- Theology Group
- One People Commission
- Research & Statistics
- Pray with us
FAQ on Islam
What does ‘Islam’ mean?
The word ‘Islam’ is one of a group of words used in Islam, all with the idea of peace lying behind them.
Islam is submission (to Allah) so that the conflict between Allah and the sinner is ended, and peace ensues. Submission to Allah, of course, means accepting the teaching of Muhammad, following the way of life exemplified by Muhammad (the pathway, or sunna), and submitting to the will of Allah for one’s life.
‘Islam’ is the word used to cover the Muslim religion just as ‘Christianity’ is used to describe the whole of the Christian religion. A very commonly heard expression used by Muslims is insha Allah, ‘If God wills’. Every human act is to be carried out in submission to what Allah decrees.
What does the word ‘Muslim’ mean?
This is another of those words related to the idea of peace.
The Muslim is a person who submits to Allah, and so is at peace with Allah. Incidentally it is quite wrong to speak of ‘Muhammadans’ as though Muslims worship Muhammad (as Christians worship Christ). No Muslim has ever worshipped Muhammad.
How did Islam originate?
Some 500 years after the time of Christ we find the Arab peoples divided into clans which were continually in conflict with one another, worshipping idols, venerating sun, moon, stars, making offerings to trees and even strangely shaped rocks. They were leaderless, united only by their language, and even that was divided into many dialects. They were divided into two very different groups: the urban, city dwellers, depending on commerce, and the rural nomads, depending on their domesticated animals and fining adequate grazing for them.
The Arabian peninsula had little to commend it economically to either of the two great empires, the Christian Byzantine empire to the north-west, and the Persian Zoroastrian empire to the north-east. Across the Red Sea was Christian Ethiopia, but the Ethiopian Christians had little missionary vision.
"gradually the conflict between some of the things Muhammad presented as revelation, and what was in the Jewish and Christian Bible became apparent"
Muhammad was born at Mecca into this situation. He was orphaned at the age of six, so knew what it was like to be of little account in society. Later he travelled to Syria with Meccan trading caravans, and saw the strength of the Christian empire. Probably it was then that he absorbed what would be central to his teaching: God is One.
At the age of forty he claimed to have received a vision, a revelation from Allah. And he began to preach in Mecca: ‘God is one! Idolatry is wrong! Take care of the poor, the aged, the widow, the orphan! Beware: God will judge those who reject my message!
It seems that at first Muhammad thought that he was simply following earlier revelations: Old Testament for the Jews, New Testament for the Gentiles, Islam for the Arabs. But gradually the conflict between some of the things Muhammad presented as revelation, and what was in the Jewish and Christian Bible became apparent. The conflict was resolved by Muhammad asserting that in some way Christians and Jews had allowed their scriptures to be corrupted. Islam was seen as correcting Judaism and Christianity, Islam as the final revelation from God, and Muhammad as the final prophet.
What are the main sacred texts for Islam?
The main sacred text is the Qur’an. The word itself comes from Muhammad who claimed that in a revelation he was commanded to iqra! ‘recite!’ or ‘cry out!’ or ‘read!’ This command is found in sura (chapter) 96 of the Qur’an.
The Qur’an has 114 chapters. Originally what is now the Qur’an was simply a collection of the sayings of Muhammad, some written down, others learned by heart. And the chapters themselves are composite, not all given at the same time. According to the most commonly accepted theory, the whole collection was brought together on the orders of one of Muhammad’s successors as leader of the Muslim community, Uthman, in 655 or thereabouts, some 20 years after Muhammad’s death. When the collection had been completed Uthman is said to have ordered the destruction of all texts that differed from it.
However, it is wrong to suppose that the Qur’an is the only sacred text for the Muslim. At a slightly lower level, and much less reliable, are the collections of traditions, folk memories of what Muhammad had said or done. There are several collections of these memories, each of them with a list of names showing how the tradition, the story, was passed from generation to generation. These are the Traditions, the Hadith.
The most important collection is by Bukhari, and it has been published in ten large volumes. It is said that because he sensed that many of the stories were simply untrue or greatly exaggerated he chose his 4,000 stories from a total of more than half a million. However, scholars are sceptical even about the value of Bukhari’s collection because it was put together about 240 years after Muhammad…rather like trying to write a biography of King George II without the benefit of history books, encyclopedias or libraries.
What is the basic understanding of God in Islam?
The fundamental tenet of Islam is: God is One. This is clearly presented in the Muslim confession: ‘There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.’
