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"I have always held the religion
of Mohammed in high esteem because of its wonderful vitality. To me it seems
the only faith able to adapt to life under different conditions in a way which
makes it attractive to every people and every age."
In the early seventh century when Islam shone forth from the land of Ishmael many flocked to its blindingly simple teachings of the uncompromising unity of God, and man's duty to live for others. It is surely one of the greatest miracles of history that from the backwater of Arabia there should have exploded a group of men, Companions of a Prophet, who within the space of a few brief decades were able to create a magnificent civilisation extending from the Pyrenees to the gates of China. Even more astonishing is the fact that this remarkable transformation came about peaceably. The Byzantine historians record of the Muslims an almost miraculous degree of religious toleration during this period, for Muslims were deeply immersed in the Quranic spirit of tolerance which declares, "There shall be no compulsion in religion" <Quran, The Cow 2:256>. It is almost impossible for the modern mind to comprehend some of the actions of the early Companions. When the Caliph 'Umar heard that a church had been demolished by a group of Muslims in the distant Syrian mountains and a mosque erected in its stead, he grew angry and issued an order for the demolition of the mosque, and commanded the renegade tribesmen responsible to rebuild the church with their own hands. The Christian clergy wrote in astonishment of the new spirit of brotherhood which filled the East after the retreat of the Byzantines, who were long resented for their extortionate taxes and religious intolerance towards the Monophysite and Arian churches. The Muslim world became a place of refuge for all manner of religious dissent in Europe: Arians, Cathars, Jews. In the same vein, that the Mongol/Tartar invaders of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ended up adopting the religion of the conquered, attests to the natural appeal and strength of Islam.
History hardly bears out the prejudice still common in the West that Islam
is to be dismissed as a religion of scimitar-waving fanatics; rather it is Europe,
the land of the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the rape of the Americas, which
emerges with the more sanguinary record.
Islam's tolerance springs in fact from the pluralistic vision of the Quran. As we have already seen, Muslims recognise the genuineness of the messages of Moses and Jesus, and allow them to live in accordance with their own beliefs. To demolish a church or a synagogue, or to convert such a building into a mosque, is almost impossible under Islamic law. Thus Christian communities still flourish in the Arab world more than fourteen hundred years after the appearance of Islam. Yet one is permitted to ask: how many Muslims were suffered to remain in Andalusia after the Catholic Reconquest?
Most people judge a religion by its practical effects on the lives of those who practice it, and this attitude undoubtedly does much to explain why, wherever Muslim travellers and merchants penetrated, they left in their wake communities of new believers. Far outside the limits of Islam's political sway, convert communities soon established themselves, in cities as remote as Budapest and Shanghai. The early Muslim voyagers' presence profoundly impressed those who had dealings with them, as they clearly possessed qualities which set them apart from others. Their characteristics of honesty, gentleness, and kindness to children excited curiosity and respect. A tranquillity balanced by action, a life as industrious as it was prayerful. Their cities contained places of worship of the most sublime peace and symmetry, and also lively markets built right up to their walls: a perfect symbol of the Muslims society and of his vision of the universe. This equilibrium of character was the consequence of the subtle interplay of a variety of factors which resulted from the internalisation of the Quranic message.
Islam is a complete system of individual and collective life. There is no division between the sacred and the secular. The world is a manifestation of the attributes of the Divinity, and every human activity must ultimately reflect this. Islam provides man with a spiritual technology by which he may come to know his Creator, thereby fulfilling the function for which he was made, and it is precisely because this process is of such overriding importance that the function of society must rise above that of the provision of man's material needs and must seek to provide him with the best possible environment in which to carry out this project of self-discovery and realisation. Thus taking on the worldview of Islam has another positive implication, which is political in nature and today highly controversial. For the Muslim his belief leaves no room for arrogance and the lust for power; indeed he is enjoined to stand out against tyranny and injustice where he encounters them. The ungodly mind is always driving for the acquisition of absolute authority, which for the believer is the prerogative of God alone. Wherever he can, he endeavours to establish a government which sees itself as the mere representative of a higher power, a government whose movements are kept within the precincts of justice by its necessary commitment to the ethical ideals laid down by God.
