(This is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Thirteen Theories of Human Nature, Oxford Univ. Press.)
Islam arose in Arabia in the 7th century CE with the visions of the prophet Muhammad. These visions are thought by most Muslims to be divine revelations, and they comprise the text of the Koran. After Muhammad’s death, Islam split into two basic divisions—Sunnis, who held that the Prophet should be succeeded by an individual chosen by tribal elders; and Shi’a, who held that the Prophet should be succeeded by a blood relative.
From the 7th through the 12th century the Muslims acquired vast territories and great wealth, rivaling the extent of the Roman empire. In addition, Islamic civilization made great advances in philosophy, theology, science, medicine, and law. Many believe that Europe helped escape their dark ages by coming in contact with Islam in Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries. Over the last 500 years or so European military might has allowed them to advance their own empires and dominate the Islamic world. In response, some Muslims favor assimilation with European culture; others favor affirming their Muslim identity.
The Koran’s Relationship to Biblical Literature
The origins of the Koran are mysterious. Islamic tradition maintains that what we today call the Koran was a standard edition produced within a decade or so after Muhammad’s death. This suggests that there may have been other versions of the Koran, but we have no direct evidence of this. The Koran claims to confirm the truth of biblical revelation in many of its passages, but the stories do this in such a way that Muslims began to consider the Koran as replacing the Bible.
The Koran assumes monotheism, and Allah is the word for God. Allah means “the god” and Arab speakers, whether Christian, Jew, or Muslim, refer to their God as Allah. Allah is the creator of the universe who uses prophets like Moses and Jesus to communicate with human beings. Allah alone is due worship, and Allah is one—as compared to the trinitarian Christian God. So Jesus is a prophet to be revered, not a god to be worshipped. (Of course, the Christian church didn’t definitively declare Jesus both God and man until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE.) For the Muslims to worship a prophet would be to diminish Allah.
As an article of faith Muslims believe that Allah is incomparable to anything else, so little can be said about Allah. Nonetheless, Muslims believe that Allah is omniscient, omnibenevolent, etc., although it is difficult to reconcile this with the idea that Allah is beyond word and thought. Thus there are different interpretations as to who or what Allah is, just as Jews and Christians differ on the nature of their conception of the divine.
Theory of Human Nature
Muslim revere Adam as a prophet while in orthodox Christianity Adam passes along original sin to all humans. For Muslims, Adam and Eve were tempted together by Satan in the garden, but Adam repents and Allah forgives him—-although little is said about Eve. Islamic tradition later pairs Adam with Muhammad as the alpha and omega of history. (Our nature is essentially the nature Allah gave to Adam.)
A central purpose of the Koran is to serve as a reminder of important forgotten truths. In this way, the Koran presents itself as a third revelation after the previous ones in the Old and New Testaments. For the Muslims, Christians mistake the messenger, Jesus, with the message, pious teachings. They have forgotten this, similar to how Adam forgot what Allah had told him. But descendants of Adam must remember their covenant with Allah and their special role as Allah’s representatives—what they call khalifa. Of course, people forget all this and evil follows. (The basic human problem is ignoring Allah.)
Muslims consider humans both inclined toward and away from Allah. Turning toward Allah demands an exercise of free will, although Muslims recognize that environment and chance also shape human beings. But Muslims definitively believe Allah loves them and has a plan for their individual lives. This plan can be discovered by the lessons drawn from the Koran itself. By listening to the word of Allah one is guided toward the truth. (We should listen to Allah’s words contained in the Koran.)
Human nature is complex and in tension: individuals and social environments; unity and diversity within society; evil desires and desires for Allah. To guide us Allah sent prophets and saints to call us to lead lives according to the khalifa ideal.