111 Questions on Islam: Samir Khalil Samir on Islam and the West
Samir Khalil Samir, SJ
Chapter 1. The Foundations
A. Muhammad and the Birth of Islam
1. To understand Islam, it is necessary to look at its origins. Would you please describe the social and religious context in which Muhammad’s preaching began?
Islam originated and developed in the Arabic peninsula, precisely in two principal cities, Mecca and Medina, between A.D. 610 and 632. These twenty-two years deeply mark, first, the history of Arabia, and, second, the history of the Middle East and the whole world, thanks to the extraordinary personality of Muhammad.
Born in Mecca around the year 570, Muhammad, whose father died just before his birth, lost his mother at a tender young age and was then adopted first by his grandfather and later by his uncle, members of the important tribe of Quraysh. Later on, he worked for Khadija, a rich widow dealing in caravan trade goods. Later still, they were married.’ At about age forty, in the year 610, following a period of solitary retreat in the mountains, he had an intense mystical experience and decided to dedicate his life to making everybody know the only God. According to Muslim tradition, at the time of Muhammad, many were looking for a monotheistic religion and a faith characterized by a strong nospirituality. One of these persons, in particular, was Khadija’s cousin, Waraqa ibn Nawfal, who had an essential role in the birth of Islam, as well as in the so-called hanif. Nawfal was an important source of information regarding monotheism.
These monotheistic ideas had a strong influence on Muhammad and transformed his existence to the point that he felt compelled to communicate what he felt mysteriously being revealed to him of occasion. The pagan environment in Arabia, in a certain sense, was predisposed to accept a monotheistic preaching, because many Jewish and Christian tribes lived in Arabia. Indeed, the only three Arab kingdoms known before or during the rise of Islam were Christian.
What did Muhammad preach?
In Mecca, the message was clear, simple, and markedly religious: believe in one God, Allah, and in the Day of Judgment, when everyone will be evaluated according to his actions and be sent either to hell or to heaven; implore from God the pardon of one’s sins; pray the prescribed prayer twice a day (in the morning and in the evening); stay away from adultery; and abandon the Arabic custom of burying newborn girls alive. Moreover, he preached social justice toward the widow, the orphan, and the poor through a detachment from riches, with undertones reminiscent of the prophet Amos in the Hebrew Old Testament. Above all, Muhammad declared that he was the prophet chosen by God to communicate to humanity the ultimate revelation, which had been transmitted to him through the Archangel Gabriel.
In his moments of intense isolation, Muhammad looked for support from the faithful of the monotheist religions. These were the Jews and Christians he called “the people of the Book”, as they were the only ones who had a revealed book.’ In most theological areas, they agreed with Muhammad’s ideas with regard to monotheism, the revealed doctrine of the Last Day, and the resurrection of the dead, but they absolutely refused to believe his claim to be a prophet from God.
2. You say that Christians and Jews believe in the one and only God. Should we then infer that Allah is not a specific Muslim god, as many people in the West believe?
Unfortunately this conviction is very widespread in Europe. Allah is not an “invention” of Muhammad or of the Islamic religion. The root of the word is common to all Semitic languages and those of the southern Mediterranean populations, and we find it in the Old Testament in the Jewish word Elohim, and also in Syriac and in Aramaic. The Arabic language offers the possibility of distinguishing between ildh, god with a small g, and Allah, the absolute God, where the Arabic article at was absorbed by the noun itah. So Allah was simply the name that the Arabs used to identify God, and Islam simply adopted a word that preexisted its birth and was already present in pre-Islamic poetry written by Christian authors.
The significant fact is that when Muslims translate the Qur’an into the Western languages, some refuse to translate Allah as Dio, or Dieu, or God. The habit of keeping the word Allah in Arabic has become almost dogma today. I believe this practice evidences a fanatical attitude that claims that the name Allah defines the “Muslim God” and that no one else has the right to use it. In Malaysia, as a matter of fact, this absurd mentality led to the promulgation of a law that forbids Christians to use the word “Allah” to indicate God. The term is obviously presumed a Muslim monopoly It is surprising that many Westerners, including the Italians, also follow this rule. They speak negatively about Allah, as a means to criticize Muslims. They act as if Allah were a divinity that belongs solely to Islam.
