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Editors: Julie L. Carnagie , Michael J. O'Neal , J. Sydney Jones , Marcia Merryman Means , Neil Schlager , and Jayne Weisblatt
Date: 2007
World Religions Reference Library
From: World Religions Reference Library(Vol. 2: Almanac. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview; Culture overview
Pages: 31
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1170L

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Islam is the dominant religion of the Middle East, North Africa, and much of Southeast Asia. Its reach extends worldwide, and its followers are called Muslims. The term "Muslim" comes from the Arabic phrase bianna musliman, meaning roughly "submitted ourselves to God." Islam was founded in the early seventh century in Mecca, a city in the Arabian peninsula in modern-day Saudi Arabia. According to Islamic belief, in 610 Islam's prophet, Muhammad (c. 570–632), began receiving revelations and prophecies from the archangel Jabraʾil (Gabriel). These revelations, which continued until his death, were recorded by Muhammad's followers and preserved to become Islam's sacred scripture, the Qurʾan. In older texts Islam is sometimes called "Muhammadanism," but Muslims find this term offensive because if suggests that Muhammad was divine rather than simply God's messenger or prophet.

Islam is a monotheistic religion, meaning that its followers believe in one supreme God. The God of Islam is called Allah, a name that comes from the Arabic phrase al-ilah, meaning "the One True God." Core beliefs of the religion include belief in one God, Allah, and in Allah's messengers, the angels. Muslims believe in Allah's many prophets, which include Muhammad, Moses (c. 1392–c. 1272 BCE), Abraham (c. 2050–c. 1950 BCE), Jesus Christ (c. 6 BCE–c. 30 CE), and others. Islam also contains as its core beliefs a last day, when the world will end; Allah's judgment of human affairs; and life after death.

It is the world's second largest religion, with approximately one to 1.3 billion members. While Islam is thought of as a predominantly Middle Eastern religion, the country with the largest number of Muslims is Indonesia, with 130 million, representing 90 percent of the nation's population. Other countries with large Muslim populations include India, with 80 million (13 percent of the population); Pakistan, 73 million (97 percent); Bangladesh, 72 million (85 percent); Turkey, 56 million (98 percent); and Iran, 35 million (98 percent). Muslims also make up Page 292  |  Top of Article95 percent or more of the populations of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, and Oman. In all, approximately 760 million Muslims live in Asia and the Middle East.

In addition, there are some 301 million African Muslims, with the largest numbers in Egypt (38 million), Morocco (21 million), and Algeria (20 million). About 32 million Muslims live in Europe, with the largest number in Russia, where Muslims comprise 19 percent of the population. It is unknown how many Muslims live in the United States. Islamic organizations put the number at a minimum of six million, while independent polling organizations put the number variously at one to three million. Canada's roughly 580,000 Muslims represent about 2 percent of that nation's population.

Becoming a Muslim requires no formal rituals or ceremonies, such as baptism in Christianity. To become a Muslim, a person has to recite the Shahadah, or Declaration of Faith, in front of two witnesses. This declaration consists of the words "Ashahadu an la ilaha ill Allah wa ashahadu ann Muhammadar Rasulullah," or "I declare there is no god except God, and I declare that Muhammad is the Messenger of God."

History and development

In the late sixth century CE the religion of Mecca was based on idolatry, or the worship of physical objects, such as statues, as if they were gods. These idols were kept in special houses or temples called shrines. The most famous of the shrines of Mecca was the Kaʾaba, which at that time housed idols dedicated to the gods of the city. Mecca was an important stop in the east-west caravan trade route in the seventh century. Meccans had a financial interest in maintaining this idolatry because it was a way of getting money from wealthy merchants and traders who traveled through the city. Muhammad, however, did not accept idol worship. As a member of one of the most prominent families of the city, and as a widely traveled merchant, he had an interest in maintaining the tourist trade in Mecca. Instead, he launched a movement that became one of the world's most significant monotheistic religions.

Receives revelations from Allah

In 610, when he was about forty years old, Muhammad had his first visitation from the archangel Jabraʾil. According to Islamic tradition, he was meditating in a cave on Mount Hira, outside Mecca, when a voice spoke to him. His wife's cousin, a Christian monk, told him that the voice was that of a holy messenger Page 293  |  Top of Articleand that Muhammad had been selected as a prophet of God. Soon Muhammad began to preach his new religion in Mecca. He attracted a number of followers, but Meccan leaders saw Islam as a threat. They persecuted (mistreated) Muhammad and his followers, often beating them or hurling garbage at them. A key event took place eleven years later, when

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The name of God in Islam, derived from the Arabic word al-ilah, meaning "the One True God."
One of Muhammad's successors as leader of the faith.
An inborn tendency to seek the creator.
Five Pillars:
The core of Islamic belief referring to declaring faith, daily prayer, charitable giving, fasting, and pilgrimage.
The sayings of the prophet Muhammad recorded by his followers.
Pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
Permissible activities for Muslims.
Prohibited activities for Muslims.
Evil spirits that tempt a person away from dedication to Allah.
The shrine built by the prophet Abraham in the holy city of Mecca and the focal point of pilgrimages to the city.
A city in present-day Saudi Arabia, the holiest site of Islam, where the religion was founded.
The person who issues the call to prayer.
A follower of Islam, from the Arabic phrase bianna musliman, meaning "submitted ourselves to God."
The sacred scriptures of Islam; contain the revelations given to the prophet Muhammad revealed to him beginning in 610.
A unit of prayer.
Daily prayer.
The Islamic declaration of faith. It consists of the words "Ashahadu an la ilaha ill Allah wa ashahadu ann Muhammadar Rasulullah," or "I declare there is no god except God, and I declare that Muhammad is the Messenger of God."
Islamic law.
One of the main sects of Islam; from the phrase Shiʾat Ali, or the party of Ali.
A trend in or way of practicing Islam; characterized by an ecstatic, trancelike mysticism.
The example of the prophet Muhammad, containing the hadiths, or sayings; provides guidance to everyday questions of faith and morality.
One of the main sects of Islam.
Any chapter in the Qurʾan.
Annual charitable giving.
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Muhammad made a startling announcement to his followers. He told them that the archangel Jabraʾil had transported him to the city of Jerusalem. From there, he had been miraculously taken to heaven, where he was given a tour of paradise. The Dome of the Rock marks the spot in Jerusalem from which Muslims believe that Muhammad made his ascent to heaven. It still exists and is regarded as a holy site for Muslims.

After thirteen years of hostility from Meccans, Muhammad discovered a plot to assassinate him. He and his followers left Mecca for the city of Yathrib to the north. The residents of Yathrib gave Muhammad a warm welcome. Soon they changed the city's name to Medina, from the Arabic phrase Madinat al-Nadi, or "city of the Prophet." As Muhammad oversaw the construction of the first Muslim mosque (place of worship) and created an Islamic state, the Muslims in Medina successfully repelled at least three invasions by Meccan armies. In time they conquered Mecca, destroyed idols, and converted Mecca into a Muslim community. Mecca today is the world's holiest site to Muslims, who are expected to make a pilgrimage there at least once during their lives.

In the seventh century the lands of Arabia were peopled by competing nomadic (wandering) clans and tribes. These clans had until this time remained largely within their own boundaries. After Muhammad spread the message of Islam, however, the people were inspired with a sense of unity and purpose that lasted long past the Prophet's death in 632. They gathered under the banner of Islam, seeing themselves as God's chosen people.

