Islam: An Introduction to Religion, Culture, and History

Islam: An Introduction to Religion, Culture, and History

by James A. Beverley


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An essential introduction to the culture, history, and practices of the world’s second largest religion. Professor James A. Beverley provides answers to questions many Christians have about Islam. Issues include what Muslims think about God, the world, and their place in it; how Muhammad established a religion that now stretches around the world, how different groups within Islam define Jihad, why Palestine is important to Muslims, what roles women play in different Islamic communities, and how Christians should relate to Muslims.

Features include:

  • Glossary of terms related to Islam
  • A list of Frequently Asked Questions for easy reference
  • Topical bibliography for further study

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781418545956
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 04/19/2011
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

James A. Beverley is Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, California and a Professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Canada. He is a contributing editor to Christianity Today magazine, and a frequent contributor to Faith Today and Charisma magazines. He has specialized for twenty years in the study of modern religious movements. He is the author of many books including Holy Laughter & the Toronto Blessing. Jim and Gloria have two adult children.

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An Introduction to Religion, Culture, and History

By James A. Beverley

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2011 James A. Beverley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4185-4595-6



The Nature of Islam

One out of every six people on earth is Muslim, a follower of Islam, the second largest religion in the world, next to Christianity. Islam has been a religious, cultural, and political force since the seventh century AD. Today it plays a dominant role in the Middle East and large sections of Africa and Asia.

The Four Foundations of Islam

As in all religions, Islam has a core, an essence, a sort of DNA that has defined the religion from the beginning. The best way to begin to grasp this basic and fundamental identity is to recognize four absolutely key realities in the faith of all Muslims. These keys to understanding the Muslim faith are the same for all groups within Islam.


What is absolutely primary in Islam is a total belief in Allah (the Arabic term for God that is also used by Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians), Muslims believe with conviction that there is one supreme creator, an infinite, eternal power who can do all things and knows all things.

According to Muslims, Allah is the perfect, wise, merciful, and just guide who holds all humans accountable for their deeds, both good and bad. All of this is captured in the first verses of the Quran (Koran is the former English term), the Muslim scripture. "In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds." (1:1–2). It continues: "Master of the Day of Judgment. You do we worship, and Your aid we seek. Show us the straight way" (1:4–6).


Muslims also believe that Allah has spoken to the world through Muhammad, the seal (final and greatest) Prophet. The vast majority of Muslims believe that Muhammad (who died in AD 632) was sinless. Every area of Islamic life is patterned after what Muhammad taught, what he did, how he dressed, how he responded to threats, and what he said had been revealed to him by Allah.

The reverence and adulation of Muhammad is hard to overstate, though Muslims do not believe he was divine. However, those who cast aspersions on the prophet are in extreme danger, as Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born Muslim, discovered when he wrote The Satanic Verses. The Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death order on him because he thought Rushdie had slandered Muhammad.


Further, the Quran is absolutely fundamental to all Muslims. This is the Holy Book. Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to Muhammad and is the literal, actual Word of Allah. It should be recited in Arabic, the original language, should be memorized and studied, but never questioned as an ultimate source of authority.

Islamic views on everything are determined by what the Quran says or by what can be deduced from its general teachings. Thus, polygamy is acceptable to Muslims because the Quran says so. Some Muslim's believe women must be veiled because of an interpretation of one passage that demands modesty. In some countries with Islamic law the hand of a thief is amputated because the Quran says this is to be the punishment. Muslims have certain views about Jesus because of teachings in the Quran.


Islam is also a religion of law. While every faith has general principles, some groups like like Orthodox Judaism and Roman Catholicism have elaborate rules. In Islam, Shariah (SHAR rih ah) law extends to every area of life, including how Muslim nations are to obey God's will.

The history of Islamic jurisprudence is very long and complicated, especially after Islam experienced a serious division following the death of Muhammad. Basically, Islamic law is derived first from the Quran, and then from the example (sunnah) of Muhammad. When neither the Quran nor the Prophet's life and teachings speak directly on issues, most Muslim legal authorities depend on reason and consensus to formulate either new laws or judgments based on the massive codes of law given in the three centuries after Muhammad's death.

