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Islam: A Christian Introduction

By Winfried Corduan


Estimated Membership
Worldwide: 1,099,634,000
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 political identity.

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 world.

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 his steadfastness.3


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 thousands.

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 stability.

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 shia, 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 hostage.

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 Seveners (Ismailites).

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 Islamic rule.

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 considered binding.

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 Quran: 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 concordance.


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.


Core Bibliography

Ali, A. Jusuf, trans. The Holy Quran. 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, 1987.

Encyclopedia of Islam. 7 vols. and supplements. New York: E. J. Brill, 1993.

Haneef, Suzanne. What Everyone Should Know About Islam and Muslims. Chicago: Kazi, 1979.

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.