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Much attention has lately turned towards Islam. For some, recent events have perpetuated existing stereotypes of Muslims being terrorists or of Islam being a violent religion. It is only fair, though, to go to the sources of Islam to ascertain its true teachings and to distinguish these from motley data garnered from the media, as well as from the misconduct of a few Muslim individuals.
This is an opportune time for becoming acquainted with Islam--a religion that condemns wanton killing, and that has hundreds of followers at MIT, millions in the United States and more than a billion people worldwide.
Islam is an Arabic word denoting the attainment of peace through submission to the True God. The foundation of Islam is affirmation of belief in and submission to Allah--an Arabic word (related to the Hebrew word Elohim) signifying the One True, Unique God, Originator and Sustainer of the Universe; the Merciful, Eternal, All-Knowing, All-Powerful, Ever-Living, Self-Subsisting; the Wise, the Granter and Withholder, the Just. The word Allah is genderless and does not have a plural. Islam spurns idolatry and anthropomorphism, insisting that Allah is one, transcendent in essence, and without partner or progeny. Muslims devote their worship to Allah and try to please Allah in all spheres of life out of thankfulness and love coupled with reverential fear and awe.
Another fundamental tenet is belief in prophets, who convey the message of Allah to mankind and are human role models. Islam teaches that Allah sent numerous prophets to different peoples for different times and places, starting with Adam and including Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace and blessings upon them all). Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him), being the final prophet, is affirmed by the Quran to be sent to all of mankind until the end of the world.
The Quran is the book revealed to Prophet Muhammad, transmitted word for word by the Angel Gabriel from Allah and recorded within the Prophet's lifetime. It presents itself as a miracle, challenging mankind to match its majestic style as well as its content, for it offers comprehensive guidance for humanity, coupled with scientific and historic accuracy.
Along with the Quran, the other source of Islamic teaching is the Sunnah--a collection of teachings of the Prophet, which also carry divine authority but are not necessarily conveyed word for word by an angel. (Angels are invisible, genderless creatures of light.) Muslims believe that previous prophets also received scriptures but that these became distorted over time.
Muslims believe in an unending afterlife--that at the end of this world all people will be bodily resurrected, as they were created the first time, and then brought to account for their beliefs, words and deeds and consequently entered into heaven or hell. This life is thus a preparation for the eternal life. It should be lived in obedience to the laws of Allah, having a good connection with Allah as well as good dealings with people, thereby attaining true happiness in both worlds.
Islam presents guidelines in both religious and mundane spheres, for the worldly and spiritual well-being of mankind. However, there are four devotional deeds which Muslims are enjoined to perform and which, along with the declaration of belief, are considered "pillars" of Islam:
Salah--ritual prayer, five times daily, preceded by ceremonial ablution. MIT has allocated a special room in Building W11 for this purpose.
Sawm--fasting (for healthy adults), to develop piety by abstaining from food, drink and sexual intercourse between dawn and sunset during the Muslim month of Ramadan. MIT's Muslim Students Association (http://web.mit.edu/mitmsa/) organizes sunset gatherings during Ramadan for congregational prayer and to break the fast in company.
Zakah--Muslims who have more than a specified quantity of surplus wealth are to annually donate a small percentage to charitable causes.
Hajj--pilgrimage once in a lifetime, by capable adults, to Makkah, site of the Ka'bah, the first house of worship on the Earth, built by the Prophet Abraham. The Ka'bah, also faced by Muslims in Salah, symbolizes unity in faith.
Islam stresses individual responsibility and orders the exercise of reason. The universe reflects the attributes of Allah, while the Quran is the direct word of Allah. Hence, a Muslim cannot conceive any contradiction between science and religion. Muslims are also expected to contribute positively to their communities and to mankind at large.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 17, 2001.