Spreading the faith: The Muslim empire

By 634 Islam had spread throughout Arabia. Muslim armies confronted the Byzantine Empire (named for the empire's capital city, Byzantium, also named Constantinople; it is now Istanbul, Turkey) and seized the province of Palestine, where Jerusalem was located. They also seized Syria, Persia (roughly modern-day Iran), and much of Egypt. In 638 the second caliph, or successor to Muhammad, Umar, accepted the surrender of the city of Jerusalem from the Byzantines.

By the beginning of the eighth century Muslims ruled a vast empire that stretched from North Africa through the Middle East and into central India. In the early 700s Muslims invaded the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula (containing the countries of Spain and Portugal). From there they crossed the Pyrenees Mountains into France. In 732, however, they were driven back by a French army led by Charles Martel (c. 688–741) at the Battle of Tours. In the 800s Muslims captured the Page 295  |  Top of ArticleMediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica. In 902 the island of Sicily was added to the empire. In the 800s Muslims attacked cities in southern Italy and even advanced on Rome, though they were driven back in the 900s and 1000s by armies led by the popes (religious leaders) of the Roman Catholic Church.

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About Islam

  • Belief. The core belief of Muslims is total allegiance to the one God, Allah, who controls every aspect of people's lives and to whom people owe total submission.
  • Followers. Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with about one to 1.3 billion followers. Most Muslims live in the Middle East and in such Asian countries as India and Indonesia.
  • Name of God. The God of Islam is Allah, from the Arabic term al-ilah, meaning "the One True God."
  • Symbols. Because it forbids any kind of worship of physical representations, Islam has no real physical symbols. Acts of prayer or devotion can be considered symbolic.
  • Worship. The core of Islamic worship is daily prayer (salat), conducted either individually, in the family, or at a mosque with other Muslims. Muslim men are also required to attend a Friday sermon at a mosque.
  • Dress. Muslim men are required to avoid tight clothing, cover the area between the knees and the navel, and grow a beard, if possible. Many wear a loose gown and/or a turban. Women are required to wear loose-fitting clothes and to cover themselves to the ankles and wrists. A veil is worn to cover the hair, and excessive makeup and perfume are discouraged.
  • Texts. The major Qurʾan, the word of God revealed to the prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims also rely on the Sunnah, or the life example of the Prophet that includes the hadiths, or sayings, for guidance in matters of faith and morality.
  • Sites. The holiest site for all Muslims in Mecca, a city in present-day Saudi Arabia, where Islam was founded. Also considered holy is Medina, Saudi Arabia, to which Muhammad and his followers fled to escape persecution in Mecca.
  • Observances. The primary observance of all Muslims worldwide is Ramadan, a month of fasting.
  • Phrases. The most commonly used phrase by Muslims is Allahu Akbar, meaning "God is greater." The sentence is left incomplete because Allah is infinite and unknowable, and therefore greater than anything that could be named.

The Iberian peninsula was one of the first regions where Muslims and western Christians came into contact. By the end of the eighth century Muslims occupied most of the southern regions of Iberia, limiting Christians to the northern regions. On the peninsula they established the Page 296  |  Top of ArticleUmayyad caliphate in the city of Córdoba, Spain. A caliphate is a region or domain ruled by a caliph; "Umayyad" is the name of a family dynasty. Spanish Christians were determined to reclaim their country. They defeated the Muslims at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, and by 1225 the Muslim empire held only the area around the city of Granada, in the far south. They were driven out of Granada in 1492, completing what the Spanish called the Reconquista, or "Reconquest." However, the influence of Muslims, or the Moors as they were called, remains evident in southern Spanish architecture and within the Spanish language itself.

The Popularity of Islam

Within fifty years of Muhammad's death Islam had spread across Africa and Asia from the Mediterranean to the borders of China. Historians have identified three reasons that they believe were important in the wide and rapid advancement of Islam in the seventh century.

  1. Trade. Historians note that Islam spreads by following established trade routes around the world, from Africa to southeast Asia. They believe that Islam made trade easier by creating trust relationships based on a common set of religious beliefs. Traders outside the community of Islam had to create ties between people of different faiths and different backgrounds, which was much more difficult. Because Islam requires knowledge of Arabic, Muslim traders also shared a common language. Islam, this theory states, made trading much easier and gave Muslim traders an advantage over their non-Muslim counterparts.
  2. Alienation from other religions. People in general were unhappy with other religions, including Christianity and Judaism, the two other major monotheistic religions. Judaism at the time was an ethnic religion, and membership was open only to people who were born Jews. Christianity promised peace and love, but the equality promised by the early Church was hard to come by. In many cases Church leaders (priests and bishops) used their religion to maintain their own social positions. In contrast, Islam had no priesthood, and membership was open to anyone who would recite the Shahadah in front of witnesses.
  3. Taxes and tolerance. Although Muslim rulers imposed additional taxes on their non-Muslim subjects, in many cases those taxes were lighter than those gathered by local rulers. In addition, the Qurʾan calls on all Muslims to respect Christians and Jews (whom the Prophet Page 297  |  Top of Article
    At its height, the Islamic empire reached from the Middle East to North Africa and parts of Europe. The influences of the religion on these cultures can be seen in architecture, words within local languages, and other areas of these regions.
    At its height, the Islamic empire reached from the Middle East to North Africa and parts of Europe. The influences of the religion on these cultures can be seen in architecture, words within local languages, and other areas of these regions. Reproduced by Permission of Thomson Gale.
    called "the people of the Book"). Sometimes the relationship between members of different religions was so close that they shared places of worship. In Syria, for instance, Christians and Muslims shared the Church of St. John the Baptist (an old Christian church). Muslims used the church as a mosque on Saturdays, while Christians used it on Sundays.

The rapid and widespread growth of Islam as both a community of faith and a social community created a world-state that stretched from China to Europe. It brought people from different cultures together and gave them a common set of values. In that sense, Islam has been a major force for global understanding.

Internal arguments and divisions

Despite its early successes Islam was weakened by political and religious factions, or subgroups. The chief Page 298  |  Top of Articledivision, between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, rose over the question of who would succeed Muhammad. When he died in 632, Muhammad left no instructions about who would follow him. Shiite Muslims believed that Muhammad's successor needed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet. Sunni Muslims did not share that belief. This central difference led to the split. The majority of Muslims are Sunni.

What followed the election of Abu Bakr, Muhammad's father-in-law, was a long period of conflict in Islam. When the second caliph, Umar, was murdered in 644, a power struggle developed among several possible successors. Out of this struggle Uthman (d. 656), another early convert to Islam, became the third caliph. Uthman, though, came from a powerful, aristocratic Meccan clan called the Umayyads and was resented by the Shiites. Their resentment grew when he moved the capital of the Islamic empire from Mecca to Damascus, Syria. When Uthman was assassinated by Shiites in 656, ʾAli finally became the fourth caliph.

The disputes between Sunnis and Shiites, however, were not put to rest. After a civil war between the two parties, ʾAli was assassinated in 661. This allowed the Umayyads, whom the Shiites believed were corrupt and unfaithful to the teachings of Muhammad, to regain control of the empire. Civil war broke out again in 680, when ʾAli's son, Hussain ibn Ali, led the Shiites against the Umayyads. The war ended when he and his family were killed in a historic battle at Karbala, south of Baghdad (in present-day Iraq).

