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Basic Characteristics of Islam

George Bernard Shaw is reported to have said:

"I have always held the religion of Muhammad in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality. It is the only religion which appears to me to possess that assimilating capacity to the changing phases of existence which can make itself appeal to every age. I have studied him - the wonderful man - and in my opinion far from being an Antichrist, he must be called the Savior of Humanity. I believe that if a man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world, he would succeed in solving its problems in a way that would bring it much needed peace and happiness. I have prophesied about the faith of Muhammad that it would be acceptable to the Europe of tomorrow as it is beginning to be acceptable to the Europe of today."

The question is, what are those characteristics of Islam which have won millions of followers to the Faith in the past and which make it so appealing to the modern age? Some of the major characteristics of Islam are given in the following pages.

Simplicity, Rationality and Practicality. Islam is a religion without any mythology. Its teachings are simple and intelligible. It is free from superstitions and irrational beliefs. The oneness of God, the prophet hood of Muhammad, and the concept of life after death are the basic articles of its faith. They are based on reason and sound logic. All of the teachings of Islam flow from those basic beliefs and are simple and straightforward. There is no hierarchy of priests, no farfetched abstractions, no complicated rites and rituals. Everybody may approach the Qur'an directly and translate its dictates into practice. Islam awakens in man the faculty of reason and exhorts him to use his intellect. It enjoins him to see things in the light of reality. The Qur'an advises him to pray: O, my Lord! Advance me in knowledge (20:1 14). It asserts that those who have no knowledge are not equal to those who have (39:9), that those who do not observe and understand are worse than cattle (7:179), that the meanings of revelation become manifest to those who have knowledge (6:97) and who have understanding (6:98), that whosoever has been given knowledge indeed has been given an abundant good (2:269), that the basic qualifications for leadership are, among other things, knowledge and physical strength (2:247), and that of all things it is by virtue of knowledge that man is superior to angels and has been made vicegerent of God on earth (2:30).

The Prophet of Islam said: "He who leaves his home in search of knowledge walks in the path of God" (Tirmidhi and Darimi) and "To seek knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim" (Ibn Majah and Bayhaqi). This is how Islam brings man out of the world of superstition and darkness and initiates him into the world of knowledge and light.

Again, Islam is a practical religion and does not allow indulgence in empty and futile theorizing. It says that faith is not a mere profession of beliefs, but rather that it is the very mainspring of life. Righteous conduct must follow belief in God. Religion is something to be practiced and not an object of mere lip-service. The Qur'an says:

Those who believe and act righteously, joy is for them, and a blissful home to return to. (13: 29)

And the Prophet Muhammad said:

"God does not accept belief if it is not expressed in deeds, and does not accept deeds if they do not conform to belief." (Tabarani)

Thus Islam is a simple, rational and practical religion.

Unity of Matter and Spirit. A unique feature of Islam is that it does not divide life into watertight compartments of matter and spirit. It stands not for denial of life but for the fulfillment of life. Islam does not believe in asceticism. It does not ask man to avoid material things. It holds that spiritual elevation is to be achieved by living piously in the rough and tumble of life, not by renouncing the world. The Qur'an advises us to pray as follows:

"Our Lord! Give us something fine in this world as well as something fine in the Hereafter." (2:201)

God strongly censures those who refuse to benefit from His blessings. The Qur'an says:

Say: "Who has forbidden God's finery which He has produced for His servants and the wholesome things from (His) provision?" (7:32)

Islam's injunction is:

Eat and drink, but do not be extravagant. (7:31)

The Prophet said:

"A Muslim who lives in the midst of society and bears with patience the afflictions that come to him is better than the one who shuns society and cannot bear any wrong done to him."

And:

"Keep fast and break it (at the proper time) and stand in prayer and devotion (in the night) and have sleep - for your body has its rights over you, and your eyes rights over you, and your wife has a claim upon you, and the person who pays a visit to you has a claim upon you."

On another occasion he said:

"These three things are also enjoined upon the faithful: (a) to help others, even when one is economically hard-pressed, (b) to pray ardently for the peace of all mankind, and (c) to administer justice to one's own self."

Thus Islam does not admit any separation between "material" and "moral," "mundane" and "spiritual" life, and enjoins man to devote all of his energies to the reconstruction of life on healthy moral foundations. It teaches him that moral and material powers must be welded together and that spiritual salvation can be achieved by using material resources for the good of man in the service of just ends and not by living a life of asceticism or by running away from the challenges of life.

The world has suffered at the hands of the one-sidedness of many other religions and ideologies. Some have laid emphasis on the spiritual side of life but have ignored its material and mundane aspects. They have looked upon the world as an illusion, a deception, and a trap. On the other hand, materialistic ideologies have totally ignored the spiritual and moral side of life and have dismissed it as fictitious and imaginary. Both of these attitudes have resulted in disaster, for they have robbed mankind of peace, contentment, and tranquillity. Even today, the imbalance is manifested in one or the other direction. The French scientist Dr. De Brogbi rightly says: "The danger inherent in too intense a material civilization is to that civilization itself; it is the disequilibrium which would result if a parallel development, of the spiritual life were to fail to provide the needed balance."

Christianity erred on one extreme, whereas modern western civilization, in both of its variants of secular capitalistic democracy and Marxist socialism, has erred on the other. According to Lord Snell:

"We have built a nobly-proportioned outer structure, but we have neglected the essential requirement of an inner order; we have carefully designed, decorated and made clean the outside of the cup; but the inside was full of extortion and excess; we used our increased knowledge and power to administer to the comforts of the body, but we left the spirit impoverished ."

Islam seeks to establish an