Islam at a Glance

by Dr Salah Zaimeche, BMHC

As clearly stated in the Qur’an, Islam is not new. 1 It is essentially a continuation of the same message contained in previous divine scriptures and taught by all Prophets of God. Esposito explains that:

‘Mohammed was not the founder of Islam; he did not start a new religion. Like his prophetic predecessors, he came as a religious reformer. Mohammed maintained that he did not bring a new message from a new God but called people back to the one, true God and to a way of life that most of his contemporaries had forgotten or deviated from. Worship of Allah was not the evolutionary emergence of monotheism from polytheism but a return to a forgotten past, to the faith of the first monotheist, Abraham. The Prophet brought a revolution in Arabian life, a reformation that sought to purify and redefine its way of life. False, superstitious practices such as polytheism and idolatry were suppressed. Such beliefs were viewed as the worst forms of ingratitude or unbelief, for they contradicted and denied the unity or oneness (tawhid) of God. Polytheism, or association (shirk) of anything with Allah, was denounced as the worst of sins, idolatry.’ 2

Allah sent a series of messages to humanity through appointed Prophets and messengers. Quite a few of them are familiar to people of Judeo-Christian background, such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and many others. Muslims also believe in the original scriptures revealed by Allah such as the Scriptures of Abraham and Moses, the Torah, the Psalms of David, and the Gospel of Jesus. The final revelation to humanity is the Qur’an, which was revealed to Prophet Muhammad.

The Qur’an remains preserved and unchanged since the time of revelation in its original Arabic text. There is only one version of the Qur’an. It is recited and memorised by Muslims throughout the world. Likewise, Islamic beliefs are eternal truths that neither change nor evolve; they provide truth about God and His relationship with the visible and invisible aspects of the universe, about the reality of this life, the individual’s role therein and what will become of such a person afterwards. The requirements, or “pillars”, of the Islamic faith are: belief in God, in the angels created by Him, in His scriptures, in the prophets through whom His revelation was conveyed to humanity, in the eternal life after death and in God’s perfect judgment and complete authority over human destiny. 3

Monotheism is the essence of Islam, and it emphasises the Oneness of God. Muslims believe in one eternal and unique God. He is the Creator of all that exists, yet, He cannot be compared to anything of His creation. Muslims acknowledge that God alone is Divine, that He alone is the Creator and Sustainer of creation. He is all-knowing and all-powerful, completely just and merciful. God is not part of His own creation, nor is any of it a part of Him. The significance of exclusive divinity is that no one and nothing in existence is worthy to be worshipped except Allah, the Creator and Sustainer of all things. In Islam everything is built upon the Oneness of Allah. The first and foremost transformation brought by Islam was the belief in the One God, and the destruction of the former deities. When, on the day he entered Makkah [630], the Apostle of God destroyed the idols, beginning with those inside and around the Ka’aba.

Islam consists in believing in God, alone, performing prayers, fasting, distributing alms, and pilgrimage to Makkah. It also stresses the inviolability of human life, banning the consumption of alcohol and pork, usury, gambling and adultery. The five “pillars” of Islam make up the framework of a Muslim’s life. The first of these is the Declaration of Faith. To be a Muslim, one must believe and pronounce words that mean, ‘There is no deity worth of being worshipped except Allah and Muhammad is His slave and messenger.’

The second is the Formal Obligatory Prayer. A Muslim is required to pray five times daily within specified intervals, as taught by the Prophet. These prayers form a direct bond between the worshipper and his Creator. Islam does not call upon Muslims to merely perform this act of worship; rather; it wants for them to purify their souls. Allah says, regarding Prayer:

‘Indeed the prayer prevents [you] from immoral behaviour and [other] sins.’ [29:45]

The injunction regarding washing and cleanliness is an accessory to prayer. 4

The third pillar is the Zakah or Obligatory Annual Charity. The divinely ordained system of Zakah is the right of Allah within His dominion. It is neither a charity nor a tax, but an obligation due from Muslims who possess wealth in excess of their basic needs and expenses. The difference between Zakah and tax is that a Muslim pays Zakah willfully and on their own accord; they are the ones who supervise its payment.

