Foundations of Belief and Practice

James Levi Barton

Mohammedanism takes its authority from two sources, the Koran and tradition. While these two sources are distinct, widely separated and sometimes apparently contradictory, if either one should fail, Islam would suffer serious loss. Both are held in sacred deference and wield transcendent power in the control of Mohammedans in all parts of the world and in unifying their belief and practices. Both of these sources must be studied by all who would understand the followers of the prophet and especially by those who would attempt to present to Moslems the truths of Christianity.

When Mohammed died, his revelation existed only in fragments in the hands of the people and written upon all sorts of materials. We will not pause to consider whether these were penned in whole or in part by Mohammed himself. It is sufficient for our study to know that soon after his death the Caliph, Abu Bekr, at the suggestion of Omar set out to assemble these scattered fragments into a continuous and authoritative canon of Islam. This process of collection began the year after Mohammed died and, under the hand of Zeid, the chief secretary of Mohammed, was soon completed. One of Mohammed's wives had kept important passages in a chest, while others were still in the hands of scribes and secretaries who first wrote them down from the lips of the prophet. Some were written upon palm leaves, on fragments of parchment, on stones and bones and in the memories of men. The compiler industriously sought to secure from written statements and from those who had committed to memory the spoken words of their revered leader, everything that had been spoken or written by him or at his dictation. These chapters or suras were assembled into a book that made only a rude attempt at order in arrangement of chapters with reference to chronological sequence, context or subject.

This collection was copied widely and distributed in distant countries. It afterwards came to the attention of Othman, fifteen years after Mohammed's death, that these copies varied greatly from one another. They were all called in and destroyed and an authoritative text was issued, copies of which were deposited in the leading Moslem cities. This became the standard version that has been enforced by law; thus the Koran has maintained a remarkable uniformity of readings throughout the entire Moslem period. The book is one over which there has been little discussion as to the true text; since that question was authoritatively settled within two decades of the death of their prophet. Uniformity of text did not prevent widely divergent and contradictory statements appearing in different parts of the book. These show the absence of a system in the mind of Mohammed as well as radical change of opinion in different periods of his ministry.

Whenever these amount to irreconcilable contradictions, the theologians hold that the passage last revealed should take precedence over all others. Even here there is much ground for controversy owing to the fact that in every case the chronological order of the utterance is difficult to determine since some of the suras are made up of earlier and later revelations. Without regard for the order of writing, the longer suras or chapters are put first in the canon and the shorter ones last. Since the later suras were generally the longest, there is almost a reversal of the natural order, and consequent confusion.

In spite of these defects, the Koran is held by Moslems in veneration and as the word of God delivered to men through the mouth of his holy prophet. It is the absolute guide for all Mohammedans both in religious and in secular affairs. It is the sacred law for the Moslem courts as well as the last court of appeal for the state. After the promulgation of the constitution in Turkey in 1908, and the assembly of the two houses of parliament at Constantinople, reports of the proceedings of parliament frequently contained the statement that a measure proposed for action was referred to the Sheik-ul-Islam for report thereon as to whether it were in accord with the sacred law of the Koran. If the report were unfavorable, the measure was dropped or so modified as to put it into harmony. No matter with how many variations the meaning of the text may he interpreted, its authority is never questioned.

This gives to the Moslems a book bearing the unquestioned stamp of Mohammed, believed to be the prophet of God who revealed the contents of the Koran to his chosen prophet; thus the Koran becomes to the Moslems the very word of God, the source and fountain-head of their sacred religion.

In addition to the Koran and of secondary importance come the teachings of Mohammed. This includes whatever he is reported to have said as well as the things he is reported to have done In the endeavor to interpret the Koran. recourse was had to reports of what the prophet had said or done during his life. At the same time, long discussions were held as to what the prophet would have done under certain actual or hypothetical circumstances. Out of these sayings and discussions, there has grown a vast body of traditions embodying statements or reported habits or practices of Mohammed, all of which serve to supplement the Koran in matters of faith and practice. These traditions have varying shades of authority according to the character of the line of witnesses through which the tradition has been preserved. Hundreds of thousands of these sayings or reported acts have been handed down, at first orally, but later committed to writing. Upon these, various schools of theology have grown up, and many sects, often differing widely from each other in their religious practices.

