Encyclopedia > Islam

  Article Content


Islam is an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion founded in the 7th century based on the religious text known as the Quran. According to Islam, the religion was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad when Allah sent an angel to dictate a series of revelations to him, which Muhammad memorized. Muhammad was illiterate, and his followers later wrote down Muhammad's memorized revelations to form the Quran. Muhammad is considered to be the final prophet, sent to preach the same message as did the prophets of Christianity and Judaism (and possibly Zoroastrianism and other ancient religions).

Adherents of Islam are called Muslims (sometimes spelled in older English texts as "Moslem".) In some older English texts they are referred to as "Muhammadans" or "Mohammadan", but this term is not commonly used because Muslims find it offensive, as it implies that they worship Muhammad, which they do not.

Muslims believe that prophets were sent before Muhammad to all parts of the world and at all times. However, the original purity of their message was lost with passage of time. Allah, the one and only God of all mankind, then sent Muhammad as the final prophet to all mankind, with the message of Islam. There is no religion to be followed after this and Allah, in his infinite mercy, has taken it upon Himself to save the Quran from any alteration till the end of time.

Table of contents

The meaning of the word Islam

Islam is an Arabic word meaning "submission (to Allah)". It has an etymological relationship to other Arabic words, such as Salaam, meaning "peace". The Arabic word "Muslim" is related to the word Islam and means "one who surrendered" or submitted (to Allah).

Muslims see submission to Allah as a sign of distinction; this term has no negative connotations. In this view, submission means serving the will of Allah above and beyond one's own goals.

Denominations of Islam

There are a number of Islamic religious denominations, each of which has significant theological and legal differences from each other. The major branches of Islam are

Sunni Islam comprises somewhere around 80% of all Muslims. It is broken into four schools of thought which interpret specific pieces of Islam, such as which foods are halal (permissible) under the religious laws. They are Malik, Shafi, Hanafi, and Hanbali. Al-Azhar University[?] in Cairo, the oldest Islamic institution of learning, considers Shia to be an additional school, under Jafiri.

Teachings of Islam

Muslims believe in one God, the God of Adam, Noah, Moses, and Jesus, who are all regarded as prophets or "Messengers" before Muhammad. Muslims believe that Muhammad came to bring the final message of God, the correct path and true knowledge of the afterlife to pagan polytheists and to the Christians and Jews. According to Islam the followers of both Judaism and Christianity intentionally altered the true word of God, and thus led all of their believers down a false path.

For Muslims, the Qur'an answers questions about daily needs, both spiritual and material. It discusses God and God's Names and attributes; believers and their virtues, and the fate of non-believers (kaffir); Mary, Jesus, and all the other prophets; and even scientific subjects. Muslims do not follow the laws of the Quran exclusively; they also follow the examples of the prophets, which is known as the Sunnah, and the understanding of the Quran contained in the teachings of the prophet known as the Hadith.

Muslims are taught that God sent down 4 books and 100 pages. Besides the Qur'an, the others are the Law of Moses (the Taurah), the Psalms of David (the Zabűr) and the Gospel of Jesus (the Injil). The Qur'an describes Christians and Jews as "the people of the Book" (ahl al Kitâb). An article on The Bible in Islam is found here.

The teachings of Islam concern many of the same personages as those of Judaism and Christianity. However, Muslims frequently refer to them using Arabic names which can make it appear they are talking about different people: e.g. Allah for God, Iblis for Satan, Ibrahim for Abraham, etc. A belief in a day of judgment and an afterlife (Akhirah) are also part of Islamic theology.

The Six Elements of Belief

There are several notable beliefs shared by all Muslims:

  • God (in Arabic, Allah)
  • Angels
  • Books (sent by God)
  • Messengers (sent by God)
  • Day of Judgment
  • Both good and evil (or more precisely, what people call good and evil) come from God. (Although in terms of Evil, it is more a product of people being misguided by the Devil.)

There is no official authority who decides whether a person is accepted to, or dismissed from, the community of believers. Islam is open to all, regardless of race, age, gender, or previous beliefs. It is enough to believe in the central beliefs of Islam. This is formally done by reciting the shahada, the statement of belief of Islam, without which a person cannot be classed a Muslim. As no one can split open another's heart to see what's inside, it is enough to believe and say that you are a muslim, and behave in a manner befitting a Muslim to be accepted into the family of Islam.

