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Islam: A Primer

Michael Cromartie

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In January 2002 a group of journalists gathered at the Pier House in Key West, Florida, at the invitation of the Ethics and Public Policy Center for a two-day seminar. Its purpose was to enhance journalistic understanding of current religious and cultural issues. The session from which this "Conversation" is drawn featured Harvard historian Roy Mottahedeh, with a response by journalist Jay Tolson.

Michael Cromartie: When I was looking for someone to give us an overview of Islam, people I consulted kept raising Dr. Mottahedeh's name. Roy Mottahedeh is professor of Islamic history at Harvard University. He is the author of Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society (1980) and of The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (1985).

Roy Mottahedeh: By and large, Muslims view Islam not as a human religion but as the most perfect revelation of God that has come to mankind. All human society needed revelation, and therefore the very first human being, Adam, had to be a prophet because he couldn't live without the guidance of revelation.

The word "Muslims" in the Koran often means, simply, "believers." In some cases "Muslims" includes other "people of the Book"-Christians and Jews-as well as followers of the Koran, and sometimes it seems to mean simply followers of the Koran. Most Muslims do not believe in natural law (although the Shiites, who make up maybe 15 per cent of the Muslim population, do). But Muslims do believe that human beings have an inner nature that is religious, and because of this, Muslims through the ages have believed that there is salvation outside of Islam (though some would say this is rare). They believe that human beings can discover some of the moral law by examining this inner human nature.

Muslims see themselves as following the ultimate monotheism. Of course, both Islam and Christianity are, in a way, derivatives of Judaism, and they are both ways of universalizing monotheism. But Muslims believe that their monotheism is the more perfect, the ultimate monotheism.

Now, the next thing to understand about Islam is that Muhammad is not Christ. The self-revelation of God in Jesus is a concept that Muslims do not accept. And the Koran is not the Bible; maybe it corresponds to the Torah, but it is definitely not the Bible. Muslims believe that the entirety of the Koran is a perfect, unerring revelation of God. And just as the New Testament relates the things that Jesus said and did, there's a great deal in Islam about the sayings and doings of Muhammad. These are the famous Hadith. It is a huge body of material-some tens of thousands of sayings are considered somewhat more authentic than 500,000 other sayings. It allows you to construct almost any kind of Islam you want. And it is somewhat like the New Testament in that it shows the perfect exemplar of the religion.

Another basic fact is that there is no sacramental function in Islam. Ulama are the learned people, the religious authorities; they are not priests. Every Muslim can do everything necessary for personal salvation by himself or herself. This is important to understand, because people keep saying, "Why don't the Muslim clergy speak out for this or that?" Well, they speak out for everything! One man's clergyman is simply another man's kosher butcher. To understand Islam one has to set aside the perception of religion that is based on Christianity and look to a different model. Of course, there are some Muslim systems that are slightly more hierarchical than others. One is the system of the "Twelver" Shiites, the kind of clergy the Iranians have. But even they are absolutely incapable of keeping order among and within the clergy. There is great debate over who has the right to determine the meaning of scripture.

Read the entire article on the Ethics and Public Policy website.

Copyright 2001-2019 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. Follow copyright link for details.
Copyright 2001-2019 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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