What Do Muslims Believe?: The Roots and Realities of Modern Islam

What Do Muslims Believe?: The Roots and Realities of Modern Islam

by Ziauddin Sardar

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A fascinating and concise primer on one of the world's most widespread religions.

Islam is one of the great monotheistic religions of the world. Its teachings emphasize unity, humility, forgiveness, and love of God. The Qur'an sings the virtues of knowledge and rationality. The life of Muhammad demonstrates the importance of tolerance, social


A fascinating and concise primer on one of the world's most widespread religions.

Islam is one of the great monotheistic religions of the world. Its teachings emphasize unity, humility, forgiveness, and love of God. The Qur'an sings the virtues of knowledge and rationality. The life of Muhammad demonstrates the importance of tolerance, social justice and brotherhood. So why is Islam so often associated with hatred, violence, obstinacy, and bigotry?

What Do Muslims Believe? presents readers with an accessible and incisive explanation of the roots and beliefs of Islam, published at a time when more than ever we need an objective view of this often misinterpreted religion.

Parsing fact from misstatement in elegant prose, Ziauddin Sardar gives a clear-eyed view of what makes a Muslim; where Muslims come from and who they are today; what, exactly, they believe and how they reflect those beliefs; where Islam is headed; and how you can apply Islam in your life. With a useful chronology of Islamic history from A.D. 632 to the present, a glossary of terms, selections from both the Qur'an and the Hadith, as well as a list of further reading, What Do Muslims Believe? is an ideal primer for anyone who wants to understand what it really means to follow Islam.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Pakistani-born and British-educated Sardar, author of 40 other books on Islam, pens this elucidating and very original introduction to the religion. He describes the basics of Islam, including the Qur'an and hadith, the life of Muhammad and the history of Islam and Muslims, in an easy-to-read and cogent manner. Sprinkled throughout are surprising facts, including that Muslims do not believe in original sin and that there are as many Muslims in China as in Egypt. Sardar clarifies some troubling aspects of the Prophet Muhammad's life, explaining polygamy as mainly alliance building and Muhammad's participation in battle as more limited than generally described. He criticizes Muslims for their rigidity and for losing touch with reason-which, in his opinion, is a cornerstone of Islam. He decries the literalism behind the creation of sharia law, the rejection of free interpretation of the Qur'an (called ijtihad) and unfair treatment of women, but sees these behaviors as anomalies. In contrast, Sardar acknowledges Muslims' tolerance, such as their acceptance of other prophets, their flourishing book trade and societal advancements. With its manageable length and optimistic outlook, this introduction to Islam is a cut above the rest. (Sept.)

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What Do MUSLIMS Believe?

The Roots and Realities of Modern Islam
By Ziauddin Sardar

Walker & Company

Copyright © 2007 Ziauddin Sadar
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1642-2

Chapter One

What Makes a Muslim?

'What does it mean to be a Muslim?' This plain and obvious question has both a simple and a complex answer. Let me begin with the simple explanation.

A Muslim is someone who makes the declaration: 'There is no god but God; and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah.' This affirmation, known as the Shahadah - literally, 'witness' or 'testimony' - is all there is to being a Muslim. Anyone can become a Muslim, or claim to be a Muslim, simply by uttering these words. But beyond the declaration is the struggle to live by the spirit and meaning of these words.

The first part of the Shahadah, 'There is no god but God', declares the oneness of God. A Muslim is someone who believes in one omnipotent and omnipresent, and all-merciful God. As a basic principle, Muslims do not perceive God in human terms. Indeed, they argue that it is impossible for the human mind to comprehend an Infinite God who is responsible for black holes and snowflakes, the unconditional love of a mother and the havoc of a natural disaster. Certainly, God has no gender. But conventionally, Muslims refer to God as He (always a capital 'H'!). He is both transcendent and immanent. He has created the universe; and maintains and sustains it. The only way a human mind can understand Him is through His attributes. He is described as the Loving, the Generous, the Benevolent. He is the First (He was there before the 'big bang') and the Last (He will be there after the end of the universe). He asks us to love Him and to struggle to understand His will.

