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An Introduction to Islam: 1. Two Approaches to Truth

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An Introduction to Islam: 1. Two Approaches to Truth

Khaled Nusseibeh

I would like to juxtapose two inclinations or proclivities that have deep roots in both Western and Islamic civilization. The first inclination or method of conduct and reasoning is embodied in the Platonic approach to attaining truth and wisdom, namely through a narrative of dialogue, debate and critical assessment of intellectual propositions- and thus, the monumental edifice of wisdom bequeathed by Socrates and Plato to humanity which was firmly underpinned by dialogical and dialectical method. The second inclination that is enshrined in Islamic thought and civilization likewise fosters the attainment of truth and wisdom through peaceful and reasoned dialogue: And here I quote a verse from the Holy Qur`an which epitomizes this attitude: “Call to the path of your Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and dispute with them in the best manner. Surely your Lord knows best those who are perverse from His path, and He best knows the guided..” (H. Qur`an 16:125)

An Introduction to Islam is too vast a challenge to be undertaken in a single lecture. Hence, my approach shall rest on treating certain themes which may contain some, rather selective, elucidation of the creedal, epistemological, doctrinal and historical premises of Islam.

Introduction to Islam
Table of Contents

Introduction to Islam

Fundamentals of Islam

Sources of Doctrine in Islam

Doctrine in Islam

Islamic View of Man and the Universe

Suffis and Suffism

Islam in the Modern World - Interfaith Dialogue

The early manifestation of Islam was in the 7th century A.D. in Mecca, western Arabia. The biography of the Prophet Muhammad (or the Sira) relates that on one night during the month of Ramadan, the Arch Angel Gabriel visited the Prophet in his retreat on a desert hill that is contiguous to Mecca (Mount Hira), and inaugurated the revelation of Islam to him by his command to Muhammad when he was in slumber or in a trance: “Read!” He said: “I cannot read.” The voice again said: “Read”! He said: “ I cannot read.” A third time the voice commanded: “Read!” He said: “What can I read?”

To which Gabriel said:

“Read: In the name of thy Lord Who createth. Createth man from a clot. Read: And it is thy Lord the Most Bountiful, Who teacheth by the pen, Teacheth man that which he knew not.”

Muhammad, son of Abdullah, son of Abdul Muttalib, of the illustrious tribe of Quraish, was born in the small oasis town of Mecca in the year 570. Given that his father passed away prior to his birth, he was taken care of by his grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, and after the latter’s death by his uncle Abu Taleb. It is related in the Sira that he, as a child, traveled in the company of his uncle in the merchant’s caravan to Syria, and a few years later undertook the same journey on behalf of a wealthy widow named Khadijah. So exemplary was his conduct, and so profitable, that Khadijah proposed to marry him, although he was fifteen years younger than she.

The people of Mecca considered themselves descendants of Abraham through Ishmael, while tradition held that their sanctuary, the Ka`ba, had been built by Abraham for the worship of the One God. However, decay and corruption in the religious practices and beliefs of the Arabians crept in, and the monotheism of the patriarch Abraham was supplanted by paganism and idolatrous worship. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the Ka`aba was called the house of Allah. However, the objects of worship were several idols such as Lat and `Uzza, which were considered daughters of Allah and were believed to possess intercessory powers. In addition to the presence of Christian and Jewish communities in Arabia, there existed a group of monotheists who longed for the faith of Abraham, and these were known as Hunafa (sing. Hanif) which came to mean “upright”. The Hunafa of pre-Islamic Arabia did not constitute a single community per se, but were individuals yearning and seeking truth through contemplation, moral excellence and spiritual pursuit. It is historically attested that Muhammad was one of the hunafa, and that he had rejected all forms of idolatry prior to the revealed dispensation.

The Arabian peninsula during the time of Muhammad was living on the margin of civilization to the south of both Byzantium and Persia, both of which were the major empires of that age, and which were in intermittent conflict in the Middle East region. . The major portion of Arabia was arid steppe and desert which were dotted with small oases. The majority of Arabians were nomads whose source of material sustenance was raiding other tribes and tending their herds. There were also a few agriculturally supported communities such as Yathrib, or Medina (the city of the Prophet). A few towns, among which was Mecca, prospered from the trade passing from the Mediterranean world to the East. On the cultural plain, the Arabians had a common identity that was fostered by a rich literary-poetic tradition but did not have, against the background of the tribal constitution of Arabia, a centralized state.

The preaching of Muhammad led to the conversion of some relatives and other Meccans.- especially among the downtrodden of Mecca. Owing to Islam’s opposition to idolatry and its equalitarian message, the enmity of Quraish was increasingly evoked. The persecution of the Muslim coverts was undertaken which led to a group of Muslims migrating to Ethiopia. It is recounted in the Sira that the Muslims migrated to Ethiopia journey there by virtue of a belief that it was ruled by a just Christian king, the Negus.

The opportunity presented itself to Muhammad to preach his message to individuals from the town of Yathrib which is located in the Hejaz, over 400 km north of Mecca. The majority of the people of Medina eventually embraced Islam and accepted Muhammad as the Messenger of Allah and arbitrator. The year 622 AD. in which the Prophet and his companion Abu Bakr- who was to become Islam’s first Caliph- migrated to Yathrib inaugurated the Muslim or Hijri calendar. In effect, Medina became the center of the Islamic call (da`wa), and in it the Prophet became judge, ruler, preacher and military commander all at once. Without doubt, during the years of the Prophet’s sojourn in Medinah the content of the message of Islam changed from having an exclusive emphasis on monotheistic tenets, eschatology and ethical exhortations, to dealing with secular and legislative themes underpinned by a perpetual focus on tawhid (monotheism).

To give a sample of the Qur`anic revelation from the Meccan period, which must have had a mesmerizing effect on the Meccans, as it does on modern Arabs and Muslims, the following is quoted from the Qur`an: The theme is inexorably the day of judgment and resurrection combined with allusions to social injustice and oppression pervading Meccan society:

“When the sun is coiled up, and when the stars become grimy, and when the mountains are set in motion, and when the pregnant camels are discarded, and when the wild beasts are mustered, and when the seas simmer, and when the souls are reunited, and when the girl-child buried alive is asked, for what reason was she slain, and when the pages are spread open, and when the heaven is expunged, and when Al-Jahim (hellfire) is set ablaze, and when the garden is brought near, every soul will then know what it has wrought. Nay, I swear by the slinking planets, the running planets covered by sunbeams, and the night when it darkens, and when the dawn when it breathes; it is indeed the speech of a gracious Messenger.” (Quran 81: 1-19)

Introduction to Islam (2)Continued


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