Islam is one of the world's major religions with close to 1 billion followers. It is also one of the fastest growing religions in the world. The word "Islam" means submission in Arabic, which is the religion's main language of prayer. The "submission" refers to obedience to God. In Arabic, God is called Allah, an all-powerful, all-forgiving, merciful, and compassionate God.

One who believes in Islam is called a Muslim. Muslims are found on every continent, but their greatest concentration is in South and Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The largest Muslim population is in Indonesia. Large numbers of Muslims are also found in Pakistan, India (which is chiefly Hindu), Bangladesh, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Nigeria. Over 3 million Muslims live in the United States.

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The Beginnings of Islam

Muslims believe that their religion is based on divine statements, or revelations, from God. These divine revelations came from God through a long line of prophets--people chosen by God to speak for Him. Among these prophets are Abraham and Moses from the Old Testament of the Bible. Muslims also believe that Jesus was a great prophet. However, they reject the Christian belief that Jesus is the son of God.

According to Islam, the teachings of the prophets were sometimes misinterpreted or distorted by their followers until the appearance of a prophet named Mohammed (or Muhammad). Muslims believe that Mohammed's teachings are the most accurate and complete.


Mohammed was born about A.D. 570 in the city of Mecca, an important commercial and cultural center in Arabia. Mecca was also the site of an important annual fair that attracted people from many different Arabian tribes. Each tribe worshiped a different idol-god.

When Mohammed was about 40 years old, he had an experience that changed the course of his life. According to Islamic tradition, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mohammed one night while he was meditating and commanded him to tell the word of God to the people.

For more than twenty years, the angel Gabriel continued to appear to Mohammed and give him the word of God. These revelations became the foundation of Islam. They included matters related to religious beliefs, human conduct, government, and relationships among people. They also included a narrative of events similar to those in the Bible.


Mohammed's Preaching

Several years after Mohammed received his first revelation, he began to preach among the people of Mecca. He preached the ideas of equality and charity, and criticized the worshiping of idols. He also spoke against the practice of making large sums of money from interest on loans to needy people.

At first the wealthy leaders of Mecca ignored Mohammed. But as he began to attract more followers, they became alarmed. They threatened Mohammed and persecuted his followers. Because of this persecution, Mohammed and his followers decided to leave Mecca. Their destination was the city of Yathrib, some of whose residents had invited the Prophet to come and help resolve a dispute. Mohammed and his followers went to Yathrib in the year A.D. 622. This became known as the year of Hegira or "migration." It was made the year 1 of the Islamic calendar.

In Yathrib, Mohammed became a political and religious leader. In time, the city's name was changed to al-Madinah al-Munawwarah (the enlightened city) or Madinat al-Nabi (the city of the Prophet). Today, it is known as Medina.

Mohammed and his followers stayed in Medina for about eight years. During that time Mohammed had more revelations, many of which dealt with rules about organizing Muslim society. Then in 630 Mohammed returned to Mecca, where many people had begun to accept the ideas of his preaching. With the support of the people of Mecca, major tribes throughout Arabia soon converted to Islam. For the first time, many tribes were united in their allegiance to one religion and one God. By the time Mohammed died in 632, Islam was the major religion in Arabia.

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Islam after the Death of Mohammed

After the death of Mohammed, the Muslims selected Abu Bakr, a close associate of Mohammed, to be their leader. He was given the title of caliph, which means "the successor." The caliph was Mohammed's successor only as the leader of the faithful, however, not as a prophet. Muslims considered Mohammed to be the last of the prophets.

The faith of some Muslims was badly shaken with the death of the Prophet. A number of tribes even abandoned Islam. However, Abu Bakr was able to restore the supremacy of the religion in Arabia.

After Abu Bakr's death in 634, Muslim leaders selected a new caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattab. Under Umar's leadership, the Muslims of Arabia invaded Syria and North Africa, which were part of the Christian Byzantine empire. The Muslims defeated the Byzantine armies there and continued their advance northward until they were stopped in southern Anatolia (the country of Turkey today). Muslim armies also went east and defeated the Persians and took over their empire. These invasions and conquests were part of a Muslim jihad, or holy war, to expand the influence of Islam.


Disagreements About Choosing a Caliph

In 656 Umar was assassinated. This time, Muslim leaders disagreed about the selection of a successor. Some wanted Uthman Ibn Affan, an elderly Muslim from a wealthy and influential family, to become caliph. Others preferred Ali the son of Abu Talib, a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.

