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We are using the comparative method in order to study the different organized religions of the world. We said that there are three main groups: Near Eastern (Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity), Eastern (Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism), and Far Eastern (Confucianism, Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism). There are also many types of Primitive religions which are practiced throughout the world but are not considered "organized" religious groups. So far we have compared Judaism to Christianity (the basis for comparison that we are using in this study) and will continue with Zoroastrianism and Islam in rounding up our review of Near Eastern religions.
Zoroaster (660-583 BC) was a camel herder from the lower social class in Persia (Iran). He claimed that he had received special visions while attending what were at that time primitive religious festivals. He maintained that he had received seven visions over a 12 year period. The visions were revelations about what God wanted him to tell the people. He had no converts for the first 10 years of his preaching.
According to tradition, his first convert was the Persian King Vishtaspa. This explains how Zoroaster's religious movement quickly spread since after his conversion the king made Zoroastrianism the "official" religion of the kingdom. The religion, however, had a positive effect on society because it espoused beneficial ideas concerning social justice and marriage.
Zoroastrianism flourished after the death of its founder until the conquest of Alexander the Great in 33 BC, who began mixing Greek ideas with those of this religion. Zoroastrianism declined for a century as the Greeks conquered the Persian Empire, but revived for a time from the second to the sixth century when it, along with Persia, were vanquished by the Muslims.
Many adherents migrated to India where various religions were tolerated. The majority (approximately 125,000) of those who practice this religion today are situated in Mumbai (formerly Bombay).
Concept of Deity
Zoroastrianism began as ethical monotheism (one god, do right). Ahura Mazda was the creator and sustainer of the world. Angra Mainyu was an evil sprit who struggled with Ahura Mazda and was eventually thrown down. Angels were seen as the personification of the attributes of Ahura Mazda.
Concept of Mankind
Mazda created man through the agency of his spirit. Man's special vocation was to keep his own soul.
Zoroaster taught that the constant selection of right over wrong would ultimately lead to salvation. Performing good works established righteousness. Life was a struggle between good and evil, and those who chose good would go to heaven. The eternal resting place was presided over by the angel Gabriel.
The purification of fire is the main activity of Zoroastrianism. Fire is the representation of Ahura Mazda. This religion has no priests or clergy as such, lay leaders conduct worship. Bodies of the dead are left in "towers of silence" to be eaten by birds so their flesh does not contaminate the earth.
- Avesta - Knowledge (some written by Zoroaster)
- Gathas - Psalms
- Vendidad - History and theology
- Yasna - Worship/sacrifice
To five do I belong, to five others do I not; of the good thought am I, of the evil am I not; of the good word am I, of the evil am I not; of the good deed am I, of the evil, not; To Obedience am I given, and to deaf disobedience, not; to the saint do I belong, and to the wicked, not; and so from this on the ending shall be the spirits' parting.
- Yasna 10.16
Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, India.
- Zoroastrians believe that a special envoy is sent by God every 1000 years in order to give new teachings. This person is called a Saoshyant. It is believed that Jesus was such an envoy.
- Some think that the "wise men" present at Jesus' birth were Zoroastrians.
- Their monotheism eventually became dualism as they raised the profile of the evil spirit (Angra Mainyu) to the point of being an enemy and rival of Ahura Mazda.
- Bridge of Separation: Zoroastrians believe that there is a bridge between heaven and hell. At judgment, a person crosses over this bridge and if he has enough good deeds, a hand will point to Paradise and Zoroaster himself will accompany this person across. Those guilty of evil deeds will only be able to cross to the middle of the bridge before stumbling and falling to their punishment.
Islam (means submission) is the second largest religious group in the world today (Christianity is first, Buddhism is third). It is also referred to as Mohammedanism, after its founder Mohammed. The term Muslim means "..one who submits."
- Islam: The religion
- Muslim (Arabic version)/ Moslem (English version): The believer in Islam
- Mohammed: The founder and alternate name (although not used by Muslims themselves).
Mohammed (570-632 AD) lived in Mecca (in present day Saudi Arabia), worked as a merchant and was married with one daughter named Fatimah. His wife was Jewish (Khadijah). His uncle was the caretaker of the local temple and Mohammed was displeased at the sexual depictions used in the worship there. He believed that this did not represent sincere religion.
He claimed to have seven visions from the angel Gabriel and from these he wrote the substance of the Koran (the holy book of Islam).
Muslims consider 622 AD (year one on their calendar) as the beginning of Islam when Mohammed began to preach concerning his visions and writings. He was persecuted and fled to Medina (also in Saudi Arabia) but converted 10,000 people there in the following decade.
In 630 AD he took an army to invade Mecca and conquered it. He destroyed the old temple and built the Kaaba (square building) which holds the Black Stone.
According to tradition, this stone was given to Adam on his expulsion from paradise in order to obtain forgiveness of his sins. Legend has it that the stone was originally white but has become black by absorbing the sins of the countless thousands of pilgrims who have kissed and touched it. Muslims consider this to be a sacred object (Britannica.com).
In 632 AD Mohammed died and his leadership role was taken over by different individuals throughout the following centuries. Who had legitimate leadership has been the source of division and war since his death. Aside from the religious impact he had, one of Mohammed's great accomplishments was the uniting of the nomadic and dispersed Arab tribes into one nation by giving them a common religion.
Muslims have different periods in their history:
- Caliphs (632-661): These were deputies charged to lead Islam after the death of Mohammed.
- Umayyads (661-750): They were a family of rulers based in Damascus. They led the effort to expand the Muslim religion and empire to Spain and France (their defeat by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours in 732 prevented Muslims from invading Europe).