The fourth requirement is Fasting. Islamic fasting, which involves abstinence from eating, drinking, sexual intercourse and all prohibited habits such as smoking, is observed throughout the daylight hours of the lunar month of Ramadhan.
The fifth is ‘Hajj’ or Pilgrimage. Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Makkah (in Saudi Arabia), is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for those who are physically and financially able to perform it.

In Islam, belief is between the faithful and his or her God. No intermediary is to forgive or apportion the blame, or commend or recommend a new line or path. The Prophet was so alive to the danger attending priesthoods in political states, and of their tendency to corrupt all governments, that he disapproved of the allowance of any such institution, and desired that every Muslim should possess a copy of the Qur’an, and be his own priest. 5 All the faithful needs from another faithful, better learned in the matters of the faith and enjoying the respect of the community, are clarifications, and clarifications alone, and that is the task of the Imams, in general.

Islam, Davenport explains, is likewise free from suspicion and ambiguity; and the Qur’an ‘is a glorious testimony to the oneness of God. Rejecting the worship of idols and men, of stars and planets, on the rational principle that whatever is born must die; that whatever rises must set; and whatever is corruptible must perish and decay. Muslims adore an infinite and eternal Being without form or place, without issue or similitude, present to our most secret thoughts, existing by the necessity of His own nature, and deriving from Himself all intellectual perfection.’ 6

In Islam, first and foremost, every order from God carries the same compulsions. It is not for man to grade His rulings as more or less important. Whether the individual finds them likeable or dislikeable, the precepts of the Qur’an are unchangeable and non-selective. 7 No individual, or group of individuals, or hierarchy, or ruler, however great their powers, can decide on matters of the faith; to alter, or to adapt the faith to circumstances or needs.

Islam, in both Qur’an and Tradition (Hadith), has both spiritual and social dimensions, as well as economic and political ones. Thus, Caliph Omar (caliph: 634-644) said:

‘Prayer carries us halfway to God, fasting brings us to the door of His palace, almsgiving lets us in.’ 8

The acceptance of Islam, moreover, conferred equal rights with the conquering body and emancipated the vanquished states from the conditions which every conqueror, since the world existed up to the period of Mohammed, had invariably imposed. Islam put an end to infanticide then prevalent in the surrounding countries. It put an end to slavery, the adscription to the soil. It administered even handed justice, not only to those who professed its religion, but also to those who were conquered by its arms. It reduced taxation, the sole tribute to the state consisting of one eight. It freed commerce from charges and impediments; it freed professors of other faiths from all fixed contributions whatsoever to the dominant creed. 9 Under Islamic rule, in return for a moderate tribute, the Christians of Arabia were taken under the Muslims’ protection, and so were the Jews, both Christians and Jews being people of the book, and so both benefited of freedom of worship, to practice trades, keep property and wealth, and so on.

Islam also stresses the inviolability of human life, banning the consumption of alcohol and pork, usury, gambling and adultery. The moral prescriptions of the Qur’an, as outlined by Le Bon, are charity, good deeds, hospitality, moderation of desires, abiding by one’s word, the love of the next person, respect for parents, and protection for widows and orphans. 10 False contracts, bribery, abuse of women, hoarding of wealth to the exclusion of its subordination to higher ends, and usury, of course, are denounced. The Qur’an demands that Muslims pursue a path of social justice. 11 Slave owners were encouraged to emancipate their slaves, to permit them to earn their freedom, and to give them some of ‘God’s wealth which he has given you’ (24:33). 12 Forcing female slaves into prostitution was condemned.

