one of the three major world religions, along with Judaism and
Christianity, that profess monotheism, or the belief in a single God. In
the Arabic language, the word Islam means “surrender” or
“submission”—submission to the will of God. A follower of Islam is
called a Muslim, which in Arabic means “one who surrenders to
God.” The Arabic name for God, Allah, refers to the same God
worshiped by Jews and Christians. Islam's central teaching is that there
is only one all-powerful, all-knowing God, and this God created the
universe. This rigorous monotheism, as well as the Islamic teaching that
all Muslims are equal before God, provides the basis for a collective
sense of loyalty to God that transcends class, race, nationality, and even
differences in religious practice. Thus, all Muslims belong to one
community, the umma, irrespective of their ethnic or national
two centuries after its rise in the 7th century, Islam spread from its
original home in Arabia into Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain to the
west, and into Persia, India, and, by the end of the 10th century, beyond
to the east. In the following centuries, Islam also spread into Anatolia
and the Balkans to the north, and sub-Saharan Africa to the south. The
Muslim community comprises about 1 billion followers on all five
continents, and Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world. The
most populous Muslim country is Indonesia, followed by Pakistan and
Bangladesh. Beyond the Middle East, large numbers of Muslims live in
India, Nigeria, the former republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist
Republics (USSR), and China.
of the reasons for the growth of the Muslim community has been its
openness to new members. Children born to Muslim parents are automatically
considered Muslim. At any time, a non-Muslim can convert to Islam by
declaring himself or herself to be a Muslim. A person's declaration of
faith is sufficient evidence of conversion to Islam and need not be
confirmed by others or by religious authorities.
Teachings of Muhammad
the year AD 570 Muhammad,
the founding prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca,
at the time the central city of the Arabian Peninsula. Some 40 years later
Muhammad started preaching a new religion, Islam, which constituted a
marked break from existing moral and social codes in Arabia. The new
religion of Islam taught that there was one God, and that Muhammad was the
last and most important in a series of prophets and messengers. Through
his messengers God had sent various codes, or systems of laws for living,
culminating in the Qur'an
(Koran), the holy book of Islam. These messengers were mortal men, and
they included among many others Moses,
the Hebrew prophet and lawgiver, and Jesus,
whom Christians believe to be the son of God rather than a prophet.
also taught that the Christian Bible
(which includes the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament and an additional 27
books referred to as the New Testament), and the Qur'an were all holy
books. According to the Qur'an, the two earlier Scriptures had been
altered over time from their original forms given by God, while the Qur'an
would remain perfect, preserved by God from such distortion. In addition
to distinguishing itself from the Hebrew and Christian traditions, the new
religion taught that the God of Islam had provided humanity with the means
to know good from evil, through the prophets and the Qur'an. Therefore, on
the Day of Judgment people will be held accountable for their actions.
teachings met with severe and hostile opposition, and in the year 622 he
left Mecca and sought refuge in the city of Yathrib, as a number of his
followers had already done. Upon Muhammad's arrival, the name Yathrib was
changed to Medina
(meaning “the city”). The date of Muhammad's immigration was later set
as the beginning of the 12-month lunar Islamic calendar.
the ten years between his arrival in Medina and his death in AD
632, Muhammad laid the foundation for the ideal Islamic state. A core of
committed Muslims was established, and a community life was ordered
according to the requirements of the new religion. In addition to general
moral injunctions, the requirements of the religion came to include a
number of institutions that continue to characterize Islamic religious
practice today. Foremost among these were the five
pillars of Islam, the essential religious duties required of every
adult Muslim who is mentally able. The five pillars are each described in
some part of the Qur'an and were already practiced during Muhammad's
lifetime. They are the profession of faith (shahada), prayer (salat),
almsgiving (zakat), fasting (sawm), and pilgrimage (hajj).
Although some of these practices had precedents in Jewish, Christian, and
other Middle Eastern religious traditions, taken together they distinguish
Islamic religious practices from those of other religions. The five
pillars are thus the most central rituals of Islam and constitute the core
practices of the Islamic faith.
Profession of Faith
absolute focus of Islamic piety is Allah, the supreme, all knowing,
all-powerful, and above all, all-merciful God. The Arabic word Allah
means “the God,” and this God is understood to be the God who brought
the world into being and sustains it to its end. By obeying God's
commands, human beings express their recognition of and gratitude for the
wisdom of creation, and live in harmony with the universe.
profession of faith, or witness to faith (shahada), is therefore the
prerequisite for membership in the Muslim community. On several occasions
during a typical day, and in the saying of daily prayers, a Muslim repeats
the profession, "I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and
that Muhammad is his prophet." There are no formal restrictions on
the times and places these words can be repeated. To become a member of
the Muslim community, a person has to profess and act upon this belief in
the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad. To be a true
profession of faith that represents a relationship between the speaker and
God, the verbal utterance must express genuine knowledge of its meaning as
well as sincere belief. A person's deeds can be subjected to scrutiny by
other Muslims, but a person's utterance of the profession of faith is
sufficient evidence of membership in the Muslim community and cannot be
challenged by other members of this community.
Five Daily Prayers
second pillar of Islam is the religious duty to perform five prescribed
daily prayers or salat. All adult Muslims are supposed to perform five
prayers, preceded by ritual cleansing or purification of the body at
different intervals of the day. The Qur'anic references also mention the
acts of standing, bowing, and prostrating during prayers and facing a set
direction, known as qibla. The Muslims were first required to face Jerusalem
during prayer, but already during Muhammad's lifetime they were commanded
to face the Kaaba,
an ancient shrine in the city of Mecca. The Qur'an also refers to the
recitation of parts of the Qur'an as a form of prayer. However, even with
its numerous references, the Qur'an alone does not give exact instructions
for this central ritual of prayer.
most detailed descriptions of the rituals for prayer derive from the
example set by the prophet Muhammad and are preserved in later Islamic
traditions. Some details of these rituals vary, however all Muslims agree
that there are five required daily prayers to be performed at certain
times of day: dawn (fajr or subh), noon (zuhr),
midafternoon (asr), sunset (maghrib), and evening (isha).