We may compare these Moslem traditions to the creeds, doctrines and discussions of the early Christian church that have been handed down to us and that so frequently are given equal or even greater weight in Christian discussion than direct teaching of Christ and the Apostles. There are some who put more emphasis upon the findings of a church council than upon the words of Paul, and who hold a historic creed in equal or even greater respect than the direct command of Christ.

The Moslem traditions have been carefully collected and preserved. Dr. Zwemer states that there are 1465 such collections in existence, but that only six of these are classed as standard by the orthodox school. This collection furnishes a field for the work of the higher critic surpassing anything to be found in our own Christian records. Let no one think that criticism was born with the critics of our own Scriptural records. Mohammedanian has had them for more than ten centuries, though they work on the traditions, not on the Koran.

One of the critics of Islam's traditions, Abu Dawud as-Sijistani, declares in his work upon the subject, that, out of 500,000 traditions he examined, he recognized as trustworthy only 4800, and yet he states that, among the 4800, he had included some that, in his judgment, were "nearly authentic."

The great variety and number of traditions which shape the daily practices of the follower of Mohammed and the uncertainty to who are orthodox and who are not, has opened a wide field for difference of practice among Moslems. These variations occur more frequently in practice than in fundamental belief, although, in some cases, like that of the difference between the Shiahs and Sunnis, they include matters of supreme importance, even though both parties accept the Koran without dissent.

The value of a tradition depends upon the trustworthiness of the parties responsible for the transmission of the story, as nearly all for some two centuries were handed down orally. Owing to the phenomenal memories of men of that period and country, when writing was little used and the memory was trusted to carry even long poems and important historical records, undoubtedly these traditions give us much accurate knowledge of the life and teachings of Mohammed. The point we need to keep in mind is that in the Koran we have but a fraction of the teachings and practices of Mohammedanism. No Moslem sect bases its belief and practices upon the Koran alone. Scholars err in assuming that when they have mastered the Koran they have mastered Islam. The traditions bear as important a part as the Koran itself.

Whatever else may be said, Islam is the religion of Mohammed. In the belief of Moslems the Koran came through him alone and the traditions that have followed are all connected with his person and his life. He shares with no one else the honors of Islam. All who have contributed to the success and progress of Islam in the world have done so because they were true to their leader, to them the prophet of God.

When Mohammed appeared in Mecca the inhabitants of Arabia were broken up into a great number of tribes or clans. The Arabs and the Jews had little in common and Christians were apart from all others. Blood relationship was the dominant bond, uniting peoples for enjoyment, protection or aggression. While Christianity had introduced the idea of fraternity through religion, it had not become associated with the ideas of government or of Christian armies for purposes of conquest. It remained for Mohammed to bring to the scattered tribes of Arabia and through them to other tribes and races, the idea of a religious bond that took precedence over the ties of race or tribe. He taught that difference of belief is what divides men and not difference of blood, and this new principle became the basis of organization for world conquest.

The Koran was written in Arabic, since that was the language spoken by Mohammed and his followers and was the only language with which they were familiar.

It is evident that Moslems have misinterpreted the utterance of their prophet upon the subject of the language of the Koran. Mohammed said,-

XLII. "Verily we leave made it an Arabic Koran that ye may haply understand."

XLI. "And if we had made it in a foreign tongue, they had surely said, 'Unless its verses be clearly explained, etc."

XXXIX. "An Arabic Koran, free from tortuous wording, that haply they may fear God."

There are other quotations of a similar import.

Tradition has seemed to make these declarations mean that the Koran was written in Arabic because it was a sacred tongue and therefore it must not be put into any other language. Unquestionably it was the purpose of Mohammed to reach the people of Arabia through the medium of the language there spoken, and had he lived to propagate his gospel among people of other languages, he probably would have advocated putting the Koran into that language also. The above quotations from the Koran seem to warrant that supposition. It is reasonable to assume that the preaching of Mohammedan missionaries would have been more efficacious had they been able to present the Koran in the vernacular of the persons addressed.