Although Ali was smart, strict, and a devout Muslim, many influential Muslim leaders did not favor him as caliph. They chose Uthman instead. Ali accepted this decision, but some of his followers did not. One of these followers killed Uthman twelve years later.

After the death of Uthman, Ali was chosen to succeed him as caliph. Uthman's relatives and supporters, however, tried to arouse opposition to Ali. The most powerful person to oppose him was Mu'awiyah, the governor of Damascus. Mu'awiyah tried to defeat Ali in battle, but failed. Ali ruled for five years before he too was assassinated.

After Ali's death, Mu'awiyah quickly gathered enough support to declare himself the new caliph. As caliph, he made Damascus the capital of the Muslim empire and suppressed all opposition. When he died in 680, his son Yazid was named caliph. From then on, the position of caliph became hereditary (passed from one ruler to the next of kin). Mu'awiyah's family, the Umayyad, became the ruling dynasty, or family of rulers.


A Major Split Develops

When Yazid was made caliph, a major split began to develop in Islam. A group called the Shi'ites refused to accept Yazid as caliph. Instead, they wanted Ali's son Husayn to be made caliph. But Husayn and a small group of relatives and followers were killed by members of an Umayyad army.


The Sunnites and Shi'ites. The division that formed between the Shi'ites and a group called the Sunnites remains to this day. The Shi'ites believe that Muslim leadership was restricted to descendants of Ali, Mohammed's son-in-law. The Sunnites believe that Muslim leadership could be passed to elected members of the Muslim community.

The Shi'ites have a special place for Ali and his descendants in their faith. They consider Ali to be the first imam, or leader in prayer. The Shi'ites believe that Ali and eleven imams who followed were especially suited to interpret Mohammed's revelations and lead the Muslim community since they were descendants of the Prophet. According to Shi'ites, the twelfth imam disappeared around the year 873. They believe that God hid him from humans, and that someday he will return to lead the Muslim community and the world.

Today the Shi'ites account for about 12 to 15 percent of all Muslims, and they are spread throughout the Islamic world. The largest concentration is in Iran, where they form a majority. The Shi'ites rank their religious leaders, or mullahs, according to religious learning, piety, and leadership. The highest rank is that of ayatollah. Shi'ite leaders have great prestige, and their judgments have the status of law.

The Sunnites represent the great majority of Muslims in the world today. They accept the historical order of caliphs and other elected successors as the true and rightful line of authority. Although the position of caliph no longer exists, the King of Saudi Arabia is responsible for guarding and preserving the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Sunnite religious leaders have less authority than Shi'ite leaders, and some Sunnite and Shi'ite laws are different. Despite their differences, however, Shi'ites and Sunnites agree on most major matters of faith and worship.

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The Rise and Decline of the Islamic Empire

Under the Umayyad dynasty, Islamic conquests greatly expanded the territory ruled by Muslims. The Muslims conquered North Africa and even moved into Europe through Spain and Portugal. Although their advance into western Europe was finally stopped, parts of Spain were ruled by the Muslims for about seven hundred years. The last of the Muslims were finally expelled from Spain in 1492.

In 750 the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown by the Abbasids, a dynasty descended from Abbas, one of Mohammed's uncles. The Abbasids moved the capital of the Islamic empire to Baghdad, a new city that they built on the Tigris River. (Today, Baghdad is the capital of Iraq.)


Independent Islamic States

With the fall of the Umayyad dynasty, the Muslims in Spain set up an independent state and separated from the Islamic empire to the east. During a period of decline beginning in the 800's other regions of the empire also became virtually independent under their local dynasties.

As different local governments emerged, the Islamic empire lost much of its unity. But Muslims continued to control a vast area. Muslims in India, for example, founded an empire that remained in power until the British took control in the 1700's. The Ottoman Turks, who originally came from central Asia, defeated the Byzantine Empire in Greece and Turkey. In time, their Muslim empire expanded to embrace a vast area including southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and most of North Afria. The Ottoman Turks remained in power until the 1900's. Another Muslim empire based in Persia was very powerful during the 1500's and the 1600's.

The Muslims ruled in other places as well. Areas of Southeast Asia, east and west Africa, and central Asia remained largely in Muslim control until they were invaded and occupied by European colonial powers in the 1700's and 1800's.


