A Brief Overview of Islam
By Dr. Eren Tatari
Islam means submission.
Muslim is the one who submits.
I am a muslim while I submit.
By default, all creation submits to God’s will; therefore everything is muslim (submitter). For instance, we can witness how a tree submits to God’s laws and acts in God’s name to fulfill its purpose of creation (i.e. to bear fruits and to manifest God’s Attributes). No tree revolts against what is decreed upon it. Trees have no choice but to submit to how God creates them. In the Qur’an, God asks all humanity not to believe blindly, but to witness the truth by using their God-given faculties, such as their eyes, intellect, and other senses. For instance, God says in the Qur’an:
“But do they, then, never observe the sky above them (to ponder Our Knowledge and Power; and reflect) how We have constructed it and adorned it, and that there are no rifts in it?” (Qur’an, 50:6).
Belief (iman) in Islam means certainty, to be absolutely sure through witnessing. Belief is to witness that nobody or nothing other than God has the power to create or to sustain anything. It is to witness and affirm that God is the only and ultimate Creator. This is the meaning of the maxim of Islam “There is no deity but God” (Lailaha illallah).
God also asks us to witness this reality in ourselves:
“We will show them Our manifest signs (proofs) in the horizons of the universe and their own selves, until it will become manifest to them that it (the Qur’an) is indeed the truth. Is it not sufficient (as proof) that your Lord is a witness over all things (just as He is witnessed to by all things)?” (Qur’an, 41:53).
So then, how are we a sign to the existence and sovereignty of God? To comprehend this, we need to reflect more deeply on who we really are. Are we powerful? Do we sustain ourselves? Do we own our body? Did we choose our gender, our race, our nose? Let’s do an experiment that might reveal our weakness (ajz) and poverty (fakr). When we move our hand, do we really know how it moves? Is it we who move it? Or do we just want to move it and it moves? Even if we were to master all the specific mechanisms of neural transmission and muscle movements, we do not put these in action for our limbs to move. Who then moves it? We often answer this question by citing our muscles and nerves as responsible for our actions. In reality, this is not an answer but just a description of the series of anatomical mechanisms taking place.
The Qur’an confronts us with our reality to provide the answer. All we have is our partial-freewill (al-iradah al-juziyyah) to want to move our hand. God creates the movement since He is the All-Powerful and to Him alone belong all power. This is not to reject the science of medicine, but rather to say that it is God who creates the neurons, muscles, and the chemical processes. It is to say that our cells, molecules, and atoms do not have the knowledge or power to carry out their functions.
God reveals in the Qur’an that Islam (submission to the truth and to God’s Will) is the final and complete divine message proclaimed by the last Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and that it is a trustworthy/straight path leading to our Creator. The goal and outcome of submission is living as if seeing God and doing everything only for His sake. Thus, there is no separation of religion from daily life, and submission means realizing God’s presence in every second.
Islam consists of the eternal message from the Creator to humanity as outlined in the Qur’an and the teachings and sayings of Prophet Muhammad and the other prophets (peace be upon them), who lived the divine message. Belief (iman) is to be carried out in our actions (amal). Hence, actions not supported by faith, and faith not supported by actions, do not attain their goal, which is to bring us closer to God. Islam unifies faith and action and establishes all aspects of faith and practice in this life.
In the Scriptures, God addresses humanity, urging us to do what is good for both this and the next life through our own freewill, promising inner peace in this life and eternal happiness in the hereafter for those who heed this call. The All-Wise Creator, who knows His creation the best, shows the way to the truth and to good deeds. Since God knows best His creation, Divine Guidance suits human nature, its tendencies and capabilities. God’s guidance in the Scriptures helps to fulfill our purpose of creation. For example, if we buy a high-tech juicer, we should read the manual carefully so that we will get the best results and not break the machine. Say the manual warns us not to put bananas in the juicer. If we do not heed the messages of the manual/guidebook, we would break our juicer, not get any juice, and be upset. Likewise, since God is the owner and Creator of this machine (human soul and body), He knows best how it operates and provides a manual. In this context, God’s guidance outlined in the Divine Scriptures is universal, eternal, and not subject to change through time or place.
It is important to realize that God bestowed on us the Guidebooks because of His Compassion for us. A helpful analogy is the syllabus and the textbook provided by a professor. If our professor gives us a clear syllabus and a book explicating the content of the course at the beginning of the semester, it helps us to learn and accomplish what the professor intended for us to achieve in the course. In this same way, since God loves us and has infinite compassion for us, He does not leave us without guidebooks that help us to enjoy and succeed in this life and the next. When we, as created beings, follow our Creator’s guidelines, we become blessed with peace in this life, and as a result, live in the hereafter for eternity.
Living a life of submission, we benefit from the lawful bounties of this world by concentrating on pleasing God. If we are conscious of God’s message and our practices are in line with His Will, we can achieve complete freedom from all attachments but God, worshipping Him alone. We love and respect all created things because of their Creator. Now, let’s briefly examine how the Qur’an responds to the following existential questions:
- From where and by whose order did I come to this world?
