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BI 3223 Worldviews, Lipscomb University

Unit 5A

Islam (part 1)

What is Islam? its history, beliefs, and practices

General information:

  • “Islam” means “submission.” Muslim means one who submits to God. (Contrary to what you sometimes read, Islam does not mean “peace,” which is the word salaam)
  • There are over one billion Muslims today, second in size to Christianity in world religions.
  • Only 20% of Muslims are Arabs, and not all Arabs are Muslim; 5-10% are Christian.
  • The largest Muslim countries are non-Arabic: Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh. India with only 10% Muslim population still has more than any other Middle Eastern country.
  • Turkey is the only truly successful example of an Islamic democracy.
  • Persian (Iran) is now the third most popular language on the internet, after English and Chinese (Nasr 213).
  • Islam is one of three major monotheistic religions along with Judaism and Christianity.
  • Allah is their word for God, whom they identify as the God of Abraham. Some pre-Islamic cultures in the middle east referred to their deities with this name as well, such as the moon-god, but this does not discredit Islam’s use of the term, any more than the fact that El, the Hebrew word for God in the Old Testament, was also used by the Canaanites to refer to their god.
  • Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan, the time when Muhammad received his first revelation. Because they follow a lunar calendar, the dates change every year. The first day after Ramadan is a great day of feasting, Eid ul-Fitr, and some families treat it a little like Christmas with presents for children.
  • Muslims abstain from alcohol and pork.
  • Arabs adopted the decimal system (we still call them Arabic numerals) and the concept of “zero” from India, on which all Western mathematics is based.
  • The first university in the world was Islamic, founded in Cairo, 971 AD.
  • In their trade interactions with Byzantium (the eastern Roman empire) during the early middle ages, Arab scholars preserved major works of Aristotle and other Greeks which were reintroduced into Europe in the 12th The West owes much of our classical heritage to these scholars. They excelled in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and architecture.
  • The star and crescent symbol seen on some Islamic mosques dates to the early Sumerian civilization (2nd millennium BC), where it was associated with the sky deities. In the 19th century the symbol was adopted as the battle-standard of the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey), who are mainly responsible for its association with Islam. It is not accepted by all Muslims, however, and is not equivalent to the symbol of the cross for Christians.
  • Author Mahbubani calls Islam the most successful religion in the modern world because it “plays a far greater role in the life of its adherents than any other religion.” In the so-called “Christian” West, only America has a moderately high rate of religious zeal, with 59% saying religion places a very important role in their lives. In England, Italy, and Germany fewer than 35% agreed; in France, Russia, and Japan, less than 15%. In contrast, in Pakistan and Indonesia over 90% said religion was very important. In Islamic Africa it was 80% (Beyond 87-9). Of course, what people report on a survey does not always translate into real life. Under the influence of the West many Muslims live more secularized lifestyles today than in previous generations.



