World Religions

Islam  /  Basic Facts

[ Early History | The Five PillarsOther Islamic Beliefs |
Common Misunderstandings | Major Divisions ]

Early History

Basic Facts

Islam.  The word "Islam" is from the Arabic word "aslama" which means

submission.  It is a way of life for millions of people.  It's popularity is second only to Christianity.  The Islamic religion was founded by the Prophet Muhammad, the last prophet of the one God, Allah.


Muhammad.  Born in Mecca (present day Makkah in Saudi Arabia) in 570 AD, Muhammad was orphaned when young.  At the time, Mecca was on a spice route located midway between the Jewish city of Yathrib (present day Medina) and the Christian city of Najran ( in Southeast Saudi Arabia).


Though Muhammad engaged in secular pursuits, (he was a camel driver, trader, father and husband), community leaders respected him, calling him "Trusted One."  At the age of 40 he had a visitation from the Archangel Gabriel, who revealed to him the contents of the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, and gave him the task of cleansing Mecca of pagan shrines.  Forced to flee Mecca because of his teachings, he formed a community in Yathrib (Medina).  Years later he returned as the head of an army of followers and made Mecca the main holy city of Islam.  Three months after his triumphant return to Mecca he died at the age of 64.  Within a short period of time Islamic armies conquered and spread the faith throughout an area larger than that of the Roman Empire.


Dr. Kamil Said, professor of Islamic studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, gives the following outline concerning Muhammad (NS 4300, p. 9):

Muhammad gave all members of society equal rights

Circumstances transformed Muhammad from being a religious teacher in Makka to a ruler in Al Madina. At Al Madina, Muhammad established the Muslim Umma, (nation); gave allegiance to Islam priority over any other relations; established brotherhood among the Muslims; made the individual responsible for the protection and  security of society; gave women rights which were denied her, made learning obligatory for men and women; protected private ownership; and gave all members of society equal rights.


Qur'an.  God revealed this Muslim holy book to Muhammad during the last twenty-two years of his life.  Jibril (Gabriel) delivered the first revelation on Mount Hira near Mecca


Muhammad began proclaiming the message, "...there is no god but God." In 622, while facing resistance in Mecca, Muhammad moved with his followers to Medina. This move, known as the hijrah (migration), marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar.


Dr. Said (NS 4300, pp. 11, 12), records the following concerning the Qur’an. It serves as a:

Concerning the recording of the Qur’an:

Kaabah.  The Kaabah is a shrine of worship, the most sacred place in Islam.  Already in Muhammad’s day, this object, located in Mecca, received religious admiration. The Qur’an identifies it as an object made by Abraham and Ishmael.  This is also the shrine where it is said that Abraham offered up his son Ishmael on the home made altar.


'Dome of the Rock' Mosque, Jerusalem

Jerusalem.  This is the traditional setting of the "remote place" of Muhammad’s night journey mentioned in Qur’an 17:1.  The "Dome of the Rock" mosque in Jerusalem is one of the three most holy places in Islam.


Muhammad's Successors.  Sunni/Shi'a leadership divisions determine what leaders followed Muhammad. Sunni followers believe authority rests in a leader chosen by the community (Sunnah) of those who follow the ethical/religious Muslim path.  


Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s friend, became the first Sunni successor (632-634) or Caliph.  Umar (634-644), the second Caliph, led Muslim conquest of most of the Middle East. Under the leadership of the third Caliph, Uthman (644-656), codification of the Qur’an came about.  Ali (656-661), a close friend of the prophet became the fourth successor.  Together the first four Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali) are known as the "rightly guided" ones.


The first four Caliphs are known as the "Rightly Guided" ones


Shi'a practitioners believe Muhammad intended for his own blood line to follow him in leadership. Shi'a's consider Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, as the first leader or Imam after the prophet.  Sunni's rejected Ali's claim to leadership and instead followed a leader from the Ammayd clan.  


Years later Ali’s eldest son Hasan abdicated his right to rule over the faithful to his younger brother Husayn ibn Ali.


In a struggle against an Umayyad leader (over whether the murder of Uthman should be avenged), Husayn, seventy of his followers, and all but one son died. This event on the day of Ashura (October A.D. 680) took place on the battlefield of Karbala in present day Iraq and to this day is remembered by Shi'a Muslems annually.


Khadija was Muhammad’s first, most important wife, thought by many to be the first convert to Islam. Fatima, Ali’s wife and Muhammad’s daughter, is held in high regard, especially by Shi'a followers.


