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Islam: A Christian Introduction

By Winfried Corduan


Estimated Membership
Worldwide: 1,099,634,000
United States: 5,100,000


How can a religion completely focus on one man but not focus on that man at all? By being Islam. Everything in this religion is based on Muhammad’s life and teaching, and yet Muhammad is not at all the center of worship and devotion.

How can a religion be both a religion and a political system? Again, by being Islam. True Islam functions within a community (the umma) that optimally carries its own political identity.

How can a religion espouse the highest monotheistic and ethical ideals while many of its adherents live in a state close to animism? Yet again, by being Islam. Every religion has to contend with a gap between its official teaching and what people practice in its “folk religion” version. Such a gap also exists in the world of Islam, to the dismay of many Islamic teachers.

How can a religion establish itself around the world and yet remain closely tied to one particular culture? One more time, by being Islam. It is making inroads into societies around the world, both Third World countries and Western industrialized societies. At the same time it still very much belongs to its original Arabic desert world.

Islam can be a paradoxical religion. Describing it requires that we constantly ask, Who speaks authoritatively? For example, even as the leader of an Islamic republic issues a decree in the name of the Qur’an that all women must wear the veil, an Islamic evangelist tells a group of American students that the veil is not mandated by the Qur’an and that only in Islam are women truly liberated. While the same Muslim apologist is insisting that the Qur’an forbids violence, the terrorist group Islamic Jihad may be bombing a building, killing innocent people. These observations are not meant to condemn Islam for failings that can ultimately be exposed in every religion. But there are ambiguities about Islam, which any study of Islam must take into account. In our attempt to understand Islam and all its complexity, we will begin with its beginnings.

The Life and Times of Muhammad

Muhammad was born in A.D. 570 in the vicinity of Mecca. The indigenous Arabian religion of the time was a mixture of polytheism and animism. Mecca was a center of this religion and the focal point of pilgrims visiting its many idols and shrines. The first thing that greeted a pilgrim entering Mecca was a statue of God’s (Allah’s) three sensuous-appearing daughters (al-Lat, al-Manat and al-Uzza). A highlight of any visit to Mecca was a cube-shaped shrine (called the ka’ba, which means “cube”) dedicated to the main god of this shrine, Hubal. Built into the side of the ka’ba was a meteorite that was considered holy because it had fallen from heaven. There were many other temples and holy sites, including the sacred well, Zamzam. Religious pilgrimages made Mecca a prosperous city. (Religion can be a particularly gainful enterprise because it requires relatively little investment, and the merchandise [spiritual blessing] is an easily renewable resource.)

Until modern sea routes were opened by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century explorers, the Arabian peninsula was a significant thoroughfare for commerce, and so it was in Muhammad’s day. Arabia has never existed as an isolated desert area out of contact with the rest of the world. In Muhammad’s day Arabia was the site of extensive cross cultural interaction. There were Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian merchants, as well as settlements of those groups, particularly in the northern part of the peninsula. In the city of Yathrib (Medina) dwelled a Jewish community numbering in the hundreds, which professed a strict monotheism.

A strain of native monotheism had survived independently in Arabian culture. A minority of people, called the hanif, or “pious ones,” devoted themselves exclusively to the worship of one God, Allah. We see here a remnant of the original monotheism that is the universal starting point for the history of all religions (see chapter one of Neighboring Faiths for a discussion of original monotheism).

Muhammad was born into this culture as a member of a minor clan of the Quraish tribe. Orphaned at an early age, Muhammad was raised by an uncle. There was little opportunity for schooling, and the illiterate Muhammad subsisted as a camel driver. Eventually Muhammad came into the employ of a wealthy widow, Khadija. In the style of a storybook romance, they fell in love and married. For many years Muhammad and Khadija were devoted to each other, and when Muhammad started to receive his visions, Khadija immediately supported him. Muhammad was now a wealthy merchant himself, and he came into increasing contact with the many adherents of monotheistic religions. This contact helped shape his own spiritual development. However, it is a mistake to interpret Islam as nothing more than an adaptation of Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. We must leave room for the vestige of original Arabian monotheism as well as for Muhammad’s own creativity.1


The unique twists of Muhammad’s spiritual experience began in A.D. 610, while he was meditating in a cave located on what is now called the Mount of Light, overlooking the plain of Arafat outside Mecca. As Muhammad fell into a trance, trembling and sweating, the angel Gabriel spoke to him. “Recite!” the angel proclaimed to him.2 At this moment the brooding, introspective merchant turned into the stern prophet who refused to compromise his convictions and suffered for his steadfastness.3


Now began Muhammad’s career as a prophet in Mecca. His message encompassed two main points: (1) there is only one God to whose will people must submit, and (2) there will be a day of judgment when all people will be judged in terms of whether or not they have obeyed God. Converts were slow in coming at first. Khadija believed Muhammad immediately, but others were skeptical at best. Many people were hostile or derisive. Muhammad’s revelatory experiences continued, as they would throughout his life, not on a regular basis but from time to time as the occasion demanded. Eventually Muhammad gained a small group of followers, and after about ten years the group had become fairly sizable, numbering in the thousands.

Muhammad’s followers referred to their belief as Islam, which means “submission to God.” They came to be identified as Muslims, “those who submit to God.” These terms are still the correct designations. Muslims consider the term Muhammadanism and its variations offensive because it implies to them that they worship Muhammad, which they certainly do not.

Eventually Muhammad’s group of followers grew so large that the city fathers in Mecca found their presence undesirable. After all, nothing ruins the business of idol worship like the incessant claim that there is only one God. Persecution escalated until in A.D. 622 Muhammad and a group of his followers fled Mecca for Yathrib.

This flight from Mecca is called the hijra (meaning “flight”), and it is used as the beginning of the Islamic calendar, for at this point an independent Muslim community, the umma, was born. Islamic dates are reckoned A.H., “anno hegirae.” Thus 1998 is the year A.H. 1418.4 Khadija had died by this time, and Muhammad found solace with a number of new wives.

Muhammad and his