koran’s limitless essence in its Uncreated Form….The created Koran is the formal crystallisation of the infinite reality of the Uncreated Koran.” (Smith).
That said, there is a strong Koranic scholarship tradition focused on interpreting the language and grammar of the Koran and its sacred history. There is also a tradition amongst Sufis and Shi’ites of examining the esoteric meaning of the Koran: its inner reality.
The Koran and Other Holy Books
The Koran includes the Old and New Testaments and represents their culmination. Thus Jews and Christians are included with Muslims as “People of the Book,” and it is implied that people of other faiths in the one true God would also be included (“To every people we have sent a messenger…” Koran 10:47). However the Koran is free from corruption which the other Testaments are susceptible to.
The Sonoral Tradition of Islam
It’s important to note that Islam was firstly a “sonoral” revelation: Muhammad “heard” the Word of God and then spoke it to his followers. Muhammad was “unlettered,” which if literally true as well as metaphorically, is interesting. Think of the Indigenous religions in pre-literate Australia and America, where shared spirituality occurred through speech, rhythm and ritual. Reading the Koran in translation does not have the same spiritual impact as listening to it recited or reciting it oneself. The pauses and intonations are all based on traditions going back to the Prophet (Nasr).
Muslims responded to this sonoral nature of the Koran by developing the art of calligraphy and Islamic architecture, in which spaces are designed to reverberate the recitation of the Koran (Nasr).
Treatment of Women
Something I find of particular interest about the Koran is its prescriptions for the treatment of women. Before Islam, women in Arabia were treated as property. Daughters had no inheritance rights and were sometimes killed in infancy.
In this historical context, the Koran revolutionised the way women were treated. For example the Koran:
• forbade infanticide
• required daughters to be included in inheritance to half the portion of sons
• sanctified marriage
• required that women give free consent to a marriage
• allowed women to instigate divorce and required their husbands to give them their marriage portion if a divorce ensued
• exhorted men with more than one wife to treat all with equal respect, love and esteem
The Koran advised women to “draw their cloaks closely round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed.” (33:59). Again historical context is important here: Muhammad lived at a time of banditry and violence. In this light, veiling is a kind of avuncular, prudent piece of advice.
The Koran sets out pretty severe punishments for moral offences. However when you read the Koran, you notice how Muhammad has set out the worst case scenario punishment almost immediately followed by exceptions, exemptions, and exhortations towards mercy and care in judgment.
Muhammad decreed that the Jews of Medina would be permitted to practice their religion freely. He extended this freedom of religion to all who worshipped one God.
The basic theological concepts of Islam are the same as those of Judaism and Christianity. There is an ultimate, immaterial and invisible God who made the heavens and earth. Muslims experience a kind of holy fear of God: awe at the “magnitude of the consequences that follow from being on the right or wrong side of an uncompromisingly moral universe.” (Smith). Muslims believe in the idea of heaven and hell, but also a compassionate God whom a Muslim can access ay any moment for strength and guidance. There will be a Day of Judgment at which time the good and the bad will be divided between heaven and hell.
Gratitude and Surrender
Islam does not have a concept of original sin and fall from grace, but it does have the concept of ghaflah, which means “forgetting.” Humans sometimes forget their divine origin, but their fundamental nature is good. We have two obligations to God: gratitude and surrender.
According to Smith, the word infidel is more about someone who lacks thankfulness than someone who does not believe in God. The more gratitude one feels, the less greedy and grasping one is.
Surrender is a common core of religion and spiritual experience. According to William James,
When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed into our only permanent positions of repose….In the religious life…surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary. (James, 1961).
The centrality of the individual
As with Christianity and Judaism, the individual self is the arena for spiritual fulfilment and spiritual realisation. “All life is individual; there is no such thing as universal life. God Himself is an individual; He is the most unique individual.” (Iqbal, 1920). This creates individual moral responsibility for actions and eternal damnation or salvation. Muhammad provided evocative imagery of heaven and hell, intended to jolt people out of ghaflah and into action.
The Five Pillars of Islam
The Koran exhorts people to walk the straight path, “The path of those on whom Thou [Allah] hast poured forth Thy grace.” (Koran opening surah). The Koran includes five key social teachings, or pillars, as to how to walk this path.
