Islam Past and Present


Islam is today the religion of more than 350 million Muslims (or Moslems or Mohammedans), occupying a wide belt stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, across Africa, parts of Europe, and Asia.

Partly because of the importance of the Muslim habitat (or dar el-Islam) in world affairs, the West has begun to take special interest in studying Islam and is trying to understand its relation to the life of the Muslim. And it is no exaggeration to say that the Muslims themselves are showing a similar interest in studying the reality of Islam, in order to know to what extent they may be able to adopt modern ways without losing their religion. In recent times there have been two parties amongst the Muslims: one maintaining that religion should be sacrificed for the sake of modernization, and the other that modernization should be sacrificed for the sake of religion. Between these two groups there is now a third, whose number is increasing, which sees a possibility for reconciliation between modern life and the old religion. The modern Muslim thinkers find in the principles of Islam a flexibility which allows them to explain and interpret with the greatest freedom while still keeping the faith intact. For example, one modern writer has said, "Obedience to the commands of nature is obedience to God. The natural laws are a part of what is called angels. They are the executive principles for this world and the executive authorities through which the will of causation is realized."

But before we analyze these attempts to reconcile traditional religion with the needs of life in the modern world, let us examine the nature of Islam. I, as a Muslim, will try to sketch in as briefly and impartially as I can what all the schools of thinkers in Islam accept as its basic tenets.

If it were not for the outward manifestations of unity in any religion such as churches, mosques, religious books, ceremonials, and the like, it would be permissible to say that each individual of any faith understands his religion in his own special way. Therefore, there can be many definitions for religion; yet the definition nearest to truth is almost always to be found in the inspired books of the religion. The Koran is the Book of Islam. Revealed to Mohammed between 610 and 632 A.D., it contains 114 suras, including six thousand verses.

If we read the Koran carefully, we find that "Islam" was attributed to those who believed in one sole God from the time of Abraham to that of Mohammed. So Abraham is the father of the belief in divine unity, is at the head of all prophets, and it was he who called the Muslims by the name "Muslims" (Sura 22 verse 78) [References are to the Pickthall translation of the Koran, which is available in the Mentor Books series].

The meaning of unity in Islam comprises first the surrender to God (3/19; 2/112; 31/22), which means directing one's self to Him as the only, the one God, who has no partner, and worshiping Him, relying upon Him, and giving up one's self to Him. Secondly, it comprises doing of good. These basic principles—unity and good works—are so close they are almost one, but the Koran stresses: "Allah forgiveth not that a partner should be ascribed unto Him. He forgiveth (all) save that to whom he will. Who so ascribeth partners to Allah, he hath indeed invented a tremendous sin" (4/48; 22/4). This is Islam, according to the statement of the Koran. It is evident that since the revelation to Mohammed the Muslims have passed through many stages and varied circumstances. Some individuals confined their practice to the uttering of the affirmation of faith. Others elaborated the basis of religion by drawing upon the traditions of the prophet, his companions, and their followers. But the original idea of unity is dominant among the majority of Muslims, and is still the most important characteristic of Islam.

The special message of Islam is twofold. It first completes the message of the previous prophets—and we must not forget that Muslims recognize the Judaic prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah who have also been adopted by Christianity—by putting an end to the dispute between the Nestorians and Jacobites about the nature of Christ: Muslims believe that Christ is of the Spirit of God, not God Himself, because God "begetteth not nor was begotten. And there is none comparable unto Him" (112/1-4). In other words, Christ, for Islam, is a prophet, not part of the Godhead. Then the Koran goes on to support the message of Christ, and to reproach those who denied it: "And verily We gave unto Moses the Scripture and We caused a train of messengers to follow after him, and We gave unto Jesus, son of Mary, clear proofs (of Allah's sovereignty) and We supported him with the Holy Spirit. Is it ever so, that, when there cometh unto you, a messenger (from Allah) with that which ye yourselves desire not, ye grow arrogant, and some ye disbelieve and some ye slay?" (2/87).

