by John L. Esposito This essay first appeared in Handbook for Interreligious Dialogue, edited by John Borelli, and
prepared by the members of the Faiths in the World Committee, National
Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers (NADEO), Morristown, NJ:
Silver Burdett & Ginn, 1988.
NADEO has given permission for this
edited version to appear here. John Esposito, [Ph.D., Temple
University] is Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian
Understanding, Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown
University, and Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern
Islamic World.Islam is the second largest of the religious
traditions in the world. It has over one billion adherents. While the
Islamic world includes Muslim countries stretching from North Africa to
Southeast Asia, significant numbers of Muslims may be found throughout
the entire world.
Historically, Islam is often viewed as a
religious tradition which originated in seventh century Arabia with the
prophet Muhammad (570-632) and the divine revelation which he received
from God that is recorded in the Quran. However, it is most important to
realize that Muslims do not view Islam as a new religion. Muslims
believe that Allah (which literally means "The God" in Arabic) is the
same God who revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Therefore,
Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all followers of the same living
God—cousins in a common family with a common ancestor, Abraham. Muslims
believe that the Quran is the final and complete revelation of God to
The central fact of the Muslim religious experience
is Allah. The God of the Quran is one and transcendent, creator and
sustainer of the universe, and the overwhelming concern of the believer.
The word "Islam" means "submission;" a Muslim is one who submits to
God, one who is a servant of God. This is not a mere passivity; rather,
it is submission to the Divine Will, a duty to realize actively God's
will in history. Thus, the Quran teaches that God has given the earth to
man as a "divine trust" and that it is a person's duty and mission, as
God's agent, to strive to realize God's will.
divinely mandated vocation is communal as well as individual. The
Islamic community or state (ummah) is the dynamic vehicle for the
realization of God's will and, as such, should serve as an example to
the rest of the world since all humanity is called to worship and serve
the one God. Today, there are two major groups in the Muslim community
which resulted from an early dispute over succession to Muhammad's
leadership, the Sunni who constitute 85% of Muslims, and the Shii who
are found in many parts of the world.
Muslims look first to the
Quran which contains God's commands and second to the example (sunna) of
the prophet Muhammad who serves as the embodiment of Islamic values, as
a living model for the community. Traditions or reports (Hadith) of the
prophet's words and deeds were preserved and written down by the early
Muslim community. On the basis of these two sources, the Islamic way of
life was developed and expressed comprehensively in the Shariah—Islamic
Law. Shariah literally means "the path," the road or way that all
Muslims are to follow. Muslim law reflects the fact that Islam is a
total way of life in which there is an organic relationship between
religion, politics, and society.
Islam emphasizes practice over
belief. As a result, law, not theology, has always been the most
important area of concern to Muslims, for it provides the "straight
path" (Shariah) which the Muslim must follow to realize God's Will. At
the heart of the law are five fundamental obligations or duties which
constitute the five pillars of Islam: 1) the confession of faith, 2)
worship, 3) almsgiving, 4) fasting, and 5) the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Muslim is one who confesses that there is no God but God and that
Muhammad is the messenger of God. Islam affirms a radical monotheism in
which the doctrine of the oneness of God is dominant. God is the
creator, ruler, and judge of the world. He is merciful and
compassionate, but He is also a just judge. On the last day, He will
judge each person according to his/her actions, all of which are
contained in the Book of Deeds.
The second part of the confession
of faith is the affirmation of Muhammad as the messenger of God, the
last and final prophet, who serves as a model for the Muslim community.
Though he is the ideal Muslim as Husband, father, leader, and judge, he
was human, not divine.