Allah was a part of the Arab pantheon, and many Arabs of the pre-Islamic period, among whom was Muhammad’s father, were called ‘Abd Allah, slave of Allah. It is possible that the pagan Arabs used the word Allah to indicate a particularly powerful divinity, sometimes with the attribute of al-Rahman, the Clement. Arab Jews and Christians employed the word al-Rahman to indicate the only God, as revealed by some inscriptions of the pre-Islamic period discovered in Arabia. One very significant inscription dates back to the sixth century and contains a trinitarian affirmation, presenting al-Rahman as the attribute of God the Father for the Christians, as it talks about al-Rahman, his son Christos, and the Holy Spirit. Rahman is therefore the fatherly attribute in the Christian tradition and the essential attribute of God for the Jews, while it was considered as one of the most powerful gods by the pagan Arabs.
3. How was Muhammad’s monotheistic preaching accepted by the pagan population in Mecca?
At the beginning, Muhammad’s ideas did not encounter strong opposition from the pagan inhabitants of his city because they simply mocked him, accusing him of being possessed by some evil spirit or of being a fortune-teller. It is clear that Muhammad did not want to establish a new religion but simply wanted to admonish the Arabs about the forthcoming Day of Judgment; he pointed out more than once that religion is “one” from the beginning of creation and that he is the “seal” of the prophets (khatam al-nabiyyin). Apart from a small group of young people of very modest economic conditions, few followed him.
However, when he openly began to attack the polytheism of his fellow citizens, opposition became stronger. His teachings threatened the interests of the local clans, who grew rich thanks to the pilgrims who visited the city every year. Mecca was, in fact, not only an important political, social, and commercial center in Arabia, but also a religious place. Already in the pre-Islamic period, all the tribes gathered there in a particular month devoted to the annual pilgrimage to worship their gods, which were placed around the Bala (a cubical building that contains the “black stone”, where Abraham was said to have erected an altar to God, according to Muslim tradition). During this time, the people would sell their goods and participate in poetry contests. Obliging these people to destroy their idols would have ruined their business.
Muhammad’s preaching also irritated the inhabitants of Mecca and was rejected by them because it demanded solidarity with the poor. From this rejection experience, he derived the conviction that he was a prophet, opposed like all those who came before him, according to the proverb “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house” (Mt 13:57b).
Because opposition also came from his powerful Quraysh tribe, Muhammad felt even more isolated with his humble followers. Hostility against him led him to send his followers for some time into Ethiopia, a Christian kingdom, where they were welcomed with great generosity. It is related that the negus of Ethiopia, listening to the translation of the beautiful qur’anic verses of the Annunciation, was moved and called his Muslim guests “brothers”.
4. To the kingdom of Ethiopia was the destination of the first hegira (emigration), but there was another, more decisive one from Mecca to Yathrib.
The growing opposition of the Meccans pressed Muhammad to modify his strategy. He reached an agreement with the rival city of Yathrib, the second most important city in Arabia, about 350 kilometers from Mecca. The inhabitants of Yathrib confirmed that they were ready to receive him, and he sent his followers there in small groups to avoid drawing attention: this was, in fact, a real betrayal of his city. He himself fled to Yathrib in the night, sometime between July 15 and 16 of the year A.D. 622, which marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar.
In Yathrib, from then on named Medina‘ Muhammad made agreements with all the local tribes, including the powerful Jewish tribes, and he began to organize the civil and religious life. In this city, he was finally free to realize his global project, which was religious, social, and political in scope. This evolution is the basis of the modern debate between Muslims about which version of Islam must be considered the true one: that of the first period, developed in Mecca and characterized by a strong spiritual aspect, or that of the second period, in Medina, with a strongly social and political nature. These are two very different conceptions.
5 The two conceptions are different in the sense that the prophet also became a legislator and a leader?
It should be remembered that Muhammad arrived in Medina with a small group of followers uprooted from their land and jobless, and they all needed money and assistance. His men were supported by those people who offered hospitality to them. Therefore, he tried to obtain the support of the Jewish tribes, the richest in the city, orienting prayers at the beginning toward Jerusalem and imposing fasting on the day of Kippur, as Jews do. But his efforts failed, and the Jews did not recognize him as a prophet.
So around a year and a half later, he decided to change direction: prayer was oriented toward Mecca, and fasting was extended to an entire month chosen from among the sacred months of the Arab calendar. The new orientation of prayer (the new qibla) was destined to “conquer” the pagan Arabs. The fasting period no longer coincided with the Jewish fast, which was based on a solar calendar, but followed the Arab lunar calendar, which consisted of 355 days.
