Founded in the seventh century C.E., the religion of Islam (from Arabic al-islam, meaning “submission to God”) has gradually spread around the world, becoming the second most popular religious faith in the world and the fastest growing. A Muslim is a follower of Islam. Muslim is an Arabic word that refers to anyone who submits him- or herself to the will of God. A Muslim is, therefore, any person, anywhere in the world, who gives obedience, allegiance, and loyalty to God and strives to live in accordance with God’s laws. Islam is also called Muhammadanism, taken directly from the name of the founder of the Islamic faith, the prophet Muhammad (570–632). Considered the messenger and the final prophet of Allah (“God”), he is the central human figure of this religion.
Religious historians believe Islam was established in 622 by Muhammad. Muhammad was orphaned when he was six years old and brought up by his uncle. He was a shepherd in his childhood.
Muhammad’s uncle took him to Syria in a caravan before his teenage years. In his youth he served as a camel driver on the trade routes between Arabia and Syria. Muhammad later managed caravans on the merchants’ behalf. He came into contact with people of diverse religious beliefs on his travels and scrutinized and learned about Christianity, Judaism, and other religious groups, including the animistic religion of the Bedouin.
Islam started in Mecca (in present-day Saudi Arabia), when, according to Islamic beliefs, the angel Jibril (Gabriel) visited Muhammad so that he would know and declare the will of Allah. The sacred book of the Muslims, the Koran, is the foundation of Islam and the final authority in dogma and belief, in jurisprudence, worship, ethics, and in social, family, and individual conduct. The Hadith records the reflective statements of Muhammad, compiled by his followers after his death in 632.
Muhammad never claimed divinity, and Muslims do not worship him as a divine being. In fact, the strict monotheism (belief in one God) of Islam will not allow for the worship of any other being but Allah.
This monotheistic outlook stems from Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel, who is widely considered the first Muslim.
Followers of Islam do not regard their religion as completely detached from Christianity or Judaism. They hold fast to the authority of the prophets of Judaism and Christianity. In fact they claim to worship the God of the Bible but profess Islam to be God’s ultimate revelation.
There are two branches of Islam: Shia and Sunni, and an independent branch, Sufism, which may predate Islam.
The division between the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam emerged out of a difference of opinion over who was the legitimate temporal and spiritual successor to Muhammad after his death in 632. Known as caliphs, the successors were both religious and political heads of a theocracy set up by Muhammad.
After the fourth caliph Ali (the prophet’s cousin) was assassinated in 661, Ali’s supporters argued that it had been his right to succeed Muhammad and that the preceding three caliphs (Abu Bakr, 632–634; Umar, 634–644; Uthman, 644–656) had been usurpers. They upheld that by divine right the caliphate belonged exclusively to those directly descended from the prophet, and therefore only the descendants of Ali and Fatima (Muhammad’s daughter and Ali’s wife) were entitled to rule the Muslim community. This disagreement led to the famous Battle of Karbala in 680, where Hussein, the son of the recently assassinated Ali, was decapitated, and his head carried to Damascus impaled on a spear. This battle is remembered by Shia Muslims on the holiday called Ashura.
Ali’s followers were called Shiites (the party of Ali, or shiatu Ali, later simply Shia), and often refer to themselves as ahl al bayt (“people of the house” [of the prophet]). Although there are specific theological differences between the Shia and the Sunni, they agree on the core fundamentals of Islam-the five pillars-and recognize each other as Muslims.
The great majority of the Muslim community followed the sunna (way), rejecting the Shia doctrine about the succession.
The Sunni are a 90 percent majority of the Islam population and are regarded as the mainstream traditionalists. Their comfort in pursuing their faith within secular societies has allowed them to adjust to a variety of cultures, at the same time following their three sources of law: the Koran, Hadith, and consensus of Muslims (their belief that Muslims should be democratically governed by ijma [consensus] through the caliph, their elected head of state). Sunnis call themselves najiyah, “those who are being saved.”
Origins and History
The early Muslim traders tended to prefer landbased commerce as opposed to maritime trade. As a consequence Islam spread initially west into Syria, Egypt, north along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and northeast into Iraq, Iran, and parts of central Asia. By 750 C.E., however, Islam had covered the whole of North Africa from Egypt to Morocco, most of the Iberian Peninsula, all of the Middle East, and much of central Asia. By the 10th century Islam was the major religion of much of the civilized world. It had spread over three continents, from the Pyrenees and Siberia in north and western Europe to China and New Guinea in the east. By 1550 Islam had reached Vienna in Europe. By the 18th century there were three Muslim empires: the Ottoman in Turkey, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean; the Safavid in Iran; and the Mogul in India.
Christendom’s resistance against Muslim incursions was a long struggle. The reconquista (“reconquest”)-to drive the Moors (Arabs and Berbers who had conquered Spain) from the Iberian Peninsula- began in the ninth century but fully succeeded only in 1492, when the last Muslim-held province Granada was retaken by the Spanish monarchs. The Ottomans’ spread into Europe was stalled when they failed to take Vienna in 1529; they continued to expand elsewhere in Europe for another century but were again repelled in another assault on Vienna in 1683, which marked the end of Ottoman expansion.
