The essay below is written by Freda Shamma, a member of the Clifton Mosque, whom I met in the most recent series of Interfaith Dialogues. As Freda describes it, she was raised as a typical American WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant). She was educated, ultimately attaining a PhD in education, and spent her career as an educator. She converted to Islam almost 50 years ago. She says, “My values haven’t changed but my understanding of religion has, and I love the real diversity in the Muslim community.”
She brought copies of this essay to the dialogues, and I found it helpful in understanding the point of view of a devout Muslim. Having been raised Christian, she knows how to explain her faith to Christians. In the wake of all the banter going around about the nature of Islam, I am pleased to post the words of an actual Muslim.
What are the sources of guidance for Muslims?
By Freda Shamma
It may be helpful to understand the Qur’an by comparing it to the Bible. Much of the Bible is a chronological history of the Jewish people written at various times and by a variety of people. The New Testament is basically a biography of Jesus, in the four gospels, and then a collection of letters and writings by later Christians, attempting to explain their faith. The Qur’an is none of these.
The Qur’an is, first and most important of all, the words of God, and only His words. It is the collection of revelations that God sent to the prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessing be upon him, via the angel Gabriel. Angels were created to serve God but have no free will so are incapable of doing anything other than what God says.
The first surah, or chapter is a prayer which God wants people to use, and is given later in this article.
The next chapter begins with “This is the Book: in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear God.” (The word translated as ‘fear’ does not mean ‘afraid’ but more ‘in awe of’ or those who hate to displease God).
The Qur’an was revealed in stages over a 23 year period (610-632). The majority of the revelations sent to Prophet Muhammad when he was first teaching in Mecca are generally short chapters found in the last part of the Qur’an. At this time the Muslims were few in number and new to the religion. God’s guidance was mainly in the area of belief, the contrast between those who believe and those who do not, and their respective destinies in the hereafter. God describes the believers as those who believe in Him and choose right from wrong, and do good to others, including sharing their wealth. Other revelations give descriptions of heaven and hell, and the Day of Judgment. The mercy and forgiveness of God as well as other of His attributes is also included.
The longer chapters (surahs) were revealed to Prophet Muhammad after the Muslim community was established in the city of Madinah. Much of the revelation in these chapters gives practical details of life between people, i.e. the nature of male and female, the relationship in marriage, dealing with parents, children, neighbors, orphans, non-Muslims, dealing with honesty and justice, even against one’s own family. It also deals with economics, governing, and life in general.
Even the worst enemies of the Muslims among the early Arabs, who were noted for their beautiful language and love of poetry, acknowledged that the Qur’an was the most beautifully written book they could imagine. Any translation is going to fall short of the original. The Qur’an is always in Arabic, the language it was revealed in. For those who cannot understand Arabic, an approximate translation is also included. It is impossible to make an exact translation of something which God has said, since His revelation is on many levels at the same time.
There are two aspects of the Qur’an which often cause a problem for non-Muslims trying to read it. The first is that it is not chronological. The story of Adam and Eve is mentioned quite a number of times throughout the Qur’an, for example. Each time, God asks us to consider a different aspect of the event, in order to be guided in a certain way.
The second problem for many is the repetition. I don’t know the figure, but I jokingly say to my Muslim friends whenever patience is hard to come by, ‘It’s no wonder the Qur’an mentions patience so many times!’ It is a fact that most of what is second nature to us, has come about by repetition. How many of you wash your hands after digging in the dirt? How many times did your mother have to repeat “go wash your hands” until finally it became part of you, and you don’t even think about it? When you are in a stressful situation, what pops into your mind to help you – perhaps the 23rd psalm? Didn’t you have to repeat it many times before it became a part of you? And so God repeats His guidance in many ways, sometimes with a story, sometimes as a simile, sometimes a direct command, sometimes with reference to some historical event or some scientific truth. Look at the way Allah made the bees and their way of getting food and their social organization, and then look at mankind and consider that God will not let us suffer or fail, without giving us the right guidance to be able to change our situation. As the Qur’an says in Surah 14:1: The Qur’an is “a book which We have revealed unto thee in order that thou might lead mankind out of the depths of darkness into light – by the leave of thy Lord – to the way of Him the exalted in power, worthy of all praise.” In this verse God is addressing Prophet Muhammad directly, but reminding us that Muhammad is only able to lead mankind because God has given him the ability to do so.
