Islam has a world-following in excess of one billion devotees, about 20% are in the Middle East, with the largest concentration of Muslims in Indonesia. There are over 4 million Moslems living in America---which means that there are about twice as many Moslems in the US as Episcopalians! There has been an active Muslim contingent in North America for over 300 years, since the time the religion arrived with West African slaves.
The Arabic term islam literally means "surrender," or "submission." Islam's believers (known as "Muslims" from the active participle of "islam"), accept surrender to the will of Allah (the Arabic word for God). Allah is viewed as a unique God---creator, sustainer, and restorer of the world. The will of God, to which man is to submit, is made known through the Qur'an (the Koran), revealed to his messenger Muhammad. Muhammad, it is claimed was the last of the great prophets which included Adam, Noah, Moses, Jesus and some others. The basic belief of Islam is expressed in the shahadah, the Muslim confession of faith, "There is no god but God; Muhammad is the prophet of God."
Founded in the 7th century AD, Islamic fundamental beliefs include belief in angels, the revealed books and Scriptures, a series of prophets, and a Last Day (of Judgment). Muslim duties include five daily prayers, a welfare tax called zakat, fasting (during the month of Ramadan), and a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca; these four elements plus the profession of faith are called the Five Pillars.
The Encyclopedia Britannica is a good resource for understanding the roots of Islam. Mecca at the time the prophet was born was inhabited by the tribe of Quraysh (Koreish) to which the clan of Hasim belonged. The city was a mercantile center with shrines to many gods, chief of whom was Ilah. The Ka'bah sanctuary in the city square guaranteed the safety of those who came to trade. The pre-Islamic deities of Arabia which were most venerated were astral deities, especially the triad of the moon god, the sun goddess, and the god associated with the planet Venus. The moon god was the chief and was protector of the cities. These deities were given various names, however the moon god was evidently originally the Babylonian moon god Sin. To end division among his people in Mecca, Muhammad elevated the moon god Al Ilah to the chief and only god. (It is not widely known in Islam that Allah was a sexual being, having fathered three daughters--this is documented in the E.B.).
Among the visitors and residents of Mecca in the time of the prophet were Jews as well as Christians. Muhammad's thinking was further heavily influenced by these followers of Abraham, as well as by special revelations which were (it is said) communicated to him by the angel Gabriel. The God of Abraham was not Ilah, however, but Yahweh. Abraham was called by Yahweh from Ur of the Chaldees (Babylon) and told to renounce the pagan gods of his family which were the gods of Babylon. In fact Babylon was the seat of all false religion after the Flood of Noah and from Babylon idolatry spread throughout the rest of the ancient world. Muhammad assigned to the moon god of Mecca some of the attributes of the god of Abraham, however the pagan and occultic roots of pre-Islamic religion were not discarded. Alexander Hislop's classic book The Two Babylons remains a good reference on the Babylonian Mystery Religion which has now permeated all the world.
Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah ibn 'Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hasim was persecuted for his teachings in Mecca and fled to Medina in 622 AD, his teachings were soon accepted and the community-state of Islam emerged. From the date of Muhammad's flight, called the hijrah, Muslims begin their calendar---AH (Anno Hegirae) 287 is the same as AD (Anno Domini) 900. During the early period Islam acquired its characteristic ethos as a religion uniting itself in both the spiritual and temporal aspects of life and seeking to regulate not only the individual's relationship to God but human relationships in a social setting as well. Thus, there is not only an Islamic religious institution (private) but also an Islamic code/law governing society (public).
This dual religious and social character of Islam, expressing itself as a religious community commissioned by God to bring its own value system to the world through jihad (holy war or holy struggle).
Muhammad died in 632 AD and through jihad, Islam spread within a century from Spain to India. During the Muslim conquests Jews and Christians were assigned a special status as communities possessing Scriptures and are known to Muslims as "people of the Book" (ahl al-kitab) or dhimmis (protected people). Christians, Jews, and later Hindus and Zoroastrians were allowed religious autonomy, but had to pay a per capita tax called the jizyah. Many people converted to Islam to avoid the jizyah tax. In the 12 century the Muslim mystics, known as Sufis, were primarily responsible for spreading Islam to India, China, Central Asia, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa. Islamic traders were responsible (by the 14th century) for extending Islam to Indonesia, Malaya, and China.
Under Islam, land once possessed by Islam, if subsequently lost to an invader, remains land that is holy to Islam. It is especially imperative that such lost lands be restored to the rightful rule of Islam. Historically, of course, such lost lands now lost to Islam include not only Israel but large portions of Southern Europe, Spain and North Africa. Since Allah's will is for the entire world to come under subjection to the rule of Islam, Muslims are known for their zeal in spreading their religion, whether by peaceful means or by the sword.
Islamic doctrine/law/thinking are based upon fundamental principals/sources: the Qur'an, the sunnah (traditions), the ijma (community consensus), and ijtihad (individual thought).
The Qur'an (which is Arabic for reading or recitation) is regarded by Muslims as The Word Of God, delivered to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. The Qur'an is divided into 114 surahs (chapters), the early surahs revealed in Mecca are ethical and spiritual teachings and the Day of Judgment, whereas the later surahs are concerned with social legislation and the politico-moral principals of community.
