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This is the transcript of podcast episode 16

An introduction to Islam

Islam comes from the root word for ‘peace’ in Arabic, salam. Islam means submission, submission to the will of God. It is the second largest religion in the world after Christianity. One out of five people in the world is Muslim. Many people in the West associate Islam mainly with the Arab world, but the biggest Muslim countries in the world are not in the Middle East but in ASIA. The biggest Muslim countries are Indonesia, Pakistan and India.

The vast majority of Palestinians in Palestine is Muslim. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of statistics 96.5% of the Palestinians in the State of Palestine (that is the Westbank and Gaza) is Muslim, whether they are practicing the religion or not.

Islam has two major schools of thought, the Shia and the Sunni. The main point of difference between the two is related to who were the entitled leaders of the Muslim community after the death of the prophet Muhammad. The sunni believe that it was correct when the community selected its own leaders while the Shia believe that Muhammad had appointed his cousin Ali, who was also his son in law because he married his daughter Fatimah. The Sunni and Shia believe in the same God and they abide by the five pillars of Islam and they read the same book and pray in the same direction. Those important issues do not differ, it is merely a question of leadership and obviously these things get politicized.

In Palestine the Muslims are mainly Sunni. But there WERE seven Shia villages in the northern part of Palestine that were all depopulated by the Zionist militias in 1948 and the people became refugees in Lebanon and some of them internally displaced people in the new State of Israel.

That’s about TODAY but how and where did Islam start ?

We have to go back in time to the 6th Century AD. In that time Palestine was part of the Byzantine Empire that was ruled from Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, and it was the continuation of the Roman Empire, in the East. The Byzantine Empire had Christianity as State religion and Palestine is literally scattered with ruins of Byzantine churches.

So in the 6th century there were two monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity. Judaism had started with the story of Abraham who seems to have been the first person that had a revelation from God that he should not worship any other gods only Him. It was very common in that time to worship different gods, related to the sun, the moon, the harvest, the fertility and to worship the gods through idols.

And out of Judaism came Christianity. Jesus himself was born in a Jewish family, he was studying the Torah, he used to attend and later on preach in synagogues and his first followers were all Jews. Only later were his followers called Christians and did they stop being associated as Jews.

So in the 6th Century there were Jews and Christians living in the region and some of them did trade with Arab tribes in the Arabian peninsula. There were even some Christian and Jewish tribes that lived in Arabia.

In that time Mecca was an important town. A lot of traders used to pass through Mecca and the most important tribe of Mecca was the Quraish tribe. It was in this tribe that Muhammad was born. His father’s name was Abdullah ibn Abd al-Muttalib and his mother’s name was Aminah bint Wahb.

But he never met his father because his father died before he was born. And his mother passed away when he was six years old. So he was a young orphan. But as is usual in the tribal culture he was taken care of by family members, first his grandfather Abd al-Mutallib took care of him and when he died, his uncle Abu Talib became his guardian.

As a young boy he was a shepherd and then later when he became older he joined his uncle, who was a merchant, on trade caravans to commercial centers. He became known as an honest and reliable trader.

In that time there was a very successful female trader of a wealthy and powerful family, her name was Khadija, who noticed his skills and his honesty and she suggested they should get married. It is interesting to realize that she did not need a man for protection, she was 15 years older than he was and it was she who asked him about marriage. And they had a very good and long marriage. Muhammad did marry several other women, which was common in that time, especially for protection of unmarried women or women who lost their husbands AND also there were political marriages to have loyalty of certain tribes.

They lived in Mecca and in Mecca there is the Kaaba.

I think most of you have heard about the Kaaba in Mecca and you probably know that Muslims have to make a pilgrimage to Mecca to the Kaaba at least once in their lifetime if their situation allows it. It is one of the five pillars of the Islam, about which we will talk later.

