Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Islam: What Catholics Should Know
As time progresses, we Catholics are going to rub shoulders more and more
with Muslims, those who follow the Islam religion. After all, there are 1.2 billion Muslims,
compared to about 1.5 billion Christians, one billion of whom are Catholic. The Muslims
we hear most about in the news are fundamentalists who in no way represent the Muslims
living in our communities. Our challenge as Catholics is to get to know more about our
Muslim brothers and sisters. As the bishops at Vatican II wrote, Although in the
course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and
Muslims, this sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual
understanding. In this Update well look at Islam in a broad sense. Well
look the founding of Islam and examine the five pillars of Islam.
Who was Mohammed?
Unlike Christians, who believe that Jesus was the Son of God and an indivisible
part of God, Muslims believe that the Holy Prophet Mohammad (570-632) was a man and that
he followed Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon and Jesus as the last of the great prophets
to receive divine revelation. A Muslim believes in the revelation of God through the Quran
that was given to Mohammad. For a Muslim, the Quran is God’s Word.
Mohammad was born in Mecca (in what is now Saudi Arabia) in 570. When Mohammad
grew up he became a merchant, traveling as far as Yemen and Syria with his uncle, Abu Talib.
On these long journeys, Mohammad mixed with Christians and Jews and was attracted to the
notion of One God. He keenly felt that the Arabians, who worshiped many gods at that time,
were bereft of a calling to One God.
Mohammad was also acutely aware of the unjust distribution of wealth and
the plight of the poor, the masses of people who had no access to the necessities of food,
clothing and shelter in the harsh climate of the desert where everything was scarce.
When Mohammad was 40 years old he experienced a profoundly life-changing
mystical experience. Through the mediation of the angel Gabriel, Muslims believe, Mohammad
received the first in a series of revelations, which came to him over a period of 23 years.
His wife and cousin encouraged him to speak more widely of what he saw and
to recite the inspired vision to others. Mohammad tested the authenticity of his revelations
with prayer and fasting. It was two years before he went public with his profound religious
experience. Those who heard him were caught up in his enthusiasm and the truthfulness
of the transmission that came in full poetic, graceful Arabic that was beyond his personal
capacity to compose or contrive.
In the last years of Mohammads life and shortly after his death in
632, Islam spread with lightning speed throughout the Middle East. By the end of the eighth
century, Islam had reached central Asia and India and had spread across Mediterranean Africa
and into Spain and France.
Mohammads death was sudden. The instability that resulted led to many
years of struggle and dissension among his followersparticularly between those who
followed Mohammads son-in-law Ali (known as Shiites) and those who wished another
follower, Abu Bakr, to be leader (a branch of Islam that became known as Sunni).
The Quran, a revelation of God
The central place of the Quran in the life of the devout Muslim cannot be
exaggerated. The Quran, as revealed to Mohammad and recited by him and then recited through
the centuries to our present day, is received by Muslims as the Word of God. Since God
is One and God speaks through this scripture there is no doubt about its authenticity,
authority and place in the heart and on the lips of every Muslim. For Christians, there
are obvious parallels in seeing Jesus Christ as the Word of the Father.
The Quran (the word means recitation) was revealed to Mohammad
verse by verse over the space of 23 years. It contains 114 chapters, or suras, which
cover a range of topics from reverence for Allah to practical ways of living.
The Quran does not work in the same way as the Christian New Testament, put
together in the decades after the death of Jesus. Rather in the Quran the form is arranged
with each sura being shorter than the one before it, and it is not designed to be
read so much as recited. Its narrative is cyclical and reiterative, poetic and profoundly
I was privileged to be present when an imam showed us the inflections
he had learned, and, as he moved through the recitive, I was reminded of our Gregorian
chant, which also has its pauses, inflections and distinctive rhythm and premodern notation
based on the range of the human voice with no accompaniment. I am struck by the absolute
grasp of and reverence for the Quran communicated by Muslims. The name Allah, after
all, is simply the Arabic word for “God,” the one God of Judaism, Christianity
1. Profession of faith. The first of Islams five pillars is
the ultimate profession of their faith: There is no god but Allah, and Mohammad is
the prophet of Allah. This statement is repeated at least five times each day by
the muezzin in the minaret of every mosque around the world as an invitation to
Just as it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the Quran for a
devout Muslim, so it would be hard to exaggerate how central this first pillar of belief
is. The belief in the One, transcendent God is the pole around which the whole religion
orbits. There is no other like God, no modifier. God, simply, is God.
