Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Response #2, Margo McLean

Margarette McLean

Introduction to Islam

22 October, 2019

A ‘worldview’ encapsulates one’s most fundamental beliefs and assumptions concerning the physical world. Often, a worldview answers the difficult questions such as “What happens after we die”, and “Why are we put on this earth?” Religion the most commonly shared worldview, unifying groups of people from vast regions of the globe. The Islamic worldview is unique from other Abrahamic faiths, unified under the five pillars. The classical period of Islam (9-13th century) was crucial to creating a unified worldview, establishing Islamic law and building institutions. Some of the most significant Islamic institutions established in the classical period include the Ulama, Madrasa, Waqf, and Hajj. This paper will explore the divine mandate of Islamic law, how it is reciprocally legitimated through Islamic institutions and finally, how the marriage of religion, law, and education in the classical age created a unified Islamic society under God. 

 The Islamic World View began to take shape near the end of the 7th century. It was an elaboration of Qur’anic scripture, Sunnah Hadith and the beliefs of Muslims of the time. The first pillar of Islam states, “There is no god but God.”  God holds great importance in shaping the Islamic Worldview and distinguishing Islam from other religions. As the first article of Islamic faith, He is the foundation for all Islamic literature, philosophy, and law. God is known to have ninety-nine names, or attributes, which are revealed in the Quran. 

Tawhid confronts the paradox and duality of God’s existence according to his attributes. For example, God is thought to be both Mercy and Wrath, two seemingly contradictory descriptors. Yet, to understand Tawhid is to understand the dynamic nature of God and his abilities. “The opposition might be better called complementarity. As soon as we understand that the two opposites names are in fact two sides of the same coin, we come close to tawhid, or to showing that unity underlies multiplicity.” (Murata, Sachiko, 72) The unity or “oneness” of God in Islamic tradition is uncompromising and unyielding. Thus, it is believed that “Each thing is confronted simultaneously with mercy and wrath, gentleness and severity, life-giving and slaying, bestowal and withholding, reality and unreality. This is tawhid.” (Murata, Sachiko, 73) Another example of the duality in God’s attributes is as Life-Giving and Slaying. Muslim’s believe there is no absolute death, instead, a revelation of the world. This is because God is absolute life, and while his creations may be “slain,” they continue to exist in some capacity. 

The Islamic worldview maintains that humans are God’s messenger, intrusted with his message as his humble, yet worthy, servants. In what is known as the “hierarchy of creation,” humans are considered superior to all other animals which is why they were selected as the messenger. A justification of humans’ proximity to god in the hierarchy of creation is the concept of naming. “By teaching Adam the names, God gave him power over the named objects… knowing the name is equivalent to knowing its identity and reality, and without that knowledge, we cannot control and manipulate things.” (Murata, Sachiko, 122) Thus, God gave humans this knowledge, which translates to power and most importantly, the responsibility to serve Him. 

Quranic scripture and literature distinguish Islamic faith from other Abrahamic faiths, strengthening the Islamic worldview. For example, the Koran story of the Garden and Adam and Eve’s “fall” to earth disputes the claim of innate sinfulness in the Bible’s Genesis. Muslim scholars believe that the two “slipped” after mistakingly eating the apple, tricked by satan. Yet, in Islam, their descent to earth marks the beginning of mortality and an opportunity to learn. Thus, while Christian believe the fall has tainted all humans with inherent sin, Muslims believe that there is God’s beauty in all– inherent good. (Murata, Sachiko, 142) This is an example of how, while Christianity and Islam share scripture and analogies, the analysis and rhetoric of such tales delineate a clear divergence in religious philosophy. 

The unified Islam world view depends on a belief in Tawhid (a single, all-knowing god,) personal responsibility as God’s messengers and the distinct differences that distinguish Islamic thought from that of Christianity or Judaism. 

Islamic Law and Institutions:

Muslims believe that humans require guidance instead of salvation, since humans are not inherently evil. This guidance is established under Islamic law, a legal institution that informs day to day life for Muslims. The foundation of Islamic law (Shariah) is the Quran and the Sunnah, or authentic Hadith. Sunna contextualizes the Qu’aranic scripture and includes rituals and practices to be performed by practicing Muslims. Further, “In manuals of islamic law, which follow a fairly stable structure after the ninth century, more than half of the attention is directed to the duties that humans owe to their creator.” (Brown, 126) Therefore, it appears that religiosity is both the foundation for Islamic law and the pinnacle of all righteousness under its law. 

Islamic law accounts for the heterogeneous structure of the Muslim world, inspired by cross-cultural exchange, expansion, etc. This heterogenity was synthesized under Usul al-fiqh, the framework of Islamic law, and the “roots of jurisprudence” (Brown, 130) The sources of all Islamic law– as discussed in legal manuals and amongst Muslim scholars– are, first, The Qur’an, then the Sunnah, then defaulting to judicial precedent and scholarly consensus. While seemingly arbitrary, jurists from the ninth century onward have agreed upon this four-source framework. There are many schools of jurisprudence, including Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii (among others) however, all aim to protect the religious practice, life, sanity, the family, and personal and communal wealth. (Teaching Tolerance) Thus, Sharia is not a code of laws, but a collection of religious and legal scholarship that developed in the classical period. (Costly, “The Origins of Islamic Law”)

 It is important to note differences in the Sunni and Shi’a traditions concerning Islamic law. According to Brown, although fiqh does not differ from Sunni schools on most points there are exceptions. (Brown, 125) For example, specifically in Shi’a schools, it is believed that the Shi’a imams are included in the teachings of the Sunnah. Further, they maintain that the word of God is the most important, thus they don’t believe that a scholarly “consensus” is legally sound. 