On Differences of Islam With Other Faiths

Christians and Jews, as a rule, have not accepted the Qur’an as divine revelation. 13 Islam on the other hand, accepts both faiths as Godly. Islam has never interfered with the dogmas of any faith, never persecuted, never established an inquisition, never aimed at proselytism. It offered its religion, but never enforced it: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion.’ 14

Islam adjures the Jews to obey their Law, Christians to obey the Gospel (Qur’an, 5: 72); but principally to accept also the Qur’an as God’s latest pronouncement as the earlier revelations had been corrupted and abused; now the new one would unite them, cleanse them, and offer all mankind an integrating, invigorating faith. 15 In Islam, Jesus has been sent to bring religion back from Jewish heresies to the true path. Jesus was a Prophet, but after a time, his followers also adulterated his teaching. 16

The three monotheist religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) believe in one supreme God; Christianity added, however, that the one God appears in three distinct persons. Christianity upholds the trinitarian view and claims that Jesus is the Son of God. Islam, on the other hand, categorically denies that God could possibly have a son.
Davenport reminds how it is clearly stated in the Qur’an:

‘O people of the Book- that is to say ‘O Jews and Christians, let not your worship transgress just bounds; say naught that is contrary to truth, when you speak of God; Jesus, the Messiah, the son of Mary, is nothing more than a Prophet of God. Believe then in God and His prophets, and make no mention of the Trinity. Set just bounds to your discourses. God is only one God; all praise be unto Him! God hadth no son.’ 17

‘Say,” God commands Muhammad, ‘God is one. God is eternal. He has neither progeny nor ancestry. He is absolutely without parallel.’ (112:1-4)

‘It is not possible for God-may He be praised-to take unto Himself a son.’ (19:35)

‘Jesus is to God as Adam was to Him, a creature made out of dust that had come to be at God’s command.’ (3:59)

God in Islam is not simply the One, but the Only One, to Whom all things are returned, and Who takes care of all things. He is the Lord, and He is the Merciful One. 18

Whatever casts the slightest doubt upon the unity of God is strongly rejected by Islam and declared blasphemous.

‘God does not forgive that He be associated with anyone, but He will forgive anything lesser than that to whomsoever He wills’ (4:48).

Mohammed, in fact, warned against any attempt on the part of the Muslims to deify him. 19 When the newly converted chief of an Arab tribe said to the Prophet, ‘You are our king,’ the Prophet answered quickly: ‘The King is God, not I.’ 20 When the Prophet died, Abu Bakr addressed the crowd that had gathered outside the dwelling in which he died:

‘Whoever worshipped Mohammed, let him know that Mohammed is dead; but whoever worshiped God, let him know that God lives and dies not!’ 21

In Islam the Prophet has no divine powers either; and the ability to work miracles is especially repudiated by him as unnecessary for religious conviction. 22

Christian scholars have invariably attacked Islam on the ground that it has missed the nature of trinitarianism. 23 They impute to the Qur’an and to Muhammad the charge of having misunderstood the trinity as consisting of Father, Mary and Jesus. E.g., Gibb’s statement that ‘the doctrine of the divine Sonship of Jesus is emphatically repudiated, in terms which betray the crassly anthropomorphic form in which it had been presented or presented itself to the Arabs . . . Mohammed had no direct knowledge of Christian doctrine’. 24 According to Donaldson: ‘A more serious confusion occurs, however, when Mary, the mother of Jesus, is admitted to the Trinity in the place of the Holy Spirit-Qur’an 5: 76-79. 25

Like statements may be read in Guillaume and Cragg. 26 These charges, Haykal rightly insists, are utterly groundless. 27 The Qur’an certainly criticised and condemned trinitarianism-as in 5:17; 5:73; etc. It has certainly criticised and condemned the doctrine of theotokos or ‘mother of God’ as in 5:75- 79, 116. These are two distinct criticisms the Qur’an has directed at Christianity. But it has nowhere identified the persons of the trinity as consisting of God, the Father; Jesus, the son; and Mary, the mother. 28 The Qur’anic position is simply that whoever and whatever the persons of the trinity may be, trinitarianism and theotokos are blasphemous compromises of divine transcendence and unity. 29 Combining the two Qur’anic condemnations, some exegetes had regarded “The Mother of God” as part of ‘The Trinity.’ If this is a mistake, Haykal insists, it belongs to those exegetes, not to the Qur’an. 30

