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Islam is the name for the faith and the community of Muslims around the world who are adherents of the teachings of the Qur’an as revealed to Prophet Muhammad. It is the second largest religion in the world after Christianity. The majority of Muslims are Sunni, and the second largest portion of adherents belongs to the Shi’a branch of the tradition. While history dates Islam as originating in Arabia in 610 CE at the time of the revelation of the Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad, Muslims believe their religion to be the completed and universal version of a primordial and monotheistic faith revealed many times before—from the first person to be created, Adam, who is also regarded as a Prophet, to Muhammad, considered by Muslims to be the Last of the Prophets. Muslims believe that previously revealed scriptures, including the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament, became distorted in text or interpretation. There are 25 prophets mentioned in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joseph, and Jesus, although Muslims believe that a messenger was sent for every nation at various times.

Globally, there are an estimated 1.5 billion Muslims, making up about one fourth of the entire world population. Even though some people may associate the Middle East and North Africa with Islam, only 20% of the world’s Muslims live there. The two distinct identities of Muslim and Arab are sometimes conflated because the majority of the population in the Middle East and North Africa is becoming increasingly Muslim, most of whom speak Arabic and regional dialects. The most populous Muslim country in the world is Indonesia, with more than 203 million Muslims. The countries with the largest Muslim populations after Indonesia are Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. There are smaller but growing communities of Muslims in Central Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

The word Islam is based on the Arabic root s-l-m. These consonants form the verbal noun Islam connoting both peace and submission. One of the Islamic names of Heaven is Dar al-Salaam, meaning “House of Peace.” The word Muslim, an active participle using the same root consonants, means “one who surrenders or submits” and “one who enters a state of peace.” Islam describes the relationship between humans and one all-knowing God as well as the relationship between God and Creation.

Sources of Knowledge in Islam

The Qur’an

Muslims believe that the Qur’an—like the scriptures before it—is the revealed Word of God transmitted orally to Muhammad via the Angel Gabriel over a period of 23 years, from 610 to 632 CE. One of its miracles is that it will never change and contains the exact words of God. While the primary theme of the Qur’an is the oneness of God and His omnipotence and mercy, it also discusses history, economics, ethics, and morality; issues of family life, such as marriage, inheritance, and divorce; and the environment. Muslims believe that there have been prophets sent to every nation and time, and this includes belief in the previous scriptures before the Qur’an, which is the last scripture to be revealed. Muslims also believe that Muhammad was also mentioned in the previous scriptures, which foretold his existence as the last messenger of God.

The Hadith

The Hadith record the sayings and actions of the last prophet of Islam, Muhammad (570–632 CE). These reports also recorded what Muhammad did not say or do. A hadith is made up of a chain of transmitters and the main text of the report, of which the first part can be traced to the companions of Muhammad who were the initial transcribers. Just as the Qur’an was written on pieces of parchment, stones, and leaves, so too were the texts of the Hadith before being compiled into books in the 9th and 10th centuries in authenticated Hadith collections. The Hadith follows the entire prophethood of Muhammad, whose life is viewed by Muslims as embodying the Qur’an and is thus seen to support the Qur’an, offering real-life experiences of how to be a Muslim.

Basis of Shari’a

The Qur’an and the Hadith also comprise Shari’a (lit. “path” or “way”) or Islamic law, prescribing Muslim behavior in every aspect of life and social relations, from private matters between the individual and God to relationships with others from the family or the widest community. The Shari’a contains categories and subjects of Islamic law called the branches of fiqh (lit. “understanding”), including, but not limited to, inheritance, commerce, property law, worship, family relations, civil (tort) law, criminal law, administration, taxation, governance, international relations, and the laws of war and ethics.

Why Arabic?