The dawn, noon, and sunset prayers do not start exactly at dawn, noon, and
sunset; instead, they begin just after, to distinguish the Islamic ritual
from earlier pagan practices of worshiping the sun when it rises or sets.
prayer is made up of a sequence of units called bowings (rak'as).
During each of these units, the worshiper stands, bows, kneels, and
prostrates while reciting verses from the Qur'an as well as other prayer
formulas. With some variations among different Muslim sects, at noon,
afternoon, and evening prayers, these units are repeated four times, while
during the sunset prayer they are repeated three times, and at dawn only
twice. The opening chapter of the Qur'an, al-Fatiha, is repeated in each
unit in a prayer sequence. Each prayer concludes with the recitation of
the profession of faith followed by the greeting "may the peace,
mercy, and blessings of God be upon you."
Muslims live in substantial numbers throughout the world, the call to
prayer, or adhan, is repeated five times a day by a muezzin
(crier) from a mosque, the Muslim place of worship. Muslims are encouraged
to pray together in mosques, but group prayer is only a religious
obligation for the noon prayer on Friday. Women, travelers, sick Muslims,
and those attending to the sick are granted license not to attend the
Friday congregational prayer, although they may attend if they wish.
Friday noon prayer is led by an imam, who is simply a prayer
leader; this prayer differs from the usual noon prayers of the other days
of the week. As a required part of the ritual at this congregational
meeting, two sermons precede the prayer. On other days, Muslims can pray
anywhere they wish, either individually or in groups. They must observe
the rituals of praying at certain times of day, facing in the direction of
Mecca, observing the proper order of prayers, and preparing through
symbolic purification. Depending on the situation, this last ritual of
ablution requires either total washing of the body or a less elaborate
ritual washing of the hands, mouth, face, and feet.
addition to the five required daily prayers, Muslims can perform
non-obligatory prayers, some of which have fixed ritual formats and are
performed before or after each of the five daily prayers. Others are
performed at night, either individually or with other Muslims. These
additional formal and informal prayers give expression to the primary
function of prayer in Islam, which is personal communication with God for
the purpose of maintaining the abiding presence of the divine in the
personal lives of Muslims. The more formal aspects of prayer also serve to
provide a disciplined rhythm that structures the day and fosters a sense
of community and shared identity among Muslims.
third pillar of Islam is zakat, or almsgiving. A religious obligation,
zakat is considered an expression of devotion to God. It represents the
attempt to provide for the poorer sectors of society, and it offers a
means for a Muslim to purify his or her wealth and attain salvation. The
Qur'an, together with other Islamic traditions, strongly encourages
charity and constantly reminds Muslims of their moral obligation to the
poor, orphans, and widows; however, it distinguishes between general,
voluntary charity (sadaqa) and zakat, the latter being an
obligatory charge on the money or produce of Muslims. While the meaning of
terms has been open to different interpretations, the Qur'an regularly
refers to zakat, identifying specific ways in which this tax can be spent.
These specific uses include spending zakat on the poor and the needy, on
those who collect and distribute zakat, on those whom Muslims hope to win
over and convert to Islam, on travelers, on the ransom of captives, to
relieve those who are burdened with debts, and on the cause of God.
Qur'an provides less-detailed information about the kinds of things that
are subject to the zakat tax or the precise share of income or property
that should be paid as zakat. These determinations are provided in the
traditions of the prophet Muhammad and have been the subject of elaborate
discussions among Muslim legal experts, or jurists. For example,
one-fortieth (2.5 percent) of the assets accumulated during the year
(including gold, silver, and money) is payable at the end of the year,
while one-tenth of the harvest of the land or date trees is payable at
harvest time. Cattle, camels, and other domestic animals are subject to a
more complex taxation system that depends on the animals in question,
their age, the numbers involved, and whether they are freely grazing.
Traditional zakat laws do not cover trade, but commercial taxes have been
imposed by various Muslim governments throughout history.
fourth pillar of Islam is sawm, or fasting. Clear Qur'anic
references to fasting account for the early introduction of this ritual
practice. The Qur'an prescribes fasting during the month of Ramadan,
the 9th month of the 12-month Islamic lunar year (see Calendar).
The month of Ramadan is sacred because the first revelation of the Qur'an
is said to have occurred during this month. By tradition the month starts
with the sighting of the new moon by at least two Muslims. For the entire
month, Muslims must fast from daybreak to sunset by refraining from
eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse. Menstruating women, travelers,
and sick people are exempted from fasting but have to make up the days
they miss at a later date.
to various traditional interpretations, the fast introduces physical and
spiritual discipline, serves to remind the rich of the misfortunes of the
poor, and fosters, through this rigorous act of worship, a sense of
solidarity and mutual care among Muslims of all social backgrounds. Thus
Muslims usually engage in further acts of worship beyond the ordinary
during Ramadan, such as voluntary night prayer, reading sections from the
Qur'an, and paying voluntary charity to the poor. Muslims may even choose
to wake before daybreak to eat a meal that will sustain them until sunset.
After the fasting ends, the holiday of breaking the fast, 'id al-fitr,
begins, lasting for three days.
any time of year fasting is also required as a compensation for various
offenses and violations of the law. Many Muslims also perform voluntary
fasts at various times of the year as acts of devotion and spiritual
discipline. However, such additional fasting is not required by Islamic
Pilgrimage to Mecca
fifth pillar requires that Muslims who have the physical and financial
ability should perform the pilgrimage, or hajj,
to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. The ritual of pilgrimage was
practiced by Arabs before the rise of Islam and continues from the early
days of Islam. The hajj is distinct from other pilgrimages. It must take
place during the 12th lunar month of the year, known as Dhu al-Hijja,
and it involves a set and detailed sequence of rituals that are practiced
over the span of several days. All of the pilgrimage rituals take place in
the city of Mecca and its surroundings, and the primary focus of these
rituals is a cubical structure called the Kaaba. According to Islamic
tradition, the Kaaba, also referred to as the House of God, was built at
God's command by the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham
of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles) and his son Ismail (see Ishmael).