"although Allah has these beautiful names, God always remains the Other: he is never ‘God with us’"
This doctrine is called ‘Tawhid’ which comes from an Arabic word meaning ‘One’. Not surprisingly the Muslim sees the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as rejecting the One-ness of God: to most Muslims it looks like tri-theism. This fact has a serious consequence: the unforgivable sin for the Muslim is ‘Association’, shirk, associating, linking, anyone with God. And of course linking Jesus with God appears to be shirk. God is the great Other, the Creator. We cannot really use human language to describe him. He is best known by his names: Islam usually refers to the ninety-nine beautiful names of Allah. But as the Vatican Council expressed it, although Allah has these beautiful names, God always remains the Other: he is never ‘God with us’.
Allah is omnipotent, all-knowing, all-seeing. There is a strong current of fatalism in Islam, because since God is all-knowing, omniscient, he knows the future: my future is already determined by Allah, and it is my duty to submit to it. Perhaps the most commonly heard phrase spoken by Muslims is insha Allah, ‘If God wills.’ (see the note on the meaning of ‘Islam’).
Allah is also the Compassionate. All except one of the chapters of the Qur’an begins with the phrase ‘In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate’ (translations vary in just how they render this phrase).
But Allah is also the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. However, not the Old and New Testaments as we now have them…according to Islam they are corrupt. But Muhammad did see Islam not as a new religion, but as the final fulfillment of Judaism and Christianity.
Why is Muhammad’s life often divided between Mecca and Madina?
The first reason is because Muhammad’s move from Mecca to Madina in 622 is taken by Muslims as year one of their calendar.
The second reason is because the move to Madina marks a dramatic change in his life. In Mecca he was opposed, ridiculed, and his followers were persecuted. In fact, there was a complicated plot to assassinate him. In Madina he was accepted as the leader of the community, and in place of failure he experienced almost unbroken success. The number of his followers multiplied.
"In Madina he was accepted as the leader of the community, and in place of failure he experienced almost unbroken success"
Thirdly, there is a difference apparent between those parts of the Qur’an which come from Mecca and those parts which come from Madina. In the Meccan period the emphasis was on warning Meccans of the folly of idolatry, and setting out the new teaching of the One God. In Madina the emphasis is more on the affairs of the new Muslim community. The Meccan chapters are generally short, emotive, poetic, while the Madinan chapters are lengthy, involved and seem to be laboured.
Fourthly, in Mecca Muhammad and his followers submitted passively to persecution. In Madina he first encouraged fighting back when his people were attacked by the Meccans, and then encouraged fighting as a means of spreading Islam. In fact there is what has been called a trajectory of violence running through the Qur’an, from submission, to defensive fighting, to aggressive fighting.
How does Islam view Jesus?
Jesus is greatly respected both in the Qur’an and in popular belief. Muslims believe in the virgin birth of Jesus: accounts of the virgin birth appear in two suras (‘chapters’) of the Qur’an. However, it must be said that these accounts mix the facts as recorded in the Bible with later legends. Jesus is seen simply as one of a long line of prophets, going back through the Old Testament and concluding with Muhammad, who is described as the ‘seal’, the last, of the prophets.
The Qur’an explicitly rejects the idea of the Trinity:
‘O people of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah naught but the truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was a messenger of Allah, and his word which he bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from him: so believe in Allah and his messengers. Say not “Trinity”: desist’
(Sura 4, verse 171)
There is reference in the Qur’an to the fact that Jesus performed miracles of healing and bringing the dead back to life, although no actual miracle is recorded. And there is no reference to any of the parables that Jesus used in his teaching. In popular belief the prophets are all believed to be sinless, so that Jesus, too, is seen as being sinless. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why Islam believes that the Old Testament is corrupt: David could not have committed the sins described in the Bible.
"the most significant point about the Muslim beliefs about Jesus is the rejection of the crucifixion"
For the Christian, the most significant point about the Muslim beliefs about Jesus is the rejection of the crucifixion. Sura 4 verse 157 of the Qur’an says flatly about the Jews, ‘They said, ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah’ – but they killed him not, nor crucified him…of a surety they killed him not.’
The Qur’an itself does not explain what actually happened but a popular explanation is that Jesus was taken away to heaven by four angels just before the arrest, and that Judas was made to look like Jesus so that he was arrested and crucified instead of Jesus.
This leads on to a further popular belief about Jesus, that he will return to earth to complete his life, to establish Islam as the world religion, to destroy Christianity, and to signal the nearness of the end of the world. He will then die and be buried, some say in Madina, next to Muhammad.
What are the main branches of Islam, and how do they differ?
Some 80% of all Muslims are Sunni. They claim to follow the ‘sunna’, the pathway followed by Muhammad. The second major group are the Shi’a, the ‘followers’ or the ‘party’, originally the followers of Ali who was Muhammad’s nephew. Their belief is that only a blood descendant of Muhammad can be the leader of Islam, where the Sunnis believe that any capable Muslim can lead.
