A Look at the Muslim World

December 2, 2001


A Look at the Muslim World

I could hardly say anything more obvious this morning than that Christians are now intensely aware of the religion called Islam , but it is just as true to say that most of us have not bothered to learn much about the history of that religion, which has as many different shades of light and dark as we have had in the history of ours. Our time limit does not permit a truly adequate look at one of the world’s most influential religions, but we can make a beginning. I’m well aware that many Americans are more in the mood to demonize Islamic religion than to find anything good in it, what with smoke still rising from the New York City grave of several thousand innocent people. A crime that horrific tempts us to blame not only the hate-filled men who did it, but the religion , as well, which they claim to represent. But to paint with that broad a brush is to wrong most Islamic believers as much as they would wrong us if they defined Christianity by David Koresh of Waco, or Jim Jones who got his disciples in Guyana to drink poisoned Kool-Aid, or the Ku Klux Klansmen of the deep South who went to church on Sunday and lynched black men before the week was over. Since we would respond that such fanatics and racists do not fairly represent our faith, we must remember that other religions can be embarrassed by the same kinds of people.
These are intensely emotional times, so I preface my comments by telling you that I do not excuse for one second the crimes committed against us, and I am totally in sympathy with the decision to bring the criminals to justice and to disable their network of support. But the strengths of their religion at its best , and its many echoes of our own religion, make it worthwhile to learn more about it, so here is a capsule summary, with a confession that no brief sermon can do justice to the complexity of a faith now practiced by some 300 million people around the world.
But we can make a start, so if you are willing, locate yourself for a moment in a 7th century Arabian city called Mecca — a prosperous trading center on the old spice route between India and Syria. It was also a religious center to which Arab tribes made pilgrimages to worship at dozens of different shrines, including one known as the Kaaba, said to have been built first by angels, and rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ishmael. As Mecca prospered commercially, more and more pagan idols filled the city until it became a jungle of competing gods — all of which grated on the nerves of a merchant named Mohammed who was searching for a way to bring order out of chaos and diminish the gambling, drunkenness and sexual promiscuity over which the pagan gods seemed to have no influence. Already drawn to the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity, Mohammed had gotten into the habit of leaving the city’s immoral squalor from time to time to meditate in a nearby mountain cave.
Muslim faith declares that during one of these retreats he was visited by Gabriel, the same angel our Bible says announced the coming of Jesus 600 years earlier. According to Islam, Gabriel’s opening command was that Mohammed recite what he would be told, so his revelations to the prophet became known as the qur’an , which means “recitation” and which declares there is one God only, to whom all must submit. The very word Islam reinforces that requirement — it means “submission.” Mohammed, whose name means “highly praised” and is given to more boys than any other name in the world, is said to have reported these messages verbatim to friends and family who either memorized or wrote them down.
His wife Khadijah believed him but most in Mecca did not, and merchants especially were furious at his attacks on the many pagan gods that attracted pilgrims and their money. They called the new prophet a halfwit, insulted him in the streets, and hoped to get rid of him before he did irrevocable harm to business. Mohammed was able to win only a few converts before persecution forced him in 622 A.D. to move a couple of hundred miles to another oasis town, now known as Medina. Muslims date their calendar from this Hegira, or flight, as we date ours from the birth of Christ.
In Medina, Mohammed continued to claim divine revelations but they were increasingly less spiritual and more political in nature. A series of armed encounters broke out between the prophet’s followers in Medina and his enemies back in Mecca — battles that ended only when Mohammed returned with a sizeable army to conquer his birthplace by force. He destroyed idols all over the city, led his followers in shouting “There is no God but Allah,” and proclaimed Mecca to be the Holy City of Islamic faith. He decreed that no unbeliever — no infidel — should ever be allowed to set foot on its sacred soil, which explains Osama bin Laden’s murderous anger at the stationing of American soldiers on Saudi Arabian soil. It is, to him, an unforgivable violation of the Prophet’s command.