The Five Pillars of Islam

The Five Pillars of Islam are five basic duties of muslims:

At least one group believes that Jihad, meaning inner struggle against Satan (greater jihad) or external struggle {lesser jihad), is the "sixth pillar of Islam". Other groups consider "Allegiance to the Imam" and "Hajj" to be the sixth pillar of Islam. Muslims who believe in the "Five Pillars of Islam" may be offended by the mention of a violent sixth pillar. For more information, see the Sixth pillar of Islam article.

Islam supersedes Judaism and Christianity

According to Islam the leaders of both Judaism and Christianity deliberately altered the true word of God, and thus led all of their believers down a false path. In the Quran, Mohammed charges the Jewish people with "falsehood" (Sura 3:71), distortion (4:46), and of being "corrupters of Scripture."

Some parts of the Quran attribute differences between Muslims and non-Muslims to tahri fi-manawi, a "corruption of the meaning" of the words. In this view, the Jewish Bible and Christian New Testament are true, but the Jews and Christians misunderstood the meaning of their own Scripture, and thus need the Quran to clearly understand the will of God. However, other parts of the Quran make clear that many Jews and Christians used deliberately altered versions of their scripture, and had altered the word of God. This belief was developed further in medieval Islamic polemics, and is a mainstream part of both Sunii and Shiitte Islami today. This is known as the doctrine of tahrifi-lafzi, "the corruption of the text".

Ye People of the Book! Why do ye clothe Truth with falsehood and conceal the Truth while ye have knowledge? Surah 3.71
Can ye (o ye men of Faith) entertain the hope that they will believe in you? - seeing that a party of them heard the Word of God and perverted it knowingly after they understood it. Surah 2.75

Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands and then say: "This is from God", to traffic with it for a miserable price! - Woe to them for what their hands do write, and for the gain they make thereby. Surah 2.79

Islam says that the previous prophets also spread the monotheistic message of Islam, and surrendered to God. All those who followed it were also considered "Muslims," including Christians and Jews before the arrival of Islam in its current form.

"Abraham was not a Jew, nor yet a Christian; but he was an upright man who had surrendered (to Allah), and he was not of the idolaters." (III - The house of Imran 67)

Views of other Religions

Islam assigns Jews and Christians (and certain other, much smaller, religions) the status of people of the Book on the basis of their monotheism, and their beliefs about God and the world. This status is based on several passages from the Quran that say how Christians, Jews, and Muslims share common scripture, morals, and prophets. Muslims believe that the 'People of the Book,' if they are decent and good, regardless of the fact that they are not Muslim, will go to Heaven. They are seen as cousins in the family of believers, and Muslims are encouraged to live on peaceful and equitable terms with them.

Where people of the Book live in an Islamic nation under Sharia law, they become dhimmis. They are given a number of rights, such as the right to freely practice their faith, but are also required to pay of a special tax called jizyah[?]. In an Islamic state, the giving of charity is mandatory by law for Muslims. The jizyah[?] tax money goes to charity, as well as the construction of churches and synagogues for non-Muslims living in the state. As a benefit, non-Muslims are exempted from any draft for the state. People of the book living in non-Islamic nations are not considered dhimmi. Non-Muslim religious minorities had generally greater liberty under Islamic rule than they did in Europe during the Medieval period. In Moorish-controlled Spain, for 700 years the Christians and Jews lived under a time of religious freedom under the Islamic government. It was known as the "Golden Age of Judaism" because the conditions for the Jews was better there than anywhere else in the world at the time. The liberties afforded to religious minorities in Christian and Muslim countries varied greatly depending on the time and place.

There is a separate article on the relationship between Islam and Judaism.

Spread of Islam

Muslims are of many different races and (political and ethnic) nationalities. The majority of Muslims are in the countries of South Asia, South-East Asia, Central Asia, northern Africa and the Middle East (much of northern African being thought of as being a part of the Middle East).


The Muslim Sabbath is on Friday. Muslims attend prayer in a mosque, pray and hear a sermon. When the holidays occur is according to the lunar Islamic calendar. This calendar does not correct for the fact that the lunar year does not match the solar year. Therefore, the Islamic months precess each year; they shift relative to the Gregorian calendar.

Ramadan - month long observance of fasting during daylight hours.

Feast of Breaking the Fast (Eid-ul-Fitr), or the Little Feast (al-Eid saghir)- occurs at the conclusion of Ramadan. It is held on the first four days of the month of Shawwal

The Big Feast, (Eid-ul-Adha,), also "The Feast of Sacrifice" (Kurban Bayram) - two months and 10 days after the Little Feast. Animals are slaughtered to commemorate Abraham's sacrificing of a ram instead of his son Ismael. Those who are able make a pilgrimage to Mecca do so just before this date, on the Hajj.

