Islam: A Christian Introduction
By Winfried Corduan
United States: 5,100,000
How can a religion completely focus on one man but not focus on that man at all?
By being Islam. Everything in this religion is based on Muhammad’s life and teaching,
and yet Muhammad is not at all the center of worship and devotion.
How can a religion be both a religion and a political system? Again, by being Islam.
True Islam functions within a community (the umma) that optimally carries its own
How can a religion espouse the highest monotheistic and ethical ideals while many
of its adherents live in a state close to animism? Yet again, by being Islam. Every
religion has to contend with a gap between its official teaching and what people
practice in its “folk religion” version. Such a gap also exists in the world of Islam, to
the dismay of many Islamic teachers.
How can a religion establish itself around the world and yet remain closely tied to
one particular culture? One more time, by being Islam. It is making inroads into
societies around the world, both Third World countries and Western industrialized
societies. At the same time it still very much belongs to its original Arabic desert
Islam can be a paradoxical religion. Describing it requires that we constantly ask,
Who speaks authoritatively? For example, even as the leader of an Islamic republic
issues a decree in the name of the Qur’an that all women must wear the veil, an
Islamic evangelist tells a group of American students that the veil is not mandated
by the Qur’an and that only in Islam are women truly liberated. While the same
Muslim apologist is insisting that the Qur’an forbids violence, the terrorist group
Islamic Jihad may be bombing a building, killing innocent people. These observations
are not meant to condemn Islam for failings that can ultimately be exposed in every
religion. But there are ambiguities about Islam, which any study of Islam must take
into account. In our attempt to understand Islam and all its complexity, we will
begin with its beginnings.
The Life and Times of Muhammad
Muhammad was born in A.D. 570 in the vicinity of Mecca. The indigenous Arabian
religion of the time was a mixture of polytheism and animism. Mecca was a center
of this religion and the focal point of pilgrims visiting its many idols and shrines. The
first thing that greeted a pilgrim entering Mecca was a statue of God’s (Allah’s)
three sensuous-appearing daughters (al-Lat, al-Manat and al-Uzza). A highlight of
any visit to Mecca was a cube-shaped shrine (called the ka’ba, which means “cube”)
dedicated to the main god of this shrine, Hubal. Built into the side of the ka’ba was a
meteorite that was considered holy because it had fallen from heaven. There were
many other temples and holy sites, including the sacred well, Zamzam. Religious
pilgrimages made Mecca a prosperous city. (Religion can be a particularly gainful
enterprise because it requires relatively little investment, and the merchandise
[spiritual blessing] is an easily renewable resource.)
Until modern sea routes were opened by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century explorers,
the Arabian peninsula was a significant thoroughfare for commerce, and so it was in
Muhammad’s day. Arabia has never existed as an isolated desert area out of
contact with the rest of the world. In Muhammad’s day Arabia was the site of
extensive cross cultural interaction. There were Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian
merchants, as well as settlements of those groups, particularly in the northern part
of the peninsula. In the city of Yathrib (Medina) dwelled a Jewish community
numbering in the hundreds, which professed a strict monotheism.
A strain of native monotheism had survived independently in Arabian culture. A
minority of people, called the hanif, or “pious ones,” devoted themselves exclusively
to the worship of one God, Allah. We see here a remnant of the original
monotheism that is the universal starting point for the history of all religions (see
chapter one of Neighboring Faiths for a discussion of original monotheism).
Muhammad was born into this culture as a member of a minor clan of the Quraish
tribe. Orphaned at an early age, Muhammad was raised by an uncle. There was little
opportunity for schooling, and the illiterate Muhammad subsisted as a camel driver.