5 After the break from Mecca, how did Muhammad provide sustenance for his followers?
He resorted to raiding, ghazwat in Arabic. According to Ibn Hisham’s most authoritative biography, titled Sira, Muhammad was responsible for nineteen raids and pillagings during the decade spent in Medina.
Arabs of the pre-Islamic period observed two different seasons, totaling four sacred months, during which all warfare was banned. The tribes were permitted to fight during the other months of the year Muhammad respected this legal custom. As a result, Muslims did not find anything incompatible between their traditional practices and their new faith. In short, war was part and parcel of the Bedouin culture.
The raids and pillaging provided Muhammad with rich spoils, but they especially allowed him to construct agreements with different tribes in order to break out of his isolation and enlarge his base of followers. When he was in a position of strength, he attacked a new tribe, subdued it, and obliged it to pay a tribute; when he considered himself as strong as his enemy, he reached an agreement with him; when he felt he was in the weaker position, he simply avoided all conflict. Thus, thanks to his intelligent strategy, he managed to increase his base of followers and his economic support. As a consequence, the influence of Islam began to be felt numerically and politically in the Arab region.
During this period, he launched several raids against Mecca; in 624 he won the famous battle of Badr against Abu Sufyan’s II caravan. On other occasions as well, he organized attacks against the convoys of Meccan merchants, but this tactic was too hazardous: during one of these raids, at the battle of Uhud, he was injured and feared for his life. This episode, however, is claimed by Muslims as one of Muhammad’s victories because the Meccans could have killed him, but they did not do it. This interpretation is confirmed by a passage in the Qur’an.
Muhammad, at this point, felt strong enough to attack the Arab Jews. One after the other, the three Jewish tribes of Medina were expelled from the city, and their properties were confiscated by Muslims. Then at the battle of Khaybar, an oasis not far from Medina where some Jews had taken refuge, the Jews were defeated by Muhammad’s force after a long siege that lasted forty-five days. The victory at Khaybar entered Muslim mythology as sure proof of the superiority of Islam over the Jews. In fact, even today it is evoked in the slogans of Muslim militants and by the young people of the Palestinian Intifada.
6 Did Muhammad continue with this strategy until the final battle at Mecca?
After enlarging their membership base and becoming richer and stronger than any other Arab tribe, Muslims were finally able directly to attack Mecca. In January 630, Muhammad was able to enter the city of his birth without bloodshed, for the inhabitants recognized his military supremacy. He acted generously with his former fellow citizens (only three men and two women were condemned to death), but he demanded the destruction of all the idols around the Ka’ba.
At this point, almost the entire Arabic peninsula was converted to Islam. Note that I said “converted to Islam”, because in reality it seems to have been only a form of military submission. In fact, the two things were the same because those who submitted to Muhammad recognized him not only as a ruler but also as a prophet sent by God. Political and military submission was required, as well as the acknowledgment of the only God and of his prophet. This acknowledgment required a tribute payment for the maintenance of the army.
In March 632, the tenth year of Hegira, Muhammad could finally make his first (and last) pilgrimage to Muslim Mecca. The event became known as the Farewell Pilgrimage. During a speech before his Muslim followers, Muhammad communicated to the people the last received verse of the Qur’an: “This day I have perfected your religion for you and completed My favor to you. I have chosen Islam to be your faith.” In May of the same year, while he was preparing a raid against tribes in Transjordan, he got sick and was obliged to give up the attack. His illness worsened, and he died a few weeks later, on June 8, in the arms of his favorite wife, ‘Aisha.
B. Is the Qur’an the “Untreated” Word of God?
8. Let us examine more closely the figure of Muhammad the legislator and preacher to determine how the Qur’an was born.
Muhammad worked hard to develop legislation for the Bedouins, who did not have laws other than those transmitted by tradition. In Medina, he had to solve a series of problems of social, economic, familial, and matrimonial natures, as well as deal with relations with slaves, Jews, and Christians. Every time a problem was submitted to him, Muhammad responded, sometimes only after several days, with an answer in the form of a revelation. In this sense the answer was presented as the outcome of a “descent” of God over him.
