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What’s the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By by Louis Cassels


Louis Cassels was for many years the religion editor of United Press International. His column "Religion in America" appeared in over four hundred newspapers during the mid-nineteenth century.

What’s the Difference was published in 1965 by Doubleday & Company, Inc. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Chapter 10: Islam and the Moslems


The youngest of the world’s major religions, and the only one that seriously rivals Christianity in international missionary outreach, is the faith which the prophet Mohammed introduced among the Arabs in the seventh century.

Its correct name is Islam, an Arabic word meaning "submission to the will of Cod." Its adherents are called Moslems (in Arabic, Muslim), which means "those who submit to the will of God."

Moslems are mortally insulted when people refer to them as "Mohammedans." They feel that this term implies that they worship Mohammed. And nothing could be further from the truth. Islam is a fiercely monotheistic religion, and while it reveres Mohammed as the last and greatest of the prophets, it has been unswervingly faithful to the creed that is the heart of Mohammed’s teaching: "There is no God but Allah."

The Prophet of Allah

Mohammed was born about A.D. 570 in the city of Mecca, in what is now the country of Saudi Arabia. A camel driver by profession, he made a number of caravan trips to Jerusalem, where he became familiar with Judaism and Christianity.

Mohammed was deeply moved by the concept of a benevolent, omnipotent God which he encountered in Jewish and Christian scriptures. The Arab tribes of his day were pagan idol-worshipers. They thought that the world was infested with many gods, who were apt to turn hostile unless buttered up by animal sacrifices and other ritual acts. The one moderately benign deity in the Arab pantheon was known as Allah, and until Mohammed came along, no one paid very much mind to him.

To challenge the paganism of his people was no easy thing for Mohammed. His city of Mecca was a center of pilgrimage for Bedouin tribes, and the local population made a nice living off the tourists who came to worship at the various idol shrines.

Faced with conflict between a dawning conviction and the whole culture in which he lived, Mohammed did what Jesus had done seven centuries earlier. He withdrew into the wilderness to fast, pray, and ponder. Mohammed’s particular retreat was a cave near Mecca. Over a period of at least ten years, and perhaps longer, he visited the cave at frequent intervals. There, he said, he was visited by the Angel Gabriel, who opened his eyes to the errors of Judaism and Christianity, and told him that he had been chosen for the task of correcting and completing the divine revelation which was begun in the older faiths.

Mohammed emerged from this period of spiritual gestation with a message that burst upon the Arab world like a bombshell. Allah, he said, is the only God there is. He created the universe and has absolute, unchallenged, unshared dominion over it. And He is no distant, malevolent Being who scorns man and his problems. He is "gracious, compassionate, near at hand, merciful, forgiving, the shelterer of the orphan, the guide of the erring, the friend of the bereaved, the consoler of the afflicted." His love for man "is more tender than that of the mother bird for her young."

Mohammed readily acknowledged that Jews and Christians had been worshiping Allah, under a different name, for many centuries. He accepted in full the Old Testament story of Abraham, and claimed that Arabs, as well as Jews, were descended from the Patriarch. (The Arab ancestor was said to be Ishmael, the son of Hagar, whom Abraham was forced to banish after his long-barren first wife, Sarah, finally bore him a son named Isaac.) Mohammed also accorded the status of true prophets to other leading biblical figures, including Moses and Jesus. Indeed, Mohammed showed a particular reverence for Jesus, accepting much of what the New Testament says about him, including the statement that he was born of a virgin.

But Mohammed emphatically rejected the one really basic thing that Christians believe about Jesus: that he was the incarnate Son of God. Mohammed also dismissed entirely the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Although he regarded Jesus simply as a human prophet, Mohammed felt that God would never have allowed such a prophet to be put to death cruelly on a cross. Therefore Islam holds that Jesus was taken up into heaven without undergoing death.

The Koran

The revelations that Mohammed brought forth from the cave near Mecca were written down by scribes in a book called the Koran (from an Arabic word for "reading matter"). Orthodox Moslems look upon the Koran as fundamentalist Christians look upon the Bible — as the verbally inspired, completely infallible Word of God. The Koran is divided into 14 chapters, or surahs, which are arranged in descending order of length, with the longest first and the shortest last. The over-all wordage is slightly less than that of the New Testament. Moslems contend that the Koran can be properly read only in its original language — Arabic — and whereas Christians have translated their Scriptures into more than one thousand languages, Moslems have concentrated on teaching their converts to read Arabic.

All but one of the surahs open with the same words: "In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful!" This phrase is the keynote of the Koran, which is primarily concerned with assuring men of the oneness, the nearness and the goodness of God.

