Journal/Islam: Islam and Religious Belief

The guiding principle of religious belief among Muslims is the absolute oneness of God (Allah) and the unquestioning faith in the message (Qur’an) delivered to the prophet Muhammad. Indeed, the first of the five pillars of Islam , which establish the foundations for religious practice among Muslims, is testifying (shahada in Arabic) to the belief that “There is no God but God and that Muhammad is his messenger.” These five pillars (roughly in order of imPrayermat for imajeportance) include: 1) the shahada, the most basic and essential requirement for being considered a Muslim; 2) performing the Five Daily Prayers (salat); 3) Fasting (sawm) from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset throughout the holy month of Ramadan; 4) Giving Charity (zakat), according to which it is required that Muslims give at least 2.5% of their savings annually; and finally 5) performing the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once during one’s lifetime if one has the financial and physical capacities to do so.

A core body of doctrine exists, which is known as the Six Articles of Faith, and is linked to the first pillar of Islam. These articles include the following principles of belief: 1) a singular and omnipotent God, 2) his Angels, 3) the Last Day (i.e. the Day of Judgment in which all humans will be accountable for the beliefs they had and the actions they performed during their lives), 4) the Scriptures and 5) God’s Prophets (who received revelation, including the scriptures which preceded the Qur’an sent to Muhammad, namely the Gospels sent to Jesus, the Torah sent to Moses, and the Psalms sent to David); and 6) the Divine Creed (what some consider to be predestination). Muslims believe that Muhammad’s message constitutes “the seal of the prophesy,” that is, the final message from God/Allah to mankind.

While the first pillar lays the foundation for belief, the four subsequent pillars of Islam provide guidance for Muslims in the ways to demonstrate their faith daily through prayer, annually through fasting and charity, and through the life goal of pilgrimage. These pillars transcend cultural boundaries that distinguish the wide variety of customary practices that are observed by Muslims throughout the world. (See the core topic on Muslims and Diversity). They also transcend the doctrinal differences that distinguish Sunni from Shi’a or the various theological schools among Muslims. While there is general consensus on the principles of Islamic religious belief and the core of religious practices, there is a history of debate on the details of social, economic, cultural and political practices. As with other religions, Islamic religious practices are premised substantially on interpretation of the religious text. Indeed, within the Islamic intellectual tradition the notion of ijtihad refers specifically to interpretation. There has emerged among Muslims a class of religious scholars (ulama), and a rich intellectual tradition of contesting interpretations of the Qur’an. Debates among Muslims are in part the product of changing global conditions that have required Islam—like other religions—to address conditions in a world that is very unlike the world that existed when the religion was first established.

Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj)

Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj)

For example, a New York Times Magazine article entitled, “Who Wrote the Koran?” (December 5, 2008) highlighted the work of Iran’s long-standing leading public intellectual Abdelkarim Soroush, who seeks to establish an understanding of Islam that embraces the tradition of interpretation in light of contemporary conditions. Rather than see Islam as a religion opposed to modernity, Soroush advances the possibility of an Islam that moves forward with time. While the article, which was written by Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, an adjunct lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, usefully demonstrates the ongoing intellectual inquiry among Muslims, it also suggests the inflexibility and opposition of some religious authorities, notably in Iran, to question established Islamic doctrine and practices. (See also the June 9, 2008 Newsweek article “The New Face of Islam” which highlights a widespread “re-thinking” of Islam in Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.)

These types of articles mark a recent trend in reporting on Islamic religious beliefs and practices that suggest a shift away from the more sensationalist news articles that tended to portray Islam as an obscure medieval religion, resistant to change. Still, the vast majority of articles published about Islamic religious belief in the US over the last 10 years have represented the religion as the source of violent, repressive and intolerant behavior in the majority Muslim regions of the world. This image of Islamic religious belief is in large part built around the association of Islam with 1) jihad (which is often translated in the US as holy war), 2) a repressive patriarchal character (represented by veiled women) and 3) dogmatic imposition of religious teachings (as is exemplified in the Taliban). While credible newspapers and magazines in the US have moved away from the most sensationalist forms of reporting, the depiction of Islamic belief on the internet has moved in the other direction, as zealous Islamophobes continue to spread misinformation about the religion and its practitioners. (See the December 2008 FAIR article “Making Islamophobia Mainstream.”)

Salah D. Hassan and Nada Zohdy (2010)

Related Articles
“Meaning of Islamic Law Worth a Deeper Look,” Washington Post April 25 2009
“Can Sufism Defuse Terrorism?” Time July 22, 2009
“Kabul’s Patriarchy with Guns,” The Nation October 2001