Chronicle The Second – 2009 (1430 AH)
Start at the Beginning
When people think of Muslims, there are certain pictures that immediately come to mind: rows of people praying in white kanzus and caps, fasting in the month of Ramadan, going for Hajj once a year ‘somewhere in Saudi Arabia’, throaty ‘wallahi, billahi’ utterances, women in plentiful folds of fabric, and possibly the thought that you should tread cautiously when talking about their religion because you never know when they’ll whip out that bazooka they’ve been hiding under their bed and unleash ‘jihad’ on you…
Okay, so I’m generalizing here, but it’s surprising how many people do actually associate these – and only these – things with Muslims. So for those of you still with me on these chronicles (thank you!), let’s wipe the slate clean and start afresh, shall we?
All this stuff above forms a part of Islam although some of it has been (highly) misconstrued. However, the practical side of Islam holds little or no meaning without the beliefs that support it.
Of Mohammedans and Musselmen
For a long time, we used to be called ‘Mohammedans’. In fact, if you hunt down an old dictionary, you’ll probably still find it there as a noun…wait, did I say old? Heh, I just checked my current updated online web dictionary and guess what? It’s still there. Muslims don’t really like being called that because it implies that their faith is founded primarily on Muhammad (which its not) or is even misunderstood to mean that they consider Muhammad to be a part of the Divine Entity.
I’ve met people who think that Muslims set up Muhammad as a competitor to Christ; that he’s a ‘new god’ of our own making or that we have our own version of the Trinity with Muhammad in place of Jesus. I even had one young man look at me in shock when I mentioned God and say: “You mean you believe in God?” (Aside: :O)
Where does one start explaining what Islam is when there are people who don’t even consider it a faith, just a ‘movement’ of sorts? The basics seem a good place to start. Faith comes from within, and the strongest faith is founded concrete, unshakeable beliefs.
So let’s talk beliefs…
(Just a note: These chronicles are just an explanation; no ulterior motives here. Feel free to disagree, but keep the conversation insult-free.)
From Healthy Roots doth Healthy Branches grow
Islam can be (very) broadly divided into two aspects: Its Roots and its Branches. The Roots refer to the actual beliefs that qualify you as a Muslim, while the Branches are the responsibilities you assume once you have accepted those beliefs. The one depends on the other.
Just like you can’t expect a healthy set of fruit-bearing branches from a tree that has weak roots, you cannot expect your actions (the praying, fasting, etc.) to fulfill their intended purpose if your understanding of your beliefs are weak.
For this reason, any person is allowed to question the 5 fundamental beliefs (roots) of Islam to the satisfaction of their intellect and sensibility. In fact, it is compulsory on every Muslim to do so; blind faith is not an option. You can’t inherit Islam from your parents, otherwise it becomes a set of traditions. It has to be active, voluntary submission. Much of the misuse of Islam comes from Muslims-by-Birth, not Muslims-by-Faith.
Once you’ve accepted the roots, then you then submit to the branches without protest. That is what Islam really means. To surrender totally to the Will of God; but not just any God, a God you believe in completely and without a doubt with your mind and soul.
Is Allah God?
In high school I read a (comic) book that claimed that Allah was a myth created out of an idol worshipped during the pre-Islamic era. Eh? Hello? Where is the sense in a faith based on an idol then going on to condemn not only the worship of idols, but the association of anything with God?
It’s a tragically funny accusation, but it does neatly brings us to the first essential Root without which, there is no Islam. Literally. And that belief is:
I. That there is Only One God. (Arabic: Tawhid)
Simple, right? It actually is. 🙂 (Anyone ever wondered why finding the Truth isn’t so much about adding complicated layers, but rather distilling down to the bare basics?)
Tawhid means that Allah – which is an Arabic name for God – is One. Absolutely, Infinitely, Perfectly so. This Oneness applies in every sense. For example, when counting in Arabic you say wahid, ithnayn, thalatha… (one, two, three). However, you cannot say God is wahid. You say instead that God is Ahad.
Ahad is a One that is uniquely used for God. It is a One that cannot be added to or subtracted from, divided or multiplied, neither can it be categorized into a one of a ‘kind’. It has no numerical value, just a theological one.
This Oneness extends in principle to the Unity of God, because He is Absolute to such an extent that only He exists and through His Existence do all other things exist. He Unites all things into one harmonious Whole and everything reflects this Unity from vastest expanse of the cosmos to the the smallest atomic structure that constitutes the universe.
