Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque)
The religion of Islam is something we hear about in the news all the time, in many different ways: 
  • Much of the Middle East, including all of the major oil-producing countries in the Middle East, are Islamic. 
  • Palestinians, in the news constantly due to their ongoing conflict with the Israelis, are largely Islamic. 
  • Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, frequent hotbeds of political conflict, are Islamic countries. 
  • The Taliban government is (was) Islamic. 
  • Osama bin Laden, implicated in the September 11 attacks on the United States, is Islamic. 
  • Many Islamic leaders have publicly condemned the September 11 attacks. 
All of which leads to the question, "What exactly is Islam?" 

What is Islam?

Islam is a monotheistic religion, like Christianity and Judaism. The people who practice the Islamic religion are referred to as Muslims

Muslims, like Christians and Jews, believe in one God. And it is the same God in all three religions. As you will learn while reading this article, Islam builds on Christianity and Judaism. 

Islam first appeared as a religion because of one person: Mohammed. Mohammed was born in 570 AD, so the Islamic religion started around 610 AD when Mohammed began preaching his new faith. Since that time, Islam has spread and now has over one billion followers worldwide. The majority of Muslims today can be found in the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia and some parts of Asia and Eastern Europe, but there are followers in just about every other area of the world as well. There are more than 4 million Muslims the United States alone. 

By Different Names

People sometimes suggest that "Allah" and "God" are different, but according to the Koran they are one and the same. Islam is an offshoot of Judaism and Christianity. This passage from the Koran discusses the virgin Mary, Jesus and Allah: 
    When the angels said: O Marium, surely Allah gives you good news with a Word from Him (of one) whose name is the '. Messiah, Isa son of Marium, worthy of regard in this world and the hereafter and of those who are made near (to Allah).
    And he shall speak to the people when in the cradle and when of old age, and (he shall be) one of the good ones.
    She said: My Lord! when shall there be a son (born) to I me, and man has not touched me? He said: Even so, Allah creates what He pleases; when He has decreed a matter, He only says to it, Be, and it is. [3:45-47] {Mariam is Mary, Isa is Jesus.} 

Who is Allah?

Allah is God. Allah is simply a different word for the same being that Christians and Jews worship as God. In the same way that God is sometimes referred to as Yahweh in Judaism, God is referred to as Allah in Islam. 

Islam rejects the Christian concept of the Trinity (father, son and holy spirit) and believes only in Allah. Allah is the single God and is infinite, omnipresent, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, merciful and unerring. Allah is the creator of the universe and everything in it. 

What is the Koran?

The Koran is the holy book of Islam, in the same way that the Torah is the holy book of Judaism and the Christian Bible is the holy book of Christianity. The Koran is the holy word of Allah as spoken to Mohammed. Like the Christian Bible, the Koran is organized by chapters and verses. The Koran contains 114 chapters and over 6,000 verses. According to Mohammed, the book came from Allah to him through dreams, revelations, or spoken by the angel Gabriel over the course of 23 years. 

A page from Chapter 11 of an English/Arabic Koran
The fact that the Koran flowed from Allah through a single person in a single lifetime is unusual when viewed in relation to the other major religions. The old and new testaments of the Bible, for example, flowed through a number of authors over hundreds of years -- there are four separate accounts of Jesus' life in the New Testament by four different authors. The entire Koran came from a single person. 

The Koran is not organized chronologically like the Bible (which starts at Genesis, the beginning, and ends with Revelations, the end days). Instead, the chapters of the Koran are ordered from longest to shortest. 

A second book accompanies the Koran, also written by Mohammed, called the Sunnah. The Sunnah consists of Haddiths; each Haddith is something that Mohammed said. Haddiths offer Mohammed's thoughts and interpretations of different parts of the Koran. 

The Koran accepts and builds on other works. The Torah and the New Testament are acknowledged, although the Koran states that they were modified and adulterated over time and therefore contain some inaccuracies. The Koran is the final word, and corrects mistakes from prior documents. For example, the Koran contains an account of Jesus' life, as well as Mary's. However, The Koran characterizes Jesus as a prophet, not the son of God: 

    The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger; messengers before him had indeed passed away. And his mother was a truthful woman. [5:75] 
The Koran also eliminates any belief in the Trinity: 
    Certainly they disbelieve who say: Allah is the third of the three. And there is no God but One God. And if they desist not from what they say, a painful chastisement will surely befall such as them as disbelieve. [5:73] 
In this way, the Koran establishes Allah as the one and only God, and establishes itself as the ultimate message from Allah. The belief is that the message in the Koran is uncorrupted (and incorruptible), unlike the messages in the Torah and the Christian Bible. 

