What is Islam?2

◊ What is Islam?2
prayer1 prayer
Muslims praying in Jerusalem outside the Dome of the Rock.
A Moroccan in prayer.

Islam is not a new religion, but the same truth that
God revealed through all His prophets to every people. For a fifth of
the world’s population, Islam is both a religion and a complete way of
life. Muslims follow a religion of peace, mercy, and forgiveness, and
the majority have nothing to do with the extremely grave
events which have come to be associated with their faith.top

◊ Who are the Muslims?

One billion people from a vast range of races,
nationalities and cultures across the globe – from the southern
Philippines to Nigeria – are united by their common Islamic faith. About
18% live in the Arab world; the world’s largest Muslim community is in
Indonesia; substantial parts of Asia and most of Africa are Muslim,
while significant minorities are to be found in the
Soviet Union, China, North and South America, and Europe.top

◊ What do Muslims believe?

Muslims believe in One, Unique, Incomparable God; in
the Angels created by Him; in the prophets through whom His revelations
were brought to mankind; in the Day of Judgement and individual
accountability for actions; in God’s complete authority over human
destiny and in life after death. Muslims believe in a chain of prophets
starting with Adam and including Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob,
Joseph, Job, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Elias, Jonah, John the
Baptist, and Jesus, peace be upon them. But God’s final message to man,
a reconfirmation of the eternal message and a summing-up of all that has
gone before was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through

◊ How does someone become a Muslim?

Simply by saying ‘there is no god apart from God, and
Muhammad is the Messenger of God.’ By this declaration
the believer announces his or her faith in all God’s messengers, and the
scriptures they brought.top

◊ What does ‘Islam’ mean?

The Arabic word ‘Islam’ simply means ‘submission’, and
derives from a word meaning ‘peace’. In a religious context it means
complete submission to the will of God. ‘Mohammedanism’ is thus a
misnomer because it suggests that Muslims worship
Muhammad rather than God. ‘Allah’ is the Arabic name for God, which is
used by Arab Muslims and Christians alike.top

◊ Why does Islam often seem strange?

Islam may seem exotic or even extreme in the modern
world. Perhaps this is because religion does not dominate everyday life
in the West today, whereas Muslims have religion always uppermost in
their minds, and make no division between secular and
sacred. They believe that the Divine Law, the Shari’a, should be taken
very seriously, which is why issues related to religion are still so

◊ Do Islam and Christianity have different origins?

No. Together with Judaism, they go back to the prophet
and patriarch Abraham, and their three prophets are directly descended
from his sons Muhammad from the eldest, Ishmael, and Moses and Jesus
from Isaac. Abraham established the settlement which today
is the city of Makkah, and built the Ka’ba towards which all Muslims
turn when they pray.top

◊ What is the Ka’ba?

The Ka’ba is the place of worship which God commanded
Abraham and Ishmael to build over four thousand years ago. The building
was constructed of stone on what many believe was the original site of a
sanctuary established by Adam. God commanded Abraham to
summon all mankind to visit this place, and when pilgrims go there today
they say ‘At Thy service, O Lord’, in response to Abraham’s summons.top

Makkah, Saudi Arabia
◊ Who is Muhammad?

Muhammad, was born in Makkah in the year 570, at a
time when Christianity was not yet fully established in Europe. Since
his father died before his birth, and his mother shortly afterwards, he
was raised by his uncle from the respected tribe of Quraysh. As he grew
up, he became known for his truthfulness, generosity and sincerity, so
that he was sought after for his ability to arbitrate in disputes. The
historians describe him as calm and meditative.

Muhammad was of a deeply religious nature, and had
long detested the decadence of his society. It became
his habit to meditate from time to time in the Cave of Hira near the
summit of Jabal al-Nur, the ‘Mountain of Light’ near Makkah.top

◊ How did Muhammad become a prophet and a messenger of God?
The Prophet’s Mosque, Madinah, the dome indicates the place
where his house stood and where he is buried.
The Mountain of Light where Gabriel came to Prophet

At the age of 40, while engaged in a meditative
retreat, Muhammad received his first revelation from God through the
Angel Gabriel. This revelation, which continued for twenty-three years,
is known as the Quran.

As soon as he began to recite the words he heard from
Gabriel, and to preach the truth which God had revealed to him, he and
his small group of followers suffered bitter persecution, which grew so
fierce that in the year 622 God gave them the command to emigrate. This
event, the Hijra, ‘migration’, in which they left Makkah for the city of
Madinah some 260 miles to the north, marks the beginning of the Muslim

After several years, the Prophet and his followers
were able to return to Makkah, where they forgave their enemies and
established Islam definitively. Before the Prophet died at the age of
63, the greater part of Arabia was Muslim, and within a century of his
death Islam had spread to Spain in the West and as far East as China.top

◊ How did the spread of Islam affect the world?
Taj Mahal, India.