Qur'an provides detailed descriptions of various parts of the ritual, and
it portrays many of these rituals as reenactments of the activities
undertaken by Ibrahim and Ismail in the course of building the Kaaba. Set
into one corner of the Kaaba is the sacred Black Stone, which according to
one Islamic tradition was given to Ibrahim by the angel Gabriel. According
to another Islamic tradition this stone was first set in place by Adam.
pilgrims arrive in Mecca, ritual purification is performed. Many men shave
their heads, and most men and women put on seamless white sheets. This
simple and common dress symbolizes the equality of all Muslims before God,
a status further reinforced by the prohibition of jewelry, perfumes,
sexual intercourse, and hunting. After this ritual purification, Muslims
circle the Kaaba seven times, run between al-Safa and al-Marwa, two hills
overlooking the Kaaba, seven times, and perform several prayers and
invocations. This ritual is a reenactment of the search by Hagar
for water to give her son Ismail.
these opening rituals, the hajj proper commences on the seventh day and
continues for the next three days. Again, it starts with the performance
of ritual purification followed by a prayer at the Kaaba mosque. The
pilgrims then assemble at Mina, a hill outside Mecca, where they spend the
night. The next morning they go to the nearby plain of Arafat, where they
stand from noon to sunset and perform a series of prayers and rituals. The
pilgrims then head to Muzdalifa, a location halfway between Arafat and
Mina, to spend the night. The next morning, the pilgrims head back to
Mina, on the way stopping at stone pillars symbolizing Satan, at which
they throw seven pebbles.
final ritual is the slaughter of an animal (sheep, goat, cow, or camel).
This is a symbolic reenactment of God's command to Ibrahim to sacrifice
his son Ismail, which Ibrahim and Ismail duly accepted and were about to
execute when God allowed Ibrahim to slaughter a ram in place of his son.
(In the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, Abraham is called to sacrifice his
son Isaac rather than Ishmael.) Most of the meat of the slaughtered
animals is to be distributed to poor Muslims. The ritual sacrifice ends
the hajj and starts the festival of the sacrifice, 'id al-adha. The
festivals of breaking fast ('id al-fitr) at the end of Ramadan and
'id al-adha are the two major Islamic festivals celebrated by
Muslims all over the world.
the pilgrimage most Muslims visit Medina, where the tomb of the Prophet is
located, before returning to their homes. If the pilgrimage rituals are
performed at any time of the year other than the designated time for hajj,
the ritual is called umra. Although umra is considered a virtuous
act, it does not absolve the person from the obligation of hajj. Most
pilgrims perform one or more umras before or after the hajj proper.
Muslims pilgrims also travel to Jerusalem, which is the third sacred city
for Islam. Muslims believe Muhammad was carried to Jerusalem in a vision. The
Dome of the Rock houses the stone from which Muhammad is believed to
have ascended to heaven and Allah in a night journey. Some Muslims perform
pilgrimages to the Dome of the Rock and to other shrines where revered
religious figures are buried. Some of these shrines are important
primarily to the local populations, whereas others draw Muslims from
distant regions. There are no standard prescribed rituals for these
pilgrimages nor are they treated as obligatory acts of worship.
polemical descriptions of Islam have focused critically on the Islamic
concept of jihad.
Jihad, considered the sixth pillar of Islam by some Muslims, has been
understood to mean holy war in these descriptions. However, the word in
Arabic means "to struggle" or "to exhaust one's
effort," in order to please God. Within the faith of Islam, this
effort can be individual or collective, and it can apply to leading a
virtuous life; helping other Muslims through charity, education, or other
means; preaching Islam; and fighting to defend Muslims. Western media of
the 20th century continue to focus on the militant interpretations of the
concept of jihad, whereas most Muslims do not.
all Muslim institutions, the mosque
is the most important place for the public expression of Islamic
religiosity and communal identity. A mosque is a physical manifestation of
the public presence of Muslims and serves as a point of convergence for
Islamic social and intellectual activity. The Arabic word for mosque is masjid,
which means a "place of prostration" before God. Mosques are
mentioned in the Qur'an, and the earliest model for a mosque was the
residence that the prophet Muhammad built when he moved to Medina. This
first mosque was an enclosure marked as a special place of worship. A
small part of the mosque was sectioned off to house the Prophet and his
family, and the remaining space was left open as a place for Muslims to
later mosques developed into complex architectural structures built in
diverse styles, the one requirement of all mosques continues to be based
on the earliest model: a designation of space for the purpose of prayer.
The early mosque served an equally important function that thousands of
mosques continue to serve today: The mosque is a place where Muslims
foster a collective identity through prayer and attend to their common
concerns. A Muslim city typically has numerous mosques but only a few
congregational or Friday mosques where the obligatory Friday noon prayers
Islam spread outside Arabia, Islamic architecture was influenced by the
various architectural styles of the conquered lands, and both simple and
monumental mosques of striking beauty were built in cities of the Islamic
world. Despite the borrowings from diverse civilizations, certain common
features became characteristic of most mosques and thus serve to
distinguish them from the sacred spaces of other religions and cultures.
most important characteristic of a mosque is that it should be oriented
toward Mecca. One or more niches (mihrab) on one of the walls of
the mosque often serve as indicators of this direction, called qibla.