Qur’anic revelations are, in fact, fundamental dogma for Muslims. In Christian revelation, the writer of the sacred text is considered a coauthor with God, and the word is produced under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Christians speak of the Bible as the product of divine “inspiration”. When a Christian opens the Gospel, he reads: the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. This “according to” is essential, and the style of one or another evangelist is clearly recognizable. In Islam, this is not the case: the Qur’an is not considered a mere revealed text from Allah but rather munzal (descended) 16 upon Muhammad. The text is simply the literal transcription of an “untreated” Qur’an, which has always been with God and has “descended” in the form of a historical Qur’an.
Based on some verses, the Muslim tradition suggests that this “descent” happened at the moment of Muhammad’s prophetic call on the Night of Destiny. The Qur’an says: We revealed this on the Night of Qadr. Would that you knew what the night of Qadr is like! Better is the Night of Qadr than a thousand months. On that night the angels and the Spirit by their Lord’s leave come down with each decree. That night is peace, till break of dawn.” Anotherreference is found in the first verses of sura (chapter) 44, Smoke: “Ha” and mim. By the Glorious Book, We revealed it on a blessed night to give warning.”
Muslims believe that during that night, the Qur’an, which up to that moment stayed in heaven “inscribed on a guarded tablet’ (emphasis ours),” was literally “sent down” upon Muhammad, who later communicated it, “in pieces”, to his followers, according to circumstances. Hence, it is not Muhammad’s creation: he is simply the material “retransmitter” of a text “dictated!’ to him by God through the Archangel Gabriel.
Allow me a personal memory: at an oral graduation exam that I once took in Cairo, I was asked the question Who is the author of the Qur’an?” Obviously, as a Christian, I could not answer “God” to this trick question, but I knew that if I did not, I would risk failing the exam. Behind me, a Muslim friend kept telling me: “Say it is God and get it over with!” God inspired me with a good answer: “For Muslims, it is God.” It was a descriptive but not a normative answer!
9. What is the theological consequence of the dogma that theQur’an is considered “the tongue of God”?
If the Qur’an was indeed “sent down” by Allah, there is no possibility of a critical or historical interpretation, not even for those aspects that are evidently related to the customs of a particular historical period and culture. In the Christian context, biblical criticism, which some wrongly assert did not develop until the Age of Enlightenment, was already in place from the time of the Fathers of the Church. They reasoned that if the biblical text is revealed by God through human manners, this means that the word of God is also received according to the contingent conditions in which the audience lived.
In the history of Islam, at a certain point, it was decided that it was no longer possible to interpret the text. Hence, today, even the mere attempt to understand its meaning and what message it aims to communicate in a certain context is regarded as a desire to challenge it. And this is a true tragedy for the Islamic world: it is not clear who decided it, but everybody accepts this postulate. Since the eleventh century, the “door of interpretation”‘ has been considered closed to individuals, and nobody can open it any longer. The great scholar al-Ghazali is probably the last Muslim who legally rethought Islam in a definitive way.
In the course of history, many reformers arose on the scene, but they were unable to impose themselves or their ideas on the whole Muslim community. With regard to the role of reason in interpreting the Qur’an, Averroes wrote a famous work titled On the Harmony between Reason and the Revealed Law. In it, he argued that man has the right to interpret (ta’wil) the Qur’an. Indeed, man has the duty to interpret it, not just to comment (tafsir) on it, in order to grasp its authentic meaning, in reference to the times in which he is living.
In modern times as well, many efforts have been made in this direction but almost always in vain. The weight of the tradition and, above all, the fear of questioning the acquired security of the text have created a taboo: the Qur’an cannot be interpreted, nor can it be critically rethought.
10. When were all the revelations [to Muhammad] collected into a single book?
Two decades after Muhammad’s death, the revelations were collected into a book. He never wanted this collection to be assembled during his lifetime. Therefore, the suras were memorized and, sometimes, copied onto pottery fragments, inscribed on palm leaves or parchment, and even marked onto camel bones. The khalif `Uthman ordered that all these various fragments be collected with the purpose of creating a mushaf, a book. In fact, `Uthman wished to confront definitively the problem caused by the diffusion of many different versions of the Qur’an. He gathered the seven most famous huffaz (memorizers), who had learned by heart some passages of the Qur’an, and created an official version called ‘uthmana.