Among the reasons for the rapid and peaceful spread of
Islam was the simplicity of its doctrine – Islam calls for faith in only
One God worthy of worship. It also repeatedly instructs man to use his
powers of intelligence and observation.

china china
Hui Shen Mosque, China.Built in the 7th Century.

Within a few years, great civilizations and
universities were flourishing, for according to the Prophet, ‘seeking
knowledge is an obligation for every Muslim man and woman’. The
synthesis of Eastern and Western ideas and of new thought with old,
brought about great advances in medicine, mathematics, physics,
astronomy, geography, architecture, art, literature, and history. Many
crucial systems such as algebra, the Arabic numerals, and also the
concept of the zero (vital to the advancement of mathematics), were
transmitted to medieval Europe from Islam. Sophisticated instruments
which were to make possible the European voyages of
discovery were developed, including the astrolabe, the quadrant and good
navigational maps.top

◊ What is the Quran?


This opening chapter of The Quran, the Fatiha, is central in
Islamic prayer. It contains the essence of The Quran and is
recited during every prayer.

The Quran is a record of the exact words revealed by
God through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. It was memorized
by Muhammad and then dictated to his Companions, and written down by
scribes, who cross-checked it during his lifetime. Not one word of its
114 chapters, Suras, has been changed over the centuries, so that the
Quran is in every detail the unique and miraculous text
which was revealed to Muhammad fourteen centuries ago.

◊ What is the Quran about?

The Quran, the last revealed Word of God, is the prime
source of every Muslim’s faith and practice. It deals with all the
subjects which concern us as human beings: wisdom, doctrine, worship,
and law, but its basic theme is the relationship between God and His
creatures. At the same time it provides guidelines for a
just society, proper human conduct and an equitable economic system.


◊ Are there any other sacred sources?

Yes, the sunna, the practice and example of the
Prophet, is the second authority for Muslims. A hadith is a reliably
transmitted report of what the Prophet said, did, or approved. Belief in
the sunna is part of the Islamic faith.

Examples of the Prophet’s sayings

The Prophet said:

‘God has no mercy on one who has no mercy for

‘None of you truly believes until he wishes for
his brother what he wishes for himself.’

‘He who eats his fill while his neighbor goes
without food is not a believer.’

‘The truthful and trusty businessman is associated
with the prophets the saints, and the martyrs.’

‘Powerful is not he who knocks the other down,
indeed powerful is he who controls himself in a fit of anger.’

‘God does not judge according to your bodies and
appearances but He scans your hearts and looks into your deeds.’

‘A man walking along a path felt very thirsty.
Reaching a well he descended into it, drank his fill and came up.
Then he saw a dog with its tongue hanging out, trying to lick up mud
to quench its thirst. The man saw that the dog was feeling the same
thirst as he had felt so he went down into the well again and filled
his shoe with water and gave the dog a drink. God forgave his sins
for this action.’ The Prophet was asked: ‘Messenger of God, are we
rewarded for kindness towards animals?’ He said, ‘There is a reward
for kindness to every living thing.’

From the hadith collections of Bukhari, Muslim,
Tirmidhi and Bayhaqi.top

◊ What are the ‘Five Pillars’ of Islam?

They are the framework of the Muslim life: faith,
prayer, concern for the needy, self-purification, and the pilgrimage to
Makkah for those who are able.

The Shahada inscribed over entrance to Ottoman Topkapi
Palace (the museum contains a mantle worn by the Prophet,
among other treasures), Istanbul.

“There is no god worthy of worship except God and Muhammad is His

This declaration of faith is called the Shahada, a
simple formula which all the faithful pronounce. In Arabic, the first
part is: La ilaha illa Llah – ‘there is no
god except God’; ilaha (god) can refer to anything which we may be
tempted to put in place of God – wealth, power, and the like. Then comes
illa Llah: ‘except God’, the source of all

The second part of the Shahada is
Muhammadun rasulu’Llah
: ‘Muhammad is the messenger of God.’ A
message of guidance has come through a man like ourselves.


Salat is the name for the obligatory prayers which are
performed five times a day, and are a direct link between the worshipper
and God. There is no hierarchical authority in Islam, and no priests, so
the prayers are led by a learned person who knows the Quran, chosen by
the congregation. These five prayers contain verses from the Quran, and
are said in Arabic, the language of the Revelation, but personal
supplication can be offered in one’s own language.


