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Catholics and Muslims:
Two Faiths, One God

by Kevin Regan

Islam is in the news. Pictures crowd your television screens. Muslims, as we call those whose faith is Islam, kneel in prayer, forehead touching the ground. Countries with large Muslim populations, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, dominate the headlines. Questions about Muslims, mosques and Mecca spark discussion in your history and religion classes. Muslims are center stage in the drama being acted out in your lifetime.

Muslims number over one billion members, or 20 percent of the population, worldwide. Over seven million live in this country. They are your neighbors, your classmates and perhaps your friends. What do you know about these people and the religion that leads them to God?

When you hear the word Muslim, what image enters your mind? If it is an image of Osama bin Laden, it has little to do with the Allah he invokes.

This issue of Youth Update seeks to help you in your quest for knowledge and understanding. Wherever possible, familiar Catholic practices and beliefs will be used to help you understand Islam.

As you discover how Islam guides the Muslim people to live in service and love, you may gain a deeper appreciation for the beliefs and practices of your own faith. Looking at Islam can become a window for you to consider the ways God is working in your life.

Rooted in Time

Catholics believe that Jesus is the pivotal person in all of human history. Your lives of faith revolve around your belief in Jesus.

Muhammad, born in Mecca around 570 A.D., holds a prominent place in the Islamic religion, but as a prophet and teacher, not as God made man. He used to spend time praying in a cave. While in prayer, the 40-year-old Muhammad heard a voice believed to be that of the angel Gabriel tell him that he was the prophet of Allah. A short time later Muhammad was told —to recite— what the angel said. It took him 23 years.

That recitation, as written, is called the Quran (formerly spelled/pronounced Koran in English). The word simply means —to recite.—

The Quran is the holy book of Islam, the very words of Allah as heard by Muhammad and written down by his listening helpers. Muslims commemorate the night when the Quran was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad as —The Night of Power and Excellence.—

As Christians, you believe the New Testament is the word of God—s revelation for you. Its verses are used by the Church in the eucharistic liturgy and public prayer, and by you in your personal prayer. The Lord—s Prayer is but one of its treasures.

You may even memorize verses that help you to follow Jesus. Many people know the Eight Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11) by heart, for instance. —Love one another— (John 13:34) is another often-quoted verse.

A big difference is that we would say these verses in our own language. Muslims learn the Quran in Arabic. They use its Arabic verses in public prayer and in private prayer to help them submit their lives to Allah. Allah is not a —new— God. Allah is the Arabic word for the same, single God we both honor: the God of Abraham.

Muslims memorize verses of the Quran by heart. Their imams, or teachers, have memorized them all. It may surprise you to know that the Virgin Mary is mentioned more in the Quran than in Christian Scriptures.

Muslims pray to Allah using 99 different names, such as The Compassionate, The Merciful, The Holy, The Most Kind. These names are almost all taken from the Quran.

One Word

There is a saying, —A picture is worth a thousand words.— That may often be the case but in Islam, —One word may be worth a thousand pictures.— Salam is the Arabic word meaning submission or peace. Islam is derived from salam and means —submission to God.—

You may think that surrender means to be forced to give up something against your will. That is not the meaning it has for Muslims—or for many other religious people, to be sure.

Submission in a religious context is more like the love of wife and husband. A husband and wife entrust their lives to each other out of love. They surrender to each other not only on their wedding day but also in many ways on each day of their married lives. In word and action as well as in silence and rest, Muslims seek to hand themselves over to Allah.

Isn—t it true that you love God because God has first loved you unconditionally? Doesn—t God, through Jesus, repeat to you over and over, —I love you, I have loved you and I will love you—?

Pillars of Faith

What do you believe? This is an important question because your actions will follow your beliefs.

For example, if you believe that friends influence your behavior, you will choose your friends carefully. You will choose friends who do not get involved with addictive substances. If you believe friends have no influence over you, then it doesn—t matter who you hang out with. It won—t matter if people around you use foul language, are racist or are habitual liars.

As Catholics, you believe that Jesus is God—s son who offers you a way of life to follow. Since Jesus lived a life of forgiving love, you, his follower, will be forgiving to those who harm you. Your actions follow your belief.

If you believe that Jesus gave his followers guidelines to help them to do God—s will and to become closer to God, then these will become one guide for living your everyday life.

Muslims believe that to submit their whole lives to Allah is to experience true freedom. Just as you need help to live in union with Jesus, Muslims need guidance to submit to Allah.