  • According to Islam there have been many prophets including Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (some include Plato or Buddha). Muhammad is the final prophet who brought the final revelation from God. Muhammad believed that he was following the spiritual path laid by the previous prophets of Judaism and Christianity, but he corrected the mistakes of these religions as people had wandered from the truth. “Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry … and those Christians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day, and does righteousness, no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow” (Quran 5:69). He called Jews and Christians the People of the Book. He claimed to invent no new teachings (Q 46:8), and was surprised that Jews and Christians did not accept him as a true prophet.
  • Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570 AD. Orphaned by the age of six, he was raised under the protection of his uncle. Muhammad began working as a merchant and became known for his trustworthiness.
  • When he was twenty-five, he married his employer, Khadija, a wealthy widow whose status elevated Muhammad’s position in Meccan society. Muhammad and Khadija had four daughters and two sons, both of whom died in infancy. About fifteen years after his marriage, he began to have visions and hear mysterious voices. He sought solitude in a cave on Mount Hira on the outskirts of Mecca. One night during Ramadan, the traditional month of spiritual retreat, when Muhammad was about 40, an angel appeared to him in the form of a man. Muhammad, fearing that he was being attacked by an evil spirit, fled down the mountain in terror. The voice called after him, “O Muhammad, you are the messenger of God, and I am the angel Jibril [Gabriel].” This revelation was soon followed by others about the one true God.
  • Muhammad slowly began to attract some followers, most of them young and of modest social standing, including his cousin Ali. When Muhammad began to preach against the traditional polytheism of his native town, the rich and powerful merchants of Mecca realized that the religious revolution taking place under their noses might be disastrous for business, which was protected by the Meccan pantheon of gods and goddesses. The ruling elite ganged up against Muhammad and his followers, and began to persecute them.
  • Muhammad’s position in Mecca became hopeless when his wife and uncle died. In 622 Muhammad and his small band of followers escaped to settle in the oasis of Yathrib, birthplace of his mother, located some eleven days north by camel (280 miles). Yathrib came to be called Medina, “the city (of the Prophet).”
  • Muhammad’s hegira (journey) from Mecca to Medina marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. For the first time in Arabia members of a community were bound together not by the traditional ties of clan and tribe but by their shared belief in the one true God.
  • Muhammad, surrounded by his followers, lived in Medina for ten years, slowly winning over converts. Muhammad made repeated attempts to attract the Jews to his cause; he taught that believers worship like the Jews in the direction of Jerusalem. Ultimately these attempts failed, and henceforth Muslims prayed in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. Muhammad’s native town, which had long been a center of paganism, thereby became the center of the true religion, the focal point of the believers’ daily prayer, and eventually the object of their annual pilgrimage.
  • Raiding and warfare were the primary economic activities of the new community in Medina, and the rich caravans organized by Mecca were particularly attractive targets. At the Battle of Badr (for which Muslim boys are still named), Muhammad captured the major caravan coming from Syria; his armies, although outnumbered, defeated the Meccans guarding the caravan. Around 630 he overtook Mecca with little resistance. Muhammad’s prestige grew after the surrender of Mecca. Embassies from all Arabia came to submit to him.
  • Muhammad died on June 8, 632, aged about sixty.
  • In about a decade the entire area of the Middle East was under Muslim control, from Persia, Damascus and Jerusalem in the east, to Egypt and North Africa in the west.
  • Muhammad is not worshipped by Muslims (although Sufis, Muslim mystics, consider him a being of light created before the world). No images of Muhammad are allowed, following the prohibitions against idols.

Holy cities: Mecca and Medina

  • Both major holy sites of Muhammad’s time, Mecca (his birthplace) and Medina (where Islam began), are in Saudi Arabia.
  • The hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca is required of all Muslims once in a lifetime. The official hajj occurs only in the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar (roughly Dec – Jan). Women must be accompanied by a male family member.
  • Muslims believe that Abraham abandoned Hagar and Ishmael in Mecca rather than in Canaan (Gen. 21:19). God caused a well (zamzam) to spring up to sustain them, which is still in Mecca
  • The Kaaba in Mecca, a large cube-shaped structure, holds the black stone from heaven (probably a meteorite). Before Muhammad’s time, the stone was worshipped along with hundreds of idols. Mecca had been a pagan religious site for unknown centuries before Muhammad made it special to Islam. Muslims believe that God told Adam, after exiling him from Eden, to build this shrine, fashioned after one in heaven. The angel Jibril (Gabriel) brought the stone from heaven and placed it in the eastern corner of the Kaaba. Later Abraham returned with Ishmael and rebuilt the Kaaba, which had been destroyed in the flood (Quran 2:125).
  • On the hajj male pilgrims run around the Kaaba seven times, and many kiss the stone. They also run seven times the path from Mecca to Marwa to commemorate Hagar’s search for water, and they throw stones at three pillars that symbolize temptation. In the massive crowds some people every year are trampled to death; in 2015, 2400 people died.