As most converts to Islam will explain, the reason for their conversion is not usually pinpointed to one set reason, but several, with each individuals journey being unique. Islam has appealed to many because of its simple and intellectually satisfying creed. In the Byzantine controlled lands, Islam offered freedom from imperialist and racist oppression and the cult of priesthoods; in India, the fact of intrinsic human worth, nobility and equality attracted a society steeped in caste division; in Indonesia and Africa, Islam displaced a complex mythology which often pictured the world as alien, frightful, and full of spirits which had to be appeased and a social order which tolerated infanticide and never saw the nakedness of the body and the need to clean it.
In our own day, Islam has an appeal to many in the so-called "developed"
world who have become disenchanted with a mysterious and amorphous Christianity
on the one hand and the insatiable demands of materialism on the other. Many
also come to Islam to find liberation from racism and oppression.
The most immediately felt impact of his faith, on the newcomer to Islam, is invariably a sense of finding a place in the cosmos. The value of his life is immediately measurable by his intellect and spirit in terms of its conformity to God's will, as we are reminded of it in the Quran.
Direction and discipline. For the Muslim the conviction that absolute truth
is to be discovered through a certain way of life inspires an emotion of true
freedom and independence. Obedience is due to God alone, and no man can hold
mental sway over the believer. And as he learns to discipline himself in accordance
with God's will, he begins to free himself from the blind dictates of the body,
which always cries out for immediate gratification of the need for food and
sex. The believer is enabled to control his physical form rather than be controlled
by it. This quality, which is a prerequisite for spiritual growth, is also of
inestimable worth in pursuing one's material interests.
Lack of priesthood. In Islam there is no rite of initiation, no sacrament of belief. It is a faith of the individual, which transforms societies. And it is a faith without intermediaries, without the spiritual brokerage of a priestly class or monopolised by a formal hierarchy of clergymen; rather it cascades historically from the prophets to the generations of mankind through men and women who by their own spiritual strivings, rather than through any formal liturgical function, are inwardly invested as saints.
Yet another benefit arising from the Muslim's religious orientation is the
knowledge and certainty that all that takes place in his daily round is by God's
leave. He is thus enabled to meet any misfortune that may overtake him far more
stoically that the man of weak faith, for he knows that all things are by the
will of God, which is the unfolding of His knowledge, and that, as the Prophet
(PBUH) said, "When God loves His servant, He send trials upon him."
Every misfortune thus takes on an aspect of purification and atonement rather
than being the inexplicable and random operation of fate. This is not to be
confused with the traditional belief held by many Westerners that Islam is a
religion of fatalism and apathy, for Muslims are constantly exhorted by the
Quran to act. Rather, it constitutes a means of consolation for those whose
faith is pure and who perceive the workings of Providence in all the vicissitudes
Racial equality. Islam has never been the monopoly of one particular race or nation. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had said to the tribesmen of Makkah, "I am the Messenger of God sent to you and to humanity at large." When we look at a map of the modern world we find that the great majority of Muslims are not Arabs, the racial community into which the Prophet (PBUH) happened to have been born. Eighty-five percent of his community are of other stock, including Turks, Africans, Indonesians, six million Europeans, and seven million Americans. And never has there ever been any consciousness of race in Islam, for the Quran teaches that all are one family, and that "the most noble in God's sight is he who fears Him most." Likewise, the Prophet affirmed, "there shall be no distinction between white and black."
The capacity, not for change, but for expansion, undoubtedly constitutes a
key factor in Islam's continuing dynamism. For other faiths busily reforming
themselves to such a degree that they would be unrecognisable to the faithful
of an earlier generation, have thereby lost confidence in those spiritual and
ethical teachings which by their very nature challenge the world, and may not
be challenged, which transform, and are not transformed.
Islam approached on its own terms and not through the distorting images of the lives of lapsed or disorientated Muslim or of the intense and hostile propaganda, will always be a potent summons to the free, rational and natural good state of man regardless of habitat and time.
To read personal testimonies of converts to Islam click here
(Source: Abdul Wadod Shalabi, Islam: Religion of Life; AW Hamid, Islam the Natural Way;)