Muslims have major beliefs that shape their religious practice. The five pillars of Islam express their fundamental way of life. As you look at them, it may help to consider similar beliefs of your Catholic faith. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church also uses this language of pillars.

The four pillars of the Catholic faith are the Creed, the sacraments, the commandments and the Lord—s Prayer. These are familiar to you, just as these next five are basic to Muslims.

1. Faith is first. The first pillar is the profession of faith. It states, —There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.— This affirmation of one God makes Islam a monotheistic (mono- means —one—; theo- means —god—) religion like Christianity and Judaism.

This pillar also affirms Muhammad as the prophet of God and the last and greatest prophet or —the seal of the prophets.— Muslims believe in many prophets. Among them are Abraham, Moses, Noah and Jesus. Muslims believe Jesus is one of the greatest prophets but they do not believe he is the Son of God. Muslims also believe in the virgin birth.

2. Prayer expresses faith. Daily prayer is the second pillar of Islam. Prayer is the name given to that special communication between you and your God. Words are one way to express the longings of the heart. This is true between you and your best friend as well as between you and God.

For Muslims, prayer is one form of worship. It expresses their love for Allah, the All Merciful. The prayer of Muslims is an act of faith in Allah that strengthens and supports their effort to submit to Allah in all things. Muslims pray in private and also with the community at their place of worship, called a mosque.

Muslims pray five times a day facing the city of Mecca. They follow certain rituals for washing and for standing, bowing or kneeling during prayer. The position of a Muslim—s body during prayer reflects an inner attitude—just as your kneeling or genuflecting in church reflects an attitude of respect and of worship.

Some Muslims also use a tasbeh—with its 99 beads—to praise God using the 99 names. In fact, the use of the tasbeh is thought by some to have inspired the Catholic custom of the rosary.

3. Love follows prayer. The third pillar of Islam is almsgiving (alms means —something given freely to the poor—). Muslims care for the poor in their communities by giving two and one half percent of their annual income to provide for the needs of others. They believe sharing their wealth purifies their will from selfishness. Giving alms helps Muslims to submit all things to the will of Allah.

Such almsgiving is also part of the way Christians seek to love God, especially during the season of Lent. You may remember St. John—s reflection that you cannot love God whom you do not see unless you love your neighbor whom you do see. Love for both Christians and Muslims is not about words but about faith in action.

4. Fasting makes love the priority. Another pillar of Islam is fasting. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims go without food, drink and sexual intercourse from sunrise until sundown. The fast is to remind people that life is more than the body and its physical needs. Every part of life is a gift from Allah, and proper use of Allah—s gifts is a way to praise him and submit to his will.

Fasting has always been recognized as a way to purify the will from selfish attachment and to see clearly the experience of others in the world. On December 13 of this past year, Pope John Paul II asked Christians to fast and pray for peace. This date coincided with the end of last year—s holy month of Ramadan.

The pope offered a prayer that —the shared action of faithful mortification [denying oneself food] will cause an increase in mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims—who are called, now more than ever, to come together as builders of justice and peace.— You can see that the pope was inspired to make this invitation because of the events of September 11, 2001.

5. Pilgrimage is a journey of love. The final pillar of Islam is the obligation to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. The pilgrimage is to be completed by those in good health who are financially able to make the journey.

Catholics are familiar with the idea of pilgrimage, though it—s not seen as a religious requirement. Catholics may make pilgrimages to Rome to visit St. Peter—s Basilica or journey to Jerusalem to visit the places where Jesus, our savior, lived and preached the gospel. Some visit the places where Mary is said to have appeared. The shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico and the shrine to Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal are such places.

When you take a trip, you prepare for the journey. Pilgrims say prayers and worship God with specific rituals at the holy places they visit.

Mecca is the site of the Kaaba, believed to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael. Medina is also holy to Muslims, though not as central as Mecca. Muhammad was buried in Medina and the first Islamic community was established there. Jerusalem is also sacred to Muslims. Muslims believe that Muhammad traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem and ascended to heaven at Solomon—s Temple, where the Dome of the Rock now stands.

Being able to visit these holy places is a great privilege to Muslims that helps them to deepen their faith and love. If you could visit the holy shrines where Christ walked and taught in the Holy Land you might share a similar deepening of faith. The gospels would probably come alive for you in a new way.

Jihad and Beyond

Muslims have many other beliefs, practices, traditions and accomplishments—just as Catholics do. I—m going to summarize just a few that have either been over-emphasized or totally neglected in recent reports about Islam.