New Mexico, U.S.A.Prayer call from Abiquiu Mosque.

Prayers are said at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset
and nightfall, and thus determine the rhythm of the entire day. Although
it is preferable to worship together in a mosque, a Muslim may pray
almost anywhere, such as in fields, offices, factories and universities.
Visitors to the Muslim world are struck by the centrality of prayers in
daily life.

A translation of the
Call to Prayer is:

God is most great. God is most great.

God is most great. God is most great.

I testify that there is no god except God.

I testify that there is no god except God.

I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God.

I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God.

Come to prayer! Come to prayer!

Come to success (in this life and the Hereafter)!

Come to success!

God is most great. God is most great.

There is no god except God.

Courtyard of Great Mosque, Herat, Afghanistan.
Zakat keeps the money flowing within a society, Cairo.

One of the most important principles of Islam is that
all things belong to God, and that wealth is therefore held by human
beings in trust. The word zakat means both ‘purification’ and ‘growth’.
Our possessions are purified by setting aside a proportion for those in
need, and, like the pruning of plants, this cutting back balances and
encourages new growth.

Each Muslim calculates his or her own zakat
individually. For most purposes this involves the payment each year of
two and a half percent of one’s capital.

A pious person may also give as much as he or she
pleases as sadaqa, and does so preferably in secret. Although this word
can be translated as ‘voluntary charity’ it has a wider meaning. The
Prophet said ‘even meeting your brother with a cheerful face is

The Prophet said: ‘Charity is a
necessity for every Muslim.’ He was asked: ‘What if a person has
nothing?’ The Prophet replied: ‘He should work with his own hands for
his benefit and then give something out of such earnings in charity.’
The Companions asked: ‘What if he is not able to work?’ The Prophet
said: ‘He should help poor and needy persons.’ The Companions further
asked ‘What if he cannot do even that?’ The Prophet said ‘He should urge
others to do good.’ The Companions said ‘What if he lacks that also?’
The Prophet said ‘He should check himself from doing evil. That is also


Every year in the month of Ramadan, all Muslims fast
from first light until sundown, abstaining from food, drink, and sexual
relations. Those who are sick, elderly, or on a journey, and women who
are pregnant or nursing are permitted to break the fast and make up an
equal number of days later in the year. If they are physically unable to
do this, they must feed a needy person for every day missed. Children
begin to fast (and to observe the prayer) from puberty, although many
start earlier.

Although the fast is most beneficial to the health, it
is regarded principally as a method of self purification. By cutting
oneself off from worldly comforts, even for a short time, a fasting
person gains true sympathy with those who go hungry as well as growth in
one’s spiritual life.

Pilgrims praying at the mosque in Makkah.

The annual pilgrimage to Makkah – the Hajj – is an
obligation only for those who are physically and financially able to
perform it. Nevertheless, over two million people go to Makkah each year
from every corner of the globe providing a unique opportunity for those
of different nations to meet one another. Although Makkah is always
filled with visitors, the annual Hajj begins in the twelfth month of the
Islamic year (which is lunar, not solar, so that Hajj and Ramadan fall
sometimes in summer, sometimes in winter). Pilgrims wear special
clothes: simple garments which strip away distinctions of class and
culture, so that all stand equal before God.

Pilgrim tents during Hajj.

The rites of the Hajj, which are of Abrahamic origin,
include circling the Ka’ba seven times, and going seven times between
the mountains of Safa and Marwa as did Hagar during her search for
water. Then the pilgrims stand together on the wide plain of Arafa and
join in prayers for God’s forgiveness, in what is often thought of as a
preview of the Last Judgment.

In previous centuries the Hajj was an arduous
undertaking. Today, however, Saudi Arabia provides millions of people
with water, modern transport, and the most up-to-date health facilities.

The close of the Hajj is marked by a festival, the Eid
al-Adha, which is celebrated with prayers and the exchange of gifts in
Muslim communities everywhere. This, and the Eid al-Fitr, a feast-day
commemorating the end of Ramadan, are the main festivals
of the Muslim calendar.

◊ Does Islam tolerate other beliefs?

The Quran says: God forbids you
not, with regards to those who fight you not for [your] faith nor drive
you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them; for God
loveth those who are just. (Quran 60:8)

It is one function of Islamic law to protect the
privileged status of minorities, and this is why non-Muslim places of
worship have flourished all over the Islamic world. History provides
many examples of Muslim tolerance towards other faiths: when the caliph
Omar entered Jerusalem in the year 634, Islam granted freedom of worship
to all religious communities in the city.

Islamic law also permits non-Muslim
minorities to set up their own courts, which implement family laws drawn
up by the minorities themselves.

