A guide to Islam
Being in the UAE, you are essentially in the Islamic World, and therefore it makes sense to understand the religion that is practiced here. Since Islam is part of every day life for the Nationals as well as many of the Arabs, we have put together some information about Islam to give you the heads up on what you need to know.
Roots of the religion - Islam was part of the great religious competition that stretched across many centuries among the people near the Mediterranean region, from Asia into Africa. The three great religions lived and worked side-by-side down through the generations. To understand Islam, you simply must pick up the Quran and read it. The Quran is essentially Biblical, in the sense that Adam and Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all important characters in its pages, as are David, Solomon, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. The obvious difference is that Muslims believe that the Quran, the Muslim scripture, is a compendium of revelations that God gave Prophet Muhammad during the last 22 years of his life. The Quran's story of creation is similar to the Bible's in many respects. But rather than a single narrative, the Quran is an assemblage of revelations said to come from God to Muhammad. The Quran makes frequent allusions to the Old Testament teachings, almost always by way of illustrating a point.
Who Is Allah? - Allah, the Muslim deity, was well known in pre-Islamic Mecca before Muhammad. Among Arabs who worshipped many gods, Allah was known as the chief god. Muhammad, however, considered Him to be the same God that the Jews and Christians worshiped. The observant Jews of the day avoided even speaking the name of God: "I am who am," or Yahweh (Jehovah). The Muslims, however, followed the instructions of the Quran, which states that the names of God "were the most beautiful names." This led to the practice of stringing 33 or 99 beads, one for each name of God, to be recited by the believer. Ironically, the rosary and the ubiquitous "worry beads" common in the Middle East are the modern-day legacy of this practice. Is Allah the same as God? Muslims and most historians would answer yes. On the other hand, Allah had a different history in pantheism, prior to Muhammad's arrival. Islam claims nothing more than to be the religion of Abraham. It is not so much a new interpretation of an older religion - it is not a New Testament - as it is a return to the strict Old Testament relationship of Abraham to the one Creator.
The Hajj - Muhammad made his first and last hajj, or pilgrimage, as a Muslim in 632. In a sense, this was the first Muslim hajj. Only Muslims were present and Muhammad led them, but the pilgrimage became a template for all other Muslims to follow. Muhammad returned to Medina from his pilgrimage in March of that year and, three months later, he was dead. His death was unexpected.
The Quran - When Muhammad died, there was no Quran, except in the hearts and minds of his followers. Although the finished Quran authentically represents the statements Muhammad presented as revelations, it is definitely not the literary work of the Prophet himself. The book is believed to be a compendium by essentially anonymous editors who arranged the chapters, or suras, in their current order. Muslim tradition states that when Muhammad died, several believers had already memorized the Quran. Some were said even to possess written "copies."
Shia and Sunni - The Shia (or Shiites) and Sunnis are the two main branches of the practice of Islam, embodied foremost today in the rival nations of Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively. In the UAE, the majority are Sunni although perhaps 15% of Muslims here are Shia. It was said that when Muhammad was dying he asked for a pen and paper, to write instructions to his followers. Unfortunately, he died before doing so. The Shias believed that Muhammad was going to name God's appointment of Ali bin Abu Talib as his successor. Ali, Muhammad's younger cousin, had already played a key role in promoting the Islamic faith. Although Abu Bakr was elected to succeed Muhammad, the succession was disputed. The question essentially was whether the leadership should be a matter of election, as with Abu Bakr, or a matter of lineage and inheritance, as with Ali. Both branches agree that after Abu Bakr's appointment, several leaders visited Ali's house to ask or demand that he also take an oath of allegiance. The Shias state that some urged Ali to assume the leadership himself, and Ali refused to do so. Sunni and Shia historians strongly disagree on what happened next. The Sunnis state that Ali accepted the legitimacy of his three predecessors - Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman - prior to attaining the caliphate, that is, succession to Muhammad, in 656. The Shias deny this. The schism gradually widened over the generations through various betrayals, treacheries and acts of violence. Today, Shiites maintain that leadership belongs by right to a family, and is not a communal or societal political decision. The Sunnis believe otherwise.
Sharia - Implicit in Muhammad's teachings was the idea that there was an Islamic "way" that came from God, called "sharia," and now known as Islamic law. Sharia is the clear-cut pattern of behaviour that Muslims are expected to follow according to God's will. In some respects Sharia is adopted in the UAE, however it is enforced in different levels, with notable examples of Sharjah and Fujeirah adopting a tougher stance than that of Dubai. The Quran contains 140 rules or laws regulating prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and other religious practices. It has 70 laws on personal matters, such as divorce, marriage and inheritance, and 70 more laws on commercial matters, such as loans, usury and sales. Thirty laws relate to crimes and punishments, 30 more cover justice and 10 address economic matters. Thus, Islamic law derived from the Quran observes more than 300 specific precepts. These laws have been augmented by the "hadith," the growing body of reports after Muhammad's life a bout his sayings, beliefs, acts and behaviours that guide Muslim behaviour.
Some final points of note
- To understand Islam, you must understand the Quran.
- "Islam" means submission - submission to monotheism, and to Muhammad as its spokesman.
- The Quran is said to be a collection of revelations given to the Prophet Muhammad.
- Allah was well known to Arabs before the time of Muhammad. The chief god of pre-Islamic Arabs, who worshipped many gods, went by the name of Allah. - Muslims hold that Allah is the same God worshipped by Christians and Jews.
- The rosary, the Eastern Christian prayer rope and the omnipresent Middle Eastern worry beads were all modelled on the Muslims' "subha" - a string of beads, one for each of the 99 names of God.
- God told the Prophet to turn to the Jews for advice if he had questions about the revelations he had been given.
- Muhammad considered His revelations a confirmation of what Moses had already revealed to the Jews.