Ways of Expressing Meaning

Appreciating that individuals and cultures express their beliefs and values through many different forms.



Stories of Faith

The Qur’an tells the stories of only a number of prophets among the 124,000 prophets that have been sent. Some of the ones told in some detail are the stories of Adam and Eve and their fall from Heaven, Noah and the Ark, Abraham and his trials, Joseph, Moses and Pharaoh, and Mary and the miraculous birth of Jesus. Whilst the Qur’an makes reference to the Prophet’s personality and being, it does not really tell stories about him in the way it does with those mentioned above. Nevertheless stories about the Prophet and his life are the most important in Islam but they are found in the Sunnah or in biographies (sirah). As for the Shi’ah who view their Imams as the extension of prophethood and hence as perfect examples just like the Prophet, stories about the Imams and their lives play a central role in their faith.

First, some of these stories are narrated in the Qur’an which Muslims believe is the verbatim word of God. Therefore it is a sacred book with God as its ‘author’. Since the Qur’an is the eternal book, its teachings still apply today and forever. As for the stories of the Prophet, and the Imams for the Shi’ah, they are sacred because these personalities are sinless and all their actions, sayings and approvals are in accordance with Islam and are the perfect example for Muslims of every age.

The stories of the Qur’an are sacred as the Qur’an is the Word of God. The Sunnah of the Prophet is sacred because everything he did or said was nothing other than revelation.

By the Star when it goes down—Your Companion is neither astray nor being misled. Nor does he say (aught) of (his own) Desire. It is no less than inspiration sent down to him. (53:1-4).

These stories are meant to bring a person closer to God. As the Qur’an says, the generations of the past have long gone. They alone are accountable for their own deeds. But God tells us their stories so humans can learn from their example because these stories are true and factual not fictional or mythical. These stories are important as they are reminders for Muslims of our own obligations and our own faith and we can benefit from them:

Therefore do remind, in case reminding does benefit [the hearer] (Surah 87:9)

As the Qur’an is considered the eternal word of God, each story or event mentioned can be interpreted according to context and time and people of all generations. In Islam, everything has a double meaning; one is apparent and the other is hidden. Hence these stories, other than their explicit meanings, have deeper implicit meanings. The Qur’an caters for the lay person just as much as for the learned, however based on each person’s intellectual abilities and spiritual level, there would be different levels of understandings and meanings.

The purpose of these stories is to guide and teach. Through these stories, one can learn from the example of the prophets but also from the example of the people they were sent to; so, how to be and how not to be. They also show the responsibility of each individual not just to follow the crowd but to think for himself because one is easily influenced by his environment which may lead him astray. As prophets (and Imams for the Shi’ah) are infallible beings, people should model themselves on these exemplary beings.

Symbols of Faith

There are very few symbols in Islam; however some are significant such as the colour green, some numbers and, in the Shi’ah school of thought, the double-pointed sword of Imam ‘Ali and a piece of earth known as the turbah.

Although the star and crescent typically seen on mosque domes and some flags have come to be associated with Islam, they do not originate from Islam. In fact, their use is seen by some as controversial.

Some objects used widely by Muslims such as the rosary beads (masbahah), prayer hats and prayer mats have come to symbolise Islam in the West. However, the objects themselves do not have any religious symbolism. A Muslim might wear certain passages from the Qur’an in his or her necklace, men might wear a prayer hat and rings with stones, some might carry the masbahah all the time and some will hang it on their car mirrors, as well as Qur’anic passages and other supplications.

The double-pointed sword of the Prophet which he gave to his cousin and son-in-law Imam ‘Ali symbolises the loyalty and devotion of his followers who came to be known as Shi’ah ‘Ali (the followers of ‘Äli). Some Shi’ah wear the two-pointed sword as a symbol of their loyalty to the Imam.

The turbah is used by Shi’ah Muslims to place their foreheads upon when they pray. The turbah’s significance is that it represents the martyrdom of the 3rd Imam al-Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). It also represents the cycle of life; the two prostrations on the earth symbolise being created from earth and the return to earth after death.

According to most Muslims, the colour green is significant as the prophet used to wear a green turban and it has been used ever since on flags for example to represent Islam.

According to some Muslims, some numbers have religious symbolism. For example, 786 equates with ‘In the Name of God’ (Bismillah).

Symbolic Actions

Islam encompasses every aspect of a person’s life; for example the recitation of the adhan and iqamah in the baby’s right and left ear right after birth symbolizes that the baby is born Muslim and will recognize the call.