Five Pillars of Islam:

  • Saying the shahadah: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.”
  • prayer five times a day facing Mecca
  • almsgiving
  • fasting during Ramadan (during daylight hours); very old and young, sick, expectant mothers are excused
  • pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj)

Islamic civil law (sharia, “the way”)

  • Sharia consists of four foundations (Van de Weyer):
  • The Quran as revealed to Muhammad and written down by his followers after his death.
  • Sunna (traditions): the words and deeds of Muhammad which became precedents for living, recorded about 200 years after his death. Individual laws are called hadith.
  • General consensus as basis for laws. Muhammad said, “My community with never agree on any error.”
  • Analogy: some behavior may not be specifically mentioned in the Quran but similar to one that is.
  • Some independent Muslim sects such as the Taliban in Afghanistan appear to ignore the third and fourth rules, applying the Quran strictly without regard to popular consensus or rational argument.
  • By the 11th century Islamic law was frozen, allowing no new interpretations or innovations. “The doctrine of immutability has deprived Islamic law of the organic quality that characterizes law in secular society. … Muslim life must adjust to the sharia, not the sharia to Muslim life” (Viorst 143). Muslims look back to a supposed golden age of the Prophet, and want to recreate that society. However, there have always been some who disagreed, and do not consider Muhammad’s words in the sunna to have the same sacred authority as the Quran. Modernists believe that the law must adapt to changing times.
  • Some Christians are afraid that Muslims want to impose sharia law in America. They cite examples of harsh and inhumane punishments: for instance, a man who suspects his new wife to not be a virgin may accuse her in public, and if the family cannot prove her virginity, they will stone her to death. But this example comes from the Bible, Deut. 22:13-21. Just as Christians today do not apply some of the laws written specifically for Israel in the OT (such as circumcision and sacrificing animals), most Muslims do not want to enforce the extreme aspects of some of their own teachings, recognizing that times and circumstances have changed. Unfortunately, unscrupulous political and religious leaders use the imagined threat of sharia law as a fear tactic to influence the general public.

The Quran (various teachings):

  • In contrast to Christianity’s emphasis on correct doctrine (orthodoxy), Islam focuses on orthopraxy, right practice.
  • The Quran consists of 114 chapters or suras, organized by length, with the longest (and latest) placed first. The earliest brief revelation is the 96th
  • The Quran is about 80% as long as the NT.
  • Muhammad did not write down any of the Quran (which means “recitation”). It was written down by disciples in separate sections, then compiled about 20 years after his death. There were various versions until about 700, when the “definitive” version was decided on, and others destroyed.
  • Muslims consider the Quran to be totally miraculous, written in Arabic, the language of God himself, dictated to Muhammad word for word. The text existed in heaven beforehand (Rippin 104). Arabic is the official language of Islam, although 80% of Muslims do not speak it.
  • The Quran teaches ethics which resemble other religions in condemning murder, theft, usury, exploiting the poor, false contracts, adultery. It also forbids alcohol, gambling (5.90).
  • Oddly, the Quran gives no specific penalty for murder (except burning in hell), but adultery earns 100 lashes (24.2) and theft, cutting off the hands, “but if he repents and amends his ways, Allah is forgiving” (5.38-9).
  • Islam emphasizes giving to the poor: “Wealth should not circulate only among the rich” (Q 59:7).
  • Slavery is accepted as a given in Muhammad’s time (so does the Bible), recognizing that it was impossible to legislate its removal all at once, but the Quran encourages freeing slaves when possible (Rahman 48).
  • “Do not slay the soul sanctified by God except for just cause” (Q 6:151; 25:68). One modern scholar mentions five just causes worthy of capital punishment: deliberate murder, resisting the establishment of the true faith, attempting to overthrow an Islamic government, adultery, apostasy (Brockopp 133).
  • “There is no compulsion in religion; Truth stands out clearly from error” (2.256).
  • The Quran teaches both free will and determinism: “Say, ‘The truth is from your Lord’: Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject” (Q 18.29), but also “No soul can believe, except by the will of Allah, and He will place doubt on those who will not understand” (Q 10.100; cf. 76.30). “It is hard to deny that determinism’s pervasiveness in the Muslim mind has placed shackles on the earthly development of Islamic civilization” (Viorst 94).
  • Apostasy: “Whoever loses faith in Allah after having faith, on him is wrath from Allah” (Q 16.106). Some think this punishment is left to God, but others justify capital punishment by these verses. In some countries, any verbal denial of Islamic belief is apostasy; also treating the Quran with disrespect or ridiculing the Prophet. One woman, formerly a Christian, asked her fiancé questions about Islam before converting, but after she did, he said she was no longer allowed to question anything (Warraq 16, 125).
  • The Quran creation story resembles Genesis (Q 7:54), but other verses admit that for God a day can be 1000 or 50,000 years (Q 22:47). Ahmed suggests that Islam has no problem with the theory of a very old earth on which life evolved by God’s design (31).
  • Islamic eschatology resembles Christian doctrine: resurrection of the dead, judgment, then a transformation of creation (Q 14:48; 29:20). Men are promised beautiful virgins to marry in heaven (Q 44:54), but no mention of martyrs receiving this reward as we often hear.