The theology of Islam, as laid down in the Koran, is simple and straightforward: Those who do right in this life will go to heaven; those who do wrong will go to hell. The Koran contains vivid descriptions of both destinations. Heaven is depicted as a place where there are pleasant gardens, cool fountains, lavish mansions, and all sorts of entertainments, including plenty of lovely dark-eyed girls. Hell is a fiery furnace, swept by "pestilential winds," and bubbling with molten liquids.

"The Five Pillars of Islam"

The Koran also tells a Moslem precisely what he must do to qualify for admission to heaven. He must perform five religious duties, which Mohammed called "The Five Pillars of Islam."

The first is to say aloud, with full understanding and complete conviction, the Islamic creed: "La ilah illa Allah, Mohammed rasulu Allah" ("There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet"). Technically, it is sufficient to say the creed once in a lifetime (as on a deathbed), but devout Moslems actually repeat it many times every day.

The second duty is to face Mecca and pray, five times daily — at sunrise, at noon, in the early afternoon, at sunset, and at the fall of darkness. During these prayers, a Moslem assumes certain prescribed positions of kneeling and bowing. He is expected to pray at the proper hours regardless of where he may be — even if he is crossing the Atlantic in a jet airliner. On Friday — the Islamic Sabbath — Moslems go to a mosque for corporate worship.

The third Pillar of Islam is charity. Mohammed laid great stress on compassion toward the poor, and the Koran stipulates that each Moslem must set aside annually 2½ per cent of his total wealth (not 2½ per cent of his annual income, but of his entire capital) to be distributed among the poor.

The fourth duty is to fast during the holy month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Moslem year. The fast is extremely rigorous. From earliest sunrise — as soon as it is light enough "for a white thread to be distinguished from a dark thread" — until sunset, a keeper of the fast may not eat or drink (not even a sip of water), or engage in sexual relations. After the sunset, the rules are relaxed — but even then, good Moslems are expected to practice "moderation." When the Fast of Ramadan falls during the winter, when days are short, it is much less difficult for Moslems than when it falls during the long days of summer. Many Moslems get through the observance by sleeping away most of the daylight hours. As a result, normal business, government, and educational activities tend to come to a halt during the month of Ramadan.

Finally, every Moslem who is physically and financially able to do so is required to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his lifetime.

The Pilgrimage to Mecca

Mecca is sacred to Islam not only as the birthplace of the Prophet, but also because it contains the one ancient shrine which Mohammed did not abolish when he declared war against idolatry. It is called the Holy Kaaba. It is a massive, cubelike edifice of stone, veiled in blue-black cloth, and situated in the center of a great courtyard. Moslems believe that it marks the site of the first house of worship on earth — the temple at which Adam prayed after he was expelled from the Garden of Eden. According to Islamic legend, the Kaaba was destroyed by the great flood in the time of Noah, and was later rebuilt on the same spot by Abraham. Its holiest object is a black stone, resembling a large meteorite, which is set in the southeast corner of the Kaaba. In the old pagan days, Arabs worshiped this stone as a god. Mohammed allowed them to continue venerating it, but explained that it was worthy of respect because it was brought by the Angel Gabriel to assist Abraham in the rebuilding of the Kaaba.

Each year in the season of the great pilgrimage, more than 500,000 Moslems from all parts of the world converge on Mecca to trot seven times around the Kaaba and kiss the black stone. In addition to the prescribed seven circuits of the Kaaba, a pilgrim’s itinerary includes visits to other holy places, including the Plain of Arafat twenty-five miles from Mecca, where, according to legend, Adam and Eve were reunited after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and where Mohammed preached his final sermon before his death in A.D. 632.

Moslems also cherish the city of Medina, 220 miles north of Mecca, which gave refuge to Mohammed when, at the start of his ministry, he was driven out of Mecca by merchants who resented his assault on the city’s chief industry, idol worship. Mohammed’s Hegira, or flight from Mecca, occurred in A.D. 622. It is regarded as the turning point in the history of Islam, and marks the beginning of year on the Moslem calendar.

The Moral Rules

In addition to the Five Pillars of Islam, Mohammed laid down a number of other moral rules for his followers. He forbade drinking, gambling, the eating of pork, and the acceptance of interest on loans. These rules are still obeyed by some strict Moslems, but they have been considerably relaxed in more liberal Moslem circles, where they are regarded as time-conditioned exhortations that were necessary in Mohammed’s day, but that are not of the same unchanging and eternal nature as the Five Pillars.

