Call to Prayer
As you walk towards the main entrance of the tomb of Akbar (a revered Muslim ruler), you are met by two brightly colored peacocks. They strut along side of you in the idyllic gardens, spreading their feathers as far as they can to expose all their brilliant shades of blue, purple, gold, and green. Green parrots fly overhead while on the ground, scurrying monkeys startle you as they loudly clamber past, their long tails curling up behind them.
The golden morning sunlight filters across the red sandstone walls of the monument, creating a breathtaking light and shadow configuration. You enter the doorway, which is decorated with swirling calligraphy, floral patterns and intricate geometrical design, all made of inlaid onyx and various other gems. Once inside, it is cool, silent and almost completely dark. The only light filters in through the mesh doorway, causing it to resemble a confessional. A man appears from the darkness, a kufi (cap) on his head. He begins chanting in Arabic. You are just in time for the Morning Prayer. You close your eyes as his low, melodic voice echoes, filling the empty space with the mysterious and beautiful sounds of sacred verses from the Qur’an, the holy scripture of Islam. You recognize some of the prayer, the part when he declares, Allahu Akbar, God is Most Great.
Who are Muslims?
Islam is truly one of the most misunderstood and stereotyped religions. Due to the media, many assume that Muslims are terrorists. Yet, the majority of Muslims (over 1.5 billion of them) are not militant, radical terrorists, but instead tax-paying, law-abiding, working parents, students, teachers, nurses and people like you and me. Most Muslims do not believe extremist terrorists like Osama Bin Laden represent Islam any more than your average Christian feels Timothy McVey or the Westboro Baptist Church protestors represent Christianity. Another stereotype is that Muslims are mostly Arab when in fact, less than 20% are from Arabic descent and come from a wide variety of ethnicities, cultural backgrounds and countries.
Islam can be translated, like the Hebrew Shalom, to “peace” or “surrender” to the will of God. Muslims define this peace further, in the words of Tariq Ramadan, as a “wholehearted self-giving” to God. Muslims believe in and worship one God, the biblical God of Jews and Christians (“Allah” is simply Arabic for “The God.” Arabic Christians call God “Allah” as well as Muslims). Based upon the same biblical tradition as Judaism and Christianity and rooted in the same lineage and geography of Abraham, Islam emphasizes putting God at the forefront of your life and doing your best to honor God in all actions and thoughts. Simultaneously, Muslims also put much emphasis on education, science and discovery and have made significant contributions and innovations in these fields as well as philosophy and math, particularly al-jabr (algebra).
Who is Muhammad?
First, let’s establish who he is not. Muhammad is not a God. Only God is God according to Muslims and therefore Muslims do not worship Muhammad. This very notion is extremely offensive in Islam. Muhammad is also not considered a founder of Islam (as the path is believed to have always existed). Instead, Muhammad is thought to have called believers back to the true faith. Commanded by the angel Gabriel to “recite,” Muhammad received the revelations that became the Qur’an (Koran), believed to be the literal word of God. The recitation of the Qur’an plays a central role in Muslim life as does the Arabic language. Any translations are considered interpretations and not the direct word of God as the original Arabic.
While some associate Islam with the oppression of women, it is believed that Muhammad actually protected the women of his time, giving them rights they never had before in their tribal polytheistic society (ex: property rights, divorce rights, etc.) He also protested the infanticide of female babies (a rampant practice at this time). Considered the final messenger or prophet of God (in a long line of prophets, including Moses and Jesus), Muhammad is seen as a role model, a “Living Qur’an.”
What do Muslims Believe?
Muslims have many beliefs in common with Judeo-Christian traditions, including the belief in angels, the stories and history of the Old and New Testaments, the prophets and messengers, a Day of Judgment, similar codes of ethics as the Ten Commandments, and that all is done by the will of God (in Arabic, Insha’Allah). Muslims greatly value modesty and this affects the way a Muslim will dress and behave, with men usually dressing in modest clothing and sometimes the kufi cap while women often wear the hijab (or veil). Like Judaism, Islam prohibits the consumption of pork, holds that we are born innocent (unlike the Christian doctrine of Original Sin) and believes God is One. Like in Christianity, Jesus and Mary do play a large role in belief. However, Muslims believe Jesus was not the son of God or divine, but a human prophet sent by God, just like Muhammad.
Though not divine, Islam forbids images of the prophets and therefore, any art in a mosque or masjid (a Muslim place of worship) is not representational. Even so, there is certainly no lack of beautiful artistic design, including breathtaking calligraphy (often scriptures from the Qur’an) and gorgeous, detailed geometrical shapes that can serve as meditation in and of themselves to view.
How do Muslims Practice their Faith?
Shari’ah is the divine fundamental law found within the Qur’an, a way of life and all encompassing of every aspect, including spiritual practice, behavior, courtship, dress, and diet. Fiqh is the application of this law. So, depending on culture, country, background, sect and individual perspective, there is much diversity in the way these laws are interpreted and applied. Most Muslims share the Five Pillars of Practice, considered religious duties of believers.
The first pillar is the Shahada, the Witness or Declaration of Faith, in which a Muslim bears witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the final messenger of God. The second pillar is Salat or ritual prayer. After a ritual purification or washing, Muslims will pray 3-5 times a day (depending on if they are a Sunni or Shiite Muslim) facing the direction of Mecca. Most mosques have a qibla wall with a niche called a mihrab that orients you towards this direction. In countries with a large Muslim population, the call to prayer is done publicly, usually from a tower while calls to prayer in the states are often done from the interior of the mosque.
The third of pillar of Islam is Zakat, or the giving of alms, a specified percent of income (usually 2.5%) given annually to help support the Muslim community, known as Ummah. The fourth pillar is Sawm or fasting. The most well known fast is during the month of Ramadan, which commemorates when the Qur’an was first revealed. From sunrise to sunset, Muslims will abstain from food, drink and sexual activity. While similar to Catholic Lent in some ways, Muslims focus not on penance for sins, but rather on the reminder of our reliance on God, our compassion for those who go without, and ultimately, our gratitude for God’s grace.