Tag Archives: lectures

World Religions: Islam – Lecture 6: Paths to God – Islamic Law and Mysticism

The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito.  A few things are worth noting:

  1. I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material.  You can do that on The Great Courses website.  My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
  2. These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course.  As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
  3. There is no third thing.  I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.

Lecture 6: Paths to God – Islamic Law and Mysticism

Islamic law is derived from three sources:

  • Sharia – the teachings of the prophet as embodied in the Quran
  • Sunnah – the example of the prophet
  • Ijtihad – human interpretation of Sharia and Sunnah by the Ulama (scholars) and application of common sense and reasoning.  For the Shia community, this last takes a secondary role to collected writings not recognized by the Sunni community.

The law is designed to establish definitively what it means to be a good Muslim and create a just society that is equitable to all.  For the Muslim faith, action and obedience to the law is considered much more important than questions of theology.

The law covers two basic areas:

  • Duties to God – essentially, the Five Pillars previously discussed
  • Duties to Others – rules about public and family life

Family Law – Family law covers three basic topics which will be outlined below.  It should be noted that these laws vary greatly from region to region to conform to some degree with local customs and have over time evolved significantly.  Legal opinions are passed down by means of the issuance of a fatwa, a formal legal opinion given by a Mufti.

  • Marriage – previous to the Muslim faith, women were treated essentially as a possession to be handed out.  Under Sharia, women became a party to their own marriage contracts and could benefit from their own dowries.  Polygamy was regulated and men were limited to four wives but only if they could legitimately support them.  Men and women are viewed to have equal partnership within Muslim marriage but to have complimentary roles with the man working outside the home while the woman is master inside the home.
  • Divorce – while still permitted, divorce is termed “the most abominable” of things allowed by the Quran.  Previously, a man needed merely to utter “I divorce you” to remove his wife from her position.  Now the rules are significantly more complex and the wife is entitled to financial support.
  • Inheritance – woman can now inherit whereas previously it was only the eldest male child which could see money from the death of a parent.

Sufism represents the mystical aspects of Islam and the lecturer’s description made me think of them like hippies.  They are observant when it comes to Islamic law but they find that the law alone isn’t really sufficient.  They seek direct contact with Allah through prayer, fasting and meditation.  Despite being, at times, in conflict with the ulama, since about the 12th century they have worked to spread themselves through the establishment of monasteries that bring to mind monastic aspects of the Christian religion.


Series Guide

IslamView back-to-back on the YouTube Playlist
Lecture 1– Islam Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Lecture 2 – The Five Pillars of Islam
Lecture 3 – Muhammad-Prophet and Statesman
Lecture 4 – God’s Word-The Quranic Worldview
Lecture 5 – The Muslim Community-Faith and Politics
Lecture 6 – Paths to God-Islamic Law and Mysticism
Lecture 7 – Islamic Revivalism-Renewal and Reform
Lecture 8 – The Contemporary Resurgence of Islam
Lecture 9 – Islam at the Crossroads
Lecture 10 – Women and Change in Islam
Lecture 11 – Islam in the West
Lecture 12 – The Future of Islam

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World Religions: Islam – Lecture 2 – The Five Pillars of Islam

The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito.  A few things are worth noting:

  1. I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material.  You can do that on The Great Courses website.  My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
  2. These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course.  As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
  3. There is no third thing.  I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.

Lecture 2: The Five Pillars of Islam

Despite having a very diverse population with many distinct local customs, the five pillars tie the entire Muslim community together.  The pillars are what make a Muslim a Muslim.

I. The Declaration of Faith, or shahadah

“There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of God”

Allah, or God in Arabic, shares many of the attributes of the Christian God: omniscience, merciful, mighty, holy, etc.  Unlike the Christian observance of God, Muslims seem much more concerned about idolatry so you don’t see visual depictions of God of any sort.

Muhammad was the final prophet of God.  He was a perfect human and defines an example life for all Muslims to pattern their lives after.

II. Prayer, or salat

Muslims pray five times a day at the sound of the muezzin, often from a loudspeaker at the spire of a mosque.  These times are dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and evening.  Often prayer is accompanied by a recitation from the Quran and Muslims must kneel (whether it be inside, outside or on a plane) and face the Kaaba (house of God) in Mecca.  Muslims are encouraged to pray in groups if possible to add to the sense of kinship and brotherhood.

Once a week on Friday the juma is observed, a congregational prayer held in the mosque.  In the mosque a mihrab (a niche along one wall) indicates the direction of Mecca and the sermon is conducted from the minbar, or pulpit.  Before entering the mosque visitors must wash their feet and remove their footwear.

III. Zakat – tithing or Almsgiving

Personal wealth is considered a gift from God so Muslims are required to give 2.5% of their total personal property including money, stocks, bonds and land each year.  While this is mandatory most countries don’t collect it by force and individuals instead make proper donations on their own.  Specific branches of Islam have additional taxes but these are largely voluntary in nature.

IV. Fast of Ramadan

Timing of the commencement of this fast reflects the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad.  From dawn to sunset for a month Muslims must not eat, drink or have sex but only if they are physically well enough to do so safely.  The purpose is to encourage reflection and contemplation rather than representing a hardship.

