A 9th- or 10th-century leaf of the Qur’an in Kufic script

[The following is part three of a series on a lecture presented in the Hofstra Great Books Series on December 5, 1993. For part two, click here.].

1. Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds

If there is a phrase in Arabic as frequently used as the bismillah, it is no doubt the hamdillah. Since God is perfect, God alone has the right to receive praise from humanity. God deserves this verbal praise because this mercy comes of his own volition; it was not forced, it was freely given. We are also reminded in these opening words that God rules; he is the rabb of the worlds that be. The word rabb in Arabic has a number of related connotations, including master or lord, chief, determiner, provider, sustainer, rewarder, and perfector. The worlds, perhaps better rendered straightforwardly as the universe, indicated here encompass the material and the immaterial, of flesh-and-blood and of spirits, of those who are well guided and those who are misguided. Whatever is, God is the ultimate master of it. While a non-believer might read this as a base for fatalism, a Muslim sees it differently as a fundamental reason for hope. God’s will will be done, but this hardly frees the believer from doing his or her part, particularly when no one can speak definitively as to what God’s will is in a given matter. The meaning of Islam, after all, is submission.

2. The Compassionate, the Merciful

3. Master of the Day of Judgement

The term malik is that which is used in Arabic for the master of a slave, the owner of property, and the king or sole ruler. For the Muslim, God is the ultimate master of all things. He is not just a judge dispensing justice; God renders reward and punishment (the implication of judgement day) because He alone is the authentic source for such judgement. Who else has this kind of authority, but the one who creates everything and sustains everything? We are reminded quite literally as well that Islam preaches a final judgement, one beyond the grave, a future resurrection of the dead – an idea hardly unique to this revelation. But the Muslim is consoled by the realization that no matter how bad things are (and in many Muslim countries, things are pretty bad right now) God will be the ultimate judge.

4. You alone we worship, and to you alone we pray for help

Muhammad was the messenger of a strict monotheism: there could be only one all-knowing, all-powerful God — Allah in Arabic. Not surprisingly Muslims find the Christian notion of trinity — that God could be divided into three divine persons — as heresy. It is one of those interesting ironies of history that some of the major arguments used by medieval Christian scholars for the oneness of God are borrowed from Islamic theology, as Prof. Makdisi of my alma mater (University of Pennsylvania) has shown in several well-documented studies. Indeed Makdisi’s lifelong analysis of the work of the Baghdadi scholar Ibn ‘Aqil (died 1119 AD) shows the direct influence of medieval Muslim methods of disputation on the “scholastic method” of St. Aquinas.

Like the other kindred monotheisms, the God of Islam is a jealous God. Islam does not tolerate any sort of worship we might define as “pagan.” Jews and Christians, as well as Mazdeans from Iran — the so-called “people of the book” — were allowed to continue their religions because Muhammad preached that they worshipped the same God, although, given the new revelation of the Quran, in error. A jealous but merciful God could accept an inept believer, but not a non-believer. Hence, Muslims are rather uncomfortable with any worldview which admits the possibility that no God exists. The issue of doubt, which is the hallmark of secularism in the West, has not arisen to a recognizable form in most Islamic tradition.

One of the central forms of worship in Islam is prayer, not the pray-when-you-have-a-need variety but rather a discipline of five daily prayers (even if these appear to inconvenience the worshipper), communal Friday prayers, and a variety of directed prayers for ritual occasions. For the Western observer, it is perhaps the physical exercise of prayer which most sets Muslims apart. They not only submit in spirit, but also prostrate their bodies in unison as a daily public demonstration of their faith. It is no surprise then that televised sound bites on Islam invariably show a scene of such prayer — a none too subtle semiotic message that Muslims worship blindly in a mass submission as opposed to the rigid individualism of Western religious expression in a secularized framework. What is not seen — because it cannot be properly shown in the media — is that most Muslim prayer and indeed most recitations of the fatiha occur in private, the individual alone approaching his or her God.

5 Guide us to the straight path

6. The path of those whom you have favoured

7. Not of those who have incurred your wrath, nor of those who have gone astray

To reach God the Muslim must find the right path, as shown to the prophet Muhammad and revealed through the revelation in the Quran. In the spiritual journey metaphor as mentioned in the Christian Gospel of St. Matthew the road to destruction is broad and entered through a wide gate, while the way to eternal life is contrasted as narrow and less used. The implication in this Christian reading is that most people seek the main street, where the crowds go, a not surprising travel itinerary for a religion which starts with original sin. In Islam, by contrast, sin is not the same black mark on Adam’s progeny. For the Muslim, the straight path is the clearly marked trail, without detours and confusing curves, the road which is known to go to a certain destination. The start of this straight path is, as the commentator Ibn Kathir notes, the Quran itself. The path is the truth. The goal is to get to and stay on the right path and not be led astray through the willful intent of others nor by accident. The wiles of the Devil notwithstanding, this goal is not outside human reach. God certainly helps believers help themselves, but believers are not clones manipulated by the divine spirit. There is a clearly marked road to follow.

to be continued