ʾAli's death still did not end the civil wars. As conversions (changes of religious belief) spread throughout the Islamic world, many new Muslims began to resent the Umayyad control on power and their unfair taxes. To oppose the Umayyads, yet another rebel group formed: the Abbasids, named after Muhammad's uncle, Abbas. In 750 the Abbasids launched a civil war, capturing the Muslim capital of Damascus and massacring the Umayyad caliph and most of his family. One Umayyad, abd-er-Rahman, escaped his family's destruction and fled to Spain, where he established a rival caliphate at Córdoba. The Abbasids moved the capital to Baghdad, where they ruled until 1258.

Even in the twenty-first century tensions continue to divide Sunni and Shiite Muslims. In the Middle East nation of Iraq, the early 2000s saw increasing violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims as the people attempted to form a new government after a U.S.-led invasion ousted leader Saddam Hussein (1937–). Many factors contributed to this violence, with long-held differences between the two groups being one of them.

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Muslims and the Crusades

A major series of events affecting Islam began to unfold when Europe, which largely followed Christianity, launched the Crusades in the 1090s. The Crusades were a series of military campaigns by the Europeans against the Muslims of the Middle East. The stated purpose of the Crusades was to reclaim the Holy Land, the country then called Palestine and particularly the city of Jerusalem, from the Muslims. From the perspective of Europe, the First Crusade was successful. The Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, beginning a two-century-long period of occasional warfare between Muslims and the "Franks" (so-called because many, though not all, of the Crusaders were Franks, or French). The major Crusades ended in 1291, when Muslim forces drove the Crusaders out of their last stronghold at Acre in Palestine. During the Crusades, one of the great heroes of Islam emerged. This was Saladin (1137–1193), the name commonly used to refer to Salah al-Din, a general who was able to unite Muslim forces and oppose the Franks during the Third Crusade (1189–92).

Throughout this period, the Muslim response to the Crusaders was weakened by internal fighting and rivalry. The Egyptian Muslims, a Shiite dynasty called the Fatimids (who believed that they were the descendants of Muhammad's daughter Fatima), hated Turkish Sunni Muslims. The Turkish Muslims themselves were divided into two factions or clans, the Seljuks and the Danishmends. Many Muslim leaders in Palestine and throughout Arabia were more interested in maintaining control over their small domains than they were in loyalty to the caliphate in Baghdad, so at various times they cooperated with the Crusaders.

In 1090 a rebel group called the Ismailis formed to oppose the Abbasid Baghdad regime. This group, which came to be called the Assassins (a Western term possibly from the word hashish, the drug that members used before carrying out their missions), vigorously opposed Sunni Islam. They were also enemies of the Shiites in Egypt, who had expelled them and driven them underground. To undermine (weaken or ruin) Sunni Islam, the Assassins frequently cooperated with the Crusaders and assassinated Muslim leaders.

From the 1600s to the 2000s

From the mid-seventeenth century to about 1950, many Muslim countries were colonies of European nations, including Britain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Russia, and Belgium. This colonization was responsible in part for much of the spread of Islam. For example, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Great Page 300  |  Top of ArticleBritain transported many thousands of Muslims from India to work on plantations in South America. These Muslims carried their faith with them, and their descendants continue to practice it. Thirty percent of the population of Suriname, a country just north of Brazil, is Muslim, descendants of these plantation workers. In the United States, African slaves carried Islam with them, and many of their descendants continue to practice the religion. In the mid-twentieth century Islam experienced a revival in the African American community. Many prominent African American leaders, such as Malcolm X (1925–1965), as well as such sports legends as boxer Muhammad Ali (1942–) and basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1947–), converted to Islam and made it more visible in the United States.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries Islam and the countries of the Middle East have dominated newspaper headlines. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 replaced the regime of the shah (ruler) of Iran with an Islamic government run under the shariʾah, or Islamic law. Many of the countries of the West (the countries of Europe and the Americas) rely on resources from Islamic countries, particularly oil and natural gas. As a result, developments in these nations are followed closely by Western leaders.

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By the time of the Third Crusade, Saladin (1137–1193) was the sultan, or ruler, of Syria and Egypt. He was the most widely known Muslim warrior in Europe, and his very name struck fear in the hearts of Europeans. His victory at the Battle of Hattin on the night of July 3-4, 1187, was a turning point in the history of the Crusades. His army wiped out the entire Crusader force that stood between him and Jerusalem to the southwest. Jerusalem eventually fell to Saladin's forces without a fight on October 2, 1187.

A number of legends grew up around Saladin. During the Battle of Hattin a captured Crusader leader was brought to his tent. By the rules of Arabic hospitality Saladin was obliged to offer his personal protection to the prisoner if he ate or drank with him. Saladin had little interest in doing so, however, because the prisoner had kidnapped and ransomed his sister in the past. Instead, Saladin knocked a bowl of water from the Crusader's grasp, led him from the tent, drew his sword, and promptly cut off his head.

Another story concerns his relationship with Richard the Lionheart (1157–1199), the English king who led the Third Crusade in response to the defeat at the Battle of Hattin and the fall of Jerusalem. In one battle, Richard's horse was killed. Saladin believed that no king should have to suffer the indignity of fighting on foot, so he called a truce and had two horses delivered to the English king. On another occasion, when he learned that Richard was sick, he sent his own personal physician to Richard, as well as gifts of fruit and even snow from the top of Mount Ascalon to cool him. Richard recovered and returned to the field of battle.

Muslims in all nations face a new challenge to their faith in the early twenty-first century. Some groups of Islamic religious extremists have used terrorist tactics against civilian populations, most notably the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. Religious extremists are people who take a strict view of their religion and are willing to act violently to create the changes around them that will bring Page 301  |  Top of Articleout their religious ideal. Because Muslim extremists were responsible for these and later attacks, many in the Muslim community have experienced mistreatment or persecution by others who have connected Islam with terrorism. Extremists from all religions, however, can and are willing to carry out violence to achieve their vision. Islam is a peaceful religion, and many Muslim groups have organized to combat the image of fear and misunderstanding that has resulted from these violent attacks.

Sects and schisms

Throughout the history of Islam, about two dozen sects, or subgroups, have emerged. Some have disappeared over time, while others remain part of Islam. The first sect to emerge was the Kharajites, a small political faction that was part of the army of ʾAli, the fourth caliph. This group withdrew loyalty from ʾAli because they thought that his efforts to negotiate peace with his enemies were a sign of weakness. The sect never gathered a large following, though a small number of Kharajites live in the country of Oman, where their version of Islam is called "Ibadiism."

Sunni and Shiite Islam

The major sects of Islam in the twenty-first century, the Sunnis and the Shiites, have their roots in disagreements that date back nearly to the founding of the religion. The division arose over the question of who would succeed Muhammad after his death. Sunni Islam is the major sect and accounts for perhaps 85 percent of Muslims worldwide. Sunni means "orthodox." The name comes from the word Sunnah, or "traditions," referring to writings that contain Muhammad's teachings. Sunnis accepted the appointment of Abu Bakr (c. 573–634), Muhammad's close associate and the father of his second wife, as first caliph to succeed Muhammad.

Immediately after Abu Bakr's appointment, however, a party formed in opposition. This group believed that Muhammad's successor had to be a blood descendant of the Prophet. They favored ʾAli ibn Abī Tālīb, or simply Ali (c. 600–661), who was Muhammad's cousin and the husband of his daughter Fatima (c. 616–633). This group became known as the Shiʾat ʾAli, or "party of ʾAli," from which the name Shiite (often written as Shiʾite) comes. Shiites comprise about 10 percent of Muslims in the twenty-first century.

The differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam grew over time. Over the centuries the Shiites developed slightly different interpretations of the Qurʾan and the hadiths. Moreover, differences emerged in rituals Page 302  |  Top of Articleand prayers. For example, Shiites are called to prayer only three times each day rather than five. Shiites also celebrate certain holidays that Sunnis do not, particularly those remembering and honoring the life of ʾAli.

The major source of division, however, concerns the leadership of Islam. While Sunnis believe that any qualified adult male can serve as a successor to Muhammad, Shiites believe that only a blood descendant of Muhammad can do so. Shiites believe that ʾAli and his descendants were and are blessed with secret wisdom by virtue of their descent from Muhammad. Shiites use the term imam as a title to refer to these people, who are believed to have a special relationship with God. In contrast, Sunni Muslims use the title imam as one of respect, with no religious significance.

Throughout Islam's history the Sunnis and the Shiites have struggled for power and leadership. In Islam's early history, only Egypt established a Shiite dynasty, the Fatimids, named after Muhammad's daughter. In the twenty-first century only Iran is dominated by Shiites, although significant Shiite minorities live in India, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Iraq. These minorities are often persecuted (mistreated) by Sunnis and tend to be poorer than the majority Sunnis.


Another important sect of Islam is that of the Sufis. Sufism is less a sect than a movement, or a way of approaching Islam. Sunnis or Shiites, for example, can also be Sufis. Sufism is an mysterious branch of Islam that relies on mystical knowledge held by a small, initiated circle of people. Sufis can often be recognized by their long robes and the turbans they wear around their heads. They emerged during Islam's early years, when Islam was expanding and wealth was flowing into the empire. They believed that Islam placed too much emphasis on worldly concerns, rituals, and legalities. They wanted a form of religion that led to inner ecstasy.

The primary beliefs of Sufis are:

A devoted Muslim can experience God only through consistent chanting, meditation, love for other people, self-discipline, and self-denial.

The way to achieve spiritual wealth is through frugality (not spending too much money). Excessive worldly possessions can corrupt the soul. Sufis are well known for their charitable work.

Sufi Muslims follow the dictates not only of the Qurʾan and the hadiths but also those of Sufi masters, often contained in stories Page 303  |  Top of Article
Islamic calligraphy praises Allah with the words Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, meaning In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate.

Islamic calligraphy praises Allah with the words Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, meaning "In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate." © World Religions Photo Library/Alamy.
and songs. In fact, some of the world's best-selling poets and novelists have been Sufis. The poetry of Jalāl ad-Dīn ar-Rūmī (1207–1273) continues to be read by Muslims and non-Muslims alike for its ecstatic, or blissful, vision of a loving God.

Some Sufis, known as Whirling Dervishes, follow the teachings of Jalāl by spinning rhythmically and chanting the ninety-nine names of God.

Sufis practice patience, a total reliance on God's knowledge of the future, and thankfulness to God.

Basic beliefs

There are seven core beliefs in Islam: belief in God, the angels, the revealed books of God, God's many prophets, the last day, divine judgment, and life after death. Muslims believe that God, or Allah, is the same God that revealed himself to Jews and Christians. (Arab Christians even use the name Allah when referring to God.) This belief in the same God is expressed in the Qurʾan, where Muslims are told to tell Christians Page 304  |  Top of Articleand Jews, "We believe in the Revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our God and your God is one; and it's to Him we surrender."


One of the most memorized passages of the Qurʾan, called the Ayatul Kursi, or Verse of the Throne, expresses the Islamic concept of God:

Allah! There is not god but He, the Living, Who needs no other but Whom all others need. He is never drowsy [sleepy] nor does He rest. Space and the Earth belong to Him; who can intercede [intervene] without His consent? He knows everything people have done and will do, and no one can grasp the least of His knowledge, without His review. His throne extends over the heavens and the Earth and He doesn't tire in their safekeeping. He alone is the Most High, the Lord Sovereign Supreme.

Another frequently memorized passage in the Qurʾan is a chapter called "Sincerity" that states: "Tell people that He is One God; Allah, the Eternal Absolute. He neither gives birth nor was He ever begotten, and there is nothing equal to Him."

Allah, in other words, is the only true reality. He is eternal and uncreated, and everything that exists does so because of Allah's will. Muslims even regard the physical universe as "Muslim," for in following natural law as created by Allah, everything in the universe submits to Allah's will. Allah has no form or substance and can be known only by his characteristics, expressed by the "Ninety-nine Names of God," such as the Strong, the Loving, the Everlasting, the Caring, the Merciful, and so on. Allah is an abstract concept rather than a "person."

The word "he" is used to refer to Allah because Arabic does not have a word for "it." Like many European languages, nouns in Arabic have grammatical gender, so that, for example, the word for fork might be masculine, referred to as a "he," while the word for spoon might be feminine, referred to as a "she." In Arabic, the -ah ending in Allah is a feminine form. But when "Allah" is paired with the word hoowa, meaning "he is," the masculine "he" and the feminine ending "-ah" cancel one another out, suggesting to the Arabic ear that Allah has no gender.

Submission to Allah

According to Muslim belief, each individual is given free will, including the opportunity to submit to Allah's will. The process Page 305  |  Top of Articleof submitting is not easy because of the efforts of evil spirits that lead people to forget their creator and give in to evil temptations. Among these spirits, called jinn, a word that means "hidden" (and that is the source of the stereotypical "genie" in a bottle), is one in particular called Shaytan. This name is remarkably close to the Western word Satan, or the devil.

Shaytan and other evil jinn corrupt people by playing on their desires, emotions, and fears. In doing so, they persuade people to forget their fitrah, an inborn tendency to seek their creator. A person who sins is required to go through a process of repentance (atonement or shame) called tawba, which consists of feeling remorse or guilt, repenting by saying, "My Lord forgive me," making restitution (that is, compensating or paying back an injured party); and promising Allah never to sin again.

The Pillars of Islam

Central to Islamic religious practice is a system called the Arkan al Islami, meaning "Pillars of Islam." The purpose of the Five Pillars to is remind Muslims of their duty to God and to help them avoid complacency (being unconcerned or self-satisfied) and temptation. The Five Pillars are:

  1. The shahadah, declaration of allegiance to God;
  2. salat, daily prayer;
  3. zakat, annual charitable giving;
  4. saum, fasting; and
  5. Haj, pilgrimage.

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Islam and Christianity

Islam and Christianity are the two largest religions in the world. Both trace their roots back to the Jewish patriarch, Abraham. Both recognize one God. They each identify sites in the city of Jerusalem as holy. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the site of the Haram al-Sharif, or the Dome of the Rock, the location from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and toured paradise. Christians believe that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is the site where its founder, Jesus Christ, died on the cross. Both religions teach messages of love, compassion, and charity.

Islam recognizes Christianity's founder as a messenger of Allah. Some scholars believe that the Christian holy book, the Bible, references Muhammad. In one instance, from the book of Isaiah, chapter 29, verse 12, the Bible states: "And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying read this, I pray thee, and he saith I am not learned." "I am not learned" means that one cannot read or write. These are the words that Muhammad spoke to the angel Jabraʾil when he was commanded to read the words of Allah. This accounting is relayed in the Muslim holy book, the Qurʾan.