Eventually Muhammad came into the employ of a wealthy widow, Khadija. In the
style of a storybook romance, they fell in love and married. For many years
Muhammad and Khadija were devoted to each other, and when Muhammad started
to receive his visions, Khadija immediately supported him. Muhammad was now a
wealthy merchant himself, and he came into increasing contact with the many
adherents of monotheistic religions. This contact helped shape his own spiritual
development. However, it is a mistake to interpret Islam as nothing more than an
adaptation of Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. We must leave room for the
vestige of original Arabian monotheism as well as for Muhammad’s own creativity.1
The unique twists of Muhammad’s spiritual experience began in A.D. 610, while he
was meditating in a cave located on what is now called the Mount of Light,
overlooking the plain of Arafat outside Mecca. As Muhammad fell into a trance,
trembling and sweating, the angel Gabriel spoke to him. “Recite!” the angel
proclaimed to him.2 At this moment the brooding, introspective merchant turned
into the stern prophet who refused to compromise his convictions and suffered for
Now began Muhammad’s career as a prophet in Mecca. His message encompassed
two main points: (1) there is only one God to whose will people must submit, and
(2) there will be a day of judgment when all people will be judged in terms of
whether or not they have obeyed God. Converts were slow in coming at first.
Khadija believed Muhammad immediately, but others were skeptical at best. Many
people were hostile or derisive. Muhammad’s revelatory experiences continued, as
they would throughout his life, not on a regular basis but from time to time as the
occasion demanded. Eventually Muhammad gained a small group of followers, and
after about ten years the group had become fairly sizable, numbering in the
Muhammad’s followers referred to their belief as Islam, which means “submission to
God.” They came to be identified as Muslims, “those who submit to God.” These
terms are still the correct designations. Muslims consider the term
Muhammadanism and its variations offensive because it implies to them that they
worship Muhammad, which they certainly do not.
Eventually Muhammad’s group of followers grew so large that the city fathers in
Mecca found their presence undesirable. After all, nothing ruins the business of idol
worship like the incessant claim that there is only one God. Persecution escalated
until in A.D. 622 Muhammad and a group of his followers fled Mecca for Yathrib.
This flight from Mecca is called the hijra (meaning “flight”), and it is used as the
beginning of the Islamic calendar, for at this point an independent Muslim
community, the umma, was born. Islamic dates are reckoned A.H., “anno hegirae.”
Thus 1998 is the year A.H. 1418.4 Khadija had died by this time, and Muhammad
found solace with a number of new wives.
Muhammad and his followers moved to Yathrib, and there they were received with
open arms; in fact, Muhammad was put in charge of the town with the
responsibility of resolving certain disputes. He made a special pact with the Jewish
community in Yathrib, recognizing that Jews were not expected to become
Muslims. Unfortunately, the relationship broke down when some Jews attempted to
assassinate Muhammad, and he ordered the execution of hundreds of Jews.
Throughout this time Islam continued to grow in numbers and influence. Many
Arabian tribes swore allegiance to Muhammad, adopting his religion and his
leadership. Eventually he and his army became strong enough to capture Mecca.
Muhammad removed all idols from the city and cleansed the ka’ba of all statues in a
special ceremony. However, he retained Mecca as the center for pilgrimage and
maintained some of the external sites, such as the ka’ba and the well Zamzam, as
holy places. By the time Muhammad died in A.D. 632, he was the religious and
political head of much of the Arabian peninsula.
The Caliphate and the Shi’a
An understanding of the events that occurred right after Muhammad’s death is
crucial to an understanding of the contemporary Muslim world. The report of
Muhammad’s demise was received by many with incredulity. Some people wanted
to confer immediate divinity on him. It was Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law
and close friend, who took charge and settled the issue. He appeared before the
crowd and said, “If anyone worships Muhammad, Muhammad is dead; but if anyone
worships Allah, he is alive and does not die,” thereby assuring at least passing
However, there was no escaping the pressing question of who would succeed
Muhammad as leader of the political and religious community. The search was on
for the caliph, the successor. Because Muhammad had no surviving son, the
obvious choice was his son-in-law Ali, husband of Muhammad’s favorite daughter,
Fatima. Ali had distinguished himself in his devotion and enthusiasm for
Muhammad’s cause. Furthermore, Ali claimed that Muhammad had endowed him
with his designation (‘ilm) and spiritual knowledge (nass). Ali, like Muhammad,
would be able to speak directly from God.