Islam is thus seen as a continuation of the true spirit of religion as revealed by God to the earlier prophets: "Say (O Mohammed), We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham and Ismael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and that which was vouchsafed unto Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered" (3/84).

Mohammed underlined the necessity of obedience to the orders of the earlier prophets: "Say: O people of the Scripture! Ye have naught (of guidance) till ye observe the Torah (the Mosaic Law) and the Gospel and that which was revealed unto you from your Lord" (5/68). The Koran blames the followers of the Jewish Torah for a number of serious faults: setting covenants aside (2/100), adding to the Torah (2/79), or distorting it (4/46, 5/3), believing in a part of the Torah and disbelieving other parts (9./85), slaying the prophets wrongfully (4/155), taking usury and devouring people's wealth by false pretenses (4/161). It appears that the idea of race and religious distinction had spread among Jews and Christians alike, so Islam ridiculed it, demanding a proof for its validity (2/111), asserting that all are but mortals of His creating (5/18), and that God created people as nations and tribes in order to know one another, and the noblest in the sight of God is the best in conduct (49/13). In other words Islam had entered a house whose inmates were disagreed and whose furniture was disordered, desiring that peace and order be re-established.

The fundamental teachings of Islam differ little in their essence from those of the Bible. Prayer and fasting are originally found in Judaism and Christianity. They differ only in form. The Muslim prays five times a day, bowing and kneeling as did the ancient Semites, and he fasts during a whole month (Ramadan) from sunrise to sunset. Pilgrimage to Mecca is similar to pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem. Legal alms is a kind of organized charity which Christ stressed, and it is similar to income tax in modern times in that its amount depends upon the income of the taxpayer. Islam forbade the eating of carrion, blood and swine-flesh, and forbade gambling, drinking wine, committing adultery, and usury, actions also prohibited or condemned in the Old and New Testaments.

Islam received the unique stamp of Mohammed's success. Unlike other prophets, he lived for some years as the head of a state of his own creation and to which he gave laws. Mohammed shaped laws pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and similar matters, aiming at the reform of generally recognized customs. He restricted the number of wives a man might have to four—but on condition that equality be maintained among them. Women had no rights of inheritance; the new code granted them the right to half of men's share. Slavery was then widespread; Islam outlawed it except for captives taken in war, and for these it provided ways of regaining freedom. Wine-drinking was gradually controlled and usury forbidden. The caste system, then in vogue, was abolished, as was the cruel practice of burying unwanted female babies alive. Mohammed realistically balanced social welfare and prevailing custom. The first learned jurists in the period after the spread of Islam followed his lead, emphasizing the spirit rather than the letter of the law. But in later centuries a legalistic hardening of the arteries set in—an unquestioning acceptance of authority became the rule and customs and conventions were frozen to the point where little social change or progress was possible.


Within a century after its founding Islam spread until it reached the borders of China in the East and France in the West. In this vast territory the original Muslims, the Arabs, formed only a small part of the total population. Some of the people who were absorbed into Islam, such as the Persians, the Indians, and the Chinese already had great civilizations, literature, culture, and authority, even superior to those of the Arabs themselves. This feat of conquest has long been regarded as almost miraculous; it is clear, however, that there were good reasons for it, among them the similarity of Islam to Christianity and Judaism, the decay of heathen creeds, corrupt rule, tyranny of one class over others, and the lack of economic and social balance resulting therefrom. A further factor was the basic spirit of tolerance in Islam itself, despite its strong compulsion to proselytize among other religions. So Islam continued to spread until it became the religion of millions in Asia and Africa, and even of a fairly good number in Europe, particularly in Albania and Yugoslavia.