1. Creed, Shahadah
“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet.” The Koran requires a Muslim to say the Shahadah once in her life “correctly, thoughtfully, aloud, with full understanding and heartfelt conviction.” (Smith).
2. Constancy in prayer
Muslims are asked to be constant in prayer as a way to keep their lives in perspective (Smith). Muhammad sets out that Muslims should pray five times a day: on rising, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset and before retiring. Muslims can pray anywhere, but preferably in a mosque on Friday at noon and any other time when it is possible.
First of all, the Muslim washes to symbolically purify the body and soul. Standing upright, the person then prostrates herself with forehead pressed to the floor. According to Smith, this has two levels of symbolism: the body is ready to reborn, and at the same time crouched as small as possible, representing the human nothingness in the face of God. Prayers centres around praise, gratitude and supplication.
Muhammad, via the Koran, introduced a graduated tax to support the needy: those in immediate need, slaves purchasing their freedom, debtors unable to pay their bills, strangers and wayfarers, and those who collect and distribute alms. The Koran specifies 2.5% of income and assets. Poor people do not have to five anything, but those in the middle and upper tiers should annually disburse a fortieth of the value of their possessions and income.
4. Observance of Ramadan
This is the holy month of Islam: the month in which Muhammad received his initial revelation and then ten years later, migrated from Mecca to Medina. Muslims who are physically able to, are required to fast during Ramadan from dawn to sundown. After sundown, they are allowed to eat and drink in moderation. Ramadan follows the lunar calendar. The aim of Ramadan is to encourage contemplation, self-discipline and compassion for the needy.
Once during a Muslim’s life, if she is physically and financially able to, she should travel to Mecca.
The Major Groups of Islam
Almost 88% of Muslims are Sunnis. This term comes from ahl al-sunnah wa’ljama’ah, followers of the sunnah of the Prophet and the majority (Nasr).
The Shi’ites and Sunnis emerged as separate groups upon the death of Muhammad.
The Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s friend, to be the Prophet’s successor. They thought that the caliph should protect the Divine Law, act as judge, and rule the community as a public administrator. The Sunnis were in the majority (and still are).
The Shi’ites believed that the caliph should be a person who also be able to interpret the Koran and the Law, because he received the inner spiritual power of the Prophet. Therefore he should be chosen by God and the Prophet, and not by the community. The Shi’ites named this person an imam, which in this context means the person who carries the “Prophetic Light.” After Muhammad died, the Shi’ites believed that the imam was ‘Ali ibn Abu Talib, whom they believed the Prophet chose before he died. Shi’ite imams are all descended from ‘Ali and Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet.
Shi’ites get their name from being shi’it ‘Ali- partisans of ‘Ali. They are divided into:
• Twelve-Imam Shi’ites
Kharijites oppose the claim of both All and Mu’awiyyah to the caliphate. They are small in number and mostly confined to Oman and southern Algeria.
There are sects and splinter groups which derive historically from Islam, including the Baha’is, the Druze of Lebanon, and the ‘Alaw?s of Syria.
My Reflections on Islam
The first thing that struck me as I read the Koran was what a kind, fair man Mohammed must have been. The rules he suggests in answers to questions seem extremely reasonable for a man of his time in history. In particular I was struck by his fairness towards women. For example, he requires a relatively fair outcome for widows or divorcees – a far cry from what the women of the times would have been accustomed to.
Smith observed that Mohammed became a legislator and administrator, and as a result his book goes much further than Jesus Christ’s gospels. Christ died before he could articulate his principles as applied rules in a government context. But Mohammed was appointed the administrator of Medina, and had to govern.
As a result his holy book reads in part like a list of rulings upon real life concerns, in addition to core principles and exhortations to remain true to a monotheistic religion and Allah. References to holy war against the infidels are thoroughly contextualised by the threats from tribal warlords and the precariousness of Mohammed’s attempt at a society built on the rule of law rather than the whims of men.
I like Muhammad as I come to know him through his book. He seems to me that he was a good guy.