To three-fourths of the Moslem world Arabic is a dead language. It is however the sacred language of Islam which is not to be lightly regarded nor taught to unbelievers, according to the Mohammedan commentaries. It is the language in which the Koran was handed down to earth, and, according to the strict interpretation of Mohammedanism, the language in which it must eternally remain.

In the earlier days no attempt was made to translate the Koran into other languages, because the followers of Mohammed understood Arabic. Later, however, when Mohammedanism spread to Persia, India, among the Turcomans, as well as among other races, in order to prevent those people from losing their hold upon Mohammedanism, certain translations were either permitted or looked upon with indifference. At the same time Moslems were conscious of the fact that the Bible, and especially the New Testament, was being translated into languages read and understood by Mohammedans, and particularly by those who did not read and understand the Arabic. This, necessarily led to a recognition of the fact that Mohammedanism in such cases was at a disadvantage, and, in order to defend their own religion, versions in other tongues seemed to be essential.

The first translation of the Koran into any other language was into Latin in 1143; this translation was not discovered, however, until 1543, when it was published in Basle. This was afterward rendered into German, Italian and Dutch. A second Latin translation was made in 1698, followed by some others.

The first French translation was printed in Paris in 1647, and better ones followed. One Sura was translated into Spanish in the l3th century, but so far as is known there has never been a complete Spanish version.

There was probably an early Hebrew translation of the Koran, because fragments leave been discovered. In the 17th century there was a translation into Hebrew, and in 1857 a full Hebrew translation of the Koran was printed in Leipzig.

The first German translation was made from the Latin in the 17th century, followed by others. A Dutch translation was printed in 1641. A Russian version appeared in St. Petersburg 1776; an Italian version in 1547.

There was a polyglot edition of the Koran printed in Berlin in 1701, that gives the Koran in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Latin.

There have been many English versions. The first was Ross' translation from the French in the latter part of the 17th century. Sale's translation, appearing in 1734, has passed through many editions and is widely known today. In 1861 a new translation was made by Mr. Rodwell, with Suras or chapters arranged chronologically. Dr. Margoliouth regards this as one of the best produced. Edward Henry Palmer made a translation in 1880. There are two English translations by Moslems, one that appeared in another in 1911.

One of the earliest versions for the use of Moslems was made into the Urdu language by a Mohammedan Sheik in 1790; this has gone through several editions. An Arabic Persian interlinear edition was published in Calcutta in 1791; there also a Persian translation of the Koran.

In more recent years there has been unusual activity translating the Koran into vernacular tongue used by Mohammedans who are not able to read the Arabic.

To sum up: The Koran has been translated into twelve European language, not counting the polyglot editions, and in these languages, thirty-four versions, not less than eight in the English language alone. In Oriental languages there are some ten versions.

From the missionary standpoint, this is an advantage, since he can induce Mohammedan readers of the Koran in their native tongues to compare its teachings with that of Bible, and so secure a more intelligent bearing; thus they will be able to reach a more intelligent conclusion. It is understood, however, that these versions of the Koran have not yet had wide circulation, and the Mohammedan leaders centers like Cairo and Constantinople have discouraged the translation of their holy book into any vulgar tongue.

A Moslem lawyer in Lahore, India, recently, in protesting against the mistaken policy of not allowing Moslems to have the Koran in their native tongue, said "The reason Christians succeed is because everywhere they have the Bible and say their prayers in their mother tongue; whereas we have wrapped up our religion in an Arabic dress. We should give the people the Koran and let them say their prayers in their own language."

It is reported that this statement was met by an orthodox Mohammedan with the counter-statement, "Thou art thyself an unbeliever to say such things1."

The Egyptian Gazette states that there is to be issued shortly, under the auspices or the Moslem community of England, an authorized English translation of the Koran. For three centuries there have been in existence English translations of the Koran, but none of which were issued under Moslem auspices. The translator of this new version is an English and Arabic scholar who has devoted six years to the task of translation. Not only does the issuance of an authorized translation of the Koran indicate a wide departure from the teaching and practice of Islam for 1200 years, but they go even farther than this and are to make special terms for the purchase of the book by non-Moslems. The old idea that "None shall touch the book but the purified," and that infidels must not be permitted to purchase the Koran, is thus set aside and a new era begins.

