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Archive for the ‘Islam’ Category

burka

burkaThe burka – or burqa as some write it – is the head-to-toe covering that some Muslim women wear over their clothes when they go out in public. Sometimes all you can see is their eyes, but sometimes even their eyes are covered (with a netting that they can see through).

Burkas are mostly seen in Afghanistan and South Asia – Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. In India only one Muslim woman in 20 might wear it; in Afghanistan under the Taliban all women were forced to wear it. In Pakistan it used to be quite common, but it has been dying out, especially in the big cities.

Even though some will argue it is not in the Koran, in most of the Muslim world hijab, or modest dress, is understood to be a religious duty or virtue for women (and, to a lesser degree, for men).

The form that hijab takes is different from place to place. The burka is the most extreme form.

In Iran women wear a chador, which covers everything but their face, hands and feet. In some Arab countries women wear the abaya which does the same thing. In other places, like Turkey, women wear just a headscarf. And some Muslim women dress in a completely Western fashion, though with more of their body covered than Western women.

Burkas, abayas and chadors are just for going out in public. They are something women wear over their clothes. When they are at home they take them off and you find out that they are not dressed quite so plainly. When Neda died during the election protests in Iran in 2009, for example, we found out that under her chador she was wearing  blue jeans!

Governments sometimes force women to follow hijab, like the Taliban or Iran under Islamic rule. Yet others  have forced women to do the opposite, like Iran under the shah.

In France it has been against the law to wear a burka to public school since 2004. And now they want to go even further and outlaw it altogether. In 2009 President Sarkozy said:

The issue of the burka is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity. The burka is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory… I tell you, we must not be ashamed of our values, we must not be afraid of defending them.

This only makes sense to me as a piece of xenophobia: Muslims make him feel uncomfortable.

For many Muslim women it is in fact a matter of religion. And keeping themselves covered up from the eyes of men is a matter of dignity. Even in the West, modest dress was seen as part of a woman’s dignity until the 1900s.

Your religion – or even a lack of religion – is part of who you are. To be told you cannot express it when you are hurting no one goes against one’s freedom and dignity.

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khan

Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan (1987-2007), an American soldier. Colin Powell said it well:

Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That’s not America. Is there something wrong with a seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion that [Obama] is a Muslim and might have an association with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel particularly strong about this because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay, was of a mother at Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone, and it gave his awards – Purple Heart, Bronze Star – showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death, he was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the head stone, it didn’t have a Christian cross. It didn’t have a Star of David. It has a crescent and star of the Islamic faith.

And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he could serve his country and he gave his life.

– Colin Powell

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God

The God of Abraham (by -1363) is worshipped by half of mankind: he is the god of the Jews, Christians and Muslims; he is the god of the Bible and the Koran.

He first appears in Egyptian records by -1363 as YHW. He is also known as YHWH, Yahweh, Jehovah, Elah, Allah, the Lord, the Holy Trinity, God Almighty and the Demiurge. I will call him by his common English name, God.

Jews, Christians and Muslims say he is the only god, the one who created the world. Other gods are demons or made up.

God talks to us through prophets, angels, holy books and prayer. He tells us what is right and wrong. At the end of the world on Judgement Day he will judge us, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. He is beyond human thought and word.

Do Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same god? Historically, yes. Theologically, it depends who you ask.

Christians say that God has three Persons: he is one God yet somehow he is also God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. This is called the Holy Trinity. They see Jesus Christ as God made flesh.

Gnostics call him the Demiurge, which means Creator. But they mean that in a bad way: they see this world as a prison of matter that our spirits have fallen into. He is hardly God Almighty.

Even though he was the god of a people with an unhappy history, he has conquered the gods of the Roman Empire, the gods of the  Greek philosophers, the 360 gods of Mecca, the gods of the Aztecs and countless others.

Three things set him apart from other gods:

  1. Like a wife, he is jealous. He wants us to worship him alone. Even though he started out as a god of the Jews, a people who never built an empire, he says he is god of all men, of the whole universe! Other gods are happy being the god of rain or war or whatever and sharing men’s worship with other gods. Not this one.
  2. Like a hard father, he is severely moral. Unlike other gods he does not use his power to do whatever he wishes. He always acts justly and morally and demands the same of us. But with justice comes mercy:
  3. Like a friend, he listens to us and shows mercy. He is not some nameplate in the sky, he is the “living God”. He hears us and cares about us. But like a good father he will punish us out of love and yet pardon us when that is wisest.