It seems to me that Islam is an intensely aural tradition in the way that Judaism is an intensely written tradition and Taoism and Australian Indigenous spirituality are intensely physically experienced traditions. Huston Smith emphasises that the Koran should be heard in Arabic to be experienced, and the Sufi teachers also emphasise this. No doubt there is a physical aspect to the frequencies of the chants and prayers, similar to the Buddhist chants which stimulate a certain neurochemical response in the listener and participant.
I have taken to chanting the beautiful phrase in my head: la ilaha illa’Llah. Saying it over and over, the sonorality of the phrase – it is primal and sacred.
I also listened to the South Sudanese Sheikh Al Zain chanting the Al Baqarah, recommended by the New Seminary Sufism teacher. This is beautiful and brings home the sound aspect of Islam. It reminds me of how important sound is in this religion and also in connecting with people in the future of my ministry. I went to see a concert by a Zen Buddhist shakuhachi player and again was reminded of how spiritual and sacred sound can transport in a way that thousands of words sometimes cannot.
The Sufi mystic approach to connecting with the Unnameable resonates with me. I too have always believed that eternity can be experienced now; infinity in the present moment. I have not had the opportunity to participate in whirling as practised by the Turkish Sufis, but I can imagine that this physical act would induce a kind of embodied ecstasy, as close as you can get to transcending the body by being completely in the body.
I also like the regular daily prayer cycle of Islam, and the annual fast. The daily cycle of prayer keeps the Divine Mystery at hand, reminding you of the spiritual space in which you live. Christianity used to follow this kind of cycle too, but it has been forgotten by all but the monastics.
I like the annual fast as a kind of communal experience. In Christian society we have Easter but have let Lent go. But it seems to me that an experience of self-sacrifice is an important one to remind yourself of sacrifice in general; humility, and the people who have come before you, and your place in a long line of humanity.
I visited a mosque in India many years ago and was struck by the coming and going. People came, prayed, read, even had a quiet chat on the outskirts of the temple. Also I was struck by how utterly beautiful it was – the lack of human imagery and the use of patterns and designs, numbers (crossing over with the Judaic tradition of Kabbalah – so many crossovers!) The place was literally and metaphorically a cool, white oasis in a sea of red dirt. I had to cover my head to enter and frankly being inside I was glad I did. In such a place you want to make a gesture of some kind to lower your eyes and acknowledge your part in something so divine as human communion.
The same thing happens at my local Hindu temple, which I visit fairly often, as it is not far away and they make delicious masala dosa :-).There too, you can come and go, socialise, chat in the outer courtyards; get something to eat, share food; make an offering and have a prayer said on your behalf, and of course pray or meditate. The doors are open.
The first few times I felt like a tourist, but the most recent time I swallowed my shyness, approached a volunteer and asked how to make an offering to show appropriate respect. I bought a ghee candle for $5 and took it to the fellow making offering prayers at the shrine of Vishnu. After he chanted a prayer and lighting our candle, he marked me, my daughter and my husband with grey powder. We sat and said a quiet prayer of gratitude. We felt part of the place instead of intruders. We left the powder on all day, left it to wear itself off with the passage of time.
Footnote about Taoism:
A thought that has come to me about the Tao since I did my homework on that topic: I really like the idea present in the Tao that something comes after death. If we are so well taken care of in life, it seems reasonable that will continue in some way after death. This does not make me believe in an afterlife, but it does reassure me that there is something other than meaninglessness to life. I am reading a book called Other Minds at the moment, all about the evolution of life and consciousness in octopuses and how they are as close as we might ever come to meeting a sentient “alien.” It gets me thinking about the nature of life, which a scientist at MIT (I can’t remember his name!) recently modelled as a logical outcome of chaos. Life seems to be an energy, and that is what is the divine mystery.
Charles Le Gai Eaton. (1985). Islam and the Destiny of Man. (Albany: State University of New York Press).
Huston Smith. (1991). The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. HarperCollins: New York.
William James. (1961). The Varieties of Religious Experience. (New York: Macmillan).
Sir Muhammad Iqbal. (1920). The Secrets of the Self. Reprint (Lahore: Muhammad Ashraf, 1979).
Seyyed Hossein Nasr. (1993). “Islam.” Our Religions. Ed. Arvind Sharma. HarperCollins: New York.