In turn, the Qurʾan mentions Jesus Christ as it acknowledges the validity of the messengers and faiths that came before it and notes their unity. This passage is from the Creed of Islam, chapter 2, verse 136.

We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us and to Abraham, Ismaʾil, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord. We make no difference between one and another of them, and we bow to Allah (in Islam).

The Shahadah is the Declaration of Faith that a person recites before witnesses to become a Muslim. In addition, however, each Muslim is expected to recite the Shahadah at least seventeen times each day. It serves as a daily reminder Page 306  |  Top of Articleto Muslims that there is only one God and that Muhammad is God's messenger.

Daily prayer, or salat, is crucial in the life of Muslims. Daily prayer follows a number of rituals and traditions. Depending on what subgroup of Islam a Muslim belongs to, he or she may pray three or five times a day. The prayer requirements are designed to remind one of Allah's presence throughout the day. Prayer can be done in a mosque (the Islamic house of worship), at home, or anywhere.

The third Pillar of Islam, zakat, refers to charity, but the word actually means "to purify." Islam requires each Muslim to give up a portion of his or her wealth each year for the benefit of the poor. Islamic governments have the power to tax their citizens for this purpose. Zakat is a form of purification, for it forces Muslims to "purify" themselves by giving up part of their greed.

The fourth Pillar of Islam, saum, refers to fasting, or not eating. The purpose of fasting is to discipline the mind and body. The primary fasting period for Muslims is Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, when Muslims are expected to observe a strict fast from dawn to dusk for the duration of the month.

The fifth Pillar of Islam is the Haj, or the annual weeklong pilgrimage to Mecca. The Haj takes place during the twelfth month of the Islamic lunar calendar (a calendar set according to the phases of the moon). Each Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during his or her life. To remind Muslims that they are in Mecca to renew their commitment to God, strict rules of behavior, dress, and ritual are enforced. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter Mecca, the holiest place in the world for Muslims, at any time.

Sacred Writings

Islam relies on two sacred texts. The first is the Qurʾan, which contains the revelations from Allah given to the Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Jabraʾil. The second is the Sunnah, or life example of the Prophet, which contains Muhammad's sayings, called hadiths, recorded throughout his life.

The Qurʾan

The holy book of Islam is the Qurʾan. Muslims believe that the Qurʾan, from an Arabic word that means "the recitation," is the literal word of Allah. It was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Page 307  |  Top of Articlearchangel Jabraʾil (Gabriel) over a period of twenty-three years, beginning in 610 and lasting until his death in 632. The Qurʾan (often written as Koran in English) consists of 114 suras, or chapters, and totals just over 6,200 ayat, or verses. While Western translations of the Qurʾan number the suras, Muslims refer to them by name, such as "The Adoration."

The suras (often written as surrah) are arranged roughly according to size rather than chronological order (the time order in which they were written). The longest ones tend to appear early in the Qurʾan, while the shortest ones, some consisting of just a handful of lines, appear at the end. Muslims also distinguish between two groups of suras. One group is called the Meccan suras because they were written in the city of Mecca. These "Meccan revelations" were the earliest ones. Their main theme was Muhammad's opposition to idolatry and superstition (a belief or fear based on the unknown), as well as the suffering and hardships endured by past prophets. These suras were recorded in the earliest years of Islam, before Muhammad and his followers fled Mecca for Medina. Later suras, called the "Medinan revelations," focus on how to build an Islamic society. These contain laws pertaining not only to religious doctrine (set of beliefs), philosophy (thought), and morality (good behavior) but also to inheritance, marriage and divorce, criminal punishments, statecraft, and numerous other topics.

The Qurʾan is written in a combination of different literary styles, including prose and rhymed poetry. The language, classical Arabic, continues to be used as a literary language, a standard of poetic expression for writers in Arabic. All Muslims memorize at least a portion of the Qurʾan and are familiar enough with the language to understand the meaning and to be able to participate in daily prayers. A Muslim who memorizes the entire Qurʾan is known as a Hafiz, or "Guardian."

Muslims consider translations of the Qurʾan as not being the true or actual Qurʾan. Allah's word was revealed in Arabic, so Muslims believe that translations are more in the nature of commentaries or interpretations. For this reason most translations are given a title such as The Holy Qurʾan or some other variant to distinguish them from the true Qurʾan.

The Qurʾan that is read and recited in the early twenty-first century differs little from the Qurʾan as it existed in the seventh century and the years after Muhammad's death. Muhammad himself could neither read nor write, so his followers, who acted as secretaries, recorded his Page 308  |  Top of Article
A Muslim woman holds up a copy of the Quran in Arabic. The Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Jabrail over a twenty-three year period in the seventh century.

A Muslim woman holds up a copy of the Qurʾan in Arabic. The Qurʾan was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Jabraʾil over a twenty-three year period in the seventh century. © Mabil Mounzer/EPA/Corbis.
revelations as the Prophet recited them. At that time, however, little importance was attached to writing down the Qurʾan and compiling it in book form, for the goal of all Muslims was to memorize it.

This changed during the rule of Abu Bakr, the first Muslim caliph, when numerous Muslims who had memorized the Qurʾan were killed in a rebellion. Concerned that the Qurʾan could be lost, Abu Bakr had it recorded on paper, an innovation newly introduced from China. Later, the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, learned that many non-Arabs were recording their own versions of the Qurʾan, with variations in pronunciation and spelling. Uthman, concerned that among all these competing versions the true Qurʾan would be lost, ordered production of an official version, with one copy sent to every major Muslim city. Scribes in those cities produced additional copies for use in that city, and faulty copies were ordered burned. Two of these official Page 309  |  Top of Articlecopies, called the Usmani Qurʾans, are preserved in museums in Turkey and in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. They are the source of the text used in the twenty-first century.

The Qurʾan contains the core beliefs of Islam. The most prominent is belief in a single supreme God, Allah, who created the heaven and the earth in six periods: "The Adoration" (sura 32) states in part: "Allah is He Who created the heavens and the earth and what is between them in six periods, and He mounted the throne (of authority)." The Qurʾan is the basis of the Islamic belief in angels, including Jabraʾil (Gabriel), who revealed the Qurʾan to Muhammad; Mika'il, the angel who controls the weather at Allah's command; Israfil, the angel who will blow the horn to signal the end of the universe; and Azrail, the Angel of Death. Further, the Qurʾan requires Muslims to believe in the revealed books of Allah; in Allah's many prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus Christ; acceptance that the world will end and that Allah will measure and judge human affairs; and in a belief in life after death.

The Sunnah and the hadiths

While the Qurʾan is the central scripture, or holy text, of Islam, Muslims also turn to the hadiths, or collections of Muhammad's sayings, for guidance in matters ranging from law to personal behavior. The hadiths were recorded to show how to practice Islam in daily life. While the Qurʾan is written in a poetic, literary style, with emphasis on repeated sounds and other poetic devices both to inspire the reader and to make memorization easier, the hadiths are written in a simpler, more everyday style. One example is "Learning is a duty on every Muslim, male and female."

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Muslim Women in the Seventh Century

Women played a prominent role in the rise of Islam during Muhammad's life and after his death. One was Umm Salamah, who escaped from Mecca to Medina, even giving up custody of her children to her family, to become one of Muhammad's staunchest supporters. Umm Ammarah, wielding a sword and spear, protected the wounded Muhammad when he and a group of his followers were being attacked by the Meccans. Aʾishah, the daughter of Abu Bakr, the first caliph, was Muhammad's wife. She was a leader and teacher of both women and men. Barakah, an African woman, was Muhammad's caretaker when he was a child. She faced great danger carrying messages between secret Muslim meeting places in Mecca.

