Hence, the message contained in the holy book -- the Qur'an -- which is supposed to be the word of God Himself, is of great importance to the Muslims.
The book itself consists of the revelations made to Muhammad over a number of years, following the first revelation made to him while he was meditating in a cave near Mecca. It is divided into 114 chapters (called suras) that have been assembled in a descending order from the longest to the shortest chapter. The book is believed to be the word of God (as revealed to Prophet Muhammad) by the Muslims and sets forth the basic requirements of Muslim life, including spiritual, social, and legal codes of conduct. The Qur'an is written in the Arabic language and has a lyrical beauty that is difficult to translate into other languages. Like all profound works of literature, the verses of the Qur'an are thought to carry several layers of meaning. This may be one of the reasons why the verses have been given various interpretations by different scholars over the centuries.
Some non-Muslims and critics of Islam blame the Qur'an for the wave of mindless terrorism perpetrated by the 'Islamic terrorists' in recent times and have even termed it as a 'terror manual.' (Kamat, 2008). They point to certain verses in the Qur'an in which the Muslims have been urged to fight and kill the 'non-believers.' This criticism, of course, is grossly unfair since there are various other passages in the Qur'an as well, which extol the virtues of peace and tolerance. For example, in Chapter 109:6, the Qur'an dismisses the notion of compulsion in religion by stating: "To you be your way, and to me mine." (Ali, 2000, p. 167). It must be remembered that at various times during Muhammad's lifetime, the newly formed religion was threatened with extinction, and the verses that exhort the Muslims to fight must be seen in that context.
The concept of 'Jihad' in Islam has come under much scrutiny of late due to the activities of various so-called "Jihadi" organizations, which have carried out terrorist activities around the world in the name of Islam. The general impression about jihad in the West is that it is Islam's "holy war" and justifies the wanton killing of non-Muslims, including women and children. The literal meaning of the word 'jihad' in Arabic is "to struggle." Physical jihad, i.e., fighting against the enemies of Islam is only a small part of the wider context of jihad. The more profound form of Jihad in Islam is the "personal jihad" or the struggle to conquer the forces of evil in oneself on one's society. Prophet Muhammad, on his return from a battle is reported to have remarked, "We return from the little jihad to the greater jihad." And another of his hadith (saying) quotes him as saying: "The best jihad [struggle] is (by) the one who strives against his own self for Allah, the Mighty and Majestic," (Quoted by Robinson, 2003). The Qur'an itself describes Jihad as a defensive war by declaring, "Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loves not transgressors." (Chapter 2, verse 190) the concept of 'Jihad' in Islam, therefore, is not such a monstrous notion after all.
The Sects in Islam
Despite the emphasis on "oneness" and the struggle by Muhammad for unity among all Muslims, irrespective of caste, color, or creed, serious differences arose among the Muslims after Muhammad's death in 632 CE on the issue of his succession, eventually leading to the formation of different sects. Since Muhammad did not designate his successor, Abu-Bakr -- his old friend and companion -- was named as the first Caliph. Supporters of Ali -- Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law (he was married to Muhammad's daughter, Fatima) believed that Ali was his rightful successor and had been unfairly deprived of his right by Abu-Bakr and others. This gave rise to a permanent split in Islam and the Shi'ite sect.
Currently, there are three main factions among Muslims: the Sunnis, the Shi'ites and the followers of Sufism. Sunnis are the mainstream Muslims and form the vast majority. Literally, the word Sunni means the followers of the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad (the "Sunnah"). The Sunni doctrine places strong emphasis on the all-encompassing nature of God's (Allah's) power and the importance of human fate. Sunnis believe that the succession of the Caliphate to Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthmann, and Ali (in that order) after the Prophet's death was correct. The Shiites, on the other hand believe that Prophet Muhammad's true successor was his son-in-law, Ali, whose right of succession was usurped by Abu Bakr et al. This difference was the bone of contention between the Sunnis and Shi'ites that became more pronounced after the tragic death of Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Hussain (Ali's son) at the hands of the Caliph's army in the 9th century. The Shiites later developed a doctrine of divine right of authority and infallibility to the descendants of Ali, whom they call "Imams." They believe in 12 Imams, the last of whom is said to have disappeared in 880 AD, but who is expected to return some day to restore justice in the world, according to the Shi'ite belief. (Fisher, 2008, pp. 399-401)
Sufism developed out of the strain of mysticism in the teachings of Muhammad. The Sufis emphasize spirituality as a way of knowing God. By practicing repentance, abstinence, poverty, and meditation, the Sufi attempts to achieve a higher level of consciousness -- the ultimate aim being a state of ecstatic union with God himself. This aspect of Sufism differs with the legalistic interpretation of Islam by the Sunnis and Shias and outrages the orthodox Muslims. The message of mysticism, unbounded love and an emotional relationship with God, however, had a special appeal for the masses and contributed greatly to the spread of Islam beyond Arabia to Western Asia (Dallal, 2008).
Challenges for Islam and the Muslims in the Modern World
The current state of conflict between the militant Islam and the West, which has been termed as the "Clash of Civilizations" by some analysts, has its roots in history. As we saw in parts of this paper, Islam is one of the great monotheistic religions of the world and has always taught respect for other religions, especially Christianity and Judaism as it recognizes their founders (Moses, Jesus et. al.) as prophets and due for great respect. Throughout Islam's ascendancy and conquest that followed in the centuries after Muhammad's death and through to the Middle Ages, it tolerated other faiths and did not prosecute adherents of Judaism and Christianity since Muhammad considered them as 'people of the book' (Fisher, 408). Why then this clash between militant Islam and non-Muslims in the 21st century? One of the reasons for the simmering conflict lies in the 11th and 12th century crusades: the declaration of 'holy war' by the Christians and their attempts to capture the holy land of Jerusalem from the Muslims; the dreaded Inquisition carried out by the Christians after retaking Spain from the Muslims in the 13th century during which 3 million Muslims were killed or driven out of the country (Ibid.) in more recent times, the colonial dominance of the Imperial west over much of the Muslim world after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War and the creation of Israel in the largely Muslim Palestine has further fanned the flames of hatred among the Muslims against the West. This resentment among the Muslims has been transformed into a burning rage among the extremist elements of the Muslim society. It is important, however, to remember that such extremists form a small minority among the Muslims. The vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving and moderate as they follow the teachings of Prophet Muhammad who was a gentle soul and preached a message of love and tolerance. The challenge for Islam and its followers in the 21st century is, therefore, to bring to the fore this peaceful message of Islam in the society. The West, too, needs to overcome its age-old prejudice against the religion of Islam and try to heal the festering wounds around the world, like the Palestine or Kashmir problems, which provide reasons for the extremists among Muslims to exploit their religion and put it on the path of violence.
Ali, a.Y. (2000). "The Holy Qur'an." Translation in English. Wordsworth Classic of World Literature. Wordsworth Edition Limited: UK
Al-Muhajabah (2008). Al-Muhajabah's Islamic Pages. Retrieved on December 10, 2008 at http://www.muhajabah.com/tawhid.htm
Dallal, a.S. (2008). "Islam." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved on December 10, 2008 at http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761579171/islam.html