After Muhammad’s death there was disagreement over who should succeed him. Some supported Ali, Muhammad’s nephew who had married Fatima, Muhammad’s favourite daughter. At one point there were two Caliphs, Ali in the south and Muawiyya in Syria. The disagreement came to a climax at Karbala, near Baghdad, when al-Husayn’s followers were massacred. Al-Husayn was killed, decapitated, and the head sent to Damascus and put on public display. And yet this was Muhammad’s grandson! Shi’a Muslims all over the world re-enact the events of Karbala every year, and it is probably this that has made the two groups of Muslims such bitter enemies.
There is a third group, the Sufis. These are best described as Muslim charismatics. They add to the rather legalistic practices of orthodox Islam a search for a direct experience of Allah: getting from the outside of Islam to the inside, to the real thing. Pilgrimage to Mecca is on the outside: anyone can do that, but the real pilgrimage is to Allah, and a Sufi teacher or ‘Sheikh’ can show how this may be done.
Any Muslim, Sunni or Shi’a, might also be a Sufi, and it is sometimes said that 40% of all Muslims are also in some way involved in Sufism.
A fourth group, the Ahmadis, is considered by the rest as heretical because they believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a prophet. The orthodox Muslim belief is that Muhammad was the last of the prophets. The Ahmadis also teach that Jesus was crucified, but did not die on the cross, revived in the tomb, travelled to India and died in Kashmir.
How does Islam understand the relationship between religion and the State?
For the Muslim his religion covers every aspect of his life, so there ought to be no separation of his religion and the government of the country he lives in.
"is their first loyalty to the government of the country they live in, or is it to Islam?"
Islam has its own ideas about the law, divorce, inheritance, the punishment of criminals, murder, theft, war and peace, and even banking. But many Muslims live in a country which does not have a Muslim government. They then have a problem because some parts of the law don’t agree with Muslim ideas. Muslims want to live under Muslim laws.
This produces a further problem for some Muslims: is their first loyalty to the government of the country they live in, or is it to Islam? Obviously the government would say that the first loyalty is to them. As we have seen recently, the problem is worse if the government of a non-Muslim country is involved in fighting with a Muslim country. If a Muslim then acts on the belief that his first loyalty is to Islam and supports that Muslim country, then the government of the country he is living in would count that as treason.
Probably most Muslims would say that if they accept citizenship and all its privileges in a non-Muslim country then they must be loyal to that country. In contrast to the Muslim view, Christianity largely separates church from government, and leaves the government to make its laws, and leaves the economists to decide on how banks should operate.
What is Shari’a Law?
The Muslim expects to live in a Muslim society. Any society needs some kind of law code. Islam has produced a complete system of law which all Muslims are expected to obey.
Actually the Qur’an itself does not contain much instruction on law for the Muslim, but the Traditions concerning what Muhammad is supposed to have said or done supplement this.
Some two hundred years after Muhammad, complete law codes began to come together. There are four schools of law, Maliki, Shafi, Hanifi and Hanbali, all named after the scholars who put the codes together.
Shari’a law deals with both criminal matters and civil matters: theft, manslaughter, murder, marriage, divorce, inheritance – among others.
How did Islam spread across the world?
The short answer is: very fast! To put it very simply, Islam expanded first of all by fighting, then largely through its traders, and more recently through what are called ‘Call Societies’.
"Muhammad believed that Jews and Christians had lost their way, misrepresented their religions, and Islam was to replace them"
Muhammad believed that Jews and Christians had lost their way, misrepresented their religions, and Islam was to replace them. So when most of the Arab peoples were converted to Islam, the Muslims began to move out: northwards, through Palestine and Syria, and as far as Constantinople, and west, across North Africa, into Spain and then France. In 732 there was the battle of Poitiers in France, when the advancing Muslims were defeated, and that marked the high point of Islam’s spread into western Europe.
In Africa and Asia Islam was spread more by Arab traders than by Muslim ‘missionaries’. They often took ‘folk Islam’ with them: orthodoxy plus some popular practices: advice on what to do if someone was ill, for example. The basic teaching of Islam is easy to understand: God is one, say the prayers, give alms, go on pilgrimage if you can…so that people seem quite readily to have abandoned their old religions for the new religion.
"the world population increased by 270%, the Muslim population increased by 490%"
Now there are the ‘Call Societies’, partly based on the ideas of the Christian missionary societies. They run schools and clinics, but also operate youth clubs and social centres.
