Today, the followers of Islam number about one billion and it is the majority religion in over fifty countries. These include the nations of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, including some of the states of Central Asia which were part of the Soviet bloc. The most populous Islamic country is Indonesia. Islam is an expansionist religion and spends considerable sums of money on mission activities, and is determined to make inroads into Africa, south of the Sahara, and into the West. Over 10 million Muslims live in the West, evenly divided between those who live in the USA and those who live in Europe. Islam is spreading rapidly amongst black Americans, and amongst West Indians and Africans in Britain. It is estimated that 70,000 Caucasians turned to Islam in the USA in the decade 1973 – 1983.
In many ways Islam is a very aggressive religion and actively discriminates against Christians and even legally endorses their persecution. In Saudi Arabia, any citizen who becomes a Christian faces the death penalty. Accusations of blasphemy against the prophet are capital offences in Pakistan. Communal violence has martyred thousands of Christian believers in Nigeria and Indonesia. Also, Muslim fundamentalist groups seek to subvert the political processes in many countries and attempt to gain control, so that they can impose the strict Islamic (Shari'ah) law code, which discriminates against non- Muslims and even denies them basic civil rights. Education and the media are also widely used to deride Christianity and undermine its truth.
The religion was founded by the prophet Muhammad who was born in Mecca in AD 570. As a youth he made contact with Jews and Christians and discussed religious matters with them, especially in terms of the Old and New Testament. This seems to have produced the basis for his passionate conviction that there is only one true God, and made him react against the polytheism and idol worship he found in Mecca. In AD 595 he married a wealthy widow named Khadijah and her wealth enabled him to spend the next fifteen years in seclusion and meditation. During this time he claimed to receive visions from the angel Gabriel and became convinced that he was a prophet of God. His family and a few sympathisers became his early followers, but the authorities in Mecca persecuted him and an attempt was made on his life.
He fled to Medina in AD622, and this flight (the Hijira) marks the turning point in Islam’s history and all Islamic calendars mark this date as their beginning. Accepted in Medina, Muhammad became an able administrator and also learned that the sword was a more powerful weapon than the word. He eventually attacked and took control of Mecca, destroyed its idols and consecrated the famous black stone of Mecca (the Ka'abah) as the centre of Islamic worship. Since then Islam has expanded and Muslims have not been afraid to use force to compel conversions.
The official Islamic book is the Qur'an, a word that means ‘recitation’ or ‘reading’. It is divided up into 114 suras (chapters) and was written by the followers of the prophet as they remembered his utterances. It was written in Arabic and was revised and standardized in the seventh century. Translations are actively discouraged. The Quar'an is supplemented to a very great extent by traditions (Hadith), which are the words and actions of Muhammad and his followers that have been handed down through the generations.
Islam teaches that there is one god and his name is Allah. This is clearly not the God of the Bible, as it is not possible to know this god personally. He is characterized by judgement and power, but not mercy and grace. Angels are important in Islam, firstly, because they reputedly brought the revelation to Muhammad, and secondly, each person is believed to have two angels, one recording the good deeds and the other the bad. Followers of Islam believe that their god has spoken through many prophets, the greatest of whom were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, with of course the latter being the last and greatest. Islamic followers look forward to a time of resurrection and judgement when all those that follow and obey Allah and Muhammad will go to a place of pleasure called Paradise, while all others will be tormented in hell. Islam also has a rigid view of predestination that states that all good and evil come from the divine will. This has produced the common Islamic phrase, ‘It is Allah’s will’.
As far as family life is concerned, there is an expectation that everyone will marry and a man may have up to four wives and as many concubines as he can maintain. He may divorce his wife at any time and for any reason, though women have no right of divorce.
They consider Jesus to be both a prophet and a messenger of Allah and believe in His virgin birth and ability to perform miracles. They deny His deity and His crucifixion, for they do not believe that Allah would allow an innocent man to suffer for the sins of others. They believe that Jesus was translated into heaven before dying and someone else was substituted on the cross. Also, the promise that Jesus gave to His followers, of a Comforter to come, is interpreted in Islam as a prediction of the coming of Muhammad.
THE FIVE PILLARS OF ISLAM
Islam teaches that works as well as faith are necessary for salvation. So ‘Islam’ which means ‘submission to god’ is practised in terms of fulfilling ‘the five principles’ or ‘pillars of faith’.
1. The Confession of Faith (the Kalima).
This consists of a creed spoken in Arabic, which means: ‘There is no god but Allah’ and is usually followed by, ‘and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah’. This is the bedrock of Islamic belief and one must state this aloud publicly in order to become a Muslim. It is repeated regularly by the faithful.
2. The Ritual of Daily Prayer (the Salat).
Muslim prayers consist of reciting in Arabic prescribed words, while performing certain gestures and prostrations. There are five obligatory times for prayer and the faithful would never miss them. These take place at dawn, noon, late afternoon, sunset and at the end of twilight. There is ceremonial cleansing before prayers and the prayers are recited while facing Mecca.
3. The Ramadan Fast (the Sawn).
This fast lasts from sunrise to sunset each day during the holy ninth month of Ramadan. Muhammad declared that it was during this month that the Qur'an began to be revealed from heaven. To keep the fast is to help in the process of forgiveness, and also shows in a public way the attachment of people to their religious community.
4. The Giving of Alms (the Zakat).
Having experienced life as an orphan, the prophet had a strong desire to help the needy. Today a religious tax is imposed and is said to help purify both the giver and his property from evil. It is also widely viewed as increasing spiritual merit and earning the forgiveness of sins.
5. The Pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj).
Every Muslim is required to go to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. Over a million assemble in the city each year and it heightens the sense of Islamic solidarity.
There is also a sixth religious duty known as the Jihad or Holy War. When situations warrant it men are required to go to war to s p r e a d Islam or d e f e n d i t against unbelievers. If one dies in a Jihad there is promise of eternal life in paradise. Today, Muslim churches are found in nearly every country of the world.
There has, however, been an increase in the number of Muslims turning to Christ. We need to pray that this process will accelerate, and also be prepared to encourage every means for spreading the gospel. Today, this is done through gospel radio broadcasts, Bible correspondence courses, evangelization of ethnic communities in the West, and Christians who take up secular jobs enabling them to enter the Muslim world and utilise informal opportunities of presenting the message of salvation through faith in Christ. In view of Islam’s fierce opposition to the truth of the gospel, Muslims will only be reached effectively when the work is done under God’s leading, in accordance with His word and in dependence upon the power of His Holy Spirit.