Sunday, October 12, 2008

Islam: A Primer

I think my favorite part of being in Turkey is the interaction with the Islam faith. It shares a large part of its history with Judaism and Christianity. It is also very interesting to see the millions of small ways that the majority religion influences culture over time. They believe that God (Allah) created the world and that Adam (Adem), Noah (Nuh), Abraham (Ibrahim), Moses (Musa) and Jesus (Isa) were prophets, although they don’t believe that Jesus was divine. Interestingly they consider the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to be polytheism. They believe that they are the perfection of the two “earlier” religions. The two earlier ones became corrupted by bad interpretations of the Book and human systems. The last and greatest prophet (Mohammed) was from the 7th century and was trusted with Allah’s final revelation. The word Muslim means “one who has submitted to Allah’s will.” Muslims do not worship Mohammed, only Allah. The call from the minaret five times a day (called ezan) says “Allah is great! There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet.”

All the revelations of Mohammed are recorded in the Quran (Koran). Interestingly, since the record is in Arabic, any translation of the Quran into another language is not considered “the Quran” because of the follies they perceived among the Jewish and Christian communities related to various translations and interpretations of Scripture.

The five pillars of Islam are:

1. Say and believe, “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet.”

2. Pray five times a day

3. Give alms to the poor

4. Keep the fast of Ramazan

5. Make a pilgrimage to Mecca

I have to say, when I look at all I’ve just written, there is not a lot that I think I argue with. I’m not really familiar with Mohammed’s teachings, so I may be demonstrating a lot of ignorance…but the idea of affirming belief in God, praying frequently, giving generously, practicing spiritual disciplines personally and communally and making a journey to focus your spiritual life…those seem like pretty good things.

I have enjoyed the communal aspect of Islam that I have witnessed. The combination of the ezan being called 5 times a day and watching people use it as a cue to find a moment to pray…and being here during Ramazan and the festival celebrating the end of Ramazan (Bayram) have given me a lot to watch.

It is especially strange to be visiting a country during the national holiday time. Imagine visiting New York City during Christmastime. The holiday, the dominant faith and the festive spirit are all evident in many small ways everywhere you look. The government gives everyone the entire week off (and of course the two weekends on either end), so it is a 9 day holiday with the vast majority of things closed (banks, post office, many shops, etc.). Transportation is jammed and workers are frazzled…but I think it has been really fun to be in the midst of it.

The devotion of the people has been impressive. The country is 98% Muslim or something close to that and I don’t know what percentage of people are culturally or ethnically Muslim as opposed to devoutly, religiously Muslim. But, it seems that even those that are just culturally Muslim have some participation in the faith. For instance, during the days of Ramazan, nothing is to touch your lips from sun-up to sun-down. (Including food, drinks and cigarettes). When we were walking one evening we were struck by the huge percentage of people in Istanbul (large, metropolitan city…I’m guessing less devout that the countryside) that were smoking. We realized it is because nobody smokes during the daytime when it is Ramazan. Granted, it may be for social pressure reasons rather than religious…but it was still very noticeable. I almost felt a little left out not fasting.

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