◊ What do Muslims think about Jesus?

Muslims respect and revere Jesus, and await his Second
Coming. They consider him one of the greatest of God’s messengers to
mankind. A Muslim never refers to him simply as ‘Jesus’, but always adds
the phrase ‘upon him be peace’. The Quran confirms his virgin birth (a
chapter of the Quran is entitled ‘Mary’), and Mary is considered the
purest woman in all creation. The Quran describes the Annunciation as

‘Behold!’ the Angel said, ‘God has chosen you, and
purified you, and chosen you above the women of all nations. O Mary,
God gives you good news of a word from Him, whose name shall be the
Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, honored in this world and the Hereafter,
and one of those brought near to God. He shall speak to the people
from his cradle and in maturity, and shall be of the righteous.’

She said: ‘O my Lord! How shall I have a son when
no man has touched me?’ He said: ‘Even so; God creates what He will.
When He decrees a thing, He says to it, “Be!” and it is.’ (Quran

Jesus was born miraculously through the same power
which had brought Adam into being without a father:

Truly, the likeness of Jesus with
God is as the likeness of Adam. He created him of dust, and then said to
him, ‘Be!’ and he was. (Quran 3:59)

During his prophetic mission Jesus performed many
miracles. The Quran tells us that he said:

I have come to you with a sign
from your Lord: I make for you out of clay, as it were, the figure of a
bird, and breathe into it and it becomes a bird by God’s leave. And I
heal the blind, and the lepers and I raise the dead by God’s leave.
(Quran 3:49)

Neither Muhammad nor Jesus came to change the basic
doctrine of the belief in One God, brought by earlier prophets, but to
confirm and renew it. In the Quran Jesus is reported as saying that he

To attest the law which was before
me. And to make lawful to you part of what was forbidden to you; I have
come to you with a sign from your Lord, so fear God and obey Me. (Quran

The Prophet Muhammad said:

Whoever believes there is no god
but God, alone without partner, that Muhammad is His messenger, that
Jesus is the servant and messenger of God, His word
breathed into Mary and a spirit emanating from Him, and that Paradise
and Hell are true, shall be received by God into Heaven. (Hadith from

◊ Why is the family so important to Muslims?

The family is the foundation of Islamic society. The
peace and security offered by a stable family unit is greatly valued,
and seen as essential for the spiritual growth of its
members. A harmonious social order is created by the existence of
extended families; children are treasured, and rarely leave home until
the time they marry.top

◊ What about Muslim women?

Islam sees a woman, whether single or married, as an
individual in her own right, with the right to own and dispose of her
property and earnings. A marriage dowry is given by the groom to the
bride for her own personal use, and she keeps her own family name rather
than taking her husband’s.

Both men and women are expected to dress in a way
which is modest and dignified; the traditions of female dress found in
some Muslim countries are often the expression of local customs.

The Messenger of God said:

‘The most perfect in faith
amongst believers is he who is best in manner and kindest to his wife.’

◊ Can a Muslim have more than one wife?

The religion of Islam was revealed for all societies
and all times and so accommodates widely differing social requirements.
Circumstances may warrant the taking of another wife but the
right is granted, according to the Quran, only on condition that the
husband is scrupulously fair.

◊ Is Islamic marriage like Christian marriage?

A Muslim marriage is not a ‘sacrament’, but a simple,
legal agreement in which either partner is free to include conditions.
Marriage customs thus vary widely from country to country. As a result,
divorce is not common, although it is not forbidden as a
last resort. According to Islam, no Muslim girl can be forced to marry
against her will: her parents will simply suggest young men they think
may be suitable.top

◊ How do Muslims treat the elderly?

In the Islamic world there are no old people’s homes.
The strain of caring for one’s parents in this most difficult time of
their lives is considered an honor and blessing, and an opportunity for
great spiritual growth. God asks that we not only pray for our parents,
but act with limitless compassion, remembering that when we were
helpless children they preferred us to themselves. Mothers are
particularly honored: the Prophet taught that ‘Paradise lies at the feet
of mothers’. When they reach old age, Muslim parents are treated
mercifully, with the same kindness and selflessness.

In Islam, serving one’s parents is a duty second only
to prayer, and it is their right to expect it. It is considered
despicable to express any irritation when, through no fault of their
own, the old become difficult.

The Quran says: ‘Your Lord has
commanded that you worship none but Him, and be kind to parents. If
either or both of them reach old age with you, do not say ‘uff to them
or chide them, but speak to them in terms of honor and
kindness. Treat them with humility, and say, ‘My Lord! Have mercy on
them, for they did care for me when I was little’. (17:23-4)

◊ How do Muslims view death?