‘Even so, it is not necessarily a mistake. The exegetes’ works constitute evidence of the current tenets of faith of their contemporaries; and there is no apriori evidence that some Near Eastern Christians have not identified the Trinity in these terms. Indeed, there is but one small step from the Christian assertion that ‘the Logos took human nature to Himself in the womb of the Virgin Mary-that Godhead and Manhood were united in the Incarnate logos in one Person,’ to use Cyril’s words, to the assertion that “Theotokos” implies the unity of the mother with the embryo in her womb, and hence that the Incarnation creates a bond between mother & logos separable only in theory. 31 This need not be a mistake; indeed it is quite probable that some Near Eastern Christians had held such a view, since in this, as well as in many other passages, the Qur’an is simply reporting what is being heard. However, those who held that Jesus and his mother were divine were but one of the many sects into which Christianity was divided in those days.’ 32

Islam is hostile to the organised church and monasticism. In Islam every bridge between heaven and earth is deliberately torn down: there are no sacraments, no cult images, no church music. 33 Subsequently, during the Muslim advance, Muslims, remembering the strict recommendations of the Prophet against this deadly sin, prohibited at once by the commandment of God and repudiated by the reason of man, Draper says, the Muslims’ first deed was to destroy all the images. 34

Equally, in Islam, there is no idea of mediator. From the earliest days of church history Christianity, on the other hand, has accorded to the priesthood a special status in the religion itself; Islam has never given such position to anyone. On the contrary, Islam both condemned the priesthood and transcended it. 35 Then as now, Islam has remained precisely the religion, which has not tolerated any link between the individual and God except a person’s own piety and good works. 36

‘Nothing,’ says Haykal, ‘neither idols nor priesthood, diviners nor officiators-could prevent the human soul from rising to a consciousness of unity with ultimate reality and to a unity of good will and good works, and, thereby, from winning its great reward with God.’ 37

‘The human soul! That spirit which is from God! That spirit which is connected to eternal time! That spirit, which as long as it does the good, is not separated from God by anything whatever and is subject to no being whatever other than God.’ 38

Regarding personal responsibility, as Esposito notes, in Islam:
‘God ordains; humankind is to implement His will. Human responsibility and mission are of cosmic proportion, and people will be judged on the cosmic consequences of their acts. As God’s trustees on earth, the measure of human actions, and indeed life, is the extent to which the Muslim contributes to the realization of God’s will on earth. This responsibility lies squarely on each individual’s shoulders, since no one can bear another’s responsibility or suffer for another:

Nor can a bearer of burdens bear another’s burden, and if one heavily laden crieth (for help) to (bear) his load, not the least portion of it can be carried (by the other)…. And whosoever purifies himself does so for the benefit of his own soul. (35: 18)… And whatever good you do, you shall not be denied the just reward of it… As for the unbelievers, their riches shall not avail them, neither their children against God; those are the inhabitants of the fire, dwelling therein forever. (3: 115-16).’ 39

‘Only on the Day of Judgment,’ Haykal points out, ‘will the human soul receive the punishment or reward that is its due. 40On that Day no father may take the place of his son, and no son may replace his father. On that Day neither the wealth of the rich, the strength of the mighty, nor the argument of the eloquent will avail them. Good works will be the only witness and the only defense for or against their author. On that Day, all being its eternal past as well as its eternal future will stand as one integral unit. On that Day none will be done an injustice, and none will receive except his or her due.’ 41

In regard to the original sin, as Esposito explains, the story of the Fall in the Qur’an differs from that in the Bible in its teaching. It is Adam, not Eve, who is tempted by the devil. Unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition, woman in the Qur’an is not portrayed as the cause of the Fall. Moreover, the sin of Adam and Eve is just that — their own personal sin — an act of disobedience for which they, and they alone, are responsible. Unlike Christianity, there is no notion of an inherited “original” sin, committed by the ancestors of the human race, for which all humanity suffers. Sin is not a state of being; it is the result of an act of disobedience, failure to do or not to do what God commands or prohibits. In Islam, indeed, the consequences of sin, like human responsibility, belong solely to those who commit sin. And human beings are not sinful by nature; as they are created, or finite creatures, they are naturally limited, weak, and subject to temptation. 42

