the religion preached by the Prophet Muhammad

~600 AD

Islam is the name given to the religion preached by the Prophet Muhammad in the A.D. 600's. Muhammad was an Arab who was born in Mecca about 570. He believed he had been sent to warn and guide his people and to call them to worship God (Allah). Muhammad preached that there is only one God and that he, Muhammad, was God's messenger. Those who believe in the one God and accept Muhammad as His messenger are called Muslims. Muslim is an Arabic word that means one who submits (to God). Islam is Arabic for submission. Westerners often call Islam Muhammadanism and its followers Muhammadans. Muslims feel these terms give the incorrect impression that Muslims worship Muhammad.

Islam is one of the world's largest religions. The largest Muslim communities exist in the Middle East, North Africa, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and central Asia. In Europe, Islam is the principal religion in European Turkey and Albania. The once-great Muslim empires no longer exist. But Muslims are still united by the faith of Islam, which forms a common bond of culture among them.

The growth of Islam

Muhammad began preaching in Mecca about 610. He made slow progress at first. Most of the rich and powerful citizens scorned him and his preaching. His preaching angered and frightened the Meccans, and some of them even plotted to kill him. In 622, Muhammad fled to the city of Medina (then called Yathrib), where a group of people helped him. This emigration to Medina is called the Hegira. Muslims date their calendar from this year. In 630, Muhammad and his followers returned to Mecca and occupied the city. They destroyed all the idols in the shrine, the Kaaba, and turned the area around it into a mosque (Muslim house of worship). The Meccans then accepted Islam and acknowledged Muhammad as prophet. Mecca and Medina became the sacred cities of Islam.

The spread of Islam throughout the Middle East and North Africa began with conquests launched from Mecca and Medina. After Muhammad died in A.D. 632, Abu Bakr was elected caliph, the Muslim leader. He and his successors encouraged the jihad (holy war). Within a hundred years, they built an empire that stretched from northern Spain to India. The rapid spread of Islam engulfed the Persian Sassanid Empire and much of the Christian Byzantine Empire. The Muslims threatened Western Europe until Charles Martel defeated them at the Battle of Poitiers, also called the Battle of Tours, in 732. In subsequent waves of expansion, Islam spread into central Asia, India, and Indonesia.

Muslims united millions of different people into one great society. They established a splendid civilization in Iraq, Persia (now Iran), Palestine, North Africa, Spain, India, and Syria. They transmitted much of the classical knowledge of the ancient world, and built such magnificent structures as the Alhambra in Spain and the Taj Mahal in India.

The teachings of Islam

The companions of Muhammad preserved the revelations that came to Muhammad by memorizing them or writing them down. Muslim scholars believe Muhammad approved these teachings. Later, the materials were combined to form the holy book of the Muslims. It is called the Koran, from the Arabic word meaning recitation. The caliph Uthman, who ruled from 644 to 656, ordered the first official edition of the Koran. He sent a copy of the edition to the chief mosque in each of the capital cities of the Muslim provinces. Muslims consider the Koran the words of God Himself, spoken to Muhammad by an angel.

Parts of the Koran resemble the Bible, the Apocrypha, and the Talmud. The Koran contains many stories about the prophets that appear in the Old Testament. The Koran also has stories about Jesus, whom it calls the Word of God.

God and humanity. The Koran teaches the absolute unity and power of God, the creator of the whole universe. It also teaches that God is just and merciful, and wishes people to repent and purify themselves so that they can attain Paradise after death. Therefore, God sends prophets with sacred books to teach people their duty to God and humanity. The Muslims believe Muhammad was the last of the prophets. Jesus and the Old Testament prophets were among his predecessors.

The Koran forbids the representation of human and animal figures, so orthodox Islamic art rarely pictures living beings. The Koran also denounces usury, games of chance, and the consumption of pork and alcohol.

Ethics and morals. The Koran, like the Bible, forbids lying, stealing, adultery, and murder. Punishment for some offenses, such as theft or adultery, can be severe. But the Koran softened the ancient law of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" by permitting the payment of "blood money" and by urging forgiveness. The Koran permits slavery under certain conditions, but urges that slaves be freed. It permits a man to have as many as four wives under certain conditions.

Virtue and justice. The Koran teaches honor for parents, kindness to slaves, protection for orphans and widows, and charity to the poor. It teaches the virtues of faith in God, kindness, honesty, industry, honor, courage, and generosity. It condemns mistrust, impatience, and cruelty. Heads of families must treat household members kindly and fairly. A wife has rights against her husband to protect her from abuse. It teaches that a person should not refuse requests for help even if they seem unnecessary. God judges the dishonest petitioner and rewards the giver in this and the next world.

Life and death. Islam teaches that life on earth is a period of testing and preparation for the life to come. The angels in heaven record a person's good and bad deeds. People should therefore try their best to be good and help others, and then trust in God's justice and mercy for their reward. Death is the gate to eternal life. Muslims believe in a last, or judgment, day when everyone will receive the record of his or her deeds on earth. The record book is placed in the right hand of the good, who then go to heaven. It is placed in the left hand of the wicked, who go to hell. The sorrows and tortures of hell resemble those described in the Bible. The Muslim heaven is a garden with flowing streams, luscious fruits, richly covered couches, and beautiful maidens.

Customs and ceremonies

Duties. A Muslim's chief duties can be summarized in the Five Pillars of Faith. They are (1) profession of the unity of God and the prophethood of Muhammad, (2) prayer, (3) almsgiving, (4) fasting, and (5) pilgrimage.