Muslims depend on two sources of guidance. Foremost is the Qur’an which is the direct words of God, delivered by angel to Prophet Muhammad. As the verses of the Qur’an were revealed to the Prophet, he had them written down. There are still pieces of the original, which were written on leather, existing in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. The copies of the Qur’an today are letter by letter exactly the same as the first Qur’an.
The second source of guidance is the example of the Prophet Muhammad, a man who was guided by God to live a godly life. We look to him because God in the Qur’an tells us to follow his example. Sunnah (what he did) and hadith (what he said) show us what Muhammed did, and what he said in the twenty three years of his prophethood. These were also written down during the life of the Prophet, and have been exhaustively researched and verified to make sure no falsehoods or mistakes are in the authenticated sunnah and hadiths.
There is no pope, or priest, or minister to come between a Muslim and God. Everyone is supposed to study these sources of guidance for him/her self. When there are disagreements, or something unusual comes up that requires a thorough knowledge of the scriptures, then Islamic scholars are consulted. During the required Friday noon prayer, any knowledgeable Muslim can give the sermon. Where an Islamic scholar is available, he is usually asked to deliver it.
This is the opening chapter or the Qur’an. It is the prayer that Muslims say at least 17 times every day in the five required prayers. Notice the similarities to the Lord’s Prayer.
Surah 1: Al Fatiha (The Opening) The Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6: 9-13
In the name of Allah, Our father, who art in heaven,
the Lord of Mercy,
the Giver of Mercy
Praise belongs to God, Hallowed be thy name.
Lord of the Worlds, Thy kingdom come,
The Lord of Mercy,
the Giver of Mercy,
Master of the Day of Judgement. Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
It is You we worship; Give us this day our daily bread, and
it is You we ask for help. forgive us our trespasses as we
. forgive those who trespass
. against us.
Guide us to the straight way Lead us not into temptation
The way of those on whom
Thou has bestowed thy Grace,
Not of those who have gained wrath but deliver us from evil.
nor of those who have gone astray.
Some topics discussed in the Qur’an
Nature of Mankind Surah 20:120-124
120: But Satan whispered evil: “Adam! shall I lead thee to the Tree of Eternity and to a kingdom that never decays?”
121: In the result they both (Adam and Eve) ate of the tree and so their nakedness appeared to them. They began to sew for their covering, leaves from the Garden: thus did Adam disobey His Lord and allow himself to be seduced.
122: But the Lord chose him (for His Grace): He turned to him and gave him guidance.
123: He said: “Get ye down all together from the Garden with enmity one to another (Adam and Eve vs. Satan); but if as is sure there comes to you guidance from Me, whosoever follows My guidance will not lose his way nor fall into misery.
124 “But whosoever turns away from My Message, verily for him is a life narrowed down and we shall raise him up blind on the Day of Resurrection.”
49:13 O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other.) Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you.
2:277 Those who believe and do deeds of righteousness and establish regular prayers and regular charity will have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve.
No compulsion in Religion
2:256 Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error; whoever rejects evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks, And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.
2:282. O ye who believe! When ye deal with each other in transactions involving future obligations in a fixed period of time reduce them to writing…
Fostering, not adoption
33:5 Call them by the names of their fathers; that is more just, in the sight of Allah, but if ye know not their father’s names, call them your brothers in faith. (One of the rights that Islam gives to the child is the right to know who his parents are.)
4:1 O mankind! Reverence your Guardian-Lord Who created you from a single person, created of like nature his mate…
9:71 The believers, men and women, are protectors one of another; they enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil; they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey God and His apostle.
4.135 O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves or your parents or your kin and whether it be rich or poor; for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts of your hearts lest ye swerve, and if ye distort justice, or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.
22:39 To those against whom war is made, permission is given to fight because they are wronged, and verily God is Most powerful for their aid.
42:40 The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree), but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from Allah; for Allah loveth not those who do wrong.
25:63 The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk on the earth with humility, and when the ignorant address them say (words of) peace.
God is unknowable in His entirety, but He gives us 99 attributes (or names) in the Qur’an, including:
The Most Merciful, The Most Beneficent, The Creator, The Most Loving, The Most Just, The Most Powerful, The Everlasting Sustainer of All, The Greatest, The One above all, The Most Wise, The All-knowing.