When the imam leads the prayers he usually faces one of these niches. Next
to the mihrab, a pulpit (minbar) is often provided for the delivery
of sermons (khutba). Many mosques also have separate areas for
performing ritual ablution, and separate sections for women. In many
mosques, several rows of columns are used to mark the way for worshipers
to line up behind the imam during prayer.
usually have one or more minarets, or towers, from which the
muezzin calls Muslims to prayer five times a day. In addition to their
functional use, these minarets have become distinguishing elements of
mosque architecture. In large mosques in particular, minarets have the
effect of tempering the enormity and magnificence of the domed structure
by conveying to the viewer the elevation of divinity above the pretensions
of human grandeur.
mosques also have a dome, and the line connecting the center of the dome
to the niche is supposed to point toward Mecca. Throughout the world there
are many mosques that are not actually directed toward Mecca, but such
misalignment is due to inaccurate methods for determining the direction of
Mecca and does not imply a disregard for this requirement. The mosque is
not a self-contained unit, nor is it a symbolic microcosm of the universe,
as are some places of worship in other religions. Rather, the mosque is
always built as a connection with Mecca, the ultimate home of Muslim
worship that metaphorically forms the center of all mosques. See Islamic
Art and Architecture.
God of Islam
doctrine emphasizes the oneness, uniqueness, transcendence, and utter
otherness of God. As such, God is different from anything that the human
senses can perceive or that the human mind can imagine. The God of Islam
encompasses all creation, but no mind can fully encompass or grasp him.
God, however, is manifest through his creation, and through reflection
humankind can easily discern the wisdom and power behind the creation of
the world. Because of God's oneness and his transcendence of human
experience and knowledge, Islamic law forbids representations of God, the
prophets, and among some Muslims, human beings in general. As a result of
this belief, Islamic art came to excel in a variety of decorative patterns
including leaf shapes later stylized as arabesques, and Arabic script. In
modern times the restrictions on creating images of people have been
considerably relaxed, but any attitude of worship toward images and icons
is strictly forbidden in Islam.
Islam, many Arabs believed in a supreme, all-powerful God responsible for
creation; however, they also believed in lesser gods. With the coming of
Islam, the Arab concept of God was purged of elements of polytheism and
turned into a qualitatively different concept of uncompromising belief in
one God, or monotheism. The status of the Arabs before Islam is considered
to be one of ignorance of God, or jahiliyya, and Islamic sources
insist that Islam brought about a complete break from Arab concepts of God
and a radical transformation in Arab belief about God.
doctrine maintains that Islam's monotheism continues that of Judaism and
Christianity. However, the Qur'an and Islamic traditions stress the
distinctions between Islam and later forms of the two other monotheistic
religions. According to Islamic belief, both Moses and Jesus, like others
before them, were prophets commissioned by God to preach the essential and
eternal message of Islam. The legal codes introduced by these two
prophets, the Ten Commandments and the Christian Gospels, took different
forms than the Qur'an, but according to Islamic understanding, at the
level of doctrine they are the same teaching. The recipients of scriptures
are called the people of the book or the "scriptured" people.
Like the Jews and the Christians before them, the Muslims became
scriptured when God revealed his word to them through a prophet: God
revealed the Qur'an to the prophet Muhammad, commanding him to preach it
to his people and later to all humanity.
Muslims believe that the original messages of Judaism
were given by God, they also believe that Jews and Christians eventually
distorted them. The self-perceived mission of Islam, therefore, has been
to restore what Muslims believe is the original monotheistic teaching and
to supplant the older legal codes of the Hebrew and Christian traditions
with a newer Islamic code of law that corresponds to the evolving
conditions of human societies. Thus, for example, Islamic traditions
maintain that Jesus was a prophet whose revealed book was the Christian
New Testament, and that later Christians distorted the original scripture
and inserted into it the claim that Jesus was the son of God. Or to take
another example, Muslims maintain that the strict laws communicated by
Moses in the Hebrew Bible were appropriate for their time. Later, however,
Jesus introduced a code of behavior that stressed spirituality rather than
ritual and law.
to Muslim belief, God sent Muhammad with the last and perfect legal code
that balances the spiritual teachings with the law, and thus supplants the
Jewish and Christian codes. According to the teachings of Islam, the
Islamic code, called Sharia,
is the final code, one that will continue to address the needs of humanity
in its most developed stages, for all time. The Qur'an mentions 28
pre-Islamic prophets and messengers, and Islamic traditions maintain that
God has sent tens of thousands of prophets to various peoples since the
beginning of creation. Some of the Qur'anic prophets are familiar from the
Hebrew Bible, but others are not mentioned in the Bible and seem to be
prophetic figures from pre-Islamic Arabia.
the Muslim then, Islamic history unfolds a divine scheme from the
beginning of creation to the end of time. Creation itself is the
realization of God's will in history. Humans are created to worship God,
and human history is punctuated with prophets who guarantee that the world
is never devoid of knowledge and proper worship of God. The sending of
prophets is itself understood within Islam as an act of mercy. God, the
creator and sustainer, never abandons his creations, always providing
human beings with the guidance they need for their salvation in this world
and a world to come after this one. God is just, and his justice requires
informing people, through prophets, of how to act and what to believe
before he holds them accountable for their actions and beliefs. However,
once people receive the teachings of prophets and messengers, God's
justice also means that he will punish those who do wrong or do not
believe and will reward those who do right and do believe. Despite the
primacy of justice as an essential attribute of God, Muslims believe that
God's most fundamental attribute is mercy.
Humanity's Relationship to God
to Islamic belief, in addition to sending prophets, God manifests his
mercy in the dedication of all creation to the service of humankind.
Islamic traditions maintain that God brought the world into being for the
benefit of his creatures. His mercy toward humanity is further manifested
in the privileged status God gave to humans. According to the Qur'an and
later traditions, God appointed humankind as his vice regents (caliphs)
on earth, thus entrusting them with the grave responsibility of fulfilling
his scheme for creation.
Islamic concept of a privileged position for humanity departs from the
early Jewish and Christian interpretations of the fall from Paradise that
underlie the Christian doctrine of original
sin. In the biblical account, Adam
and Eve fall from Paradise as a result of disobeying God's
prohibition, and all of humanity is cast out of Paradise as punishment.
