Search Our Site

Find an Author, Find a Book:

Chapter 1: An Overview of Issues

Islam for the Western Mind: Understanding Muhammad and the Koran
Richard Henry Drummond

I begin this treatment of the issues leading to proper understanding of Islam with a quotation from the American heartland. Leighton Ford was a long-time associate of Billy Graham in various Christian evangelistic ministries. He may properly be called a conservative evangelical Protestant, of moderate and irenic stance (that is, concerned with securing Christian unity), and, with Billy Graham himself, may be classified as a person of the highest integrity within this tradition of Christian faith and practice.

In these days of very great concern for the events and persons of the Middle East, Leighton Ford was trying to build bridges of understanding, especially among his own constituency of supporters. He writes, in the modest report-periodical regularly sent out to these supporters, as follows:

In truth, we who follow Christ have more than we realize in common with Muslims and Jews. Our faiths were born in the Middle East. We all believe in one God. And . . . we all look to Abraham as one of our great spiritual ancestors. Not only is Abraham the father of believers, in the New Testament he is strikingly called "the friend of God" (James 2:23). So far, so good. But then Leighton Ford goes on to do what many in Western lands have long been accustomed to do, move into a kind of "put-down" of Islam based on incorrect information. Ford continues:

Few Muslims, however, would call themselves God's "friends." For the Muslim Allah is totally apart from sinful humans. In contrast, the God of the Bible is not remote but one who has drawn near.Are these latter statements correct? Not entirely, not even for the Bible. We must remind ourselves that the Bible itself is by no means a seamless robe of monochromatic sameness in moral and spiritual content or tone. Taken as a whole, the Bible shows us images of God our Creator, now near, now far. So does the Koran, the Holy Book of Islamic faith.

Now, the content of the Koran, its nuances of style, and its religious emphases are both similar and dissimilar to those of the Bible. It is not easy to make comparative statements about these two great collections of religious faith and affirmation. But in the tenth chapter, or surah, of the Koran, significantly entitled "Jonah," we find a striking affirmation that believers--not just Muslims in the historical sense but apparently all authentic believers in one God--are friends of God:

Surely God's friends?no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow. Those who believe, and are godfearing--for them is good tidings in the present life and in the world to come (K 10:64?65).

The Koran is an exceedingly practical book, vitally concerned from its earliest materials with the whole life of humans in this world. It puts that life, however, in a transcendent setting and makes its primary orientation the fact of God, the Creator, the Merciful, the Compassionate, and of the reality of the unseen world. We may even note at this point that, for all the Koranic emphasis on the unity and uniqueness of God (called by the ancient Arabic word for "God," Allah), it portrays an unseen world replete with angels and archangels, with jinn, shaytan, and other spirits, not to mention the spirits of humans after physical death on earth. For Muhammad, the spiritual world was richly peopled and was, like the world on the plane of human history, under the lordly control and providential disposition of the Maker of all, the Lord of the Worlds.

The Koran, however, is also concerned with aspects of intimate personal religion. We find many verses that express a vivid sense of the presence of God. These verses seem to have had central meaning for Muhammad himself in his personal life as a religious man and in his public role as God's Messenger and Prophet. God is indeed cited as "the Protector of the believers" (K 2:258). But a verse that is frequently recited by devout Muslims is the famous pronouncement: "We [Allah] indeed created man: and we know what his soul whispers within him, and we are nearer to him than the jugular vein" (K 50:15).We are reminded of Alfred Tennyson: "Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet." Another Koranic verse of similar import is "He [Allah] is with you wherever you are" (K 57:4).

But the text that has appealed to devout Muslims in a special way, to those in particular who may be classed as participating in that great stream of Muslim spirituality known as the Sufi movement, is the Koranic verse that reveals God's great goal to bring forth "a people He loves and who love Him" (K 5:59).

Admittedly, the Koranic term (hubb, or the mahabbah of the Sufis) that is commonly translated into English as the word "love" is not totally consonant with the nuances of meaning of the New Testament terms for love (agape, philia). It often seems to emphasize approval from God's side and, from the human side, is more akin to "adoration" (ibadah). As Frithjof Schuon has put it, the essential virtues of the ideal Muslim life of faith are rooted in a blending of fear, love, and knowledge of God. Indeed, Islam itself claims to be a "manifestation of truth, of beauty and of power." But Islam is more than the religion of the Absolute, and the Koran teaches more than obedience to the will of God. It teaches not only submission to what may at first appear as an infinitely distant God, or sheerly overwhelming Power, but also commitment to the goodness of God and a return for refuge to "God within us, at the deepest level of our heart," one who is "infinitely near."

It is important to realize that the previous is not representative merely of a small elite in the course of the history of Islam. As Bishop Kenneth Cragg, the noted British specialist in Islamic studies, reminds us, "Sufism . . . has often been the major element in the religious history and the popular experience of Islam. It served over long centuries to interiorize the terms of Islamic dogma." And Louis Massignon, the distinguished Roman Catholic scholar who devoted 55 years to the study of Muslim spirituality, said that "Muslim theology was essentially a mystical structure deriving from the Koran itself as the primary source of its development." Influences from pre-Islamic Persian Zoroastrianism and Eastern Christian monasticism probably played significant roles in the development of historic Sufism, but powerful elements of religious interiority lie within the Koran itself--and in the life of Muhammad.

This also means that the more obvious aspects of the Koran and of the Prophet's public ministry, especially in his last ten years in Medina?aspects that Kenneth Cragg denotes as "dogmatism, autocracy, power"--are by no means the whole story of either the Book or the career. It is indeed remarkable and historically very significant that what Cragg calls "a system so instinctively authoritarian and absolutist as Islam, and so essentially confident about political sanctions in religion," should bear within it this stream of religious interiority and vitality that seems to give inner--and at times also outer--freedom for believers to find their own way in human life, against theologians, however dogmatic, and against rulers, however autocratic. The ultimate quest of Islamic faith and piety may well be to "seek the face of God," a quest wherein relationship with God is properly, indeed inseparably, associated with compassionate conduct toward and sharing materially with fellow humans (K 2:272; 13:22; 92:20).

We see, therefore, that Leighton Ford, who wants to be fair and to build bridges, is only partly right. He is also partly wrong. For today, and over long centuries, the spiritual way (tariqah) of innumerable Muslims has taught that God is very near, and in close communion with his "friends" (wali), as indeed the Sufi like to characterize themselves. ...

Back to Islam for the Western Mind