All Islamic rituals have symbolic meanings. Every action performed during the liturgical prayer or during the pilgrimage (hajj) for instance has spiritual meanings such as the stoning of the three pillars during hajj which symbolizes the rejection of the temptations of the devil.

Muslims do not need a building in order to worship Allah. They can pray in any clean place, but the Qur’an recommends praying with others:

‘And be steadfast in prayer; practise regular charity; and bow down your heads with those who bow down (in worship)’ (Surah 2:43).

The Muslim place of worship is a mosque or a masjid (place of prostration).
Muhammad (pbuh) built the first mosque in 622 CE in al-Madinah. In Muslim countries, the Mu’adhin (muezzin) calls the believers to prayer five times a day from the minaret where he stands facing the Ka’bah in Makkah. Inside the prayer hall he repeats the call with slightly different words just before prayer begins.

The first prostration during the daily prayers symbolizes being created from dust and the second the return to dust after death. This is to remind the human being to remain humble as everything will perish except God who alone can have pride. Lifting hands in prayers is a sign of asking for something you need and which only God who is needless can give.

The Arts

As God is the absolute transcendent being, Muslims believe that there are no religious symbols whatsoever that represent the Divine in any shape or form whether through images, sculpture or any other means, even in an abstract way. Such an act is considered as idolatry (shirk), the one sin that God will not forgive (Surah 4:48)..

As it says in The Qur’an:

(He is) the Creator of the heavens and the earth: He has made for you pairs from among yourselves, and pairs among cattle: by this means does He multiply you: there is nothing whatever like unto Him, and He is the One that hears and sees (all things) (Surah 42:11).

Islamic art therefore seeks to capture the spiritual rather than the material, the essence rather than the physical. This is achieved through certain techniques such as geometry and repetition.

Geometry dominates Islamic art and one of things it symbolizes is logic and order present in the universe. Repetition is widely used to portray infinite patterns which have no beginning and no end and ultimately undifferentiated unity. Many Muslims also decorate their homes with Islamic calligraphy instead or with other forms of art. Iranian art incorporates nature with Islamic calligraphy, for example writing Bismillah (In the Name of God) in the shape of a bird or tiger.

Islamic music: Nowadays, music is been used to attract mainly the youth towards Islam. According to some Muslims, music is considered strictly forbidden however many of the earlier eminent scholars of Islam studied music as a science. Today, Islamic music takes many forms such as rap, classical, Sufi, etc.

Islamic songs (nashids) have become very popular especially amongst the youth. The genre now varies from classical to rap. Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens) was a popular singer before converting to Islam. He now promotes Islam through his music. One modern famous singer is Sami Yusuf who sings in various languages but mainly in English.

Poetry (shi’r) has always played an important part in Arab and in Islamic culture and tradition; it was used to describe historical events and people (for example, famous battles and leaders of Islam). Rumi is probably the most famous Muslim poet whose work has been translated into many languages and has attracted people of different faiths.

Today, poetry is still very popular in many Islamic gatherings such as the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This is especially so for Shi’ah Muslims who use poetry extensively for the birth and the death of the Imams, the most important of these events being the martyrdom of Imam al-Hussein during the month of Muharram.

Hymns (qasidah) are also very popular in Islamic gatherings especially in Sufi circles. Hymns are used to praise God and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his family.

Muslim Architecture

Since God cannot be represented in any shape or form, mosques and religious centres are bare rooms decorated only with Islamic Calligraphy and art. There are no pictures or statues, not even of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as it is also forbidden to depict the Prophet and this is why in films or in other forms of art there is usually a light on his face.

Although mosques and Islamic shrines differ in style due to period and region they were built in, many of them display fine Islamic architecture. Some are extravagantly decorated with Islamic calligraphy, gold, mirrors and colours.

Mosques can be quite distinct (especially in the West) when they have minarets where someone stands to call to prayers (mu’adhin) and domes. The dome of a mosque symbolises the universe which Allah created. Many mosques have four minarets and a dome. Outside of the prayer hall is a place for ritual washing – wudu. There are no chairs in a prayer hall and the only furniture is the minbar from where the imam preaches the Friday khutbah (sermon). The Qiblah (direction) wall faces the Ka’bah in Makkah and a niche called the Mihrab indicates the direction for prayer.

Shirk forbids any representations of people and so the walls of a mosque are often decorated with calligraphy. This is usually texts from the Qur’an. Decorative patterns in tiles and mosaics such as arabesque are also used.