The Non-Muslim Threat

From the late 1000's to the 1200's, European Christians invaded the Middle East to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims and to gain land and wealth. These Christian invasions were known as the Crusades. By the 1200's, the Muslims had succeeded in getting rid of the Christian Crusaders.

The Muslims were not so successful in other places. In the western part of the Islamic empire, the Christians of Spain were gradually reclaiming the country from the Muslims. By the end of the 1400's this reconquest was complete, and Muslims were forced either to convert to Christianity or to leave Spain.


The Treatment of Non-Muslims

According to Islamic belief, non-Muslim peoples are supposed to be tolerated and protected when they are within the Islamic state. In most cases in the past, they were. Nevertheless, when the Muslims felt threatened by foreign powers, they often limited the freedom of their non-Muslim subjects. During the time of the Crusades, for example, the Christians were suppressed. In later years, life for Christians within the Ottoman Empire was difficult because of wars between the Ottoman Turks and European powers. In most cases, however, Christians and Jews were allowed to worship freely and run their own affairs.

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The Impact of Islam

By the 800's, Islamic influence was greater than that of any other empire in history up to that time. Muslims ruled from Spain and Morocco in the west to India in the east. Most of this expansion had been achieved through conquest. During the centuries that followed, however, the expansion of Islam was accomplished primarily through trade and the conversion of people by Islamic missionaries.

As a result of Islamic expansion, people of many different ethnic groups, speaking many different languages, intermingled with each other. Arabic became a common language for trade and communication. In much of the Middle East the population was Arabized, meaning that their language and culture became Arabic. In other areas, people retained their own language and culture, although they often used Arabic script for writing.

Mathematics, natural sciences, literature, and art flourished in the Islamic empire. The Arabs invented algebra. Art and architecture were blended together in the building of beautiful mosques, or houses of worship, and palaces. The unique art of arabesque, a special type of decoration with intricate floral and geometric patterns, was used in building, painting, and embroidery. Calligraphy, the art of writing in artistic styles, was often included in arabesque designs as well.

Islamic civilization influenced many aspects of European culture such as the use of irrigation, new types of plants, and the Arabic system of numbers. The Muslims also translated many books from ancient Greek and were responsible for the transmission of Greek ideas to Europe.

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Islamic Beliefs

Islam views life on earth as a brief, passing phase that leads to eternal life after death. This eternal life can be filled with bliss and happiness or torment and anguish depending on how one's life was lived on earth. If people obey the teachings of Islam, they will be rewarded with eternal life in Paradise. If they do not obey, they will suffer the agonies of Hell.


The Koran

The teachings of Islam are based on the book known as the Koran. After Mohammed's death, Muslim leaders collected and preserved the Prophet's revelations in the Koran. Muslims believe the Koran to be the words of God spoken through Mohammed. Although they accept the Bible as a holy book, they believe that the Koran is the ultimate source of divine instruction and information. Many familiar biblical events and people, such as the Creation, the Flood, the Exodus, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and Jesus, are also found in the Koran.

The Koran is divided into 114 suras, or chapters. Each sura is divided into ayat, or verses. People with beautiful voices are trained to chant the suras. Each morning, radio and television stations in virtually all Muslim countries begin with chanting. Happy or sad occasions usually include chanted selections from the Koran as well. Since the revelations of the Koran were originally in Arabic, all Muslims, whether Arabic-speaking or not, try to learn parts of it in that language. The Arabic of the Koran is considered the most eloquent form of the language.


Islamic Laws

The Koran is also the main source for Islamic law. Another source is the Hadith, a collection of sayings and decisions of the Prophet Mohammed. Occasionally, the Koran and the Hadith may not provide clear guidance about a specific situation. In such cases, Islamic judges will try to base their decision on a similar situation in the Koran or Hadith, or by general agreement among learned leaders. The judges may also be guided by their own interpretation if necessary. The body of Islamic laws based on the Koran and the decisions of Islamic judges is called Shariah, or "God's Way." Among these laws are prohibitions against stealing, lying, killing, adultery, and alcoholic beverages. The laws also instruct Muslims to be charitable and modest, and to treat each other fairly.


Islamic Duties

Besides following Islamic laws and accepting its beliefs, a Muslim must fulfill five important duties called the Five Pillars of Islam. These five duties are:

1. Shahadah, or profession of faith. Every Muslim must believe that there is only one God, and that Mohammed is His messenger and the Prophet. The belief that Mohammed is God's prophet and messenger distinguishes Islam from Judaism and Christianity, which believe in the same God as Islam.