As Arabic-speaking nations compose only 20% of the Muslim world, why is Arabic such an important language to Islam? Not every Muslim knows how to speak Arabic or understands the language, although many learn how to read the Qur’an in Arabic with diacritical marks. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is directly God’s Word, unchanged by man, unlike the other previously revealed scriptures—even though Muslims believe in these, too. Arabic is the language in which the Qur’an was revealed by God to Muhammad via the Angel Gabriel. It for this reason that words in the Qur’an represent the most eloquent form of Arabic, known as Qur’anic Arabic. Qur’anic Arabic is not the Arabic that is spoken on the street or even by a diplomatic delegation, but an elevated, layered Arabic, befitting the words of God.

If God speaks all languages, then why was the Qur’an revealed in Arabic? The Qur’an answers with the following: “We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an, in order that ye may learn wisdom” (Qur’an 12:2). This is supported with another verse, mentioning, “By the Qur’an, full of Wisdom . . .” (Qur’an 36:2). According to these ayats (“verses of the Qur’an”), Arabic is the language chosen by God for the last of the scriptures. Arabic was also the language Muhammad spoke, and it continues to be a language rich in meaning, nuance, and clarity and consisting of layers of meaning for all forms of discussion.

The Sunni/Shi’a Divide

Though the majority of Muslims are Sunni, Shi’a Muslims constitute 20% of the overall Muslim population globally. Shi’a is the umbrella term given to several sectarian movements that have appeared in Islamic history. The Shi’i are concentrated in Iran, southern Iraq, and southern Lebanon. There are significant Shi’ite communities in Saudi Arabia and Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India as well. The full term Shi’at-Ali, or “party of Ali,” refers to Prophet Muhammad’s paternal cousin and the third Caliph of Islam.

The differences between these two main subgroups within Islam initially stemmed not from spiritual differences but political ones. Out of these political differences, varying practices and theological positions that have come to carry a spiritual significance have been born over the centuries. There are great disparities between the accepted practices and theology of Sunnis and Shi’i, such as self-flagellation, temporary marriage, and visiting of tombs, all of which Shi’i allow and Sunnis do not consider part of Islam. Also, many of the figures that Sunnis accept as valid, such as the first three Rightly Guided Caliphs (al-Khulafa- ‘u r-Ra-shidu-n), are not accepted by Shi’i, who only accept the fourth and the last—Ali, the nephew of Muhammad. In contrast, Shi’i accept imams after Muhammad to have spiritual powers from God, but Sunnis do not adhere to these beliefs.

The Five Pillars of Islam

Traditionally, Islam has five pillars of faith, also known as the Five Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars of Islam are incumbent on every Muslim and comprise inward belief manifested as outward action as Islam not only teaches what to believe in but also how to behave. These aspects of Islam are referred to as pillars because if one of these is weak, the rest crumble, as they are all equally dependent on each other for support.

The Pillars of Islam:

  1. Belief (Iman/Faith)—comprising the seven articles of faith
  2. Prayer (Salaat)
  3. Sharing wealth/charity (Zakaat)
  4. Fasting during the month of Ramadan (Sawm)
  5. Pilgrimage (Hajj)

Belief (Iman)

Belief means to believe in the Seven Articles of Faith, which will be discussed. Belief is also encompassed by the Declaration of Faith (or Shahadat, lit. “Witness”) and is stated as follows: There is no God but God and Muhammad is His (final) prophet and messenger.

Prayer (Salaat)

There is a difference between prayer and supplication. The Arabic terminology makes this distinction. Prayer (salaat) is the ritualized prayer Muslims perform five times a day. Supplications (du’aa) are entreaties to God made from the heart, which can be made anytime, anywhere, in any state, and in any direction, whereas prayer (salaat) requires that a Muslim be clean, having performed ablution (wudu’), and for women, this also means not menstruating. The place of prayer must also be clean, and the Muslim must face the Qibla, which is in the direction of the Kaabah in Saudi Arabia.