The second part of the Shahadah takes us from God to man: 'Muhammad is the Messenger of God.' How are we to have a reasonable understanding of an infinite, all-powerful creator we call God? For Muslims, the only possible way is for Him to communicate that knowledge by whatever means He deems fit. And throughout history, God has provided this guidance to humanity through various individuals whom He chose as His messengers. Prophets have been sent to every nation and community, beginning with Adam. Each prophet communicated the same message: 'There is no god but God'. The Prophet Muhammad communicated this message in its final form, and is thus considered to be 'the Seal of the Prophets'. A Muslim is someone who believes that Muhammad provides us with the ideal example of human behaviour and relationships.

To accept Muhammad as the Prophet of God is to accept that the revelation he received is from God. This revelation is the Qur'an. A Muslim is someone who believes that the Qur'an is the Word of God, complete and verbatim. Everyone who utters the Shahadah is duty bound to follow the guidance of the Qur'an. The principles and injunctions of the Qur'an provide the norms which shape Muslim behaviour and set the standards by which success and failure are judged.

The Shahadah is the essence of the Muslim faith - known as Islam. The word 'Islam' has the dual meaning of 'peace' and 'submission'. A Muslim is one who 'submits' willingly to the guidance of the One, All-knowing, Merciful and Beneficent God, and seeks peace through this submission.

But this submission is not an act of blind faith. Islam does not ask its followers to accept anything without question. Everything in Islam, including the very existence of God, is open to critical interrogation. Islam presents itself as a rationally satisfying faith. And the faithful acquire genuine faith only after they have pondered and reflected upon the 'signs of God' as manifested in the laws of nature, the material universe and personal experience of the Divine.

Just as submission cannot be blind, so peace cannot be attained without justice. In Islam, peace and justice go hand in hand. Submission is not a passive exercise. It requires all Muslims to struggle for justice - in society, in politics, at a global level and in their daily lives. So Islam and political and social activism are natural bedfellows.

There are two aspects of the Shahadah that have a direct bearing on how Muslims relate to each other as well as to non-Muslims.

First, the Shahadah incorporates a very strong ideal of human equality. We are all equal before God. No one, whatever their creed, colour, class, sex or persuasion, is superior or inferior to any other. This standard of equality, I would argue, is also extended to the notion of truth. Muhammad was a Messenger; but there had been countless messengers before him. Each community has some notion of truth which Islam recognizes and appreciates: truth is not the same for everyone. Moreover, Islam itself does not have a monopoly on truth - only the final formulation of truth which Muslims struggle to understand and live by with all their human limitations and frailties. Our understanding of truth is always partial, never complete. All communities, including communities without faith, are equal in their limited understanding of truth.

Second, the Shahadah promotes a positive view of life. God is the Wise, the Beautiful and the Subtle and He expects us to shape the world in His image. Islam argues that men and women are naturally inclined to do good - that is, promote equality and justice, to be fair and generous in everyday dealings, to be kind and gentle towards flora and fauna, and to protect and conserve their habitat and environment. Muslims believe that everyone is born pure and innocent, with innate beauty and the ability to rise to the highest level. Society, as a whole, has an infinite capability for advancement and for acquiring knowledge.

But, one could ask, are human beings not more inclined to be wicked? Are we not programmed to be unjust, to defy the ethical and the moral? Are we not, as Christians would argue, 'fallen' beings in need of 'salvation' before we can be expected to do good?

Islam's answer to this question is straightforward: no. We have free will. While human beings are naturally inclined to do good, they are free and quite capable of being wicked and unjust. But when they do so, they are acting against their natural disposition. It is the choices they make which define their actions as moral or immoral. If they had no choice - that is, if they were compelled, without freedom, to follow a single course - their actions would be neither moral nor immoral. Choice, resulting from free will, confirms moral responsibility.

We will be responsible, Islam teaches, for the choices we make in this world before God, after our death. Islam totally rejects the idea of 'original sin'. Whatever Adam did in Eden, he did himself. He repented his own personal misdeed and was forgiven by God. His actions do not cast a shadow on the rest of humanity. Unlike the Christian tradition, Muslims believe that we are not 'fallen', and so we are in no need of being 'saved'. We are not helpless; we have the freedom to choose good or evil. Our salvation - in this world and in the life after death - lies in doing good works, in promoting all that is noble, just and praiseworthy.

Why Is a Muslim a Muslim?

