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11 March 2015

Hello from Atlanta! We hope you are doing well, and benefiting from the weekly bulletins. In the current series we're taking a look at the major world faiths. The purpose is that we be not only respectful, but also informed (1 Peter 3:15) as we interact with members of other faith traditions.

Numbers can be useful. For instance, in our last bulletin we learned that 1 in 4 human beings is a Muslim. That's easy to remember. Other things are tougher: memorizing the 99 names of Allah, or learning the content of the 114 chapters in the Qur'an. But there are a few numbers you might want to master, if you want to be in the know concerning the basics. We'll keep it simple, and take the approach of a countdown.

Islam by the numbers

What does it take to become and live as a Muslim? Our first number is FIVE -- as in the Five Pillars of Islam. The countdown will continue as we touch on the place of women, the Trinity, major factions, and Allah.

Five pillars
  • Confession: that Allah is the one God and Muhammad is his messenger. This is how one becomes a Muslim -- sort of like the "Sinner's prayer" of many Protestant Christians.
  • Prayer: five times daily, facing Mecca. Originally the direction was towards Jerusalem, but when the Jews rejected Muhammad's message, he changed the city.
  • Alms: giving to the needy is also required, about 2% of one's income (Sunni Muslims) or 20% (Shiites).
  • Fasting: a daylight fast during the Muslim month of Ramadan. Since Muslims follow a lunar calendar (354 days in the year), Ramadan rotates through the western solar calendar.
  • Pilgrimage: once in one's lifetime one should try to visit the holy city of Mecca.
Some would add a sixth pillar, jihad (which we will discuss next time).

Remember: 5 pillars, CPAFP.

"Confession - Prayer - Alms - Fasting- Pilgrimage" may be easier to recall with an acronym. How about Camels Pursuing A Familiar Path, or Certified Public Accountant Financial Peace? I frequently rely on mnemonics. (Easier to rely on them than on a faulty memory -- do you relate?)

Four wives

Despite the considerable overlap between Islam and Judaism and Christianity, there are many points at which Qur'an is in severe tension with the gospel. It's not just the rejection of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, but also the view of grace, the treatment of enemies, and the rights of women.

The Qur'an permits men 
to take up to FOUR wives (4:3). What we as outsiders may not realize is that most Muslims are monogamous. Having multiple wives is expensive! Thus polygamy serves as a status marker. Interestingly, Muhammad had far more than just four. When he wanted a woman, Allah permitted him directly to take her, even if she was already married.

Another troubling verse is 4:34: Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are obedient... As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them, refuse to share their beds, and beat them...

I suppose we all need a word of admonition now and again. Yet what about withholding conjugal rights, or employing violence (even if it is only a light slap on the face)?

Remember: four wives, sura 4.

Three gods

The version of Christianity Muhammad was exposed to was quite different from the original, apostolic faith. Two centuries earlier the church had ruled that Mary is the mother of God (Council of Ephesus, 431 AD). Many prayed to her. And thus it appeared that Christians worshipped THREE gods. The "Trinity" was Allah, Mary, and Jesus (4:171 and 5:73).

Certainly Christians, like Muslims, affirm the unity of God. We are not tritheists (three gods). Muhammad was certainly reacting to the lapsed, worldly version of Christianity current in Arabia in the seventh century.

Two major divisions

Muslims do not constitute a monolithic faith. Through the centuries they have divided and subdivided. Some follow some certain traditions, others different ones. Not surprisingly, there is even more than one version of the Qur'an. Some Muslims are mystics; the Sufis long to experience the God of love (pretty much absent from mainstream Islam). They seek ecstatic union with Allah, and even speak in "tongues." Last, American readers, please note that the Nation of Islam is not considered legitimate by Muslims, since it is a racial movement, and holds to a number of un-Islamic ideas.

The TWO main divisions are Sunni and Shi'a Islam. Shi'ites differ from their mainstream cousins on many doctrines and practices, and the break goes back to the death of Muhammad (632 AD). Shi'ites hold that the succession of the caliphate ought to come through the family of the prophet -- through Muhammad's son-inl-aw Ali. Not so the Sunnis! Shi'ites are perhaps 15% of all Muslims, while 80% are Sunnis. Shi'ites are most common in Iran and Iraq, but also proliferate in Pakistan and India; Sunnis, everywhere else.

Remember: many flavors, but two major groupings, Sunnis and Shi'ites.

One god

Of course there is only ONE deity in Islam, and that is Allah (the Arabic name for god). Interestingly, in Islam the unforgivable sin is "associating" any other being with God. Suggesting that he has a wife, or a child, or that a human could be God (like Jesus) is blasphemy. So the incarnation (God became flesh) is no minor difference between the Muslims and the Christians. The Christian affirms that the Word became flesh (John 1:14); the Muslim denies it and cries "heresy!". Thus it is no exaggeration to state that the central teaching of Christianity is the unforgivable sin of Islam.

Remember: one God, Allah.

Quiz yourself!

Putting it all together, we have:
  • 5 pillars -- CPAFP
  • 4 wives -- Sura 4
  • 3 gods -- false trinity
  • 2 divisions -- Sunni & Shi'a
  • 1 God -- Allah
Can you count down from 5 to 1? If necessary, review the information. Ask a friend to quiz you. If you'll take a few minutes to review Islam by the numbers, you should be able to retain it for the rest of your life.

To learn more about the fundamentals of Islam, here is an 11-minute podcast. For something meatier, consider my book Jesus & Islam. For even more, read some of the Qur'an, or even listen to it being recited.

If you'd like a "bonus" number, Muslims have six articles of faith: God; the prophets (including Jesus); the scriptures (the Law, Psalms, Gospel, and Qur'an, given by Moses, David, Jesus, and Muhammad); angels; the & judgment day; and destiny.
What about jihad?
You may be wondering about terrorism and global jihad, or how much Islam is really a religion of peace. This will be our topic next week.
Thanks for your time. If you have friends you think would find the newsletter interesting, send it on, or maybe suggest they sign up (it's free). Salaam.

Yours in Him,
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