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Great Religions
October 28, 1997

Islam, Muslims, and American Pluralism

by Nader Entessar, Ph.D.


What is Islam? Who are the Muslim today? What are the major tenets of Islam and how do they differ from the other two Abrahamic religions, namely Christianity and Judaism? What is Islam's place in the kaleidoscope of American religious pluralism? These are some of the questions we need to answer in order to get a greater understanding of one of the world's major religions of today.

Although there has emerged generally a greater appreciation and knowledge of Islam in the West in recent years, primarily due to the increasingly interdependent world in which we live today, Islam still suffers from misunderstanding. The stereotypical image of Islam as "hostile" and "strange" has historical roots, as well as contemporary causes. European attacks on Islam date back to the time of the Crusades.

Christian Europe's hostility towards Islam was not necessarily the result of theological differences between the two religions. After all, Islam and Christianity share a number of common beliefs. Islam's negative image in Europe was due primarily to its presumed threat to European hegemony. Let us not forget that Arab armies had carried the faith to a vast tract of Europe, including parts of Spain, Eastern Europe, and Sicily. The forces of the Ottoman Empire also expanded into Europe to the gates of Vienna and almost conquered a major part of Europe on two different occasions. Furthermore, two centuries of conflict between the Christendom and Islam during the Crusades of the 11th through 13th centuries further increased European insecurity and reinforced the negative image of Islam as the religion of the "other -- the enemy." During the 19th and 20th centuries when much of the Muslim world fell under the control of European colonial occupation, Muslim suspicions of the West increased dramatically. Islamic movements against colonialism as a sociopolitical and cultural phenomena have their genesis in this period of European encounter with the Islamic world.

Although crude anti-Muslim sentiments of the past twelve centuries have dissipated to a large extent, ant-Muslim ignorance still abounds in our public life. The following example illustrates the point. Earlier this year, a discussion about the advisability of posting the Ten Commandments took place at a meeting of the South Carolina Board of Education. Apparently, Dr. Henry Jordan, a Board member, became irate at the suggestion that such a display may not only be unconstitutional but might place non-Christian students in an awkward position. Dr. Jordan then launched into a tirade against adherents of other religions and said "Screw the Buddhists and kill the Muslims." He further referred to Islam as a "cult" whose adherents worship "Lucifer." When Muslim parents objected to these hateful comments made by a person who is responsible for overseeing the education of children in their state, Dr. Jordan responded by renewing his attack on Islam. In a letter dated September 2, 1997 to a concerned South Carolina Muslim, Jordan stated "If you are not smart enough to read through the news, . . . it is no wonder that you think salvation can be obtained by good works and having faith in Allah." Jordan also stated that he would encourage the concerned Muslim to "ask the God of the Bible, Jehovah, not Allah, and God, the Son, Jesus, to remove the veil from your eyes and heart and reveal the truth to you before it is too late." These unconscionable statements made by an "educated" person at the dawn of the 20th century in multicultural and multireligious America reflect not only the individual's bigotry but also ignorance about the fundamentals of Islam. Allah is simply the Arabic name of the God of the Bible and Torah.

Dr. Henry Jordan's conduct, albeit repulsive, is unfortunately a symptom of a deeper malaise that is reflected in the numerous acts of discrimination and harassment towards religiously-observant Muslims that are seen today.

Notwithstanding persistent negative stereotypes of Islam, there have been a number of attempts, at both the popular and scholarly levels, to generate a better understanding of Islam in the United States. Several mainstream churches in the country have established coordinated activities with their Muslim counterparts. Numerous American universities now offer regular courses on Islam, and several of them offer degrees, including graduate-level degrees, in Islamic Studies. Georgetown University in Washington, DC, a prestigious Jesuit institution of higher education, recently inaugurated its Center for Muslim- Christian Understanding to promote both scholarship on Islam and dialogue of the highest order among the adherents of the these two great world religions. Under the leadership of its dynamic director, Professor John Esposito, this center has already made major achievements in fulfilling its goal. After all, Muslims in America today are estimated to number between 8 to 10 million and constitute a major component of America's religious tapestry. There are over I billion Muslims worldwide, and Islam is the fastest growing religion in many parts of the world, including the United States. Catholics and Southern Baptists have the most adherents in the United States, but Muslims are more numerous than Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Evangelical Lutherans, and members of other "mainline" and evangelical Protestant churches. Despite this, Islam remains one of the least understood religions in America.