The Shahadah is perhaps the most frequently repeated sentence in any language. In the outlook to life which it engenders lies the answer to the second most frequent question: 'Why are you a Muslim?' In more general terms, we can rephrase the question as: 'Why is a Muslim a Muslim?' I, and I think most Muslims, are believers because we are inclined to see the world as a good and positive place. We also have a strong sense of equality and justice, which is further enhanced by our religion. And we wish equality and justice to prevail over God's earth.

Perhaps this is why Islam describes itself as a 'primordial faith', the natural inclination of men and women who are born in an originally good and pure state. Indeed, nature plays an important part in why a Muslim is a Muslim. Muslims do not only believe that we ought to live with nature, rather than try to dominate or subdue it, they also believe that the laws of nature do not violate the laws of religion. On the whole, Muslims do not try to justify their beliefs in terms of miracles.

Muhammad himself went out of his way to deny that he did or could perform any miracles. And the Qur'an invites not blind belief but an examination of the evidence it presents. In Islam, religious truth is a matter of argument and debate, a symposium in which everyone has the right to contribute, to convince and be convinced. I like to think that Muslims are Muslims because they like to argue.

This is why orthodox Islam has never had a Church or a Synod that could dictate what others should or should not believe. One arrives at the religious truth with one's own rational effort and endeavour. What happens next, how one lives by one's faith, is of course fraught with all sorts of problems.

This, then, is a simple delineation of what it means to be a Muslim. Now, for some complexity!

Chapter Two

Who Are the Muslims?

Faith, like much else in this world, is subject to interpretation. Believers can only have an interpretative relationship with their sacred texts. My explanation of the Shahadah is, of course, my own - and some would legitimately argue idealized - interpretation. So it should not come as a surprise that there are many different, some even contradictory, readings of what it means to be a Muslim. Indeed, the sheer diversity of Muslims and verities of Islam can be quite bewildering.

We can appreciate the diversity of Muslims by looking at who they are and where they live. Geographically, Islam occupied what is known as 'the global middle belt'. From the shores of Senegal and Morocco to the Pacific Ocean and the islands of Indonesia. And, north to south, from the Mediterranean coast of Turkey to Somalia.

There are fifty-seven sovereign Muslim states. But there are also substantial Muslim minorities in non-Muslim states - India has almost as many Muslims as Pakistan and Bangladesh put together. And there are as many Muslims in China as in Egypt. And we must not forget the substantial Muslim presence in the European Union (around twenty million).

The Muslim population of the world is estimated to be 1.5 billion. That means every fourth person on this planet is a Muslim. They speak hundreds of different languages, and come from ethnic backgrounds as diverse as those of the Arabs and Turks, the Hausa and the Afghans, the Chinese and the Malays, the English and the Bosnians. Each ethnic community brings with it its own historical customs and cultural practices, which are often seen as part of their 'Islamic identity'. So, in Saudi Arabia Islam is defined in a very narrow and legalistic way and incorporates a number of tribal practices, such as the notion of unflinching loyalty to a clan. In Indonesia, where Muslims have been deeply influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, Islam is described as 'tolerant and liberal'. Some Somali Muslims insist that the old custom of female circumcision is part of their faith even though the practice has no Islamic injunction and is totally rejected by the vast majority of Muslims. The mosques in China look more like pagodas than mosques.

Beyond the ethnic gloss lies a host of religious denominations. Muslims themselves recognize two main divisions within Islam: Sunni and Shia. The term Sunni derives from the sunnah, or the path, and the Sunnis see themselves as 'the people of the path'. They constitute the majority of Muslims and described themselves as 'the Orthodox'. The Sunnis believe that the first four caliphs who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad were legitimate successors and 'Rightly Guided'. Conventionally, the Sunnis belong to one of the four 'Schools of Thought', which offer different interpretations of Islamic law and jurisprudence.

The Shias are largely concentrated in Iran and Iraq. The term Shia means 'followers'. The Shias are followers of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. As we shall see later, the Shias' theology is somewhat different from the Sunni outlook. Here, it would suffice to say that, strictly speaking, the Sunnis reject the idea of a clergy. The Shias, on the other hand, have a highly organized clergy. There are equivalents of bishops and even a pope - the Grand Ayatollah. The Shia community has a number of divisions. The vast majority are 'Twelvers' who believe in Twelve Imams. A small minority are Ismailis who have their own, more esoteric interpretation of Shia thought.