Appointed Prayer Times:

  1. Before sunrise (Fajr)
  2. After high noon (Dhuhr)
  3. Early evening (‘Asr)
  4. After the sun sets a little (Maghreb)
  5. At night (Isha’)

There is a prescribed sequence of actions and words, including set readings out of the Qur’an, to complete one sequence (rakaat) or unit of prayer. The number of rakaat varies according to the prayer and thus the time of day. Salaat can be as short as 5 minutes to however long one wants to perform it, depending on the verses of the Qur’an one chooses to recite. While praying, Muslims are encouraged to gaze on a fixed point on their prayer mats, creating a place of outer focus to sharpen inner focus. The merging of certain physical actions, breath, and spiritual reflections when praying makes it a very meditative experience.

The qibla, or “direction of prayer,” is the direction toward the Kaabah in Mecca (Makkah), Saudi Arabia. Muslims all over the world are facing together in the same direction, adding to the spirit of community. As day turns into night around the world at different times, there are Muslims constantly praying in this direction at all times.

Sharing Wealth/Charity (Zakaat)

The primary type of almsgiving is associated with the word zakaat and occurs at the end of Ramadan, or the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The charity tax (zakaat), or 2.5% of one’s wealth, is mandatory on all who are able to afford it, which is then to be redistributed by the Islamic state fairly. Muslims living in countries where the Islamic state does not perform this function will often donate the money to a charity they support or give it to someone they know who is in need. This promotes complete socioeconomic equality and serves as a reminder to be grateful.

Fasting During the Month of Ramadan (Sawm)

Before Muhammad became a prophet, Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, was the month during which he would contemplate and meditate on life and existence in what is now known as Jabal an-Noor, the Cave of Divine Light. It was here that Muslims believe that the Qur’an was first revealed to Muhammad via the Angel Gabriel during this month. From sunrise to sunset during this month, Muslims abstain from food, drink, sex, lying, stealing, becoming angry, and other activities deemed to be spiritually corrosive. Between sunset and sunrise, however, Muslims are allowed to eat and have sex. Ramadan is the month to sincerely focus on one’s inner self and consciously contribute to one’s community, as personal conduct is an essential aspect of being Muslim.

Pilgrimage (Hajj)

From the 3rd to the 9th of the month of the Dhu al-Hijja, which is the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar, pilgrims descend on Mecca in Saudi Arabia to perform certain rituals, such as circumambulating the Kaabah. Pilgrims perform certain rituals in the tradition of some of the prophets, from Adam to Muhammad, including Abraham’s second wife, Hagar. Muslims believe that the Kaabah, also referred to as the House of God, was first built by Adam but was washed away by the flood during Noah’s time and then rebuilt by Abraham. The Kaabah was then used as a shrine for paganism during Muhammad’s time until Muhammad reclaimed the Kaabah after the bloodless takeover of Mecca.

The Seven Articles of Faith

Within the first pillar of Islam, belief (Iman), there are seven articles of faith. Despite various interpretations being given for each of the articles, they form the framework of Islamic belief.

Articles of Faith:

  1. The Oneness of God (Tauheed)
  2. Angels
  3. Scriptures, including the ones sent before the Qur’an
  4. All of the prophets, not limited to the 25 mentioned in the Qur’an
  5. The Day of Judgment
  6. Fate
  7. Life after death/Heaven and Hell

The Oneness of God (Tauheed)

Islam is a monotheistic religion centered on the oneness of God. This concept of oneness is called Tauheed in Arabic. In Islam, there is one God, referred to as Allah in Arabic, who is completely unique and the source of everything. God (Allah) in Islam transcends gender, race, and language. The Qur’an teaches Muslims that there is nothing comparable to God. Muslims also know God through how he describes himself in the Qur’an. There are certain verses (ayats), one complete chapter (sura), and 99 characteristics listed throughout the Qur’an by which God has declared his attributes.

In Islam, every creature—animate and inanimate— has a special relationship, completely unique between itself and God. Nothing is created without purpose, and the origin of everything is God. Muslims believe that God created humans to act as his vicegerents on Earth and also as a test to demonstrate who would go to Heaven or Hell.

As Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the final scripture to be revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel and has and will remain unchanged for all time, it is important to examine the Qur’anic description of God in the following important passage:

God (Allah) is the light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of his light is as if there were a niche and within it a lamp: the lamp enclosed in glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: light upon light! God (Allah) doth guide whom he will to his light: God (Allah) doth set forth parables for men: and God (Allah) doth know all things. (Qur’an 24:35)

Angels

Angels, the number of which Muslims believe to be unknown, are made of Divine Light (Noor) and were created without gender and without free will. Their job is to fulfill whatever tasks God sets for them and to worship him. According to the Qur’an, the number of wings an angel has varies. Even though humans do not become angels at any point nor receive wings immediately after death, each person (Muslim and non-Muslim) has with him or her two angels, one on each shoulder, taking note of each deed, bad and good, which has been committed. These angels are described as “kind and honorable” in the Qur’an also acting as one’s protectors and one’s conscience (Qur’an 82:10–12).

With the same hereditary makeup as their Judeo-Christian lineage, there are four main angels in Islam:

  1. Jibreel (Judeo-Christian Gabriel), who has sent scriptures to various messengers, including Muhammad, on God’s command: Gabriel is also referred to as the Holy Spirit in several verses (ayats) of the Qur’an.
  2. Israfeel (Judeo-Christian Raphael), who will blow the trumpet twice at the end of time: The first blow will cause everyone and everything except God and whatever he wishes to keep alive to die and the second blow will bring everyone back to life to meet God for the Day of Judgment.
  3. Mika’eel (Judeo-Christian Michael), who is in charge of the weather as per God’s commands.
  4. ‘Isra’eel (Judeo-Christian Azrael), who is the Angel of Death.

Scriptures

Muslims believe in all of the scriptures, known and unknown, that have been revealed before the Qur’an. Muslims also believe that humans changed these previous scriptures over time, which is why there were others that were revealed. The last of these is the Qur’an. Muslims believe that all religions taught the same message of the Oneness of God (Tauheed) and submission to him; thus, all religions share the same origin and are, in fact, the same religion—whether they were explicitly called Islam or not. Therefore, Muslims also believe that Islam is the religion of all prophets. Not every prophet was a messenger with a scripture, but they all served to reify the central message of Islam, which is the Oneness of God (Tauheed).

There are many verses (ayats) in the Qur’an that reference different messengers and different scriptures, validating their sanctity and legitimacy. Several of these scriptures are mentioned in the Qur’an as follows:

  1. Scrolls (Suhuf)—Abraham (Qur’an 87:19)
  2. Torah (Taurat)—Moses (Qur’an 87:19)
  3. Psalms (Zabur)—David (Qur’an 21:105)
  4. Gospel (Injeel)—Jesus (Qur’an 5:46)
  5. Qur’an—Muhammad

Prophets

In the Qur’an, Chapter (surat) 21 is entirely dedicated to the prophets and is titled “The Prophets” (Al-Anbiya). There have been numerous prophets and messengers for every time and nation; even though there are 25 named throughout the Qur’an, the exact number is unknown. Adam is both the first prophet and first man, and Muhammad is the last of the messengers, which is why he is often referred to as the Seal of the Prophets. Each prophet has taught the same message of the Oneness of God (Tauheed), the importance of God consciousness, the transient nature of this earthly life, and the eternity of Heaven and Hell.

Even though it is Muhammad who is the most likely prophet to be equated with Islam, the Qur’an teaches that no distinction is to be made between them. Again, while not every prophet had a scripture, each prophet is to be regarded in equal esteem.

The Day of Judgment

Islam is predicated on the belief of God as one (Tauheed) and the justice of God. One of the 99 characteristics (Asmaa ul-Husnaa) of God is the Just (al-‘Adl). Islamic belief also centers on the idea of death and embracing life through the knowledge that one is going to die. One must always be prepared to die, in the sense that one must always be at peace with others, have one’s grievances put at rest, one’s debts settled, and be on good terms with everyone so as to be remembered well and prayed for. The seeming ambiguities of life, then, are completely resolved after death. Death in Islamic belief is one phase of life that brings one closer to God. Life is to be cherished as it is a gift from God, and death is not to be feared as it, too, is from God.