The scope of shariah law is amazing to most non-Muslims. Consider, for example, some of the matters addressed in Islamic Laws, written by Ayatullah al Uzama Sye Ali-al-Husaini Seestani, a famous judge in Iran. He provides rulings (known as fatwas) on thousands of topics, including: (1) what direction should be faced when using the bathroom, (2) when swallowing thick dust makes fasting void, and (3) how much is owed Allah in almsgiving if a Muslim owns sixty-one camels.

The Five Pillars of Islam

Just as the Ten Commandments shape Judaism, the five pillars of Islam constitute core patterns of faith for most Muslims.


The primary pillar is a confession of faith known as the shahadah, which reads: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet." Devout Muslims repeat this statement several times each day.


The second pillar involves the discipline of prayer (salat) and the call for all Muslims to pray at five specific times every day, facing Mecca, the holiest city. In traditional Islamic cultures, the call to prayer, resounding from the minarets (towers) of the mosques (houses of worship), brings all other activity to a halt.


This third pillar is known as zakat. The zakat is collected by a few Muslim states, but most Muslims give through leaving money in the metal zakat box in their local mosque. The money is used to help the poor and for emergency situations. The zakat involves giving 2.5 percent of a Muslim's assets, but it is not charity since it is an obligatory act, one that is usually to be done in private.


Muslims are to intensify their spiritual focus through the fourth pillar sawm (fasting), from sunup to sundown during the entire month of Ramadan (the ninth month in the Islamic calendar). Unless prohibited by poor health, Muslims are to abstain from all food, water, and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. The fast offers a time for spiritual reflection, repentance, and giving to the poor. The whole Quran is often recited in evening worship over the thirty-day period. Ramadan ends with a three-day feast.


The fifth pillar, known as the hajj, is the command for all able-bodied Muslims to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. Every year 2 million Muslim pilgrims make their way to Mecca. Outside the city both men and women don simple white garments, and enter Mecca while reciting "Here I am at your service, O God, here I am!" They circle seven times around the Kaaba, the temple built by Abraham and Ishma'il. The pilgrims engage in a ritual of running between two mountains outside of Mecca, in memory of the plight of Hagar looking for food and water. Muslims also throw stones at a pillar that symbolizes Satan, and sacrifice animals in memory of the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Seven Other Major Beliefs

From the aforementioned, we know that all faithful Muslims believe that Allah is the one true God. They also want to emulate Muhammad, obey the Quran, pray, give financially, fast, take the pilgrim's journey to Mecca, and obey the law of God in all things. Beyond these overriding and paramount aspects of Islam, seven other fundamental beliefs help paint an accurate picture.

Islam has Existed Since Creation

Muslims believe that Islam began long before Muhammad. They assert that Islam started when God created Adam and Eve, and that Islam was the religion of faithful Jews and Christians. So, according to Islamic tradition, Moses was a Muslim, and Jesus was too. Younis Shaikh, who taught at a medical college in Pakistan, was arrested in October 2000 for allegedly saying that Muhammad's parents were not Muslims and that Muhammad did not become a Muslim until he was forty.

Humans Are Not Born Sinful

Though Muslim views are similar in some ways to Christian tradition, Muslims do not believe in original sin. This is the concept that all human beings are born with a sinful nature. Muslims do believe that Adam rebelled against God's law in the Garden of Eden, but there was no fall of the human race, as is taught by most Christian groups. Humans are frail and weak, prone to temptation, obviously, but not predisposed toward sin.

God is Sovereign

Muslims believe in the total sovereignty of God. Islam's emphasis on this belief cannot be overstressed. In parts of Afghanistan, goals in soccer games are celebrated by shouting "Allahu akbar" ("God is great"). When I visited Kenya in 1994, I saw a vivid display of Islamic trust in God as I visited a poor Muslim area. There, on top of the most meager little home you can imagine, the owner had a sign, bigger than his house, proclaiming his faith in the great Allah.

