What is Islam Part 2: where did Islam come from?

Where did Islam come from?  According to the Muslim worldview Islam is the natural religion of all holy men on earth.  According to this line of thinking every holy man from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to the Israelite prophets to Jesus (in their eyes he is merely a man and there will be much more on this later) were in all fact Muslims.  All these were messengers from Allah to the world to prepare the way for the final revelation to the last messenger Muhammad.  So then it is with the sudden appearance in history of this Muhammad that we see the beginnings of Islam as the world has come to know it, Muslim myths aside.

Muhammad was born in the caravan outpost of Mecca in the Hejaz, about 70 miles inland from the Red Sea on the Arabian Peninsula in the year 570 AD.  To put the time frame in perspective this is about a century after Odoacer deposed the last of the Western Roman Emperors, the boy Caesar Romulus Augustulus, in 476 AD.  This date has traditionally marked the end of the Roman Empire (in the West at least), though it was not the end of the Roman world.  One hundred years later when Muhammad was born the Roman world and the unity of the Mediterranean basin still very much existed.  The squabbling barbarian kingdoms of the West had sought neither to depose the Roman way of life nor the Church but to claim it as their inheritance, and they continued to pay homage to the very much still alive empire in the East and its monarch in Constantinople whose realm included Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa as master (in theory at least) of the world.  Where this world was not united however was in the Church sad to say.  By the year of Muhammad’s birth the Church had been riven by heresy, schism, and discord over the nature of Christ for a quarter of a millennium.  The lands on the northern edges of the Arabian Peninsula had by that time been buzzing with these Christological ‘controversies’ (as we have come to call them) and with a full host of rival heretical theologies for a period of time that was longer than the history of the United States as a country at the time of writing.  This then was the world that Muhammad was born into and it could not have failed to have an impact on his life.

Muhammad was orphaned at an early age; his father died either before his birth or during his infancy and his mother at the tender age of six.  He would end up being raised first by his grandfather Abdul-Mutallib and, after his death, by his uncle Abu Talib.  As a result of this Muhammad seems to have exhibited a great devotion to the care of widows and orphans throughout his life.  His grandfather and his uncle were successful members of a growing merchant class in the Mecca of the day and their trade missions took them far afield and into the Christian world.  Islamic tradition records that the twelve year old Muhammad accompanied Abu Talib on a journey to Damascus where they lodged at the renowned monastery of Busra.  A Syrian monk is said to have recognized the young Muhammad as a great figure sent by Allah and begged his uncle not to take him into Damascus for fear of harm coming to the child at the hands of the city’s Jews.  Abu Talib immediately sold all of his trade goods for a lesser price and went back to Arabia.  There are echoes in this account both of Saul of Tarsus and his Damascus road experiences and of the priest Simeon’s recognition of our Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem and the subsequent flight of the Holy Family to Egypt more than half a millennium before.  Whatever one makes of this tale it does show an early familiarity with the Catholic world by this man whose followers were, in the not too distant future, to launch such an assault on that world.

Muhammad then grew in wealth and respect and experienced great success in the field of international trade that culminated in his marriage to a wealthy widow fifteen years his senior named Khadija.  Muhammad is recorded to have spent much time during the next several years meditating in the mountains and caves outside of Mecca.  Then one night in his fortieth year he entered the cave of Hijra outside Mecca and heard the voice of an angel who called himself Gabriel and gave him this command:

اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ خَلَقَ الْإِنسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الْأَكْرَمُ الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ عَلَّمَ الْإِنسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ

Read in the name of thy Lord Who creates – creates man from a clot, read and thy Lord is most Generous, who taught by the pen, taught man what he knew not. (Qur’an, 96:1-5)

Though it lies near the end of the book this is generally agreed by Muslim scholars to have been the first of the utterances of the angel that Muhammad recorded in the Qur’an.  These utterances all compiled together into this one work would go on to change the face of the earth.  They would build the foundation of the only serious rival that the Catholic Church has ever had in this world.  So it is to the Qur’an that we will turn in the next section.  For there is much to read concerning our Lord and his Mother (oddly enough) in this strange text.  And it is from these accounts that I think we can begin to draw some conclusions about what Islam really is and from where it comes.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome and for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.