Christian theologians developed the doctrine that humankind is born with
this sin of their first parents still on their souls, based upon this
reading of the story. Christians believe that Jesus Christ came to redeem
humans from this original sin so that humankind can return to God at the
end of time. In contrast, the Qur'an maintains that after their initial
disobedience, Adam and Eve repented and were forgiven by God. Consequently
Muslims believe that the descent by Adam and Eve to earth from Paradise
was not a fall, but an honor bestowed on them by God. Adam and his progeny
were appointed as God's messengers and vice regents, and were entrusted by
God with the guardianship of the earth.
nature of humankind's relationship to God can also be seen clearly by
comparing it with that of angels. According to Islamic tradition, angels
were created from light. An angel
is an immortal being that commits no sins and serves as a guardian, a
recorder of deeds, and a link between God and humanity. The angel Gabriel,
for example, communicated God's message to the prophet Muhammad. In
contrast to humans, angels are incapable of unbelief and, with the
exception of Satan,
always obey God.
these traits, Islamic doctrine holds that humans are superior to angels.
According to Islamic traditions, God entrusted humans and not angels with
the guardianship of the earth and commanded the angels to prostrate
themselves to Adam. Satan, together with the other angels, questioned
God's appointment of fallible humans to the honorable position of
viceregency. Being an ardent monotheist, Satan disobeyed God and refused
to prostrate himself before anyone but God. For this sin, Satan was doomed
to lead human beings astray until the end of the world. According to the
Qur'an, God informed the angels that he had endowed humans with a
knowledge angels could not acquire.
centuries Muslim theologians have debated the subjects of justice and
mercy as well as God's other attributes. Initially, Islamic theology
developed in the context of controversial debates with Christians and
Jews. As their articulations of the basic doctrines of Islam became more
complex, Muslim theologians soon turned to debating different
interpretations of the Qur'an among themselves, developing the foundations
of Islamic theology.
debates among Islamic scholars over the nature of God have continued to
refine the Islamic concepts of God's otherness and Islamic monotheism. For
example, some theologians interpreted Qur'anic attributions of traits such
as hearing and seeing to God metaphorically to avoid comparing God to
created beings. Another controversial theological debate focused on the
question of free will and predestination. One group of Muslim theologians
maintained that because God is just, he creates only good, and therefore
only humans can create evil. Otherwise, this group argued, God's
punishment of humans would be unjust because he himself created their evil
deeds. This particular view was rejected by other Muslim theologians on
the grounds that it limits the scope of God's creation, when the Qur'an
clearly states that God is the sole creator of everything that exists in
controversial issue was the question of whether the Qur'an was eternal or
created in time. Theologians who were devoted to the concept of God's
oneness maintained that the Qur'an must have been created in time, or else
there would be something as eternal as God. This view was rejected by
others because the Qur'an, the ultimate authority in Islam, states in many
places and in unambiguous terms that it is the eternal word of God.
other theological controversies occupied Muslim thinkers for the first few
centuries of Islam, but by the 10th century the views of Islamic
theologian al-Ashari and his followers, known as Asharites,
prevailed and were adopted by most Muslims. The way this school resolved
the question of free will was to argue that no human act could occur if
God does not will it, and that God's knowledge encompasses all that was,
is, or will be. This view also maintains that it is God's will to create
the power in humans to make free choices. God is therefore just to hold
humans accountable for their actions. The views of al-Ashari and his
school gradually became dominant in Sunni, or orthodox, Islam, and they
still prevail among most Muslims. The tendency of the Sunnis,
however, has been to tolerate and accommodate minor differences of opinion
and to emphasize the consensus of the community in matters of doctrine.
is the case with any religious group, ordinary Muslims have not always
been concerned with detailed theological controversies. For ordinary
Muslims the central belief of Islam is in the oneness of God and in his
prophets and messengers, culminating in Muhammad. Thus Muslims believe in
the scriptures that God sent through these messengers, particularly the
truth and content of the Qur'an. Whatever their specific religious
practices, most Muslims believe in angels, the Day of Judgment, heaven,
paradise, and hell.
in the message of Muhammad comes second only to belief in the one God.
Muhammad was born around the year 570 and was orphaned at an early age. He
was eventually raised by his uncle, who had religious prominence within
the main Quraysh tribe of Mecca but was of modest financial means. At age
25, Muhammad married Khadija, a well-to-do, 40-year-old woman. At age 40,
during a retreat in the hills outside Mecca, Muhammad had his first
experience of Islam. The angel Gabriel appeared to a fearful Muhammad and
informed him that he was God's chosen messenger. Gabriel also communicated
to Muhammad the first revelation from God. Terrified and shaken, Muhammad
went to his home. His wife became the first person to accept his message
and convert to Islam. After receiving a series of additional revelations,
Muhammad started preaching the new religion, initially to a small circle
of relatives and friends, and then to the general public.
Meccans first ignored Muhammad, then ridiculed him. As more people
accepted Muhammad's call, the Meccans became more aggressive. After
failing to sway Muhammad away from the new religion they started to
persecute his less prominent followers. When this approach did not work,
the opposing Meccans decided to persecute Muhammad himself. By this time,
two main tribes from the city of Yathrib, about 300 km (200 mi) north of
Mecca, had invited Muhammad to live there. The clan leaders invited
Muhammad to Yathrib as an impartial religious authority to arbitrate
disputes. In return, the leaders pledged to accept Muhammad as a prophet
and thus support the new religion of Islam.
the year 622, Muhammad immigrated to Yathrib, and the name of the city was
changed to Medina, meaning city of the Prophet. This date was designated
by later Muslims as the beginning of the Muslim calendar, year one of
hegira (Arabic hijra, “immigration”). Only two years after
Muhammad's arrival in Medina, the core community of Muslims started to
expand. At Medina, in addition to preaching the religious and moral
message of Islam, Muhammad organized an Islamic society and served as head
of state, diplomat, military leader, and chief legislator for the growing
Muslim community. Hostilities soon broke out between the Muslims in Medina
and the powerful Meccans. In 630, after a series of military
confrontations and diplomatic maneuvers, the Muslims in Medina extended
their authority over Mecca, the most important city of Arabia at the time.
Before Muhammad died in 632, the whole Arabian Peninsula was united for
the first time in its history, under the banner of Islam.
accounts of Muhammad contain some stories that describe supernatural
events such as his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and his
subsequent ascent to heaven on the back of a supernatural winged horse.
