Islam is one of the largest religions in the world, with over 1 billion followers. It is a monotheistic faith based on revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad in 7th-century Saudi Arabia. The Arabic word islammeans “submission,” reflecting the faith’s central tenet of submitting to the will of God. Followers of Islam are called Muslims.
According to Islamic tradition, the angel Gabriel appeared to the Prophet over the course of 20 years, revealing to him many messages from God. Muslims recognize some earlier Judeo-Christian prophets—including Moses and Jesus—as messengers of of the same true God. But in Islam, but Muhammad is the last and greatest of the prophets, whose revelations alone are pure and uncorrupted.
The Prophet dedicated the remainder of his life to spreading a message of monotheism in a polytheistic world. In 622, he fled north to the city of Medina to escape growing persecution. This event marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Eight years later, Muhammad returned to Mecca with an army and conquered the city for Islam. By Muhammad’s death, 50 years later, the entire Arabian Peninsula had come under Muslim control.
The sacred text of Islam, the Qur’an, was written in Arabic within 30 years of Muhammad’s death. Muslims believe it contains the literal word of God. Also important is the tradition of the sayings and actions of Muhammad and his companions, collected in the Hadith.
Islamic practices center on the Five Pillars of Islam—faith; prayer; fasting; pilgrimage to Mecca; and alms—and include several holidays and rituals as well.
Islam and the Judeo-Christian West have had a challenging relationship for centuries and today’s conflicts in the Middle East are religiously charged. Thus a focus on the facts and efforts towards mutual understanding are particularly important when it comes to Islam.
Retaining its emphasis on an uncompromisng monotheism and a strict adherence to certain essential religious practices, the religion taught by Muhammad to a small group of followers spread rapidly through the Middle East to Africa, Europe, the Indian subcontinent, the Malay Peninsula, and China. Although many sectarian movements have arisen within Islam, all Muslims are bound by a common faith and a sense of belonging to a single community.
This article deals with the fundamental beliefs and practices of Islam and with the connection of religion and society in the Islamic world. The history of the various peoples who embraced Islam is covered in the article Islamic world.
During this early period, Islam acquired its characteristic ethos as a religion uniting in itself both the spiritual and temporal aspects of life and seeking to regulate not only the individual’s relationship to God (through his conscience) but human relationships in a social setting as well. Thus, there is not only an Islamic religious institution but also an Islamic law, state, and other institutions governing society. Not until the 20th century were the religious (private) and the secular (public) distinguished by some Muslim thinkers and separated formally, as in Turkey.
This dual religious and social character of Islam, expressing itself in one way as a religious community commissioned by God to bring its own value system to the world through the jihad (“holy war” or “holy struggle”), explains the astonishing success of the early generations of Muslims. Within a century after the Prophet’s death in AD 632, they had brought a large part of the globe–from Spain across Central Asia to India–under a new Arab Muslim empire.
The period of Islamic conquests and empire building marks the first phase of the expansion of Islam as a religion. Islam’s essential egalitarianism within the community of the faithful and its official discrimination against the followers of other religions won rapid converts. Jews and Christians were assigned a special status as communities possessing scriptures and called the “people of the Book” (ahl al-kitab) and, therefore, were allowed religious autonomy.
They were, however, required to pay a per capita tax called jizyah, as opposed to pagans, who were required to either accept Islam or die. The same status of the “people of the Book” was later extended to Zoroastrians and Hindus, but many “people of the Book” joined Islam in order to escape the disability of the jizyah. A much more massive expansion of Islam after the 12th century was inaugurated by the Sufis (Muslim mystics), who were mainly responsible for the spread of Islam in India, Central Asia, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa (see below).
Besides the jihad and Sufi missionary activity, another factor in the spread of Islam was the far-ranging influence of Muslim traders, who not only introduced Islam quite early to the Indian east coast and South India but who proved as well to be the main catalytic agents (besides the Sufis) in converting people to Islam in Indonesia, Malaya, and China. Islam was introduced to Indonesia in the 14th century, hardly having time to consolidate itself there politically before coming under Dutch colonial domination.
The vast variety of races and cultures embraced by Islam (estimated to total from 600,000,000 to 700,000,000 persons worldwide) has produced important internal differences. All segments of Muslim society, however, are bound by a common faith and a sense of belonging to a single community. With the loss of political power during the period of Western colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the concept of the Islamic community (ummah), instead of weakening, became stronger.
The faith of Islam helped various Muslim peoples in their struggle to gain political freedom in the mid-20th century and the unity of Islam contributed to later political solidarity.