Despite his efforts, other problems persisted for a long time. During that period, the Arabs did not use dots with the letters of the alphabet, and this could cause a mix-up among different letters written in identical shape. In fact, it is dots that indicate—according to their number and position under or over the letter—the difference between certain letters, such as b, t, th, n, and y; thus their omission could produce a wrong reading of the text. Moreover, the vocalic signs, fundamental in a Semitic language in order to read correctly the short vowels, were missing. In sura 30, for instance, it is not clear whether one should read ghalaba al-Rum or ghuliba al-Rum: “the Romans won” or “the Romans have been defeated”. It is not a small difference.
Once the official version was published and disseminated, the khalif ‘Uthman ordered the destruction of all other versions. Hence, the ‘uthmana version realized on the khalifs initiative is the Qur’an we have today. It is the result of compromises between the seven huffaz, who often differed one from the other. Therefore, it is impossible to assert with any degree of certainty that a particular section of the Qur’an is the authentic statement truly pronounced by Muhammad. The original revelations were made over a period of eight thousand days between the years 610 and 632, and no human being could pretend to have such a perfect memory to recall, after many years, the exact words heard only once.
When the Fathers of the Church wrote in Greek, they did not quote the Gospels literally. Such a thing (not quoting literally) would have been considered a grave offense against the Qur’an. I remember participating in a meeting on Muslim-Christian dialogue in Rome during which I witnessed an embarrassing situation for a Jordanian imam who was requested to say a prayer. While reciting from memory some verses of the Qur’an, the poor man made a mistake, and immediately the Muslims in the audience started to grumble and then corrected him. He tried to continue on but then made a second and a third mistake, and finally stopped and went away very upset and full of shame. He had, in fact, scandalized Muslims in the audience by deforming the untreated word of God.
For Muslims, the Qur’an can be compared to Christ: Christ is the Word of God made flesh, while the Qur’an-please forgive my play on words—is the word “made paper”, fixed on paper. This comparison should allow Muslims to consider the Qur’an as both divine and human at the same time, just as Christians acknowledge Jesus’ two natures. However, Muslims consider the Qur’an as only divine.
11 Are the 114 chapters, or sums, that form the Qur’an chronologically ordered according to the times of their revelation?
Apart from the first sura, the one called fatiha—that is, the opening sura—all the others are ordered according to their length, from the longest to the shortest. There exists, however, an approximate chronological classification of the different chapters. When one opens a copy of the Qur’an in Arabic, one finds under each sura’s title a notation indicating that “this sura descended after this other.” One ought not to think that a single sura corresponds to a single intervention or comment by Muhammad. Many suras, in fact, contain verses that “descended” in different moments.
For those individuals who know how to read Arabic, does the Qur’an objectively offer something surprising and extraordinary?
Many passages have an exceptional force of attraction, while others are a bit strange-sounding and have an enigmatic message. Some portions completely escape comprehension but arouse marvel as dazzling syntactical constructions that have a magical effect. If I were to write in this style today, it would be considered abnormal and artificial. Besides these kinds of verses, there exist others that are very boring and devoid of all poetic effect. Many of these verses are legislative texts that do not seem to have any poetic or spiritual inspiration.
For a person from a Christian culture, the reading of the Qur’an is a bizarre experience and, after a while, a disappointing one as well. A reader immediately discovers that the Qur’an offers nothing comparable to the Bible. There exist some passages that recall the Bible, and these are surely among the most beautiful in the Qur’an, but there are also pages and pages of practical directions about matters concerning daily life. Alongside a reading about Muhammad’s personal problems with his wives, one can find beautiful spiritual reflections and prayers.
One of the most beautiful chapters is number 112, the “sura of the pure faith”, which proclaims: “Say: ‘God is One, the Eternal God. He begot none, nor was He begotten. None is equal to Him'”. The statement “He begot none, nor was He begotten” was originally addressed to pagan Arabs, but it soon became understood as addressed to Christians. It contradicted their creedal statement that declares Jesus Christ is “begotten, not made”. Today, when pronouncing these verses, no Muslim thinks of pagans, but he thinks of Christians. Other suras are quite boring. Even those who read the Qur’an in Arabic do not perceive what Muslims call I’jaz al-Qur’an, that is, the “miracle of the Qur’an”.
13. In saying the “miracle of the Qur’an”, are you referring to the belief that the Qur’an descended from heaven as it is?
