Orthodox America


In 1996, Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted an end of Ramadan celebration in the White House, the first of what has become an annual affair, which has been interpreted by one Muslim spokesman as setting "the seal of the officialness of Islam as a full-fledged religion in America." Until a few decades ago, Islam was a scarcely noticeable feature of this country's religious landscape. It now lays claim to being the fastest growing religion in America, citing membership figures between four and six million, ahead of Episcopalians and Jews. While a more accurate estimate would bring the numbers down closer to two million, [see Richard John Neuhaus, "Islamic Encounters," in First Things, Feb 1998] the growth rate is still significant.

With its increasing numbers, the Islamic community has begun to assert itself in the public arena, seeking and gaining accommodations for its religious practices in schools, on college campuses and in the workplace. Muslim schools and mosques are cropping up in cities from New York to LA. As this Muslim presence makes itself known here in America, we should ask ourselves what we know about this religion, a religion that historically has shown itself inimical towards Christianity, producing scores of Orthodox martyrs - even today, as current events in Serbia and elsewhere tragically demonstrate.

Islam's founder, the prophet Muhammad (also Mohammed or Mahomet), was born c. 570 AD, in Mecca, an oasis town in western Arabia, located on a caravan route between the Persian and Byzantine Empires. His father Abdallah, of the ruling Quraysh tribe, died soon after Muhammad's birth, and the child was raised by his uncle Abu Talib. As a young man, Muhammad went to work in the caravan trade, in the employ of a wealthy widow, Kadifah, whom he married when he was twenty-four. They had several children, only one of whom, a daughter Fatima, survived. Now a man of means, Muhammad used his leisure for contemplation, sometimes withdrawing for this purpose into the mountains. Mecca was a religious center for the polytheistic Arabians, and Muhammad, who had also been exposed to Jewish and Christian traditions in his travels as a camel driver, may have been trying to make sense of the conflicting beliefs. In view of later developments this is at least a credible surmise.

Muhammad was about forty when he felt called to be God's prophet. According to the traditional Muslim biography, he was sleeping on Mount Hira when he had a vision of the Archangel Gabriel, who commanded him, "Recite!" For the next twenty-two years Muhammad continued to receive revelations, which were recorded by his followers and comprise the Muslim holy scriptures, called the Qur'an (Koran), meaning "the reading" or "the recitation."

Foremost among Muhammad's teachings was that there is but one god, Allah (possibly from al illah, which means the god - Boa, p. 49). His first converts were his wife and a young cousin Ali, but he was otherwise slow in gaining adherents. His teaching angered the Meccan merchants, whose revenues depended on the town's numerous shrines to various deities. Muhammad escaped a plan to murder him by fleeing to Yathrib, two hundred and eighty miles north of Mecca. The traditional date of the flight, the Hijrah or Hegira, July 16, 622, was adopted as the beginning of the Muslim era, and the name of the town was changed to Medina, the "City of the Prophet." There, Muhammad was more successful in attracting converts, and he soon established himself as the head of a model theocratic state, extending his teachings to cover many legal and political, as well as social and religious matters.

The new religion's basic tenet was surrender to the will of Allah, islam, and those who professed to do so were called Muslims. Muhammad himself claimed to be the last in a series of prophets that included the Jewish Old Testament prophets as well as Jesus Christ. He expected to attract followers among Medina's considerable Jewish population. When they rejected him, he stopped praying towards Jerusalem, turning instead towards Mecca, and began persecuting the Jews, confiscating their properties. Among his followers Muhammad inculcated a strong bond of brotherhood, while those outside the faith, like the Jews, were subject to official discrimination, including special taxes.

For all his moral preaching, Muhammad sanctioned the plundering of caravans, and, with their treasury thereby enriched, the Medinese waged a successful war against the Meccans, taking the city in 630. By this time Muhammad's renown had grown, and even when he tore down the idols he encountered no serious opposition. He rebuilt the most important shrine, a temple called the "Kaaba," which housed the Black Stone, thought to have been given by the Archangel Gabriel to Abraham, and, by continuing the ancient tradition of pilgrimage to the Kaaba, ensured Mecca's distinction as the religious center of the Islamic world.