The Kaaba is a shrine or a place of worship. It is a cuboid shaped structure, made of stones that is covered with an enormous piece of black cloth made of silk, the kiswah. On it there are verses of the Quran embroidered with gold silk threads. It is made in Saudi Arabia and it is replaced with a new one every year. The function is not only to protect the Kaaba from the elements, the wind, rain and sun, but more so it has the function to glorify this holy site.

In the time that Muhammad lived the Kaaba was already there. It was already a place where people worshiped. But they did not worship the ONE God, they had idols inside the Kaaba that they prayed to, hoping that these idols would plead for them with the Gods. There are two believes about the origins of the Kaaba. Some Muslims believe that the Kaaba was originally built by Adam, the first human on earth, others that it was built by angels. It was built to be a house for God on earth. The building that is in Mecca today is not the original building, it was rebuilt several times.

So in the time of Muhammad, before he started receiving the revelations, there was already a yearly pilgrimage by Bedouin tribes to the Kaaba. It was one of the important sources of income for Mecca and the it would get very crowded in the town around the annual pilgrimage.

Muhammad was not a big fan of these pilgrimages and the hustle and bustle in his town and he used to retreat into the mountains in a cave to find some peace and quiet. In this cave he would meditate. Then one day, when he was 40 years old, as he was meditating in the cave, he heard a voice that is said to have been the voice of the angel Gabriel, or Jibreel in Arabic. He told him to ‘recite’. And Muhammad answered him that he did not know what to recite? And Jibreel repeated this request another two times and Muhammad kept answering him that he did not know what to recite, until the words came from God to him. And these revelations kept coming for the next 23 years until he died.

The first three years Muhammad did not talk to people about his revelations. He only told his wife Khadija and a few dear friends. It was not until three years after the first revelation that he went public with the messages of God.

He invited representatives from important families of the Quraish tribe important for a good dinner to make them feel comfortable but he did not yet tell them. Then he invited them again and the second time before the diner started he told them about the revelations. The guests must have stared at him in amazement, after all Muhammad was one of them and they had seen him growing up as a normal boy, as an orphan raised by his uncle. They did not believe him.

So Muhammad started with only a few followers and it was not easy, they were actually persecuted by the Quraish and Muhammad told some of them find safety in Abyssynia, today’s Ethiopia.

The situation became so difficult that Muhammad decided to migrate with the rest of his followers, who had started to grow in numbers and they went to a town 450 km north of Mecca, in that time it was called Yathrib but the name changed to il Medina il-Munawara, the city of the enlightened, referring to Muhammad. Eventually the name was shortened and today we only say Medina, which actually is the Arabic word for city. So the name of the city is ‘city’.

This migration is called the Hijra and it happened in the year 622 AD. And in the previous episode about Ramadan I explained that this became the start point of the Islamic Hijri calendar.

Muhammad stayed in Media for the next 7 years and many people in that city believed the revelations he kept receiving from God and they were convinced that they had to worship and follow this one God and no other gods. Whenever Muhammad had a revelation he would repeat it and share it and his companions would memorize it, as people were used to do in those days. There was no printing press yet. There were people who could write, of course, but it was all done by hand and it took time, so memorizing and sharing the messages orally was very common.

It was only after the death of Muhammad and when the companions were getting older that they realized the importance of writing down the revelations for future generations and the Quran was therefore compiled some years after Muhammad’s death. Two people were mainly responsible for that. The first one was Abu Bakr, the companion who became the first leader of the Muslim community and Othman ibn Affan who ordered a re-compilation of the Quran to create more uniformity. This standard version of the Quran is called the Uthmanic codex.

So the difference between the Bible and the Quran is that the Bible is not considered to have text that was literally dictated by God to the writers, the writings are believed to be inspired by God but they were not dictated. While the Quran consists of words that are believed to have been directly spoken to Muhammad by God. These words came in different moments and were not a coherent text. So the different verses or suras had to be collected and written down in a way to form coherency.

The one who was commissioned with collecting the verses was Zayd ibn Thabit and he would write down verses only after validating them with two other companions of the prophet. This process of canonization of the Quran ended with the Codex of Uthman bin Affan, which was 20 years after the death of Muhammad.