Ashura - the 10th day of the month of Muharram. This is the day on which Muhammad's grandson, Husain, was martyred in Iraq. For Shi'a Muslims this is a day of mourning. Muslims also connect this holiday to the deliverance of the Children of Israel from Egypt, and it is a day of special solemn and emotional prayers, rejoicing and music. This holiday is prohibited by the Islamist movement (fundamentalist Islam). Some Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia forbid Muslims to celebrate this holiday.

Muslim New Year - not generally celebrated as an official Muslim holiday, although many communities have some kind of celebrations. This holiday is prohibited by the Islamist movement (fundamentalist Islam), which is now predominant in the Arab world.

The Prophet's birthday (al-mawlidu n-nabawi sh-sharif) - Some scholars consider this holiday to be an innovation in the religion, as Muhammad himself did not celebrate it except by fasting. This holiday is prohibited by the Islamist movement (fundamentalist Islam). Some Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia forbid Muslims to celebrate this holiday.

Historical origin of Islam

Main article: History of Islam

Before Muhammad, Arabia was inhabited by Bedouin; Mecca was a religious and commercial center. Arabs were polytheists, and they worshipped a host of idols in the Ka'aba at Mecca. They had a number of unsavoury habits such as ceaseless tribal warfare, and the burying alive of unwanted infant girls.

Muhammad was born in 571 to the equivalent of a middle-class family. He was known as Al-Ameen, "the trustworthy" because of his spotless reputation in all his dealings. He was said to be illiterate. When he grew up, he traveled with many caravans as an administrator whose responsibility was to see that the caravan arrived safely and with all goods intact. He did this throughout most of his working life. In 610, Muhammad (now aged 40) reported that while he was sitting in a cave in the hills outside Mecca mediating, the angel Gabriel gave him a message from Allah. He was commanded to memorize all of his visions. Islamic historiography holds that since he was illiterate he could not write them down. He did so, and after reluctantly revealing his experiences to his wife Khadijah, he began to gain followers by the force and quality of the words he recited. By 615, he had developed a large following in Mecca.

His basic message was one of belief in one God, respect for morality above and beyond tribal links, and prayer. As the ranks of his followers swelled, he became a threat to the local tribes, especially the Quraysh his own tribe whose responsibility it was to look after the Kaba, which at this time was home to the several thousand 'idols' that people worshipped as gods. As Muhammad preached against this pantheon he became deeply unpopular with the rulers and his followers suffered from repeated attacks to person and property. Eventually there was an assassination attempt. He was forced to flee Mecca on July 16, 622; this is known as the Hijrah, and it is the date that marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar.

Muhammad went to Medina (at that time known as "Yathrib") where he was invited to become ruler of the town by a large group of residents. He declared a welfare state, collected taxes for the needy, organised town defences against numerous raiding parties from Mecca and beyond, and entered numerous trade agreements. He built mosques, and established a religous culture based on respect for other religions and their freedom to practice (the town also was home to a number of Christians and Jews). He is credited with creating the first Constitution.

After the repeated raid attempts on the town, Muhammad and his followers began to raid the raiders' caravans, in retaliation and he distributed the treasure equally amongst his followers. By 627, Muhammad had united Medina under Islam with protected privileges for the Jews and Christians who lived there. Word of the new religion, with the peace and prosperity it brought spread by trade. The Bedouin became keenly interested in this new religion; they saw its potential to bring peace and plenty to their wandering tribes, and after much negotiation they became allies with Muhammad and after much contact with the town and muslims they gradually converted. At this stage the revelations that had been coming to Muhammad were almost complete, and he was told that he was to return to Mecca and reclaim the Kaba. With negotiation and assent of the elders of the Quraysh he made an unarmed pilgrimage to the Kaba. This continued for a while but then the agreement broke down, and war was declared. But there was no bloodshed. In 630, 20 years after being forced to flee, Muhammad marched with an army of 10,000 followers back to Mecca, and the Meccans surrendered without a fight. He became a religious and political leader of the city. He destroyed all the idols in the Kaba, and gave a general amnesty to all his enemies in the town.