- Abbasids (750-1258): This group removed the Umayyads and established Baghdad as headquarters. Their influence pushed Islam into Asia and Eastern Europe all the way to Italy.
- Mongolian Dominance (1258-1299): The Mongols invaded Muslim lands and in 1271 Marco Polo visited China under Mongolian rule.
- Ottoman Empire (1299-1924): The Ottoman Empire began with the defeat of the Mongols and an expansion of the Muslim religion into its present regions.
- Modern Islam (1900-Present): With the fall of the Ottoman Empire there has been no one voice or leader for Islam. One of the goals has been to try to unite all Muslims into one nation, but this has not been successful. There are many sects and each has its own leaders and theology:
- Sufis: Mystics (like Pentecostals within Christianity)
- Bahá'í: Claimed to have the final truth and are now separate from mainstream Islam.
- Black Muslim: American Social Justice version of Islam
- Sunnis: Are a majority in most Muslim communities (80-90 percent). They are in southeast Asia, China, south Asia, Africa and most of the Arab world.
- Shiites: Make up the majority of the citizen population in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Iran and Azerbaijan, as well as being a politically significant minority in Pakistan, Syria and Yemen.
- Shiites believe that each era produces a leader related to Mohammed (war between Iraq and Iran, 1980-1988 was fought over this as well as other economic and political issues).
Concept of Deity
Allah = God. God is one and totally in control. The great difference between the Christian concept of God and the Muslim view is that Christianity's God is consistent in His teachings and promises (contained and verified in Scripture); whereas with Allah this is not necessarily so. For example, in Sura 2:62 of the Koran, God promises that everyone (regardless of religious affiliation) who believes and does good will go the heaven; In Sura 3:85 the very opposite promise is made: that those practicing any religion other than Islam will lose all spiritual good. Islam's central focus is man's complete surrender to Allah, inconsistencies of their holy book not withstanding.
Along with this idea of God is the concept of kismet or fatalism which teaches that whatever situation exists, remains. There is no use trying to change what is established because whatever happens is meant to happen. Because of this type of thinking Muslim culture is often static since the faithful believe that the condition of their present lives has been set by the will of Allah.
Concept of Man
Mankind is created by Allah but men are created superior to women. This is why the religion reinforces social customs that are often repressive for women (e.g. women cannot drive, cannot sue for divorce, must be covered, etc.). Man, however, must submit to Allah in whatever situation he finds himself in.
Salvation comes when man is totally submitted to God and this submission is expressed in completing what is called the Five Pillars of Faith:
- Confession: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet." This is the first step in conversion and a phrase continually repeated.
- Almsgiving: A Muslim must never go by a beggar without giving. The 2.5 percent (Zakat) tax is usually collected by the government and beggars are licensed.
- Prayer: Submission to Allah through prayer is the primary method of salvation. Muezzin (caller) calls people to pray five times per day facing Mecca (east).
- Fasting: Especially during the month of Ramadan (changes every year because Muslims calculate it according to the lunar calendar) which is a holy month. This is done in commemoration of the things that happened in Mohammed's life, and as a sign of submission.
- Pilgrimage: Making a trip to Mecca (or sending a representative) once in a lifetime to participate in worship there. The highest title worn by a Muslim is Hajj which means pilgrim.
The Muslim concept of heaven and what it means to be saved is very earthly (food, fellowship, comfort, sensual pleasure, i.e. back to the Garden of Eden).
Note that the process of salvation is strictly a works oriented system aimed at a fickle god with a reward that is very much like life here on earth but without any of its imperfections.
Holy War (Jihad) is a war declared to protect against a danger to Islam. Muslims believe that if one dies during such a war he is guaranteed heaven (where 72 virgins await the martyr).
The basis of worship are the five pillars of faith. There is no weekly ritual observances or services, but rather an integrated lifestyle where the believers gather for prayer at the mosque and work out the requirements of their religion in every day life.
The Koran. What Mohammed presented is believed to be the total work of God, even the writing and the pages. It is claimed that the Koran is the final word of God to man. The Arabic language served to write the book is also holy. The present copy was assembled in the 650 AD era and all translations come from it. It is comprised of 114 suras or chapters. The Koran governs daily Muslim life, law (Sharia) and worship.
181. As to the month Ramadan in which the Koran was sent down to be man's guidance, and an explanation of that guidance, and of that illumination, as soon as any one of you observeth the moon, let him set about the fast; but he who is sick, or upon a journey, shall fast a like number of days. God wisheth you ease, but wisheth not your discomfort, and that you fulfill the number of days, and that you glorify God for his guidance, and that you be thankful.
182. And when my servants ask thee concerning me, then will I be nigh unto them. I will answer the cry of him that cited, when he crieth unto me: but let them hearken unto me, and believe in me, that they may proceed aright.
183. You are allowed on the night of the fast to approach your wives: they are your garment and ye are their garment. God knoweth that ye defraud yourselves therein, so He truth unto you and forgiveth you! Now, therefore, go in unto them with full desire for that which God hath ordained for you; and eat and drink until ye can discern a white thread from a black thread by the daybreak: then fast strictly till night, and go not in unto them, but rather pass the time in Mosques. These are the bounds set up by God: therefore come not near them. Thus God maketh his signs clear to men that they may fear Him.
Some guidance for pilgrims or those doing the five pillars of faith.
They believe that the Bible comes from God, but is corrupted by man and the Koran is the purer revelation.
Middle East, Africa, Pakistan, worldwide.
Many beliefs concerning angels and demons that are quite elaborate probably stemming from previous religious influence.
Islam's major problem is that it cannot accommodate technical or social progress very easily (i.e. changes in roles for women and advances in the technology of communication). Also, the Koran does not hold up well under critical analysis as does the Bible. Criticism is not even permitted and met with threats of death.