The Quran and Jesus

  • Q 3:45-7 supports the virgin birth of Jesus. Q 19 tells the story of Mary, much of it taken from Luke, and is the only chapter (sura) named for a woman (not even Hagar, mother of Ishmael, the patriarch of Islam, has such an honor).
  • Muhammad included stories about Jesus as a boy making clay birds come alive (Q 5:110), also found in the Gnostic Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not the same as the Gospel). Muhammad accepted Jesus’ miracles, but never claimed to perform any of his own.
  • The doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus are two major reasons why many converts to Islam say they left Christianity, as they believe these doctrines contradict the idea of monotheism. “It is not for God to take a son” (Q 19:36). “They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three; when there is no Allah save the One Allah” (Q 5:73). In one passage Muhammad seems to believe that the Christian Trinity included Mary (Q 5:116).
  • Muhammad denied that Jesus was crucified: “Yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them” (Q 4:157). Was Muhammad influenced by Gnosticism, which denied that Jesus was a true man but only a phantom (see 1 John 4:1-3)?
  • Men and women are responsible for their own actions. “Surely Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition” (Q 13:11). Islam does not believe in the need for a mediator or redeemer. If one avoids major sins, God will overlook minor lapses, if one’s life overall is good. The Quran teaches an optimistic view of humanity and the ability to please God. “Is God not sufficient for man?” implying no need of an intercessor such as Christ (Rahman 19, 30). Thus Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet but not the Son of God who died for our sins.