Unfortunately, Ali did not enjoy the confidence of many people. He was seen as
hotheaded and unreliable. A general consensus (sunna) was established that Abu
Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law, would be the caliph. Ali’s supporters were
disgruntled, and at that moment the seeds of a dissenting party were sown. The
Arabic word for this splinter group was shi’a, and thus we have the origins of
Sunnites (the majority) and Shi’ites (the minority).
This process repeated itself two more times, as Abu Bakr was replaced by Umar in
A.D. 634 and Umar was replaced by Uthman in 644. Uthman was the first of many
caliphs from the tribe of the Umayyads. Each time Ali was bypassed. During this
time the Islamic world grew rapidly, but internal tensions increased as well. None of
the leaders after Abu Bakr ruled for long or died a natural death. Umar was
poisoned and Uthman was stabbed to death.
Uthman did not enjoy a strong political base, but he made a major contribution to
Islam prior to his death by collecting all of Muhammad’s revelations and issuing the
authoritative edition of the Qur’an. Muhammad himself did not write anything down.
It was left to his followers to record his utterances on whatever material happened
to be handy at the moment—a piece of parchment, a palm leaf, maybe even a
piece of wood. Uthman brought together all of this material along with whatever
compilations were already in circulation. He and his associates carefully sorted out
all that was authentic and destroyed the rest. The resulting collection became the
Qur’an, in the same form that we have today. Of course, there is now no way of
reproducing what might have been committed to the flames by Uthman. Some
Shi’ites claim that Uthman did some deliberate tampering because the present
Qur’an is devoid of any references to Ali as Muhammad’s designated successor or
to Ali’s immediate family.
When Uthman died in A.D. 656, Ali finally became caliph. However, his caliphate did
not last long. Another Umayyad, Mu’awiyah, also laid claim to the caliphate.
Hostilities increased to the point that armies were arrayed against each other. When
Ali offered to allow for mediation at the last moment, some of his own followers
killed him in disgust.
Sunni leadership, representing the overwhelming majority of Muslims, was passed
down through the tribe of Umayyads for another hundred years. Their capital city
was Damascus, and the Islamic empire included all of the Middle East, extending
through Persia (Iran) and encompassing Egypt, North Africa and Spain. In A.D. 750
the Umayyads were replaced by the Abbasids, named after Muhammad’s uncle,
who moved the capital to Baghdad. This dynasty eventually gave way to the Shi’ite
Fatimid kingdom, which had become established in Egypt. The real political end of
the Abbasids, however, came with the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century. The
Seljuks suffered the loss of Palestine during the crusades, but the crusader state
was in turn defeated by Saladin and the Sunni Mamelukes, who carried the mantle
of Islamic leadership for about two hundred years. After the Mamelukes were
destroyed by the Mongols, the longest-running Islamic dynasty came into being by
way of the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman Empire, which at one time included all of
the Middle East, Egypt and Europe up to the gates of Vienna, finally collapsed in
1917 under the double pressure of internal corruption and World War I.
While Sunni Muslims experienced a certain amount of stability under the Umayyads,
the Shi’ite struggle was just beginning. With Ali’s death a permanent split between
Sunna and Shi’a was inevitable, but it was highly uncertain who was to carry the
Shi’ite banner. Ali had two sons, Hasan and Husayn, who were also Muhammad’s
grandsons. Hasan, the older, abdicated his claim due to illness and died almost
immediately thereafter (poison was suspected). In A.D. 680 Husayn rallied his
troops to battle the Sunni Umayyads in the vicinity of the Iraqi town of Karbala,
whose inhabitants had identified with his cause. But in a classical maneuver of desert
warfare, the Sunnis managed to deprive the Shi’ites of water and then massacred
them in their weakened condition. When Husayn’s head was thrown over the city
walls, his supporters picked it up, mounted it on a lance and carried it about in a
procession of anguished mourning.