Because he is so wise, he is often pictured as an old man with a long white beard, as Michelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel (pictured above). But of course he is beyond anything we can picture. Muslims and Jews and some Christians say it is wrong to even try to make a picture of him.

– Abagond, 2007, 2015.

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Muhammad

The Prophet Muhammad (570-632) was an Arab prophet who founded Islam, today the religion of a fifth of mankind. He wrote its holy book, the Koran. Islam says he is the Final Prophet and the Perfect Man, but he is in no way divine. He is the Paraclete promised by Jesus Christ in the Bible.

Unlike the founders of world religions, he fought battles and founded an empire. This has made Islam a very political religion.

He worked no miracles, but God spoke to him through the angel Gabriel. He wrote it all down word for word. That became the Koran. It is itself a miracle: no mere man could have written it. The Hadith has the sayings and deeds of Muhammad.

Islam says he is the Final Prophet and the Koran the perfect Word of God. The prophets that came before, like Noah, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and Jesus, had their prophecies put in the Bible. But the Bible has been corrupted by men who, for example, made Jesus into the Son of God.

So Islam is not so much a new religion, but religion purified. It is Christianity, for example, without the priests, holy bread or Jesus as one of three gods.

Yet Muhammad did keep some of the old Arab religion, like the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Muhammad was a businessman from Mecca. Every year during the month of Ramadan (then always in summer) he went to the mountain to pray and fast. In 610 the angel Gabriel began to speak to him. It sounded at first like ringing, but in time he heard the words. Gabriel spoke to him till his death. Gabriel’s words have become the Koran.

When Muhammad got back to Mecca he told people what happened and gathered followers. They became the first Muslims.

In those days Arabs fought each other in an endless this for that. Arabs were divided by bloodlines into tribes and worshipped many gods. The Muslims were something new: a community based not on kin but on faith. They seemed like strange sort of tribe.

The Muslims soon became a threat to Mecca and its old ways of tribes and gods. They had to leave. Their flight to Medina, in the following summer in 622 is called the Hegira. This began the Muslim calendar. In Medina they built the first mosque, where they could pray.

In Medina the Muslims attacked traders on the way to Mecca. This led to war, which Muhammad won. By 630 Muhammad ruled Mecca and Medina.

Because Muslims promised not to fight each other, the Muslim part of Arabia was a region of peace. This made it stronger than the rest of Arabia, which was divided and consumed by countless little wars. So in time all of Arabia became Muslim and by Muhammad’s death it was united into one country.

In the hundred years after his death, Arabs went on to conquer lands from Spain to India. It was the start of the Arab Empire and the Muslim world.

– Abagond, 2006.

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jihad

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Jihad is holy war as a religious duty for Muslims. In our time some use the word in a moral rather than a military sense. In Muslim law, where it gets a whole chapter, it is always used in a military sense.

A jihad is a war either against infidels (those who do not believe in Islam) or against apostates (Muslims who have fallen away from the true faith). Only rulers can call a jihad.

Those who fall in battle in a jihad go straight to paradise. They are called martyrs or shahids.

Jihad has certain rules. Among others:

  1. Women and children are not to be killed unless they attack first.
  2. Those not fighting in the war should be treated well.
  3. Rulers must honour agreements they make – jihad does not allow them to break their word.
  4. Enemies must be told that war is coming.

On the other hand, jihad is winner takes all: the winner has rights over the property and persons conquered.

The conquered are treated differently according to their religion:

  1. People of the book: these include Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and Mandeans – those who follow a revealed religion. They can either convert, pay a tax or die.
  2. Kafirs: those who worship gods, idols or spirits. They can either convert, become a slave or die.

So, for example, jihad does not justify 9/11: it killed thousands of unarmed men, women and children, some of them even Muslims. It was not called by any recognized ruler, it was hardly an attempt to extend Islam to America. It was merely a low, cowardly act. Thus the hijackers did not go to paradise but where they belong.

