No God But God

What do Muslims believe? The myths and the facts.

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Islam is the youngest, the fastest growing, and in many ways the least complicated of the world's great monotheistic faiths. It is a unique religion based on its own holy book, but it is also a direct descendant of Judaism and Christianity, incorporating some of the teachings of those religions—modifying some and rejecting others.

The core belief of Islam is the absolute oneness of God, or Allah in Arabic. Muslims say the God they worship is the same God worshiped by Christians and Jews, but they do not think about the deity in the same way. The God of Islam has no human attributes or dimensions in time or space; he would not, for instance, rest on the seventh day. Nor does the God of Islam have multiple forms: Islam specifically repudiates the Holy Trinity—saying it is equivalent to worshiping three deities—and the divinity of Jesus. "Those who say, 'The Lord of Mercy has begotten a son,' preach a monstrous falsehood," says the Koran, the holy book of Islam, "at which the very heavens might crack, the Earth break asunder, and the mountains crumble to dust" (Sura 19, v. 88-90).

Islam teaches that God cannot be visualized, which is why there can be no portrait or statue of him, but he is not an abstraction either. He is present everywhere and always in human life, and on the last day, he will sit in judgment of every person. Each human being is free to choose whether to follow God's commands or not. Those who do will enter paradise; those who do not face eternal damnation.

God's commands were made known to humankind, according to Islam, by Muhammad ibn Abdullah, an Arabian merchant and trader, through whom God transmitted the revelations compiled in the Koran. In Islamic belief, Muhammad did not write the Koran. Rather, he followed the instructions of the angel Gabriel, who appeared before him one night in A.D. 610 and told him to "proclaim" or "recite" the words of God.

Muhammad was not divine; Muslims admire but do not worship him. In Muslim tradition, he was a virtuous and honorable man whose life is worthy of emulation, but he was a human being, the last prophet in a line extending back to Abraham, the universal patriarch of monotheism. After Abraham, God from time to time sent other prophets and messengers to reveal his will, including Jesus, but Muslims believe that Jews and Christians alike distorted, misinterpreted, or spurned the truths that they heard over the centuries. Only with Muhammad was the final truth revealed; through him, God has spoken for all time.

Islam is an Arabic word meaning submission—submission to the will of God. Its participial form is Muslim, one who submits. Both words derive from the same root as salaam, which in Arabic means peace.

The vast majority of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims are not Arabs, but Arabic is the language of the faith because it is the language of the Koran. Unlike the Bible, the Koran, Muslims believe, was revealed in its entirety to one man in one language; it is the immutable word of God, not subject to amendment or, strictly speaking, to translation. "We have revealed the Koran in the Arabic tongue that you may grasp its meaning," the text says. "It is a transcript of our eternal book, sublime, and full of wisdom" (Sura 43, v. 3).

A CHURCH WITHOUT CLERGY

Islam holds itself out as a universal faith, appli-cable to all peoples everywhere, but it is not an organized church; there is no central doctrinal authority. Membership in the umma, or community of Muslims, is not conferred by man; there is no baptism. Indeed, there are no sacraments at all, and, strictly speaking, there is no clergy. Those turban-wearing men giving sermons in Muslim countries who are referred to in western news-papers as "clergy" are schooled in theology and Islamic law, but they are not ordained, and they carry only so much moral authority as their congregations choose to accord them.

The absence of clergy and hierarchy is at once a strength and a weakness of Islam: Individuals find it appealing because they are responsible only to God, but the absence of a central source of doctrine results in disagreements and arguments that often produce conflict. The religious authorities in Muslim countries sometimes issue decrees or rulings called fatwas, which purport to tell the faithful what they should think about some point of faith or politics, but individual Muslims are not obliged to follow them. Two well-known examples in recent times were the fatwa from Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemning to death the author Salman Rushdie and the fatwa from the senior religious figures of Saudi Arabia authorizing the deployment of American troops in the kingdom for Operation Desert Storm. Neither decree was universally accepted by Muslims.