Origins and Development of Islam

The word "Islam" means submission to the will of God -- the same God as the Christians and Jews believe in. Islam's prophet, Muhammad, was born in the 6th century A.D. (around the year 570) into the Banu Hashim family of the Quraysh tribe -- a major part of the upper class in the Arabian city of Mecca. Muhammad's father, Abdullah, died before his son was born, and Muhammad's mother died when he was six. Subsequently, he was cared for by his grandfather and poor uncle, Abu Talib. In his youth, Muhammad worked as a caravan trader and developed such a reputation for honesty and efficiency that he was referred to as al-Amin (the trusted one). It was through his trade that Muhammad met and subsequently married Khadijah, a wealthy widow from a prominent merchant family. The city of Mecca during Muhammad's time was a major commercial hub in the East as well as the center of polytheistic animism and paganism. Muhammad, unlike other Meccans, became critical of paganism and the culture of commercialism in the city. The low moral fiber of Meccan society resulted in Muhammad's occasional retreat to isolated places to think and contemplate. The Cave of Hira in northern Mecca provided Muhammad with an ideal place of solitude where he spent days and weeks in prayer and reflection. He became preoccupied with thoughts of his Creator, the one and only Supreme Being. He also contemplated the earthly problems bedeviling Mecca -- such as the ill-gotten wealth of many Meccan families, the ill-treatment and denigration of women, and the plight of the poor and the oppressed in the city.

Around 61 0 A.D. when Muhammad was about forty years old, he received his first revelation while in a deep contemplative mood at the Cave of Hira. There, the archangel Gabriel commanded him to repeat a message sent from God. While he was totally passive, Muhammad repeated the message that said that man is God's creation and, therefore, subservient to Him. Visibly shaken, Muhammad revealed this experience to his wife who told him that because he was a good and pious man, he must have experienced a divine revelation of the highest order. This was the beginning of Islam.

This first revelation was followed by others over the course of twenty years. Muhammad, who was illiterate, memorized the messages and repeated them to his wife and his close companions who transcribed the revelations, which became the basis of the Qur'an, Muslim's Holy Book.

It is important to remember that Islam did not develop in a vacuum isolated from other religions. In fact, Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, views itself as a full member of the family of traditions commonly referred to in the West as "Judeo-Christian". According to Muslim tradition, God chose Abraham to be his messenger and the father of monotheism. Through his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, God created the Israelites and Arab nations, respectively. Muslims further believe that just as God chose Moses to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai and Jesus to preach the Gospels, so did He choose Muhammad to be His messenger by communicating His final revelation to Muhammad in Arabic. Therefore, Muslims are believers in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. This is very significant because Islam is the only Abrahamic religion that accepts the fundamental truths of the other two religions and accords a special place to Judaism and Christianity in its theological doctrine.

Notwithstanding Islam's emphasis on the interdependence and continuity of the three Abrahamic faiths, the Qur'an is not a wholesale repetition of the Old and New Testaments. To be sure, the Islamic belief system on such concepts as heaven and hell, death and judgment are similar to those of Judaism and Christianity as are the stories of Gabriel, Michael and other angels. It is on the role of Muhammad and other prophets, however, where Islam diverges significantly from the other two religions. For Muslims, the Qur'an contains God's actual words. Muhammad is neither the author nor the interpreter of God's words. He is simply a human go-between chosen by God to transmit His words verbatim to other human beings. Unlike Christianity that acknowledges significant human contributions to the creation of the Scriptures (e.g. the Gospel according to St. Paul or the Gospel according to St. Peter), Islam teaches that humans, including the Apostles, are fallible and because of this, Muslims believe that God's revelations to Moses and Jesus' words have been distorted over time by humans.

Muhammad's prophetic life lasted only twenty-three years. During this period, major parts of the Arabian peninsula, such as the cities of Mecca and Medina, embraced Islam and discarded their idolatrous ways of life. By the time of his death, Muhammad had also become the political leader of the nascent Islamic community in Arabia. The expansion of Islam to other geographic regions took place under Muhammad's successors. However, choosing a successor to Muhammad's political and religious mantle proved to be troublesome. Following the Prophet Muhammad's death, the majority of his followers chose Abu Bakr, reputedly the first person to have accepted Islam outside Muhammad's family, to be the Prophet's successor. Abu Bakr's selection, however, was challenged by another segment of the Muslim community. Those members insisted that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, was the Prophet's choice, and hence, should be viewed as the legitimate successor to Muhammad to guide the emerging Muslim community. This conflict created a schism within Islam resulting in the division of the community into two groups. The majority are called the Sunnis -- those who accepted Abu Bakr's leadership and his successors. The minority who rejected Abu Bakr's leadership in favor of Ali's stewardship of the Muslim community, were called the partisans of Ali, or the Shi'as. These two groups represent the two main branches of Islam, although there are subdivisions within each of them. Despite the doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shi'a Islam, all Muslims adhere to the major principles and pillars of the faith.

The Five Pillars of Islam

The five pillars of Islam constitute the foundation of the faith and provide the framework for man's relationship with God. These pillars are:

1. Shahada, or the profession of faith. This is the total commitment to absolute monotheism (belief in only one true God) and the acceptance of Muhammad as God's messenger. To be a Muslim, one must declare one's acceptance of this principle by declaring "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His messenger."

2. Salat, or prayer. Prayers are performed five times per day at specified periods: daybreak, noon, mid afternoon, sunset, and evening. Every prayer begins with the words Allahu Akbar (God is great) but they vary in length depending on the time of day that the prayer is performed. Prayers can be performed anywhere, but some Muslims prefer to perform their daily prayers in the local mosque. Friday is the Muslim sabbath and Muslims are encouraged to go to a mosque to attend the Friday noon prayers.

