In reading and listening to the media discussions on Islam, general audiences often still wonder over these five basic terms: Allah, Islam, Muslim, Qur’an, and Prophet Muhammad. Surrounding these terms, Muslims in the West frequently receive questions such as:
- “Allah is YOUR god, the one in Mecca, right?”
- “What is the difference between ‘Muslim’ and ‘Moslem’?”
- “Wasn’t the Koran written by Muhammad, not like the Bible, which we believed was revealed by God?”
Most Non-Muslims living in the Western hemisphere are surprised to hear that Allah is an Unseen, Almighty God rather than a mystical Arabic stone; that Muhammad is the last in a long chain of prophets which includes familiar names like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus; that a Muslim is simply a practitioner of Islam (the two words sound completely unrelated according to English word structure of Latin roots). The following questions provide a sound starting point for dialogue between Muslims and inquisitive Western Non-Muslims:
“Who is Allah?”
The Arabic word “Allah” means “The God.” While the two terms might be used interchangeably, many English-speaking Muslims prefer the former, as its linguistic implications are more precise in defining their sole deity.
A closer understanding of the word "Allah" may be gained by examining the term linguistically. Its first two letters, "Al," most closely translated as “the” in English, constitute the definite article; thus it cannot be pluralized. While the English word "God" can transformed to take on different meanings such as "gods" and "goddess," the Arabic word Allah can undergo no such changes. In fact, the word Allah can refer to nothing other than the Creator of the heavens and the earth. In the Qur’an, Allah is referred to using the singular pronoun “huwa,” usually translated as “he” or “it.” However, the translator's rule of thumb ("translation is treachery to the text") proves true here as the English speaker might gather from these terms that his Lord's reality is either opposite to the nature of a female or that his Lord is an inanimate object, both of which are incorrect. These tools of classification (male, female, animate, inanimate) used to help us understand the nature of the CREATION cannot accurately portray the reality of the CREATOR, a reality too awesome for the human intellect to encompass.
Islam's holy scriptures emphasize God’s absolute, incomparable Perfection and His constant Custody over the affairs of His Creation. Allah is All-Seeing, All-Knowing, and All-Hearing. He is unlike anything. His Bounty is infinite, His Mercy incomparable, His Justice indisputable, His Decree inarguable, His Law final, and His Words never run dry.
Since God created and continues to sustain the heavens and earth Alone with no partner, He deserves to be worshipped alone with no partner. Paying tribute to, and directing worship toward, a sole entity is a part of human nature. It is cited that even atheists tend to extol some form of idol, be it their own whims and opinions, human intellect, modern science, or the like. Worshipping God alone is the only proper expression of this universal inclination to pay tribute to some guiding force.
"What is Islam?"
Islam is the religion of God's Prophets: Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and all the others in between; it is the worship of One God, without idols or intercessory saints. Islam consists essentially of five pillars: testimony of faith, performance of five daily prayers, fasting the holy month of Ramadhan, payment of charity to the poor, and performance of the pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah once in a lifetime.
A person becomes a Muslim by testifying wholeheartedly that “there is no deity worthy of worship except God and Muhammad is the Slave and Messenger of God.” This testimony marks the first pillar of Islam. It can be declared alone, but is often performed in congregation, such that the person making the decision to embrace the faith feels that he/she is joining a worldwide community of believers, a feeling reinforced by observing the Islamic congregational prayers and gatherings, the greatest of which is the pilgrimage to Makkah, which draws an annual gathering of around three million.
Islam is a complete way of life. Muslims strive to follow live that way of life by emulating the example of the Prophet Muhammad in integrity, moral reasoning, and devout worship. In the context of religious laws and credence, the Sunnah is a body of preserved, authoritative statements of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Qur’an and Sunnah are central to Islam. Muslims are encouraged to read the Qur’an daily, to believe in it factually, to memorize it verbatim, to comprehend it with depth of mind and reflection, and to implement its lessons and verdicts devoutly. They look to the Prophet Muhammad as a model human being, and as an enduring religious authority. His words are vital to proper interpretation and implementation of the Qur’an. This centrality is demonstrated by the historical endeavors to preserve and grade the authenticity of his statements.