The Koran addresses both religious and civic life. It discusses the subjects of heaven, hell, sin and worship. It also touches on things such as marriage and divorce, trade, inheritance, and so on. 

Who is Mohammed?

Mohammed was a prophet, chosen by Allah to receive the Koran. Mohammed is the last of a long line of prophets and messengers that includes Abraham, Moses, Noah, Job, John the Baptist and Jesus. Mohammed was born in 570 AD. He died in 632 in Medina and is buried there. 

Mohammed received the Koran from Allah and dictated it to scribes over the course of 23 years. He also began preaching his new religion and winning converts. He is the single starting point for Islam. 

Mohammed began preaching in Mecca, but was chased out, at which point he moved to Medina (both Mecca and Medina are in what is now Saudi Arabia). This helps to explain why Mecca and Medina are revered by Muslims. In addition, one night, Mohammed was transported to Jerusalem by Gabriel, then lifted into heaven so that he could witness all seven levels of heaven, and then brought back to Mecca. Because of this miracle, Jerusalem is also a holy city for Muslims. The rock in Jerusalem from which Mohammed ascended to heaven with Gabriel is a holy shrine for Muslims. 

What are the Five Pillars?

It is fairly common to see Muslims kneeling on prayer rugs and praying. For example, it is not uncommon to see a Middle Eastern cab driver in New York get out of his cab, unroll a prayer rug and kneel in prayer on the sidewalk. Prayer like this is an extremely important ritual for Muslims because it is one of the Five Pillars of the faith. The Five Pillars are all rituals that help to maintain the importance of Allah in the daily lives of Muslims. 

Muslims praying in Tamale, Ghana
The Five Pillars are: 
  • Declaring Faith (Shahadah) - Muslims recite a simple creed: "There is no god except Allah; and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah." This creed reaffirms Allah as the one and only God, as well as Mohammed's role as Allah's messenger. In broader terms, the first part of the creed can be taken to mean that Allah should be the top priority at all times. Nothing in a Muslim's life should divert attention from, or take a place higher than, Allah. 
  • Prayer (Salat) - Muslims pray five times a day: at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and night. Muslims can go to a Mosque to pray as a group at these times, or they can unroll their prayer rugs and pray wherever they happen to be. The only exception is Friday at noon, when Muslims gather in mosques. Certain rituals surround the prayers. For example, prior to prayer Muslims will make sure they are dressed appropriately, will wash their hands, face and feet, will often unroll a prayer rug to provide a clean cover over the ground, and will face in the direction of Mecca during the prayer. Ritual prayers are recited, along with a set of ritual motions that include standing, bowing and kneeling. 
  • Charity (Zakat) - Each year, Muslims donate a portion of their annual income to help the less fortunate. A Muslim determines his or her savings from the year -- savings include not only cash in the bank but also purchased assets like jewelry or cars -- and of this wealth , 2.5 percent is paid to the local Mosque, a charity, or in some cases to the government. The money is distributed to those in need. 
  • Fasting (Saum) - The month of Ramadan on the Islamic calendar is a month of fasting for Muslims (Islam has its own lunar calendar, and Ramadan is the name of one of the months on this calendar). Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and so on from sunup to sundown during the 30 days of Ramadan. The fast is a way of placing Allah front and center, and reminding followers of what is important. 
  • Pilgrimage (Hajj) - Muslims are required to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. 

How does someone become a Muslim?

Anyone can become a Muslim simply by declaring faith (the First Pillar), living the Five Pillars of Islam and following the Koran. There is no application or approval process as there is in many other religions. 

What can Muslims eat?

In the Muslim religion, as in the Jewish religion, there are certain forbidden foods. The Koran says: 
    He has forbidden you only what dies of itself, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that over which any other than Allah has been invoked. [2:173] 
    Lawful to you is the game of the sea and its food, a provision for you and for the travelers, and the game of the land is forbidden to you so long as you are on pilgrimage, and keep your duty to Allah, to Whom you shall be gathered. [5:96] 
In other words, a Muslim can eat anything that is not forbidden, and what is forbidden are animals that spontaneously die (perhaps of disease or old age), blood, pork, and animals that are not blessed in the name of Allah. Muslims eat meat that has been killed and blessed by Muslim standards, or that has been killed in the manner of Jewish Kosher standards. 