The Qur’an (literally, Reading, or Recitation) is regarded as the Word, or Speech, of God delivered to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. Divided into 114 surahs (chapters) of unequal length, it is the fundamental source of Islamic teaching. The surahs revealed at Mecca during the earliest part of Muhammad’s career are concerned with ethical and spiritual teachings and the Day of Judgment. The surahs revealed at Medina at a later period in the career of the Prophet are concerned with social legislation and the politico-moral principles for constituting and ordering the community. Sunnah (“a well-trodden path”) was used by pre-Islamic Arabs to denote their tribal or common law; in Islam it came to mean the example of the Prophet; i.e., his words and deeds as recorded in compilations known as Hadith.
Hadith (a Report, or collection of sayings attributed to the Prophet) provide the written documentation of the Prophet’s word and deeds. Six of these collections, compiled in the 3rd century AH (9th century AD) came to be regarded as especially authoritative by the largest group in Islam, the Sunnah. Another large group, the Shi’ah, has its own Hadith.
The doctrine of ijma’, or consensus, was introduced in the 2nd century AH (8th century AD) in order to standardize legal theory and practice and to overcome individual and regional differences of opinion. Though conceived as a “consensus of scholars,” in actual practice ijma’ was a more fundamental operative factor. From the 3rd century AH ijma’ has amounted to a principle of rigidity in thinking; points on which consensus was reached in practice were considered closed and further substantial questioning of them prohibited. Accepted interpretations of the Qur’an and the actual content of the sunnah (i.e., Hadith and theology) all rest finally on the ijma’.
Ijtihad, meaning “to endeavour” or “to exert effort,” was required to find the legal or doctrinal solution to a new problem. In the early period of Islam, because ijtihad took the form of individual opinion (ra’y), there was a wealth of conflicting and chaotic opinions. In the 2nd century AH ijtihad was replaced by qiyas (reasoning by strict analogy), a formal procedure of deduction based on the texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith.
The transformation of ijma’ into a conservative mechanism and the acceptance of a definitive body of Hadith virtually closed the “gate of ijtihad.” Nevertheless, certain outstanding Muslim thinkers (e.g., al-Ghazali, died AD 1111) continued to claim the right of new ijtihad for themselves, and reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries, because of modern influences, have caused this principle to once more receive wider acceptance.
The Qur’an and Hadith are discussed below. The significance of ijma’ and ijtihad are discussed below in the contexts of Islamic theology, philosophy, and law.
But he is also just and merciful: his justice ensures order in his creation, in which nothing is believed to be out of place, and his mercy is unbounded and encompasses everything. His creating and ordering the universe is viewed as the act of prime mercy for which all things sing his glories. The God of the Qur’an, described as majestic and sovereign, is also a personal God; he is viewed as being nearer to man than man’s jugular vein, and, whenever a person in need or distress calls him, he responds. Above all, he is the God of guidance and shows everything, particularly man, the right way, “the straight path.”
This picture of God–wherein the attributes of power, justice, and mercy interpenetrate–is related to the Judeo-Christian tradition, whence it is derived with certain modifications, and also to the concepts of pagan Arabia, to which it provided an effective answer. The pagan Arabs believed in a blind and inexorable fate over which man had no control. For this powerful but insensible fate the Qur’an substituted a powerful but provident and merciful God. The Qur’an carried through its uncompromising monotheism by rejecting all forms of idolatry and eliminating all gods and divinities that the Arabs worshipped in their sanctuaries (harams), the most prominent of which was Ka’bah sanctuary in Mecca itself.
This nature, though it allows every created thing to function in a whole, sets limits; and this idea of the limitedness of everything is one of the most fixed points in both the cosmology and theology of the Qur’an. The universe is viewed, therefore, as autonomous, in the sense that everything has its own inherent laws of behaviour, but not as autocratic, because the patterns of behaviour have been endowed by God and are strictly limited. “Everything has been created by us according to a measure.” Though every creature is thus limited and “measured out” and hence depends upon God, God alone, who reigns unchallenged in the heavens and the earth, is unlimited, independent, and self-sufficient.
The Judeo-Christian story of the Fall of Adam (the first man) is accepted, but the Qur’an states that God forgave Adam his act of disobedience, which is not viewed in the Qur’an (in contradistinction to its understanding in the Christian doctrine) as original sin.
In the story of man’s creation, angels, who protested to God against the creation of man, who “would sow mischief on earth,” lost in a competition of knowledge against Adam. The Qur’an, therefore, declares man to be the noblest of all creation, the created being who bore the trust (of responsibility) that the rest of the creation refused to accept. The Qur’an thus reiterates that all nature has been made subservient to man: nothing in all creation has been made without a purpose, and man himself has not been created “in sport,” his purpose being service and obedience to God’s will.