For the same reason it does not justify those who blow themselves up at bus stops since, again, they wind up killing old men, women and children.

In theory, jihad is unending until all the world falls under Muslim rule. In history, however, jihad does not go on all the time: only when and where it makes political and military sense to Muslim rulers.

In our time, the greatest jihad by far has been in the south of Sudan where countless Christians and others have died or been sold as slaves.

The most famous jihad of our time, however, is the one Osama bin Laden has declared against America. Not being a ruler or even a religious authority, his ability to do this is highly questionable. That has not stopped thousands from gathering to his black flag.

Sometimes jihad is between Muslims. For example, the Arabs under the Saudis fought a jihad against Turkish rule: the Turks were not Wahhabis like the Saudis, so the Saudis did not see them as true Muslims.

Christians have fought holy wars for their faith too. But unlike jihads, their aims were limited and falling in battle did not mean you would go to heaven. Popes and bishops have promised that only on occasion. It is not general doctrine as it is in Islam.

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Wahhabis

Wahhabis (sometimes spelled Wahabis) are the chief sect of Islam in Mecca and Medina and all of Saudi Arabia. It is a very pure, severe, black-and-white, by-the-letter-and-not-the-spirit sort of Islam. There are not many Wahhabis outside of Saudi Arabia, but it has rewritten the book on jihad and is backed by a lot of oil money. So it gets heard above the rest.

Famous Wahhabis include Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers. The Taliban are not Wahhabis, but very much like them. Wahhabis have such a bad name in Russia that almost any violent Muslim there is called a Wahhabi.

The Wahhabi sect, also known as Wahhabism, was founded by al-Wahhab in the 1700s. He converted the house of Saud, which by 1932 would come to rule all of Arabia. It became the state religion of Saudi Arabia.

Wahhabis do not think they belong to a sect: they are just Muslims. Other Muslims follow corrupted forms of Islam. They are not real Muslims. Sufis are the worst.

Wahhabis do not smoke or drink or wear silk. Women cannot drive cars. Men must go to public prayers. Men and especially women must dress a certain way. It is against their religion to give women equality.

This sort of outward obedience to the letter of the Koran and the hadith (the sayings of Muhammad) matters. Among the Wahhabis it marks you as a Muslim in good standing.

Rulers must make sure their subjects know and follow God’s law. That is the purpose of government.

Wahhabis hope to bring back the Caliphate, a holy empire ruled by piety and Muslim law.

Al-Wahhab brought back the idea of jihad, which in his day had fallen into disuse. He taught his followers to kill anyone who does not convert to his teachings – not just Christians and Jews, but even other Muslims! In Saudi Arabia 14-year-old boys are taught in school that Muslims and Jews will fight till the end of the world when the Muslims will win. Christians and Jews are their enemies.

When Al-Wahhab first came to Mecca he was shocked: people lived in luxury and followed a sort of Islam that that was one part Islam and two parts something else. God, it seemed, was not enough: people turned to dead saints and even stones and trees in addition to God.

Two things had corrupted Islam. First, many of the ignorant beliefs people had before the Prophet Muhammad’s time still lived on. Second, over the centuries new things were added to Islam, especially by the Sufis.

So al-Wahhab set about to purify Islam.

First, God is enough. God is God, after all. Next, through Muhammad God has taught us all we need to know to get through this life and into heaven: it is all written down in black and white in the Koran and the hadith. What more do you need? Al-Wahhab, however, did allow anything added in the first three generations: Muhammad said they would be pious. Everything else, however, had to go.

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Is Islam violent?

We have entered a violent period in Islam’s history. Through most of its history the Muslim world does not seem to have been markedly worse than the West. But over the last thirty years it has got much worse: the horrors now done in the name of Islam almost as a matter of course were rare even a generation ago.

In a simple sense “Islam is violent” is a statement that almost proves itself: Last week Robert Redeker, a philosopher and high school teacher in France, wrote an article stating that Islam is a violent religion. It appeared in Le Figaro, a Paris newspaper, and now as a result he is in hiding after receiving serious death threats.

The way things are going, “Is Islam violent?” will soon become one of those questions that no one discusses in public. Which is bad for Islam because what will wind up happening is that most Christians and Jews will silently believe that it is violent – why else are they being silenced on the subject? What, because it is so peaceful?