The Quran has 114 suras, or chapters. Each chapter is divided into verses or ‘ayaat’

The shortest sura is called Qautar and has only 3 ayaat while the longest is Sura-t-al Baqarah that has 286 verses.

There is a whole chapter dedicated to Maryam or Mary, the mother of Jesus and the birth of Jesus, who is considered by Muslims as one of the prophets sent by God. Jesus, or in Arabic Issa, is highly appreciated by Muslims and it is believed that before the day of Judgment it will be Issa who will defeat the false Messiah.

Back to the prophet Muhammad. He returned from Medina to Mecca 7 years after he had escaped it. And without bloodshed he managed with his followers to take control over Mecca and he went to the Kaaba and removed all the 360 idols he found there.

Before he died in the year 632 AD the greater part of the Arab peninsula had become Muslim.

Muhammad died in Medina after becoming sick and his final resting place is in the mosque that he originally built himself but that has over the course of time been expanded and renewed. It is called al Masjid al Nabawi, the mosque of the prophet and it is now the second holiest in Islam after the Masjid al Haram in Mecca.

After the prophet died, his companions did not only write down the revelations from God, they also wrote down the words and actions and silent approvals of the prophet to give people direction on how to live and how to worship.

We speak about sunnah when we mean the traditions and practices of Muhammad. These are a model for Muslims to follow. This is what all Muslims in the time of Muhammad saw and followed and passed on to the next generation.

Hadith is the documentation of the sunnah. The oral communication that was later collected by the compilers and written down.

Now it is time to understand the main tenets of Islam. They are called the five pillars of Islam and they are commanded, so if you are a Muslim believer then these are the golden rules that you MUST follow:

First of all you have to proclaim that you believe in only one God. This profession of faith is called the Shahada and in Arabic God is Allah, so you say La Illah ila Allah (and I will break it down for you: La means NO Illah is another word for Allah so it means God, ila means BUT and Allah means God, so it is literally NO GOD BUT GOD. And then the second part is w Muhamad razul Allah. And Muhammad is the Messenger of God.

In the Ramadan episode I told you that in order to get married in Jerusalem under the Israeli rules I had to convert to Islam in order to get all the paperwork done for my residency. So I went to the Islamic court in Jerusalem and proclaimed this very sentence. I had no problem in doing that because I feel there is only one SOURCE and I have no problem imagining that Muhammad was a messenger. Just like I personally believe that we can all be messengers of God of we live in true connection to our SOURCE.

But I was and I am not ready to dedicate to the other four pillars of Islam so that makes me a Muslim only on paper.

The second pillar of the Islam is the Salat or the prayer which is to be done five times a day at set times. The prayer times are related to the SUN! (not the moon!) The first prayer is at sunrise and is called Fajr (sunrise prayer)

The second prayers is when the sun reached its highest point and it is called Dhuhr The third prayer is when the sun moved half way down from its highest point towards sunset and it is called Asr (afternoon prayer)

At sunset the fourth prayer or Maghrib is performed and (sunset prayer)

and Isha is the night prayer

There is a window of time let’s call it, for these prayers, so you don’t have to perform the prayers exactly at the time that the call for prayer or the adhan sounds from the mosque, although if you want to pray in congregation with others then you should probably go when you hear the adhan, but if you pray at home or at work, then you have the time until the next prayer to perform your prayer.

When Muslims pray they perform certain movements that include bending down and bringing their face to the ground. That’s why they will usually use a special prayer mat for hygienic purposes. These movements are accompanied by reciting the prayer.

According to research by Binghamton University in New York these movements have similar benefits as certain yoga movements that help reduce for example lower back pain and keep your body health and fit, if performed correctly and several times a day.

So that’s a big thumbs up for the salat!

