What is Islam?
The name of the religion is Islam, which comes from an Arabic root word meaning "peace" and "submission." Islam teaches that one can only find peace in one's life by submitting to Almighty God (Allah) in heart, soul and deed. The same Arabic root word gives us "Salaam alaykum," ("Peace be with you"), the universal Muslim greeting.
Who is a Muslim?
A person who believes in and consciously follows Islam is called a Muslim, also from the same root word. So, the religion is called Islam, and a person who follows it is a Muslim.
How Many and Where?
Islam is a major world religion, with over 1 billion followers worldwide (1/5 of the world population). It is considered one of the Abrahamic, monotheistic faiths, along with Judaism and Christianity. Although usually associated with the Arabs of the Middle East, less than 10% of Muslims are in fact Arab. Muslims are found all over the world, of every nation, color and race. Muslim majorities are found throughout the Middle East, North Africa, East Asia and the Pacific Islands. Large numbers are also found in Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, and North America.
Who is Allah?
Allah is the proper name for Almighty God, and is often translated merely as "God." Allah has other names that are used to describe His characteristics: the Creator, the Sustainer, the Merciful, the Compassionate, the Judge, the Governor, the Eternal, etc. Allah is without beginning, without end, and He alone sees and knows all things. Allah is transcendent, yet close to mankind. "...He knows what enters within the earth and what comes forth out of it, what comes down from heaven and what mounts up to it. And He is with you wheresoever you may be. And Allah sees well all that you do" (Qur'an 57:4). Since Allah alone is the Creator, it is He alone that deserves our devout love and worship. Anything other than Him is simply His creation. "That is Allah, your Lord! There is no god but He, the Creator of all things; then worship Him, and He has power to dispose of all affairs. No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision; He is the Sublime, Well-Aware" (Qur'an 6:102-103). Islam holds to a strict monotheism - Allah has no partners and is not divided into a trinity. "Say: He is Allah, the One; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute. He begets not, nor is He begotten, and there is none like unto Him" (Qur'an 112:1-4). Any worship and prayers directed at saints, prophets, other human beings or nature is considered idolatry.
Muslims have six main articles of faith:
Faith in the Unity of God
As mentioned previously, Muslims believe in the absolute unity of God (Allah). The essence of Islam is expressed in the phrase "La ilaha illa Allah," meaning "There is no deity but Allah." "And your God is One God; there is no god but He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful" (Qur'an 2:163). This statement of faith distinguishes a Muslim from an unbeliever, a polytheist, or an atheist. A Muslim is one who grasps the full meaning of this phrase, realizes its significance, reposes true belief in it, and accepts and follows it in letter and spirit. Belief in the Unity of God means that there is no being worthy of worship except Him, that it is only to Him that heads should bow in submission and adoration, that He alone possesses all powers, that all are in need of His favor, and that all must seek His help and mercy. This belief is the bedrock of Islam; all other beliefs, commands, and laws of Islam stand firm on this foundation.
Faith in Allah's Angels
Angels are also Allah's creatures, spiritual beings that are under His command. They administer Allah's kingdom, carrying out His orders obediently. They have no free-will or ability to disobey; it is their very nature to be Allah's faithful servants. These angels surround us, and their duties include recording man's deeds in this life, which will be presented on the Day of Judgment.
Faith in Allah's Prophets
Allah is transcendent and beyond all physical limitations of man, so through the medium of an angel, Allah causes His command to be revealed to His human messengers and thus to mankind. The purpose of our life on this earth is to worship Allah and obey His commands. Through His Grace and Benevolence, Allah sent prophets and messengers to every nation, in order to communicate with and guide mankind to the right path.
The prophets who were sent to mankind include (among others) Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Moses, David, John the Baptist, Jesus, and finally, Muhammad (peace be upon all of Allah's prophets). These (and many other) chosen men all came with the same message: Islam. That is, they taught of faith in One Almighty God, faith in the Day of Judgment, faith in the Prophets and the Books, and asked people consequently to live a life of obedience and submission to their Lord. This is the definition of a Muslim. "Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was upright, and bowed his will to Allah's (which is Islam). And he joined not gods with Allah" (Qur'an 3:67). Some of these prophets brought revealed books (see below). They were all men guided by Allah to teach mankind and guide them on the straight path. Muslims believe in them all and make no distinction between them. "Say: 'We believe in Allah, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in the Books given to Moses, Jesus, and the Prophets, from their Lord; we make no distinction between one and another among them, and to Allah do we bow our will in Islam" (Qur'an 3:84).
Muslims believe that the final prophet, Muhammad, came to invite people back to the true teachings of the previous prophets, and to bring to mankind a final and all-encompassing guidance: the Qur'an. The Qur'an remains in its complete and unadulterated form; there is therefore no need for any more prophets to come. Allah's message is complete.
