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An Outline Introduction to Islam


Orville Boyd Jenkins

A. Qur'an. The Qur'an is believed to be a series of revelations from God which were revealed to Muhammad by the angel Jibril (Gabriel). It is not certain whether Muhammad himself then wrote these down or they were dictated by Muhammad to his secretary. Muhammad's testimony is that he was commanded by the angel to recite what he heard, that is to repeat it. The word qur'an is this verb "recite."

Muslims believe the original Qur'an is a tablet preserved in heaven. The written Qur'an in Arabic is a copy of the true one. Thus to translate the Qur'an into another language is to change its divine wording. The words themselves in Arabic are held to be inspired, the actual words of God himself. This is a major reason why Muslims of all nations and languages memorize large sections of the Qur'an or even the whole Qur'an in Arabic--even though they may not understand the Arabic language.

According to tradition, Muhammad's secretary, Zayd ibn Thabit, gave his notes of the suras (chapters) to Abu Bakr, Muhammad's father-in-law who became the first Kalifah (or Caliph, successor to Muhammad). Abu Bakr gave the notes to Hafsa, the daughter of 'Umar, who later became the second Kalifah. Later the third Kalifah 'Uthman appointed Zayd to prepare an official copy based on this copy. All others were burned. An alternative version of the Qur'an was extant in Kufah, Iraq, until about A.D. 1000.

Muslims use this concept of one version of the Qur'an to strengthen their charges of unreliability of the Bible. They claim that Christians have changed the original Gospel (the one book which was revealed to Jesus). If there is any difference between a gospel account and a Qur'anic account about Jesus, for instance, the answer is that the Gospel was changed and the Qur'an conveys the correct version. The Apocryphal Gospel of Barnabas seems to be the book Muslims consider to be the original Gospel of Jesus. However, historical-critical studies of the Bible affirm the reliability of Christian scriptures and extreme care in transmission. The texts discovered at Qumran include a 1000-year-old copy of Isaiah, intact and identical to the text being used in the twentieth century.

B. Hadith. The hadith are oral traditions collected after Muhammad's death, from witnesses. Some of these fill in the early history, or provide "clarifications" of Qur'an. These were collected in order to sort through the conflicting stories and claims about what Muhammad taught or about events in the prophet's life. Qualifications were established to evaluate the traditions.

These traditions might be comparable to the apochryphal gospels and apochryphal epistles of the early Christian era. These were rejected from the canon of scripture which was finally agreed upon at the end of the fourth century, but they offer some insights and comparisons for background. The writing of the "Church Fathers" might play a similar role.

C. Sunna. This is the name for the combination of Qur'an and Hadith and the early rulings of the Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs. The sunna forms the orthodox base of common authority for Islam.

D. The uniqueness of God. Islam began with the great concern over the idolatry and immorality in Arabia. Islam is a radical monotheistic religion. Anything close to idolatry is abhorred. God is unique and not to be likened to his creation. He is totally other. This positive defense of God's uniqueness is also the basis for the rejection of a Christian concept of incarnation. God could not be likened to his creation. Muslims believe that, as there has been only one God, there has been only one religion since the beginning. It has degenerated and been perverted degenerated over the ages among the various tribes of the world. This accounts for the many religions in the world.

E. Umma. The concept of one "people of God" is a unifying factor for Islam, ideally giving it a universal character and appeal. Submission (Islam) is the goal and definition of Umma. All who submit are members. The oneness of God is the foundation for the oneness of all submitters. This is a strong feature of Islam. In Islam all are equal before God, with no distinction of race, social status or education.

F. Shari'a (law). Islam provides a body of legal commands in all areas of life. The initial reason for a strong emphasis on "law and order" was the need to overcome the lawlessness and immorality prevalent among the Arab people at the time of Muhammad. From a certain perspective, Islam is a "legalistic" religion. But it claims to be a practical religion. Its commands are those that can be fulfilled by every believer.

The foundation of this concept is that faith is obedience. God does not give commands that cannot be fulfilled, for he is just and merciful. Thus Islam entails obedience to the commands of God. This shari'a is also a unifying factor for the umma. The foundation of the unity of God's people (the umma) is the oneness of God. Equality of inheritance was one of the benefits introduced by the Muslim shari'a, raising the level of social justice.

G. The Bible. This is not strictly a foundation of Islamic society, but the Bible did become a great influence in some areas of Islam. Later Muslims began to read the Bible and compare their faith and the Qur'an with the Bible, leading to the development of Sufism. This was related to a general rise in scholarship in the Muslim world, which led to an exchange of ideas with the West.


Originally published in An Outline Introduction to Islam (Nairobi:  Communication Press, 1991.)
This version posted on Thoughts and Resources 20 March 2004
Last edited 20 November 2007

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 1991, 2004 by Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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