by George W. Braswell, Jr.
Muslims practice the religion Islam and number some 1.5 billion globally. Research indicates that in 1900 they composed 6% of the world’s population. They had doubled their numbers by 1975 to 12%. By 2014 they had nearly doubled their percentage again to 23%. Islam is considered the second largest religion, second only to Christianity, and the fastest growing one. Although Islam originated in the Middle East in present day Saudi Arabia, it spread quickly both east and west. Today the four countries with the largest numbers of Muslims according to rank are Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, which compose 43% of the world’s Muslims.
MUHAMMAD: PROPHET, RULER, CHIEF JUSTICE, COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF
Islam arose under the vision, inspiration, and leadership of Muhammad (570-632 C.E.) who was born in Mecca in present day Saudi Arabia. Muhammad’s teaching about one god, Allah, among the many gods and goddesses of his tribal society, caused great hostility and caused him to flee from Mecca to the city of Medina in 622 C.E. Among his early followers were his daughter, Fatema, and her husband, Ali. In Medina he became “a man for all seasons,” implementing the beliefs and practices and laws announced in the sacred book, the Qur’an, which is believed to have been revealed to him by the angel Gabriel. He assumed the roles of prophet, prayer leader in the mosque, chief judge and jury of the laws, nation builder of the emerging Muslim community, and the commander-in-chief of his militias. Before his death he was married to some 11 women and his army had captured Mecca to make it the holy city of Islam.
BELIEVE CORRECTLY FOR THE QUR’AN SAYS SO
Islam is a religion that has precise and specific and non-negotiable beliefs. There are 5 beliefs set in stone in the Qur’an: 1) Allah is the only god. He shares his nature with no one or thing. He is the god of laws, justice, and mercy. The greatest sin (shirk) in Islam is to believe that Allah shares his nature. For example, Christianity is promoting the greatest sin taught in the Qur’an by claiming that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God. 2) The angel Gabriel revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad directly from Allah and told him to recite it in preaching to the people. He was told to recite and not to interpret. 3) There are some 25 prophets named in the Qur’an including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, who is the final and seal of the prophets. Jews and Christians are considered “People of the Book” with limited privileges living in a majority Islamic rulership. 4) The Qur’an considers the Torah of the Jews and the Gospel (Injil) of the Christians to have been revealed to Moses and to Jesus as a perfect revelation of Allah in their times. However, those scriptures were corrupted over time and the Qur’an once again comes as a perfect scripture from Allah through Gabriel to Muhammad. Thus Muslims now have the perfect Qur’an and the Jews and Christians have the past perfect Torah and Gospel. 5) There is a final day of judgment. The good reward is for Allah to admit one to paradise. The punishment is for one to go to the hell fires.
LIVING THE GOOD LIFE: HOW TO GET TO PARADISE
The Qur’an teaches the straight path to paradise. That path is set in stone as are the beliefs: 1) The great creed (shahada) which every Muslim recites many times daily is that Allah is God and Muhammad is Allah’s final prophet. 2) Stated prayers (salat) in the Arabic language are voiced at 5 specific times each day as Muslims face Mecca. Prayers are best said in the mosque with other Muslims or they may be voiced at home or work. 3) Almsgiving (zakat) of 2.5% is required for the support of Islam in mosques and missions and charities. 4) A yearly fasting season (Ramadan) is required during one month in which no food or drink is taken from sunrise to sunset and no sexual intercourse is to occur during those hours. 5) A pilgrimage (haj) is to be taken to the sacred city of Mecca once in one’s lifetime where one performs stated rituals. An optional side trip may be taken to the city of Medina where Muhammad is buried. 6) Muslims spread their faith through the practice of jihad (struggle). It may be individual jihad following the straight path through the five practices above or it may be individual or community jihad fighting the enemies of Islam. There may be shortcuts to paradise for Muslim martyrs and there may be virgins awaiting those who have followed the straight path.
ARE ALL MUSLIMS ALIKE?: UNITY AND DIVERSITY
There is great unity among all Muslims in following the prescribed major beliefs and practices in the Qur’an as described above. An example of unity and uniformity is facing Mecca five times daily for the stated required prayers and performing the required pilgrimage to Mecca. These practices elevate Saudi Arabia as the guardians of the holy shrine (Kaba) in Mecca. However, there is also disunity and factions in worldwide Islam. A major disagreement occurred at the death of Muhammad in 632 C.E. A group of Muslim leaders chose the successor to Muhammad to be an “appointed/elected” leader, called a caliph, to establish a caliphate to rule in the name of Islam. They became the Sunni tradition. Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, opposed the decision and said the successor to Muhammad should be kept in the prophet’s family lineage and that he should be the successor and become the imam and establish an imamate. They became the Shiah or Shiites. With the death of Husain, Ali’s son and Muhammad’s grandson at the hands of a Sunni army in present-day Karbala, Iraq, in 680 C.E., the die was cast and enmity and hostility has existed between Sunni and Shiah to the present. Saudi Arabia is the premier Islamic Sunni nation, and Iran is the premier Shiah nation. Other factions include the Sufi, the Nation of Islam, and religious-political groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
George W. Braswell, Jr. (D.D., D.Min., Ph.D.) and his wife, Joan, served in Iran as the first appointed missionaries of the SBC from 1967-74. He had an appointment to teach world religions on the Faculty of Islamic Theology of the University of Teheran, a graduate school of 600 students studying for master and doctoral degrees. Braswell was the only Christian on a faculty of 35 mullahs and aspiring ayatollahs. He retired from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary as Distinguished Professor of Missions and World Religions in 2004 after serving from 1974-2004. Presently he is Senior Professor of World Religions and Founding Director of the World Religions and Global Cultures Center of Campbell University Divinity School. He has taken several thousand students and church members into world religion communities for conversations with their leadership. He holds degrees from Wake Forest University, Yale University Divinity School, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Braswells have four children and three grandchildren.
For additional helpful resources on Islam, see Dr. Braswell’s books with B&H Publishing.