This world expanded rapidly after the death of Muhammad in 632. He had left his followers with a commission from Allah to spread the faith to the rest of the world through the jihad. Within a century, this "holy war" had brought lands from Seville to Samarkand into a new Arab Muslim empire. By the early ninth century, the wave of Muslim expansion had swept India and had brushed the borders of China. Arab political supremacy waned, but Islam held sway in the conquered lands, with the exception of Spain and Portugal, which reverted to Christianity. In the fourteenth century the Ottoman Turks resumed the jihad with renewed vigor, extending their rule into Europe almost as far as Vienna and establishing themselves as the new champions of the Islamic world. They maintained their power with the same bloody sword, until internal crises combined with military reversals, beginning with the famous naval battle of Lepanto in 1571, to initiate the gradual decline of their empire. It was 1830 before Greece achieved its independence, and 1912 before the rest of the Balkans and their predominantly Orthodox Christian populations were free of their Muslim oppressors.

The teachings of Islam are set forth in the Qur'an (Koran), which is divided into 114 chapters or surahs. These are supplemented by hadith, "sayings," a record of the actions and utterances of Muhammad, which at first were transmitted by oral tradition and later written down. The Qur'an and hadith form the basis of the shari'a, the Holy Law, which lies at the foundation of the Islamic state, and which constitutes a rich body of legislation covering all aspects of public and private life. Less clearly defined is the ijam, which may roughly be described as "consensus" and refers to the common opinion of the believers regarding particular interpretations of Islamic teaching. This in turn is guided by the Sunna, or accepted "tradition." In the eighth century, the Sunna was more rigorously defined, and this later gave rise to some debate between those who continued to adhere to this strict definition, the Sunnis, and those who restored a greater role to opinion. In both cases, innovation was and is considered to be equivalent to the Christian concept of heresy.

Briefly summarized, Islam teaches that there is one God, Allah, omnipotent and omniscient, creator of heaven and earth, and that Mohammad is his last and greatest prophet; that when the world falls away from Islam the end will come and there will be a resurrection of bodies and a day of universal judgment; at that time each man's deeds will be weighed to determine his destiny in heaven or hell.

In order to attain heaven, the Muslim is to submit to the will of Allah in all aspects of his life. A fundamental, and required, expression of this submission is the fulfillment of five basic duties, regarded as "the five pillars" of Islam. 1) Profession of faith: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet." Anyone who confesses this may be considered a Muslim. 2) Prayer. There is a set of prescribed prayers that are to be offered five times a day : at sunrise, midday, afternoon, evening, and before retiring. The worshipper must be in a state of ritual purity and prays facing Mecca, the "prophet's" birthplace. 3) Fasting. During the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, all adult Muslims, with the exception of the aged and infirm, abstain from dawn until dusk from all food, drink and sexual relations. 4) Pilgrimage. All Muslims are expected, at least once in their lifetime, to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. This is a great unifying force in the Islamic world, each year bringing together vast numbers of people from different races, nationalities, and cultures in a single, collective act of devotion. 5) Charity. The Muslim pays a certain tribute, which goes to the community or the Islamic state, and he is expected to give generous alms beyond that. A sixth pillar is sometimes added: jihad, or "holy war." Anyone who dies fighting for the advance of Islam is assured of going to heaven.

Islam has no equivalent to the Church, nor does it have an ordained priesthood or any sacraments. Muslims gather on Friday in a mosque for communal prayer, in which they are led by an imam, who can be anyone from the community who knows the ritual prayers. Friday is not, however, the Muslim equivalent of the Jewish or Christian Sabbath; there is nothing in the Qur'an that prescribes a day of rest. Nor is the mosque a place of holiness; it has no altar, no sanctuary, and it is open not only for prayer but for study and for business. In earlier times it served as a social center, a hall of justice, and a pulpit for public proclamations and important news.