  1. The third pillar of islam is the zakat. This is a religious duty to share from your wealth with others. There is no specific guideline in the Quran but the customary practice is to give 2,5% on capital assets. So the zakat is calculated over the assets you have that are above what you need for daily life.
  2. The fourth pillar of Islam is fasting during the month of Ramadan, in Arabic sawm. And to learn more about THAT you can listen to episode 14 in which we explained everything about the month of Ramadan
  3. The fifth pillar of Islam is the Hajj, the pilgrimage. It is obliged for every Muslim who is financially capable and healthy enough to make this journey to visit the Kaaba in Mecca in Saudia Arabia at least once in their lifetime. The Hajj has to be performed in a specific time, in the 12th and last month of the Islamic hijri calendar. Between the first and the tenth of this month. The 9th day of the month is called the Day of Arafah and is the most important. This day commemorates the last speech that Muhammad gave on Mount Arafat.

What happens during the Hajj in Mecca? First of all you have to imagine that we are talking about 2.5 million people coming together. The last time, before the Covid pandemic there were 2.5 million people who attended the hajj. During the pilgrimage they all wear a white seamless garment and they do not smoke, they abstain from sex, they also do not cut hair or nails in those days. The whole experience includes several traditions.

They will carry out the ‘tawaf’ which means they will walk seven times counterclockwise around the Kaaba. It is a sign of unity and harmony to walk together with so many people around the shrine.

Another ritual that is carried out seven times is walking between the two hills called Safa and Marwa. This commemorates the story of Hagar and Ishmael. In the Bible in the Old Testament is a similar story. According to Muslims Mecca is the place where, before a town started to grow here and when there was nothing but desert, Abraham or Ibrahim in Arabic, left his son Ishmael who was still a baby, with his mother Hagar (Hajar) in the valley, commanded to do so by God. Hajar wanted to look for water for herself and her son and she left him and run up the hill of Safa to see if she could find any spring. Then she ran up to the other hill, the hill of Marwa and she repeated this seven times until the angel Jibril came and made her a spring of water appearing from the ground. It is called the Zam-Zam well and it is located within the Masjid al Haram, the mosque in Mecca, the holiest place in Islam.

There are some other rituals, including picking up stones or pebbles and throwing them at the three pillars that have now been replaced with three walls, that symbolize the devil. Pilgrims throw seven stones and they do this three times.

And they spend a day on Mount Arafat where the prophet delivered his last sermon and they pray all day for forgiveness of their sins.

The hajj ends with a feast called Eid al Adha. This is personally my least favorite moment of the year because it is the day when they sacrifice an animal, usually a sheep, and my neighbors next door here in Beit Safafa do that in the garden. Last year was a terrifying experience for me because they themselves seemed not to be so convinced about the whole killing and I could feel the fear of both the men as well as the sheep and I will never forget the sounds coming right from next to my window.

At the end of the hajj in Mecca the men shave their heads bald and upon return to their home countries they are called hajj for a man or hajja for a woman. Here in Palestine they celebrate with the whole family and they often put up a sign above their homes to show that they have been able to do the pilgrimage.

Throughout the year Muslims can visit Mecca for the Umrah, which is the lesser pilgrimage. It is more like a visitation, when they visit the holy sites outside of the designated month. Umrah can be done any time of the year and has less rituals.

There is one more holy place that is important to mention especially in a podcast called Stories from Palestine! And that is of course the Haram al Sharif in Jerusalem.

According to Muslim tradition the prophet Muhammad had a night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. You will find different opinions within the Muslim community whether this story is to be taken literally or more spiritually. But for the literal understanding, this night journey took place on a winged horse called Al Buraq, who took Muhammad to Jerusalem, the place that had been the qiblah until that moment, the qiblah means the direction in which Muslims had to pray. Remember, for Muslims, many of the patriarchs and prophets of the Jewish and Christian religion were of great importance and Jerusalem was the qiblah for Jews, Christians and Muslims until God revealed to Muhammad that he should change the qiblah to Mecca.

From the sacred place of worship to the further place of worship. And this is where the word Aqsa is from, it means the farthest.