1. Jihad. You have heard the word jihad in the context of terrorism and battle. For Muslims, this word refers to the struggle and exertion necessary to overcome selfish appetites in order to do the will of Allah.

Media references to jihad as holy war reveal a more controversial understanding of a defensive struggle to protect Islam, much like the just war tradition in Catholicism.

2. Friday worship. Before midday prayers on Fridays, a religious leader (imam) will give a talk based on a passage from the Quran or a story about Muhammad. Before coming into the mosque or room designated for prayer, Muslims remove their shoes and prepare by ritual washing. Worshipers will find no images in a mosque, but an empty niche shows the direction of Mecca.

3. Muslims have made great contributions to knowledge and culture. Muslims are a people whose faith has inspired splendid architecture. Just as faith led Christians to build Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and St. Peter—s Basilica in Rome, the Islamic faith has inspired buildings such as the Taj Mahal in India and a magnificent structure in Spain called the Alhambra.

Muslims have pioneered in math, giving the world algebra. Their philosophers and scientists have contributed to a greater understanding of the material and spiritual world.

Honoring God's Will

Islam is not something far from you. It is a living, dynamic experience of people living in submission to Allah.

Muslims invite you to understand who they are, what they believe and why they live as they do. Many of them are glad to know about Christianity and to learn from you the meaning of your religious beliefs and practices.

Submission to God—s will is central to Islam. It is also central to you as a Catholic Christian. It is found in the Lord—s Prayer, —Your will be done.—

This mutual commitment to God—s will unites you to your Muslim sisters and brothers. In your living faith, the hope of peace is born in the world.

Kevin Regan teaches at LaSalle Academy in Providence, Rhode Island. He consulted with an imam, a Muslim teacher, in writing this issue.


 

Surfing the Net on Islam

Catholic Web sites:

• Search for Islam at www.usccb.org. This print-heavy site contains official Church statements.

• Search for Islam at www.catholiceducation.org. Actually designed to assist teachers, this site collects important Catholic commentary on many subjects, including Islam and recent news events. Taking a peek could make you appear quite knowledgeable!

Other useful sites:

•Click on the Islam button at www.beliefnet.com. This is a mixed bag, but could be helpful.

• Follow the links at www.mepc.org/links/educat.html. These links are cultural and geographical as well as religious in scope. They offer an Eastern perspective, which is generally an eye-opener.

• Check out www.discoverislam.com. This site is comprehensive, succinct and useful.

• Fill in the knowledge gaps at www.pbs.org/empires/islam/siteindex.html. This public broadcasting-sponsored site provides support for the film Islam: Empire of Faith, with detailed information. Some is intended for teachers. Much would benefit anyone who wants to know more.

 

Angie Daly (16), Marie Daly (18), Mike Lafferty (18) and Chris Nicholson (17) are active members of St. Bernadette Parish in Amelia, Ohio, where Kelly Lafferty is head of the Parish School of Religion. These four teens, who assist in teaching younger children, took time to read this issue, suggest changes and ask important questions.


Q.

How do Muslims see Catholics?

A.

To many Muslims, Catholics are viewed as sincere worshipers of God, people trying to live God's will in the same way that Muslims try to submit to God (Allah). Other Muslims see us as caught up in Western values that they believe lead to immorality, influenced by Western economics and militarism that create harmful consequences for the poor in many parts of the world. What Muslims think (as is true of us) depends on what they see and what they are taught.

Q.

Do you think that Muslims know about the connections that you pointed out?

A.

I'm sure some do and others may not. The imam (Muslim teacher) who spoke to the seniors I teach pointed out many ways the two religions are related. He knew and emphasized the similarities, which include claiming Abraham as a common ancestor, honoring Mary, giving prayer an important place and encouraging moral living. Every Muslim knows that both faiths honor Jesus.

Q.

The pope asked us to fast on the last day of Ramadan, which is a whole month of fasting for Muslims. When is that and how would that connect us?

A.

The religious tradition of fasting is described in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus fasts for 40 days and 40 nights. The ways people fast may change but it almost always has to do with eating little or nothing, not just because it's hard, but also because it is supposed to lead us to rely on God for strength in our weakness. The time of Ramadan changes because the Muslim calendar is based on the cycles of the moon. These cycles don't line up with our Western calendar. Ramadan recalls the time of the first revelations by Allah to Muhammad. If we fast when we know others are fasting, it connects us at the level of spirit.

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