Fate (Qadar)

Even though Muslims believe in free will and each person’s accountability for his or her actions alone, the concept of destiny encourages positive thinking while also preventing the corrosive “What if?” question. Rather than linger over a past event with a series of “I should haves” or “What ifs?” Muslims are encouraged to learn lessons from their experiences and apply these lessons to the present, constructively moving forward in the knowledge that God is the best of planners, wanting the best for his creation. Instead of worrying or focusing on what has passed one by or what might come, Muslims are taught that whatever has befallen a person could never have missed that person and that which missed someone could never have befallen him or her. Muslims are also taught that what people really want may not always be the most beneficial, whereas what people may always like actually is.

Each individual is morally accountable for his or her actions and intentions, so fate and kismet could be distinguished by the following analogy: Someone watches a movie for the second time, knowing what has happened and will happen (God’s perspective) instead of for the first time where every action is unknown (humanity’s perspective). Along these lines, God states in the Qur’an, “We shall question, every one, of what they used to do” (Qur’an 15:92–93), meaning people are accountable for their actions and do not have fate (qadar) to blame.

Life After Death/Heaven and Hell

Throughout the Qur’an, death and life after death are mentioned repeatedly, not as macabre subjects but as focal points to give meaning to life. Because in Islamic belief all humans will have to give an account to God for their actions, death and the finality of life on Earth gives people’s lives meaning and purpose and makes them accountable for it. Without death, life would have no meaning as there would be no underlying purpose for existence. Life on Earth is also to be enjoyed fully in the present because every moment matters given the transitory nature of life on Earth. Because of this temporality, life after death is considered by Muslims to be the life that is real and everlasting.

Muslims believe that not only will one’s soul be in Heaven or Hell but so will one’s corporal body, as Heaven and Hell are sensory experiences. The experiences in Heaven and Hell parallel those on Earth, except that in the former they are magnified significantly.

Festivals and Ceremonies in Islam

At the end of the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, which is the month of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, or the “Festival of the End of the Fast.” In Islam, one day is set aside to celebrate, but this practice differs among families, cultures, and countries, highlighting how culture becomes diffused in religion. A special prayer is said on this day, and money and gifts are given to little children and exchanged between families, which is a common cultural practice.

The other holiday is Eid al-Adha, or the “Festival of the Sacrifice,” occurring after hajj, when the pilgrims return from Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This is a 3-day holiday, often termed the “greater festival,” and is also spent among family and friends, commemorating Abraham’s trial of God’s command to sacrifice his son Ishmael.

Halal and Haram

Halal (lawful, permissible) and haram (unlawful, forbidden) are Arabic terms applied to food and drink and also matters of daily life. For example, halal and haram apply not only to how animals that are to be consumed are raised and killed but also to personal choices one makes and what one does. Halal and haram are dictated by God in the Qur’an and in the Hadith of Muhammad—both texts that make up Islamic law (Shari’a)—and are the basis of Islamic knowledge.

Islam and Violence

The word jihad is often mistranslated as “Holy War.” The Arabic equivalent of “Holy War,” however, is harb-u-muqadasah. This term is not found in any verse of the Qur’an. There is nothing in the Islamic sources that permits a Muslim to fight against non-Muslims solely on the basis that they are not Muslim.

The word jihad comes from the root word jahada, which means “to struggle” or “to strive.” Other words derived from this root include effort, labor, and fatigue. Essentially at the individual level, jihad primarily refers to the inner struggle of being a person of virtue and submission to God in all aspects of life. It is this jihad that is considered the most difficult type of struggle because it involves refining one’s character and habits.

Islam never tolerates unprovoked aggression from its own side; Muslims are commanded in the Qur’an not to begin hostilities, embark on any act of aggression, violate the rights of others, or harm the innocent. Even hurting or destroying animals or trees is forbidden. War is waged only to defend the religious community against oppression and persecution, because the Qur’an says that “persecution is worse than slaughter” and “let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression” (Qur’an 2:190–193). Therefore, war is only justified out of self-protection when the community is being attacked.