Despite such stories, the primary focus of the biographies, as well as
Islamic doctrine in general, is on the humanity of Muhammad.
all prophets before him, Muhammad was a mortal man, commissioned by God to
deliver a message to his people and to humanity. Like other prophets,
Muhammad was distinguished from ordinary people by certain powers and
faculties. For example, Muslims believe that the distinction of being
sinless was granted to Muhammad by God to support his career as a prophet.
Thus Muhammad is portrayed in the Qur'an as a person who makes mistakes
but who does not sin against God. However, God corrected Muhammad's
mistakes or errors in judgment, so that his life serves as an example for
future Muslims to follow. This emphasis on Muhammad's humanity serves as a
reminder that other humans can reasonably aspire to lead a good life as he
with other prophets and messengers, God supported Muhammad by allowing him
to work miracles and thus prove that he was a genuine prophet. The
singular miracle of Muhammad and the ultimate proof of the truthfulness of
Islam is the Qur'an. In accordance with the words of the scripture itself,
Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the timeless word of God, “the like
of which no human can produce.” This trait of the scripture, called
inimitability (i'jaz), is based on belief in the divine
authorship of the Qur'an. Unlike earlier religions, the miracle of Islam
is a literary miracle, and Muhammad's other supernatural acts are
subordinate to it.
belief in the unique nature of the Qur'an has led Muslims to devote great
intellectual energies to the study of its contents and form. In addition
to interpreting the scripture and deriving doctrines and laws from it,
many disciplines within Qur'anic studies seek to understand its linguistic
and literary qualities as an expression of its divine origins.
Format of the Holy Book
Qur'an is made up of 114 chapters, called suras, which are roughly
organized, from the second chapter onward, in order of length, beginning
with the longest and ending with the shortest chapters. The first chapter,
al-Fatiha (“the Opening”), is a short chapter that is recited during
each of the five daily prayers and in many other ritual prayers. All but
one chapter begin with the formula "in the name of God, the Merciful
Lord of Mercy" (bism Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim). Each chapter
is divided into verses called ayat (singular aya, meaning
“sign” or “proof”). With few exceptions the verses are randomly
organized without a coherent narrative thread.
typical chapter of the Qur'an may address any combination of the following
themes: God and creation, prophets and messengers from Adam to Jesus,
Muhammad as a preacher and as a ruler, Islam as a faith and as a code of
life, disbelief, human responsibility and judgment, and society and law.
Later Muslim scholars have argued that the text's timelessness and
universality explain the lack of narrative coherence and the randomness of
the topics. In other words, the multiple meanings of the Qur'an transcend
linear narrative as they transcend any particular historical moment.
Qur'an and the Bible
recognizes the divine origins of the earlier Hebrew and Christian
Scriptures and represents itself as both a restoration and a continuation
of their traditions. Because of this, the Qur'an draws on biblical stories
and repeats many biblical themes. In particular, the stories of several
biblical prophets appear in the Qur'an, some in a condensed form; other
stories, such as those of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, are given in
elaborate detail and even with subtle revisions of the biblical accounts.
of the important differences between the Qur'anic and biblical stories of
Abraham's sacrifice of his son, for example, is that the Qur'an suggests
this son is Ishmael, from whom Arabs are descended, and not Isaac, from
whom the tribes of Israel are descended. A more substantial difference
relates to the Islamic story of Jesus, who according to the Qur'an is a
mortal, human prophet. The Islamic faith categorically rejects the idea
that God was ever born, as opposed to Christian belief that Jesus was born
the son of God. Islam also rejects the idea that God shared his divinity
with any other being.
important idea elaborated in the Qur'an and later Islamic doctrine, in
conscious distinction from the biblical accounts, is that although
prophets are capable of human errors, God protects them from committing
sins and also protects them from excruciating suffering or humiliating
experiences. God would not abandon his prophets in times of distress.
Therefore, the Qur'an maintains that God interfered to save Jesus from
torture and death by lifting him to heaven and replacing him on the cross
with someone who looked like him.
Preservation of the Qur'an
its inception during the lifetime of Muhammad, Islamic doctrine gave
priority to the preservation of the scripture. As a result, one of the
earliest expressions of religiosity focused on studying, reciting, and
writing down the scripture. When Muhammad died, the preservation of the
scripture was also a conscious concern among his companions and
successors. Early historical sources refer to immediate efforts undertaken
by successors of Muhammad to collect the chapters of the Qur'an, which
were written down by his various companions.
about two decades after the death of the Prophet, various existing copies
of parts of the Qur'an were collected and collated by a committee of close
companions of Muhammad who were known for their knowledge of the Qur'an.
This committee was commissioned by the third successor of Muhammad, Uthman
ibn Affan, and the committee's systematic effort is the basis of the
codified official text currently used by Muslims. The thematic randomness
of the verses and chapters of the Qur'an in its current format clearly
illustrates that the early companions who produced this official version
of the Qur'an were primarily concerned with establishing the text and made
no attempt to edit its contents in order to produce a coherent narrative.
Because of this, scholars agree that the Uthmanic text genuinely reflects,
both in its content and form, the message that Muhammad preached.
Translations of the Qur'an
the consensus among Muslims on the authenticity of the current format of
the Qur'an, they agree that many words in the Qur'an can be interpreted in
equally valid ways. The Arabic language, like other Semitic languages, has
consonants and vowels, and the meanings of words are derived from both.
For several centuries, the written texts of the Qur'an showed only the
consonants, without indicating the vowel marks. As a result, there are
different ways in which many words can be vocalized, with different
meanings; this allows for various legitimate interpretations of the Qur'an.
of the disciplines for the study of the Qur'an is exclusively dedicated to
the study and documentation of acceptable and unacceptable variant
readings. According to Muslim scholars, there are some 40 possible
readings of the Qur'an, of which 7 to 14 are legitimate. The legitimacy of
different possible interpretations of the scripture is supported by a
statement in the Qur'an that describes verses as either unambiguously
clear, or as ambiguous because they carry a meaning known only to God.