My original thought was to go through verses of the Koran for and against the idea of jihad. But that is beyond my depth. And it is probably besides the point. To take a parallel case: a close reading of the New Testament in the years before the Crusades would not have revealed to the inhabitants of Jerusalem that their streets would soon run with blood at the hands of Christians.

Four signs that we are entering one of the most violent periods of Muslim history:

  1. Christians, who have lived in the Middle East for centuries, even as far back as Roman times, are now leaving. It is because Muslims are making them feel that it is unsafe for them to remain. Something they did not feel in past centuries, it seems. That means it is getting worse than it has been in hundreds of years.
  2. The destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Again, they have been there for centuries. Even Tamerlane, for all his destruction, left them standing. But in our generation they have been destroyed. Another sign that it is a lot worse than it has been in centuries.
  3. The rise of suicide killers as something new in Islam.
  4. The Ring of Blood: if you look at where people are dying because of war or political violence, you will see that most of it happens along the line where the Muslim world meets the rest of the world: Iraq, Bosnia, Chechnya, Israel, Kashmir, Sulawesi, Nigeria, Sudan, Thailand and so on. Muslims make up only a fifth of mankind, so it is not a matter of chance. Nor was it true thirty years ago. Something new is happening.

Why has Islam become more violent? Because Iran, which supports a political form of Islam, and Saudi Arabia, which supports a severe form of it, have suddenly become very rich since the middle 1970s from oil money.

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Last week on September 12th pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at his old school, the University of Regensburg in Germany. It was about how reason without faith is a dead end and so theology has an important part to play in the West’s search for the truth.

One small part made news around the world:

Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.

These are not the pope’s own words: he is quoting Manuel II Paleologus, one of the last Byzantine rulers. The Muslim Turks at the time were taking over his country and destroying it.

The pope did not quote Manuel II as if he agreed with him. In fact he said he even found it surprising.

This led to protests all over the Muslim world and demands that the pope take back his words. Some boneheads have even threatened violence against Christians. So far one nun has been killed and seven churches have been attacked in Muslim lands. That will show the pope that Islam is not a violent religion!

On Sunday the pope did not take back his words but said he regretted that some took them the wrong way.

To be fair, the speech left it as an open question whether Islam is a violent religion. But it was not about that.

What the pope’s speech was really about:

Theology is not merely about why Christians or Muslims or Jews believe as they do. Rather it should be part of the West’s search for the truth, as it once was.

The marriage between Christianity and Greek philosophy was not a matter of chance but something God intended. It was a great step forward in mankind’s search for truth. But now the West has lost its way for two reasons:

  1. Protestants and others, in search of “pure” Christianity, have removed the Greek elements in Christian thought. They call them “accretions”: since they were not an original part of the Christian faith, they are not part of the pure and true faith. But this has only shrunken our understanding of Christianity.
  2. Science, while it has greatly increased our understanding of the world, at the very same time it has greatly shrunken our understanding of what truth is. It has come to be little more than whatever science can prove. But science, by its very nature, cannot prove anything about God or right and wrong. We are much the poorer for it.

Yet even science, in what it assumes about the world, points beyond itself. For example, it assumes that the reason built into our minds is the same reason the universe was built on. Why? How? It is not something evolution can answer without talking in circles. Only theology can answer that.

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Koran

The Koran (632) is the holy book of Islam. It was written by the Prophet Muhammad between 609 and 632. For Muslims it takes the place of the Jewish and Christian Bible. The Koran has everything God needs to tell us. Millions know the whole Koran by heart.

Muslims regard the Bible as the Word of God too, but one that has not been faithfully recorded: The Christian Bible, for example, makes Jesus into a god. Clearly a mistake.

In addition to the Koran Muslims also have the hadith, the sayings and doings of the Prophet. And, on top of this, Shia Muslims also have the words of the holy imams. The imams, however, do not teach anything new but only help us to understand the Prophet’s message.

The Koran, the hadith and, for Shiites, the imams, become the starting point for scholars to come up with a set of laws for Muslim society, the sharia. There are four chief schools of thought. The differences among them, however, are nothing like the differences found among Christians.