While Islam traditionally lists 99 names that praise and glorify God, revealing
some of Gods characteristics (subtle, nourisher, watcher, originator, etc.), Christians
need to understand that there is no possibility of division or distinction, as there is
in the Christian notion of the Trinity, or in the idea of Christ, whom Christians consider
to be both divine and human.
Notice there are two distinctions here that differ from the Christian notion
of God: God is One, not Trinity, and secondly this unity has a converse view that any differentials
would diminish God as God, so Gods Oneness is what it means to be God. Nevertheless,
in spite of these deep doctrinal differences with Christianity, all Muslims honor the monotheistic
traditions of Christianity and Judaism because we worship the One God. We are all people
of the book, a testament to the respect that Islam has not only for scholarship but
also for the wisdom contained in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
The transcendence of God is the dominant belief for a Muslim. No image, doctrine,
or dogmas can express the reality. The recognition of this transcendence is sacred enough
to cause the complete and total surrender of a creature. This was the main message of Mohammad,
who saw himself as reminding all peoples of the reality of Gods transcendence.
The surrender implicit in this first pillar is observed and not just assented
to notionally by the other four pillars of Islam. The personal and individual humans
surrender is the way of salvation. There is no mercy through a human savior; every person
must bend his will and lift up his mind in assent to Gods transcendence. God will
reward the adherent with mercy and a life hereafter. One is a Muslim to the extent she
or he appropriates the God-consciousness of Allah. There is no baptism or membership without
practice. The five pillars literally sustain and constitute the faith.
2. Prayer is carried out five times a day: at dawn, noon, midafternoon,
sunset, and after the fall of darkness or at bedtime. The actual prayers are accompanied
by ritual cleansing, hand gestures, body bows and prostrations, and prescribed rubrics
that apply whether praying alone or with others.
The practice of regular prayer throughout the day gives to time nothing more
or less than graciousness. The practice turns time inside out. What in my early
years of monastic life was an interruption to my day (all that stopping for prayers and
starting again) turned into a ceaseless and seamless way of being in time.
Morning, noon and night offer a natural impulse of the human spirit to rise
and give praise. When I was present for the Muslim salat, I felt as though I was
at home with my nuns in Beech Grove, Indiana. It was the same God, the same praise, the
same bended knee.
The other similarity that exists between the religions in this regular kind
of daily short prayer is the humility such practice requires.
When the call to prayer is sounded you have to stop what you are doing and
go to chapel or the mosque. There is no fudging or promising to pray twice as hard later.
You have to leave your computer, your hoe or your basket. There is a higher power that
rightfully claims your time, over and over again, demanding you to acknowledge your submission
and allowing you to respond yes over and over again: God is God and I
obey. This is a right relationship.
There is great power in the group. My community of 82 nuns carries me when
my devotion is tepid and my inclination is capricious. I see that same zeal among my Muslim
friends. The stopping for prayer is the norm allowing us to be God-conscious during the
in-between times and to help God-consciousness become pervasive. We then return to ritual
prayer thankful for this felt presence of God.
The combination of frequent gathering for prayer (as we Catholics do in Divine
Office) and ceaseless personal prayer allows us to keep the memory of God ever present.
Doing this shifts our ordinary consciousness from remembering that God is present to an
abiding experience of Gods Presence. The essence of God then pervades with peace
and work is no longer alone. Ora et labora, we used to say: Our
work is our prayer and prayer is our work.
3. Almsgiving. The third pillar of Islam involves a serious redistribution
of wealth. Since all is given by God, then nothing of what I own is mine, unless it is
shared according to Gods will. Muslims traditionally give 2.5 percent of their wealth
to the poor, although this tithing sometimes has taken the form of a tax if the government
is Muslim. Nevertheless, the intent remains the same: to give to the poor and to be a just
and peace-filled society.
The pillar of almsgiving is not only because a just society requires equity
but also because earthly prosperity is the sacrament whereby God is mediated from heaven
to earth. Jewish and Muslim roots establish a this-worldly goal of economic
well-being as the proof of Gods blessings. Muslims also have these riches continuing
in a heavenly realm. Muslims believe that God wants his people to prosper and to live in
rich abundance. Therefore, grace is not invisible, but instead visible through family,
offspring, property, security and good order.
