With more than a billion adherents (called Muslims), Islam is the second largest of the major world religions. It is also the fastest growing, due mostly to high birth rates in Islamic countries. In the Islamic heartland of the Middle East Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran Islam is the religion of large majorities of the population. It is also the predominant faith in North African states such as Egypt and Morocco, as well as some sub-Saharan African nations and in the countries of Central Asia. The largest Muslim populations in the world are actually outside the Middle East, in Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, where the Hindu majority is joined by a Muslim minority of some
150 million. There are also substantial Muslim minorities in China, Europe, and North America.
Islam is the newest of the major religions. It is a monotheistic faith related in many ways to Judaism and Christianity. It shares with those faiths the belief in a single, omniscient, and omnipresent God; a basic statement of faith in Islam is There is no God but God (Allah). The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, has presented the final perfection of God’s wisdom and mercy, and therefore is a seal to a line of monotheistic prophets who include Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muslims believe that their holy scripture, the Qur’an, was dictated directly to the Prophet by God. It is the source of not only their beliefs but also their ethics and laws.
Origins and History Islam’s origins lie in the Arabian Peninsula where, in the early seventh century, the city of Mecca was an important trading center, controlled by powerful merchant clans. Religiously, Mecca was dominated by politic beliefs and local deities and contained many shrines although one, known as the Ka’aba, had special status. Thanks to its status as an important trade city, Mecca also likely contained Christian and Jewish worship centers. In 570 Muhammad was born, and as he grew to adulthood he became successful in business, marrying a widow from a clan connected to his own. In 610, suffering spiritual uncertainties, Muhammad began to hear revelations from God, calling him to be a prophet. These revelations, which continued for over thirty years, were collected into the Qur’an. Muslims believe they are the direct word of God although God used an angel, Jibril, as his frequent intermediary.
Few Meccans believed Muhammad at first, and his original community of believers was quite small. In 622 Muhammad moved his community to the city of Medina, some 270 miles to the north. There, the first Islamic community took shape. Thanks to Muhammad’s negotiations with local tribal chiefs as well as the Jews who then dominated Medina, Islam grew rapidly. Muhammad returned to Mecca in 630, following a string of military victories. He cleansed the city of its pagan idols, including the Ka’aba, which contained a black stone held to be sacred, and in so doing established Islam in the city of its birth. Muhammad died in 632, but thanks to his inspirational leadership, Islam was well organized, committed to military and religious expansion, and increasingly attractive to peoples beyond southern Arabia.
The leadership of Islam in the decades following Muhammad passed from some of his chief lieutenants to the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali to more distant family members. These leaders held the title of caliph, or successor to the Prophet, and the legitimacy of these early caliphs remains a source of disagreement in the Muslim world. These early leaders took care, however, to compile a definitive Qur’an in the form of a collection of suras, or recitations. Meanwhile, during the remainder of the seventh century Islam spread west across North Africa and reached Spain, and east and north across the lands of present-day Iraq and Iran. The Ummayad caliphs, who took power in the 650s, ruled from the Syrian city of Damascus until 750, when another clan, the Abbasids, established their caliphate based in Baghdad. The Abbasid caliphate, whose years of glory lasted until the eleventh century, was a great age of
scholarship, science, and the arts in the Islamic world, and Baghdad was one of the world’s richest and most vibrant cities. Religious scholars, for their part, continued to compile and write commentary called Hadith, Islam’s secondary group of sacred texts, and on the various accepted interpretations of sharia, or Islamic law. Leadership in the Islamic world splintered in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, with rival centers emerging in Egypt and Turkey. But by the fifteenth century the Ottoman Turks emerged as the dominant force in the Middle East and by the time the Ottomans had established control over the holy cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, their sultans were the accepted leaders of the faith by the majority branch of Islam, the Sunni.
Thanks to trade, migration, and military conquest, Islam spread steadily to India beginning in the ninth century. By the 1100s Islamic rulers controlled many Indian states, and they were to be the dominant powers in India until the arrival of British imperialists in the 1700s. Many Indians converted to Islam. Some found its mystical variant, Sufism, very congenial to Hindu traditions. Other converts were low-caste Hindus seeking freedom from caste restrictions. Still others wanted access to power and trade. From this base in India, and again often via trade networks, Islam spread to Southeast Asia, where it became the dominant faith in Malaysia and Indonesia.
The Ottoman Empire began to collapse in the 1700s as the European presence in the Islamic world increased. Islamic responses to European influence were varied: Some Muslims clamored for a modernization of Islam so that it could respond to outside challenges while others favored a return, as they saw it, to more pure
forms of the faith and a rejection of Western models and ideals. The caliphate was abolished by the secular Turkish state in the 1920s, after which most of the rest of the Islamic Middle East was carved up into the states that, more or less, exist today.
Basic Beliefs and Rituals in Islam Islam is often translated into English as submission, and Muslim faith is built on submission to the will of God, or Allah (the Arabic word for God). Muslims believe that Allah is one all-powerful and all-wise God. He has made his will for humankind known through a series of prophets and the texts that have resulted from their teachings. The teachings of Moses, Jesus, and other earlier prophets, however, are imperfect, as are such prophetic texts as the Torah and New Testament. Only the teachings of the prophet Muhammad are the perfect and, for most Muslims, final word of God. This revelation is contained in the Qur’an. Commonly Muslims also believe in predestination, that the fates of individuals and even nations are preordained by Allah. Free will allows people to follow Allah’s teachings and laws to varying degrees, but Allah will judge them for their choices after death. Human life on earth is imperfect and temporary, as only Allah can be perfect and permanent, and belief in an afterlife is central to Islamic faith.