Not exactly! For Muslims, the (biz (miracle) is the inimitable literary style of the Qur’an. At a certain point, people asked Muhammad: “As you claim to be a prophet, which sign do you give us? Do a miracle! You talk about Moses’ miracles and those of Jesus: and your miracles, where are they?” And he answers: “My miracle is the Qur’an: produce one similar verse.” The Muslim tradition says that the Bedouins were not able to produce a single verse that could be compared to the beauty of the Qur’an, and they define this as Muhammad’s doing a “miracle”. Muhammad, in reality, did not perform any miracles, even if the late tradition ascribes many to him, in imitation of the prophets.
Muslims claim that, by comparing Muhammad’s sayings—collected in the hadith—with the Qur’an through a syntactical and lexical computer analysis, they can demonstrate that there is nothing in common between the two texts, because the Qur’an is the language of God while the hadith is the language of Muhammad. But this statement is without foundation because such a study has never been done, and a philological examination shows the real influence of events in Muhammad’s life on the qur’anic text. For example, some Ethiopian words that were typically Christian appear in the text only in the period following the emigration of Muslims to Ethiopia.
14. Muslims commonly claim that Muhammad was illiterate. From this facl and from the text of the Qur’an, could not we deduce that something “miraculous” took place?
Western scholars and many Muslim scholars deny that Muhammad was illiterate. When the Qur’an mentions the word ummi (illiterate), it is opposed to the word that indicates those who have a sacred text. The ummiyyun (plural of ummi) are not those people who cannot read but are those who do not possess a sacred book. The statement that “Muhammad is the prophet of the ummiyyun” should be interpreted in the sense that Muhammad considered himself a prophet to pagans, not to Jews and Christians, who already had a sacred text. The meaning of ummiyyun is similar to the Latin gentes, peoples. Ummi was used to describe Saint Paul as the apostle of the Gentiles, or pagans. It is likely that this same meaning has been adopted by the Jews, who use a similar expression—goyim—to indicate the other nations.
C. The Five Pillars of Islam
15 . What are the basic fundamentals of the Islamic faith?
Islam bases itself on five pillars: the profession of faith in Allah and in his prophet (shahada); the ritual prayer five times a day (salat); the offering of the ritual charity, that is, almsgiving (zakat); the fasting in the month of Ramadan (scum); and finally, the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), to be accomplished at least once in a lifetime for those who have the financial means.
It is difficult to make a comparison of these five pillars with the Christian commandments. For example, prayer for a Christian is a way of addressing God, which can have different forms, including a liturgical one. In Islam, the per- spective is mainly juridical. For a Muslim, the ritual prayer is performed by accomplishing certain rites, such as prostration, in a formally perfect way. It is true that the salat lasts from five to ten minutes and is performed five times a day, but it is a rite. Those who fulfill it in a formally correct way, in conformity with the prescribed rite, after having purified themselves with the ablutions, have prayed; he who prays without observing the purification ritual is as if he had not prayed.
For example, when a woman has her menstrual period, she is considered impure; thus she cannot accomplish the ritual prayer, and therefore she must make this prayer time up on another day. The same is true for fasting: on some days during Ramadan, women normally cannot fast because they are impure, and they must therefore make up for the days lost in Ramadan during the rest of the year. It is an objective matter, not a subjective one.
Let us use the example of fasting again: it consists in abstaining from eating, drinking, smoking, or introducing anything into the body from dawn to sunset, but after sunset one can eat more and better than on normal days. This practice is not the original ascetic spirit of Ramadan; rather, it is a human accommodation that has lasted for many years. As early as the eleventh century, al-Ghazali strongly condemned this betrayal of the original spirit of Ramadan. Yet those individuals who formally respect the ritual precepts have actually fasted. Islam, then, is a normative religion, and this is both its strength and its weakness.
Moreover, a fundamental aspect of prayer and fasting is that these are collective actions. Worshippers all gather together, at the same time, to complete the same gestures and to pronounce the same prayers. The same thing happens with the pilgrimage to Mecca. It is an extraordinary meeting that involves millions of people. This collective synchronism gives immense strength to Muslims and underlines their unity. Ramadan, as well, offers similar suggestions: all Muslims fast during the day; then, after sunset, they all rush to the water, to drink. It is a social event of great importance that sometimes involves non-Muslim citizens as well. This is the force of Islam, the religious vision wisely wished by Muhammad.