The extreme fatalism so often attributed to Mohammad is hard to reconcile with the emphasis he puts on prayer, fasting, alms-giving and the pilgrimage. He calls prayer the Pillar of Religion, and the key of paradise, and yet if all Moslems are destined to be saved, why the need of prayer?

In actual practice, Moslems do not differ so much after all from the multitude of Calvinists who find themselves unable to limit the fore-knowledge and the power of God, while at the same time conscious of self-determining faculties. The Mohammedan finds no difficulty in acknowledging the supreme fore-knowledge of his God and in praying to him for favor. In actual practice, however, Moslems are decidedly fatalists. This is one of the chief reasons for the rapid spread among them of epidemic and contagious disease. They will not apply preventive measures, as Allah already knows what the end is to be. Dr. Cyrus Hamlin tells of an old Turk in Constantinople who, in the midst of a cholera scourge in the city, was eating a green cucumber, skin and all, brought from the open market. The doctor warned him of his peril and advised him to throw away the remainder of his meal. The Moslem replied, "If I was born to die of cholera I will die of cholera when the time comes, no matter what I eat or where I eat it." He proved that he had been destined to die of cholera that night.

The backwardness of Moslems in education, enterprise, inventiveness, and along all lines of progress so characteristic of the west, has been attributed to the strong element of fatalism that is interwoven with Moslem thinking, and relates to so many of the acts of their daily life. To the Moslem his future is assured by the fact that he is a Moslem. Over him Allah watches - a great Master above his own. Why should a mere man, exert himself in a fruitless attempt to alter the fixed order of the universe? It is the line of least resistence, to let God have his own way, both in the direction and control of the world without as well - of the life within.

From early in the Medina period Mohammedans have observed Friday as a day of special worship in the mosques or places of common prayer. It makes little difference as to how the day came to be chosen; the fact remains that to a degree Friday is to the Moslem what Saturday is to the Jews and Sunday to the Christians.

The Moslems do not regard Friday as a day in which no secular work shall he performed, but its primary significance lies in the instructions of the prophet that upon Friday all true believers assemble in their places of worship and engage in united prayer and listen to religious instruction. Mosques are used on other days for prayer and often for group prayers and for preaching, but unusual significance is given to Friday's, when religious addresses or sermons upon a variety of topics may or may not he given by a recognized leader. The mosque service upon Friday, requiring no address, is not as fixed in its form as is the worship of most Christian bodies, where the sermon figures so conspicuously. Friday is the day usually chosen for the announcement to Moslems, of any great event like a call to a holy war and for inciting to any concerted action.

A devout Moslem is not left in doubt as to his obligations to his religion. The instruction to all Mohammedans are so explicit as to his duties as a Mussulman, and these duties are so few in number and so within his powers of performance, that a new convert can be quickly introduced to all the mysteries of his religion and instructed in the new ritualistic duties he has assumed.

The first obligation is to learn the creed or confession of Faith. As it is the shortest confession of Faith of any religion or even of any sect, committing it to memory imposes no severe task even upon the most illiterate. The creed is "There is no God but God, Mohammed is the Prophet of God."

This is constantly repeated by the believer and may be called the battle cry, the watchword of Islam. Tradition reports that Mohammed once said that "Whoever repeats this creed shall receive rewards equal to the emancipation of ten slaves and shall have 100 good deeds put to his account and 100 sins blotted out, and that the formula will be a protection from the power of the devil."

Wherever Moslems are found, this creed is the conspicuous sign and seal of their faith. It is inscribed upon banners and door posts, engraved upon coins, printed upon public documents, repeated in prayer, used as an exclamation of surprise, as a defense in danger, and as an expression of joy. As a sign and seal of conversion to Islam, the repetition of this formula aloud and before witnesses is all that is required,. although it is expected its meaning will later he explained and that the believer will believe it in his heart.