Like Jews and Christians, Muslims believe that the
present life is only a trial preparation for the next realm of
existence. Basic articles of faith include: the Day of Judgment,
resurrection, Heaven and Hell. When a Muslim dies, he or she is washed,
usually by a family member, wrapped in a clean white cloth, and buried
with a simple prayer preferably the same day. Muslims consider this one
of the final services they can do for their relatives, and an
opportunity to remember their own brief existence here on earth. The
Prophet taught that three things can continue to help a
person even after death; charity which he had given, knowledge which he
had taught and prayers on their behalf by a righteous child.


◊ What does Islam say about war?

Like Christianity, Islam permits fighting in
self-defense, in defense of religion, or on the part of those who have
been expelled forcibly from their homes. It lays down strict rules of
combat which include prohibitions against harming civilians and against
destroying crops, trees and livestock. As Muslims see it, injustice
would be triumphant in the world if good men were not prepared to risk
their lives in a righteous cause. The Quran says:

Fight in the cause of God against those who fight
you, but do not transgress limits. God does not love transgressors.

If they seek peace, then seek you peace. And trust
in God for He is the One that heareth and knoweth all things. (8:61)

War, therefore, is the last resort, and is subject to
the rigorous conditions laid down by the sacred law. The term jihad
literally means ‘struggle’, and Muslims believe that there are two kinds
of jihad. The other ‘jihad’ is the inner struggle which
everyone wages against egotistic desires, for the sake of attaining
inner peace.

◊ What about food?

Although much simpler than the dietary law followed by
Jews and the early Christians, the code which Muslims observe forbids
the consumption of pig meat or any kind of intoxicating drink. The
Prophet taught that ‘your body has rights over you’, and the consumption
of wholesome food and the leading of a healthy lifestyle are seen as
religious obligations.

The Prophet said: ‘Ask God for
certainty [of faith] and well-being; for after
certainty, no one is given any gift better than health!’

◊ How does Islam guarantee human rights?

Freedom of conscience is laid down
by the Quran itself: ‘There is no compulsion in religion’. (2:256)

The life and property of all citizens in an Islamic
state are considered sacred whether a person is Muslim or not.

Racism is incomprehensible to Muslims, for the Quran
speaks of human equality in the following terms:

O mankind! We created you from a
single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so
that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honored of you in
God’s sight is the greatest of you in piety. God is All-Knowing, All
Aware (49:13)

newmexico iran alazhar
Mosque in New Mexico, U.S.A.

University Mosque of Al Azhar – a center of learning
since 969 AD.
◊ Islam in the United States

It is almost impossible to generalize about American
Muslims: converts, immigrants, factory workers, doctors; all are making
their own contribution to America’s future. This complex community is
unified by a common faith, underpinned by a countrywide network of a
thousand mosques.

The Islamic Cultural Center, Washington DC.

Muslims were early arrivals in North America. By the
eighteenth century there were many thousands of them, working as slaves
on plantations. These early communities, cut off from their heritage and
families, inevitably lost their Islamic identity as time went by. Today
many Afro-American Muslims play an important role in the Islamic

The nineteenth century, however, saw the beginnings of
an influx of Arab Muslims, most of whom settled in the major industrial
centers where they worshipped in hired rooms. The early twentieth
century witnessed the arrival of several hundred thousand Muslims from
Eastern Europe: the first Albanian mosque was opened in Maine in 1915;
others soon followed, and a group of Polish Muslims opened a mosque in
Brooklyn in 1928.

In 1947 the Washington Islamic Center was founded
during the term of President Truman, and several nationwide
organizations were set up in the fifties. The same period saw the
establishment of other communities whose lives were in many ways modeled
after Islam. More recently, numerous members of these groups have
entered the fold of Muslim orthodoxy. Today there are
about five million Muslims in America.

◊ The Muslim World

The Muslim population of the world is around one
billion. 30% of Muslims live in the Indian subcontinent, 20% in
Sub-Saharan Africa, 17% in Southeast Asia, 18% in the Arab World, 10% in
the Soviet Union and China. Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan comprise 10% of
the non-Arab Middle East. Although there are Muslim minorities in almost
every area, including Latin America and Australia, they are most
numerous in the Soviet Union, India, and central Africa. There are 5
million Muslims in the United States.

O mankind! We created you from a
single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so
that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honored of you in
God’s sight is the greatest of you in piety. God is All-Knowing,
All-Aware. (Quran 49:13)

asmara yemen
Al Khulafa Al Rashidin Mosque – Asmara Eritrea.
Shibam, Hadramout, Yemen (The Land of Queen Sheiba.)


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