The Quran and war

  • There are conflicting passages in the Quran about military violence (at least it seems so to non-Muslims).
  • “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loves not aggressors. And slay them wherever you find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you there then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers. But if they cease, Allah is forgiving and merciful. And fight with them until there is no more persecution, and religion should be only for Allah” (Q 2.191-3). Moderate Muslims say these verses refer to fighting wars in self-defense only, but extremists use them to justify war against all unbelievers until Islam only is supreme.
  • “Fighting is commanded of you, much as you dislike it; for you may hate something that is good for you” (Q 2.216)
  • Fight only those who persecute the faith, not for wealth or power (Q 2:190-193, 5:33).
  • “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day …nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the tax with willing submission” (Q 9.29).
  • Jihad means struggle, not just holy war; Muhammad said the greatest jihad was to master our passions and instincts (Ahmed 8).
  • Many modern Muslim scholars are understandably cautious about discussing Islam’s teachings on holy war, claiming that jihad means only defensive wars, or even peaceful missionary activity, the “struggle” to spread Islam in other countries.
  • However, radical Muslims emphasize verses of the Quran such as the Verse of the Sword: “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (9:5); “Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you” (9.123); “Smite above [the unbelievers’] necks and cut off their fingertips” (8:12; cf. 9.73, 66.9). Suras/chapters 8-9 concern the Battle of Badr that Muhammad fought in the early years, so in context these verses belong to long-past historical times, but radical extremists apply them to today.
  • Medieval legal scholars distinguished between war among Muslims and war with non-Muslims. War among Muslims was justified if both parties had “legitimate cause” meaning some differing interpretation of the Quran. Fighting for tribal reasons or greed was not allowed. In intra-faith wars, the wounded or prisoners could not be killed, but would be released once fighting stopped. Property could not be taken from fellow Muslims as spoils. Women, children and the elderly could not be killed (Brockopp 108).
  • For war with non-Muslims the medieval legal scholars allowed the Muslim ruler much freedom in decisions about wars or peace treaties. In general, Muslims fought non-Muslims to protect their rights and territory and to promote Islam. Unbelievers should be offered the chance to convert to Islam or at least pay a tribute acknowledging Islamic superiority. If unbelievers refuse these options, the men may be killed (according to some; others disagree that unbelief by itself justifies a death sentence, without any other threat to Muslims). Rulers are granted discretion over executing prisoners, since once released they might pose further threat to Muslims. If the enemy offers Muslim prisoners in exchange, the ruler must accept, for the good of his people. Women, children, and property were not to be harmed, not because they have inherent rights as human beings, but because of their potential value as resources to the Muslim victors. Torture, mutilation, and decapitation were forbidden by the legal scholars (Brockopp 113-8).
  • No women, children, elderly should be harmed (hadith Sahih Bukhari 52:257), nor animals, crops, buildings.
  • Lawful wars, according to one modern scholar, include defensive (which may include preventive strikes), supportive (fighting for other Muslims persecuted by non-Islamic states), punitive (against rebels, apostates, or broken treaties), and expansionist (against nations who block the preaching of Islam) (Brockopp 136).
  • The Quran does not teach that suicide martyrs will receive numerous virgins in heaven. Q 4:29 forbids suicide. In the haddith it says: “Whoever shall kill himself shall suffer in the fire of hell” (Sahih al-Bukhari 984). He “shall be excluded from heaven forever” (Sahih al-Bukhari 182). Some Islamic jurists though make a distinction between suicide and martyrdom.
  • One saying (hadith) is quite pointed about how Jews will be treated in the End-times: “The Hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say ‘O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him.’” (Sahih Bukhari177)
  • Christian critics of Islam should remember that there are disturbing passages of war and violence in the OT as well. How should Christians today understand and apply texts on holy wars in Deuteronomy, Joshua, 1 Samuel, where every living thing was to be destroyed in dedication to God? Most Christians do not use these passages to justify war against unbelievers today, and neither do most Muslims base their beliefs on such passages in the Quran.
  • Historically Christians have been responsible for their own share of bloodshed. Wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe during the 16th – 17th centuries claimed millions of lives.