After sunset, a light meal or breakfast is consumed and then later in the evening a larger and more opulent meal is served.  The night is also accompanied by prayers and often the entire Quran is recited 1/30th each night.  At the end of the month the Eid al-Fitr (Feast of the Breaking of the Fast) is observed and gifts are given and general jubilance ensues.

V. Pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca

Beginning 60 days after Ramadan around 2 million Muslims make their way to Mecca from all over the world.  Any Muslim who is physically and financially able must make the trip at least once in their lifetime.  While there, pilgrims dress identically regardless of social class to dissolve class boundaries and create a sense of egalitarianism.  Various religious observances and reenactments take place, many from the Old Testament.

At the end, all pilgrims gather on the plain where Muhammad gave his last sermon.  The Feast of Sacrifice takes place and a sheep or other animal is slaughtered.  This tradition is observed not just at Mecca but all over the world at this time.  Once a pilgrim has made his Hajj, he may suffix his name with ‘haji’ in observance of the event.

Jihad

Many in the West believe that Jihad is the sixth pillar but this is simply not true.  Literally, Jihad is “the struggle” and represents the struggle to lead a virtuous life and obey the tenants of Islam.  While there are situations in which Jihad may be a call to violence, they are extremely specific and will be outlined, so I’m told, in a later lecture.


Series Guide

IslamView back-to-back on the YouTube Playlist
Lecture 1– Islam Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Lecture 2 – The Five Pillars of Islam
Lecture 3 – Muhammad-Prophet and Statesman
Lecture 4 – God’s Word-The Quranic Worldview
Lecture 5 – The Muslim Community-Faith and Politics
Lecture 6 – Paths to God-Islamic Law and Mysticism
Lecture 7 – Islamic Revivalism-Renewal and Reform
Lecture 8 – The Contemporary Resurgence of Islam
Lecture 9 – Islam at the Crossroads
Lecture 10 – Women and Change in Islam
Lecture 11 – Islam in the West
Lecture 12 – The Future of Islam

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World Religions: Islam – Lecture 1 – Islam Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito.  A few things are worth noting:

  1. I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material.  You can do that on The Great Courses website.  My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
  2. These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course.  As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
  3. There is no third thing.  I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.

Lecture 1: Islam Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

This is just an introductory lecture so most if it centers on the question of “what exactly is this course about?”  As it turns out, it’s about the basic fundamental questions that people tend to have about Islam and aims most keenly to clear up a lot of misconceptions that people have about the religion which is described by many as “THE misunderstood religion.”

Scope and practice of the religion: Worldwide it is the 2nd most practiced religion and arguably the fastest growing.  It is the 3rd most practiced in the U.S. behind Christianity and Judaism.  While we tend to associate it with Arab countries, only 20% of Muslims are Arabs.  Most Muslims are from Asian countries.

Origins: More on this later but the high level is that Islam has its roots in the Old Testament.  Those of a Christian bent may recall that Sarah and Abraham could not bear a child so Abraham bedded his servant Hagar (this was common practice in the day).  Hagar bore a son named Ishmael.  Unfortunately for Ishmael, not long after, Sarah conceived on her own and sent Hagar and Ishmael away to “Arabia.”  Those of Muslim faith are said to be descendants of Ishmael.

Key similarities between Islam and Christian religions: In Islam, God is seen as having given the Earth to man as a trust.  Christian thoughts on the topic aren’t far off, at least as I understand them.  Both have the concepts of angels, Satan, Prophets, judgment, Heaven and Hell.  Also, like Christianity, the writings of the prophet are interpreted by Ulamas or religious scholars rather than taken verbatim.  Finally, Islam is a vast and complex religion with a variety of local practices and variations just like Christianity.

Key differences between Islam and Christianity: In Islam, religion, government and personal lives are much more tied together.  Christians seem to take their faith much less seriously as a general rule.  Muslims observe Islamic law in every facet of their daily lives and while they recognize Jesus as one prophet among many they do not give him special divine status.

Western view of Islam: During the professor’s youth in the 60s Islam was a bit of an unknown and unstudied backwater, lumped in with Eastern religions despite its clear associations with Christianity.  Now, the West views Islam through the lens of the Iranian Revolution and sees every Muslim as an extremist.  From the other side, Muslims look at the Christianity and have some rightful historical misgivings dating from the Crusades to the current day in what is referred to as American Neo-Colonialism.  Add to this the American tendency to side with Israel and the support of the British colonial occupation of Pakistan (which is almost entirely Muslim) and … well, you get the picture.

A few key terms:

Islam – In Arabic, “Submission to God’s will”
Muslim – Also in Arabic, “One who submits”
Salaam – peace
Ummah – term for the transnational Muslim nation.
Ulama- a Muslim religious scholar


Series Guide

IslamView back-to-back on the YouTube Playlist
Lecture 1– Islam Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Lecture 2 – The Five Pillars of Islam
Lecture 3 – Muhammad-Prophet and Statesman
Lecture 4 – God’s Word-The Quranic Worldview
Lecture 5 – The Muslim Community-Faith and Politics
Lecture 6 – Paths to God-Islamic Law and Mysticism
Lecture 7 – Islamic Revivalism-Renewal and Reform
Lecture 8 – The Contemporary Resurgence of Islam
Lecture 9 – Islam at the Crossroads
Lecture 10 – Women and Change in Islam
Lecture 11 – Islam in the West
Lecture 12 – The Future of Islam

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