The Islamic Tradition
John L. Esposito
(This essay first appeared in Handbook for Interreligious Dialogue, edited by John Borelli, and prepared by the members of the Faiths in the World Committee, National Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers, Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett & Ginn, 1988. NADEO, the Catholic association of diocesan ecumenical officers, has given permission for this edited version to appear here. John Esposito, [Ph.D., Temple University] is Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Religion and International Affairs, Georgetown University, and Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World.)
Islam is the second largest of the religious traditions in the world. It has over one billion adherents. While the Islamic world includes Muslim countries stretching from North Africa to Southeast Asia, significant numbers of Muslims may be found throughout the entire world.
Historically, Islam is often viewed as a religious tradition which originated in seventh century Arabia with the prophet Muhammad (570-632) and the divine revelation which he received from God that is recorded in the Quran. However, it is most important to realize that Muslims do not view Islam as a new religion. Muslims believe that Allah (which literally means "The God" in Arabic) is the same God who revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Therefore, Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all followers of the same living God—cousins in a common family with a common ancestor, Abraham. Muslims believe that the Quran is the final and complete revelation of God to all people.
The central fact of the Muslim religious experience is Allah. The God of the Quran is one and transcendent, creator and sustainer of the universe, and the overwhelming concern of the believer. The word "Islam" means "submission;" a Muslim is one who submits to God, one who is a servant of God. This is not a mere passivity; rather, it is submission to the Divine Will, a duty to realize actively God's will in history. Thus, the Quran teaches that God has given the earth to man as a "divine trust" and that it is a person's duty and mission, as God's agent, to strive to realize God's will.
The Muslim's divinely mandated vocation is communal as well as individual. The Islamic community or state (ummah) is the dynamic vehicle for the realization of God's will and, as such, should serve as an example to the rest of the world since all humanity is called to worship and serve the one God. Today, there are two major groups in the Muslim community which resulted from an early dispute over succession to Muhammad's leadership, the Sunni who constitute 85% of Muslims, and the Shii who are found in many parts of the world.
Muslims look first to the Quran which contains God's commands and second to the example (sunna) of the prophet Muhammad who serves as the embodiment of Islamic values, as a living model for the community. Traditions or reports (Hadith) of the prophet's words and deeds were preserved and written down by the early Muslim community. On the basis of these two sources, the Islamic way of life was developed and expressed comprehensively in the Shariah—Islamic Law. Shariah literally means "the path," the road or way that all Muslims are to follow. Muslim law reflects the fact that Islam is a total way of life in which there is an organic relationship between religion, politics, and society.
Islam emphasizes practice over belief. As a result, law, not theology, has always been the most important area of concern to Muslims, for it provides the "straight path" (Shariah) which the Muslim must follow to realize God's Will. At the heart of the law are five fundamental obligations or duties which constitute the five pillars of Islam: 1) the confession of faith, 2) worship, 3) almsgiving, 4) fasting, and 5) the pilgrimage to Mecca.
A Muslim is one who confesses that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God. Islam affirms a radical monotheism in which the doctrine of the oneness of God is dominant. God is the creator, ruler, and judge of the world. He is merciful and compassionate, but He is also a just judge. On the last day, He will judge each person according to his/her actions, all of which are contained in the Book of Deeds.
The second part of the confession of faith is the affirmation of Muhammad as the messenger of God, the last and final prophet, who serves as a model for the Muslim community. Though he is the ideal Muslim as Husband, father, leader, and judge, he was human, not divine.
Muslims are called to prayer five times each day (dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening) by the muezzin who stands atop the tower (minaret) of the mosque. This prayer is preceded by ablution, a cleansing of the body which purifies and thus prepares the Muslim for entering the presence of God. Facing the holy city of Mecca, Muslims worship by standing, kneeling, and prostrating while reciting verses from the Quran. On Friday, the noon prayer should be said preferably at a mosque with a congregation. At other times, any place where a Muslim prays is acceptable; a mosque is not a consecrated building but rather a place of gathering. Since there are no priesthood and no sacraments in Islam, any Muslim may lead the prayer and may officiate at weddings, burials, etc. Though there is no clergy, a clerical class did develop consisting of religious scholars (ulama) and local religious leaders (mullahs).
Almsgiving or the sharing of wealth institutionalizes a sense of social responsibility by establishing a fixed proportionate (2%) wealth tax. It requires the more fortunate members of the Islamic community to share their wealth with the less fortunate.
Once every year, Islam prescribes a rigorous fast throughout the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. During this period, abstention from food, drink, and sex (from sunrise to sunset) is required of all healthy adult Muslims. The emphasis is not on self-mortification and abstinence, as such, but rather on self-discipline and reflection. The end of Ramadan is marked by a feast of the breaking of the fast (Id al-Fitr).
Every adult Muslim physically and financially able is expected to perform the duty of the pilgrimage (Hajj) at least once in his/her lifetime. Just as five times each day Muslims throughout the world are united as they face Mecca in worship, so each year many travel physically to Mecca, sacred city of Islam, where they have traveled spiritually. The equality of the pilgrimage is symbolized by exchanging one's ordinary clothing for the ihram, a white, seamless garment.
Islam, then, provides its followers with an integrated, holistic way of life which was revealed by the God of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and Jesus to Muhammad one final time and which was subsequently recorded in the Quran. As believers in the same God and as children of Abraham, Jews, Christians, and Muslims share more than a common geographic origin in the Middle East. Their challenge today is to understand better this common religious heritage and to draw closer not only as individuals but as communities of believers who face many similar problems in the modern world and who possess a unifying goal—world peace and justice.
Suggestions for Dialogue
All dialogue should begin with the affirmation that Muslims and Catholics share a common heritage. They share a faith in the one God, the mission of the prophets, and divine revelation, and they emphasize social, as well as personal, ethics.
First, Catholics should remember two points in any dialogue. Many Muslims believe that most Americans are ignorant of Islam and that many, consciously or unconsciously, come to Islam with a knowledge based on negative images and prejudices. Second, reacting to what they perceive as western colonial political and cultural dominance and wishing to reassert their own Islamic heritage, many Muslims today are less inclined to "theological" dialogue; furthermore, they view Islam as the final, complete, and perfect revelation of God. They are more responsive to occasions in which Islam may be understood better or to cooperative programs on social issues, such as, the family, racial or religious prejudice, and poverty. Other possible topics for discussion are: the threat of atheism, secularism, and unrestrained materialism to our common religious heritage and values, especially family values.
Esposito, John L. Islam: The Straight Path. 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. A general introduction to Islam which covers the history of Islamic belief and practice with special emphasis on modern Islam.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Quran. Gibralter: Dar al-Andalus, 1980. An English translation of the Quran that is helpful and readable.
Esposito, John L. The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality. 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A study of contemporary Islam, and political and religious movements.
Haddad, Yvonne and Wadi Z. Haddad. Christian-Muslim Encounters. Gainesville: University
Press of Florida, 1995. A survey of Christian-Muslim relations.
Haddad, Yvonne Y. and Adair T. Lummins. Islamic Values in the U.S. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A study of several American Muslim communities and general observations.
Irving, T. B. The Quran. Brattleboro, VT: Amana, 1985. A useful translation in contemporary English.
Rahman, Fazlur. Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. The best and most rigorous introduction to Islam by a leading scholar.
Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Quran. Chicago: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980. An excellent starting point for a thematic study of the Quran.
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