Jerusalem and Islam  (

  • Q 17:1 tells of Muhammad’s mystical Night Journey to “the farthest mosque,” not a physical experience but in a vision. By tradition this mosque became regarded as being in Jerusalem, although the city is not mentioned by name here or elsewhere in the Quran.
  • According to this tradition, one night Muhammad was conveyed miraculously from the Kaaba to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (the Jewish temple had long ago been destroyed by the Romans). There he was welcomed by all the great prophets of the past before ascending through the seven heavens. On his way up he sought the advice of Moses, Aaron, Enoch, Jesus, John the Baptist and Abraham before entering the presence of God.
  • Respect for other faiths was manifest in Islamic Jerusalem. When Caliph Umar, one of Muhammad’s successors, conquered Jerusalem from the Christian Byzantines in 638, he insisted that the three faiths of Abraham should coexist. The Jews found their new Muslim rulers far more congenial than the Byzantines. The Christians had never allowed the Jews to reside permanently in the city, whereas Umar invited 70 Jewish families back.
  • Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, built by Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691, was the first great building to be constructed in the Islamic world. It sits on the supposed site of the Jewish Temple built by Herod the Great and destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The dome covers an outcropping of rock where supposedly Muhammad ascended to heaven.
  • In 715, to build up the prestige of their dominions, the Umayyads built a second mosque in Jerusalem, again on the Temple Mount, and called this one the Farthest Mosque (Al-Aqsa Mosque). With this, the Umayyads retroactively gave the city a role in Muhammad’s life, and Jerusalem became the third holy site for Islam (
  • The Temple Mount continues to be the center of controversy today between Jews, Muslims, and premillennial Christians. Each side has a stake in the holy place. Some Orthodox Jews anticipate the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, rebuilding of the Temple and the coming of the Messiah through the sealed Eastern gate of the old city (which Muslims guard zealously). Premillennial Christians expect the Antichrist to rule as a false god in the rebuilt Temple, prior to the second coming of the Messiah (none of which is taught in the NT). Muslims teach that the Jewish messiah will actually be the dajjal (their antichrist), whom Jesus himself will return and defeat, proclaiming the validity of Islam over all. At this time the Kaaba will be transported from Mecca to Jerusalem (Gorenberg, End of Days 44-5). Whereas Premillennial Christians see the return of Jerusalem to Israel after the 1967 war as a positive sign of God’s prophetic fulfillment in the End-times, Muslims interpret it as an evil sign of the work of the dajjal.
  • In 2017 Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem (rather than Tel Aviv) as the capital of Israel, pleasing his evangelical voter-base but prompting outrage throughout the Middle East. Due to this decision, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the United States as mediator in any future peace negotiations. Palestinians seek to become an independent state with east Jerusalem as their capital.

Women and Islam

  • The Quran allows for as many as four wives but cautions that the man must treat each wife equally and be able to support all the children. If not, stick with one (Q 4:3). However, the vast majority of Muslim marriages throughout the world are monogamous.
  • Some countries still have arranged marriages, supposedly with the young people’s input, but not always.
  • Men may marry women of other faiths, but Muslim women may only marry a Muslim because the head of the house must always be Muslim.
  • In some countries women must be covered in public (called abaya in Saudi Arabia, chador in Iran, burka in Afghanistan). Regulations vary from country to country and are inconsistently enforced.
  • Many Islamic women defend the wearing of the veil, which tells others, “I am a respectable woman. I am not for every man to look at, touch, or speak to. I am protected” (link to a good article). We should not assume that all women everywhere want to dress and act like we do in America.
  • After the US military drove out Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003, Karen Hughes, Pres. Bush’s PR person, spoke to 500 Iraqi women about how they soon would be able to drive, vote, and fully participate in society, just like they do in America. The Iraqi women responded that they were happy as they were, and resented the implication that everyone wants to live like Americans (Tennessean 9-28-05).
  • “Nothing is more vexing to foreigners than Americans’ exalted view of their country, their belief that the world would be a better place if people everywhere thought and acted like citizens of the US” (Kohut 70).
  • In The Muslim Next Door (2008) Ali-Karamali, an American Muslim woman, argues that we must distinguish between what the Quran teaches about women, which she says are the values of respect and equality, and how women are treated in some patriarchal middle-eastern cultures. The religion of Islam does not teach or condone the abuses of women found in various countries, and we should not blame the religion for the faults of society. This would be like accusing all Christians of promoting the hanging and burning of women because of the Salem witch trials in the 17th century.  The sins of the few should not be blamed on the faith of the many.