In its purest form, Tawhid means admitting God is the Only Reality. So when, for example, a Muslim says “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great), what he or she means is that God is Great and there is no greatness except His. The same applies for every attribute of God – Beauty, Love, Mercy, Glory – all these exist in their absolute form in Him.
It’s not just in attributes that we consider God as absolute, but also in existence. You’ll often hear descriptions of Allah being Eternal in such a way that He is the First for Whom there is no ‘before’ and the Last for Whom there is no ‘after’; that He Exists, but not through the phenomenon of coming into being; that He is Everywhere but not in the sense of occupying space. So Tawhid means believing that God is not limited by time, space, ability or anything really, because everything has been created by Him and is constantly in need of Him to exist.
The thing I really *heart* about Islamic theology is how versatile it is. The basics never change, but you can explore it from almost any angle and come across a new facet that will make you sit back and go ‘hmmm’. Like this excerpt:
“Because God is at once absolute and infinite, the Divine Nature, although usually referred to in the masculine, also possesses a feminine ‘aspect’, which is, in fact, the principle of all femininity. If God in His absoluteness and majesty is the Origin of the masculine principle, in His Infinitude and beauty, God is the Origin of femininity…The Islamic conception of God, while emphasizing His Majesty is certainly not oblivious to His Beauty, and this truth is reflected not only in female spirituality in Islam but in the female dimension of all Islamic spirituality."
(Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Encyclopaedia of Islamic Spirituality, Volume One: Foundations)
When I read this, the first thing that came to my mind was how much yin and yang there was in this theory. The fact that the Unity of God comes from His being Judge and Creator as well as Cherisher and Nourisher. That He metes out Justice, and is also Merciful; that He is All-Powerful and yet Forgiving. That He is not only the Truth we seek out, but the Balance as well.
You’re the Only One for Me
Because there is no duality in Islam at any level, Tawhid isn’t just a mental concept, but a practical one too.
When we decide to do something, we say “Insha’Allah” (If God Wills); when things go the way we want – and even when they don’t – we say “Alhamdulillah” (Praise be to God); when someone does us a favour, we say “Jazakallah” (May God reward you for this) simultaneously acknowledging that it is God who brought that good to us through that person. Life becomes about recognizing God through and in your environment, your circumstances, the activities you indulge in, the people around you and most importantly, in your self.
To be a Muslim is to be constantly aware of the presence of God, not only as theological idea, but as a metaphysical truth and a living Reality. Whatever we do – individual or societal, spiritual or political – is (ideally) connected to God. It’s what I fondly call going through life wearing God-Coloured Lenses. Piety or spiritual levels in Islam are related to the degree to which a person has realized this Tawhid.
Tawhid is a huge (and I mean he-yuge) subject so I won’t even try to ramble more about it. There’s plenty available to read, and I recommend The Sermon of The Skeletons by Ali ibn Abi Talib for not only a more in-depth description of Tawhid, but also some very interesting descriptions on creation as a whole.
The only thing left to say is that it was because Muslims had forgotten this fundamental belief that Karbala took place. They were putting up with a tyrant who broke laws, oppressed people and flouted the principles of Islam without opposition. Had he continued un-opposed, there is little doubt that the Muslim empire would have gone the way of many dictatorships before it and imploded before becoming a distant cultural occurrence in the time line of world history.
It was to revive the spirit of Tawhid that Husayn ibn Ali allowed himself to be forced onto the scorching plains of a little known desert. On the 3rd of Muharram, he was ordered to move his small camp, including women and little children from the banks of the River Euphrates and he did this without protest. When asked why he complied, he stated that he did not want history to record the inevitable confrontation as a ‘fight over water’. The battle was to establish Truth and nothing would be allowed to come in the way of that.
Today is the 7th of Muharram, when the water supplies ran dry in Husayn’s camp and for the next three days, not a drop of water reached them. People sometimes wonder whether it was necessary for Karbala to be as brutal as it was. But the desperate need for a protest would not have been understood, nor the depths to which the souls of those claiming to be Muslims had sunk been recognized, if we did not see in the annals of history, the little children of Husayn weakly crying out to the enemy “Thirst! Thirst is killing us” and if we did not see the enemy reply by holding out flasks of water, only to mockingly laugh and pour the precious liquid onto the burning sands as the children watched in despair…