Prayer, or Salat. Muslims pray five times daily: at dawn, at noon, in the afternoon, in the evening, and at nightfall. A crier, or muezzin (pronounced myoo EZ in), announces prayer time from the minaret (mosque tower). Muslims ceremonially wash their faces, hands, and feet just before prayer. On Friday, Muslims are expected to attend noon prayers at a mosque. The prayer leader faces Mecca. The men stand behind him, and the women stand behind the men. Prayers consist of reciting passages from the Koran and other phrases of praise to God. They include such movements as bowing from the hips and kneeling with the face to the ground. Friday prayers are preceded by a sermon.

Almsgiving may be required or free will. Required almsgiving is called Zakat and the free will type is called Sadaqah. Zakat is like the tithe mentioned in the Bible. Muslims must give 21/2 percent of their wealth each year as a trust fund for the needy. Islam does not limit free will charity, except that Muslims cannot deprive their own families of their fixed legal inheritance by giving all their wealth to charity.

Fasting. Ramadan, the ninth month in the Muslim year, is the holy month of fasting. Muslims may not eat or drink from dawn to sunset. Travelers, the sick, nursing mothers, and soldiers on the march are exempt, but must make up the days missed. Muslims joyfully celebrate the end of the long fast in the three-day Festival of the Breaking of the Fast (Little Bairam).

Pilgrimage, or the Hajj, to Mecca is commanded by the Koran. All able Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage at least once. Many ceremonies are required during the pilgrimage. The most important ceremonies include walking seven times around the Kaaba and kissing the sacred Black Stone in its wall. Most Muslims include a visit to the Mosque of Muhammad in Medina. The pilgrimage is concluded with the Festival of Sacrifice, when the Muslims sacrifice a sheep, goat, or camel, and usually give the meat to the poor. This is the Muslims' Great Festival, while Little Bairam is the Lesser Festival. Muslims celebrate both of these festivals by visiting, wearing new clothes, and by exchanging gifts.

Celebrations of many kinds take place throughout the Muslim world. Public holidays include Muhammad's birthday, which is widely celebrated. Members of the Shiah sect of Islam, called Shiites (pronounced SHEE eyets), have some additional festivals and ceremonies. The most important ceremony observes mourning for the death of Husain, a grandson of Muhammad, in 661. Shiites also celebrate the birthday of Fatima, Muhammad's daughter.

Private ceremonies in a Muslim's life occur at birth, circumcision, and weddings. The event that Muslims take most pride in is a child's memorizing of the entire Koran. Then the child's family holds a party for the student and the teacher, and both receive gifts.

The structure of Islam

The mosque, or Muslim place of worship, is the most important building for Muslims. Mosque comes from the Arabic masjid, which means a place of kneeling. A typical mosque has a mihrab (niche) that points to Mecca. It also contains a pulpit for the preacher and a lectern for the Koran. Most mosques have at least one minaret from which the muezzin chants the call to prayer. A court and a water fountain are generally provided for the ceremonial washing before prayer. The mosque is often decorated with colorful arabesques and Koranic verses.

Many mosques have a religious elementary school where young scholars learn to read and memorize the Koran. Some mosques, especially in Muslim countries, also have a madrasah (religious college) where students may complete their religious education. Madrasah graduates, sometimes called mullahs, may teach in a mosque school or a madrasah, or they may preach in a mosque.

The Imam, or leader, is the chief officer in the mosque. The Imam's main duty is to lead the people in prayer. The Prophet Muhammad led prayers in his mosque in Medina and in the mosque surrounding the Kaaba in Mecca. The caliphs led the people in all religious and political matters, so they were the chief Imams. On special occasions, a distinguished visitor or religious teacher may lead the public prayers.

Islam does not have an organized priesthood. Any virtuous and able Muslim can lead prayers in most mosques. However, it is usually the Imam, a person chosen for piety or scholarship, who handles the services of the mosque.

Sects. Like all religions, Islam has its sects. In the 600's, the Muslim world split into two great divisions, Sunni and Shiah. Most Muslims are Sunnites. They believe that Muslim leadership after the death of Muhammad passed to caliphs elected from Muhammad's tribe. The Shiites believe that leadership was restricted to descendants of Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law. Shiites form the largest minority. Members of this Islamic group live scattered throughout Asia and Africa and, more recently, in Europe and America.

There have also been a number of smaller sects. In the early years, a group called the Kharijites broke away from the Muslim community and formed a more puritanical and democratic sect. The Kharijites have disappeared as an active group. Another prominent sect, the Wahhabis, or Ikhwan, also form a puritanical group. They are dominant in Saudi Arabia. The Baha'i faith grew out of the Shiite group.

Aga Khan IV is the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Khoja Muslims, a sect that has been in existence almost from the beginning of Islam. Members of this Islamic group, numbering about 10 million, live scattered throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America.

Until recently, Islam had no organized missionary movement. But today al-Azhar University of Cairo, the intellectual center of Islam, trains students for missionary work. Several Islamic sects, especially the Ahmadiyya of Pakistan, work as missionaries throughout Europe, America, Asia, and Africa.

Contributor: Ali Hassan Abdel-Kader, Ph.D., Prof. of Islamic Studies, Columbia Univ.

Charles J. Adams, Ph.D., Former Prof. of Islamic Studies, McGill Univ.

Critically reviewed by Ali Hassan Abdel Kader

Additional resources

Choueiri, Youssef M. Islamic Fundamentalism. Twayne, 1990.

Esposito, John L. Islam: The Straight Path. Rev. ed. Oxford, 1990.

Gordon, Matthew S. Islam. Facts on File, 1991.

Khuri, Fuad I. Imams and Emirs: State, Religion, and Sects in Islam. Saqi Bks., 1990.

Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge, 1988.

Ruthven, Malise. Islam in the World. Oxford, 1984.

Voll, John O. Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World. Westview, 1982.

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