Sunnis and Shi’ites: major sects of Islam

  • Sunnis account for 90% of Muslims around the world; Shi’ites are the majority only in Iran and Iraq.
  • The name “Shi’a” comes from Shi’at Ali (supporters of Ali). “Sunnis” are followers of the Sunna, the traditional laws.
  • Shi’ites believe that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, son-in-law, and first male convert, should have succeeded him as leader. After Muhammad’s death (632) rivals fought and killed each other for leadership. Ali became the fourth caliph (but the first legitimate one according to Shi’ites) in 656 but was murdered five years later. He is buried in Najaf, a holy site for Shi’ites.
  • Shi’ites add a phrase to the shahadah: “There is no god but Alláh, Muhammad is the Messenger of Alláh, Alí is the Friend of Alláh, the Successor of the Messenger of Alláh and his first Caliph.”
  • Shi’ite leaders were martyred, in particular Muhammad’s grandsons (Ali’s sons), Hassan and Hussein (buried in Karbala, Iraq). Shi’ites still commemorate the day of Hussein’s martyrdom with ritual lamentations, beating themselves with whips. They pray with their heads resting on clay pillows taken from earth in Karbala. The holy day of Ashoura is the commemoration of Hussein’s martyrdom at Karbala. “Shia identity and spirituality have grown up in the shadow of the Karbala narrative. Shia theologians argue that Hussein’s martyrdom was the triumph of moral principles over brute force. It was the supreme act of sacrifice … a moral and spiritual [victory].” Karbala was a historic turning point and a spiritual revelation of “a timeless expression of divine grace” foreseen by the prophets. “Shias believe that to take part in Ashoura is to be absolved of sin …. A single tear shed for Hussein washes away a hundred sins” (Nasr 49-50).
  • For Shi’ites there were 12 Imams or spiritual leaders, descendants of Ali. The line of Muhammad through Ali and Hussein became extinct in 873 when the last Imam, Al-Askari, disappeared within days of inheriting the title at the age of four. The Shi’ites refused to accept that he had died, preferring to believe that he was merely “hidden” and would return someday as the Mahdi, the one guided by God, who will bring about final judgment (some of his followers thought the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran was the Mahdi).
  • “Belief in the Mahdi’s reappearance orients Shi’ites toward the future; the Sunnis’ fixation on the Prophet turns them toward the past” (Viorst 182).
  • Some apocalyptic Islamic sects teach the appearance of the dajjal (the deceiver, their version of the antichrist) at the end of days (hadith 1.327, 4.55.553). Jesus will return, proclaim the superiority of Islam, and fight alongside the Mahdi to defeat the dajjal (Sahih Hadith 6931, 7023).
  • To prove the existence of a Jewish conspiracy for world domination, some radical Muslims use the same biblical texts as premillennialists, a practice that goes against Islamic tradition as the Bible was supposedly altered and corrupted by Jews and Christians. They interpret the symbols of Daniel and Revelation to suit their own agenda, such as reading the enemy nations of Gog and Magog as Israel, the seven-headed beast as the UN Security Council (which usually favors Israel in their opinion), and the rider of the white horse in Rev. 19 as the Mahdi (David Cook, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature 2005).
  • Shi’ites presently follow an Imam or Ayatollah (meaning “sign of God”), who is seen as divinely inspired and is the ultimate authority on the will of Muhammad (although they don’t all agree on whom the current Ayatollah is). Sunnis, for whom imam simply means prayer leader, follow the Caliph (meaning “successor”), but do not see him as the highest centralized authority; instead, the community of scholars must agree on the interpretation of the Quran. “Whereas Sunnis have always placed greatest emphasis on the Islamic message, Shias have also underscored the importance of the vehicle for that message” (Nasr 51).
  • In some countries the Shi’ite Imam has come to be imbued with Pope-like infallibility, and the Shi’ite religious hierarchy is not dissimilar in structure and religious power to that of the Catholic Church. Sunni Islam, in contrast, more closely resembles the myriad independent churches of American Protestantism.  Sunnis do not have a formal clergy, just scholars and jurists, who may offer non-binding opinions.
  • Sunnis object to visual imagery in popular devotion, whereas Shi’ites revere portraits of the martyrs in their homes and on car stickers, illustrations of the battle of Karbala, and re-enactments on holy days (Ashura). Sunnis prefer decoration consisting of calligraphic verses of the Koran.
  • Shi’ites revere the tombs of their leaders, which Sunnis consider idolatrous. The radical Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia (from which Osama bin Ladin came; see discussion below) have tried many times to destroy the tombs of the imams. In 1925 the Saudi family demolished all the tombs in Medina, under their control; Shi’ites mark the anniversary of the destruction with great sadness. The Golden Dome in Samarra that Sunnis destroyed (Feb 22, 2006) was the burial site of the 10th and 11th Shi’ite Imams, and the place where the 12th This event sparked greater civil unrest and violence in Iraq.
  • Sunnis interpret the Quran literally, as all moral directives ceased after Muhammad. Shi’ites look for hidden meanings as interpreted by the current Imam, believing in continuing revelation through their leaders.
  • Shi’ites and Sunnis worship at different times and on different holy days. The Shi’ite-led government in Iraq executed Saddam Hussein on Dec. 30, 2006, a holy day for Sunnis; the Shi’ite festival didn’t begin until the next day. Sunnis considered this a deliberate insult.
  • Within Shi’ite Islam there are different sects.  Most Shi’ites are “Twelvers”, i.e. they recognize the 12 Imams. There are also Sevener and Fiver Shi’ites who don’t recognize the later Imams.
  • Fervor and an obsessive concern for doctrinal purity characterize Shi’ites. Persecuted, condemned groups fighting for survival need an unshakeable faith in the correctness of their choice.
  • The well-known guerilla organization Hezbollah, which forced the Israelis out of southern Lebanon in 2000, is Shi’ite.
  • Muqtada al-Sadr claims to be the new Shi’ite leader in Iraq after his father’s assassination by Saddam in 1999. He lacked the credentials of his father, failing to finish his religious training as a cleric, spending more time playing video games (his nickname was Mulla Atari). (Nasr 191)
  • Sources: Ahmed 42-8; The Origins of the Sunni/Shia split in Islam (

