Islam among Religions
Today Islam beside Christianity and Buddhism is a major religion in the world. Islam has some similarities and differences with other great religions. In this article I want to take a look at Islam in comparison with other religions. It should be noted that although Islam has a great emphasis on its revelation, it is treated as a human process here. This procedure allows the comparative study of Islam as a great religion among other great ones, namely Buddhism, Zoroastrianism & Christianity.
First of all, Islam should be viewed as a reformist movement in Arab society and an effort for constructing an Arabic civilization. There were a few people among Arabs who had acquaintance with civilized nations like Syria. There was a small Jewish minority in Arab peninsula who were much more civilized than the Arab majority. Arabs considered respect for them as civilized people and also as a holy community in which there had been a lot of people who received revelation from God. Mohammad the prophet of Islam was among those Arabs who thought about an Arabic civilization. He had a background of acquaintance with Christians and Jews. He travelled to Syria as a merchant in his youth, this travel was an opportunity for him to see a civilized nation and think about a parallel for the Arab nation. Also the neighboring Jewish community was an example to think about a religious civilization.
The surprising fact about Mohammad is that although we can think of him as the one who aspire a reform in his nation, after he married a rich woman, Khadijah at the age of 25 who was 15 years older than him, he became conservative and for 15 years from the age of 25 to 40, his life was very ordinary. We don’t know what forced him to declare himself as prophet at 40. Before this, He might think that being moral in his society was his duty. From his background, we know that he believed in ethics and his ethical personality can be deduced from his title “Amin” which means honest. The people of Mecca entitled him as Amin in his youth and even when these people struggled with him about his new religion, they respected him. Then he might came to this point that for the glory of his nation, he should start a movement and if needed he should be ready for sacrifice. Muslims believe that up to this point, his personality experienced a perfection process and then when he became ready to receive revelation, Gabriel visited him at Hara cave at the mountain near Mecca and declare him as the last prophet.
Before starting his career every month, he spent some days in this cave alone. This loneliness is very important for his movement & his ideology. This allowed him to organize his thoughts and gradually he founded a basis for novel ideas that constructed a new religion with a Jewish & Christian background. It is noteworthy that the founders of great religions had periods of loneliness before declaring their massages. Zoroaster came back from his journey in nature and declared the ideas of monotheism & eschatology; it was after his solitude that Buddha organized his thoughts and refused the polytheistic system of the Vedic religion. Jesus Christ had a period of lost years within which he possibly travelled within countries as well as being in solitude in nature.
Now it was the time for an Arab to declare a new religion and Mohammad did so and by this, he became one of those great religion builders. Yet there is an important difference between him and the above mentioned religion builders. Each of them inherited a religious process and they perfected it to found a great religion, but Mohammad did not use his Arabic heritage and founded his ideas from Jewish and Christian beliefs in a way that Islam can be identified as a revised version of these beliefs. This is because of the fact that novel ideas before him had been spread in different peoples and his career was actually to organize them as the last declared great religion. The sources of Islamic ideology along with the innovation of Mohammad himself, were Christianity and mainly later Judaism. Both of these doctrines influenced from Aryan Great Religions, i.e. Zoroastrianism & Buddhism.
Aryan Great Religions declared novel religious ideas. Zoroaster for the first time in history denied the polytheism and founded the idea of monotheism in its systematic way; also he organized primitive eschatological ideas of his nation and interpreted them morally, i.e. our destinies in another life are determined by our deeds in this life. Similarly, Buddha refused the polytheism, but without constructing a new metaphysical system, he became an agnostic and believed only in ethics as the basic principle in the universe; he also said that it is our moral characteristics that determine our destinies, but in contrast to Zoroaster, he believed that our destinies are whether to exempt from the life itself or come back to life as a reincarnated soul. Both of these great religions were created as responses to the development of ideas in their communities and more important, they were reactions of this development to their religious heritage. The main idea of these religions was ethics and they interpreted the life and destiny based on morality and it is this character that accounts for the pragmatism of these religions and that is why they are great religions. They founded universal religious thoughts about deity and eschatology. Both of the monotheism of Zoroaster and atheism of Buddha are parallel answers to the question of deity; Zoroastrianism adapted a metaphysical system, but Buddhism refused metaphysics and interpreted the world physically. In addition, Zoroastrianism believes in resurrection & heaven and hell, but Buddhism believes in reincarnation & Nirvana. These ideas, especially those of Zoroastrianism were supplemental factors for the perfection of Judaism and the development of Christianity.
Judaism was at first a tribal religion that experienced a period of development. The idea of monotheism gradually perfected in Judaism as a result of the work of prophets and at last it came to its final form under the influence of Zoroastrianism at the time when the old testament was put in writing under the Persian governors of the Achaemenids. Eschatology that originally did not exist in Judaism came to it under the influence of Zoroastrianism at the time when the social conditions of the Jewish community was ready to loan it as a result of oppression of the Seleucid government of Palestine. It should be pointed out that although Judaism was influenced by Zoroastrianism, but it is still an independent religion which gradually perfected from a rich background of Semitic civilization to the formation of Christianity and as a result Christianity became a great religion which has a background of Judaism with influences of Zoroastrianism and even Buddhism (For Influence of Buddhism on Christianity see: Hanson, James, M. “Was Jesus a Buddhist?”, Buddhist-Chrsitian Studies; 25 (2005), pp 75-89).
From this Background, Islam organized Jewish and Christian ideologies and revised them to declare a religion in parallel for Arabs. From this point, Islam is similar to Manichaeism which was a combination of Great Religions of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism & Christianity, but the universal character of Manichaeism is much more than Islam. Islam can be considered as a universal religion only for its ideology, but it has only Semitic sources. We have some evidence from which we can understand that Manichaeism influenced Islam and it was an example for Islam, but due to environmental conditions, Islam was limited to Semitic ideas. It should be pointed out that since Islam is a modified combination of Judaism & Christianity, it is a new great religion and is worth to study its ideas. However the only superiority of Islam is its absolute monotheism that opposed the tribal character of Judaism and also refused the trinity of Christianity or any kind of dualism of Zoroastrianism.
As the last point, it should be pointed out that Islam in contrast to other religions has a double character: Islam is claimed to be universal and yet it is local. Any religion in its cultural context has two aspects: ideological and traditional. The traditional aspect of a religion is not the work of a thinker, but it comes from ethnic costumes and the specific culture of the society in which the religion originates. From this point no religion is universal unless otherwise in any society it takes its costumes and their changes into account. As an example, the legal book of Vandidad of the Avesta originated from ancient traditions of Iranian Society and it belongs to a specific period of time. There are some costumes and rites in it that seems weird, useless and even insensible in our view, but they were practical and holy once in history. This is also the case for Mosaic laws & Jewish costumes. They came to practice in a long time and they were a means to keep the integrity of Jewish Society. These laws & costumes were in practice within the Jews of Arab Peninsula at the time of Islam. From Arabic point of view, this was considered as a sign of a civilized life; Arabs considered the laws and traditions holy and even divine. By this, it is no surprise that the traditional and legal system of Islam is based on Arab traditions and Jewish laws and costumes and although Islam claims to be a universal religion and from its ideology one can accept this, it is local considering its traditional and legal system.
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