In the United Kingdom mosques serve many community functions It is the madrassah (school) where children learn Arabic and there may also be a reading room, a library and a bookshop. The prayer hall itself is also used for funeral services but not for weddings.

Mystery and Meaning

Muslims believe that everything in existence has an apparent (zahir) and hidden (batin) meaning. Furthermore, our limited intellect is unable to grasp fully the Being of God. God is beyond this limited material world as we can see in this example:

When Moses came to the place appointed by Us, and his Lord addressed him, He said: “O my Lord! Show (Thyself) to me, that I may look upon thee.” Allah said: “By no means canst thou see Me (direct); But look upon the mount; if it abide in its place, then shalt thou see Me.” When his Lord manifested His glory on the Mount, He made it as dust. And Moses fell down in a swoon. When he recovered his senses he said: “Glory be to Thee! To Thee I turn in repentance, and I am the first to believe.” (Surah 7:143)

Hence, God describes Himself to His creation in order to know Him; one important example is the verse of Light (Ayah al-Nur): ‘Allah is the Light of the Heavens and the earth…’ (Surah 24:35).

The Qur’an consists of explicit (muhkamat) and ambiguous (mutashabihat) verses (Surah 3:7). The latter may be interpreted in many ways and some cannot be taken as literal. Hence there are many verses that have symbolic meanings especially the ones describing God, for example:

[…] the Hand of Allah is above their hands […] (Surah 48:10).

[…] Everything (that exists) will perish except His own Face […] (Surah 28:88).

These two examples (referring to God’s power (hand) and His eternal presence (face) cannot be understood literally as the Qur’an asserts that there is nothing like God. God is beyond anything that we can imagine, but the use of analogy and metaphor in the Qur’an help the human being to grasp the deeper meanings behind some of the verses. The Qur’an also uses symbolic language as explanation, for example:

For Him (alone) is prayer in Truth: any others that they call upon besides Him hear them no more than if they were to stretch forth their hands for water to reach their mouths but it reaches them not: for the prayer of those without Faith is nothing but (futile) wandering (in the mind) (Surah 13:14).

But the Unbelievers—their deeds are like a mirage in sandy deserts, which the man parched with thirst mistakes for water; until when he comes up to it, he finds it to be nothing: But he finds Allah (ever) with him, and Allah will pay him his account: and Allah is swift in taking account (Surah 24:39).


The Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Makkah, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam on which the faith rests. The Hajj takes place annually and is the duty of every adult Muslim, male or female, who is physically and mentally fit and can afford it, to make the pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime. Hajj is the Greater Pilgrimage and can only be taken in Dhul-Hijjah, the twelfth month of the Muslim calendar, whilst ‘umrah is a lesser pilgrimage which can be taken at any time.

If people cannot make the journey themselves they have only to declare that it is their Niyyah, their sincere heartfelt intention, to go on Hajj and the duty is considered to have been fulfilled.

Before starting on the Hajj pilgrims put on ihram, a white seamless garment similar to the clothes worn by Muhammad (pbuh) and the earlier prophets.

Ihram requires:

– no perfume, not even in soap, nor in food,
– no jewellery, except women’s wedding rings,
– no wearing of gloves, though hands may be wrapped in cloth,
– no deliberate cutting of hair or fingernails, so as not to interfere with nature,
– no uprooting of plants nor cutting down of trees on the journey
– no hunting nor blood shed, except in dealing with bedbugs, fleas, snakes and scorpions,
– no carrying of weapons
– no sexual relations, not even kissing, nor flirtatious thoughts
– no engagements nor taking part in weddings.

On the first day, at Makkah, the pilgrims visit the Great Mosque and walk round the Ka’bah, the cube shaped building at the centre of the mosque, seven times anticlockwise. They then walk quickly seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah (to commemorate the seven times that Hagar, wife of Ibrahim, ran between those hills searching for water for her and her son, Ishmael).

Pilgrims then travel to Mina to camp. On the ninth of Dhul-Hijjah they go to the plain of Arafat before sunrise for the stand before Allah. After sunset, the pilgrims go to Muzdalifah where they collect stones. The following morning the pilgrims return to Mina and throw stones at three pillars. The pilgrimage ends with an animal sacrifice.

After a final circling of the Ka’bah, the pilgrims go home or visit al-Madinah.

The essential parts of Hajj are the four rites which are obligatory in the Qur’an:

– Putting on Ihram
– Doing tawaf (circling the Ka’bah)
– Going to Arafat
– Making the last tawaf after returning from Arafat.



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