- What is the argument and evidence to support it?
- Why am I here?
- Where am I going?
According to the Qur’an, the purpose of creation is to know, to love, and to worship God. If we do not know God, we cannot love Him. And if we do not love Him, we cannot worship Him with awe and love. Knowledge of God is experiential. It is not information that we hear and memorize. God makes Himself known to us through His creation. That is, His Revelations and everything in every instance manifest God’s Divine Attributes of Perfection (Asma al-Husna). In fact, the raison d’être of this creation is to make the Creator known to us. Acknowledging the magnificence of the Creator by observing His creation inspires us to worship and serve Him. Hence, constant worship and servitude is the way to know God in this life. Worship and servitude do not come after we know God, but are in fact the way to get to know Him. This life is a journey where we receive many experiential letters that make God known to us. As we get to know Him more, we love Him more. The more we know and love Him, the more this journey becomes exciting and meaningful.
According to the Qur’anic paradigm, all beings in the universe are letters/signs (ayah). They are written/created to explain the meaning of God through their symbolic meaning. In other words, all beings make known the Attributes of the Creator. With sickness and health, we come to know the Healer. With hunger and food, we come to know the Sustainer. With afflictions, we come to know the Compassionate. With our wrong doings, we come to know the Forgiver. And with our weaknesses, we come to know the All-Powerful. When we look at everything around us from this perspective, life becomes an enjoyable and adventurous quest for the One. Everything and every occasion become special letters and gifts from Him whom we are created to know, love, and worship. Thus, reason and emotion are God-given tools to observe and reflect on the universe, and to witness the Revelations and His Divine Attributes manifested through His creation.
Science also investigates the creation and tries to outline how things happen. The Qur’anic view does not contradict science. In contrast, it perceives all natural sciences in congruence with their Divine purpose: as letters revealing the knowledge of God to teach us about our Creator.
On the other hand, materialist philosophy and positivist science looks at things as nominative and attributes power/will/intellect to each thing. As a result of this view, life becomes like a battle of the wolves, and the idea of the “survival of the fittest” is forced upon us. The Qur’an teaches us that nothing save God possesses any power whatsoever:
“If God touches you with affliction, there is none who can remove it but He; and if He wills any good for you, then there is none who can hold back His bounty. He causes it to reach whomever He wills of His servants. He is the All-Forgiving, the All-Compassionate” (Qur’an, 10:107).
Hence the Qur’anic view does not contradict pure science seeking to understand the manner/order in which things occur. In contrast, the Qur’an perceives all natural sciences in congruence with their Divine purpose: as letters revealing the knowledge of God to teach us about our Creator. However, the Qur’anic view contradicts the materialist philosophy and positivist science that attributes the qualities of the matter it observes to the things themselves (e.g. the leaf itself is doing the photosynthesis). In many ways, the Qur’an is the expounder of the universe. Furthermore, the universe itself is regarded as the embodiment of the Qur’an by expressing the Qur’anic paradigm in a physical form. Since both are written/created by the same author, there is no contradiction between physical and Qur’anic laws. Thus, when we reflect on the universe from this perspective, everything from a tiny ant to a distant twinkling star helps us to know and love God, and to understand the reality and purpose of the universe and human beings. The proof for Divine existence and unity, prophets, revelations, existence of angels, and resurrection is logically deduced from observing the universe. Thankfully, these are not abstract facts divorced from life and reality that we have to believe blindly.
It is important to clarify the meaning of worship and prescribed rituals in Islam. Worship does not mean to constantly pray or be in a mosque or church. To the contrary, most worship in Islam is done while we live our lives. Worship entails being God-conscious in our daily lives. Thus, everything (including eating, sleeping, walking, working, studying, doing sports, and even marital relations) is considered worship if done for God’s sake and within the limits He prescribed. For instance, if we eat reflecting on God and enjoying His bounties, growing in thankfulness, and praying to strengthen our bodies to do good deeds, then the act of eating becomes worship. On the contrary, if we eat only out of animalistic need and desire and think that the money we earned secured us the food, then we act in disbelief: that is, we lose the opportunity to know and worship our Creator. This is only one example illustrating that there is no separation of life and religion in the path of submission.
God prescribed certain types of worship to remind us of our Creator and our purpose in life as well as to discipline our egos. For example, Muslims pray in a prescribed form five times a day. Each prayer takes about five to ten minutes, and they are scattered throughout the day to keep our concentration on God without being swayed by worldly life. By maintaining a God-conscious state we can transform our daily routine into continuous worship. Thus, for conscious submitters, five times daily prayers are the most joyful moments of the day to restate our thankfulness. It is an opportunity to transcend time and all other boundaries and just concentrate on Him, in our struggle to purify our hearts. Declaring again and again that we worship Him and ask help from Him alone, we find strength to continue our lives in a more meaningful way.
 Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age. She is an associate professor at Rollins College, FL and teaches courses on Islam and Muslims in the West.