Both Shias and Sunnis can be Sufis, or mystics. Mysticism has deep roots in Islamic history and the Sufis constitute a major division within Islam. Sufis believe that God is in all things and all things in Him. Moreover, all visible and invisible things emanate from Him, and are not distinct from Him. The Sufis are divided into numerous sects - or tariqas - ranging from the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey to the followers of the famous Andalusian mystic, ibn Arabi. Many new converts to Islam, particularly in Europe and the USA, are attracted to Sufism rather than orthodox Islam.

As if this diversity were not complex enough we have to add a number of other layers. Islam has been in turmoil for several centuries. Around the sixteenth century, the Muslim civilization, which was once a dominant, global civilization, began to decline. The pursuit of thought and learning was replaced by imitation - henceforth, the opinions of the classical scholars had to be imitated - and obscurantism. Then, many Muslim societies were colonized by European imperial powers. During the colonial period, a number of reform movements emerged, each aiming to galvanize the Muslim societies and revive Islam, each adding its own spin to the faith and its outlook.

There have been three such movements on the Indian subcontinent alone. The Tablighi Jamaat, which emerged in the 1920s, is an evangelical movement that believes Islam should be limited to rituals and have nothing to do with politics. The Deoband movement, a breakaway group of Sunni Muslims, emerged from the Islamic university near Delhi from which the movement takes its name. It is overtly political. Its members fought against British rule and are now fighting 'Western imperialism' with equal zeal. The Deobandis are opposed by the Barelvis, who emerged about the same time from the Indian city of Bareilly. The Barelvis have turned the veneration of the Prophet into a high art - much to the displeasure of the Deobandis who shun all kinds of esoteric interpretation.

Perhaps the most noted of the reform movements is the Salafiyyah, which emerged in the Middle East at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Salafiyyah began as a modernist project aiming to accommodate Islam to the ideas of secular materialism. Despite its wide-ranging influence, its failure to introduce any substantial change in Muslim societies has now transformed it into an aggressive literalist movement based largely in the Middle East.

Followers of these and other reform movements have their own particular take on Islam. So do members of more recent and explicitly political 'Islamic movements' which acquired a global reach after the independence of many Muslim states in the 1950s. Such movements as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Sudan and Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan, as well as Islamic revolutionaries in Iran, equate religion with state. Their goal is to create an 'Islamic state' with Islamic Law as the law of the land.

What all this means is that there are as many interpretations of Islam as there are distinct Muslim communities. An individual Muslim may be a Sunni, a follower of one particular school of thought, a supporter of a political movement like the Muslim Brotherhood and may practise the customs of his country of origin, say Somalia. Or indeed he or she may be a Muslim who is, according to most orthodox Muslims, not a Muslim at all. The Qadyanis sect, which emerged in India during the Raj, has been declared 'non-Muslim' in Pakistan. Allegedly, the Qadyanis do not believe that the Prophet Muhammad was the last prophet. But, of course, the Qadyanis describe themselves as Muslims and perform all the necessary rituals.

This vast diversity and intractable complexity exists within a framework of overarching unity. Most Muslims share common beliefs and ritual practices that were established at the beginning of Islam.

So, let us begin at the beginning.


Excerpted from What Do MUSLIMS Believe? by Ziauddin Sardar Copyright © 2007 by Ziauddin Sadar. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ziauddin Sardar is a writer, broadcaster, and critical commentator on Islam, culture, and science. He is the author of more than forty books, including, most recently, Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Skeptical Muslim, and Why Do People Hate America. He contributes regularly to the New Statesman, and lives in England.
Ziauddin Sardar was born in Pakistan and grew up in Hackney. A writer, broadcaster and cultural critic, he is one of the world's foremost Muslim intellectuals and author of more than fifty books on Islam, science and contemporary culture, including the highly acclaimed Desperately Seeking Paradise. He has been listed by Prospect magazine as one of Britain's top 100 intellectuals. Currently he is the Director of Centre for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies at East West University, Chicago, co-editor of the quarterly Critical Muslim, consulting editor of Futures, a monthly journal on policy, planning and futures studies, and Chair of the Muslim Institute in London.


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