Despite this lofty station, however, the Qur’an describes human nature as frail and faltering. Whereas everything in the universe has a limited nature, and every creature recognizes its limitation and insufficiency, man is viewed as rebellious and full of pride, arrogating to himself the attributes of self-sufficiency. Pride, thus, is viewed as the cardinal sin of man, because by not recognizing in himself his essential creaturely limitations he becomes guilty of ascribing to himself partnership with God (shirk: associating a creature with the Creator) and of violating the unity of God. True faith (iman), thus, consists of belief in the immaculate Divine Unity and Islam in one’s submission to the Divine Will.
Judging from the accounts of the Qur’an, the record of man’s accepting the prophets’ messages has been rather dismal. The whole universe is replete with signs of God; the human soul itself is viewed as a witness of the unity and grace of God. The messengers of God have, throughout history, been calling man back to God. Yet very few men have accepted the truth; most of them have rejected it and become disbelievers (kafir, plural kuffar: literally “ungrateful”–i.e., to God), and when man becomes so obdurate, his heart is sealed by God. Nevertheless, it is always possible for a sinner to repent (tawbah) and redeem himself by a genuine conversion to the truth. There is no point of no return, and God is always willing and ready to pardon. Genuine repentance has the effect of removing all sins and restoring a person to the state of sinlessness with which he started his life.
Recognition of the unity of God does not simply rest in the intellect but entails consequences in terms of the moral struggle, which consists primarily in freeing oneself of narrowness of mind and smallness of heart. One must go out of oneself and expend one’s best possessions for the sake of others.
The doctrine of social service, in terms of alleviating suffering and helping the needy, constitutes an integral part of the Islamic teaching. Praying to God and other religious acts are deemed to be a pure facade in the absence of active welfare service to the needy. In regard to this matter, the Qur’anic criticisms of human nature become very sharp: “Man is by nature timid; when evil befalls him, he panics, but when good things come to him he prevents them from reaching others.” It is Satan who whispers into man’s ears that by spending for others he will become poor. God, on the contrary, promises prosperity in exchange for such expenditure, which constitutes a credit with God and grows much more than the money people invest in usury.
Hoarding of wealth without recognizing the rights of the poor is threatened with the direst punishment in the hereafter and is declared to be one of the main causes of the decay of societies in this world. The practice of usury is forbidden.
With this socioeconomic doctrine cementing the bond of faith, the idea of a closely knit community of the faithful who are declared to be “brothers unto each other” emerges. Muslims are described as “the middle community bearing witness on mankind,” “the best community produced for mankind,” whose function it is “to enjoin good and forbid evil” (Qur’an).
Cooperation and “good advice” within the community are emphasized, and a person who deliberately tries to harm the interests of the community is to be given exemplary punishment. Opponents from within the community are to be fought and reduced with armed force, if issues cannot be settled by persuasion and arbitration.
Because the mission of the community is to “enjoin good and forbid evil” so that “there is no mischief and corruption” on earth, the doctrine of jihad, in view of the constitution of the community as the power base, is the logical outcome. For the early community it was a basic religious concept. Jihad, or holy war, means an active struggle using armed force whenever necessary.
The object of jihad is not the conversion of individuals to Islam but rather the gaining of political control over the collective affairs of societies to run them in accordance with the principles of Islam. Individual conversions occur as a by-product of this process when the power structure passes into the hands of the Muslim community.
In fact, according to strict Muslim doctrine, conversions “by force” are forbidden, because after the revelation of the Qur’an “good and evil have become distinct,” so that one may follow whichever one may prefer (Qur’an), and it is also strictly prohibited to wage wars for the sake of acquiring worldly glory, power, and rule.
With the establishment of the Muslim empire, however, the doctrine of the jihad was modified by the leaders of the community.
Their main concern had become the consolidation of the empire and its administration, and thus they interpreted the teaching in a defensive rather than in an expansive sense.
The Kharijite sect, which held that “decision belongs to God alone,” insisted on continuous and relentless jihad, but its followers were virtually destroyed during the internecine wars in the 8th century.
Besides a measure of economic justice and the creation of a strong community ideal, the Prophet Muhammad effected a general reform of the Arab society, in particular protecting its weaker segments–the poor, the orphans, women, and slaves. Slavery was not legally abolished, but emancipation of slaves was religiously encouraged as an act of merit.
Slaves were given legal rights, including the right of acquiring their freedom against payment, in installments, of a sum agreed upon by the slave and his master out of his earnings. A slave woman who bore a child by her master became automatically free after her master’s death. The infanticide of girls that was practiced among certain tribes–out of fear of poverty or a sense of shame–was forbidden.
Distinction and privileges based on tribal rank or race were repudiated in the Qur’an and in the celebrated “Farewell Pilgrimage Address” of the Prophet shortly before his death. All men are therein declared to be “equal children of Adam,” and the only distinction recognized in the sight of God is to be based on piety and good acts. The age-old Arab institution of intertribal revenge (called tha’r)–whereby it was not necessarily the killer who was executed but a person equal in rank to the slain person–was abolished. The pre-Islamic ethical ideal of manliness was modified and replaced by a more humane ideal of moral virtue and piety.