The second required act of Islam is Prayer. This does not mean a spirit of devotion that pours itself out in praise and petition to God, but simply the committing to memory of the stipulated prayers of the faith and the utterance of the same at the times fixed and in the way prescribed. These prayers are all in Arabic end can be offered in no other language. One who does not know Arabic is forced to learn a series of expressions conveying to him no meaning, but which he must repeat at stated intervals and under certain conditions to meet the prayer exactions of his religion.

The first condition of prayer is that it shall be offered five times each twenty-four hours, at stated intervals, wherever the believer may be at that time, and in whatever condition he may find himself. The second condition requires that it be addressed towards the Kaaba in Mecca. Private houses and all public places of worship are so constructed that the worshiper will meet with no difficulty in determining the proper direction for his prayers. Another, and one of the most exacting preparations for Moslem prayer, is legal purification. Upon this there is no little difference of opinion, and books have been written explaining and describing the value, effect and efficacy of purification by water, or, if water is not available, by sand, in preparation for prayer. These instructions as to method often go into the most puerile and even disgusting details. While this ceremonial purification was undoubtedly inaugurated as a sign and seal of inner purity, and is even mentioned as such in theory, this is not alluded to either in the Koran or in the more elaborate directions regarding prayer preparation.

The posture in prayer is of great significance, beyond the point of compass to which it is directed. It consists of a series of hand and arm motions, genuflections and prostrations at certain fired points in the wording of the prayer itself. Any departures from the letter of the instructions nullifies all that has preceded and the whole formula most be repeated. The prayer consists of quotations of phrases and even chapters from the Koran, which include expressions of praise, confession of sin, and petitions for guidance and help.

The true Moslem is enjoined to pray at dawn, just after noon, two hours before sunset, at sunset, and two hours later. The first prayer must be offered before the sun has risen. These hours of prayer are all preceded by the call to prayer from the minaret, given in a clear, penetrating and far-carrying voice and in the Arabic language. The new convert to Islam is carefully and minutely instructed as to what is expected of him in the matter of prayer.

The third demand of the Moslem is that of fasting. Every Moslem is expected to observe the month of Ramazan, or Ramadan, the ninth month of the Moslem lunar year. This is the chief and by far the most important fast. Tradition speaks of fasting as for God alone Who will give the reward. It says, "Every good act that a man performs shall receive from 10 to 700 rewards but the rewards or fasting are beyond reason." During this month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, not a drop of water or a morsel of food is to pass the lips. Even smoking is forbidden. There are exemptions for travelers, invalids, infants, etc. The severity of this fast, especially when it comes in the period of long days, is alleviated by turning night into day, so that much of the period of fasting is spent in sleep. Among the especially pious, voluntary fasting is not uncommon. Mohammed said, "He who forsakes the fast of Ramazan becomes an infidel, whom to deprive of his property and his life is lawful." This accounts in part for the care with which this fast is guarded.

Every Moslem is expected to give alms. This pillar of Islam rests upon tradition and is based upon the reported example of the Prophet. The word used is "Zakat," which means purification. and is applied to legal alms or the poor fund. This is called purification, because the theory is that the gift of a part of one's possessions or income purifies or sanctifies what remains. Under Moslem rule, alms were collected by the pious tax collector, but under Christian governments they are voluntary. The recipient of the alms may be any one of the following, the poor, the homeless, the tax collector, slaves, debtors, those fighting for Islam, and travelers. It is deeply ingrained in the Moslem mind and belief that credits from giving alms, even the granting of hospitality, will greatly accrue to his advantage in paradise They look upon Zakat as an investment in futures which it sure to yield large and lucrative returns.

The last demand upon the Moslem is the Pilgrimage to Mecca. This is incumbent upon every free Moslem who is of age and has sufficient means for the journey. All who make the pilgrimage are highly honored throughout the Moslem world. They are taught to believe that special favors from God, both for this world and for the world to come, can be purchased by such a pilgrimage. If, for any reason, one can not personally make the journey, he is at liberty to engage a substitute to go for him. Incidentally the pilgrimage has played an important part in solidifying Mohammedanism and impressing upon Moslems the reality and the unity of their religion.

Other practices, like circumcision. and various fasts and festivals, have played a large part in the administration of Islam. Circumcision is not mentioned in the Koran, but has become the initiative rite among Moslems throughout the world. This is based wholly upon tradition.