The hadiths were written down by Muhammad's followers. Early on, Muhammad forbade his followers to write down his sayings because he was afraid that they might get confused with the true Qurʾan. He later allowed them to be recorded after it became clear that a large number of people had memorized the Qurʾan. The most famous compiler of hadiths was Muhammad ibn Ismaʾil Bukhari (810–870), who gathered Page 310  |  Top of Articlesome 600,000 sayings of the Prophet but was able to confirm the authenticity of only about 2,600. The hadiths form the basis of another text that is important to Islam, the Sunnah, or "the Way of the Prophet," used to refer to Muhammad's life example.

Muslim doctrine is interpreted by Islamic scholars called ʾulema. Their function is to interpret and organize Islamic teachings. In doing so, they rely on four sources, in descending order of importance: the Qurʾan; the Sunnah; the sahaba, or the earliest followers of Muhammad; and independent reasoning. The ulema do not formulate new doctrines. They apply existing Islamic thought to new situations in modern life, such as organ donations, the buying and selling of investments, and whether loudspeakers can be used for the call to prayer.

Sacred symbols

Islam has little in the way of symbolic objects, icons, and the like, primarily because the religion was founded as a reaction against idol worship. Islamic law forbids the depiction of living things, so there are no statues. This is also why traditional Islam does not depict the Prophet Muhammad in any media, although artists from other faiths and cultures have made likenesses of him. Islamic art, to the extent that it includes living things, tends to be highly abstract rather than realistic. Some people believe that the star and crescent flag is an Islamic symbol, but it has no connection with Islam. Rather, its roots lie with the Ottoman Empire, which used the star and crescent on its flag.

The primary symbols in Islam are behaviors rather than objects. For example, when Muslims pray, they turn in the direction of Mecca and the Kaʾaba, a cube-shaped shrine in the city that the prophet Abraham is believed to have built. This act of turning toward Mecca symbolizes the unity of Muslims throughout the world. Before prayers, or before handling a copy of the Qurʾan, Muslims engage in a ritual cleansing to symbolize purity of heart in praying to Allah. Making a pilgrimage is also thought of as symbolic of efforts to renew one's commitment to Allah.


Central to the life of Muslims worldwide is daily prayer, called salat, the second of the Five Pillars of Islam. Prayer can be conducted in a mosque. More frequently it is conducted anywhere as Muslims go about their daily lives. Muslims make a sharp distinction between supplication and prayer. Page 311  |  Top of Article
Muslims are called to prayer five times a day. They may pray in a mosque, at home, or wherever they are able, and must face in the direction of Mecca, the most holy city in Islam. While at prayer, both men and women cover their heads as a sign

Muslims are called to prayer five times a day. They may pray in a mosque, at home, or wherever they are able, and must face in the direction of Mecca, the most holy city in Islam. While at prayer, both men and women cover their heads as a sign of modesty. © David Turnley/Corbis.
Supplication involves asking Allah for something, such as guidance, forgiveness, or relief from illness. In contrast, true prayer, or salat, is a reminder to Muslims that they are the servants of Allah.

The Qurʾan is specific about the times of day when people are to pray. The five prayer times, all based on the position of the sun, are:

  1. fajr, before sunrise.
  2. zuhr, shortly after noon.
  3. ʾAsr, late afternoon.
  4. maghrib, after sunset.
  5. ʾisha, at night.

These times are flexible depending on the season of the year. For example, during the summer, when the sun rises early, fajr may take place as early as 4:00 AM, but in the winter it might take place as late as 6:30 AM. Page 312  |  Top of ArticlePregnant women, travelers, and women who are nursing children are allowed to combine the two afternoon and the two evening prayers.

Salat requires seven preconditions:

It must be time for prayer. Prayer is not to begin early, and late prayers are recorded by the angels in the person's book of deeds.

The hands, face, and feet must be washed to achieve ritual purity. The process is called wudu, and it can be done in a fountain in a mosque or in a sink, wherever there is clean water. A cleansing lasts until the worshiper must use the toilet, after which wudu must be conducted again; otherwise, a wudu can potentially last for several prayer times.

Clean clothing must be worn. However, no shoes are worn in the prayer area of a mosque.

Prayer must be conducted in a clean place. To ensure cleanliness, Muslims typically use prayer rugs.

The body must be covered. For men, this includes pants, a shirt, and/or a robe. Women cover their bodies with appropriate clothing and their heads with a veil or scarf.

Those who pray must turn in the direction of Mecca, an act that symbolizes the unity of Islam worldwide. Mosques all have a feature that helps orient worshipers to Mecca.

The mind must be in a proper condition for prayer, meaning that the worshiper must approach daily prayer with humility, or modesty.

The Islamic "call to prayer" (azan) takes place five times each day. The practice originated at a time when there were no clocks or watches to inform the people that it was time for them to come together in prayer. The call to prayer is issued by a muezzin, usually a man with a loud but pleasant voice. In the modern world, calling through loudspeakers is not uncommon. The call to prayer is similar to the Shahadah, with repeated calling of Allahu Akbar ("God is great"), "I declare there is no god but God," and "I declare Muhammad is the Messenger of God."

Prayer itself follows a set ritual, accompanied by specified postures or positions. When Muslims pray with other Muslims, one member of the group usually leads the prayers. All prayer begins with the phrase "Allahu Akbar," with the hands placed over the ears. This is followed by recitation (saying) of the first chapter of the Qurʾan with the hands folded over the chest. Each person then recites a second passage from the Qurʾan of his or her own choosing, followed again by "God is Page 313  |  Top of Articlegreat," then "Glory to my great Lord," then "God hears those who praise Him," all while bowing forward at the waist. The worshiper then stands upright, says "God is great," then, on hands and knees with the forehead to the ground, says "Glory to My Lord, Most High" three times. Again, the worshiper says "God is great," before rising to a sitting position. After saying "God is great" again, the worshiper bows forward with the forehead touching the ground. This ritual is a "unit" of prayer, or a raʾkah. A second unit would follow the same pattern, except that a different, second passage from the Qurʾan would be recited. Early morning prayer consists of two units. The two afternoon prayers and the night prayer consist of four units. The prayer at sunset consists of three units.

The focus of Islamic community life is the mosque, where people congregate, or gather, for reflection and prayer. All Muslim men over the age of puberty are required to attend a Friday sermon called the Salat ul-Jumuʾah, or "prayer of gathering." Women are encouraged to attend, but those with domestic responsibilities are allowed to pray at home during this time. There are approximately two thousand mosques on the North American continent. Many of these mosques also function as Islamic centers, where meetings are held, homeless people are given shelter, and children attend weekend schools in Islam.

Observances and pilgrimages

Islamic observations and pilgrimages are so important that they constitute two of the Five Pillars of Islam. The fourth Pillar, saum, refers to fasting. The fifth Pillar, Haj, refers to making a pilgrimage.


