By Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
Islam is the fastest growing religion on earth. One in four persons in the world is a Muslim. From Morocco to Indonesia; from central Asia to Pakistan, India and Burma, one finds large Muslim populations. In my insulated state of Manipur in India, there are indigenised Muslims ie Muslims from outside married to indigenous Meitei women, affectionately called ‘Meitei Pamgals’, living in harmony with Meiteis.
Islam though youngest, is the second major religion in the world, practised by 1.8 billion people. Islamic faith emerged in the early seventh century CE in the Arabian Town of Mecca.
Tradition teaches that a 40 year old merchant, Muhammad ibn Abdallah – commonly known simply as the Prophet, or Messenger of God, received a series of revelations from God beginning in 610 CE and ending soon before his death in 632 CE.
Though Muslims believe the Qur’an (Koran in English) to be the eternal and immutable word of Allah, non-Muslims are unlikely to share this view but they will appreciate that this is one of the most influential books known to mankind.
In the last 50 years Muslims have increased by over 235 per cent while Christians by only 47 per cent. Surprisingly enough, Hindus have gone up by 117 per cent while Buddhist by 6.4 per cent, according to UN figures, 1994-1995.
Abdal-Malik ibn Marwan (645-705 CE), an Arab born in Mecca and ruling from Damascus, who built the dome of the rock in Jerusalem and inscribed it with passages from the Koran launched the great phase of Arab imperial growth in the late 7th century.
After the famous Battle of Badr in 624 that was so decisive in the establishment of Islam, the Arabs were conquering with an astute sense of religious certitude, whole swathes of Persian and Roman empires in the 7th and 8th centuries until halted in the West at the battle of Tours in France, in 732 CE.
The two primary sources of Islam are the Koran and Hadith (record of Muhammad’s life and sayings). In Islam (surrender to God), Allah is the only God. The Muslims believe that the Koran (Qur’an = recitation) is Divine Revelation in Arabic. It is the literal word of God; unsullied and unedited.
The majority of contemporary Muslims belong to the Sunni community, the other being Shia.
‘Muslim’ is an Arabic word meaning one who practises Islam. There will be 73 sects of Islam according to the Koran.
Koran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel, verse by verse in the holy month of Ramadan for man’s guidance. It took 23 years (22yrs 5mths & 4days) to complete. The central theme of Koran is a belief in one God (monotheism), a formless (no gender) and merciful God.
The Koran is composed of 114 chapters (suras).The suras are composed of individual verses (ayats). There are 6234 ayats (verses) in Koran excluding Bismillahs (the opening verses). All but one chapter of Koran begins with: Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim meaning, In the name of God, most gracious, most compassionate.
Muhammad, during his visits for a quiet meditation to a cave on Mount Hira overlooking Mecca, one day in 610 CE, angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to him, summoning him to be a prophet. He began teaching the message that was revealed to him that ‘there is only one God’.
Following the death of his uncle and Khadija (Muhammad’s first wife) in 619 CE, Muhammad immigrated with his followers to Medina. The journey (Hijra), believed to have begun on July 16 622 CE, marks for Muslims the beginning of their communal history.
I have read the English translation of Koran once. It is an extraordinary and often bewildering text.
Islam began in Arabia in 622 CE (the year zero of Islamic Calendar; 2,000 CE = 1379). Pious Muslim men emulate Muhammad’s life, such as wearing pyjama (salwar) legs just above the ankles or growing large and long beards like the Prophet. Growing a beard is not obligatory for Muslim men. It is only “sunna” (tradition).
Muslim women wear ‘hijab’ (burqa in India and Pakistan).The word ‘hijab’ is an Arabic word meaning ‘to hide from view.’ It is a long loose veil or clothing with a mess opening for her eyes to see. For a devout Muslim woman it is a truest test of being a Muslim.
The women wear hijab because Allah told them to do so: “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or are among men). That is better in order that they may be known (to be Muslims) and not annoyed…” (Koran 33:59).
Every aspect of a Muslim’s life is guided by the Koran – from eating such as Halal meat, and abstinence from alcohol to marriage and divorce. Islam infuses every aspect of a Muslim’s existence.
The Koran gives guidance for the Islamic mode of prayer (namaz in Urdu and salat/salah in Arabic) five times a day. Doing namaz in a mosque is blessed 25-27 times than doing at home. If a person is disabled the Koran gives guidance to a more suitable form of prayer like sitting up in a chair; or exemption from Ramadan fasting if a person is a diabetic on treatment.
A Muslim’s lifestyle is expressed through the practice of five tenets of Islam: the first, declaration of faith (shahada) – ‘there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet’; the second, Prayer (salat), five times a day at sunset, in the evening, at dawn, midday, and in the afternoon. All prayers must be done after proper ritual cleansing (wuzzoo).
The third duty is almsgiving (zakat) required to provide Muslims for one another. The fourth is fast (Sawm) required each year during Ramadan (parched thirst), the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Muslims feel closer to Allah during the Ramadan fasting. The fifth and final duty is a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. A Muslim is charged to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime.
In general, people who have a belief in a faith resist change or a reform in their faith. It is more phenomenal in Islam wherein the words in the Koran are ‘divine words of Allah’ and are not negotiable. There are more literalists in Islam than in any other religion.
The Koran guides Muslims in “Ilm”- a body of knowledge of what is right and how a Muslim should behave. It also extols the Muslims to do “jihad”. Jihad is usually translated “holy war”, and is often applied that way. It appears 41 times in the Koran. But the literal meaning of jihad is “striving” ie to strive hard against the infidels and be firm against them in order to spread Islam and Islamic rule.
Koran emphasises the importance of reminding the will of God by saying “insa Allah” – (God willing). The Muslim’s faith (iman) in Allah is based on three Islamic principles: (1) tauhid: a summons to an attentive and pious life; (2) nabuwwa: prophecy – God’s will expressed though the Prophet; and (3) maad quamat: The Last Days accompanied by the Final Judgement.
Islam has its share of mystics – those who seek a higher spiritual experience and awareness of the divine. They are known as Sufis or Pirs. Their practice is known as Sufism.
Sufism draws much of its inspiration from the Koranic idea of “friendship” (wilaya). Early Sufis built up their ideas from the Prophetic teachings. They held that invoking God and his name either in silent meditation (normal Islamic practice) or quiet chanting (dhikr) were two different forms of Islamic prayer.
The Sufis – ascetics of Islam do not believe the orthodox Islamic concept of going to Paradise to be close to Allah. The movement started in the 8th century when they reacted against the first Islamic dynasty – the Umayads in that they emphasised direct personal experience of God.
They believe that the purpose of creation is to achieve this while alive. They believe the trance induced by music and chanted prayers bring them into closer contact with God. The Quadiriya, the oldest surviving Sufi order, was founded in Iraq in the 12th century.
The Sufi movement reached its peak in the 13th century when the Sufis spread gentler Islam through missionary journeys. They converted hundreds of thousands of Hindus to Islam. In India they followed the Muslim armies all over, aiming to convert Hindus. Some of them like Khwaja Nizam-uddin Aulia settled in Delhi, while Khwaja Moin-uddin Chisti settled in Ajmer.
They still draw large crowds of worshippers, Hindus and Muslims alike at their Dargah (burial place) especially on the day of Urs (death anniversary).
According to Koran, a death of a Muslim is not as much an end of living as a return to God. Islam believes in the judgement of every individual after death and judgement of all souls.
But there is a hitch. The Islamic theologians have the same problem as their Jewish and Christian counterparts. There is difficulty in defining what “Freewill” is. On what ground can human be judged if all is preordained by Allah.
The writer is based in the UK