Encountering Islam

Sheep dotted the pastures of the Welsh countryside quickly moving outside my window as our train sped down the tracks. With a measure of resolve, I pried my eyes away from the beautiful landscape and returned to my reading. A Holy Book lay open before me in my lap. (To be accurate it was a translation of the Holy Book I returned to reading because the book was written in English, not in Arabic.) I had only read a few pages, but I had quickly realized the Qur’an, the Holy Book of Islam, was vastly different than the Christian Bible, even though I encountered familiar people in the writings, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael.

It was difficult, at the start, for me to enter into the first person point of view and stream-of-consciousness writing style of the surahs (chapters). However, I continued to read through the series of unexplained narratives over the course of the next few weeks in my quest to read the Qur’an cover to cover. As a student in the Oxford Study Centre’s worldviews course, the Qur’an was required reading. In addition to the Qur’an, we were also expected to spend a certain number of hours reading the ahadith, (a type of Islamic report describing the life of Mohammed) and we had the opportunity to meet with a Muslim Imam (religious teacher) for a lecture and Q and A session. This personal experience of reading Islamic literature and meeting the Imam in turn shaped and informed our discussions of Islam in our weekly lectures.

As Islam has continued to grow both worldwide and in the USA, what I learned about the religion during that time has become indispensable knowledge aiding me in understanding current events. I have also developed a richer understanding of the differences between Christianity and Islam, and why I believe Christianity is true and Islam is not. Another part of the worldviews course involved a paper written on Islam. For my topic, I choose to look into the person of Mohammed and to evaluate his authenticity. Perhaps you have heard of the idea that Jesus Christ could be the Lord, a Liar, or a Lunatic. In order to maintain an open perspective on Islam, I looked at similar categories for Mohammed, specifically: Prophet, Liar, Lunatic, or Legend.

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In the years that have since passed, I have learned more about Islam and Mohammed. However, having the introductory, background knowledge has enabled me to thoughtfully engage in discussions and motivated me toward continued learning about the religion. In a way, the worldviews course opened a door for me to have an understanding of where a Muslim could be coming from, and it taught me to intelligently listen and converse with others. As I gained more knowledge about Islam, I found that I came to respect certain aspects about the religion.

In Sunni Islam, there is a concept of the five pillars of Islam: faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Shia Islam has a similar structure with a few different categories. As I learned about the five pillars of Islam, I was inspired by the self-discipline and dedication a Muslim has for their religion. The first pillar, faith, is embodied in the idea that there is one God, and that Mohammed is his Prophet. This declaration profoundly shapes Islamic life and everything is built on the foundation of the one God and Mohammed, his Prophet. The second pillar, prayer, consists of the five daily prayer times Muslims are to practice. These prayers times sometimes gain media attention when streets and businesses are closed in order for the Muslims to partake in prayer.

Growing up, I had been taught to pray before meals and before bed. As I grew older, I developed the practice of praying when I woke up. However, I had never engaged in a strict schedule of formal prayer time like the Muslims. I wondered what it would look like for me to make prayer a priority in my life as the Muslims had in their lives. The third pillar, charity, referenced the type and amount of giving that is required by a Muslim to give to other Muslims in less fortunate circumstances.

The fourth pillar, fasting, refers to the obligatory fast during the month of Ramadan. I knew that the Bible talked about fasting, and that Jesus expected his followers to fast, but I personally had never fasted. Many of the Christians I knew at the time had only fasted a couple of times and for only one day. Realizing that there was a communal fasting for a month in Islam gave me an appreciation for Muslims’ dedication to their faith, year after year. The fifth pillar, pilgrimage to Mecca, is just that: the requirement for every able-bodied Muslim to pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their life as a devotion to God.

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While I found much about the five pillars to be admirable, there were also parts that left me confused and almost sad in a way. As I mentioned before, the pillar of faith, one God and his prophet Mohammed, is the foundational belief of Islam. However, the affirmation of one God also serves to guard against religions such as Christianity. In Christianity, there is an understanding of the one God being comprised of three persons, or God as Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Islam understands the Christian God to be polytheistic, consisting of three separate entities: God, Jesus, his son, and Mary, his partner. The affirmation then that God is one strictly prohibits the idea of the trinity.

In regards to the pillar of prayer, when Muslims pray, it is typically a formal prayer. Unlike Christianity, there isn’t a relationship between God and humans, and without a relationship the idea of extemporaneous prayer doesn’t make much sense. Instead, Muslims have ritual prayer, always in Arabic, which they see as expressing their devotion to God. In a way, discovering this made me sad because I benefit greatly from taking my pain, problems, joys, gratitude, requests, and everything else to the Lord in prayer. However, a Muslim perhaps may not feel that they are missing anything in their ritual prayers.

In addition to the five pillars, we also spent time learning about jihad. Before briefly touching on jihad, it may be helpful to look at meaning of some Arabic words. Islam comes from the root word ‘al-Silm,’ which means submission or surrender. The Muslim then is one who lives in submission to God. Within Islam there is an understanding of there being Dar al-Islam, the house of Islam, and Dar al-harb, house of the world. Jihad means ‘struggle,’ and expresses the idea of an inner struggle working towards self-mastery and an outer struggle against those who are not in submission to God. To be in the House of Islam is to be a Muslim- to be in submission to God, while to be in the House of the World is to not be a Muslim and to not be in submission to God.

While jihad can have non-violent expressions, and often does, we are also familiar with it as terrorist attacks- a Muslim’s retribution for God against those who do not believe in him. One way Islam grew, in its beginnings, was through various conquests. It was the Prophet Mohammed who led some of these conquests and who portrayed an example of violence. While Christianity has had conquests of its own, the stark difference of the two religions is found in their founders. Jesus did not advocate violence, nor did he partake in any violence. Instead he suggested

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if we are smacked on one cheek, we offer our other cheek to be smacked. When one of Jesus’ disciples lopped of the ear of someone arresting him, Jesus healed the man and reprimanded his follower. It has been helpful for me to have this understanding when discussing Christianity’s past history and Islam in current news.

Were I to try to summarize everything I learned in the worldviews course, I would be writing for far to long a time and you would be very bored! However, these are the key takeaways I had from my time in the Oxford Study Centre and a brief look at how they have continued to shape my understanding of Islam. Just as there is a broad spectrum of Christians, there is also a broad spectrum of Muslims. While I have learned that this is some of what Islam teaches, I try to keep in mind that these Islamic beliefs may be lived out differently by different Muslims and it helpful to see how the personal beliefs of Muslims I talk to align with my understanding of Islam.

Share with me: Have you studied Islam? What stands out to you the most about the Islamic faith? Seriously, call me up, write me a note, send me a message or comment somewhere. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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This is part five in a series chronicling my time in Oxford and learning through the Oxford Study Centre. To see part four click here. The final post in the series will be posted next week.

For more information about the program I studied with, the Oxford Study Centre, please visit their website and take some time to look around the wealth of information on Kevin Bywater’s personal website.