Not until this century did we Americans know much about Islam. Then things abruptly changed for all of us on September 11, 2001. We were told by the news media that planes crashing into our buildings—and into our lives—were piloted by Muslims.
America then had an immediate crash course in some Middle Eastern terms. We quickly understood that Islam is a faith which began in the Middle East. Those who adhere to Islam are called Muslims, and most Arabs are Islamic. We have also learned that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in America. With its 1.2 billion adherents worldwide, one out of every five persons on earth is Islamic. Now, after our abrupt introduction to the faith, we need to learn more about it.
Islam dates back about 1,400 years. It began with a man named Mohammed in what is today Saudi Arabia. Mohammed (also spelled Muhammad) was born at Mecca, Saudi Arabia, A.D. 570 or 571 and died June 8, 682. Born of a humble family, he was a keeper of camels until, at age 26, he married a wealthy widow 15 years his senior. Though she had been married several times, she and Mohammed had six children together. After she died in 620, he married about a dozen women.
Mohammed began to meditate in a cave outside Mecca where he claimed he heard a voice speaking to him saying, “Read thou, in the name of the Lord who created.” Unable to read or write, Mohammed hesitated. He claimed the voice came again, and that it belonged to the angel Gabriel.
These alleged recitations from Gabriel were repeated by Mohammed to others who wrote them down for him, since he was unlearned. The sayings became the Koran (also spelled Qur’ an), the holy book of Islam. About the size of the New Testament, the Koran (which means “something recited or read”) alleges to be the very words of Allah, the god of the Muslims. The Koran is divided into 114 chapters, each of which is called a sura.
We now know that all of the countries of the Middle East are predominantly Islamic, with the notable exception of Israel. However, the religion also reaches deep into many other countries, including Pakistan, parts of India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, parts of China and various Pacific islands — including the Philippines, Taiwan and parts of Africa.
Surprisingly, Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world geographically, now has approximately 34 million Christians. It is also amazing that in that predominately Muslim country are some of the world’s largest Christian churches. For example, the Church of God (Keith Street at 25th Street, Cleveland, Tennessee) has a church of 200,000 members in Jakarta, the capital. (Groups meet throughout the city.)
There are also millions of Muslims in the West. It is estimated that Britain has 1.3 million; Germany 3.2 million; and France, 4.2 million. The number of Muslims in America is from 2 to 6 million.
The basic duties of Muslims toward Allah are known as the Five Pillars of Islam. They are the external signs of one’s desire to fulfill the will of Allah.
First Pillar — Repetition of a short creed: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.”
Second Pillar — Daily ritual of prayer. Muslims pray five times a day — at dawn, midday, midafternoon, sunset, and after nightfall. Wherever they are in the world, they always pray facing the Great Mosque, located at Mecca, Saudi Arabia — the most sacred structure in Islam.
Third Pillar — Almsgiving. Believers are expected to contribute a fixed percentage of their property for the poor and the wayfarer. This pillar is not widely enforced.
Fourth Pillar — A fast during the month of Ramadan. The fast begins with dawn and ends with sunset each day of Ramadan. Since the lunar calendar followed by Muslims is shorter than our solar calendar, the month of Ramadan occurs 11 days earlier every year, and hence moves through the four seasons.
Fifth Pillar — A pilgrimage to Mecca. All able-bodied Muslims are expected to make the pilgrimage at some time in their lives. Ceremonies at Mecca, Saudi Arabia include wearing special dress, walking seven times around the holy shrine, kissing a black stone, and sacrificing an animal.
What an empty search by a soul eager to experience God’s presence! We had much rather obey the Scripture that says, “Approach the throne of grace [not Mecca] with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).