Islam: Beliefs and Teachings

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The primary foundation of Islamic Beliefs and Teachings is the shared belief in a single God whose final revelation is found in the Qu’ran that was delivered through the Prophet Muhammad. ‘islam’ is an Arabic word that is best translated as ‘submission’. Islam can probably be best understood as submission to God by abiding by the teachings that are laid down in the Qu’ran. This page will attempt to look at these teachings in much greater detail. 

 There is a distinction, highlighted in English through the use of capitalisation: muslim and islam vs Muslim and Islam. This distinction is between those who submitted to the will of God and those who submitted themselves to God according to his recitations which is the Qur’an. Islamic theology recognises that it is part of a larger tradition, and it also recognises that it is possible to gain partial knowledge of God outside of Islam. In this way we can talk about pre-islamic prophets; we might recognise Jesus and Moses as muslims, and their teachings as islam; but they are not Muslims and their teachings are not Islam proper.

What this point highlights for us is that the teachings that are central to Islam, the words of the Qur’an, are seen to be the perfected and final version of the divine message that exists in the world outside what we would consider the Islamic tradition. The cosmic theological narrative that Islamic theology offers the world is seen by Muslims as the final part in an age old saga stretching past Jesus, Moses, and Abraham to the creation of everything. There is, therefore, a certain amount of clarity in the central Beliefs and Teachings of the Islamic tradition that make this section slightly easier to write when compared to the other, more diffuse theological traditions. The cosmic theological narrative is not the focus of the Qur’an, it is the background which is used to teach more concrete lessons. These lessons are what we will focus on with this page.

The Six Articles and the Five Roots of Islam

Through the “Detailed Articles of Belief” Muslims state the following “I believe in God, in His angels, in His scriptures, in His messengers, in the Last Day, in destiny, both good and bad, and in resurrection after death.”

Something significant to note is that the word Iman is used here to denote belief in these six articles of faith, and that this is distinct from Islam which is simple adherence, or submission, to the obligatory actions of the faith. The belief in the six articles is seen as a deeper level of adherence to the tradition. In other words, the Islamic tradition openly distinguishes between those Muslims who act in accordance with the tradition because of socio-theological precedent or pressure and those who act because they truly agree with its teachings.

There is also a key difference between the two main branches of Islam: Sunni and Shi’a. Sunni Islam speaks of the Six articles, which are listed above. Shi’a Islam talks of the Five Roots. There is overlap between them but they diverge. Here we will talk about all of them, starting with the four beliefs that are shared. Then turning to two that are specific to Sunni Islam, and one that is specific to Shi’a Islam.

Core Beliefs

God

According to Islam, God (Allah in Arabic) is the same God worshiped by previous prophets stretching back in the line of Abraham. He is noted in the Qur’an to have many attributes, ‘beautiful names’. These symbolically total ninety-nine, including a final unknown hundredth name. These names both glorify and go some way to describing God: ‘Gracious’, ‘Almighty’, ‘Maker’, ‘Bestower’. Together they give an impression of both overwhelming existence and transcendence. God is ever present but truly beyond our capacities for understanding. 

As with most monotheistic theology, Islam emphasizes the vast ontological chasm between the divine and the human. This idea itself reinforces why the ‘beautiful names’ of God are so important. Because human language, like everything else human, is woefully insufficient to grasp divinity, we necessarily must rely on the names given in the Qu’ran. These names are given by God; as the Qu’ran is God’s word then these names are how God asks humanity to refer to him. The sheer number of names again emphasizes God’s ineffability. When trying to define or describe God, human language simply fails, even when it is used by God himself.

 The Monotheism of Islam is central to the theological tradition; in arabic, Tawhid, or oneness. This emphasis on oneness highlights the singularity of the will that unites reality rather than a simple matter of counting beings that would count as divine. Monotheism is about recognising the singular will that underwrites creation. This Will, God’s Will, is all encompassing in Islam; to the extent that the only response is submission, acceptance to what has been provided by it. Reality is a gift for us to simply receive.

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Prophets

This singular Will is knowable to humanity thanks to the line of Prophets that stretch back through history to the first human: Adam, concluding with Muhammad. This line is a continuation of the tradition that gives Judaism and Christianity shape as well. Key figures like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are highly respected in the Islamic tradition.

The message, the Will of God, has been the same since the beginning of time. The reason for the successive generations of Prophets is due to humanity’s forgetfulness. The path that humanity is expected to walk is the same, but each messenger sent fit the population and situation of the time they were sent to. There are 25 men throughout history who are recognised as Prophets in the Muslim tradition. There are also a handful of women who are mentioned in the same vein, although there is debate as to whether they should have the title of prophet, prophetess, messenger, etc. All the people are seen to be direct descendents in the same line of Abraham, the final person that the entire Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition all claim to be their ancestor.