The sunnah (a clear and well-trodden path, of traditions) denote tribal/common law and the examples of the Prophet, his words and deeds. Six collections of the Hadith (a collection of the sayings of Muhammad) compiled in the 3rd century AH (9th century AD) are regarded as especially authoritative by the Sunni Muslims; whereas Shi'ah Muslims have a different set of sayings in their Hadith.
The ijma standardizes Islamic law and since the 3rd century AH, have been primarily closed to further interpretation. Accepted interpretations of the Qur'an and the actual content of the sunnah all rest finally upon the ijma. The transformation of the ijma into a conservative mechanism and the acceptance of a definitive body of Hadith virtually eliminated ijtihad (individual thought).
The Islamic doctrine of God, expressed in the Qur'an is rigorously monotheistic: God is one and unique; he has no partner or equal. Trinitarianism, the Christian belief that God is three persons in one substance, is vigorously repudiated by Muslims. Muslims believe although Allah's presence is everywhere, he does not indwell anything or anyone. He is the sole Creator, and sustainer of the universe, wherein every creature bears witness to his lordship and unity. He is also just, merciful, majestic, sovereign, and has endowed every creation with a definite and defined nature which allows the myriad of creation to function as a whole. This "nature" of creation, sets limits; and the limitedness of everything is one of the most fixed points in both the cosmology and the theology of the Qur'an.
According to the Qur'an, God created two apparently parallel species, man and jinn. Man was created from clay and jinn was created from fire. The jinn are endowed with reason and responsibility but are more prone to evil than man. The Qur'an is primarily directed at man, and is self described as the guide for the human race. Despite man's lofty position, the Qur'an describes human nature as frail and faltering. 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 and thereby violating the unity of God. True faith (identified as iman), consists of belief in the immaculate Divine Unity and Islam is in one's submission to the Divine will.
According to the Qur'an, the being who became Satan had previously occupied a high station but fell from grace by refusing to honour Adam when ordered by Allah to do so. Since then, Satan's work has been to beguile man into error and sin. Satan is a contemporary of man, and his act of disobedience is construed to be the sin of pride. Satan's machinations will cease on the Last Day.
The Qur'an reveals that messengers from God have, throughout history, been calling man back to God; yet few men have accepted the truth; most have rejected it and have become disbelievers (the kafir, the ungrateful). In Islam there is no point of no return, God is always willing to offer pardon based upon genuine repentance.
All prophets of Islam are human and never part of divinity; they are simply recipients of revelation form God. God never speaks directly to man, he sends angels or inspiration.
In Islamic doctrine, on the Last Day when the world will come to an end, the dead will be resurrected and judgment will be pronounced on every person in accordance with his deeds. Those condemned will burn in hellfire, and those saved will enjoy the abiding pleasures of paradise. Besides suffering in physical fire, the damned will also experience a fire "in their hearts"; similarly, the blessed, besides physical enjoyment, will experience the greatest happiness of divine pleasure.
In Islamic life hoarding of wealth without recognizing the rights of the poor is threatened with the direst punishments 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. Islam is the concept of the community of the faithful.
The mission of the community of the faithful 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 constitutional of the community as the power base is the logical outcome. The objective of jihad is not the conversion of individuals to Islam, but rather gaining of political control over the collective affairs of societies to run them in accordance with the principles of Islam. Individual conversion occurs as a by-product of the power structure of the community passing to the hands of the Muslim community. Under Islam, it is forbidden to wage wars for the sake of acquiring worldly glory, power, or rule. The Muslim sect of Kharijite once held that "decision belongs to God alone," and insisted on waging continuous and relentless jihad, but the followers of this sect were virtually destroyed during the internecine wars of the 8th century.
The Kharijis sect (and the more moderate Ibadis sect) believed that the basis of rule was righteous character and piety, any Muslim, irrespective of race creed or colour could become ruler-provided he or she satisfy the conditions of piety. This is in contrast to the claims of the Shi'ah that the ruler must belong to the family of the Prophet, and in contrast to the Sunnis that the head of state must belong to the Prophet's tribe. Sunni political theory is essentially a product of circumstance-an after-the-fact rationalization of historical developments. Thus, between the Shi'ah legitimism that restricts rule to Ali's family, and the Kharji democratism, Sunnism holds to the position that the rule belongs to the Quraysh (the Prophet's tribe), the condition that actually existed.
The Sunni sect embraces the principle of toleration, making it possible for diverse sects to recognize and coexist with one another. Sunni theologians place emphasis on divine omnipotence at the expense of the freedom and efficacy of the human will, a deterministic outlook on life characteristic of the Sunni (and invigorated by the Sufi) teaches that nothing exists except God. The Sunnites support the concept that "Muslims must obey even a tyrannical ruler."