Ulama were the ‘jurors’ Islam, responsible for enstating and protecting Islamic law. According to Brown, “During the eighth-century legal circles [Ulama] formed in opposition to the caliphs developed in regional centers, formulating independent legal ideas and traditions. The most important of these centers were medina and kufa.” (Brown, 132) In this passage describes the birth of Islamic law, brought about in the classical period. The centers Brown mentioned expanded, and In the year 1070, under the Turkish Dynasty of the Seljuqs, colleges were created in over a dozen of the largest cities of the empire. These institutes for higher learning included a multidisciplinary curriculum and, as a result, built the Ulama class. (Brown, 75) By institutionalizing higher education, creating educational programs and scholarly textbooks, scholars and students were given greater access to the words of the Koran, which in turn, strengthened Islamic law.

Under the Ulama, the Waqf was also established. The Waqf is a religious institution created to benefit the poor. While it was regarded as a charitable foundation, more importantly, it was established to accumulate merit in the eyes of God. (Morgan, 21) After a waqf is created, the property is “detained” and no longer transferable or “for sale.” There are two types, public or private. Private waqfs are passed down to the children and their offspring. Public waqf includes mosques, Parks, bridges, Madrasas, and books. There was an element of reciprocal legitimation by the Waqf, as “[they]were used by rulers as an instrument of public policy, secure their influence and prestige with the public…” (Morgan, 22) Thus, with the divine mandate from God, Muslim leaders ensured their political success by campaigning on a shared worldview as their constituents. Further, by establishing Madrasa under their rule, according to a Waqf, they were given unobstructed access to the curriculum of higher education as a mode of legitimizing their politics. 

Special attention must be paid to the pious rituals and institutions that formed under Islamic law. Because, “God, it turns out, has specific and demanding ideas about how his servants must show their respect.” (Brown, 126) While all Islamic law is informed by religious scripture, there is extensive legislation and literature on the specificities of religiosity. For example, under Islamic law, one must undergo ritual purification. The religious duties outlined in the Islamic legal code include salat, funeral obligations, Zakat, (a poor tax), and Hajj, among others. (Brown, 127)

The fifth pillar of Islam, Hajj is considered the Islamic institution for forgiveness. A chance for renewal. It is a once in a lifetime obligation, to be performed at Mecca in a pilgrimage to the Kaaba. (Chittick, 12)The Hajj is a five-day ritual, with specific participatory requirements including maturity, ability, sanity. Further, the Hajj ritual itself prohibits indulgences such as mirrors and sex. It is a series of circumvolutions around the Kaaba, prayers, rituals, and migrations. It is on the Hajj that, “The physical journey is neither more nor less than an outward enactment of the interior journey, the journey from the periphery of our being to the center, the Heart which, for Islam, is the point at which the vertial and horizontal meet, the point at which the divine intersects with the human” (Chittick, 14) The deeply spiritual are attune to the exoteric significance of the rituals, connecting Muslism to their forefathers, following in Muhammad’s and Abraham’s steps. For example, there is an animal sacrifice, that is thought to originate from Abrhamaic times. This symbolizes the sacrifice of the body, as “it is not the flesh that reaches God nor is it their blood. It is your piety that reaches Him” (Chittick,18) Another ritual includes forty-nine stones to throw at the pillars of Mina in hopes of destroying their evil thoughts and desires. Thus it is performed in hopes of achieving forgiveness and mercy for God. 

During the classical period, three philosophical schools of thought developed. Kalam, falsafah, and theoretical Sufism. The institution of sufism has revolutionized the Islamic world, known to “unveil” the higher truth. “Sufis use the law as a springboard, but go beyond it for it is the knowledge of union rather than duality” (Lecture, Mahallati, 2019) Known as the “Mystic branch of Islam” Sufi’s are concerned with the soul, how one may achieve “oneness.” Sufi scholars have been highly influential Muslim community, in fact, “The most imporant legal and theological debates of later medieval Islam are concerned with issues raised by Sufi teaching and practice” (Brown, 156) Further, Sufi poetry is highly regarded both in the East and West for its harmonic stylic and spiritual themes. Sufi poet, Rumi, has recently gained popularity in the west, demonstrating the universal nature of Sufi poetry and thought. 

According to Brown, “Law is the hub of the wheel that connects to every aspect of Islamic belief and practice.” (133) Islamic law facilitates daily pious practices, political and legal institutions, philosophical discourse and daily guidance. This “wheel” of Islam is dependant on a shared “hub,” which is the shared world view of Islam. Without this shared religiosity, or belief in the way the world operates, Islamic law and thus Islamic society would not have taken hold. Islamic law provided an institutional foundation to the Koran and Islamic literature. The establishment of Madrasa, the school of Ulama, Waqf and the pious rituals such as the Hajj during the classical era created the structural integrity of Islam, derived directly from the five pillars. Further, philosophical schools of thought, such as the Sufi sect, make the teachings of Islam more accessible to the public (non-muslims.) According to this evidence, I believe that during the classical period, Islam positioned itself as a powerful monothesistic soceity with expansive power and prestige. 

Work Cited:

Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction to Islam. Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2017.

Murata, Sachiko, and William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. Srinagar, Kashmir, India: Gulshan Books Kashmir, 2015.

Morgan, Claire. The Good Society. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2002.

“Sharia.” Teaching Tolerance. Accessed October 22, 2019. https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/publications/what-is-the-truth-about-american-muslims/sharia.

Costly, Andrew. “The Origins of Islamic Law.” Constitutional Rights Foundation. Accessed October 22, 2019. https://www.crf-usa.org/america-responds-to-terrorism/the-origins-of-islamic-law.html.

Chittick, William C. The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition. Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press, 2007.

Mahallati, Jafar, Lecture notes, 2019

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