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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
Who have been the key people in the development of the religion?
by John Kaltner

No individual has had more influence on Islam than the Prophet Muhammad. He is considered to be the perfect Muslim who fully submitted himself to the divine will and put into practice the message of the revelation he was privileged to receive. He is therefore held up as a model of faith upon whose example all subsequent Muslims should base their lives. Once Muhammad died the prophetic model was no longer a living presence among them, and his passing led to the development of an important body of prophetic traditions.

Non-Muslims often assume that the Qur’an serves as a useful record of Muhammad’s life that Muslims can consult, but that is not the case. The Qur’an is not about Muhammad at all and, in fact, his name is found only four times in the text, which contains more than six thousand verses. Instead, Muslims have had to rely on reports of what Muhammad said and did in order to gain detailed information about the Prophet’s life.

These reports, called hadith, began to circulate soon after Muhammad’s death, and were eventually gathered together into collections that covered a wide range of topics, including everything from how to pray properly to the most intimate matters of personal hygiene. The hadith have been very influential in Islamic law and personal piety, and they give us a good sense of the central role Muhammad has played in the life of his community.

The most important sources for the hadith were those people who knew the Prophet personally and were therefore in the best position to be familiar with the private details of his life. In fact, the reliability of a given report is based on the identities and reputations of the individuals in the chain of transmission that is an essential part of every hadith.

Several groups have been singled out for special recognition in this regard, particularly the “companions of the Prophet” because they knew him well and associated with him on a regular basis. Similarly, Muhammad’s wives, especially Khadijah and Aisha, were able to provide a great deal of information about his home life, and therefore many hadith are traced through them. His wives are so highly regarded within the community that they are often given the title “mothers of the faithful.”

Among the other individuals who have played a key role in the development of Islam are the various caliphs and other political leaders who have held positions of authority. Within this group, the “four rightly guided caliphs,” who governed immediately after Muhammad, were particularly influential in guiding and shaping the early expansion of the faith: Abu Bakr (ruled 632-34), Umar (634-44), Uthman (644-56), and Ali (656-61). Another set of four individuals who had a tremendous impact on theology and social interaction were the founders of the Islamic legal schools: Abu Hanifah (d.767), Malik ibn Anas (d.795), Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi`i (d.819), and Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d.855). Each of them helped to organize and formalize a legal system that continues to play an influential role in Muslim life into the present day.

Several medieval figures were very prominent theologians and intellectuals whose influence sometimes extended beyond the Islamic world. Ibn Sina (980-1037), known as Avicenna in the West, was a brilliant philosopher and physician whose medical textbook was a standard reference work in Europe for centuries. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was one of the great minds of the medieval world who made significant contributions in the fields of law, theology, philosophy, and mysticism. Ibn Rushd (1126-98), or Averroes, was a Spanish Muslim who wrote extensive commentaries on Aristotle, and it was through Latin translations of his work that Greek philosophy was reintroduced to the West after a long period of absence.

In the modern period several thinkers have been very influential in determining the role of Islam in the world. Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) was an Indian philosopher who was instrumental in the creation of Pakistan. He thought it was vitally important that the strong intellectual tradition within Islam be recovered so that Muslims would be able to address the many issues they need to confront in a world dominated by western non-Muslim powers.

Another reformer was the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), who was one of the early pioneers of Islamic nationalism and modernism. In particular he called for a return to a more pristine form of Islam that would be able to respond to some of the social and cultural problems of his time. He was especially interested in issues related to education and improving the place of women in society.

A final figure whose influence has been felt in more recent years is Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), an Egyptian who was an outspoken critic of the West and Muslim countries that became too closely allied with the West. He was eventually executed for his views, but he is considered to be the main ideologue and inspiration behind present day extremist groups like al-Qaeda.

Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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