In this Islamic tradition, this comes to an end with Muhammad and the Qur’an because of the finality and clarity that the recitations bring. For the first time in history the Word of God has been clearly dictated into human language and is readily available for all of humanity. According to the Islamic tradition, after the Qur’an no further revelation is required.

Judgement

The supreme otherness and inscrutability means that God is utterly beyond human judgement. This includes anything that we find to be wrong with the world, or any injustice that seems apparent. Islam does not explain the evils of the world in terms of a persistent and ‘fallen’ state of sin, like Christianity. Islamic theology does recognise the constant failings of humanity and the effect that these things have on the world. Each person is born good according to Islam. 

The main problem that Humanity needs to overcome therefore is not a propensity to sin, but a forgetfulness of the way we are supposed to act. Our sins do not hurt God, they hurt ourselves. We forget our shared ancestry and fall into conflict with each other; we forget how to live in harmony with our environment and begin to destroy it, ultimately setting the stage for our doom. It seems easy to argue that we do not know what is best for ourselves. Divine unknowability and otherness play a role here, we are simply frail in body and mind, and it is difficult for us to know right from wrong. Total submission to the Divine Will, even when it doesn’t make sense to us, is the only answer in this situation.

When this line of thought that emphasises God’s power and transcendence is taken to its extreme we see ideas of predestination emerge. There were long and complicated debates that took place between the ninth and twelfth centuries between Islamic theologians which looked at exactly these questions. Does emphasizing God’s sovereignty restrict Human freedom? If God is in control of everything, then does God allow or even make people commit sins? The debates are interesting, and in some parts ongoing. But the main point that this questioning treats as a foundation is that our concepts and ways of thinking are insufficient when talking about these things. There is a profound recognition that engaging in theological debate like this runs the risk of exactly the kind of arrogance and forgetfulness that Islam as a tradition rails against. Questions should be asked in pursuit of the truth, but if we fail to find answers, that is more likely to reflect our own shortcomings rather than anything else. While they are both desirable, the ultimate aim of the believer in Islam is not to come to know God but to become able to follow God’s Law, which is laid out in the Qu’ran. This is ultimately the measure by which humanity is judged.

Destiny and Judgement

As discussed above the Islamic tradition places judgement solely as the responsibility of God. Our responsibility comes with overcoming the challenges that come with life on earth. The world that we inhabit in this life is also termed Dar al-fana’a or the place of annihilation. Our lives and the world we live in are temporary. But our actions here have permanent consequences.

Islam teaches that at the point of death our spirits leave our bodies and come to rest in preparation at the Barzakh, barrier, from where they will be resurrected for the Day of Final Judgement. According to tradition our actions in life are what God judges us on and that will determine whether we go to Heaven, Jannah, or Hell, Jahannam. God’s judgement is His own, and therefore ultimately unknowable to any human. But, He is described as merciful, and it is thought that He is able to forgive almost all sins. The only things that the Islamic tradition sees as potentially unforgivable in the eyes of God are to not take responsibility and ownership of the sins that we have committed against each other. Provided we recognise our sins, confess and ask for forgiveness, God is thought to have mercy on us.

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We are presented with challenges throughout our lives, but Islam teaches that God never gives challanges that are too great for us to overcome. This means that ultimately we must be responsible for our actions and accountable for their consequences. The life after this is permanent, and this knowledge is available to us, as are the actions that we are expected to take in this life. This is the path that Islam offers its adherents.

Beliefs Specific to Sunni and Shi’a Islam

Sunni

  • Angels, Malaikah in Arabic – In Sunni Islam belief in the existence of Angels is held as a core tenet of the tradition. Angels like Jibril, Izrail and Mika’il play integral roles in how the tradition views the cosmos whether it be delivering revelation or guiding human souls to judgement. 
  • Scripture – This takes a few forms in the Islamic tradition as it is tied more closely to the work of the Prophets than it is the text of the Qur’an. This belief is in the status of the Books (Kutub); Scrolls (Sahifah), Gospel (Injil), Torah (Tawrat), Psalms (Zabur); as scriptures that are inspired by God and contain his message.

Shi’a

  • Imamate – For Shi’a Muslims, the authority that Muhammad held over the Islamic community was passed on to his successors. This is the role that the Imamate takes. We will talk about this in more detail in the next section, but for now it is important to note that for Shi’a Muslims the Imams are seen to be infallible leaders of the community. Furthermore this belief is not shared by Sunni Muslims, for whom the Imams play a very different role.

This page has looked at the core Beliefs and Teachings of the Islamic theological tradition. The next page will look at the systems in place for how these teachings have been revealed, and thus how the Sources of Wisdom and Authority in the tradition are thought to be composed. 

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