Everything is Predestined

Muslim theologians developed a very rigid doctrine of predestination out of the emphasis on Allah's total supremacy. If God is all knowing and all powerful, He must, in some sense, be responsible for everything. If nothing really deviates from His will, and He knows the future, everything must be predestined—or so it has been argued. Some analysts of Islamic culture believe that a sense of fatalism has emerged as a result of this Islamic preoccupation with predestination.

The Spiritual Realm is Vast

Islam also teaches that our universe is home to angels, devils and spirit-beings known as jinns. Islam shares with Christian tradition a belief in Satan or the supreme devil, an angel who chose to rebel against Allah. Muslims also believe in angels, disembodied spirits who obey God. The English term genie derives from Muslim stories about the jinn, supernatural entities who can do both good and evil.

There will be a Day of Judgment. Islam has very definite views about the Day of Judgment. At a time known only to Allah, the world will end. All humans will be judged by their deeds. Humans await either eternal punishment in the fires of hell or eternal bliss in heaven. Islam has no Catholic notion of purgatory, and virtually no openness to any idea that all humans will eventually reach paradise.

The Quran describes Hell explicitly:

Those who reject our Signs, We shall soon cast into the Fire: as often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the penalty: for God is Exalted in Power, Wise (4:56).

Heaven is the Home of the Righteous

Muslims believe that heaven is the eternal home of the righteous. It is described in the Quran as a wonderful garden paradise, an image especially appealing to Muslims used to the sands of the Arabian deserts. There will be no sin, no death, and no tears in heaven. There will be special reward for Muslim martyrs. A few famous verses in the Quran promise that faithful Muslim men will be rewarded by beautiful women when they enter paradise. For both men and women the Quran states that "the greatest bliss is the good pleasure of Allah" (9:72).

Jesus is a Muslim Prophet

Muslims claim that Jesus is a prophet of Islam. Given the bitter hostilities between Islamic and Christian empires in history, it is often assumed that Muslims have no interest in Jesus. While Muhammad is the chief prophet, Muslims also look to Jesus as a spiritual guide. Often when Muslims speak of Jesus, they will add the phrase "Peace Be Upon Him," just as they do when Muhammad's name is mentioned either vocally or in print. For short, in writing you will often see "Muhammad (PBUH)" or "Jesus (PBUH)." Muslims also believe that Jesus will return at the end of time to defeat the forces of the Anti-Christ.

There are significant differences between Muslim and Christian understandings of Jesus. This is most easily seen by a list of Muslim negative assertions about Christian views. For Islam, Jesus is not the Son of God and not an incarnation of God nor is Jesus divine. He did not die on the Cross at Calvary as a sacrifice for sin. He was not put in a tomb outside Jerusalem. The Christian story of Easter is not true, though Muslims do believe that Jesus went to heaven when He died years after attempts to have Him crucified failed.

Muslims do agree with Christianity on the following points: Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, was a prophet of God, lived a holy life, taught with wisdom and love, and performed many miracles. Muslims also unite with Christian tradition in teaching that Jesus was persecuted for His faith, was opposed to idol worship (as most Jews would be), and is now in heaven.



The Prophet of Islam

Some histories regard Muhammad as the most significant person in human history. Though Christianity claims more believers, these historians believe Muhammad had a greater impact on history because of the breadth of Islamic political power, the depth and range of Islamic spirituality; and the way in which Islam brings its ideology to bear on every facet of life.

Whatever the merit of this judgment, anyone who reviews the history of the world since the seventh century can see the profound impact Muhammad made in his lifetime and since. Muslims believe, of course, that Muhammad is the Prophet, the final Messenger of Allah. Thus our understanding of Islam is intrinsically linked with our knowledge and assessment of its Prophet.

The Profile of a Prophet's Life

This profile is based on what most Muslims believe about Muhammad. Many scholars argue that the data about him comes too long after he died to provide historical certainty about his life. Muslims generally accept that he was born about AD 570. Muhammad's world was tribal Arabia, where people believed in many gods.