Fasting, the fourth Pillar of Islam, takes place primarily during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Ramadan begins with the new moon. Each day throughout the month, Muslims take a small early-morning breakfast, called a sahoor, before the sun rises. During the day Muslims are expected to refrain from all foods, including liquids, as well as from nutritional supplements, nonessential oral medicines, and the like. Because the lunar calendar is used, Ramadan takes place about a week earlier each year, so this daytime fast becomes more difficult during the longer days of summer, less so during the shorter days of winter. After the sun sets the day's fast is broken with another small meal, called an iftar. At the end of the month, Muslims gather to celebrate the Eid ul Fitr, or Festival of Fast Breaking, a two-day celebration with parties, dinners, carnivals, fairs, and family excursions.

Page 314  |  Top of Article

The fifth Pillar of Islam is the Haj, or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The central event of the Haj is to walk counterclockwise around the Kaaba, or Cube, seven times.

The fifth Pillar of Islam is the Haj, or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The central event of the Haj is to walk counterclockwise around the Kaʾaba, or Cube, seven times. © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis.


The fifth Pillar of Islam, Haj, refers to making a pilgrimage, specifically a pilgrimage to Islam's holiest site, the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The Haj takes place during one week in the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. During this week, more than two million people gather in Mecca, making it among the largest gatherings of people in the world. Each Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during his or her lifetime.

The most important site in Mecca is the Kaʾaba, or Cube, the focal point of the week's activities, which include prayer and other events that teach lessons or commemorate (remember) the life of the Old Testament prophet Abraham. The history of this site reaches back to Abraham, along with his wife, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael, who traveled to the site from Palestine. There, Abraham and his son built a shrine dedicated to God. In later centuries, when Mecca was an important stop on the international caravan route from the East to Europe, the Kaʾaba became a place where many idols and statues were worshiped. It was this idol Page 315  |  Top of Articleworship in Mecca that led Muhammad, a descendant of the prophet Abraham, to found Islam.

The Haj to Mecca imposes a number of requirements on pilgrims. No sexual relations are allowed. Neither are shaving, fingernail cutting, or the use of perfumes, colognes, or scented soaps. No living thing can be killed, and such behaviors as fighting or arguing are strictly forbidden. One ritual is for men to cut their hair off, signifying a rebirth into the true faith. Women symbolically cut off just a lock of their hair.

Everyday living

Daily activities in Islam are classified according to whether they are sinful or not. The term halal is used to refer to activities that are allowed, while haram is used to refer to activities that are not allowed. All actions are evaluated according the Islamic halal and haram.

Muslims follow strict dietary practices. Animals to be eaten have to be ritually slaughtered, or killed by a certain method with required actions, either by a Muslim or according to Jewish kosher standards. Pork is forbidden, as is meat from any animal with fangs. All intoxicants, including all forms of alcohol and mind-altering drugs, are strictly haram.

Islam forbids gambling and games of chance. They are regarded as temptations from Shaytan that distract people from their religious faith. Any winnings are regarded as unfairly received. Games of skill that offer prizes, however, are allowed. Certain forms of music, too, are regarded as causing temptation. Women are not allowed to sing alone, but group singing is allowed. The rule in Islam is that any music or singing that is sexually suggestive is haram.

Muslims adhere to a number of restrictions in monetary practices. Any kind of interest-based lending or borrowing is forbidden. People can buy or sell stocks in companies that do not produce forbidden items. However, futures contracts (that is, purchasing the right to own a quantity of a commodity, such as wheat or oil, in the hope that the price will rise and the ownership right can be sold at a profit) are forbidden, for only Allah can know the future. Muslims are expected to conduct business through written contracts, and they are expected to be honest in their business dealings.

Muslims generally follow a number of rituals in connection with important life events. For example, when a baby is born, the father whispers the Muslim call to prayer into the baby's right ear. Usually within seven Page 316  |  Top of Articledays, babies are given a name, and male babies are circumcised. Muslim wedding rituals vary widely by culture, but marriages tend to be regarded less as "love matches" and more as contracts that spell out the legal rights and responsibilities of the bride and groom, who in many cases have been brought together by parents and family. Divorce is allowed. The Muslim wedding ceremony, called a nikah, is generally a simple affair, and Islamic law does not even require the presence of a cleric. One major requirement, however, is that the marriage be declared publicly; secret marriages are forbidden. One way to make the marriage public is through a wedding feast called a walimah, where the couple declare their marriage.

Dress codes among Muslims also vary widely by culture and nationality. The Qurʾan dictates that the body be covered adequately. For men, this means covering from the navel to the knees. It also means wearing a head covering as a sign of submission to Allah during prayer, but since prayer is conducted so frequently in daily life, head coverings are worn most of the time. For women it technically means covering the entire body, including the face and hands. In some countries women will wear a burqa, which may cover the entire head and face or may leave the eyes uncovered. In other countries, however, this custom is not fully followed. Rather, Muslim women in those places will wear a head covering called a hijab, which covers the head but leaves the face exposed. Clothing is meant to identify the wearer as a Muslim, and all showiness is to be avoided.

Death is regarded as the will of Allah, and so it is something to be met with dignity and courage. After a person dies, mourners recite passages of the Qurʾan, and the body is washed and wrapped. It is generally taken to a mosque, where prayers are recited. The mourners then form a procession, and the body is carried to a cemetery as the mourners recite prayers. The bodies of Muslims are buried on their right sides, with the deceased facing Mecca.

Islam's influences

Islam's influence on the world has been enormous. In historical terms, from about the year 500 to 1000, Islamic scholars were responsible for keeping alive much of the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. This period in European history is sometimes known as the Dark Ages because of the lack of cultural and scientific advances during the period. Muslims preserved much of the knowledge of the ancient Page 317  |  Top of ArticleGreeks in libraries (Damascus alone had seventy libraries) and passed that knowledge on to the Europeans. The Europeans themselves, in the centuries after the Crusades, often traveled throughout the Islamic empire, gathering knowledge about science, medicine, and more.

Contributions to science

Muslim scientists laid the foundations for the scientific method (the systematic investigation of a problem, including formulating the problem, gathering data and evidence, and testing theories through experimentation) and systematized the study of chemistry (the science of the composition of substances). They also invented algebra, which is from the Arabic word al-jabr, meaning "the reduction." Muslim scientists made great strides in astronomy (the study of the stars and planets) and gave the world such tools as the astrolabe, a device used for navigation and time-keeping at sea by plotting the position of the sun and stars. Without such tools, the European explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) would not have been able to make his voyage to the New World in 1492.

Islamic countries were also the source of many words and concepts in English. Alchemy, alcohol, alcove, algebra, algorithm, alkali, amalgam, and arsenal are just some of the a words that came from the Middle East. Other borrowings, both of concepts and words, include bazaar, benzene, borax, camphor, candy, chemistry, cotton, cipher, elixir, guitar, lemon, lilac, magazine, mascara, retina, sequin, soda, sugar, talisman, tariff, zenith, zero, and many more occur from the work of Arab scientists, geographers, poets, and astronomers. Islamic scholars established the science of optics (the branch of physics dealing with the behavior of light), measured the circumference of Earth, and compiled books on medical practice.

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Terms in the News: Fatwa and Jihad

Two Islamic terms appear frequently in the news. The first of these is fatwa, which refers to a legal pronouncement by an Islamic law specialist, called a mufti. Some fatwas have gained much media attention, such as the one against author Salman Rushdie for his 1989 book, The Satanic Verses, which was said to have blasphemed, or showed contempt for, Allah. The ruling called for Rushdie's death, but has not been carried out. Most fatwas, however, are rulings over minor legal matters or deal with more day-to-day concerns.