Islam does not believe in the notion of a church or priesthood and rejects any kind of religious hierarchy.
The foundation of the Islamic faith is the practice of the five pillars of Islam: the testimony of faith, prayer, support of the needy (zakat), fasting during the month of Ramadan, and, for those who are able, making a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetime. The first pillar, the testimony of faith, is the most important pillar of Islam. The profession of faith states that there is just one God (Allah) and his prophet is Muhammad. The second pillar concerns participating in the public prayers that occur five times a day: at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, at sunset, and at night. In Islam, prayer is a direct link between Allah and his worshippers, and each prayer requires only a few minutes to perform.
The third pillar requires payment of the zakat, a specific percentage of one’s wealth given to specific classes of needy people. Zakat is a way of purifying one’s possessions by setting aside a small sum for those in need. The fourth pillar involves fasting from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar), as well as abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations.
Fasting is a method of purifying oneself spiritually.
The fifth pillar requires a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca once in a lifetime; this journey is called a hajj, and it is performed during the 12th month of the Islamic calendar (Dhu al-Hijjah). Unlike the other four pillars of Islam, the hajj is only required of those who are physically and financially capable of making the pilgrimage Muslims have certain beliefs around which their religious lives revolve. They believe in one, indivisible God as the creator, who is just, all-powerful, and compassionate. They also believe in the existence of angels. Although they honor most of the scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Old Testament Christianity), including the Torah, the Psalms, and the rest of the Bible, they believe that only the Koran is the actual spoken word of God (Allah) revealed by the Archangel Gabriel to Muhammad, whereas the Bible and Torah were divinely inspired but were written by men. They respect and revere the messengers of God, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad.
Muslims also believe in the Day of Judgment, when people will be evaluated on the basis of their actions while on Earth, thus attaining either the reward of heaven or the damnation of hell. Hell, they believe, is a place where sinners and nonbelievers spend eternity. Paradise is deemed to be a place of spiritual and physical gratification where the redeemed (or the blameless) go after death.
Finally Muslims believe in the supremacy of the will of God.
Many do not look at Islam as a new religion.
Instead, they see it as the same faith taught by the Old Testament prophets of the Abrahamic faith; Muhammad’s role was to sanctify and clarify the faith and also purify it by eliminating any foreign notions that might have crept in.
For lay Muslims, public worship is performed in a mosque (masjid), where congregational prayers are led by a local imam after the public call to prayer, which is generally chanted from the top of a minaret at the mosque. Generally after leaving their footwear at the entrance to the mosque, men and women separate; men usually sit in front, and women in the back, which may either be inside the mosque or in the courtyard. While women may attend prayers in the mosque, it is not required of them. The prayer leader presents a sermon in the regional native language, perhaps combined with Farsi (sometimes called Parsi or Persian) or Arabic quotations, depending on the prayer leader’s education and the erudition of his audience. Announcements of interest, sometimes including political commentary, are often made. These are followed by common prayers involving responses from the congregation, who stand, kneel, and bow in unison during devotion time.

Holidays and Religious Observances
All Islamic holidays are observed according to the Islamic lunar calendar (hijri), not the solar Gregorian calendar. Because it is a lunar calendar, the hijri year has 354 days. There are 12 lunar months. Six months have 30 days while five have 29 days; the 12th month, Dhu al-Hijja, can have 29 or 30 days.
Islam has only two major religious observances that are universally observed, Ramadan and Hajj, and the related holidays associated with each. Ramadan, the ninth Islamic month, is a month of fasting from dawn (sahar) to dusk (iftaar). At sunset, Muslims enjoy a meal with family and friends. There are two observances related to Ramadan, Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Destiny (or Power), when the first verses of the Koran were revealed to Muhammad. It occurs toward the end of Ramadan. The second, Eid al-Fitr, occurs on Shawaal 1, the beginning of the 10th lunar month.
Hajj is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, made by those who are physically and financially able to do so, during Dhu al-Hijja, the 12th month. Two related observances take place, the Day of Arafat and Eid al-Adha, in memory of the sacrifice of the prophet Abraham. On the Day of Arafat pilgrims gather on the Plain of Arafat seeking God’s mercy; elsewhere Muslims observe a day of fasting.
Eid al-Adha comes at the end of the annual pilgrimage and can last up to four days. (It is known as Kurban Bayram in Turkey, Hari Raya Hajj in Southeast Asia, and Tabaski in parts of Africa.) There are also several holidays based on the history of Islam, but not all Muslims observe them: Muharram, Ashura, Mouloud (or Mawlid an-Nabi), and Shab-e-Miraj. Muharram, also known as Navruz (or El am Hejir), is the Islamic New Year and falls on Muharram 1. On this day Muslims remember the migration of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 C.E. Ashura, the Shia observance of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, falls on Muharram 10. The birthday of Muhammad, Mouloud, is celebrated on Rabiul awwal 12 (the third month of the Islamic calendar). Shab-e-Miraj is observed in some parts of the Muslim world. Shab refers to Muhammad’s miraculous journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, and the Miraj, his ascension to heaven, is believed to have followed. On Layla tul Qadr, (“Night of Destiny”), observant Muslims pray throughout the night, seeking Allah’s glory.