The Quran may have been written down during his lifetime. It is believed to be the word of God, sacred and unalterable, although some Muslim scholars believe that at one time there were verses in the Koran inspired by Satan, which Muhammad removed after the angel Jibreel revealed their source. These are referred to as The Satanic Verses, but scholars disagree as to whether they existed or if this is a mere fable. Only the original Arabic version of it is regarded as the Quran; translations are seen as poor shadows of the original's meaning.

The Quran describes two forsm of Jihad. One form is described as a struggle with one's self for mastery of the soul, another form is described as a holy war, and describes a war that Muslims must wage against all those who oppose them. According to Islam, if a person dies in the middle of Jihad, he is sent to heaven without punishment for any sins.

Most Muslims believe that when Muhammad died in 622, he did not name a successor. His advisors took over, and the next four leaders of Islam are known as the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs. Abu Bakr was the first as he was the oldest and seen as the wisest; he was Muhammad's father-in-law, and he laid foundations for the years ahead uniting the tribes of Arabia under Islam. Umar was next, and he conquered Persia, Syria, Egypt, and northern Africa. After him came Uthman, who conquered even more territory and developed a navy based in Alexandria, Egypt. Within three generations the Muslims had gone from being a group of wandering camel-herders to being in charge of the largest empire the world has ever known.

When Uthman died, Ali Ben Abu Talib became Caliph. Ali was a cousin and sun-in-law of Muhammad. Ali was the husband of Fatima Zahra, Muhammad's daughter. There are people that believe that he should have been the first Caliph because he was named by the prophet. This was rejected by the majority of Muslims who said that the best person for the task of leader should be chosen. His supporters were known as Shi'a ul Ali, (of Party of Ali) or Shi'a for short. The Shi'a believe that the other three Caliphs were illegitimate because they were not named by the prophet. Over time, differences between Shi'a Muslims and Sunni Muslim rose to the level of them practically becoming separate faiths. Some Sunni leaders hold that Shi'a is not truly a form of Islam (and vice-versa). These are, however, the minority of the leaders. In some Arab nations open warfare has erupted between Sunni and Shi'a. In Iraq, the secular Sunni government has oppressed the Shi'a majority. In Iran the religious Shi'a majority made life difficult for Sufi, Sunni and other Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, the religious Sunni majority made life difficult for Shi'a Muslims.

The Quran

The Quran is the holy book of Islam. Its title means "Proclamation". It consists of 114 chapters or Suras laid out roughly in order of size, the largest being near the front, the smallest near the back.

It is written as Arabic poetry and describes the origins of the Universe, Man, and their relationship to each other and their Creator Allah. It sets out laws for society, morality, economics and many other topic. It is intended for recitation and memorization. The Quran is primarily taught from one generation to the next this way. Muslims regard the Quran as sacred and inviolable.

The growth of Islam today

Islam is the largest religion after Crhistianity, and currently the fastest growing. It began in Saudi Arabia in 622AD, and according to adherents.com it now comprises 1.3 billion believers, 23% of the world's population, with almost 2 million believers in the USA. Only 18% of Muslims live in the Arab world, a fifth are found in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the world's largest Muslim community is in Indonesia. There are significant Islamic populations in Europe, the former Soviet Union, and South America.

Dietary laws

When eating meat, Muslims may only eat from meat that has been slaughtered in the name of Allah, and meets stringent dietary requirements. Such meat is called pure, or halal. Islamic law prohibits a Muslim from eating pork, monkey, dog, cat, any carnivores, and several other types of animal, as these animals are haram (forbidden). For the meat of an animal to be halal (lawful) it must be one of the declared halal animals, it must be slaughtered by a Muslim, and the animal may not be killed by any cruel or prolonged means. The animal is killed by slicing the jugular veins, and thus rendering the animal unconscious immediately, the blood then flows out from the body, and the animal dies in its sleep. Some Muslim clerics have ruled that the animal does not have to be killed by a Muslim, but may be slaughtered by a Jew as long as it meets their strict dietary laws. Thus, some observant Muslims will accept kosher meat (meat prepared in accord with Jewish law) as halal.

The role of women in Islam

Islam does not prohibit women from working, but emphasizes the importance of caring for house and family for both parents. In theory, Islamic law allows each spouse to divorce at will, by saying "I divorce you" three times in public. In practice it's more involved than this, and there may be separate state proceedings to follow as well. This practice is valid within most of the Muslim world today. Usually, the divorced wife keeps her dowry from when she was married, if there was one, and is given child support until the age of weaning at which point the child may be returned to its father if it is deemed to be best.