Therefore, with the exception of a small number of unquestionably clear
injunctions, the meaning of the Qur'anic verses is not always final.
Qur'an is the primary source of authority, law and theology, and identity
in Islam. However, in many cases it is either completely silent on
important Islamic beliefs and practices or it gives only general
guidelines without elaboration. This is true of some of the most basic
religious obligations such as prayer, which the Qur'an prescribes without
details. Details elaborating on the teachings and laws of the Qur'an are
derived from the sunna, the example set by Muhammad's life, and in
particular from hadith, the body of sayings and practices
attributed to him.
the second source of authority in Islam, hadith complements the Qur'an and
provides the most extensive source for Islamic law. The ultimate
understanding of the Qur'an depends upon the context of Muhammad's life
and the ways in which he demonstrated and applied its message. There is
evidence that Muhammad's sayings and practices were invoked by his
companions to answer questions about Islam. Unlike the Qur'an, however, in
the early periods hadith was circulated orally, and no attempts were made
to establish or codify it into law until the beginnings of the second
century of Islam.
to the late beginnings of the efforts to collect and compile reports about
Muhammad's traditions, Muslim scholars recognize that the authenticity of
these reports cannot be taken for granted. Many spurious reports were
often deliberately put into circulation to support claims of various
political and sectarian groups. Other additions resulted from the natural
tendency to confuse common practices that predated Islam with new Islamic
laws and norms. The fading of memory, the dispersion of the companions of
the prophet over vast territories, and the passing away of the last of
these companions also contributed to the problem of authenticating
establish the authority of hadith on firmer ground, Muslim scholars
developed several disciplines dedicated to examining and verifying the
relative authenticity of various reports attributed to the Prophet. The
contents of sayings, as well as the reliability of those who transmitted
them, were carefully scrutinized, and the hadiths were classified into
groups granted varying degrees of authenticity, ranging from the sound and
reliable to the fabricated and rejected. This systematic effort culminated
in the 9th century, some 250 years after the death of Muhammad, in the
compilation of several collections of sound (sahih) hadith. Of six
such highly reliable compilations, two in particular are considered by
Muslims to be the most important sources of Islamic authority after the
Qur'an. These are Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari (the sound
books of Muslim and Bukhari).
the compilation of hadith went hand in hand with the elaboration of
Islamic law and the parallel development of Islamic legal theory.
Initially, neither the law nor its procedures were systematically
elaborated, although there can be little doubt that both the Qur'an and
hadith were regularly invoked and used to derive laws that governed the
lives of Muslims. By the beginning of the 9th century, the use of these
two sources was systematized and a complex legal theory was introduced. In
its developed form, this theory maintains that there are four sources from
which Islamic law is derived. These are, in order of priority, the Qur'an,
the hadith, the consensus of the community (ijma), and legal
analogy (qiyas). Functional only when there is no explicit ruling
in the Qur'an or hadith, consensus confers legitimacy retrospectively on
historical practices of the Muslim community. In legal analogy, the causes
for existing Islamic rulings are applied by analogy to similar cases for
which there are no explicit statements in either the Qur'an or hadith.
Using these methods, a vast and diverse body of Islamic law was laid out
covering various aspects of personal and public life.
addition to the laws pertaining to the five pillars, Islamic law covers
areas such as dietary laws, purity laws, marriage and inheritance laws,
commercial transaction laws, laws pertaining to relationships with
non-Muslims, and criminal law. Jews and Christians living under Muslim
rule are subject to the public laws of Islam, but they have traditionally
been permitted to run their internal affairs on the basis of their own
Spread of Islam
its inception Islam has been perceived by Muslims to be a universal code.
During Muhammad's lifetime, two attempts were made to expand northward
into the Byzantine domain and its capital in Constantinople, and within
ten years after Muhammad's death, Muslims had defeated the Sassanids of
Persia and the Byzantines, and had conquered most of Persia,
The conquests continued, and the Sassanid Empire was soon after destroyed
and the influence of Byzantium was largely diminished (see Byzantine
Empire). For the next several centuries intellectuals and cultural
figures flourished in the vast, multinational Islamic world, and Islam
became the most influential civilization in the world.
Rightly Guided Caliphs
first four successors of Muhammad, known as rightly guided caliphs, ruled
for some 30 years (see Caliphate).
Their rule, together with that of Muhammad, is considered by most Muslims
to constitute the ideal Islamic age. The second caliph, Umar, ruled from AD
634 to 644; he is credited with being the first caliph to found new
Islamic cities, Al Basra (AD 635) and Kufah (AD
638). The administration of the eastern and western Islamic provinces was
coordinated from these two sites. After the third caliph, Uthman, was
murdered by a group of Muslim mutineers, the fourth caliph, Ali, succeeded
to power and moved his capital to Kufah in Iraq. From this capital he
fought the different opposition factions. Among the leaders of these
factions, Mu'awiyah, governor of the rich province of Syria and a relative
of Uthman, outlasted Ali. After Ali's death in 661, Mu'awiyah founded the
Umayyad dynasty, which ruled a united Islamic empire for almost a century.
Under the Umayyads the Islamic capital was shifted to Damascus. See Spread
followers of Ali were known as the Shia (partisans) of Ali.
Although they began as a political group, the Shia, or Shia
Muslims, became a sect with specific theological and doctrinal
positions. A key event in the history of the Shia and for all Muslims was
the tragic death at Karbala of Husayn, the son of Ali, and Muhammad's
daughter Fatima. Husayn had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the
rule of the Umayyad Yazid, the son of Mu'awiyah, and was on his way to
rally support for his cause in Kufah. His plans were exposed before he
arrived at Kufah, however, and a large Umayyad army met him and 70 members
of his family at the outskirts of the city. The Umayyads offered Husayn
the choice between a humiliating submission to their rule or a battle and
definite death. Husayn chose to fight, and he and all the members of his
family with him were massacred. The incident was of little significance
from a military point of view, but it was a defining moment in the history
of Shia Islam. Although not all Muslims are Shia Muslims, all Muslims view
Husayn as a martyr for living up to his principles even to death.