16. Do you mean to say that other religions are more difficult to practice or are more “demanding” of their faithful?
Muslims claim that Judaism is an –earthly” religion (which is not true) and that Christianity is heavenly and sublime but so idealistic that nobody is able to live it fully. Islam combined these earthly and heavenly elements into a religion of moderation and reason.
In reality, many teachings of Islam are not rational at all, but by dint of repeating them for centuries, they are accepted. Take, for instance, the claim that the Qur’an descended from heaven or that Muhammad is the prophet of God. Neither claim can be proven, nor can either claim be admitted to by reason without the support of faith. Therefore, those non-Muslims who lack this faith hardly recognize the prophetic character of Muhammad.
Islam is more demanding in certain things and less demanding in others. On the one hand, it is a demanding faith because it imposes prayer five times a day and fasting from dawn to sunset for a month. On the other hand, it is a lenient religion because there is no need for many questions about individual requirements because everyone does the prescribed activity at the same time. Doing something with others is a much simpler way of proceeding. Islam is relatively easy to practice in Muslim countries because there is a very strong social support system that surrounds a Muslim, but it is more difficult in non-Muslim countries. To be precise, for immigrants, because there is no longer the social support system or communal pressure to conform, the practice of religion must be the result of a totally personal choice.
Islam is more of a communal than an individual religion. The Muslim is not lost in complicated considerations about knowing what to do or what not to do. A Muslim often has predetermined answers and thus fewer problems of conscience than Christians. When confronting problems of conscience, the answer for a Christian is not simply dictated by the Church but is determined by his free use of reason and adherence to what the Church teaches. However, the modern world poses many questions for contemporary Muslims that were not foreseen at the beginning, which leaves them in doubt. This is why many Muslims turn to the fuqaha’ (plural of faqih), the jurist consultants, to obtain valid answers to their new moral questions.
17. Is there no Muslim spirituality, then? It almost seems as if Muslims have no spiritual requirements or needs.
I do not with to absolutely deny the existence of a Muslim spirituality. On the contrary, their spirituality can be very deep, as in the case of mystics (sufi), but Muslim religiosity can also be very superficial due to the fact that many requirements are satisfied by simply observing external prescriptions. In Christianity, the spiritual life of the individual believer is a central element, while in Islam this is less common. The legalism of Islam recalls that of Judaism.
It is not by chance that the main science of Islam is jurisprudence, not theology or spirituality, as in the Christian tradition. In Islam the scholar (or the faqih, singular of fuqaha’) is the one who knows all jurisprudence. The faithful turn to him to ask whether, in certain situations, they can, for example, do their prayers, and he indicates what they must do to pray validly Open any book of Muslim tradition, of jurisprudence, or of hadith, and you will find everything, starting with the rules of purification, that is normative for the ablutions necessary for prayer or fasting. Even the text that collects Ayatollah Khomeini’s sayings, for example, lists a series of directives regarding purity, prayer, and fasting, all conceived as rituals.
Purification is a juridical act, not a spiritual one. The fuqaha’ remind us of the “doctors of the law” in the Gospels. Muslim purification is conceived in the same manner as in the Old Testament, of which we have an echo in the debate between Jesus and the Pharisees, the recognized specialists on the Torah: it is exclusively an exterior purity. Against this conception, Christ reacted by saying: “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man.”
This vision of the Old Testament can also be found in Islam: if someone does not do the prescribed ablutions, his prayer is not accepted by God. The rules of purity forbid a man to touch a woman because she could be having her menstrual period, which makes her impure, and by touching her, that man would become impure as well.
Everything is calculated but framed in the context of the Arab cultural world of the seventh century. For this reason, if one tries to understand Muhammad’s project for the Muslim religion, what emerges is an all-inclusive design for a social, political, cultural, and religious community.
To be a Muslim means, for many believers, to pray or to dress in a certain way; to eat some foods and refuse others (especially pork and blood meats); and to behave in a specifically prescribed way, both externally and internally In this regard, one must note a radical difference with Christianity, which is not a religion in the sense that it is not a human attempt to represent the Mystery with a certain idea of God and to put into practice a series of ethical norms by requiring adherents to behave in a coherent way; rather, Christianity is an Event, the Event of the revelation of God, by which he answers a human longing and makes himself present to man by taking man’s condition upon himself.