HAVING LOOKED WITHIN one’s self as a means for examining the meaning of becoming muslim (one submitted to the guidance of his Creator/Source) we continue with two other levels for investigating Islam on the part of a seeker after spiritual truth.
(2) The Source of Existence (“Allah”/”God”)
The Source of all, that is the Creator, the one who has brought all into existence and who sustains all life with His Provision, we call “God” in English and “Allah” in the Arabic language. The Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) names that power “Eloah” (El-, Elohîm), which is a Hebrew language dialectal variant pronunciation of “Allah.” We thus speak of this Source as a “person,” calling Him by a personal Name and using a personal pronoun (“He /His/Him”), just as if we were referring to a fellow human being. The Quran similarly speaks of Allah as loving those who… and not liking people who… One would be justified in remarking, “How else could we talk about our Creator and Source except in terms of our own kind of being?”
In the Quran this Source of all existence speaks to persons –mankind, all– and invites us to call upon Him in supplication, to establish and continually renew our “personal” relationship with Him. The Source is not Himself a “person” in the sense that individual human beings are persons. He is not a super or absolute version of His creature, man. “Who” or “what” He is, or “how” He exists, in the end are unanswerable questions. We have neither the language nor the requisite experience to respond with a rational concept about His essence. One might also add “Why does He exist?” to our questions of “Why do I exist?” and “Who am I?” and “How do I know the truth about our origin or Source?” The Quran does give us hints at understanding these questions about ourselves.
As to the other wh- questions –“where” and “when”– I would like to credit our agnostic or atheistic friends for being at least partially correct: The Source of all existence does not exist in any place (where) or at any time (when). What I am referring to as the “Source” falls within the scope of the Unseen world:
This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah; who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them; and who believe in the Revelation sent to thee [O Muhammad] and sent before thy time, and (who in their hearts) have the assurance of the Hereafter. They are on (true) guidance from their Lord, and it is these who will prosper. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:2-5]
With Him are the keys of the Unseen, the treasures that none knoweth but Him. He knoweth whatever there is… [Sûrat Âl An¢âm, 6:59]
The Source is not visible in that world accessible to our senses. He created us to live in a when-and-where world, but He Himself exists beyond time and space. Those who submit to Him can connect with His Presence in our time-and-space experience, but He has not chosen to remove –for us in this worldly life– the veil between the seen and the unseen states of being such that He Himself could be detected as something “incarnate” in our world. Yes, He “hears” and “sees” us in our life of time and space, knowing every falling leaf and every seed in the ground. He is All-Knowing, Ever-Hearing of our thanks and requests.
It is in the meditative state of Prayer that we open ourselves to access Him in His beyond-time-and-space existence. Consider the beyond-time-and-space event of Prophet Muhammad’s “Night Journey,” in which he was whisked away from his humble dwelling in Makkah (Mecca) to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and then “ascended” to the “Farthest Heaven” to converse with previous prophets. (The Bible records something of a mini-ascent experience for Prophet Jacob (Ya¢kûb), Genesis 28:10-22.) It is noteworthy that the Night Journey took place in less than an instant of earthly time; the Prophet’s earthly body was confirmed to have been in his bed that whole night. What he described as having seen from the air and on the ground during this experience was confirmed as accurate by traveling traders who shortly thereafter returned to Makkah from Jerusalem.
Prominent in our Western Civilization are those learned people who conclude that God does not exist because He has not been detected in a physical manifestation at any time or place by our prestigious scientific method of observation and verification/ falsification. The more metaphysically-minded look for evidence of His presence –and that is what the Islamic revelation addresses– in the “signs” of our Source/Creator:
- in the structure of the created world –the heavens, the earth and all in between and beyond
- in ourselves (psychological and physical nature)
- in the prophetic messages, most notably in the final Book of “readings” sent down to Muhammad œ and passed on –intact– to us today
As with the original hearers of the revealed “readings” in 7th century Arabia, it is for today’s hearer/reader of the Quran to recognize the Source behind the Book and to evaluate for himself the veracity of its claims and requirements in terms of his own understanding of himself and his needs, of his world, and of the nature of existence.
The Quran claims to be in tune with the essential and unsullied nature of man. It thus strikes an intuitive chord in the seeker’s heart, ringing true to the pure of heart. In the Quran, the Source Himself promises: He whom God guides, none can misguide. What does it mean to become muslim? It means to be in harmony with one’s own natural being as guided with God’s guidance. It means to recognize one’s Source and to accept His input to one’s journey through life.