The day of Husayn’s death (the tenth day of Muharram on the Islamic calendar)
continues to be commemorated by Shi’ites, particularly in Iran. It is a day marked
by universal mourning and reenactments of his martyrdom. Many people lash
themselves with chains and knives to identify with Husayn’s martyrdom, which they
see to have been on their behalf. On this day Shi’ite mobs are easily moved to acts
of revenge against all outsiders, since they consider virtually all non-Shi’ites a threat
to their existence. For example, it was on this day—November 4, 1979—that the
Shi’ite radicals in Teheran usurped the American embassy and took its personnel
Shi’ite belief centers on the idea that the special line of succession through Husayn
continues. Each person in the succession receives the ‘ilm, a direct designation of
succession from his predecessor, and the nass, the supernatural spiritual knowledge
to carry out the prophetic leadership. These successors are called imams, a term
that carries different meanings in different contexts (for example, it is also the term
for the prayer leader in a Sunni mosque). In the present context it refers to the
spiritual and political leader of the Shi’ites. The imam’s interpretation of the Qur’an is
considered infallible. Sometimes this infallibility is seen as implying personal
sinlessness as well.
Those who live by splits and divisiveness die by splits and divisiveness. The
subsequent history of the Shi’a is one of continual strife and schism. There are three
main Shi’ite groups as well as numerous smaller ones. The major ones are identified
by their understanding of how many original imams there were and when they
branched off. They include the Twelvers (Imamites), the Fivers (Zaidites) and the
The Twelvers (Imamites) have come to the attention of Americans most frequently
over the last twenty years. They make up the majority of the people of Iran and
Iraq (the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, however, is a Sunni). The Twelvers are also
strongly represented in Lebanon.5
The Twelvers are so called because they recognize twelve imams in the line of
succession, counting Ali, Hasan, Husayn and nine others. The twelfth imam,
Muhammad al-Muntazar, disappeared when he was only five years old. According to
the tradition, he withdrew into a cave and continues to live in concealment. Some
day he will return. Then he will be known as the Mahdi and will establish universal
Until the coming of the Mahdi, the place of the divinely designated imam is held by a
caretaker who is also known as “imam.” Americans who watched the news during
the Iranian hostage crisis may remember that the followers of the Ayatollah
Khomeini referred to him as “imam.” There is a hierarchy under the imam that
consists of a handful of other ayatollahs. Below the ayatollahs are many mullahs.6
The imam’s decisions in regard to any issue—religious, social or political—are
The Fivers (Zaidites) make up a smaller body of Shi’ites that is located primarily in
Yemen. They recognize a different fifth imam, named Zaid, through whom they
continued a different line of succession for a time. He is also considered to be living
in concealment for the time being. On the whole the Zaidites are less extreme than
the other Shi’ite groups.
The Seveners (Ismailites) are the most radical theologically. They branched off with
the seventh imam. Today they are found mainly in India, Pakistan and East Africa
(the population of Kenya, for example, includes a large group of Indian people and
consequently many centers of Indian religions). The Seveners believe that the true
seventh imam was Ismail, the incarnation of Allah (a notion that is totally
unacceptable to all other Muslims). Ismailites claim that it was Ismail who
disappeared into concealment and will return as the Mahdi (although some say it
was his son).
For a time the Ismailites held ascendancy over all of Islam. They ruled through the
Fatimid dynasty (named after Muhammad’s daughter Fatima) in Egypt from A.D.
909 to A.D. 1171. As mentioned earlier, they took over preeminence from the
Abbasids, but they too lost most of their territory to the crusaders and the Seljuk
Turks. Eventually they were displaced by the Sunni Mamelukes under Saladin. During
the twelfth and thirteenth centuries A.D., a radical subgroup of Ismailites in Persia
provided young men with hashish and then induced them to kill political leaders.
They became known as the Hashishins, from which we get our word assassins.