The Five Pillars of Islam

There are five foundational faith expressions unite all Muslims.  While all Muslims hold to these "five pillars" of the faith, how they are practiced varies from culture to culture.


Shahada (sha-HAHD-ah, witnessing).  This is the essential creed of Muslim

 belief. It is repeatedly invoked as part of daily prayer. The shahada states:

There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger.’ When said with heartfelt intention before two official witnesses, this testimony initiates a person into the Islamic community.


Salat (shul-LAHT, prayers).  Five times each day, Muslims pray in Arabic. Salat consists mainly of verses from the Qur’an, praises to God, and requests for guidance. Adherents bow toward the Kaabah in Mecca when praying.  Go here to learn how the prayer is performed. To find the prayer time in your area take a look at this web site.


Sawm (SOO-uhm, fasting).  During the month of Ramadan, thanksgiving is expressed, discipline shown, and communal solidarity and reconciliation affirmed.  Practitioners abstain from food, drink, smoking and sexual relations from dawn to sunset.


Zakat (SA-kat, almsgiving).  The faithful demonstrate tangible worship by giving a kind of "loan to God" of from two to ten percent of one’s income and/or one's total net worth, payable at year’s end. Charitable causes receive support in more spontaneous manners, as needs arise.



Hajj (al-HAHJ, pilgrimage).  At least once in a lifetime, during the twelfth month of  the calendar, a Muslim takes a trip to Mecca. No one goes on Hajj without first ensuring that family members are provided for in their absence. Financial and health concerns may also determine whether a person goes on Hajj.  Some seriously ill individuals who go on Hajj go with the realization that if they die in Mecca, their souls will go directly to heaven.  See also the CNN report on the 2000 hajj.


Other Basic Islamic Beliefs

God (Allah).  The Qur’an narrates: "God is One, the eternal God. He begot none, nor was he begotten. None is equal to Him."
(Sura 112 [Sura ‘SOO ruh,’ being the chapter of the Qur'an].)


The "uncomplicated absoluteness of God" found in the Qur’an sets Islam apart from rival belief systems.  Life is a unified whole under the one God. In Islam there is no division of the sacred and secular. Humankind is created in the image of God with His imprint upon the "very substance of their souls."


Angels.  An active belief in angels permeates the Islamic world and life view. Jibril (jib-REEL, Gabriel), who delivered the Qur’an, is the most important angel. Other invisible beings (jinns), who possess extraordinary powers, are capable of either good or evil.


Revealed Books.  Moses, David, Jesus, and Muhammad all transmitted literally the respective books dictated to them--the Torah, Psalms, Gospel and Qur’an. While all are authoritative, the Qur’an--due to its accuracy of text, breadth of scope and manner of transmission--in practice is Islam’s primary book.


Qur'an.  The Qur’an, the "text from on high," is the word of God. "The literature and fine arts of all Muslim people spring from this fountain head...No man seeking to live in the same world as Islam can afford to regard lightly, or to judge ignorantly, the Book that is called The [Qur’an]." (Arberry, The Holy Qur’an as quoted in Cragg, Readings in the Qur’an, p. 51.)


Everything about the Qur’an is sacred--its sounds, words, letters, even parchment and paper. Verses of the Qur’an are the first sounds a new child hears and the last a dying person listens to.  The art of chanting the Qur’an, the "supreme sacred act of Islam," can move a Muslim to tears.  To capture the full beauty of the Qur’an, one must hear it recited in its original Arabic. Protestant scholar Kenneth Craig writes: 

A Muslim at Prayer


"Translations do not convey the emotion, the fervor, the mystery the Qur’an holds in the original. (Readings in the Qur’an, p. 31).


The Qur’an is a prophetic discourse, not written chronologically. It is meant to be consumed rather than subjected to scientific examination. Its style is of the powerful, expansive imaginary of Middle East culture. Obedience is its final goal.


" a pearl for which the diver must plunge to break the shell which both ensures and conceals the treasure...the Qur’an...yields itself only to those who rightly understand." (Cragg, pp. 14, 16.)


Each of the 114 Suras begins "in the name of God, compassionate, all merciful." The total text, divided into thirty parts, allows for daily readings/ recitations of one part for each day of the lunar month.


As the Suras begin with the longest to the shortest, and the latter ones are more event/subject descriptive, new readers are advised to begin at the back and work their way forward.


