What Is Islam?

By Christine Schirrmacher
December 01, 2001

The term “Islam” means “submission,” “surrender,” or “dedication” to God. A Moslem is somebody who submits to God and obeys the obligatory Islamic laws and commands. Moslems claim that the term Islâm has the same roots as salâm in Arabic (the letters s-l-m), and salâm means peace, well-being, or salvation. As to the Moslems’ opinion, the Koran has been sent down as an exact copy of the original heavenly revelation. Moslems believe that the angel Gabriel transferred the contents of the Koran to Muhammad. Therefore, the whole text of the Koran has supreme authority. In the Moslems’ opinion, Muhammad is the last prophet in history as well as the most important one, the follower of Adam, Abraham, Moses, and David who was already announced by Jesus Christ. In the Moslems’ eyes, Muhammad (his name means “the praised one”) was God’s messenger, but only a human being. Long after Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D., Moslem theologians developed the doctrine of all prophets of history having been without sin (including Muhammad), although the Koran in more than one instance refers to sins all prophets have committed (with the exception of Jesus). Also Muhammad asked God for forgiveness (Muhammad in surah 110:3 and 48:2, Adam in 7:23; Noah in 11:47; Abraham in 14:41; Moses in 28:16; David in 38:24). This dogma of all prophets being sinless is commonly accepted in today’s Moslem theology.

The Life of Muhammad
Concerning Muhammad’s life, only very few historically reliable facts have been transferred to us. He was born around 570 AD at Mecca, a city of the Arabian Peninsula. He belonged to the tribe of the Quraish and to the lineage of the Banu Hashim. Muhammad became an orphan at the early age of six and was raised by his grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib. Abd al-Muttalib died only a few years later and Muhammad came to live with his uncle Abu Talib.

In the sixth century A. D., the Bedouin tribes of Arabia worshipped a number of gods, deities, and demons. Stones, trees, and fountains were considered to be the home of gods and deities. Sacrifices and offerings were made on a regular basis. Animals were slaughtered at those holy places and, when the animals’ blood was flowing over the stone, people believed they received forgiveness. At least some of the Arabian tribes worshipped a supreme god, a creator, whose name is believed to have been “the god” or “the goddess” (in Arabic: al-ilâh or al-lâh = “the god,” “the divinity”).

At about the age of twenty-five, Muhammad became husband of Hadîja bint Huwaylid, a forty-year old trader’s widow. One can rightly say, that Hadîja was Muhammad’s first convert who accepted the new faith of Islam. She did not agree with other people’s opinion who concluded that Muhammad was obsessed by evil spirits or demons. In the beginning, it is said that this was Muhammad’s own perception of what had happened. Hadîja encouraged her husband in the belief that his feelings and strong impressions, which he experienced while meditating in the cave of Hîra, were divine messages. She believed Muhammad should preach and proclaim what God had told him to preach and exhort his fellow countrymen to obey and repent. Muhammad’s message is said to be a warning that the Last Judgment is near to come. Later on — as the Koran and Moslem tradition tell us — Muhammad himself came to the conclusion that he had received a message from God through the angel Gabriel and had been chosen by God to be His prophet. Muhammad from now on should warn his people and present God’s revelation to the Arab nation: “Qara’a” in Arabic means “to read” or “to recite,” so “Koran” is the message being presented or recited. Muhammad in his early messages concentrated on two main issues:

• There is only one almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth.
• Repent and submit to God in order to avoid the threatening judgment.

Moslems believe that Muhammad, until his death in 632 A. D., received many more revelations from God. It was only many years after Muhammad’s death that all texts which were believed to be his “revelations” were summarized and perceived to be the Koran text with 114 surahs (chapters). These 114 surahs were put in a row according to their length. For this reason, we find the longest surahs at the beginning of the Koran and the shortest at its end.

For Moslems the Koran is God’s own word, sent down in verbal inspiration, authoritative for all eternity. In the same way Moslem tradition (hadîth) — stories of what Muhammad and his closest followers had said and decided to do in certain situations — is considered to have the same authority from God as the text of the Koran itself. The whole body of tradition, which Moslems consider to be true traditions, are put together in six extensive hadith-collections. Moslem traditions in combination with practices of folk Islam frequently exercise more influence on a Moslem’s daily life than does the Koran itself.

Topics: Theology, World History

Christine Schirrmacher

Christine Schirrmacher (born 1962), M.A., Dr. phil. (Ph.D.), in Islamic Studies at the State University of Bonn, Germany, is married to Thomas Schirrmacher, the mother of two children, and lecturer of Islamic Studies at Martin Bucer Seminary Bonn and Hamburg. She is also professor and head of the department of Islamic studies at Whitefield Theological Seminary, Lakeland, Florida. She is author of a two-volume standard introduction to Islam, as well as of books and numerous articles published in German, English, French, and Dutch magazines. She can be reached at [email protected].

More by Christine Schirrmacher