In this process of expansion, Islam interacted with foreign religions and cultures, influencing and being influenced. If the chief locus of influence was literary and linguistic, there was also exchange at the most profound levels of theology. Abbas Mahmoud el-Akkad—a modern Egyptian writer—has suggested that if Christianity could be summarized in one word it would be "Love," and that the key word for Islam might be "Truth." This, of course, is an oversimplification, yet it is true that over the centuries the two religions transmitted to each other something of the kinds of feeling and thinking which these terms imply. As Rome moved toward a position of mediation between God and man, Islam, more in the spirit of the Christian Reformation, preserved the teaching in the Koran of Allah's closeness to man. The Koran says: "Unto Allah belong the East and the West, and whithersoever ye turn, there is Allah's countenance " (2/115), and, "And We are nearer to him (man) than his jugular vein " (50/16). There is no priest in the Muslim's mosque praying for him; he directs his prayer directly to the Deity. There is no doubt that the world was in need of this doctrine, just as it was in need of the Christian doctrine that came before it. It received these two doctrines at their destined times.

Islam was much affected by the cultures over which it spread. New religious and philosophical schools were set up as a result of interaction between Islam and Greek philosophy; it also absorbed certain Indian and Persian mystical tendencies. The Mutazilites subjected the texts of religion to Greek rationalism while the Sufis brought in an element of mysticism and ecstasy, which Islam had lacked. Dervish preaching, on the necessity of mediation between God and his slave, man, led in some periods and regions to a sort of cult of saints. The stimulation of these various tendencies produced a series of brilliant philosophers who were studied with respect in medieval Europe.

The rapid spread of Islam over a huge area broke down a number of the social ideals of the early Muslim community. The spirit of Islam—Mohammed's reform of the society he had found—allowed a certain laxity to develop later: multiple marriage became a problem and easy divorce an evil, while the social equality of early Islam gave way to the customs of the conquered despotic empires.


It is against the backdrop of a long, and wearisome "Dark Age" that modern Islam must be viewed. It must be remembered that at least 70% of the Arabs today are illiterate, and that, at the same time, the new stimulus to change in Islamic society is, unlike the outside stimuli in earlier eras, almost entirely secular. Traditional Islam was a complete "way of life" in which social conventions and religious beliefs were closely integrated. Today Islam is moving toward a position more like that of Western religion, with separation of church and state. This is reflected in education.

There is no school in Muslim countries in which religious studies do not exist. But the teacher of religion is usually not also a teacher of the secular studies. The two fields are becoming entirely independent of each other. Thus Egypt, for example, has alongside of and separate from its ancient Azhar—the world's' oldest university—three modern, secular universities which are largely Western in organization and spirit.

The central problem facing Arab Muslims, and indeed all Muslims, today is how to find a new way of life—Islamic in character—which will be halfway between the East and the West and which will provide the internal stability necessary to enable Muslims to face their problems independently. The Arab World can borrow technology from the West but it must find the answers to its deeper problems within itself. One need only observe book-buying habits to see the strong interest in Islam still alive today. In Cairo any book discussing Islam is sure of a big sale. This shows that people are not drifting away from religion. It is a fact also that the world struggle between democracy and communism has led Muslims to make a fresh evaluation of their religion to see where it stands in relation to these two conflicting movements.

How far does Islam really penetrate into the hearts of Muslims today? What tangible effects does it have in their lives? There is no simple answer and much depends on exactly what is meant by Muslims. Those who have a good understanding of Islam—unfortunately, the minority—are inspired by their religion with pride and self-respect, and a desire for freedom. The Muslim Brotherhood is the extreme expression of this side of Islam. Hasan el-Banna, the founder of the movement, called on Muslims to be "leaders in their countries and masters in their homelands." There is no wonder that the past glory of Islam arouses feelings of pride and desire for freedom. This spirit underlay this century's continuous revolts against foreign rule, and we see it at work now in North-Africa.

Islam inspires its followers to cleave to the Islamic community and be absorbed by it. I indicated above that Islam emphasizes the freedom of the community at the expense of the freedom of the individual. The truth is that the individual enjoys vast freedom, so long as he remains inside the Muslim community. But if he goes against it, he loses his liberty, or to put it more precisely, he loses his standing in Muslim society. Sheikh Mohammed Abdu—the great reformer, who died in 1905—once wrote, "If someone says something implying unbelief in a hundred ways and implying belief in one single way, his words should be taken as belief rather than unbelief."

