Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Islam is the youngest, and one of the largest, of the major world religions.  Beginning with the life of Muhammad in the 6th and 7th centuries, it has expanded into every part of the world.  As with the other religions we've studied I will rely on our text (Hopfe/Woodward) to provide the many important dates and events for covering this religion.

Muhammad was born in 570 AD.  His father died before he was born, and his mother died before he was six.  In his youth he spent time with his uncle on the caravan trade and consequently came into contact with other religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism.  At the age of 25 he married an older, wealthy woman named Khadijah.  Although they had six children, only one daughter, Fatima, survived Muhammad.

The two prominent cities in Arabia, and between which much of his religious insights occurred, were Mecca and Medina.  Mecca was a central city for the polytheistic religion of Arabia, particularly the Ka'ba which is a building containing a black stone believed to have fallen from heaven.

Muhammad was particularly concerned about the idolatry of his people.  Unlike the Jews and Christians, the Arabs did not claim to have a special revelation from God the Creator.  Muhammad began receiving revelations from the angel Gabriel that he believed filled this void.  These revelations were a call to turn from idolatry and worship the only God.  This resulted in conflicts with the tribes vying for control of Mecca and the religious worship at the Ka'ba.  Muhammad encountered more conflict when he moved to Medina (the Hijra), although he eventually gathered enough of a following to return to Mecca and secure it for Islam.

Islam teaches that there is one God, that Muhammad provides the last special revelation to humans which corrects previous errors in special revelation introduced by Christians and Jews, and that humans will be judged based on their deeds.  The correct way of living is summarized in the 5 pillars of Islam.

Because of its focus on the unity of God, and its call away from idolatry, it is especially important to consider how Islam understands God both as creator and redeemer.  Whereas Judaism and Christianity both recognize the need for atonement in the work of redemption, this is one of the things that Islam rejects.  Indeed, the need for vicarious atonement is central to Biblical Judaism and Christianity.  As a central piece of their special revelation, Islam does more than correct errors in their texts but rejects their essence.

Consequently, the question is whether God, as just and merciful, can do the work of redemption without vicarious atonement.  This is a question that continues to divide Christianity and Islam.  If God is perfectly just, and humans are sinners, the implication is that no work on the part of humans is sufficient.  Even if a person were to become perfect from one point in his/her life until death, the failure to seek, understand, and be righteous before this point does not change.  It remains a matter for the justice of God.  At issue is whether God can simply forgive, or if forgiveness requires atonement (payment).  The good deeds of the repentant sinner cannot be this atonement in that they are merely the duty required to avoid further sin.  These good deeds simply mean no more sin is added, but they do not erase previous sin.

As I understand it, this question of the nature of God and the need for atonement is the dividing point between the theistic religions that we have studied.  Islam takes a very clear stance on this issue: there is no need for atonement, good deeds are sufficient.