The above five pillars of the faith of Islam comprise the substance and practices of the faith to, which a convert can readily conform, and by conforming he becomes a Moslem In good and regular standing. While some of the exactions are severe, and none of them especially east, they present to the convert a clear and precise program of procedure which leads him into the holy of holies of the religion of the Prophet. No independent thought or judgment is required, or even permitted, only obedient submission and an unquestioned compliance with the precepts and traditions of the faith. The simplicity and clearness of the demands as well as the self-surrender required, all add to the strength of Islam and have a tendency to bind to each other and to their religion all followers of Mohammed.

Mohammed established a religious state founded upon military principles. The two conceptions were inseparably associated2. "That he who possesses material power should also dominate the mind is accepted as a matter of course; the possibility that adherents of different religions could live together as citizens of the same state and with equal rights is excluded." Margoliouth sees in the five daily prayers a military drill, and in the fasting month a test of endurance, and in the claim of being the leading religious caste on earth with the right of all that was outside, an enthusiasm provoking force. It was in this last feature that warriors conceived themselves as fighting for God to win the world to him. Under this theory the Moslem world became a mighty military camp, daily disciplined for service and ready always for aggressive action.

To this should be added the idea of the equality of all true believers, which was a fundamental doctrine with the prophet and probably intended to be without exception. There was no hierarchy of officials. He made no permanent appointments, not even his successor. The officials he appointed were for local or temporary purposes. This equality of believers became attractive to the tribes of Arabia, especially those that had not succeeded in acquiring wealth or power. The democracy of Islam has been a source of strength in the appeal it made to those who admired the power of a triumphant leader, with whom the humblest believer might be upon terms of equality To the lower classes, the suppressed and the helpless, Islam came with a message of uplift and cheer, and inspired a hope of altered conditions.

In later years, permanent officers and a certain amount of rank and title have crept in. This was probably necessary for the organization and control of the Moslem state. But one cannot fail to note that wherever this has been done, as in Persia and Turkey, conversions to Islam have been nil except through the employment of external force. Wherever Islam is making headway among pagan tribes and peoples, the doctrines preached are those that won in the first century after the death of Mohammed.

Mohammed made no claim to pre-existence, and the strictly orthodox Moslems deny his pre-existence, his power of intercession, and that his person and tomb should he reverenced. But the Sunnis as well as the Shiahs are accepting traditions that declare his pre-existence even hefore the creation of the world in the form of "the light of Mohammed." It is but the Sufi doctrine of the Primal Will and the Arian doctrine of Christ. This has inevitably led to the idealizing of his earthly life, not entirely dissimilar to that of Confucius by his follows in China. The sinlessness of Mohammed is proclaimed, and the pronunciation of his name is vested with delivering power and saving grace.

The strict unitarianism of Mohammed can hardly be said to exist today in the face of the general practice of Mohammedans to deify their Prophet. This is a direct, and, to the orthodox, an embarrassing, innovation, which seems to be upon the increase.

To the deification of Mohammed is added the prevalence of saint worship, or at least of sacred veneration. Some of the sects, like the Shiahs, venerate the Imams as manifestations of God and sometimes as very God. Many of these are credited with divine powers, even to the performance of miracles. Thus the dwelling place of the dervish and the tomb of the venerated Sheikh become shrines to which the devout make pilgrimages and from which supernatural aid is invoked.

This veneration of saints is carried to absurd extremes in Persia especially, and among the Shiahs everywhere, but also in other parts of the Moslem world. Such beliefs and acts are unauthorized by the Koran. This movement appears to have grown out of the desire upon the part of Moslems to discover a mediator between God and man. Islam offers no relief, and so almost by instinct Mohammedans have first ascribed this office to their Prophet and then to conspicuous religious leaders.

1 For a full statement on this point we would refer to the Moslem World for July 1916, pp 244-261.

2 Dr. C. Snouck Hugronje.

The Christian Approach to Islam, by James L. Barton, Pilgrim Press 1918, Chapter VIII (pages 115-131).

Essays by James Levi Barton
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