Islam: A Way of Life

by Rev. Thomas C. Donlan, O.P.

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“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Messenger.” That simple creed, expressed in eight words of Arabic, declares the religious faith of nearly 800 million Muslims. They are a majority in the Arab world. They are found in the Soviet Union, China, Black Africa, India, the Philippines, Eastern Europe and Malaysia. One out of every five human beings is a Muslim.

Islam once engulfed a large portion of Spain and all of Sicily and the Mediterranean islands. Medieval Christendom feared Islam, much as the West today fears Communism. It was driven out of Western Europe only by force of arms. But the Crusades, launched by the West to wrest the holy places of Jerusalem from its grasp, were finally defeated. Only 100 years before the American Revolution, Muslim armies reached Vienna, where they were routed by the forces of the Catholic King of Poland. It was not until the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the first World War that Islam went into decline.

Today, there is a religious re-awakening in Islam, a new sense of identity and self-awareness. The followers of the Prophet are approximately equal in number to Catholics worldwide. Muslim countries of the Near East control the major sources of the world’s oil. Islam is once again on the march.

Few Americans know any Muslims. Fewer still have visited the countries where Islam predominates. And fewer than those know anything about this religion which shapes and controls the lives, economies, politics and cultures of 20% of the world’s population.

How did it all start? Why is this faith so dynamic?

It started with Muhammad, who was born around 570 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. His father died before Muhammad’s birth; his mother died when he was six years old. Muhammad was raised by his grandfather and later by his uncle, who was a merchant.

The uncle took him on various trips, teaching him the arts of buying and selling. During these trips, the young Muhammad met Christians and Jews and learned something of their differing religious beliefs.

About the year 595, Muhammad was in charge of a caravan owned by a rich woman named Kadija. Impressed by the young merchant’s skill, she proposed marriage. Muhammad accepted, although she was 15 years his senior. They had several children, of which only their daughter, Fatimah, survived.

Muhammad was revolted by the degraded paganism of his fellow citizens of Mecca. They worshipped a variety of “gods” as did the earlier Greeks and Romans. The people were heavily taxed. Most of them were loaded with debts that kept them in virtual slavery. The situation was ripe for change.

When he was 40 years old, Muhammad retired to the grotto of Hira, near Mecca, to search for spiritual peace. There he had a vision of a creature who seemed to be “made of light.”

“He told me he was the angel Gabriel,” Muhammad recounts in the Koran, “and that God had sent him to say that I had been chosen as God’s messenger.”

Only his wife, Kadija, a few friends and relatives supported Muhammad’s belief in this revelation. It was the first of a series that would last throughout his life.

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