‘Finally, here,’ notes Haykal, ‘Muhammad’s mercy did not proceed from weakness or servility, nor was it ever vitiated by pride, haughtiness, or the expectation of gratitude. It was done purely for the sake of God. Hence, nothing was excluded from it. This kindness differentiates the foundation of the civilization of Islam from all other civilizations. Islam puts justice side by side with kindness and judges that kindness is not kindness without justice.’

‘Whoever commits an aggression against you, return to him his aggression in like manner?’ (2:194)

‘In punishment a whole life lies implicit, O you who have minds to reason with!?’ (2:179)

‘Kindness is felicitous and the good deeds that issue from it are praiseworthy only when the motivation is internal, the will is free, and the purpose is the seeking of God’s sake alone. Kindness should proceed from a strong soul that has known no submission to anything but God, has not succumbed to weakness, does not go to extremes in the name of piety, and knows no fear or contrition except on account for a misdeed it has done or a crime it has committed.’ 43

Reading List

  • M. A. S. Abdel Haleem: The Qur’an, a New Translation; Oxford University Press; 2004-5.
  • Muhammad Mustafa Azami: Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature (Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1977).
  • J. Brown: The Canonization of Al-Bukhari and Muslim; Brill, Leyden; 2007.
  • J. Davenport: An Apology for Mohammed and the Koran; J. Davy; London; 1869.
  • F. M. Denny: Introduction to Islam; Macmillan; New York; 1985.
  • J. W. Draper: A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe; Vol I; Revised edition; George Bell and Sons, London, 1875.
  • J. W. Draper: History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science; Henry S. King & Co; London; 1875.
  • W. Durant: The Age of Faith, Simon and Shuster, New York; 6th printing; 1950.
  • L. Esposito: Islam the Straight Path; Oxford University Press; 1998.
  • I.R. al-Faruqi and L. L al-Faruqi: The Cultural Atlas of Islam; Mc Millan Publishing Company New York, 1986.
  • F. Gabrieli: Muhammad and the Conquests of Islam; World University Library, London; 1968.
  • R. Garaudy: Comment l’Homme devint Humain; Editions J.A; 1978.
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  • A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; tr. From Arabic by I.A. Al-Faruqi; The Islamic Book Trust, Selangor, Malaysia; 2008.
  • M. Heinen: Religion and Science in Islam, in Islam: Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in Non Western Cultures; Editor: H. Selin; Kluwer Academic Publishers. London, 1997. pp 861-4.
  • Ibn Hisham; Annotated recension of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat rasul Allah (The Life of the Prophet); Wustenfeld.
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  • M. Lings: Muhammad, His Life Based on the Earliest Sources; Islamic Texts Society; George Allen and Unwin; 1983.
  • S.M. Al-Mubarakpuri: The Sealed Nectar; Darussalam; Riyadh-London, 2002.
  • M. Pickthall: Introduction to The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an; Taha; London; first printing 1930.
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  • H.U. Rahman: A Chronology of Islamic History: 570-1000 CE; Mansell Publishing Limited; London; 1989.
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  • B. Rogerson: The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad; Little Brown; London; 2006.
  • A.M. As-Sallabi: Umar Ibn al-Khattab; His Life and Times; Tr. into English from Arabic edition by N.Al-Khattab; International Islamic Publishing House; Riyadh, 2007.
  • A. Salahi: Muhammad, Man and Prophet, The Islamic Foundation, Leicester, 2006.
  • Sayid Sulayman Nadwi: Muhammad the Ideal Prophet; tr. M. Ahmad; International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations; 2006.
  • S.P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire; in 3 vols; The John Lippincott Company; Philadelphia; 1904.
  • R. B. Smith: Mohammed and Mohammedanism; London; Smith Elder; 1876 ed.
  • S. Spectorsky: Al-Bukhari; Dictionary of the Middle Ages; vol 2; pp. 397-9.
  • Jalal Al-Din al-Suyuti: The History of the Khalifas Who Took the Right Way; Taha; London; 1998.
  • Al-Tabari: Tarikh al-Rusul wal Muluk; Dar al-Ma’arif; 4th ed.
  • Joseph Van Ess: Islamic Perspectives: In H. Kung et al: Christianity and the World Religions; Doubleday; London; 1986.
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Notes:

  1. J. Glubb: A Short History; op cit; p.32.
  2. J. L. Esposito: Islam, the Straight Path; op cit; P. 12.
  3. This is largely derived from J.L Esposito: Islam, IR and L. Al Faruqi: The Cultural Atlas; op cit.
  4. G. Sale in E.M. Wherry: Commentary on the Quran; London; Traubner and Co Ltd; 1896; vol I; p. 139.
  5. J. Davenport: An Apology; op cit; p. 72.
  6. Ibid; p. 73.
  7. The Qur’an ought to be read in Arabic, most preferably, its meaning being better understood in its original language. There are, however, translations in other languages, such as:
    -The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an; by M. M. Pickthall; Taha; London;
    -The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary; by A.Yusuf Ali; 1934.
    -The Qur’an: A New Translation by M.A.S. Abdel-Haleem; Oxford World Classics; Oxford University Press; 2004-5.
  8. G. Sale: Commentary on the Quran; op cit; vol I; p.43.
  9. J. Davenport: An Apology; op cit; p. 81.
  10. G. Le Bon: La Civilisation des Arabes, Syracuse; 1884; p.337.
  11. J.L. Esposito: Islam, the Straight Path; op cit; p. 29.
  12. J. Davenport: An Apology; op cit; p. 79.
  13. G.E. Von Grunebaum: Medieval Islam, The University of Chicago Press, 1954; p.13.
  14. J. Davenport: An Apology; op cit; p. 81.
  15. W. Durant: The Age of Faith; op cit; p.186.
  16. J. Glubb: A Short History; op cit; p.32.
  17. J. Davenport: An Apology; op cit; p. 75.
  18. Joseph van Ess: Islamic Perspectives: In H. Kung et al: Christianity and the World Religions; Doubleday; London; 1986; p.71.
  19. D. J. Geanakoplos: Medieval Western Civilisation, and the Byzantine and Islamic Worlds, D.C. Heath and Company, Toronto, 1979. p.147.
  20. Santillana, loc cit., p.286. in G.E. Von Grunebaum: Medieval Islam; op cit; p.154.
  21. P. Lunde: Islam; Dorling Kindersley; London; 2002.
  22. S.P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire; op cit; Vol 1; p.106.
  23. A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; op cit; p. Pref to First edition.
  24. H.A.R. Gibb: Mohammedanism, London: Oxford University Press, 1954, p. 45.
  25. D.M. Donaldson: Studies in Muslim Ethics, London: S.P.C.K., 1953, p. 57
  26. A. Guillaume: Islam, Edinburgh, Penguin paperback, 1956, p. 52-53 K. Cragg: The Call of the Minaret, New York: Oxford University Press, 1964, p. 253.
  27. A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; op cit; p. Pref to First edition.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. See for further detail F. J. Jackson: The History of the Christian Church to C.E. .461, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1st pub. 1891, rep. 1957, pp. 459 ff.
  32. A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; op cit; p. Pref to First edition.
  33. J. van Ess: Islamic perspectives; op cit; p.71.
  34. J.W. Draper: A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe; op cit; p.417.
  35. A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; op cit; p. 111.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid.
  39. J.L. Esposito: Islam, the Straight Path; op cit; pp. 26-7.
  40. A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; op cit; p. 112.
  41. Ibid.
  42. J.L. Esposito: Islam, the Straight Path; op cit; pp. 27-8.
  43. A.H. Haykal: The Life of Muhammad; op cit; p.