So Muhammad arrived to Jerusalem and from a rock on the mountain he then ascended into heaven where he is accompanied by Jibril and moves through the seaven heavens towards God. Along the way they meet the prophets Adam, Yaḥyā (John), ʿĪsā (Jesus), Yūsuf (Joseph), Idrīs, Hārūn (Aaron), Mūsā (Moses), and Ibrāhīm (Abraham) and visit hell and paradise.

Mousa speaks to Muhammad and says that he is more highly regarded by God than himself and that Muhammad’s following outnumbers his own.

Once Muhammad appears before God he is told to recite the ṣalāt (ritual prayer) 50 times each day. Mousa then advises him plead for reduction of that number as 50 times is too difficult for the believers and eventually it is reduced to five times a day.

Then Muhammad returns to the earth and he returns to Mecca.

This night journey in two parts is known as the Isra’ and the Mi’ raj (ascension)

When you are in Jerusalem you can’t miss the Golden Dome on the Haram al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary.

There is sometimes confusion about the names Dome of the Rock and Aqsa mosque.

So what I learned is that the whole area on the hill top including the Golden Dome of the Rock and the Qibly mosque with the grey dome, including all the different shrines, domes, fountains, platforms, religious schools, the gates etc. that whole area is called Aqsa. That’s the whole Aqsa compound. The Haram al Sharif. The Noble Sanctuary.

And that’s what Jews refer to as the Temple Mount. According to many Jews this was the place where Solomon built a temple around 3000 years ago and after the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in the 6th century Before Christ it was rebuilt. And that second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 after Christ.

But for Muslims the holiness of the site is related to the ascension of Muhammad from this place and the stone that is indicated to have been the place from where he ascended is the central place inside the Golden Dome of the Rock. So the Dome of the Rock itself was built as a shrine to commemorate that event. And I will definitely at some point in the future have episodes about the Aqsa. I am going to try to visit and interview some well educated people who can introduce us to the history and architecture of the Aqsa mosque.

Before I wrap up this long episode I want to add a few more things that I learned:

And that is that Muslims believe in angels and that they believe angel are created from light and that they do not have a free will but rather they serve God and they convey messages to humans and they protect them. They believe that each person has two angels that record all their words and behavior and they will present this on the Day of Judgment.

Muslims believe in afterlife, in heaven and hell. On the day of Judgment all will be raised from the dead and each person will be judged according to their deeds. Muslims believe that bodies and souls will be joined and that heaven or hell will be fully experienced.

Muslims believe in prophets and in messengers. Many of the prophets that are mentioned in the Bible are also mentioned in the Quran as messengers of God. For example Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus. Muhammad was the last messenger.

You may have heard Muslims saying the name of prophet Muhammad and then adding ‘salla allahu alayhi wa sallam’. This means Allah sent prayer upon him and peace. It is basically a prayer for Muhammad and a way to express respect.

According to Islam people are born equal and there is no superiority of one over another. Human diversity is considered a sign of richness and beauty of God’s creation.

There are no holy men or Saints in Islam but there are some spirits, like Al Khader, that are thought to be of support to humans. There are of course scholars who studied Islam deeply and are respected for their knowledge. But they are not considered middle men between God and humans.

Muslims believe that the God that the three monotheistic religions worship, Jews and Christians alike, is the same God. For them, Jews and Christians belong to the same religious tradition, they are the people of the Book, their Scriptures were inspired by the same God and the Bible, the Old and the New Testament, are also holy to Muslims. They believe that the Quran was the final revelation of God, but the other Scriptures are also divinely inspired.

Muslims do not have clergy. Any Muslim can lead the prayer. But mostly they are educated in Islam and oftentimes it is a profession with responsibilities. The one who leads the Friday prayer in the mosque is called the Imam.