“Who are the Muslims”
The word "Moslem" is simply the anglicized version of the Arabic word "Muslim." The two terms do not carry separate meanings. A “Muslim” is a practitioner of the religion of “Islam.” The two Arabic words come from a single root “seen-laam-meem.” Other derivatives include the Arabic word “Salaamah,” meaning “Peace.” Islam means submission to God, and a Muslim is one who submits to God by embracing Islam, its tenets, and its ways of worship.
The term “Muslim” does not refer back to any human founder, as does the term “Christianity” (which refers back to Christ). The word “Muslim” only refers back to the religion, Islam, which is considered to be the original religion ordained to Adam, Abraham, and other Prophets of God before and up to the final Prophet, Prophet Muhammad. Muslims therefore consider themselves part of a long religious heritage, starting with the first human being, which will end only on the Final Day, the Day of Judgment.
Seen in this continuum, Islam is nothing new, and Muslims are not just those followers of Muhammad, but rather anyone who submitted to the Prophet God sent to his/her time period. Those whose time period witnessed more than one Prophet, or overlapped the coming of one after the departure of another, are meant to embrace the second Prophet just as they did the first. This is the situation of Christians, who have the honor to hear about the next Prophet after Jesus. Their reward is double because they embraced both the message of Jesus when presented with it, and that of Muhammad upon hearing about its revelation.
"What is the Qur'an?"
The Qur’an (sometimes spelled “Koran” or “Quran”) is the literal Word of God, revealed to Prophet Muhammad via the Archangel Gabriel. Of course, this is only with respect to the original Arabic version, not human translation attempts which can be found in most languages around the world. The Qur’an contains commands and prohibitions essential to Muslim life. It also espouses parables and lessons that raise the faith of the believer and place tranquility in his/her heart.
The Qur’an is considered the primary miracle granted to the Prophet Muhammad, by which he was ordered to call humanity to the path of One True God. Muslims revere the Qur’an as the only unadulterated word of God left on earth. However, the Qur’an itself confirms the scriptures before it, including the scriptures revealed to Abraham, David, Moses, and Jesus.
The history of the Qur’an is unlike that of any other holy book. It was recorded in writing and memorized through oral relation during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, 1,400 years ago. It continues to be memorized, in its entirety, by thousands of Muslims worldwide.
“Who was Prophet Muhammad?”
Prophet Muhammad is the final Messenger of God, sent to preach the worship of One God without associations or paganistic images. He was born in the year 560 CE, in the prosperous city of Makkah (mentioned in the Bible as “Becca”). Through his paternal lineage, Prophet Muhammad is the descendant of Prophet Abraham and his son, Prophet Ishmael.
The coming of Prophet Muhammad is foretold in the scripture of Moses and Jesus. He bore particular signs known to the scholars of these communities. God chose Muhammad and kept his heart and soul pure throughout his life as a vessel for His Word and Religion. He lived forty years as a regular citizen, much like the common men of Makkah. In childhood, he was an orphan shepherd; in adulthood, a merchant, a husband and a father. His steady reputation earned him the nickname “al-Ameen,” meaning “The Trustworthy.” He was always known for his meritorious character, charity and fair dealings with people.
The young Muhammad, before receiving the Message of Islam, never entered politics. He was socially concerned, a dedicated family member, but not an activist. In his religious life before receiving prophethood, he declined the worship of idols and used to withdraw into seclusion in the local mountain of Hira in meditative search of a higher connection with truth and God than Makkan society afforded.
It was there, in the cave of Hira and at the age of forty, that Prophet Muhammad first met the Angel Gabriel, who brought him the first revelation of the Qur’an, after which he took up the mission of Islam. He continuously preached for twenty-three years, until his death at age sixty-three. Through various stages of social and political persecution, Prophet Muhammad endured and remained steadfast in the message of Islam, ultimately establishing a vast dominion for the religion replete with scholars, warriors, statesmen, and other roles vital to the preservation of this dynamic new nation.
His foremost concern was the salvation of mankind. He informed that his likeness was that of a man who struggled to shew moths away from a fire, though the moths ignorantly endeavored to burn themselves, attracted by the glow.
On his deathbed, the Prophet Muhammad was heard repeatedly saying, “As-Salah, as-salah” meaning “The Prayer, the prayer,” exhorting his followers to mind their prayers to God. The word “salah” is rooted in the word “silah,” which means “connection.” From his initial seclusions in the cave of Hirah until his death more than twenty years later, Prophet Muhammad’s life revolved around seeking personal connection to God, and preaching a message that connected human beings to their Creator without intercessory idols or saints.