(3) The Ummah of Muhammad
The Community (ummah) of Muhammad œ comprises people of all ethnic groups who submit to the Creator’s Guidance, as renewed through the final prophet.
Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but (he is) the Messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets: and Allah has full knowledge of all things. [Sûrat Al-Aḥzâb, 33:40]
A person of any religious or ethnic background who truly submits (aslama) him/herself to the Guidance of the universal Source (“Allah”) is in a functional sense a “muslim.” In Islam it is important to belong to a social group of interdependent believers. Muslims are obligated to be “good” and to “promote virtue and forbid vice” as a hallmark principle, and to practice modesty in behavior (not only in dress code) as an engrained characteristic. The first natural context for carrying out this duty is with each other–since we already accept among ourselves a normative body of Guidance (the Quran and the Sunnah–behavioral example of Prophet Muhammad œ) authentically mandated by the Source. We greet each other with “Peace!” as an instrument of solidarity–a greeting attested by previous prophets, by Angel Gabriel, by kings, and even by God Himself (See in the Bible: Jesus in Matthew 28:9, Luke 24:36, John 20:19, 21, Luke 10:5-6; Angel Gabriel to Mary in Luke 1:28; David in I Samuel 25:6; kings in Daniel 4:1, Daniel 6:25; God in Judges 6:23; and by others in numerous other verses).
Five “Pillars” of Islamic Practice
When one becomes a Muslim, s/he takes on certain obligations–with the rest of the Community–of religious practice, called the Pillars of Islam. First, a person takes his shahadah–joining himself to the Islamic Community by announcing his acceptance of the Islamic Creed: singularity of Divine Being (the “Source” of all existence) and God’s method of Guidance through a line of human prophets–concluded with Muhammad œ, a descendant of Abraham through his elder son, Ishmael (Isma’îl). Once a person has internalized this foundational principle, he is to be taught the ritual Prayer (ṣalâh), the second pillar, in keeping with an ancient practice of the prophets.
When the salâh has been internalized in one’s understanding and has become his habitual practice, a third “pillar” is to be added to his tool kit: Zakâh is an instrument for purifying one’s possessions by donating a certain share of it to those in need. The five-times-daily Prayer is a means of regularization of one’s status with his Maker: asking forgiveness for wrongdoing and rekindling the heart’s desire to do what is right/good–so as to please one’s Lord. Zakâh (giving in charity), when properly operating, ensures that no one goes without his basic needs being satisfied. At the same time, the one who gives is assured that whatever s/he gives in charity will come back to her/him in manifold measure.
The fourth pillar is the practice of fasting (sawm). The fasting person’s spiritual awareness can be heightened by honing his regime of going about one’s daily business on an empty stomach during daylight hours. A weekly or monthly plan of fasting days was part of Prophet Muhammad’s way of life. A Muslim is required to keep a fast only throughout the 29-30 days of the annual month of Ramadan –if s/he is at all able– abstaining from indulgence between dawn and dusk. During Ramadan, the spiritual reward for charitable giving and for extra Prayer/worship is increased.
The fifth pillar is the Pilgrimage (Hajj) to Makkah (Mecca) in communal celebration of the acts of Abraham (Ibrâhîm) in trusting obedience to his Lord, seeking His forgiveness and blessing. This undertaking is required for those who can manage the time away, the expense and the rigors of travel.
Performed collectively, these Pillars of Muslim practice of faith strengthen community solidarity and mutual support toward the ultimate goal of pleasing our Lord and thus gaining His earthly blessing, His closeness, His ultimate acceptance and reward.
What does it mean (for a would-be muslim) to become a Muslim? It means to put oneself on a regime to fully recover one’s true self, to live a fulfilled existence in harmony with one’s self, and thereby to be intimately connected to his/her Source –to whom we ultimately return.
Islam is not a system in which one buys one’s way out of Hell into Heaven by “good deeds.” In a nutshell, it is rather a program of getting and keeping on track for a successful journey through a meaningful and satisfying life –whatever trials and tribulations may come to one– and then moving on to a Reward for having kept faith with one’s trust of his own soul, having been guided by his/her Creator and Source of all good.
A Life-Changing Challenge
To the reader contemplating the claims of the Quran to be Guidance from the Source of all existence, I offer you this challenge: Can you read through the Quran, cover to cover, without becoming convinced of its divine origin? Why not see for yourself! Ask for guidance to the truth, all along the way, from the Source that created and sustains you, and take the challenge.
 Inshâ’Allah, I address in a future article the question of how it is that “Allah,” in Arabic–as well as “God” in English and European languages–is referred to as “He/His/Him.”