Here in Beit Safafa where I live our neighbor is referred to as sheikh. Generally the word sheikh is used for older men who are highly honored in their community. Our neighbor isn’t that old. It’s a bit hard for me to estimate because of his beard and traditional long clothes, but I assume he is not yet 50. He is educated in Islam, he is considered a teacher and he fulfills several important roles in the community such as making wedding contracts, giving advises, but also doing the ritual washing after someone died and being present at the burial. Which is by the way done within 24 hours after the person passed away. Here in Beit Safafa they usually announce it from the minaret of the mosque and then the male family members and men who knew the deceased can join the prayer at the mosque and the funeral.

In Islam men and women are equal. There is a lot that can be said about this subject and I don’t want to go there. But it is obvious that there are cultural differences from place to place regarding mixing of men and women. I have been to Palestinian weddings where men sit in separate rooms from women and I have been to weddings where everybody was dancing together.

Women have rights in Islam and many books have been published about this topic for those who want to explore further. It is easier for a Muslim woman to divorce her husband if he is not treating her well, than it is for a Christian woman in Palestine.

It is true by the way that men can marry 4 women. In the context of the historical time in which the Quran and hadith were written, it is actually not so strange as we think of it today. In Semitic societies in general and in Arabic society in particular it was very common to have more wives. Think of Abraham, David and especially Solomon who is said to have had seven hundred wives and 300 concubines! So for that time it was actually quite progressive that Muhammad brought the message of having a maximum of 4 wives. Muhammad also said that the man has to treat the women equally and he must be able to support all of them and of course all of his children.

But today in most Muslim communities there is monogamy and the subject of polygamy is very controversial. I have once met a man in Nablus who was married to two women. He explained to me that he married the first one when they were very young and it was an arranged marriage by the family, they did not love each other though there was mutual respect and he was treating her well. When he found true love he asked his first wife, if she wanted a divorce or if she would accept the second wife. She accepted the new wife but they are not living in the same house. He moves between the houses and takes care of both of them. This way she did not lose her reputation and she did not have to move back in with her family, cause that would have been the consequence.

There are many more things to say but that would take too much time and this podcast is only an introduction into Islam. There are other podcasts out there to listen to and lots of books to read and videos to watch.

The last thing I want to mention is regarding wearing the hijab or the head scarf. Especially in the West this is often seen as a sign of oppression. There are many opinions and many books written about this subject. But from my understanding of the classes and talking to Palestinian women AND to foreign women who have converted to Islam, this is my understanding: In the Quran there are verses that do tell women to wear modest and to cover parts of their body. The scarf is not mentioned in particular to cover the head but it could be understood that way. It was very common for women in the time that the Quran was written to wear something over their heads to protect from the sun and the sand. Don’t forget they lived in a desert.

Today women sometimes choose not to wear the scarf. But women who are practicing Muslims will wear and behave in a way that is appropriate within their own community. For example my own mother in law and sisters in law don’t wear the hijab. But when my sister in law prays she will cover her hair out of respect for God. Another woman I spoke to told me that her decision to wear it was very conscious and having the hijab makes her feel that she is covering her aura and keeping her spiritual energy close to her. For another woman it is a way to focus more inward than on her appearance. She experiences pressure from society as a woman to have to be beautiful and she experiences the hijab as a protection from God against the pressure of society. But also it is a reminder to herself not to feel insecure. Another woman emphasized that it is quite abstract to be a believer and that the act of wearing the hijab makes it more tangible. It reminds her daily of her spiritual life with God.

For sure there are many women who are not so eloquent in explaining why they wear the hijab and they wear it because they are born in a society where everybody wears it. But it is not an issue. It is not understood or experienced as oppressive.

Unless someone decides to take off the hijab and is being denounced for doing so. I also have friends who have experienced that pressure and that wasn’t easy.

Well, I hope you learned something from this episode! If you want to know more about Sufism, a topic that I did not touch in THIS episode, but we did talk about in episode 2 of season 2, then find that episode, Sufism in Palestine and learn from Izzeldin Bukhari who is a direct descendant from the Naqsbandi order.