Muhammad knew pain early in his life. By age six or so both his parents were dead. His mother died right after he was born, and his father died later. Muhammad's grandfather raised him for two years until his grandfather's death. An uncle then took care of Muhammad until he reached his teen years. Some scholars of religion speculate on how these early losses may have had an impact on Muhammad in terms of his later ideology and behavior.

A merchant named Khadijah came into Muhammad's life, and they were married in 595, when Muhammad was about twenty-five. Though Khadijah was considerably older, she bore him at least six children, and by all indications they had a loving marriage. Muhammad did not have other wives until after Khadijah's death in 619.

On the seventeenth night of the Arabic month Ramadan, 610, Muhammad's life changed forever, when he was on Mount Hira near Mecca. Muhammad claimed that the angel Gabriel visited him in a powerful, terrifying, and transforming encounter. According to the earliest documents, a shaken Muhammad returned home and turned to his wife for confirmation of his prophetic call.

Three years later Muhammad began to preach to his Meccan neighbors. His message of one God met fierce resistance. Arabs were polytheistic. Mecca's main shrine, the Kaaba, said to be built by Abraham, was home to many gods. Muhammad gained some converts immediately, one of the most famous being his friend Abu Bakr. His earliest followers came mainly from the poor clans of Mecca, drawn to Muhammad's message of social reform.

Muslims believe that on a night in 620, one year after the death of Muhammad's first wife, the angel Gabriel brought Muhammad to Jerusalem on the back of a heavenly horse named Buraq. Then, according to Muslim tradition, Muhammad ascended to the seventh heaven, on his way meeting Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets. Muhammad then met God. Muslims believe that the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is built on the spot from which Muhammad ascended. This episode is known as the miraj and is said to be the subject of surah (chapter) 17:1 in the Quran.

Two years later, in 622, in year one of the Muslim calendar, Muhammad was forced to flee to Medina, about 250 miles north of Mecca. Then, for eight long and bitter years, the Prophet engaged in repeated military battles with his Meccan enemies. There were significant victories (most notably on March 15, 624, at Badr) and major setbacks (one being at Uhud just a year later).

By January 630, however, Muhammad triumphed, took control of Mecca, and destroyed the idols in the Kaaba. Medina continued to be his home base. He led military campaigns in northern Arabia, and returned to Mecca for a final pilgrimage in early 632. He was in poor health at the time, traveled back to Medina, and died on June 8 of that year, in the embrace of Aisha, one of his many wives.

Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that philosophy is one long footnote to Plato (see Process and Reality). Likewise, Islamic history is one long footnote to Muhammad. Thus, Muhammad's journey—in all of its detail, from the mode of his prayer life, to his treatment of Jews and Christians, to what he did in battle—is the example for all Muslims.

Muhammad's life must not be compartmentalized, as if his spiritual life was distinct from his family life, military career, political strategies, or economic views. For Muhammad these were part of a seamless whole. Islam continued this pattern by refusing to think that the religious and the secular should be divorced. Thus, for many Muslims the American model of the "separation of church and state" is unacceptable.

Historical Accuracy and Muhammad

As we will see in the next section, there is a wide range of opinion about what we can know about the historicity of sources about Muhammad's life. There are five major sources for historical analysis: (1) the Quran, (2) biographies of the prophet, (3) hadith (sayings of Muhammad), (4) tafsir (commentaries), and (5) tarikh (Muslim histories).


Excerpted from Islam by James A. Beverley. Copyright © 2011 James A. Beverley. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Preface to the Second Edition, vii,
Preface to the First Edition, xi,
1. Islam, 1,
2. Muhammad, 11,
3. Quran, 21,
4. Muslims, 33,
5. Women, 51,
6. Jihad, Terrorism, and September 11, 63,
7. Palestine, 75,
8. A Christian Response to Islam, 87,
9. Now What?, 93,
Appendix A: Key Dates, 97,
Glossary, 105,
Frequently Asked Questions About Islam, 109,
Bibliography and Additional Resources, 113,

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