The Shi'ah, probably under Gnostic and old Iranian influences, expanded their belief that the ruler must be from the family of the Prophet, and that the perfect leader (imam) is transformed into a metaphysical manifestation of God. The imam, alone, is infallible and can reveal the hidden and true meaning of the Qur'an. The Shi'ah recognize a dozen imams throughout history and believe that knowledge derived from sources other than the imam is useless. Shi'ism in contrast to Sunnism adopted the doctrine of freedom of the human will and the capacity of human reason to know good and evil. In the sphere of law Shi'ism differs from Sunni law mainly in allowing temporary marriage, legally contracted for a fixed period of time based upon a fixed dower.
From a spiritual point of view, perhaps the greatest difference between Shi'ism and Sunnism is the Shi'ah concept of the "passion motive." The violent death of Ali's son, Husayn, in 680 AD, at the hands of Umayyad troops is celebrated by the Shi'ah with moving orations, passion plays, and processions in which the participants (in an emotional frenzy of self-flagellation) beat their breasts with heavy chains and sharp objects.
The cities of Mecca and Medina are holy shrines of Islam. The fifth pillar of Islam, the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca, begins on the 7th and ends on the 10th month of the Dhu al-Hijjah. When the pilgrim is ten kilometers from the Holy City (Mecca) he enters the state of ihram, he wears two seamless garments and neither shaves nor cuts his hair or nails until the ceremony ends. The principal activities consist of a visit to the Ka'bah sanctuary or the Sacred Masjid; the kissing of the Hajar al-Aswad (the Black Stone); seven circumambulations of the Ka'bah; and the ascent of and running seven times between Mt. Safa and Mt. Marwah (not really mountains but topographic elevations in the desert). At the second stage of the ritual, the pilgrim proceeds from Mecca to Mina, a few miles away; and from there he goes to Arafat, where it is essential to hear a sermon and 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.
The sacred places of Islam include: the Ka'bah sanctuary at Mecca built by Abraham; the Prophet's Masjid in Medina; and Jerusalem from where Muhammad (mi'raj) ascended to heaven (which was the direction to which the early Moslems prayed before the "qiblah" was changed to the Ka'bah in Mecca). 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) are considered places of special veneration. In Baghdad the tomb of saint Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani is visited every year by pilgrims from throughout the Muslin world, as are numerous Sufi shrines.
The general religious life of the Muslims is centered around the Masjid. Friday is the weekly Muslim holy day. The most important and comprehensive concept of Islam, at the practical level, is that of the Shari'ah (the path leading to the watering place). In religious terms it means the highway of life leading to God.
The virtue of chastity is regarded as of prime importance by Islam. The Qur'an advanced its universal recommendation of marriage as a means to ensure a state of chastity (ihsan) which is held to be induced by a single free wife. Adultery and false accusations of adultery are severely punished.
With regard to Islamic art, the most important principal is aniconism, the prohibition of figurization and representation of living creatures. Underlying this prohibition is the assumption that God is the sole author of life and that a person who makes a picture of a living being seeks to rival God. Architecture and poetry are the richest of the Islamic art forms.
Perhaps the least understood element of Islam is the doctrine of jihad (holy war). The classical Islamic position holds that the world is divided into three spheres: the zone of Islam (dar al-Islam); the zone of peace (dar as-sulh---those nations with whom Muslim nations have peace pacts); and the zone of war (dar al-harb---the rest of the world). In modern times the jihad has appeared primarily as a defense against colonialism, rather than as a program of offense.
In classical Islamic law, Shari'ah, offenses against the person, from homicide to assault, are punishable by retaliation---the offended being subject to precisely the same treatment as the victim. For six specific crimes the punishment is fixed (hadd): death for apostasy (renunciation of religious faith) and for highway robbery; amputation of the hand for theft; death by stoning for extramarital sexual relations where the offender is a married person and 100 lashes for unmarried offenders; 80 lashes for an unproven accusation of unchastity/adultery, or for consumption of any alcoholic beverage.
Islamic belief has obviously drawn heavily on information available to the prophet Muhammed from local Jews and Christians living in Arabia during his. The principle claim that the revelation given to the Prophet came from an angel is not unusual among world religions or cults, and is consistent with the warning of the Apostle Paul given in 2 Corinthians.
"I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ...And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (11:1-15)
Islam attributes mercy and compassion to Allah, but has no provision for the certain salvation of the individual, no sacrifice for sin and of course no risen Lord to indwell and guide the believer through this life and the next. Allah is notoriously unpredictable and whimsical in his actions and the Koran sufficiently vague so as to give little assurance or guidance for daily life beyond strong, harsh legalistic restrictions and punishments taken out of context from the Law of Moses. On many points Islam differs radically from Christianity. To cite but one important instance, the church of Jesus Christ is not to bear the sword, nor to ally itself with the state, but to concentrate on "calling out (of the world) a people for His name." Orthodox Christianity proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God among men, but not Christian Dominionism. Compassion, understanding and tolerance is to be extended to everyone, not from an attitude of superiority, but of service, following the example of her Lord who said, "The Son of man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many"; and, "The Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost." God will see to it that His rule on earth eventually is universal, but in the meantime He is full of mercy and very longsuffering towards all the sons of Adam.
Islam's claim as far as Israel is concerned is to assume (without any Biblical basis of course) that Ishmael, not Isaac, is the legitimate heir to whom the Abrahamic promises were passed.