Islam inspires its followers to sanctify the mind, reject the miraculous, and meditate on God's creation to confirm belief. Mohammed did not prove the validity of his message by miracles. The Koran is full of verses which call us to the knowledge of God through reason alone. Abdu maintained that Islam demands faith in God and His unity through rational inference, and that the belief in God should come before the belief in the prophecies. "It is not proper that the belief in God should be taken from the words of the prophets nor from the revealed Book, because it is unreasonable to believe in a Book revealed by God, unless one already believes in the existence of God."

Islam instructs its followers to believe in this world and the world to come in such a way as not to have one overpower the other. The Muslim has the right to enjoy the pleasures of this world, because it was created for him. "But seek the abode of the Hereafter in that which Allah hath given thee and neglect not thy portion of the world, and be thou kind even as Allah hath been kind to thee, and seek not corruption in the earth; lo! Allah loveth not corruptors" (28/77). And there is a well-known proverb widely spread among Muslims: "Work for this world as though you will live forever, and work for the next world as though you will die tomorrow."

Different Muslims have reacted to the incursion of Western ideas diversely. The Egyptian writer, Ahmad Ameen, said frankly: "The reform of Islam will come about in two ways: one, by separating science from religion, and advancing in science as extensively as possible; the other, through the practice of absolute Ijtihad." Ijtihad means "free interpretation, " and Ahmad Ameen goes on to explain: "We do not mean by this the use of the mind only and the blind imitation of the foreigner, but we mean that kind of ijtihad achieved by those who are qualified, a kind that would understand its aims, and also understand Western civilization and its aims; then allow or prohibit in the light of these two kinds of understanding."

Another contemporary Muslim writer has advocated implicitly that free interpretation should be applied to matters pertaining to Islamic doctrine and not to matters of jurisprudence alone. But the conditions of Muslims today do not yet permit this absolute freedom of interpretation, though they are moving toward it.

A third position, which calls for the separation of religion from the state, but not from society, has been advocated by Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razik in his book Islam and Principles of Rule and by a powerful writer of the younger generation, Khalid Mohammed Khalid, whose From Here We Start has been widely read. While, to be sure, the Muslim Brotherhood disagrees with this line of thought, the majority of cultured Muslims tend to endorse it. In fact , almost all the Muslim world now uses secular civic law, with some slight Islamic modifications rather than the old religious code. Only the laws covering "personal status"—marriage, divorce, inheritance, and the like—have remained unchanged. And even the old Muslim code is civil to some extent, particularly in marriage, which is carried out by a written contract, the conditions of which are dictated by both parties. There are also certain traditional concepts which facilitate the modification of Muslim law; the idea of "free interpretation" applies in this field as does that of "consensus of opinion." Thus if enough Muslims unanimously agree upon a certain matter it becomes a religious law. The Muslim Brotherhood's call to return to religious legislation is clearly one of its program's weakest points, and has caused continuous disputes with the various Egyptian governments to this day.

The jurist el-Banna expressed the liberal view when he wrote: "We should know that the glorious Koran is not based upon the laws.... It contains six thousand verses, and the total number of verses concerned with laws does not exceed five hundred.

The Koran is concerned rather with the training of character and the cleansing and purification of the spirit." This means that legislation should be considered a means and not an end. Ahmad Ameen went even further, claiming that only fifty verses of the Koran and seventeen Traditions of the Prophet were really concerned with law. He called for absolute free interpretation on condition that the spirit of Islam be truly understood. And not long ago the Egyptian Minister of Waqf (Muslim Endowments), who is a learned man of the Azhar, approved of Muslims paying and receiving interest on charitable trust investments—a "modern point of view which is nevertheless in keeping with the spirit of Muslim legislation.

The time has come, I believe, for Christians and Muslims to understand that they are in the same boat: if it sinks they will all sink; if it remains afloat, they will all be saved. There must be sincere co-operation in both the spiritual and material life. And this will only be accomplished with a sound basis of mutual respect, confidence, and tolerance.