Clarifying Core Islamic Concepts

In September 2006, when I was consulting in a prison in Washington state, an American family invited me to their home for dinner. When I got there, nearly six couples were present, all professionals, intellectually curious, and well-informed. As the conversation started, we first discussed political problems facing the country. Then it suddenly took a new turn and a volley of questions was directed toward me, mostly religious in nature. These questions primarily focused on three issues: (1) Is Allah, the God of Muslims, different from the God of Jews and Christians? (2) Did Islam bring any special message that was not covered by Judaism and Christianity? (3) What will happen to those people who never heard or accepted the message of Islam?

Being the guest of a very gracious host, I initially felt uncomfortable in responding to these questions lest my answers might offend them. But when I noted a sincere desire on their part to acquire a better understanding of these issues, I decided to answer their questions candidly. I would like to share my responses here, in the hope that the readers will find them interesting and informative.

Introductory Remarks: I first mentioned that nearly 600 years after Jesus, the Arabian Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) re-established monotheism in its purest form. Muhammad (PBUH) taught that God does not favor any tribe or nation; rather He loves all of humanity equally. In no uncertain terms the Prophet (PBUH) denounced the discrimination against any man or woman on the basis of race, color or social status. Unfortunately, contemporary Muslims place so much emphasis on ritualistic and doctrinal issues that the Qur’anic teachings concerning social justice and basic human rights have been eclipsed. Even Western scholars of Islam point out that the Qur’an teaches a just and ethically based social order that eliminates the exploitation of the poor and the weak and firmly establishes the equality of all human beings. In his famous book, The Religions of Man (1965), Huston Smith stated, “In a society driven with class distinction, the new Prophet [Muhammad] was preaching a message intensely democratic, insisting that in the sight of Lord all men are equal.”

Generally Western people are familiar with the five pillars of Islam. What they do not know is that the main purpose of these rituals and practices is to achieve taqwa [piety and righteousness]. All our deeds and actions, according to the Qur’an, should be performed only for God’s sake, “Say: Surely, my worship and my sacrifice and my living and my dying are for God, the Lord of the worlds.” (6:162) The Qur’an repeatedly emphasizes that taqwa should be the primary motivating force behind all our endeavors. The Arabic word taqwa comes from the root “wqy” which means “to guard and protect against”. This implies that one should ward off or guard against evil and always keep in mind that God sees our actions and knows our thoughts. The Qur’an clearly states, “The noblest of you in the sight of God is the one most possessed of taqwa [piety and righteousness].” (49:13)

Q. Is Allah, the God of Muslims, different from the God of Jews and Christians?

A. The Arabic word Allah is a contraction of two words: the article al and the word ilah. It is worth special mention that this word Allah, which sounds so alien to the Western world, was used with a slight variation in both Hebrew and Aramaic long before Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). People tend to forget that the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) originated in the Middle East. In the Old Testament the word Elohim is used quite often for God. And when Jesus in extreme pain and agony cried out for God, he used the word Eli (Mathew 27:46) or Eloi (Mark 15:34). Probably the origin of Elohim, Eloi, Eli, or ilah can be found in a root common to the family of Semitic languages. Therefore, it is not surprising that Qur’an clearly affirms that Muslims believe in the Biblical prophets and their messages: “Say (O Muslims): We believe in God and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob and the tribes and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that given to other prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered.” (2:136; cf. 3:84) Addressing to Jews and Christians, the Qur’an declares, “… Our God and your God is the same One God. And it is to Him we surrender.” (29:46)

Q. Did Islam bring any special message that was not covered by Judaism and Christianity?

A. Judaism and Christianity preached monotheism, but Islam further purified the concept and also affirmed a universal concept of God. Muslims believe that the doctrine of the ‘Trinity’ caused Christians to move one step away from the first Commandment revealed to Moses. The Qur’an clearly states that there is only one God and He alone should be worshipped. Also the Qur’an begins with a universal concept of God: “Praise be to God, the Lord of the Worlds.” (1:1). By stating that God is Lord of the worlds, a universal concept of God is established at the very beginning. He is not the God of Israel, the Arabs, and the Aryans or of any particular tribe or nation. Rather He is the God of all people – a universal God. Thus He has neither chosen nor given special favor to any tribe or nation. In fact, belief in one universal God is the “Ultimate Truth” that gives meaning and purpose to life. Only when this “Truth” sinks deep into the individual’s psyche, is one free from all types of bondage, including the worship of people who sometimes behave like “gods” because of their wealth, power, knowledge, or influence.

During the first seven years of the Prophet’s mission in Makkah, most Qur’anic verses fervently denounced social injustice, fraud, exploitation of the poor and mad craze for worldly goods and riches. Karen Armstrong, a renowned scholar of monotheistic religions, in her book Islam (2000) stated, “Social justice was, therefore, the crucial virtue of Islam.” The Prophet (PBUH) preached universal brotherhood, aiming at the creation of an ideal society where all people, regardless of race, color, or social status were treated equally. He evidently practiced what he preached. Just imagine in 620 C.E., Muhammad (PBUH) was preaching social justice, human rights, and vehemently denouncing discrimination of people based on race, color, social, and economic status. In his famous Farewell Pilgrimage address, the Prophet (PBUH) reminded his followers that, “… an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; nor does a white person has superiority over a black person, nor does a black person has superiority over a white person. Verily the noblest among you is he who is most pious.”

Against overwhelming odds, Muhammad (PBUH) achieved astonishing success in changing the religious and social realities of his people during his life time. No wonder historians have been baffled by the visionary side of Prophet, the universal aspect of his religion, his genius for handling complex problems, and his immense power to capture people’s minds and hearts. In less than two decades, the solitary and persecuted preacher of Makkah firmly established Islam and set in motion one of the most memorable revolutions that would change the course of world history.

Q. What will happen to those people who never heard or accepted the message of Islam?

A. This question is not confined to Islam only; it applies to Judaism and Christianity too. Jews believe they are God’s chosen people. Christians believe that Christ, not God, will be the Judge on the Day of Judgment and that salvation is impossible if one does not accept Jesus as one’s savior. But in Islam, only God is the Master of the Day of Judgment and salvation depends primarily on good deeds, “Every soul is a pledge for its own deeds.” (74:38) As for what will happen to those who did not hear or accept the message of Islam, the answer is that God, who is just, will judge them fairly on the Day of Judgment: “Those who believe (Muslims) and those who are Jews, Christians and Sabaeans - whosoever has faith in God and the Last Day and does wholesome deeds, they have their reward with their Lord, and there is no fear upon them, nor shall they grieve.” (2:62). The Qur’an never ceases to emphasize that individuals are responsible only for their own acts and deeds, “That was a people that hath passed away. They shall reap the fruits of what they did, and ye of what ye do! You shall not be called upon to answer for what they did.” (2:134; cf. 2:141)

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