3. Zakat, or almsgiving. This pillar of the faith is intended to develop further links between one's religious commitments and one's social concerns. Like tithing in Christianity, Muslims are required to give a percentage of their wealth and yearly income for the care of the poor, the needy, and orphans. Depending on the commodity taxed, this amount can reach up to I0 percent of one's wealth and income. Like Christianity, the extent of compliance today rests with one's piety.

4. Fasting during the month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, all adult Muslims (except those who are sick, pregnant, elderly or traveling) are obligated to fast from dawn to sunset. They must abstain completely from solid foods and liquids. Ramadan is a significant month for Muslims because it was during this month that the Qur'an was first revealed to Muhammad. The purpose of fasting is to make one aware of one's physical dependency and one's need for God. At the conclusion of the month of Ramadan, the Festival of Breaking the Fast (Id al-Fitr) is celebrated. This is one of the most important Muslim holidays.

5. Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. The hajj takes place during the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar. Every Muslim is required to undertake the haj'j once in a lifetime provided that it is physically and financially possible to do so. Although Muslims may visit the holy places in Saudi Arabia at any time, the hajj must be performed during the first ten days of the month Dhu'l Hijja, with the eighth, ninth, and tenth days of the month being the most critical for the performance of the obligatory pilgrimage. Upwards of 2 million people participate at the hajj ceremonies every year. The faithful come from all countries and from all social, economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. Once the hajj rituals begin, all male participants must wear only a simple garment consisting of two large pieces of white fabric that covers their bodies. Women can wear their regular clothing, but must keep their heads covered. The ceremonies and rituals involved in the hajj signify important Qur'anic events.

Sources of the Islamic Doctrine

Islamic doctrine has four major sources: the Qur'an, the Hadith- Sunnah, consensus, and analogy.

1. The Qur'an, meaning "recitation", is the primary source of Islamic doctrine. As was mentioned earlier, the Qur'an is considered to be the eternal and immutable word of God. Since the Qur'an was revealed in Arabic, Muslims are not allowed to translate it into any other language for liturgical purposes lest they change the true meaning of God's words. The Qur'an consists of 114 chapters of varying length which were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel over a period of twenty years. These revelations were memorized by Muhammad and written by his companions on various objects, such as leather, palm leaves, stone tablets, and the like. They were pieced together after Muhammad's death. The first canonized version of the Qur'an was put together in the 7th century under the third caliph, Uthman. The Qur'an remains a masterpiece of Arabic writing.

2. The Hadith-Sunnah refers to Muhammad's sayings (Hadith) and actions (Sunnah). Despite the Qur'an's comprehensive nature, it does not contain specific answers to a number of issues confronting the Muslim community. Consequently, Muslim scholars and jurists began to codify the Hadith- Sunnah, especially in the 8th and 9th centuries. The records available were primarily in the form of reports and oral testimonies that were handed down from one generation to the next. It was the job of Muslim jurists to cross-check these records for distortions and contradictions. Finally, six collections were put together that constitute the bulk of the Hadith-Sunnah for most Muslims. Different branches of Islam and legal schools have added their own volumes of the Hadith-Sunnah for their followers.

3. Consensus or ijma constitute the third source of Islamic doctrine. Its primary purpose is to allow leading Muslim scholars to interpret Islamic doctrine when neither the Qur'an nor the Hadith-Sunnnah has a clear answer. In most cases, at least three scholars are required to reach consensus on a particular issue.

4. Analogical reasoning or qiyas is the fourth sources of Islamic doctrine. This practice is similar to the use of precedents in the Anglo-Saxon legal system but in a more narrow and restricted sense. For many years, analogical reasoning has been used by Muslim jurists to regulate all aspects of human endeavor. In this sense, conservative Muslim jurists have relied on qiyas to restrict innovation in Muslim legal thinking. Today, strict legal reasoning based on qiyas is challenged by modernist Muslim scholars who wish to go beyond the narrow confines of legal reasoning to provide answers to social, political, and economic issues that require more flexible and innovative solutions.


A cursory look at Islam's principles and doctrines show both similarities and differences between this faith and the other two Abrahamic religions. Since both Christianity and Islam have been global religions with messianic missions, the adherents of these two religions have, at times, exhibited uneasy attitudes towards each other. Unlike what Samuel Huntington of Harvard has promoted in his controversial new thesis, great civilizations of the world are not destined to clash with each other in a cataclysmic contest for supremacy. Civilizations have always intermingled with each other and have influenced each other throughout history. What on the surface may seem as incompatible and hostile traditions may indeed have more in common with each other than one may want to acknowledge. It is the commonality of great religious civilizations that, in the final analysis, make possible the construction of a more humane world order. At the dawn of the millennium, we must learn to respect each other's traditions so that we can live with one another in peace.

Dr. Nader Entessar is Professor of Political Science at Spring Hill College.

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