Muslims are called to prayer five times
each day (dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening) by the muezzin
who stands atop the tower (minaret) of the mosque. This prayer is
preceded by ablution, a cleansing of the body which purifies and thus
prepares the Muslim for entering the presence of God. Facing the holy
city of Mecca, Muslims worship by standing, kneeling, and prostrating
while reciting verses from the Quran. On Friday, the noon prayer should
be said preferably at a mosque with a congregation. At other times, any
place where a Muslim prays is acceptable; a mosque is not a consecrated
building but rather a place of gathering. Since there are no priesthood
and no sacraments in Islam, any Muslim may lead the prayer and may
officiate at weddings, burials, etc. Though there is no clergy, a
clerical class did develop consisting of religious scholars (ulama) and
local religious leaders (mullahs).
Almsgiving or the sharing of
wealth institutionalizes a sense of social responsibility by
establishing a fixed proportionate (2%) wealth tax. It requires the more
fortunate members of the Islamic community to share their wealth with
the less fortunate.
Once every year, Islam prescribes a rigorous
fast throughout the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic
calendar. During this period, abstention from food, drink, and sex (from
sunrise to sunset) is required of all healthy adult Muslims. The
emphasis is not on self-mortification and abstinence, as such, but
rather on self-discipline and reflection. The end of Ramadan is marked
by a feast of the breaking of the fast (Id al-Fitr).
Muslim physically and financially able is expected to perform the duty
of the pilgrimage (Hajj) at least once in his/her lifetime. Just as five
times each day Muslims throughout the world are united as they face
Mecca in worship, so each year many travel physically to Mecca, sacred
city of Islam, where they have traveled spiritually. The equality of the
pilgrimage is symbolized by exchanging one's ordinary clothing for the
ihram, a white, seamless garment.
Islam, then, provides its
followers with an integrated, holistic way of life which was revealed by
the God of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and Jesus to Muhammad one final time
and which was subsequently recorded in the Quran. As believers in the
same God and as children of Abraham, Jews, Christians, and Muslims share
more than a common geographic origin in the Middle East. Their
challenge today is to understand better this common religious heritage
and to draw closer not only as individuals but as communities of
believers who face many similar problems in the modern world and who
possess a unifying goal—world peace and justice.
Suggestions for Dialogue
dialogue should begin with the affirmation that Muslims and Catholics
share a common heritage. They share a faith in the one God, the mission
of the prophets, and divine revelation, and they emphasize social, as
well as personal, ethics.
First, Catholics should remember two
points in any dialogue. Many Muslims believe that most Americans are
ignorant of Islam and that many, consciously or unconsciously, come to
Islam with a knowledge based on negative images and prejudices.
reacting to what they perceive as western colonial political and
cultural dominance and wishing to reassert their own Islamic heritage,
many Muslims today are less inclined to "theological" dialogue;
furthermore, they view Islam as the final, complete, and perfect
revelation of God. They are more responsive to occasions in which Islam
may be understood better or to cooperative programs on social issues,
such as, the family, racial or religious prejudice, and poverty. Other
possible topics for discussion are: the threat of atheism, secularism,
and unrestrained materialism to our common religious heritage and
values, especially family values.
John L. Islam: The Straight Path. 3rd edition. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1997. A general introduction to Islam which covers the
history of Islamic belief and practice with special emphasis on modern
Suggestions for Further Reading
Asad, Muhammad. The
Message of the Quran. Gibralter: Dar al-Andalus, 1980. (An English
translation of the Quran that is helpful and readable.)
John L. The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality. 3rd edition. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1987. A study of contemporary Islam, and
political and religious movements.
Haddad, Yvonne and Wadi Z. Haddad. Christian-Muslim Encounters. Gainesville: University
Press of Florida, 1995. A survey of Christian-Muslim relations.
Yvonne Y. and Adair T. Lummins. Islamic Values in the U.S. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1987. A study of several American Muslim
communities and general observations.
Irving, T. B. The Quran. Brattleboro, VT: Amana, 1985. (A useful translation in contemporary English.)
Fazlur. Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. (The best and
most rigorous introduction to Islam by a leading scholar.)
Fazlur. Major Themes of the Quran. Chicago: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980.
(An excellent starting point for a thematic study of the Quran.)