Islam has many recognizable elements taken from Judaism and Christianity, and Muslims like to stress the similarities: they believe in one god, creator of heaven and earth; they believe that all human beings belong to a single family that originated with Adam and Eve; they follow the Ten Commandments; they honor Jesus Christ and the prophets of the Old Testament; they regard the Pentateuch, the Psalms and the Gospels to be inspired writings; they believe in a day of judgment, a resurrection, a heaven and a hell. In fact, any perceived similarities are superficial - and deceptive.

Islam is rigorously monotheistic. Allah is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Who is revealed in Genesis to be a plurality of Persons: And God said, Let us make man in our image (Gen. 1:26; cf also Gen. 3:22, 11:6-7). In the New Testament this plurality is more explicitly revealed to be a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, One in Essence, Every-existing, Undivided and Indivisible. Muslims do not accept this mystery and accuse Christians of being polytheists. (Some compound this error, believing that Christians worship God, Jesus and Mary). This mystery of the Trinity, which is a fundamental dogma of the Christian faith, has been described by the Church fathers as a Trinity in Unity, the perfect expression of perfect love. This love is not only an attribute of God; God is love (I John 4:8,16). Although Muslims believe Allah to be loving, merciful, and just, he is more frequently revealed in Muslim scriptures to be stern, demanding and retributive: "Those that disobey Allah and His Apostle shall abide forever in the fire of hell" (Sura 72).

Muslims say that they regard the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and the Gospels to be inspired writings. And they honor many Old Testament prophets. However, they consider Muhammad to be the last prophet, whose message supersedes the revelations of earlier prophets. Any scripture that contradicts their beliefs they regard as having been corrupted. They believe that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, that He was sinless, and that He did great things, but they believe that before the crucifixion God took Him away, leaving a shadow in His place, and that Jesus will return at the end of the world to fight Antichrist.

One of Islam's appeals is that it is egalitarian, and Muslims claim to champion the brotherhood of man, but Islam officially discriminates against non-Muslims. The fourteenth-century Muslim theologian, Ibn Taymiyya, wrote: "Nothing in the law of Muhammad states that the blood of the unbeliever is equal to the blood of the Muslim, because faith is necessary for equality." (Almahdy). Therefore, the killing of a non-Muslim is not a capital crime. In the period of Islamic conquest, pagans were required to convert to Islam - on penalty of death. Jews and Christians, as "people of the Book," were allowed religious autonomy but were required to pay a special tax and were subject to certain social and legal restrictions. This dhimmis status is still enforced today. In many Islamic countries non-Muslims are forbidden any public expression of their faith, proselytizing is punishable by death, and any Muslim who embraces Christianity may be killed by another Muslim without penalty to the killer (Almahdy). This is a far cry from the Christian teaching illustrated by Christ's parable of the Good Samaritan. I will strike terror into the hearts of unbelievers, smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger tips off them. (Sura 8:13-17)

Muslims would have others believe that Islam is a religion of peace, but this is problematic both in view of its past history and its current policies and practices. Under the Ottoman Turks, scores of Orthodox Christians accepted martyrdom rather than convert to Islam. In 1821, at the outbreak of the Greek War for Independence, the Ecumenical Patriarch, Gregory V, was hung from the gates of the patriarchate. The fierce and even brutal persecution of Christians in Islamic countries today is well documented - if shamefully ignored (see Paul Marshall's Their Blood Cries Out). It has been pointed out that certain aspects of Islam - the shari'a in particular - have been politicized under Western influence, and that the extremist brand of Islam that has developed in response to the challenge of Western culture is a significant departure from traditional Islam. Muslims in this country would distance themselves from the stereotypical profile of the militant Muslim "fundamentalist," inspired by such incendiary leaders as the Ayatollah Khomeini, Louis Farrakhan, and their terrorist protégés. However, Muslims cannot close their eyes to the fact that there are these extremists in their midst, and these often have the voice in the Muslim community. This admission comes from the Islamic Supreme Council, a Muslim education group that is criticizing Islamic leaders here in the US for too often "equivocating between implicit support for extremists and general condemnation of terrorism." It says that Islamic extremist organizations often operate in the US under "assumed identities as non-profit organizations or corporate businesses, hiding their origins and affiliations" (Religion Watch). The KLA's ties with Muslim terrorist Usama bin Laden and the support it receives from the militantly Islamic state of Iran were widely reported until this became embarrassing to US policy in Kosovo.