Prophet-Messengers.  The biblical figures, plus some unknown Arabian messengers, are seen as ambassadors (rusul--prophets with a specific mission who bring the word) of God. Muhammad (muh-HAHM-mad), the last of the prophets, is the only one who proclaims a universal message. Abraham and Moses are the greatest of the Prophet-Messengers. The phrase "peace be upon them" is often written after their names. Muhammad, though not divine, receives highest respect. The phrase "prayer and peace be upon him" is often said or written after Muhammad's name.


Last Things.  Bodily resurrection, judgment, paradise and hell are the climax of history. Hell is not eternal for the believer, as Muhammad will intercede for those possessing even an "atom of faith." Millennial leaders (Mahdi, MAH-dee) will defeat enemies of Islamic religion at the end of history, establishing peace and justice upon the earth.


Divine Decree.  This belief that everything is decided by God and in some sense comes from Him, articulates a major source of personal contentment and sustainment, especially in times of difficulty. Drawing from Sura 37:96 ("...God who created you and all that you have made...") this decree elaborates the all-powerful nature of God.


Common Misunderstandings

Diversity.  Islam is not monolithic--practiced the same in all countries. When each society is examined for itself one can see a great deal of diversity in belief and worship practices within the Islamic community.


The greater jihad is a striving to do God's will


Jihad (ji-HAD).  Sometimes seen as a sixth foundational element of Islam, Western media stereotypes it as "holy war."  A more accurate portrayal sees jihad as an exertion or struggle in achieving the ways of God.  It is known as the greater Jihad.  It is  individuals striving to serve God, to do His will within ourselves, and reestablishing order in Islamic society and the world at large. Lesser jihad describes just war...taking up arms (guns, swords, bombs and tanks) in both offensive and defensive postures. Greater jihad is the struggle against inward passions but also includes work to overcome underdevelopment, counteract propaganda, or offer cultural resistance to secularization influences.


Terrorism.   Western media reports often lead us to assume that all devout Muslims favor terrorism. This is definitely not the case. After discussing misperceptions and negative treatments of Arab and Muslim peoples, editors of the HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion present the challenge...

"There is a need for more nuanced understanding of the increasing amount of information, much of it still inaccurate, about Islam. Speaking and writing responsibly about Islam is a task facing students and teachers, reporters in the print and broadcast media, government officials..." (HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion, pp. 498, 500.)


Major Divisions Within Islam

In the Muslim world, two major schools of thought--the Sunni (SOON-nee) and Shi'a (SHEE-uh)--are present. The origin of these groups centers more on political viewpoints than dogma. Early responses to the question "who leads at the death of Muhammad?" defined the differences in these two movements.  A third category known as the Sufi movement focuses upon the mystical aspects of Islam and is found among both the Sunni and Shi'a communities.


Sunni Islam.  Sunni elders saw Muhammad’s successor as chosen by the community of those who follow the Sunnah (SOON-nuh) or ethical/religious Muslim path.  Authority rests in the community, guided by ulama consensus and Islamic law.


Leaders do not take on the mantle of Muhammad. Rather, they protect and defend Islam, seeking to apply God’s law to society. Most Sunnis believe the Sharia (religious law of Islam) was codified and closed by the tenth century. Approximately 85% of the Muslim world follows the Sunni branch.


Shi'a Islam.  Shi'a followers believe Muhammad specified that his cousin and son-in-law Ali would be his successor.  The charisma of Muhammad passed on in direct blood lineage through a family dynasty. Religious and political authority rests in imams alone.


The Sharia (Islamic law) is always open, subject to fresh reformulations of Sunna, Hadith (traditions of what Muhammad and his companions said and did) and Qur’an interpretations. Found in Iran (95% of the population), south Iraq, parts of Lebanon and elsewhere, the Shi'a branch makes up roughly 15 percent of the Muslim community.


The Whirling Dervishes of Turkey are Sufis

Sufism.  Within both Sunni and Shi'a circles there are branches of mystical/spiritual intensity. The Sufi school of thought defines this mystic orientation.  "Like the heart of  the body of Islam-- invisible from the outside but giving nourishment to the whole organism," Sufi pietism exerts a major influence. Recalling the austere life of early Mecca and Medina, Sufis often practice ascetic ways.  Their living in the presence of God, being "absorbed into God," is often experienced through intense renderings of scripture, poetry or music. Ecstatic, mystical states often result.


                                                   Top of Page


[ home page | world religions | area studies | intro to culture]
[ previous | next ]