Christians are often scandalized by Mohammed’s marriage rules. The Prophet said that a man might take up to four wives, provided he could afford to support them. He said that a husband could divorce a wife by saying to her on three separate occasions, "I divorce thee," and by giving her a suitable financial settlement.

These rules actually represented a tremendous advance in the status of women in the Arab culture of Mohammed’s day. Previously, women had been little more than chattel, and no one took marriage seriously enough to bother counting his wives or going through any formality whatever when he wished to chase one off. Females were held in such low esteem that girl babies often were buried alive.

Mohammed strictly forbade the murder of girl babies, and went so far as to require that daughters be permitted to share with sons in the division of an inheritance — a revolutionary step in the Arabic world. While he permitted polygamy, he made adultery punishable by death, and provided a whole range of cultural safeguards (including purdah, or veiling) to protect women from lascivious exploitation.

Islam’s toleration of polygamy is one of the three great advantages it holds over Christianity in their current competition for converts in Black Africa. Another advantage is that Islam’s record in race relations — and particularly in acceptance of dark-skinned peoples into full fellowship — is as good as Christianity’s is bad. Both Jesus and Mohammed taught that all men are brothers, but Mohammed’s followers have always taken the doctrine seriously, whereas those who proclaim the name of Jesus have only recently and timidly begun to act as if they really believed that whites and blacks are brothers.

Islam’s third advantage is that every Moslem — be he trader, diplomat, or tourist — considers himself a missionary, responsible for spreading the true faith wherever he goes. Several American Protestant bodies have tried in recent years to implant the same idea in the minds of laymen going abroad on government or private business, but without conspicuous success.

The Expansion of Islam

Considering all these advantages, it is no surprise to learn that Islam is winning ten times as many converts as Christianity in the newly emergent nations south of the Sahara. While accurate statistics are lacking, some studies indicate that a third of Africa’s 200 million people are now Moslems.

Islam has no hierarchic priesthood. Mosque services are conducted by an imam, a title which simply means "leader." Some Islamic sects have full-time, paid imams, comparable to Protestant pastors. But the imam is often a local business or professional man who is well-versed in the Koran.

Koranic scholars are held in great reverence. Although there is no central authority in Islam to decide questions of doctrine, many Moslems accord to Al Azhar University in Cairo a unique eminence in the preservation and interpretation of Islamic orthodoxy.

During Mohammed’s lifetime, Islam was an Arab religion, virtually unknown outside of the Middle Eastern land in which it was born. But within a year after Mohammed’s death, it had burst out of the Arabian Peninsula and was sweeping north, east, and west. The military victories of Arab armies (who threatened to conquer all of Western Europe until Charles Martel turned back their advance at the historic Battle of Tours in A.D. 732) unquestionably helped pave the way for the spread of the Islamic faith — just as European colonial conquests opened large areas of the world to Christian missionaries. But Moslems bitterly resent the charge, casually made in many Western history books, that Islam won converts at sword’s point. They point out that the Koran firmly admonishes: "Let there be no compulsion in religion," and they assert that this precept was observed in the toleration extended to Jews and Christians under Arab rule. In any case, they say, Christians have a lot of nerve talking about anyone else’s using violence as a weapon of evangelism. Remember the Crusades?

Within a century after Mohammed’s death, the boundaries of Islam stretched from Spain and Morocco in the West, to India and China in the East.

Today there are upwards of 400 million Moslems in the world. Only about 10 per cent of them live in the Arab countries of the Middle East. There are huge Moslem populations in Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, and Turkey, and sizable numbers in Nigeria, the Sudan, Russia, India, Kenya, Uganda, and in the new nations of West Africa.

According to the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C. (which has its headquarters in a lovely mosque on Massachusetts Avenue that has become one of the capital’s chief tourist attractions), there are about 100,000 true Moslems in the United States. Most of them are immigrants from Islamic countries, but there also are about 3000 American Negroes who have become converts to Islam.

These bona fide Negro Moslems are not to be confused with members of the so-called Black Muslim sect headed by a man who calls himself Elijah Muhammed. The Black Muslims adopt Moslem names, wear fezzes, and use a certain amount of Islamic ritual and language, but they are not true Moslems. For one thing, their chief doctrine — implacable hatred of white men — is contrary to the historic Islamic teaching that all men are brothers, regardless of race. Also, Elijah Muhammed has committed what any orthodox Moslem regards as the worst kind of heresy by billing himself as a prophet. It is a cardinal dogma of Islam that Mohammed was the last prophet, and that there will be no more after him.

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