Islam: An Introduction

"O people! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other))." Qur'an, Sura 49:13

What is Islam?

Islam, one of the world's three major monotheistic religions, teaches the oneness of God (known in Arabic as Allah), who has revealed his message through a succession of prophets - the prophets of the Jewish tradition, including Jesus - and finally through Muhammad (ca. 570-632 CE); "Muslim" is the adjective that describes people who believe in Islam and various aspects of the faith and its practices . The primary religious text of Islam is the Qur'an (Koran), the collected revelations of God's message to humanity, delivered by the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad over a period of several years. Like the Torah and the Bible, the Quran is a complex work, and many Muslims spend time studying its words, the stories and injunctions it contains, and the various scholarly interpretations in order to develop a fuller understanding of God's message. Other sources of inspiration and practical advice for Muslims include the hadith, short anecdotes about or quotes from Muhammad. Because Muslims believe that God chose Muhammad above all other people to be God's final messenger to humanity, Muhammad is sometimes described as the "perfect man", so Muslims take his behavior and views as guidance.

Scholars often list five specific expectations that Muslims should fulfill, which they call the "Five Pillars". These are:

  • the confession of faith, known in Arabic as the shahada: "I testify that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his Prophet.", which is also used at the start of every call to prayer. Shia Muslims generally add: "and Ali [the fourth caliph and the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law] is the friend of God;
  • prayers five times a day, at daybreak, noon, afternoon, after sunset, and early evening, to honor God;
  • fasting between sunrise and sunset in the month of Ramadan, the month in which the Qur'an was initially revealed to Muhammad, as well as a general effort to avoid immoral or unkind behavior;
  • pilgrimage to Mecca (in modern Saudi Arabia), or hajj, at least once in a lifetime if financially and physically possible; and
  • donation of one fortieth of annual income for charitable purposes, in addition to voluntary donations that might be given throughout the year.

There are no priests in Islam, but there are many religious professionals, known as ‘ulama, who interpret tenets of faith and matters of practice through careful study of the Qur'an and the hadith in light of other religious scholars' writings and commentaries. Those who focus more on practical and legal issues may issue fatwas, or legal advice on a particular question, based on their reading of existing scholarly consensus on a similar issue, and in light of the general interpretive approach of a particular school of thought - sometimes described as a "school of law" - of which there are four in the Sunni tradition and one major one in the Shia tradition. Sunni Muslims, who comprise about 85 percent of all Muslims, believe that the leadership of the early Muslim community was appropriately given over to those men who received the consensus of the community, and do not attribute any special religious or political position to descendants of the Prophet's son in law, Ali. Shia believe that the leadership of the early Muslim community should have passed to Muhammad's family members, since they shared the blood and family culture of the "perfect man" chosen to be God's final messenger. Over time, differences in religious practice and behavior have increased, further differentiating Shia and Sunnis, but they share a common belief as Muslims.

Where is Islam?

After the Prophet's death, Islam continued to expand. At the height of its power between the eighth and fifteenth centuries, a united Muslim empire included all North Africa, Sicily, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, western Arabia, and southern Spain.

From the tenth century CE, Islam was subsequently brought to India by a similar moment of conquest and conversion, and its dominant political position was confirmed when the Mughal dynasty was established in the sixteenth century. The chronology of Islam's arrival in Southeast Asia is not known exactly. From at least the tenth century, Muslims were among the many foreigners trading in Southeast Asia, and individuals from Southeast Asia traveled to the Middle East for study.

In the early stages of conversion, trade passing from Yemen and the Swahili coast across to the Malabar Coast and then Bay of Bengal was also influential, as well as the growing connections with Muslims in China and India. Today Indonesia, with the fourth largest population, is home to the largest Muslim population in the world.