The Koran has 114 surahs or chapters. They are listed from longest to shortest, more or less, not by theme or any kind of timeline.

Every year Muhammad went to the mountain to pray. He started hearing a ringing sound. He had no idea what it was. In time he started to hear words in the ringing – it was the archangel Gabriel! He and his followers started writing down what the angel said on palm leaves and stones. These are God’s last words to man before Judgement Day.

The Koran was not put on paper into its present form till some years after the Prophet’s death.

Like the Bible, the Koran has God, Satan, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jesus, Mary and so on. It has angels, heaven and hell and Judgement Day. It shares a common view of the world with the Bible.

The Koran does not always have the same take on events however. For example, it sees the law of Moses as something only for Jews, meant partly for their punishment. Jesus is not the Son of God but a great prophet only. He was sent because the Jews did not understand Moses. Mary gave birth to him as a virgin and he was nailed to the cross, but he only seemed to die.

The Koran has many stories about prophets: the prophet receives the word of God, warns his countrymen, they do not listen and then the prophet’s warnings come true. Noah is a perfect example of this in both the Koran and the Bible.

The Koran was written in Arabic, in language that is very beautiful and easy to remember. It has been put into other languages, but many think that is wrong. The beauty of the Koran and the way it fits together can only be seen in Arabic.

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Sufis

The Sufis are Muslim mystics. While most Muslims are content to simply do God’s will and one day go to heaven, Sufis want to experience God directly here and now on earth. They do this by joining one of the Sufi orders and learning its practices, following its way to God.

The Sufis are not a separate branch of Islam but those who have chosen a deeper way to practice their faith.

Sufis are sometimes called fakirs or dervishes in English. Both these words mean “the poor” – fakir is Arabic and dervish is Persian. This comes from their practice of poverty.

Sufis first appeared in the 800s. There were few then: some Sufi masters and their followers. In the 1200s came the golden age with the rise of Sufi orders, which brought Sufi practices to the masses.

Some of what Sufis say and do is questionable in the eyes of ordinary Muslims, like their use of music and dance, visiting the tombs of saints, tending to see God and the world as one and comparing the love for God to the love between a man and a woman. The Wahhabis, especially, take a dim view of all this.

Yet Sufis have done a great deal of good for the Muslim world: they spread Islam to West Africa and India, kept Islam from becoming dead and meaningless for many, giving them a deeper understanding of the faith.

Many of the great poets of the Muslim world were Sufis. Despite all the thick books Sufis have written about God, their ideas have spread throughout the Muslim world more by verse than prose.

Sufi poets love to write about wine, women, roses, birds, light and love. These are images for their experience of God. For example, black hair across a beautiful women’s face is like how the material world hides God from us.

While Sufis might live apart from the world when they receive their training, afterwards they return to their daily life and go to services from time to time. It takes years of Sufi practice to experience God. For most it is a long, hard road.

Sufis seek to love and become one with God.

To do this they follow certain practices. Though not the same for all Sufis, here are some of their practices:

  • Observe Islam just as any good Muslim would. This is step one.
  • Learn to control one’s lower soul (the black dog) by not giving into its desires for small pleasures.
  • Poverty
  • Trust in God completely to provide.
  • Suffer for God.
  • Love the troubles that God sends into one’s life.
  • Repeat the same prayer or name for God over and over.
  • Music, certain dances, hearing poetry, even drinking coffee.
  • Follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad, the perfect man.

The aim of all this is to lose one’s will in God’s – only God has the right to say “I” – to lose one’s sense of self and go beyond it. Those who can do this will experience God.

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Qom

Qom or Kum (sounds like “come”) is the religious capital of Iran and one of the holy cities of Shia Islam. After Najaf in Iraq, it is the greatest seat of learning in the Shia Muslim world. These days Qom is much richer and safer than Najaf. It is a place to go if you want to study to become a mullah or an ayatollah. Ayatollah Khomeini once lived and taught there.

Many of the top people who run Iran and Hezbollah studied in Qom.

In Qom there are several universities and dozens of religious schools (madrasas). There you can wear robes and study the Koran, the hadith, Islamic law, theology, philosophy and logic. Its teaching of philosophy is very thorough. It takes 20-30 years of study to become an ayatollah, at least six for a mullah.