All Shi’ites are united by the dispute over the line of succession and by the idea of
divinely appointed imams. There are other traits as well that distinguish the Shi’a
from Sunni Islam. For example, they recognize other holy places in addition to
Mecca, such as the tombs of the imams, particularly those of Ali and Husayn.
Sometimes the fervor of their devotion for these places exceeds that for Mecca.
The Shi’ites have an authority structure that focuses on the interpretation of the
Qur’an by their holy leaders. The more radical groups (Ismailites and Imamites)
curse the first three caliphs—Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman—every Friday in the
services at the mosque. Shi’ites are theoretically bound together in their awaiting
the coming of a Mahdi.
1. The caveat mentioned here can be seen as part of the larger complaint against
understanding the development of religions as the juggling of so many “influences.”
I shall make that case again very explicitly in the context of the so-called
Zoroastrian influence on Judaism. The problem with influence chasing, which was so
much a cornerstone of nineteenth-century scholarship in the “history of religions”
school, is that it never explains anything. If Muhammad was influenced by Jewish
monotheism, why not by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity? If he was influenced
by the Torah, why not by the belief in an atonement? The point is, influences were
there, but they were only as effective as Muhammad would let them be.
2. The Arabic word combines the meanings of “Read!” and “Proclaim!” The text
Muhammad was commanded to recite is supposed to have been recorded as Sura
96 of the Qur’an. This sura is commonly called “the clot.” The version of the Qur’an
used throughout this chapter is The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and
Commentary, ed. A. Yusuf Ali (Brentwood, Md.: Amana, 1983). Originally published
in 1934, this volume includes Arabic and English text, notes, commentary and a
3. This point is brought out beautifully in Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel
Satanic Verses. If the Islamic establishment had read the book instead of
condemning it on the basis of hearsay, they would have realized that Rushdie
actually portrayed Muhammad in an admirable light as a prophet who was tempted
by Satan and the religious establishment to compromise his faith but in the end
refused to give in. Rushdie lampooned the religious establishment for putting wealth
and power ahead of truth, which was his real offense. How ironic that one of the
characters in the book says, “‘But would it not seem blasphemous, a crime against.’
. . ‘Certainly not,’ Billy Battuta insisted. ‘Fiction is fiction; facts are facts.’” Salman
Rushdie, Satanic Verses (New York: Viking, 1988), p. 272.
4. It does not take higher math to figure out that if the hijra occurred in A.D. 622,
then there are only 1,376 years until 1998. Where do the extra years come from?
The explanation lies in the fact that the Muslim year consists of thirteen lunar
months (about twenty-eight days rather than thirty or thirty-one). Thus the year is
shorter than the Western solar year, and an extra forty-four years A.H. have
occurred up to A.D. 1998.
5. When the French departed Lebanon in 1941, they left behind a constitution
directing that public officeholders reflect the demographic distribution at the time:
the president was to be a Christian (the majority religion), the prime minister a
Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament, a Shi’ite. But the population
pattern has changed since then. Muslims now outnumber Christians, and among the
Muslims, a much larger number are Shi’ite. This fact has contributed greatly to
recent instability in that country.
6. A comparison that breaks down fairly quickly (but is not totally without value) is
that Shi’ite Muslims are in some ways similar to Roman Catholic Christians. There is
a hierarchy of clergy, at the top of which is one man who speaks infallibly.
Ali, A. Jusuf, trans. The Holy Qur’an. Brentwood, Md.: Amana, 1983.
Denney, Frederick M. An Introduction to Islam. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1994.
———. Islam and the Muslim Community. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco,
Encyclopedia of Islam. 7 vols. and supplements. New York: E. J. Brill, 1993.
Haneef, Suzanne. What Everyone Should Know About Islam and Muslims. Chicago:
Martin, Richard C. Islam: A Cultural Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1982.
Taken from Islam: A Christian Introduction. Copyright ©1998 by Winfried Corduan, InterVarsity
Press. Permission kindly granted to Faith & Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.