Islam, Then and Now

Let’s be honest. The woolly mammoth in the large room of American politics today is Islam. President Trump’s recent ban on refugees hints at it, people are always waiting to hear if the latest massacre was carried out by a Muslim, and many Americans honestly wonder deep down what would happen to America as they know it if a significant percentage of the citizenry were Muslim.

Before diving into learning about Islam, however, I think it’d be useful to carry out a little exercise regarding our own faith. Have you ever tried to explain your religion to someone else who had little to no knowledge of it? How about someone who had a negative association with your religion? Think about the basics that you probably shared up front. Then think about all the little details, some of which are really important to who you are and what you do living your faith from day to day. Have you ever felt frustrated that others just couldn’t get all that, and that if they did then they would totally change their mind about you and your religion? Islam is probably a lot like your religion in that way.

The Basics

Before diving into finer details (hehe), we should start with the basics. There are five commonly known Pillars of Islam, which all Muslims (that I know of) agree upon:

  1. الشهادة The Shahadah is the Muslim profession of faith. It usually involves going before a religious leader or community of Muslims and reciting: There is no God but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God. The first part declares the oneness and uniqueness of God. You might think that this sounds fine to you, but in fact this statement rules out the possibility of there being a “son of God” or anything remotely like God in any way. Associating someone or something with God is a specific sin in Islam. The second part is straightforward: Muhammad was a prophet and, more specifically, a messenger who brought scripture (the Quran) from God. The Shahadah is akin to the Christian acts of accepting Christ in one’s heart or being baptized.
  2. الصلاة Salat is probably the most visibly dominant daily practice of a Muslim’s life. The details of exactly when and how to pray differ from community to community and from sect to sect, but all Muslims agree that God expects them to perform a ritual prayer five times a day. Prayer is an intimate experience with God, but it is also a sign of solidarity with the worldwide Muslim community. Just imagine, every Friday afternoon millions of Muslims in any one time zone are kneeling in prayer in near unison. It is a powerful image of unity in a large community of believers.
  3. زكاة Zakat involves paying an alms tax to be given to the poor and the needy. The rules for this also change depending on where you go and who you talk to, but I have generally seen that people give a small percentage (2.5% or so) of their total riches (not their increase) every year. There are foundations and religious institutions set up to manage Zakat funds going to the needy, but there is no requirement that it go to anyone in particular. Alms can be given to anyone.
  4. الصوم Sawm is fasting. Wake up in the morning and don’t eat or drink anything until sundown. This may sound similar to the way other religions fast, and it is. The only difference I have seen is that in Islam certain times of the lunar calendar are set aside for fasting; the month of Ramadan is an entire month of fasting that basically changes the way a Muslim-majority country operates for an extended period of time. Imagine if everyone you met every day for 30 days was fasting? Rush hour is not pretty on those days.
  5. الحاج Hajj is the pinnacle of Muslim worship. It is the pilgrimage to Mecca that we hear about on the news once a year. Muslims believe that God expects every physically and financially able Muslim to participate in the Hajj at some point in their life, which means that nowadays a lot of people can and do go! There is more to the Hajj than can be covered here, but it is important to note that the Hajj is something every Muslim hopes to complete in their lifetime. It might be compared to other religions’ pilgrimages or perhaps going to the temple for Latter-day Saints.

Those are the basics. Phew! If you feel like this is enough for you at the moment, then this is a good place to stop and take a rest. If you are ready to hear something deeper, keep going!

Sharia Law and Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence)

The source of these five pillars and other non-pillar parts of Islam (like wearing a hijab, or headcovering), is the Sharia. The word Sharia indicates a path, the way in which believers should walk. It is made up of teachings from the Quran (Koran) and the observed example of the prophet Muhammad, called the Sunna. But Muhammad lived a long time ago, in 7th century Arabia, and much of what was said or written was given and understood in a certain context. For example, when early Muslims were unsure what to think of Christian and Jewish tribes in the area, the Quran gave some broad guidance for interacting with people of other religions in good faith. In another context, however, Muhammad went to war with Jews in Medina who had reportedly betrayed the Muslims during a battle with the city of Mecca. How are the commandments and instruction in the Quran relative to this subject to be interpreted and applied in modern times? Or even just a few decades after they were given?

While the Sharia is the ultimate source, it takes more than a single reading of the Quran to know how to apply what is written. For more than a thousand years, the process by which the Sharia has been applied to everyday life and codified into actual laws and religious rulings is called fiqh. The first paragraph on this Wikipedia article is remarkably concise and informative:

Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh is the human understanding of the Sharia (believed by Muslims to represent divine law as revealed in the Quran and the Sunnah (the teachings and practices of the Islamic prophet Muhammad)) —[the] sharia [is] expanded and developed by interpretation (ijtihad) of the Quran and Sunnah by Islamic jurists (Ulema) and implemented by the rulings (Fatwa) of jurists on questions presented to them.

I realize that this is a thick paragraph, but maybe now you are starting to understand why it takes more than a cursory talk with a Muslim or a quick rundown on your favorite news station to fully understand Islam!

What is important to understand from this is that there is an agreed upon tradition for interpreting the Islamic scriptures, which allows for a variety of opinions on many subjects. In Sunni Islam, the most populous and well-known of the sects, there are four schools of Islamic thought that emerged over the early centuries of Islam (the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i schools) to which Muslims turn to for interpretations of the sharia in their everyday lives.