Qom has been a centre of Shia learning since at least the 1500s.

Qom is an hour south by car from Tehran on the road to Isfahan. It stands at the edge of the Great Salt Desert.

Qom is also a place where ten kings and 400 saints have been laid to rest in beautiful buildings from another time.

The most famous of the dead is Fatima the Pure who died in Qom in 816. She was the sister of the eighth imam and has made Qom into a place of pilgrimage. Her body now lies beneath a gold dome.

Outside of Qom is a well. People drop messages in it for al-Mahdi to read. No one knows where he is, but they say that at the end of the world, al-Mahdi will come up out of the well and bring justice and Islam to the whole world.

If you go to Qom you will have to dress so that your arms and legs and everything in between are covered. Women must cover their hair. It is a strict Muslim town.

In addition to religious education, Qom also has centres for computer science and medicine. It is one of the two places in Iran that tests long-range missiles.

Qom is not just a town of schools and beautiful buildings. It also has industry. Oil has been discovered in the area, but it is not high quality.

Qom has been destroyed several times over in its history: by the Mongols in the 1200s, by Tamerlane in the 1300s and the Afghans in 1700s.

A town has stood there since ancient times. Qom first became an important city under the Arab empire. The Arabs planted their armies at the edge of the desert. This made Qom the perfect place to station their army in Iran. In fact, “Qom” with a “Q” is the Arab spelling of the town’s name.

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Muhammad al-Mahdi

Muhammad al-Mahdi (868- ) is the twelfth imam of the main Twelver branch of Shia Islam. He is also known as the Hidden Imam. He is the messiah of Shia Islam. At the end of time, when God will bring him out of hiding, al-Mahdi will spread Islam to the east and to the west and rule the world with justice, just as Muhammad had promised long ago.

Although he was born over a thousand years ago, Shiites say that al-Mahdi is still alive, living among us. No one knows who he is because God has been hiding him. God has kept him alive and young looking. Some say that each believer will see al-Mahdi at least once in his life before he dies though he will not know it is him.

He was last seen at the age of four or five when his father, the eleventh imam, was laid to rest. For 70 years he talked to believers through four trusted middle men. Since then he has been silent.

Al-Mahdi is from Samarra, Iraq, north of Baghdad, where he still has a house. His father’s mosque is there too, but it was partly destroyed by Sunnis in 2006 in the violence there.

How do we know all this about al-Mahdi? It is pieced together from the sayings of Muhammad and the imams that came after him. Unlike the Shiites, the Sunnis do not follow the imams and their set of Muhammad’s sayings (the hadith) is not quite the same as what the Shiites have. But even the Sunnis believe that a man known as the Mahdi will come at the end of time and bring justice to the world. They just do not believe in hidden imams or that that a man born in 868 is still alive and will become the Mahdi.

As you can imagine, many have claimed to be the Mahdi. There have been at least nine so far. One fought the British in the 1880s and set up an empire in Sudan.

After al-Mahdi comes out of hiding, Jesus will come back and “pray behind him”. Jesus will defeat the Antichrist and then settle down, get married, have children and live out his life. There is a grave being saved for him in Medina right next to Muhammad’s.

When will al-Mahdi come out of hiding? It is up to God. There are certain signs to watch for, however.

Of these signs, the most noticeable concerns a man called Sufiani, who will become al-Mahdi’s great enemy. Just as al-Mahdi comes from the bloodline of Muhammad, so Sufiani will come from the line of Muhammad’s enemies. He will arise in Palestine and take over all the countries in north Africa and the Levant. Then his army will march on Medina and Mecca. By that time al-Mahdi will be in Mecca.

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Shia Islam

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Shia Islam is the lesser of the two main branches of Islam. Its followers are called Shiites and account for one Muslim in seven, the rest being Sunnis.

Shiites live in Iran and nearby countries. Most Muslims who live in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Oman and Azerbaijan are Shiites. Hezbollah is Shiite.

Shiites are led by religious scholars, known as mullahs in Iran and sheiks in the Arab world. The highest of these are called ayatollahs. They receive the taxes that believers pay (one fifth of profits).

