Friday Sermon: Excursions in Islam 1

By Babatunde Jose

The month of Ramadan holds many more treasures for Islam than the fasting from dawn till dusk for 30 days. Apart from the ambience of holiness associated with the month and the nearness to piety induced by the hallowness of the rituals, not to talk of the fast being one of the pillars of the faith; there are other important issues associated with the month which are not too discernible to the run of the mill faithful. Ramadan is the month during which the religion of Islam was born and its scripture, the holy Quran revealed and its Prophet Muhammad was called as a messenger. These are the most defining moments in Islam and they all occurred in the month of Ramadan.

It started with a scriptural revolution in the Middle East which began in the first century with the Mishnah and the New Testament and it berthed in Arabia during the month of Ramadan in 610 AD, when Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim known in history simply as Muhammad, had a terrifying vision in a cave on Mount Hira near Mecca and received the first words of a new Arabic scripture in a revelation through Angel Gabriel. Later, he would call that momentous night Layla al-Qadr, ‘Night of Destiny’; because it had made him a messenger of Allah. Muhammad was devastated by the experience but was reassured by his wife Khadija, who told him firmly that he had received a divine revelation. Despite the timing of the revelation and the call to prophethood, the institution of the Ramadan fast would come later as the new religion gets consolidated and accepted.

The first word of the scripture dictated by God to Muhammad had been ‘Iqrah!’, ‘Recite!’ For twenty-three years until his death, Muhammad continued to receive revelations. Eventually these revelations were collected in the scripture that we call the Quran or the ‘Recitation’. The codification would come after the death of the prophet, under ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, the third Caliph.

The Quran contains 323,015 letters, 77,439 words, 6,616 verses and 114 chapters or suras. One important self-expression is found in the Quranic term kitab: A careful collection and analysis of the 261 appearances of this word in the Quran reveal multiple significations that range from the divine inventory of all creation to the eschatological record of every human deed.

The basic doctrines that Muhammad taught were that God was one, the creator of humankind and the natural world, and that the recognition of a plethora of pagan deities was an affront to God and his unity. Closely tied to this was the notion that the world would end at the last judgment, when all souls would be brought before God and judged by him on the basis of how they had lived their lives.

The Arabs were descended from Ishmael, Abraham’s elder son and thus were cousins of the Jews who are descendants of Isaac. According to Arab folklore, Abraham and Ishmael had rebuilt the Ka’ba, the cube-shaped shrine in the middle of Mecca, which had originally been built by Adam. The Ka’ba has over the millennia become a venue for congregation of people from all over the Arabian Peninsula, where they performed ancient rites (howbeit of pagan nature) around the building during the month of the Hajj pilgrimage. This establishes the fact that the Ka’ba and the concept of Hajj predate the emergence of Islam.

Tribal warfare had escalated in the peninsula, and, further afield, the great empires of Persia and Byzantium seemed bent on destroying one another in a series of devastating wars. Within Mecca, too, there was spiritual malaise and dissatisfaction. The Quranic solution to the problems of Mecca began to unfold in the very first revelation: Iqraa, or Proclaim! (or Read!) in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created; From an embryo created the human … Created man, out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood: Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful, He Who taught (the use of) the Pen, Taught man that which he knew not. Nay, but man doth transgress all bounds, In that he looketh upon himself as self-sufficient.  Verily, to thy Lord is the return (of all). Quran 96:1-8)

‘Touch your head to the ground!’ God commanded at the end of the surah (chapter). Thus was born the religion of Islam, which demands the ‘surrender’ (Islam) of the ego. A Muslim was a man or woman who had made that existential surrender.

But this ‘surrender’ must be articulated in practically expressed compassion. The Prophet began nearly every recitation of the Quran with the invocation: ‘In the name of God, the Compassionate [al-Rahman], the Merciful [al-Rahim]’; these divine attributes had to be incarnated in Muslim society.

Muhammad began preaching the message embedded in these Revelations to his fellow Meccans, and won some early adherents, but many members of Quraysh were deeply suspicious of his preaching. Muhammad and his followers faced increasing opposition and, as time went on, harassment by Quraysh. His uncle Abu Talib, as head of the clan of Hashim, protected him but he soon died and in 622 AD, Muhammad and his supporters in Mecca emigrated to Yathrib – henceforth to be known as Medina – and established themselves there. The hijra, as this emigration is called, marked the beginning of the Muslim community as an autonomous political community, and the year in which it took place – 622 AD – was subsequently adopted by Muslims as the year 1 of the Islamic calendar (AH 1).

The Quran regards all scriptures as inspired by God and transmitted through a line of prophets to different groups of people. The Psalms were revealed to David, the Torah to Moses, the Gospel to Jesus, and now, finally, the Quran to Muhammad. Later, Muslims would acknowledge the validity of the Zoroastrian Avesta and the Indian Vedas. Where Jews and Christians tended to be more exclusive in their idea of revelation, the Quran insisted that Muslims must honor the revelations received by every single one of God’s messengers: Say: “We believe in Allah, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in (the Books) given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets, from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another among them, and to Allah do we bow our will (in Islam). (Quran 3:84) see also Quran 3:85 where it said “If anyone seeks a religion other than complete devotion [Islam] to God it will not be accepted from him. When read in context, Quran 3:85 clearly reject the idea of an exclusive faith. Each of the revealed religions is said to have its own din, its own practices and insights. Religious pluralism, therefore, was God’s will: To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people . . . (Quran 5:48) God is not the exclusive property of any one tradition, but is rather the source of all human knowledge. This is most germane to our post colonial multi-religious state; there is no exclusivity to God. He is everybody’s God.

Barka Juma’at and Ramadan Kareem

 Ramadan Prayer 1

O Allah! Make my fasting the fast of those who fast (sincerely), and my Qiyam in prayer of those who stand in obedience. Awaken in me the sleep of the heedless, and forgive my sins. O creator of the world! Forgive me O Forgiver of sins.


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