Another term seen frequently in the news is jihad, which means something like "to strive" or "to struggle." Muslims most often use the term to refer to an internal or spiritual struggle. Striving to memorize the Qurʾan, for example, or to overcome temptation or to discipline the self can be thought of as forms of jihad. Often, especially in the West, the word is translated as "holy war" and is used to refer to the motive behind acts of terrorism.

Art and architecture

Islam forbids the depiction of living things. As a result, the art that grew out of this religion is more abstract, meaning Page 318  |  Top of Article
The shahadah, or call to prayer, is inscribed in calligraphy on a mosque. Islam does not allow for the depiction of living things so the artwork of Islamic culture uses geometric patterns and calligraphy. Plant motifs or decorations, called ara

The shahadah, or call to prayer, is inscribed in calligraphy on a mosque. Islam does not allow for the depiction of living things so the artwork of Islamic culture uses geometric patterns and calligraphy. Plant motifs or decorations, called arabesques, are commonly used. © World Religions Photo Library/Alamy.
that it attempts to depict the meaning or spirit of things rather than their physical forms. It appeals to people beyond those who follow the faith. Geometric patterns, crafts, and calligraphy are among the forms of popular Islamic art. Calligraphy is a stylized form of writing, often done with a brush and ink.

The circular patterns in Islamic geometric art, such as those that may appear in vibrantly colored mosaics, are a reminder to Muslims that Allah is endless. The circle is without beginning or end and continues on forever, as does Allah. The repetition of a design also is a reminder of the infinite, or never-ending. Plant motifs or decorations, called arabesques, are also commonly used. Mosques are often decorated with displays of geometric art, and the art form may also appear in paintings, books (such as the Qurʾan), pottery, jewelry, and textiles. Crafts were designed and decorated in daily life to help make the everyday beautiful. Calligraphy often repeats passages from the Qurʾan in a stylized script that may employ arabesques or geometric patterns as borders or other embellishments to the artwork.

Islamic artists also consider their physical surroundings when they seek to create art that makes daily life more beautiful, and this includes the architecture, or physical structure, of the buildings in which they live. Traditional Islamic homes are constructed around a courtyard, with only a wall showing to the outside street. This style of architecture was meant to protect the family inside from those outside, including from Page 319  |  Top of Articlewhat could often be a harsh climate. The more artistic design is reserved for the interior of the home.

One prominent symbol of Islamic architecture is the dome, a semicircle that sits atop the mosque as part of the roof, and the minaret, a tall, thin column that extends up from the dome. The dome symbolizes the land of heaven and the dominance of the divine, Allah, over the faithful. Domes can be large or small and are a component of many mosques, particularly in the Middle East. The minaret is the location from which the call to prayer would be announced by the muezzin. It symbolizes the Shahadah, or declaration of faith, that Allah is the greatest.


In the field of literature, Islam has produced a number of world-famous poets, and their work has grown in popularity in modern times. Perhaps the most famous is Jalāl ad-Dīn ar-Rūmī, often referred to as simply Rumi (1207–1273). Rumi, who wrote in Persian, is best known for his mystical poems. His major work is the Masnavi, a title that means "Spiritual Couplets" (a couplet is a two-line poetic verse). Written in three volumes, the book contains more than 25,000 lines of poetry. It includes folktales, fables, parables, philosophy, and lyrical poetry. His subjects include the saints of Islam, commentaries on the Qurʾan, and mystical interpretations of a wide range of subjects, both religious and nonreligious. The Masnavi is the most widely read poem among Muslims. In fact, among Muslim texts, it is regarded by some as second in importance only to the Qurʾan. It is sometimes even called the Qurʾan-e Farsi, meaning "The Qurʾan in Persian."

Another poet who gained some fame in the Western world is Omar Khayyam (1048–1131), a Persian astronomer and mathematician who also wrote a long series of four-line poems called robaiyat, usually written as "rubaiyat" in English. These poems covered a range of topics, including history, law, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. They are best known in the West from their translation and adaptation by the English poet Edward FitzGerald (1809–1883), who in 1859 published them under the title The Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam.

Likely the most famous work of Islamic literature in the West is The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, often popularly referred to as A Thousand and One Nights or sometimes just Arabian Nights. The stories contained in this long poem were first composed in Persian by various unknown authors in the eighth century, then compiled and translated into Arabic in the ninth century. Together, the stories are framed by Page 320  |  Top of Articlethe story of Queen Scheherazade, who puts off her execution by telling them to her evil husband, the king. Each ends with the "cliff-hanger," so the king preserves her life for one more night (over a thousand and one nights) because he wants to hear the outcome of the story. Some of the famous stories contained in the work include "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" and the "Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor."


As the world's second-largest religion, Islam continues to exert an important influence on international affairs. In 1988 the Muslim nation of Pakistan was one of the first modern countries in the world to elect a woman prime minister, Benazir Bhutto (1953–). Indonesia, another predominantly Muslim nation, elected its first female president, Megawati Sukarnoputri (1947–), in 2001. Muslim nations in the Middle East, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, play an important role in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, who have been engaged in violent conflict since the mid-twentieth century.

The country of Turkey sits at a geographical crossroads between Europe and the Middle East. Since the end of the twentieth century Turkey has been preparing for membership in the European Union (E.U.), an organization that unifies economic markets and other policies across Europe for ease in trade, travel, and employment. When Turkey did not make the E.U. membership list for 2004, some in the country speculated that the divide between the European continent and Turkey was too great, in terms of both geography and culture, for the relationship to work. Some Turks worry that joining the European Union would lead to greater Westernization in the country, meaning the replacement or devaluing of Islamic historical, cultural, and social values with Western ones, which can be quite different. Islamic culture, for instance, emphasizes modest dress for both men and women, while Western culture allows for a wide variety of acceptable dress that many may not consider to be very modest.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to Islam in the early twenty-first century is to combat the negative image of Muslims that many non-Muslim people developed after a series of terrorist attacks beginning in 2001. Terrorism is violence carried out by an individual or group to instill fear and insecurity in a populace. It is often done to force change or to achieve a certain effect from a government, although the targets of terrorist actions are usually civilians not connected to the government. In September 2001 terrorists attacked the United States and killed nearly Page 321  |  Top of Article3,000 people. The U.S. government traced responsibility for the attacks to an Islamic extremist group called al-Qaeda. Extremists are people who are so dedicated to their beliefs that they are willing to carry out violence to achieve their goals. Among the goals of al-Qaeda is to remove Western influences from Islamic countries, which the group perceives as responsible for many of the problems in these nations. Other attacks linked to the same group or supporters of the group followed, including bombings in Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Spain, and England.

For people who are not very familiar with Islam, these violent attacks became their reference for Islam and Muslims. They developed negative opinions about the religion and those who follow it. In their fear and insecurity, some people acted poorly towards Muslims, even behaving violently against them. These attacks, by the terrorists and by those who fear them, have strained relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Muslim community struggles to improve the education and understanding of non-Muslims about Islam. At the same time, many Muslims search for a way to respond to the attacks of these Islamic extremists, who do not represent the outlook or wishes of the majority of Muslims.

For More Information


Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History, rev. ed. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

Esposito, John L. The Oxford History of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Esposito, John L. What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islam: Religion, History, Civilization. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2003.


"A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam." (accessed on June 5, 2006).

"Islam." Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. (accessed on June 5, 2006).

"Religion and Ethics: Islam." British Broadcasting Corporation. (accessed on June 5, 2006).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3448400024