Perhaps because Islam admits no Church/State dichotomy - in Islam, God is Caesar - it is prone to politicization. Certainly we must not judge all Muslims by a vocal militant minority. However, inasmuch as this militancy carries the threat of religious coercion, it should be of no small concern to us as we watch Islam make inroads not only into the heart of Serbia, but also here at home.

One can admire Muslims who take seriously their religion as a way of life and who breast the strong current of secularism in order to follow the precepts and obligations of their faith. As a religion, however, Islam is deficient in many ways. It does not admit the concept of grace and makes no provision for sin. Heavily based upon works, it is legalistic, prone to empty ritualism, and pervaded by a sense of fatalism (kismet). Muhammad himself inspires little confidence in his claim to be a divinely chosen prophet. When he was still young, he was subject to fits, leading his foster mother to suspect that he was possessed by demons. His later visions were accompanied by similar manifestations, terrifying Muhammad himself. Although some of his followers persist in believing Muhammad to have been sinless, his behavior in Medina was in many ways disgraceful - he plundered caravans and persecuted Jews. When Kadijah died, he took several wives, sanctioning polygamy (he himself exceeded the "proper" limit of four). His sexual indulgences translated into his conception of heaven as a place of sensual gratification.

Islam's fatal flaw, of course, is that it worships a false god. Ecumenists would have us believe that all religions are basically the same, and that if we would only lay aside the interpretations, traditions, and other human accretions that create our differences, we could all stand on common ground. This, certainly, is the vision of proponents of the New World Order. As Christians, however, we cannot subscribe to such a monstrous proposition, for it would be tantamount to denying Christ. Holy Scripture says plainly: Christ and the Father are One (John 10:30), and Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father (I John 2:23). Christ Himself is the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father except by Him (John 14:6). In Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily (Col. 2:9). Our faith in Christ and His words is supported by numerous prophecies, by the evidence of miracles, by His divine Incarnation of a virgin, His Resurrection and ascension, and by countless manifestations of His love for mankind. Islam has no comparable testimony to offer. It is a composite religion based on one man's alleged revelations about a strange god, a god who has done nothing for man's redemption and salvation. Worldwide, Islam currently claims some two billion souls, each of whom is conscious of his obligation to wage jihad. Would that we, as Christians, could be more conscious of our commission - to spread abroad the love of Christ, that others might be drawn out of darkness into His marvelous light (I Peter 2:9). Sources:

Dr Saleem Almahdy, "A Look Behind the Veil: How do Christians Live Under the Islamic Regime?" in Voice of the Martyrs, February 1998.

Sister Anastasia, "Orthodoxy and Islam" in Orthodox Life, May-June 1993.

Kenneth Boa, Cults, World Religions and You, Victor Books, 1977.

Bernard Lewis, ed., Islam and the Arab World, Alfred Knopf, 1976.

William L. Langer, ed., An Encycopedia of World History, Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

Richard John Neuhaus, "Islamic Encounters" in First Things, February 1998. Daniel Pipes, "The Western Mind of Radical Islam" in First Things, December 1995.

Father Basile Sakkas, "Do We Have the Same God that Non-Christians Have?" in Foi Transmise April 5, 1970; English translation in Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future by Fr. Seraphim Rose, St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1983.

"American Muslim Leaders Silent on Terrorism?" in Religion Watch, February 1999.

Recommended: James Jatras, "The Muslim Advance and American Collaboration" in The Christian Activist, Winter/Spring 1999.

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