Notes week 5 Muslim Perspectives
There are three main areas crucial to Islamic thought: the unity of God, prophecy, and eschatology.
1. The unity of God is the subject of the profession of faith in Islam called the Shahadah
There is no god but The God
Muhammad is the prophet of God.
The first bears witness to the oneness of God, the second is the acceptance of the prophethood of Muhammad
and therefore the truth of his message.
2. Prophecy – Islam believes that throughout time God has sent prophets with one message – there is
no god but the God. Adam was the first (as long as there are human beings, there must be a prophet -
created in God’s image, God’s representative on earth – higher than the angels) and Muhammad the
3. Eschatology – the knowledge or study of the endtimes.
Historically, in the triad of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Islam is the latest of the three.
The prophet Muhammad (570 CE- 632 CE) was born in Mecca, a town in a dry, sandy, desert valley
surrounded by a double range of desolate treeless hills. Mecca was an oasis in the desert. It was a
natural stopping place for the camel caravans that made their way from south Arabia to the great cities
in Syria and Babylonia to the north and east. It was a hub of trading activity.
In the centre of town was a sacred well and close to it a simple square shrine called the Kabah which
held images of the local gods and goddesses. But the real focus of the shrine was a mysterious black
stone – which some identify as a meteorite that fell in that area in some long forgotten past – the
people of Mecca called it “the black stone that fell from heaven in the days of Adam”.
In Islamic tradition, the ancestral patriarch of both the Arab tribes and the Hebrew tribes was
Abraham. According to the biblical story, his wife Sarah was barren and finally he took for a second
wife Hagar and she bore him Ishmael, but soon after that Sarah bore Isaac and Abraham took Hagar
and Ishmael away to the valley of Mecca. In the story, Hagar runs out of water and is frantic with worry but where the baby Ishmael kicked his
heel in the sand a spring of water bubbled up under his foot – this became the sacred well of Zamzam.
Abraham eventually returns to visit and builds the shrine called the Kabah.
Long before the time of Muhammad, this shrine had come to be chief among the most sacred places of
Arabia - so besides being a trading centre, Mecca was also a religious centre and hosted an annual
religious festival that attracted thousands of desert tribes people.
The Mecca into which the prophet was born was rich both culturally and monetarily - it was one of the
leading cities of Arabia .
Among the various kinds of people in Meccan society were a group of people know as hanifs ‘pious
ones’ -- attracted to the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity but not belonging to either
community – they were impressed with the desert hermits who secluded themselves in caves and
other lonely places to prey, contemplate and come to know God. Scholars think that Muhammad may
have been among this group.
At age forty he is without an heir, his two young sons have died in infancy. He has a reputation for
fairness, justice, honesty, compassion, but the values that he treasures are not apparent in a society
built on the greed and cheating that characterizes a marketplace -- ancient tribal virtues of honour and
generosity are eroding, the wealth in Mecca is creating big divisions between rich and poor.
And the Kabah – the shrine that should honour the one God holds hundreds of images surrounded by
peddlers selling charms and trinkets – Muhammad considered it a travesty of true spirituality or
Every year during the month of Ramadan he would spend days in seclusion in a cave in the mountains
close to Mecca. And it is during one of these retreats (610) in his fortieth year that he experiences the
first of the overwhelming visitations that are reported as visitations by the angel Gabriel and which
eventually form the sacred scripture of Islam, the Qur’an.
The visitation of the angel is described in the language of mystics the world over -- the feeling of being
gripped and then released by great unseen hands, the sound of bells in his ears, a trancelike state, and
then the words - breaking over him it is described “like the breaking of the dawn” leaving him trembling and shaken. The prophet is reported to have said “never once did I receive a revelation
without thinking that my soul had been torn away from me”
The message that Muhammad preached was not convoluted or complicated -- worship and submission
to the will of the one God. Generosity to the poor of society and a day of punishment and reward, the
day of judgement when the faithful will be rewarded with eternal paradise and those who reject God
punished in a fiery hell. At that time the tradition says -- whoever has done an atoms weight of good
shall see it and whoever has done an atoms weight of evil shall see it also.
Your reading distinguishes between soul (nafs) and spirit of God (ruh). Soul is the whole body/mind person
and the spirit is the animating breath of God. In an article on the Muslim understanding of death and afterlife,
the famous western scholar of Islam, William C. Chittick, explains the relationship between soul and spirit in
relation to the cosmos.
Chittick describes an Islamic view of cosmology like a series of layers, the outer layer is the visible world
which we inhabit, the world of clay and bodies – matter, which is devoid of life, knowledge, desire - will,
power, speech, generosity. The core is the invisible world of light, the realm of the angels, which the Qur’an
says God created out of light.
The worlds in between are the realm of beings that are neither pure light or pure clay – for example, one
group are called the Jinn, they are said to be made out of fire.
They are like images in a dream, half way between the visible world which you can see, hear, touch - the
world of the senses and at the same time they represent the invisible world of your own awareness – scholars
call them “imaginal” to indicate that they are not purely imaginary or fantasy.
Like fire and like the images in dreams these imaginal beings do not have fixed shapes but appear in a form
appropriate to the meaning they are manifesting – just as in a dream you might see a tiger - manifesting the
meaning of power - or monsters which might be manifesting your own anger or fear.
This is the macrocosm - the human being is seen as a mirror image of the cosmos - a microcosm - the Qur’an
says that God shaped Adam’s body out of clay and breathed into him his own spirit - so we have human
being with body of matter, corresponding to the outer layer of the cosmos, and divine spirit at the core of his
being corresponding to the inner core of pure light at the centre of the cosmos, but what about the intervening layer. According to Chittick, this is where the Islamic idea of the soul comes in. The soul is the meeting place
of body and spirit.
The soul is the person to the degree that they have developed the divine qualities which are present in all
humans as potential. If one should ask what are those qualities – they are captured in the 99 most beautiful
names of God – who is Merciful, Just, Knowing, Speaking, Forgiving, Avenging, Loving, the Slayer, Exalter
So the soul represents the character or qualities of the person - people do not differ essentially in their bodies,
which are all matter, or in their spirit, which is the divine spark in everyone, they differ in their souls. Each
soul is a unique combination of divine spirit and clay -- of light and dark.
Each person, then is a unique elaboration of the divine attributes of knowledge, justice, forgiveness,
compassion etc. the soul is the meeting place of spirit and body - therefore partaking of the materiality of the
body but not entirely.
The soul is individualized so when the soul leaves the body at death, they can be differentiated one from
The stages of the afterlife are laid out very clearly in Islam. In a text called the Remembrance of Death and
the Afterlife, the great theologian al-Ghazali begins with an exposition on the excellence of the remembrance
of death as an antidote to the pursuit of the desire of the world.
After death and before resurrection, the s