What is Islam? Part 1

Islam has strode across the earth like a force of nature for the last fourteen centuries.  It stormed out of one of the most barren places on earth, the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, during the seventh century and took what had been one of the richest and most civilized areas of the planet (Syria, Mesopotamia, and North Africa) from what remained of the Roman Empire and cut the Mediterranean Sea, the great highway of the classical world since the days of Homer and the first Greek colonies some 1,300 years before, in two; cutting the northern and western shores from the eastern and southern shores in a stark division that would last to the age of Napoleon and culturally and religiously continues into our own day.  The armies of Islam also turned east and removed the Sassanian Persian Empire which had stood for four centuries and was the successor state of the more ancient realm established by Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes.  Over the succeeding centuries the advance of Islam caused the vast majority of Christians from the Tigris to the Straits of Gibraltar on the southern shore of the Mediterranean to apostasize  while it completely swamped the old Zoroastrian religion of Iran and drove its remaining adherents underground far from their ancient homeland.  In short Islam utterly changed the face of the world, and in a very short period of time from the middle of the seventh to the middle of the eighth century.  But what is Islam?

Islam has, at its root and core, several commonalities with the Catholic understanding of the universe and it is important to understand these things in order to understand where Islam came from, why it has been so successful, and what its destiny may be.  There are of course stark divisions as well that have led to the permanent divide between the Catholic and the Islamic worldview down through the centuries.  But I must say that the commonalities are intriguing though, in this age of political correctness, they are often either exaggerated or completely ignored.  So let us start with Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate on the Catholic Church’s relationship with non Christian religions and examine its short section on Islam:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

The first thing I would like to tackle is the short second paragraph.  The attitude of ‘forgetfulness’ toward the history of conflict between the Church and Islam seems vastly out of place in our own day and time, especially in the era that has followed the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001.  But we must remember that this document was composed in the early 1960s: fifteen years before the Islamic Revolution in Iran that started the current incarnation of Islamic militancy which is at the moment ripping the Middle East to shreds and having follow on effects throughout the globe.  That age was an age of (misplaced) optimism regarding the human condition.  Islam was viewed as a spent political force not only in the West, but in large swathes of the Middle East as well since everything seemed to be subsumed into the then current global Cold War conflict between the United States and Soviet Union.  There was optimism among the hierarchy of the Church that the world seemed to be changing at such a rapid pace that this age old religio-political conflict between the Christian and Muslim worlds that had animated the life of Europe and the Middle East from the seventh to the nineteenth century might simply disappear.  Subsequent history shows this belief to have been mistaken.

Now to return to the first paragraph.  It’s declarations are obviously true.  I would only add to it that the belief in the immortality of the human soul is also common between the Faith of the Catholic Church and the Islam.  So what is the source of these commonalities?  Islam emerged in a Catholic milieu.  The Catholic Church was the dominant force in the Middle East, North Africa and southern and western Europe at the dawn of the seventh century.  It is hard for us who live in the twenty first century to conceive of a Catholic Middle East, but in those days it was taken for granted.  And it was also true that by the beginning of the seventh century the Church had spread out of the Roman Empire and far beyond the Mediterranean basin.  The only outside worldly opposition came from the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian Persian Empire but even there were a sizable Christian presence existed, heretical and schismatic though it was, and these Christians were sending missionaries along the Silk Road as far east as China.  The world seemed to be opening itself up to the Catholic Church, but there were dark clouds as well.

The Church was plagued by division, schism, and heresy.  They had in fact dogged it since the Apostolic age but exploded into a theological ferment once Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D.  They all revolved around the nature of the person of Jesus Christ.  These seem like obscure controversies today, and are often portrayed by militant atheistic historians who have dominated the field since the so called ‘Enlightenment’ as three centuries of arguing over nothing, a joke.  But they were not a joke.  They were deadly serious.  If one is in error concerning the nature of Jesus Christ then one is in error concerning the nature of God, the nature of his relationship with Himself and with the universe that He created, the nature and destiny of man and of his relationship with God.

These controversies and errors were rife in the Eastern Roman Empire and had spread out beyond its borders.  They had defined cultural and religious life in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Mesopotamia for three centuries by the time that Islam came into being and would have been well known along the caravan trails of Arabia down as far as the oasis towns of Yathrib (Medina) and Mecca.  This was the milieu that Islam came out of.  And it explains partly where these commonalities that Nostra Aetate speaks of have their origin.  In the next part I will take a closer look at this Catholic milieu from which Islam emerged and at its founder Muhammad.

Pray the Rosary, pray the Joyful Mysteries on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.