In Islam the leadership is lay. Mosques are centers of worship, as well as
of learning and study of the Quran, and these may raise up an imam as a leader.
However, there is no formal ordination ceremony. The imams I have met qualified
for their position by reciting the Quran and living the life with exactitude. As a religion,
Islam has the minimum amount of infrastructure that requires overhead and maintenance.
A mosque (the word itself literally means a place to prostrate) is often stunningly
beautiful architecturally and can be brilliantly ornate. However, all semblance of opulence
is to be avoided and most staff workers are volunteers. The money collected usually goes
to those in need through education loans, financial opportunities, or the basics of food,
medicine, clothing and shelter in the attendees countries of origin, many of which
have been devastated by war.
4. Ramadan. The fourth pillar of Islam is the fast that takes place
during the holy month of Ramadan. All Muslims all over the world during Ramadan are called
on to fast from sunrise to sunset for 30 days, unless they are sick or on a journey. Generally,
those 12 or older rise early for a meal before the sun rises, then break their fast after
The aim of abstaining from food during the day is to help Muslims identify
with the poor, who have no discretion when, where and what to eat. In this way, fasting
is similar in intention to almsgiving.
There is a direct link between fasting and almsgiving. The observant Muslim
is called to surrender (the word Islam means surrender) again not in
idealism, but in actuality and at an ordinary level. Fasting is simply seen as what it
means to be a Muslim. In other words, these practices are not, as Christians might imagine,
the higher practices of a saint. They are the expected minimum activity of ordinary people.
The fasting helps the believer to connect body, mind and soul. If God matters,
then Gods word is to override human inclinations from time to time. Notice the graciousness
of the Muslims God called Allah: Eleven months delight in food and drink. Fast one
month. Its strict but moderate.
5. Pilgrimage. The fifth pillar of Islam also bonds a community of
believers. It is the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. This obligation does what all great
pilgrimages do. It restarts the conversion experience by returning the devotee to the point
of origin. A religion is not just a collectivity, but consists of many clusters of individuals.
They must take on themselves again the beliefs and practices of the founder and the dictates
of the religions scriptures. To take a sacred journey, along with other believers,
is to personally accept and immerse oneself in the culture of that religion and make it
To be a Muslim is to be beyond ethnic identity, and the pillar of this pilgrimage
tells the story and incorporates each member, each generation and the people as a whole
into the revelation given to the Prophet. The total experience is one of surrender. Each
person feels what it is to be a descendent of Abraham under God.
It is my belief that the desert of the pilgrimage expected of every Muslim
is not unlike the protracted solitude in the desert, where the monastic faces his or her
inner demons and surrenders his or her ego to God in utmost humility. Christ, too, before
the advent of his ministry is driven by the Spirit into the desert to be tested (Mark 1:12).
The desert clarifies the mind and purges the soul; it is real and symbolic.
In the real geographic location one must stay focused to survive, one must
get along with others to secure and maintain goods, one must move quickly, lightly and
frequently to have enough basics for food, shelter, clothing and human interaction. One
must be tough enough to travel long distances and defer ones needs to provide for
those who are weak. One must enjoy the solitude and adapt to the climates harshness.
The landscape of the symbolic desert forces one to cultivate an inner life
because there is no way to avoid feeling again and again all the thoughts, desires and
passions that rise when the external world offers no distraction. The spiritual journey
courses through the soul without the din of noise of crowds or the pressures of overwork.
In such a situation we realize a rawness,a nakedness and a sense of being
alone with the Alone. Hermits push themselves to the borders of being bound to the earth
to step out of time and into the temple of Gods presence. It makes sense that Muslims
celebrate their origins in Arabia and take a pilgrimage through the desert in order to
return to the core of their faith.
The pilgrimage thus actualizes the inner life of the spiritual journey in
a communal experience. Most of us do not have a lifetime to become a hermit. However, it
is reasonable to believe that once in our life we could make pilgrimage to Jerusalem or
Mecca and, in this way, externalize our inner journey. Islam, however, by making the pilgrimage
to Mecca, one of its five pillars, pulls together the meaning of the desert and the inner
conversion necessary to surrender to ones depths for each individual during ones
Once again, as we saw with fasting, it makes a serious religious practicethe
inner spiritual journeynot simply a matter for saints or mystics or hermits. Pilgrimage
makes it a defining feature of being a Muslim.
NEXT: Communion of the Saints and the Eucharist (by William H. Shannon)