The growth of Islam in recent years is striking. In 1900 the world population was about 1,620 million; there were some 200 million Muslims and 558 million Christians. In the year 2000 the world population was 6,055 million, there were 1,188 Muslims and two billion Christians. So the world population increased by 270%, the Muslim population increased by 490% and the Christian population by 260%. Of course these are only approximate figures, but they suggest that Islam has actually grown nearly twice as rapidly as Christianity.
How has Islam developed in Britain?
The first Muslims who settled here were probably sailors, from Somalia and the Yemen, who settled in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham. In 1889 the Woking mosque was built, in 1977 the Regents Park mosque, and now there are more than 2,000 mosques. Of course many of these are small, operating in houses adapted for the purpose.
In the 1960s there was a steady flow of Muslims into Britain from Asia. It was easy for them to find work, as there were many unskilled jobs which the British were not anxious to do. We are only now beginning to realise the problem that would be caused by the fact that these immigrants tended to build their own communities rather than integrating into the rest of society and adopting British culture. It is striking that the birth rate amongst Muslims is more than twice that of the rest of British society.
One major issue has been education. Many Muslims want schools to be single-sex. Others compromise the State education system by sending their children both to the State school and to the local Qur’an school. Inevitably the children are overworked. The problem is made worse in those homes where English is not the language used by the family.
"As the number of Muslims has increased so Muslim organizations appeared"
As the number of Muslims has increased so Muslim organizations appeared. There are the Barelwi, the ‘Light-Bearers’, originating in India, the Ismailis, Shi’a Muslims. From Pakistan Jamat i-Islami appeared, with its very conservative approach to Islam. The heretical Ahmadis began to spread their ideas through their London Mosque and the literature they produced. Hizb ut-Tahrir moved onto the University campuses, and were not infrequently banned because of their violent anti-semitism.
The Muslim Parliament was established in 1991 in an attempt to bring Muslim demands to the attention of Westminster. They wanted Sharia Law to be brought in alongside the existing system of law, and demanded that any legislation that might affect Muslims should be referred to them before being approved by Parliament. The Muslim Parliament has not been treated very seriously either by Westminster or by Muslims, in general because of the unreal nature of many of their expectations.
One of the leading figures amongst the Muslim moderates was Dr Zaki Badawi. He was born in Egypt in 1922, and was Principal of the London Muslim College, and Chair of the UK Council of Imams and Mosques.
It is interesting to see the great change in UK Muslim thinking in the ten years between the 1995 Bradford riots, involving perhaps one thousand Muslim youths, and the 2005 London bombings. When the causes of the Bradford riots were examined – five were identified: all of them local issues. When the London bombings were being analysed, nearly all of the justification for the violence related to Britain’s actions abroad, in supporting Israel against Palestine, in the Gulf War, in the Afghanistan invasion, in our involvement in the Coalition forces that invaded Iraq.
What are the key spiritual disciplines in Islam?
Perhaps the most important is prayer. The Muslim is expected to pray five times each day, using the actions and words believed to have been used by Muhammad. The prayers include the affirmation ‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.’
"Jihad, ‘struggle’ is sometimes said to be one of the ‘Pillars’ of Islam, but this idea is not generally accepted"
Every year there is the discipline of the fast in the month of Ramadan. During the day the Muslim is expected to eat nothing and drink nothing. This might not seem to us as a very hard requirement (because the Muslim may eat and drink freely in the evening and early morning) , but of course in its original setting in Arabia it was very hard indeed. Ramadan is said to be the month in which Muhammad received his first revelations. Many Muslims will try to read the Qur’an right through during Ramadan.
Once in his lifetime the Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, where Muhammad was born, and to follow the pattern of what he did on his final pilgrimage.
Jihad, ‘struggle’ is sometimes said to be one of the ‘Pillars’ of Islam, but this idea is not generally accepted. But the Muslim does have the duty of ‘calling’, dawa, calling people to become Muslims. It’s similar to the Christian idea of mission.
How does Islam view violence, war and conquest?
There are several different ideas amongst Muslims on these issues. There is general agreement that if Islam is attacked it has a duty to oppose violence with violence. But although there have been many attempts to portray the early invasion of Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Spain as attempts to defend Islam against the Christian empires based on Rome and Constantinople, in fact these were offensive wars for the forceful expansion of Islam.
Peter Cotterell's distinguished career includes 19 years lecturing at London School of Theology, where he also served as principal, and 23 in the mission field in Ethiopia, where he founded the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology. His publications in Islam, missiology, linguistics and communications total 17 books. Among them are Islam in Conflict (IVP, with Peter G. Riddell), Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation(SPCK, with Max Turner), Mission and Meaninglessness (SPCK), and Is God Helpless? (Triangle).