Modern Fundamentalist Islam

Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian Islamic theorist and the forerunner of several modern fundamentalist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda.

Enter the Muslim brotherhood, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other radical Islamist groups. What we have seen in the last century of Islam is a remarkable uprising of modern, so-called Islamic fundamentalists. I say “so-called” and “modern” because I think that fundamentalist can be a misnomer in some ways. As I’ve just shared, fiqh has been the process for understanding the Sharia since forever. It is the widespread accepted method for applying the Quran and Muhammad’s sayings to everyday life. You don’t just read the Quran and cherry-pick your favorite lines. You follow the guidelines of a school of Islam, and when you’re not sure what to do you consult a jurist who has been trained in fiqh.

Fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden, his predecessors, and his followers do not follow the recognized schools of Islam. They ascribe to themselves the authority to interpret the Quran, warping thousands of years of thoroughly debated jurisprudence to fit a political agenda. That is why they cannot be true fundamentalists in my eyes. Rather than looking back to previous scholars and respecting their precedent, they throw the lot out with the trash and proceed to take on a thoroughly new and modern interpretation of the scriptures that cannot coexist with the current schools.

That may be why many Muslims feel that their religion has been hijacked by extremists.  They feel like they shouldn’t have to defend Islam every time an attack happens because to them it is not Islam. At least, it is not the Islam that they know and that most Muslims have lived since Muhammad. Islamic extremists/radicals/fundamentalists have crossed carefully demarcated lines that separate them from mainstream Muslims. In another post, I’ll go into one of these crossed lines in detail.

The Usual Disclaimer

As always, there may be something I’ve written here (or the way in which I’ve written it) that is misleading. If you are confused, feel free to comment and question what I’ve said. Also, I claim no ultimate authority on Islam and the subjects I’ve addressed, but I have consciously focused on sharing generally common knowledge about the nature of Islam and the Sharia as it has been for Sunni Muslims worldwide.



4 thoughts on “Islam, Then and Now

  • February 28, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    Matt, very good post.
    It raises a couple of questions in my mind, which perhaps you can respond to in future posts.
    Your description of the “fundamentalists” sounds like how I would imagine a Catholic would describe a Protestant during the Reformation period. In fact, the same amount of time has passed since the founding of Islam until now, as passed from the founding of Christianity until the Reformation. I realize that Islam already has more schisms or branches than were permitted to survive early Christianity. In fact, there are Catholics today who view Catholicism as the only real Christianity.
    When people were freed to read the Bible for themselves they created many churches, but they also created a new, more vibrant Christianity. The blood-letting associated with that lasted several hundred years, and was, for the most part, instigated by the “mainstream” Christians. Why does it seem the reverse is true for Islam, and what is the prognosis for the blood-letting?

    • February 28, 2017 at 9:37 pm

      I think that sometimes it can be helpful to draw comparisons between the history of Christianity and recent events in Islam, but I do think there are important differences to consider. Two big ones come to mind: (1) the doctrine of “takfir” in Islam, and (2) the political environment of the times. I’ll address both of these in more detail later, but answering briefly here is fine.

      Takfir is the action of a Muslim calling another Muslim an apostate. It is generally considered forbidden because of a saying of the prophet Muhammad that warns believers against it. You can probably see how this might make things play out differently than how they did for Christianity, where declaring people apostates was rampant even long before the reformation.

      Politics tend to be a better predictor of violence, instability, and religious radicalism than religion. As far as Christian Europe’s feudal states were different than the Arab nation states of today, the historical result could be radically different. For example, Martin Luther and other reformers had political protectors who took advantage of religious schisms to gain political points. France became the bastion of Catholic fervor, and Germany and England went Protestant. The political dynamic in the Middle East is different in at least one way: strong foreign powers (all of which are Christian) have played a dominant role in the establishment and maintenance of the status quo, rather than letting nation states arise organically.

  • February 28, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    I don’t know about Americans honestly wondering “deep down.” Given the plain statistics throughout the world of increasing Muslim populations corresponding directly with increasing violence and lawlessness, I’m wondering openly.
    Why would we expect the United States to fare any differently than these other countries?

    • February 28, 2017 at 10:15 pm

      You’re right. For a lot of people it is a big open question now.

      I think the way that I’d like to answer your question is a little sneaky. I disagree with the basic assumptions of the person who wrote the linked blog post. While they provide interesting correlational data presented in a way to paint Islam as the cause of violence and instability, they fail to address any opposing arguments or alternative stories for the information. For example, couldn’t a Muslim write a very similar article about Christian nations in the last century? For me, that is a fatal weakness which causes me to pretty much ignore their argument. The site is obviously pro-Christian and has a strong anti-Muslim following, if the comments section is any measure, so lots of alarms go off in my head when I read that post.

      Those alarms aside, the data and its explanation can be taken apart by considering some of the things I’ve discussed in my post. The author regularly refers to “Sharia Law” taking hold in Muslim-majority communities or countries. “Sharia Law” is a misnomer. Whenever we hear that phrase, we should immediately ask: “how are the Islamic texts being applied in this situation, and is it in line with an accepted school?” While many Muslim-majority countries often recognize Islam as the state religion, the government structure, civil laws, and general administration of the country are Western in nature. Religion is largely left for personal life. Interestingly enough, the largest Muslim country in the world (Indonesia, at 250 million) actually has a religious freedom clause in its constitution, even though 98% of the country is Muslim. All of this stands very much against the narrative the author of the post presents.


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