2. Salat, or prayer. Muslims must pray five times every day: at daybreak, at noon, at mid-afternoon, at sunset, and at night before going to sleep. At noon on Friday, the Islamic holy day, Muslims go to the mosque to pray. After the noon prayer, an imam gives a sermon.

The duty of prayer can be done at work, at home, in school, or anywhere else. Before praying, Muslims must wash their faces, necks, hands, arms, and feet as a means of purification. Prayer consists of reciting short selections from the Koran, bowing, kneeling, and touching the ground with the forehead, an expression of submission to God. Some Muslims carry a small prayer rug that they use to stand and kneel on during their prayers.

When praying, Muslims must face the direction of the holy city of Mecca. In Mecca's main house of worship, the Great Mosque, there is a small stone building called the Kaaba. The Kaaba was built to enclose the Black Stone, Islam's most holy object. According to Islamic tradition, the black stone was given to the prophet Abraham by God.

3. Zakat, or almsgiving. Unless they are poor, Muslims must give a portion of their wealth to the needy. The normal amount is 2.5 percent of one's yearly income or 10 percent of revenue from crops or businesses. Wealthy people are encouraged to give more. It is considered sadagah, or a good deed, to give more than the recommended amount.

For centuries, most of the zakat money of each country was given to special endowments called waqf to support schools and hospitals, to aid the needy, to maintain mosques, and to fund other charitable activities. In recent years a number of governments in Muslim countries have made the zakat part of their tax system, and the revenue is still used for different types of social welfare programs.

4. Sawm, or fasting. All Muslims, except children, pregnant women, and sick people, must fast from daybreak to sunset each day during the month of Ramadan. They are not allowed to eat or drink anything during those hours. At the end of the month, Muslims end their fast and celebrate Id-al-Fitr, or the Festival of Breaking the Fast. Id-al-Fitr, a three-day holiday, is one of the two most important Muslim feasts. The dates for this feast and other Islamic holy days are determined by a lunar calendar based on the phases of the moon. This calendar is different from the one based on the solar year. Muslims use both lunar and solar calendars.

5. Hajj, or pilgrimage. Muslims who are able to travel and can afford it must make a pilgrimage to the city of Mecca at least once in their lifetime. This pilgrimage must take place during Id-al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, which is the other great feast in the Islamic lunar calendar. It commemorates the prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son as an offering to God. When God saw Abraham's faith, he was merciful and sent an angel with a lamb to be sacrificed instead.

Each year nearly 2 million people travel to Mecca to commemorate Id-al-Adha. Dressed in plain white robes, the pilgrims pray at the Great Mosque and walk around the Kaaba seven times while praying. They also visit other holy sites nearby. Muslims of all racial, national, and ethnic groups make this pilgrimage. A man who makes the pilgrimage may be called hajji. A woman may be called hajjah. These terms mean that the people have fulfilled their hajj duty. Upon their return home, they are greeted with special celebrations.

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Islam Today

The past hundred years have brought about many changes in the Muslim world. These changes extend from politics and government to the personal lives of Muslim individuals.

A hundred years ago, most of the Muslim world was under the control of European colonial powers. Over time, the Muslims resisted European rule and resistance led to independence. But instead of the formation of one or two large Islamic states as in the past, these movements led to the formation of more than forty independent nations. Ethnic and national feelings were often as important as religion in causing the independence movements and in deciding the borders of the new nations. Nevertheless, religion is still a very important part of these countries, and Islam remains a strong force throughout the world.

The Muslim countries of the world today have a variety of governments, including kingdoms, republics, democracies, and dictatorships. In some of these countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, traditional Islamic rules and customs are strictly enforced by the government. In other countries, such as Turkey and Albania, there is a separation between religion and the state.

Muslim countries differ in other ways as well. In some, women cannot vote in elections. Yet in Pakistan, the country with the second largest Muslim population, a woman was elected to be the prime minister, the most powerful position in the country. Some Muslim countries have great wealth, such as those around the Persian Gulf that are rich with oil. But others are very poor, as in the case of Bangladesh and most of the Muslim countries of western Africa. Although the Muslims of today have differences that divide them, they also have a common heritage and a strong bond in their religion.

Dr. Mounir A. Farah
President, The Middle East Outreach Council

Reviewed by Talat Sait Halman
New York University