Twelver Shia, or Ithna-'Ashariyya, is the largest of the Shia
Muslim sects. They believe that legitimate Islamic leadership is vested in
a line of descent starting with Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali,
through Ali's two sons, Hasan and Husayn, and then through Husayn's
descendants. These were the first 12 imams, or leaders of the Shia Muslim
community. The Shia Muslims believe that Muhammad designated all 12
successors by name and that they inherited a special knowledge of the true
meaning of the scripture that was passed from father to son, beginning
with the Prophet himself. This family, along with its loyal followers and
representatives, has political authority over the Shia Muslims.
Islam was defined during the early Abbasid period (beginning in AD
750), and it included the followers of four legal schools (the Malikis,
Hanafis, Shafi'is, and Hanbalis). In contrast to the Shias, the Sunnis
believed that leadership was in the hands of the Muslim community at
large. The consensus of historical communities, not the decisions of
political authorities, led to the establishment of the four legal schools.
In theory a Muslim could choose whichever school of Islamic thought he or
she wished to follow and could change this choice at will. The respect and
popularity that the religious scholars enjoyed made them the effective
brokers of social power and pitched them against the political
the first four caliphs, the religious and political authorities in Islam
were never again united under one institution. Their usual coexistence was
underscored by a mutual recognition of their separate spheres of influence
and their respective duties and responsibilities. Often, however, the two
powers collided, and invariably any social opposition to the elite
political order had religious undertones.
ascetic tradition called Sufism,
which emphasized personal piety and mysticism and contributed to Islamic
cultural diversity, further enriched the Muslim heritage. In contrast to
the legal-minded approach to Islam, Sufis emphasized spirituality as a way
of knowing God. During the 9th century Sufism developed into a mystical
doctrine, with direct communion or even ecstatic union with God as its
ideal. One of the vehicles for this experience is the ecstatic dance of
the Sufi whirling dervishes. Eventually Sufism later developed into a
complex popular movement and was institutionalized in the form of
collective, hierarchical Sufi orders.
Sufi emphasis on intuitive knowledge and the love of God increased the
appeal of Islam to the masses and largely made possible its extension
beyond the Middle East into Africa and East Asia. Sufi brotherhoods
multiplied rapidly from the Atlantic coast to Indonesia; some spanned the
entire Islamic world, others were regional or local. The tremendous
success of these fraternities was due primarily to the abilities and
humanitarianism of their founders and leaders, who not only ministered to
the spiritual needs of their followers but also helped the poor of all
faiths and frequently served as intermediaries between the people and the
culture started to evolve under the Umayyads, but it grew to maturity in
the first century of the Abbasid dynasty. The Abbasids came to power in AD
750 when armies originating from Khorasan, in eastern Iran, finally
defeated the Umayyad armies. The Islamic capital shifted to Iraq under the
Abbasids. After trying several other cities, the Abbasid rulers chose a
site on the Tigris River on which the City of Peace, Baghdad, was built in
762. Baghdad remained the political and cultural capital of the Islamic
world from that time until the Mongol
invasion in 1258, and for a good part of this time it was the center of
one of the great flowerings of human knowledge. The Abbasids were Arabs
descended from the Prophet's uncle, but the movement they led involved
Arabs and non-Arabs, including many Persians, who had converted to Islam
and who demanded the equality to which they were entitled in Islam.
Abbasids distributed power more evenly among the different ethnicities and
regions than the Umayyads had, and they demonstrated the universal
inclusiveness of Islamic civilization. They achieved this by incorporating
the fruits of other civilizations into Islamic political and intellectual
culture and by marking these external influences with a distinctly Islamic
time passed, the central control of the Abbasids was reduced and
independent local leaders and groups took over in the remote provinces.
Eventually the rival Shia Fatimid caliphate was established in Egypt, and
the Baghdad caliphate came under the control of expanding provincial
dynasties. The office of the caliph was nonetheless maintained as a symbol
of the unity of Islam, and several later Abbasid caliphs tried to revive
the power of the office.
1258, however, a grandson of Mongol ruler Genghis
Khan named Hulagu, encouraged by the kings of Europe, led his armies
across the Zagros Mountains of Iran and destroyed Baghdad. According to
some estimates, about 1 million Muslims were murdered in this massacre. In
1259 and 1260 Hulagu's forces marched into Syria, but they were finally
defeated by the Mamluks of Egypt, who had taken over the Nile Valley. For
the next two centuries, centers of Islamic power shifted to Egypt and
Syria and to a number of local dynasties. Iraq became an impoverished,
depopulated province where the people took up a transitory nomadic
lifestyle. Iraq did not finally experience a major cultural and political
revival until the 20th century.
Presence of Islam in the 20th Century
of the accepted Islamic religious and cultural traditions were established
between the 7th and 10th centuries, during the classical period of Islamic
history. However, Islamic culture continued to develop as Islam spread
into new regions and mixed with diverse cultures. The 19th-century
occupation of most Muslim lands by European colonial powers was a main
turning point in Muslim history. The traditional Islamic systems of
governance, social organization, and education were undermined by the
colonial regimes. Nation-states with independent governments divided the
Muslim community along new ethnic and political lines.
about 1 billion Muslims are spread over 40 Muslim countries and 5
continents, and their numbers are growing at a rate unmatched by that of
any other religion in the world. Despite the political and ethnic
diversity of Muslim countries, a core set of beliefs continues to provide
the basis for a shared identity and affinity among Muslims. Yet the
radically different political, economic, and cultural conditions under
which contemporary Muslims live make it difficult to identify what
constitutes standard Islamic practice in the modern world. Many
contemporary Muslims draw on the historical legacy of Islam as they
confront the challenges of modern life. Islam is a significant, growing,
and dynamic presence in the world. Its modern expressions are as diverse
as the world in which Muslims live.