Alcohol is also forbidden by the Koran: 

    O you who believe, intoxicants and games of chance and sacrificing to stones set up [sacrificing on an alter of stones] and dividing by arrows [a game of chance used to divide meat] are only an uncleanness, the devil's work; so shun it that you may succeed. The devil desires only to create enmity and hatred among you by means of intoxicants and games of chance, and to keep you back from remembrance of Allah and from prayer. [2:90, 91] 

Where do the turbans and veils come from?

Both men and women of the Islamic faith tend to dress modestly, often wearing head coverings. Women tend to be more obvious in this because they sometimes cover a good portion of the face as well as the head. 

A young woman wearing a veil (tchador)
This tradition of covering oneself comes from the Koran: 
    And say to the believing women that they lower their gaze and restrain their sexual passions and do not display their adornment except what appears thereof. And let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms. And they should not display their adornment except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brother's sons, or their sister's sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess (slaves), or guileless male servants, or the children who know not women's nakedness. [24:31]
There are many other clothing customs that are associated with Islam, including turbans, beards and loose-fitting clothing, all of which are discussed in the Sunnah. 

What is a Jihad?

There has been much focus on "Islamic terrorists" and "holy wars," especially in light of the September 11 attacks. Much of this comes from the Islamic concept of Jihad. Encarta defines Jihad as follows: 
    Jihad, in Islam, the spiritual struggle against evil. Jihad is the duty of all mainstream Muslims, or Sunnites. There are four ways they may fulfill a jihad: by the heart, the tongue, the hand, and the sword. These refer to the inner, spiritual battle of the heart against vice, passion, and ignorance; spreading the word of Islam with one's tongue; choosing to do good and avoiding evil with one's hand; and waging war against non-Muslims with the sword. 
Encarta also states: 
    But Islamic law also states that all nations must surrender to Islamic rule, if not its faith. Until that time, all adult, male, and able-bodied Muslims are expected to take part in hostile jihads against non-Muslim neighbors and neighboring lands. The Qur'an [Koran] states that those who die in this type of jihad automatically become martyrs of the faith and are awarded a special place in heaven. 
Where does the concept of Islamic rule and Jihad come from? First, there are several verses in the Koran that speak of the ultimate triumph of Islam worldwide. Here are two: 
    He it is Who has sent His Messenger with the guidance and the religion of Truth that He may make it prevail over all religions. [48:28] 
    He it is who sent His Messenger with the guidance and the true religion, that He may make it overcome the religions, all of them, though the polytheists may resist. [61:9] 
Second, there are several sections of the Koran that discuss war. For example: 
    And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors. And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from where they drove you out, and persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight you in it, so if they do fight you, then slay them. Such is the recompense of the unbelievers. But if they desist, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. And fight with them until there is no persecution, and religion is only for Allah, but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors. [2:191-193] 
As well as: 
    So when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters, wherever you find them, and take them captive and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush. But if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. And if anyone of the idolaters seek thy protection, grant him protection till he hears the word of Allah, and then convey him to his place of safety. This is because they are a people who know not. [9:5,6] 
There are also specific references to Jews and Christians in the Koran: 
    And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah; and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah. These are the words of their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved before. Allah's curse upon them! [9:30] 
As well as this verse: 
    O you who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends. They are friends of each other. And whoever amongst you takes them for friends he indeed is one of them. Surely Allah does not guide the unjust people. [5:51] 
But the message is also an ambiguous one, as seen in the comparison of the following verse with the previous ones: 
    Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good, they have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve. [2:62] 
You can see that the Koran, like many other large religious texts, can be taken in different ways. On the one hand it allows Muslims to defend themselves, and asks that they stop fighting once aggression against them ceases. On the other hand, the Koran orders an offensive attack against idolaters. On the one hand, Jews and Christians are damned. On the other hand, they are OK. It is a matter of interpretation, as with any other religious work. 

For more information on Islam, see the links below. 

Lots More Information!

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