Their holiest city, after Mecca and Jerusalem, is Najaf in Iraq. The golden mosque of Ali, the first imam, is there. Najaf and Qom in Iran have the top religious schools.

Iran was not always the centre of the Shia world. It was once Egypt, which is now mainly Sunni. Iran did not become Shia till about 500 years ago.

Like Sunnis, Shiites follow Muhammad and his book, the Koran.

Unlike Sunnis they also follow the imams who came after Muhammad. Imam can mean the one who leads prayers in the mosque, but in this sense it means those who lead and guide the whole Muslim world. The Shiites say an imam must be a direct blood relation of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali, the first imam. Their teachings are without error.

Because even Ali’s part of the family tree has many branches, Shiites are split three ways – Ismailis, Zaydis and Twelvers – about which is the true branch and how many imams they accept.

Nine Shiites in ten are Twelvers. They are called Twelvers because they accept twelve imams. They stop at twelve because the twelfth one, al-Mahdi, the Hidden Imam is still alive. God has kept him alive and hidden among us for over a thousand years. Before the world ends, al-Mahdi will come out of hiding at the right moment and bring Islam and justice to the whole world, as Muhammad had promised long ago.

Only one imam has ever ruled the Muslim world: the first one, Ali. Ali was murdered and Muhammad’s enemies took over. Hussein, Ali’s son, Muhammad’s grandson and the third imam, tried to set things right. He was defeated and killed at the battle of Karbala in 680. Shiites still remember this terrible day and mark it each year on a day called Ashoura: it is the day the world went wrong, when the forces of darkness took over.

The religious divide between Shiites and Sunnis is not deep. In the mixed cities of Baghdad and Beirut they even get married. The Wahhabis along with other extreme Sunnis play up the differences to create trouble for their own ends. They are the ones who have been bombing the mosques of the imams to pitch Iraq into a civil war.

The Alawis and Druze of Lebanon and Syria are not Shiites, but have Ismaili Shia roots. The Alawis believe that Ali was God on earth, which means they are not even Muslims.

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Islam

shahadah-a.jpgIslam (611- ) is the main religion in north Africa, south-west Asia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. Its believers, called Muslims, make up one fifth of mankind, second only to Christianity.

Muslims believe in the same God as the Jews and Christians, but where the Jews follow Moses and the Christians follow Jesus Christ, Muslims follow Muhammad, an Arab prophet from Mecca who lived in the 600s. Their holy book is the Koran.

The two main branches of Islam are Sunni and Shia. Nine Muslims in ten are Sunnis. Shia Islam is common in Iran and nearby countries.

Muslims do not believe that Muhammad was divine, but simply the last prophet of God before Judgement Day.

Moses and Jesus were holy prophets too, but their message, as it appears in Jewish and Christian scripture, was not faithfully recorded. Jesus, for example, was made into the Son of God by his followers when he was merely a prophet, a man.

Muslims have the same general view of the world as Christians and Jews: God created the word, Adam was the a first man, God warns us to change our ways by sending prophets, he lays down what we must do in his Holy Book and, on the last day, Judgement Day, he will judge us all: the good will go to heaven to be with God, the evil will go to hell to be with Satan. They believe in angels and honour Mary.

Where Christians put great stock in right belief, believing the right thing, and so have a history torn apart by heresies, Muslims, like Jews, put more stock in right practice, doing the right thing.

To be a good Muslim you must do five things:

  1. Believe that “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Prophet of God.” Allah is Arabic for “the God” (al-Lah).
  2. Give one part in 40 of your income and wealth to the poor and to teach Islam.
  3. Pray five times a day. The prayer is in Arabic, but you can add your own personal prayers in your own language. You pray facing Mecca, the holy city, at sunrise, noon, the middle of the afternoon, sunset and nightfall.
  4. Fast during the ninth month, Ramadan. This means no food, no drink and no sex when the sun is up. If you are sick, travelling or will soon give birth, you can put it off to another month when you are able.
  5. Make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your life if you can. Go in the twelfth month. There are certain events to take part in when you get there. Everyone wears simple, white clothes. Two million do it every year.

If you do these five things then you can, for example, believe that Muhammad is Plato for the masses and still be a Muslim in good standing. That is how important these five things are.

– Abagond, 2006.

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