Kurds in Iraq:

  • Kurds are a different ethnic group descended from the ancient Medes, not Arabic, Turkish, or Iranian (Farsi). They speak their own language. They are Iraqis only since the West created the state of Iraq after WWI. They make up 25% of Iraq population today, about 5 million (Anderson 155).
  • As a minority they have been constantly oppressed by the Arab majority. In 1963 100 Kurds were executed, taken from the “Kurdish successes,” i.e. the best athletes, artists, teachers (Anderson 156).
  • Since the first Gulf war in 1991, the Kurds have experienced mostly self-rule, protected by the UN. Their experiment in self-governance has prospered, giving them more hope for their own independent country, Kurdistan. This is opposed by Turkey (and thus the US), where 12 million Kurds now live. Iran has 6 million Kurds. The Kurds are the largest stateless people in the world (Anderson 159). The US promised to encourage a united Iraq, in part to bargain with Turkey over the use of their country for a northern invasion force (which they later denied). (Anderson 214) Turkey refuses to acknowledge their Kurds as a distinct ethnic group and have dealt with the problem with force (30,000 dead since 1984). It is vital to US interests that Turkey remain a stable democracy, thus we overlook their human rights abuses against the Kurds (Anderson 219).
  • 75% of Kurds are Sunnis, thus putting them more in the minority in Iraq.
  • They have a militia of about 80,000, which the US has so far allowed to remain. (Anderson 179)
  • The battle lines over territory are drawn at Kirkuk (the Kurdish “Jerusalem”) which is near a large oil reserve.
  • In 2017 Kurds voted 92% in favor of an independent state of Kurdistan, which the United States opposes (ironic since we claim to support freedom and independence).

Other Sects:

  • The Baha’i sect began with Ali Muhammad Shirazi (1819-50) of Iran, who called himself the Bab “the gate” proclaiming to be the returning Hidden Imam longed for by the Shi’ites. His successor claimed to be the messiah that the Bab had promised. Today they emphasize reforms for women and human rights, preach disarmament, and world harmony under one government (Rippin 33).
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