Muslims are encouraged to perform the Five Pillars of Faith as expressions of their devotion, and these pillars are at the heart of Islamic practice. The first is profession of the faith by the declaration There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet. Muslims often recite this daily. Second, Muslims must pray five times a day while kneeling and facing Mecca. Third, Muslims must give charity,
often distributed by local mosques. Fourth, Muslims must take part in fasting in the month of Ramadan, during which believers abstain from food, drink, smoking, and sexual activity during daylight hours. Fifth, Muslims are enjoined, but not absolutely required, to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, where among the many rites are prayers chanted while walking around the Ka’aba, which now stands in the courtyard of Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
Islam maintains no regular Sabbath day, as in Judaism and Christianity, but Islamic tradition holds that Friday is the day of public prayers, when Muslim men go to mosques to both pray and, often, hear lessons and sermons from mosque officials and from Islamic experts. Custom also holds that women pray separately from men. Beyond these basic rituals, Muslims try to live according to the teachings of the Qur’an and Hadith as well as by the interpretations of sharia that predominate in their communities. For believers it is never enough to simply believe; one must live as a Muslim, in submission to God’s will for him or her as a person..
Islamic Scriptures Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the literal word of God. The word Qur’an means recitation, and the text contains 114 separate chapters known as suras. These are arranged according to length, aside from the first, alFatiha, or the opening. The Meccan suras generally are testimony to God’s greatness, unity, and compassion, and speak of God’s will and judgment. The Medinan suras, generally thought to have been revealed to Muhammad during his later years, concern social order, ethics, and religious duties.
The Hadith, Islam’s secondary canon, is a collection of the alleged teachings, debates, and deeds of the Prophet and his
companions. It was compiled by Islamic scholars in the eighth and ninth centuries and is considered the Prophet’s way, or, in Arabic, sunna. The purpose of the Hadith is to provide authoritative foundations for the interpretations of the Qur’an, the task generally of groups of religious scholars known as utema. Sometimes Hadith texts contradict one another, and some of the individual writings are questioned by scholars, but as a whole the Hadith remains second only to the Qur’an in providing information as to how Muslims should believe and live.
Branches of Islam Some 90 percent of the world’s Muslims belong to the mainstream branch of the faith known as Sunni, the name derived from sunna, or the Prophet’s way. Sunni Muslims accept the legitimacy of the first three caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar, and Uthman, who were not directly related to Muhammad and while it was relevant generally accepted the authority of the Ottoman sultans as well. Sunni Muslims might live in very different ways, from the conservatism of Saudi Arabia to the relative openness of Pakistan or Indonesia. These differences have primarily to do with local consensus, which is a legitimate form of authority in Islam, or with varying interpretations of sharia, Islamic law.
Most Muslims who are not Sunni are Shia, or Shiite. The Shia differ in rejecting the legitimacy of the first three caliphs, holding that the fourth, Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, was the first true caliph. They also believe that Ali was followed by a series of divinely inspired imams, or leaders, many of whom were martyred in defense of their version of the faith. The twelfth of these imams is thought to have disappeared while still a boy in the ninth century, but adherents believe he continues to live and will one
day return in the form of a mahdi or messiah. Much Shia ritual is connected to the reverence for these imams, and Shia Muslims still make pilgrimages to their tombs, such as that of Ali’s son al-Hussein in the Iraqi city of Karbala. Most of the Shia are these so-called Twelvers, but another sect, the Seveners, hold that the line of holy imams stopped with the seventh one. The Seveners are also known as Ismailis. Shia Muslims are the majority in Iran and Iraq and maintain large communities elsewhere in the Middle East.
The mystical variant of Islam is known as Sufism, and Sufi ascetics have been a feature of the faith for over a thousand years. Sufis commonly believe that it is possible for the individual to gain an inner vision of God through meditation or through ritual practices such as prayer, chanting, singing, and even dancing, such as in the case of the whirling dervishes of Turkey. Sufi thinking had a great deal of influence on Sunni scholarship during the earliest centuries of the faith, and the Sufi approach is accepted as a legitimate one within the Sunni tradition.
Islam in the Modern World Islam is not only the fastest growing of the major world religions, it also is extremely diverse. Beyond Islam’s basic beliefs and practices, believers have adopted a wide variety of approaches to such concerns as relations with non-Muslims and the status of women. These matters have only grown more important with the immigration of many Muslims to Western countries as well as advances in transportation and communication and the increasing economic and political interdependence of the modern world. Some Muslims have called for a wholesale rejection of what they see as the trivial and corrupt values of the modern world and of the West. The most extreme
do so militantly, through terrorism or other violent political action. Muslim history, however, provides many examples of Muslims living peaceably among their non-Muslim neighbors, and most of the faithful today are comfortable with such boundaries. Interpretations of the Qur’an, Hadith, and sharia, meanwhile, often provide great flexibility in terms of the status of women and other social issues. While women remain restricted in many conservative Islamic states, elsewhere women are allowed greater opportunities in education and work. Pakistan and Indonesia, for instance, remain among the few countries that have appointed Muslim women as heads of state in recent decades.
SEE ALSO: Five Pillars of Faith; Hadith; Muhammad; Qur’an; Shia Islam; Sunni Islam
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