The Qur’an describes those people who are permitted to fight:

(They are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right, (for no cause) except that they say, “Our Lord is God.” Did not Allah check one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure. God will certainly aid those who aid his (cause); for verily God is full of Strength, Exalted in Might (able to enforce His Will). (Qur’an 22:40)

Note that the verse specifically commands the protection of all houses of worship. This verse (ayat) also supports the Islamic point of view that all prophets and revealed scriptures are to be respected, as different houses of worship are part of God’s design to “check one set of people by means of another.”

Islam and Women

Islam is a religion that supports women, and many have argued that Prophet Muhammad was a feminist. The doctrine he laid out as the revealed word of God considerably improved the status of women in seventh-century Arabia. While in local pagan society it was the custom to bury alive unwanted female newborns and women had been treated as possessions of their husbands, Islam prohibited these practices. Islamic law made the education of girls a sacred duty and gave women the right to own and inherit property. Muhammad even decreed that sexual satisfaction was a woman’s entitlement. He was a liberal at home as well as in the pulpit. Prophet Muhammad darned his own garments, and due to the Hadith—or his sayings, actions, and tacit approval—it became religious duty for every Muslim, male or female, to honor women and treat sons and daughters justly and for males to provide support, not obstacles, for women and their achievements.

Social and Political Rights of Women

In the history of Islam, the fact that men and women, equally, could take part in social, political, and military affairs promoted human rights and also encouraged individuals to stand up for their own rights. From voting and choosing regional leaders to participating in military battles, rights and equality among men and women were shared. Both sexes were accorded equal access to education, respect, and honor. In Prophet Muhammad’s Farewell Sermon, he stated that men and women have equal rights and obligations toward each other. Also, according to the Hadith, Prophet Muhammad also declared that Paradise is to be found at the feet of one’s mother, so by serving her one can gain entry to Heaven.

Property Rights of Women in Islam

Under the laws of Islam, women have the right to sell and buy properties, own a business, take legal actions, vote, and participate in political affairs. According to Islam, a woman inherits half the share of her brother because a daughter is not obligated to support her parents or her children, whereas a man has a great financial responsibility as outlined by Islamic law (Shari’a). It is the responsibility of the father of the woman’s child or children to take care of them, and it is the son’s responsibility to take care of his parents. A man who has reached the age of puberty has the obligation, by the rules of Islam, to support his mother, wife, children, sisters, and the children of his sisters if necessary. If a man’s mother or sister does not have the wealth or the desire to support her children, it would become the duty of the son or brother to support her. Under Islamic law (Shari’a), women also have control not only over their property but also dowry claims. Once she is married, she may demand her dowry from her husband at any time, and in the case of divorce, she would receive her share of the property.

Marriage and the Right to Divorce in Islam

According to the laws of Islam, a man and a woman have the right to choose their partner, and they should not be forced into marriage. Divorce is permitted in Islam under specific terms and conditions. According to the laws of Islam, a man or woman may end a marriage by divorce if there is a definite cause for such an action.

Polygamy

Polygamy is a tradition practiced in many cultures, yet Islam restricted it by setting regulations. These regulations are very severe, and very few can practice it (see Qur’an 4:1–4). The particular historical context of polygamy in Islam followed one of the harshest wars, where many men were killed, leaving a multitude of women widowed, fatherless, and without support. Also, a Muslim man cannot marry a second wife without the permission of the first wife. With all these restricted regulations, according to the Islamic law, polygamy is possible but rare in practice.

Bibliography:

  1. Badcott, N. (2009). Pocket timeline of Islamic civilizations. Northampton, MA: Interlink Books.
  2. Barlas, A. (2002). “Believing women” in Islam: Unreading patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’ān. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  3. Carboni, S., Institut du monde arabe (France), & Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). (2007). Venice and the Islamic world, 828–1797. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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  5. Cooper, A. (2004). The facts about Islam. London: Hodder Children’s Books.
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  8. Yahya, E. (2002). The life and work of Muhammad: Critical lives. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha.

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