Judged simply by the amazing speed with which Islam expanded, Mohammed is clearly one of the giants of human history. When he first began to preach, Arabia was a mess of idolatrous tribes; when he died it had become a nation. Within a few years of his death the new faith had used both persuasion and force to overwhelm Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt, and by the end of another century had become an enormous empire reaching fromthe Himalayas in the east to Gibraltar in the west — one of the most remarkable religious explosions in all history. As the teachings of Mohammed were remembered by different followers, there came to be some uncertainty about the exact wording of the message — a problem both Jews and Christians had faced long before.
As a result, Muslims out at the edges of the empire began arguing over what was true Koranic scripture, and what was not, until the third Caliph (or ruler) to succeed Mohammed convened a committee to gather the various writings and recollections and create an authorized version of the Koran. Once he had this standard written version in place, he ordered all incomplete and so-called ‘imperfect” collections of Koranic scripture destroyed, and the new version distributed throughout the expanding Islamic empire. One is reminded of a similar event in Christian history, when competing versions of scripture like the Tyndale Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Bishop’s Bible and others, prompted an English King in 1604 to convene a group of scholars who would create an Authorized Version which for the next 300 years would be “The Bible” for English-speaking Christians.
But as additional and slightly differing manuscripts of our Bible surfaced, scholars made new translations they felt were more accurate — a noble effort, but one which profoundly disturbed the fundamentlaist church of my childhood, which could not bear to think of uncertainties about the exact wording of the Bible. Well, it’s conceivable that something like this may eventually occur in the world of Islam because of a stunning discovery made 25 years ago in Yemen, a small Islamic country down at the southern tip of Saudi Arabia. Workmen up in the loft of a mosque stumbled upon a huge stack of damaged books and individual pages of Arabic text that had been gnawed by rats and insects and fused together by centuries of dampness — text that had lain undiscovered for hundreds of years. Eager to finish their job and go home, they stuffed the writings into 20 potato sacks and set them aside on a staircase. Someone else, probably with no sense of their importance, later locked them away, and they might still be forgotten except for an Arab museum expert who heard about them and set out to organize and study the manuscripts.
It was quickly obvious that what he had were thousands of fragments from some of the oldest copies of the Koran in existence. Since they showed small differences from the received Koranic text, scholars were intrigued, but news like that was devastatingly at odds with orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran is now , and has always been , the perfect, timeless, and unchanging word of God — exactly as revealed to the prophet Mohammed. In other words, any attempt to place the Koran in history, to show that it was an evolving text and that therefore not all manuscript copies could possibly be exactly what Gabriel had revealed, is as deeply offensive to most Muslims as similar studies of the Bible are now to fundamentalist Christians.
So it’s unlikely we would have heard of this discovery had it not been for the Islamic scholar based in Germany who brought more than 35,000 microfilm pictures of the fragments to his country and set out to publish this textual treasure. He and a few other Islamic scholars hoped the new discoveries would challenge extreme literalism and create a more flexible and tolerant Islamic lifestyle, but they ran into the same resistance Biblical scholars have faced in dealing with our Scripture. Just as people have been killed as heretics for challenging certain statements in the Bible, so anyone casting doubt on the absolute authority of the Koran was seen as a heretic deserving of death — as Salman Rushdie knows only too well. The bad news from this story is that Islamic fundamentalists killed an Egyptian journalist for writing favorably of the project, and forced the exile of an Egyptian professor of Islamic history who was analyzing the text. The good news may be that his book has gone through several underground printings in Cairo and Beirut, all of which could mean that 21st century study of the Koran just might turn out to be as important for Islamic faith as critical study of our Bible has been in the century just ended.
It would take several hours to deal adequately with this complex and fascinating religion, but let’s give at least a moment to the contents of the Koran itself. Westerners are often surprised at how much of it’s ethical code, and how many of its stories, are paralleled in Jewish and Christian scripture. Adam is booted from Paradise for eating forbidden fruit, Noah builds an ark, Abraham is ready to sacrifice his son at the bidding of God, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and receives a divine revelation on Mt. Sinaia, and Jesus — born of the Virgin Mary and referred to as the Messiah — works miracles, makes disciples, and ascends into heaven.
