The World of Islam

by Brother Austin David Carroll, F.S.C.
photos by Tom Stevens

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These past few years, we in the West have heard a good deal more about Islam than we have heard before. We have been concerned with the availability and price of oil coming from the Arab states of the Middle East. We have read of the wars between Iraq and Iran and have gone to war against Iraq. We have heard of hostages being taken by various Islamic groups and our media have reported the railings of some Islamic religious leaders against the Great Satan of the West.

Tumultuous events in the Middle East have focused our view on the Arab world. However, nations with the largest Muslim populations are non-Arabic – Indonesia (145 million), Pakistan (92 million), Bangladesh (90 million), India (90 million), the Soviet Union (50 million) and Turkey (50 million).

Islam is a monotheistic religion with some 800 million adherents concentrated in a belt across the globe extending from Morocco east to the archipelago nation of Indonesia. Migrant populations of Muslims are found in other nations around the world; there are about 2.5 million in the United States, according to the latest census findings.

What is Islam and what do Muslims believe? In the view of the believing Muslim, Islam is understood as part of God’s merciful providence present from all eternity but revealed to humankind through his chosen prophets. Several figures of the Old and New Testaments are honored as prophets by Muslims: Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Job, Solomon, David, Joseph, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus. However, Muslims say, the last of the prophets who sealed God’s covenant with humankind is Mohammed, who lived from c.570 to 632.

Islam did not spring forth as a fully developed religion and way of life; rather, it developed out of the travail and mystery of the life of Mohammed, who was a native of the city of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. He was a businessman, successfully working the caravans from Arabia to Asia Minor. Around the age of 40 this merchant began to receive revelations in the form of a voice and a vision. For 22 years, Mohammed received from God the Qur’an (the Recitation), which was given as the culmination of all previous prophetic revelations. Although given in Arabic, it was addressed to all people and has thus cast Islam as a universalist religion, just as is Christianity (“go and teach all nations.”). Mohammed was the passive receiver of the revelation, the messenger of God who is the seal of the prophets. With Mohammed, according to Muslims, this revelation is closed.

It is of interest that both the Virgin Mary and Jesus receive extensive treatment in the Qur’an, the Virgin being mentioned more than 33 times, while Jesus is esteemed as a prophet. For a brief moment, it is wise for the reader to realize that in the time of Mohammed, the city of Mecca was a commercial and religious center of the western part of the Arabian peninsula. In that region were the ancient polytheistic religions, the Jews of the community of commerce, and the newly-arrived Christians. To the heady theological mix was added the Zoroastrians of Persia (Iran). It is fascinating that from the Ur of Chaldea (Iraq) on the fertile crescent through Mecca and Jerusalem, humanity has been driven with the concept of monotheism.

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Tags: Middle East Muslim Christian-Muslim relations Islam Quran