Fundamental Practices and Institutions of Islam
The Five Pillars
Before a prayer, ablutions, including the washing of hands, face, and feet, are performed. The muezzin (one who gives the call for prayer) chants aloud from a raised place (such as a tower) in the mosque. When prayer starts, the imam, or leader (of the prayer), stands in the front facing in the direction of Mecca, and the congregation stands behind him in rows, following him in various postures. Each prayer consists of two to four genuflection units (rak’ah); each unit consists of a standing posture (during which verses from the Qur’an are recited–in certain prayers aloud, in others silently), as well as a genuflection and two prostrations. At every change in posture, “God is great” is recited. Tradition has fixed the materials to be recited in each posture.
Special congregational prayers are offered on Friday instead of the prayer just after noon. The Friday service consists of a sermon (khutbah), part of which consists of preaching in the local language and part of recitation of certain formulas in Arabic. In the sermon, the preacher usually recites a verse of the Qur’an and builds his address on it, which can be of a moral, social, or political content. Friday sermons have usually considerable impact on public opinion regarding sociopolitical questions.
Although not ordained as an obligatory duty, nocturnal prayers (called tahajjud) are encouraged, particularly during the latter half of the night. During the month of Ramadan (see below Fasting), lengthy prayers are offered congregationally before retiring and are called tarawih.
In strict doctrine, the five daily prayers cannot be waived even for the sick, who may pray in bed and, if necessary, lying down. When on a journey, the two afternoon prayers may be combined into one; the sunset and late evening prayers may be combined as well. In practice, however, much laxity has occurred, particularly in modern times, although Friday prayers are still well attended.
On cash and precious metals it is 21/2 percent. Zakat is collectable by the state and is to be used primarily for the poor, but the Qur’an mentions other purposes: ransoming Muslim war captives, redeeming chronic debts, paying tax collectors’ fees, jihad (and by extension, according to Qur’an commentators, education and health), and creating facilities for travelers.
After the breakup of Muslim religio-political power, payment of zakat has become a matter of voluntary charity dependent on individual conscience. Some Muslim countries are seeking to reintroduce it, and in several Middle Eastern countries zakat is officially collected, but on a voluntary basis.
A special service is held in the Sacred Mosque on the 7th of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah (last in the Muslim year). Pilgrimage activities begin by the 8th and conclude on the 12th or 13th. All worshippers enter the state of ihram; they wear two seamless garments and avoid sexual intercourse, the cutting of hair and nails, and certain other activities. Pilgrims from outside Mecca assume ihram at specified points en route to the city.
The principal activities consist of walking seven times around the Ka’bah, a shrine within the mosque; the kissing and touching of the Black Stone (Hajar al-Aswad); and the ascent of and running between Mt. Safa and Mt. Marwah (which are now, however, mere elevations) seven times. At the second stage of the ritual, the pilgrim proceeds from Mecca to Mina, a few miles away; from there he goes to ‘Arafat, where it is essential to hear a sermon and to spend one afternoon. The last rites consist of spending the night at Muzdalifah (between ‘Arafat and Mina) and offering sacrifice on the last day of ihram, which is the ‘id (“festival”) of sacrifice.
Many countries have imposed restrictions on the number of outgoing pilgrims because of foreign-exchange difficulties. Because of the improvement of communications, however, the total number of visitors has greatly increased in recent years. By the early 1990s the number of visitors was estimated to be about 2,000,000, approximately half of them from non-Arab countries. All Muslim countries send official delegations on the occasion, which is being increasingly used for religio-political congresses. At other times in the year, it is considered meritorious to perform the lesser pilgrimage (‘umrah), which is not, however, a substitute for the hajj pilgrimage.
The Prophet’s mosque in Medina is the next in sanctity. Jerusalem follows in third place in sanctity as the first qiblah (i.e., direction in which the Muslims offered prayers at first, before the qiblah was changed to the Ka’bah) and as the place from where Muhammad, according to tradition, made his ascent (mi’raj) to heaven. For the Shi’ah, Karbala’ in Iraq (the place of martyrdom of ‘Ali’s son, Husayn) and Meshed in Iran (where Imam ‘Ali ar-Rida is buried) constitute places of special veneration where the Shi’ah make pilgrimages.
The Sufi shrines, which were managed privately in earlier periods, are almost entirely owned by governments in the late 20th century and are managed by departments of awqaf (plural of waqf, a religious endowment). The official appointed to care for a shrine is usually called a mutawalli. In Turkey, where such endowments formerly constituted a very considerable portion of the national wealth, all were confiscated by the regime of Ataturk (president, 1928-38).