As a brilliant essay in the Atlantic Monthly pointed out recently, the two sacred books have other things in common. It speaks of how the Koran makes abrupt shifts in style and subject matter from one verse to the next, and assumes a familiarity with language and stories that seem to have been lost even to the earliest Muslim students — all of which is typical of a text that evolved , like our own Bible, in an oral tradition. Inconsistencies are said to be as easy to find as they are for serious students of our own Scripture: God referred to in the first and third person in the same sentence, different versions of the same story repeated in different places, divine rulings that occasionally contradict each other, strange gaps in the text, grammatical errors, and so forth.
All this fascinates a few Islamic scholars but it has had little impact so far on the orthodox Muslim believer’s view of the Koran as the perfect and literally dictated word of God. Perhaps someday. Meanwhile, echoing the Jewish half of our Bible, the Koran forbids eating pork as well as charging interest — the latter a law Christians also followed until they realized in the late Middle Ages how profitable the practice was, at which point they took a new look at Scripture and decided God did not mind after all. The Koran shows no interest in an organized priesthood, but Mohammed did prescribe the following rituals, which came to be known as the Five Pillars of Islam:
Confession that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is his messenger — Prayer performed five times daily with the believer facing Mecca, as well as prayer in the mosque on Fridays — Charity toward the poor as an act of piety — The monthlong Fast of Ramadan, which requires total abstinence in daylight hours from food, drink or sex until the sun sets and normal life resumes until dawn — and finally the hadj , or pilgrimage, to the holy city of Mecca, which every Muslim is expected to make at least once in a lifetime, and which has proved to be a great binding force for Muslims around the world.
Pilgrims from every Islamic country approach the sacred city as members of the same great family, wearing similar white garments to show that all barriers of race and class are dissolved in a sense of common brotherhood. Since one of Mohammed’s wives was black, and he gave his daughter in marriage to a black, Islam’s opposition to racial prejudice goes way back. This inclusiveness has won millions of converts in countries where the racism of many professing Christians has been a disappointment. Thousands of blacks in America have converted and taken Muslim names: Cassius Clay, to cite one example, who became Muhammed Ali, and Lew Alcindor, to cite another, who became Kareem Abdul Jabar.
Once the pilgrim arrives in Mecca, three rituals are expected: walking 7 times around the Kaaba, touching the Black Stone in its southeastern corner — making what is called the Lesser Pilgrimage , which involves running 7 times between two small hills to recapitulate Hagar’s frantic search for water for her son, Ishmael — and finally, making what is called the Greater Pilgrimage to the Mount of Mercy, a small rocky hill in the Plain of Arafat, where from noon to sunset the pilgrims “stand before God” in a ceremony so important that anyone who misses it is said to have missed the hadj itself.
I trust all of you, and our radio audience, to understand that this is no more than a quick sketch of a religion as full of divisions and differences of interpretation as our own. Where in Christianity there has been the giant separation between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, then the huge division that created Protestantism, and finally the fracturing of Protestantism into several hundred differing churches, so also in Islam there are such major divisions as Sunni versus Shiite, a mystical branch called Sufi, and a mind-boggling array of other fringe groups along different ethnic, linguistic and tribal lines.
There has not been time to talk about these and a host of other interesting aspects of Islamic faith, but I would at least like to respond to one of you who knows why Jerusalem is so important to Jews and Christians but not why Muslims also view it as a special holy place as well. That goes back to what is called the “Night Journey” of Mohammed, in which he is said to have ridden with Gabriel on a winged horse to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where he met Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets before ascending in a shaft of light into the presence of Allah himself — after which he was flown back to Mecca before dawn. The great Dome of the Rock now stands over this place where, according to Muslem faith, not only did Mohammed make his brief trip to heaven but where on Judgment Day an angel called Israfil will sound the last trumpet, and the good and bad will go to vividly described paradise or torment.
It is one of history’s greatest ironies that a city held sacred by both Jews and Muslems has for so long been the focus of undying hatred between believers on both sides. It takes little imagination to hear once again in these desperate days the anguish of the Messenger we honor: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather your children around me like a bird gathering her brood under her wings, but you would not let me.
All hope can say is……”Maybe some day.”

If brotherhood is still beyond our reach, gracious God, may we at least learn how
to live in peace, we ask in the names of all who claim to be your prophets. Amen.