Women are generally not allowed to be clergy or religious scholars. Many interpretations hold that woman may not have a prominent job, and thus are forbidden from working in the government.

The Quran also places a dress code upon its followers. For women, the hair and body are to be covered with the exception of hands and face, and no curvatures of the body should be seen. Men have a dress code, which is more relaxed. The rationale given for these rules is that:

  • Women should be respected rather than becoming objects of sexual desire.
  • Men are more easily aroused than women.

Many Muslims do not follow these dress codes, or only follow them during religious ceremonies.

Islamic philosophy

There is a separate section on Islamic philosophy.


Circumcision for males involves the removal of the foreskin and is customary in (although normally performed at different ages in different cultures) most muslim communities.

Islam in the United States of America

Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam in the United States is not unified; there are many organizations and groups that work to promote various forms of Islam.

One such group is the moderate Islamic Supreme Council of America. This group represents many Muslims, but likely less than 10% of Muslims in the USA.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, known by its acronym CAIR. CAIR is a non-profit pro-Islam organization, established to promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims in America. CAIR portrays itself as the voice of mainstream, moderate Islam. However CAIR is also a highly controversial organization; its leadership and members publicly support known terrorist organizations such as Hizbollah and Hamas. (The State Department of the United States classified these groups as terrorist organizations). CAIR has been accused of inciting death threats against moderate American Muslims.

The American Islamic Congress (http://www.aicongress.org) is a small but growing moderate Muslim organization that promotes religious pluralism. Their official Statement of Principles states that "Muslims have been profoundly influenced by their encounter with America. American Muslims are a minority group, largely comprising African-Americans, immigrants, and children of immigrants, who have prospered in America's climate of religious tolerance and civil rights. The lessons of our unprecedented experience of acceptance and success must be carefully considered by our community." Their statement goes on to say that:

  • American Muslims must champion pluralism and condemn all forms of intolerance. This section of the statement of principles explicitly states that not only should Muslims oppose hateful speech towards Muslims, but that they should oppose hateful speech by Muslims.
  • Secondly, American Muslims must be leading ambassadors to the Muslim world.
  • Thirdly, American Muslims must recognize and celebrate our own diversity.
  • Fourthly, all Muslims around the world should enjoy the social and economic prosperity experienced by American Muslims.
  • Fifthly, American Muslims must champion the rights of minorities in the Muslim world.

Modernization of Islamic thought

Although the dominant movement in Islam in recent times has been religious fundamentalism, there are a number of liberal movements within Islam which seek alternative ways to reconcile the Islamic faith with the modern world.

Islamic traditions have several sources: the Quran, the hadiths, and interpretations of both by scholars. Over the centuries, there has been a tendency towards fundamentalism, with interpretations being regarded as immutable, even those that consist of folk religion not directly traceable to the prophet Muhammad.

Early shariah had a much more flexible character than is currently associated with Islamic jurisprudence, and many modern Muslim scholars believe that it should be renewed, and the classical jurists should lose their special status. This would require formulating a new fiqh suitable for the modern world, e.g. as proposed by advocates of the Islamization of knowledge, and would deal with the modern context.

This movement does not aim to challenge the fundamentals of Islam; rather, it seeks to clear away misinterpretations and to free the way for the renewal of the previous status of the Islamic world as a center of modern thought and freedom. See Modern Islamic philosophy for more on this subject.

Religions evolved from Islam that are not considered Islamic by most Muslims

Religions which accept Islám but which are considered independent religions with distinct laws and institutions

See Also: Mosque -- History of Islam -- Shariah -- Four Schools of Madhhab -- Shaafi'i -- Hanafi -- Maliki -- Hanbali -- Imam -- Mujtahid[?] -- Tawhid -- Qibla al-Qudsiyya -- Shiite

Jihad -- Islamic rituals (births, weddings, burials...) -- djinn -- Munkar and Nakir -- List of famous Muslims

 -- Life of Prophet Muhammad[?]

Further Reading

  • The Encyclopaedia of Islam
  • The Quran
  • H. A. R. Gibb, Islam, Oxford 1969
  • The Islamism Debate, Martin Kramer, University Press, 1997
  • Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, Charles Kurzman, Oxford University Press, 1998
  • The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder, Bassam Tibi, Univ. of California Press, 1998

External Links

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article
David McReynolds

... Biographical Sourcebook Of American Activism - David McReynolds" - Book by Larry Gara: Greenwood Press. 1999, March-April - [[1] ...

This page was created in 43.6 ms