Faith in Allah's Revealed Books
Muslims believe in books that Allah has sent down to mankind through His prophets. These books include the Books of Abraham, the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These books all had the same source (Allah), the same message, and all were revealed in truth. This does not mean that they have been preserved in truth. Muslims (and many other Jewish and Christian scholars and historians) find that the books in existence today are not the original scriptures, which in fact have been lost, changed, and/or translated over and over again, losing the original message. "They change the words from their right places and forget a good part of the Message that was sent them..." (Qur'an 5:13). Reading these books today, we have no way of knowing what portion was revealed by Allah, and what was recorded and changed by man.
Muslims believe that Allah sent a final revelation, the Qur'an, through the final Prophet of Allah, Muhammad (peace be upon him and all of Allah's messengers). "None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar..." (Qur'an 2:106). The sending of this divine Book is not a new and strange event; but only to confirm, restate, and complete those divine instructions which people had mutilated or lost in antiquity. "To thee (Muhammad) We sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety..." (Qur'an 5:48). The Qur'an is addressed to all of humanity. It seeks to guide mankind in all walks of life; spiritual, temporal, individual and collective. It contains directions for the conduct of life, relates stories and parables, describes the attributes of Allah, and speaks of the best rules to govern social life. It has directions for everybody, every place, and for all time. The Qur'an was revealed and preserved in the Arabic language. While translations into other languages may differ in word choice, the original Arabic script has been uncorrupted and unchanged since its revelation in the 7th century.
Belief in Life After Death
Muslims believe that this world will come to an end on a day Allah has appointed. "Every soul shall have a taste of death; and only on the Day of Judgment shall you be paid your full recompense..." (Qur'an 3:185). Everything will be annihilated, and all of the human beings who had lived in this world will then be restored to life and will be presented before Allah.
The entire record of every man and woman - of all their deeds and misdeeds - will be presented before Allah for final judgment. "We shall set up scales of justice for the Day of Judgment, so that not a soul will be dealt with unjustly in the least..." (Qur'an 21:47). One who excels in goodness will, by the Mercy of Allah, receive a goodly reward; one whose wrongs overweigh his good deeds will be punished.
It is neither faith nor just to treat everyone equally. "Is then the man who believes no better than the man who is rebellious and wicked? Not equal are they" (Qur'an 32:18). Allah on that day will judge with Justice, and every soul will receive what it has earned. While unsure of their fate in the Hereafter, Muslims are confident of the Mercy and Justice of Allah. "Say: 'Oh My servants who have transgressed against their own souls! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah, for Allah forgives all sins, for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.'" (Qur'an 39:53). Those who emerge successfully from Judgment will go to eternal Paradise; those who are condemned and deserve punishment will be sent to Hell. Allah is the perfect and fair Judge.
Belief in Divine Decree
Muslims believe that Allah has full power and knowledge of all things, and that nothing happens except by His will and with His full knowledge. What is known as divine decree, fate, or "destiny" is known in Arabic as al-Qadr. Everything in the world has a predetermined, set course. The destiny of every creature is already known to Allah.
This belief does not contradict with the idea of man's free will to choose his course of action. Allah does not force us to do anything; we can choose whether to obey or disobey Him. Our choice is known to Allah before we even do it. We do not know what our destiny is; but Allah knows the fate of all things.
Therefore, we should have firm faith that whatever befalls us, it is according to Allah's will and with His full knowledge. There may be things that happen in this world that we do not understand, but we should trust that Allah has wisdom in all things.
The Five Pillars of Islam
In Islam, faith and good works go hand-in-hand. A mere verbal declaration of faith is not enough, for belief in Allah makes obedience to Him a duty. Only when your practice is consistent with your profession will you be a true Muslim. Faith in Allah will be your strength, and the Qur'an your guide.
The Muslim concept of worship is very broad. Muslims consider everything they do in this life according to Allah's will, an act of worship. Speaking the truth, refraining from gossip, dealing honestly in commercial affairs, treating one's parents with respect and honor, helping the poor and needy, dealing lovingly and fairly with family members - whatever is done for the sake of Allah is called worship.
Worship of Allah is foremost in a Muslim's mind all the time. There are also five formal acts of worship which help strengthen a Muslim's faith and obedience. They are often called the "Five Pillars of Islam."
Testimony of Faith (Kalima)
This is simply the declaration, "I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger." As mentioned previously, all of Islam is based on faith in the Unity of God. When one declares this statement, one testifies to the Unity of Allah, and to the message of the Prophethood. When one bears witness that Muhammad is His messenger, one is confirming that all of the prophets before him were also His messengers - Allah is One and His message is one. A person becomes a Muslim when he or she declares this statement with purity of heart and conviction of faith.
Formal prayer is the most important act of worship; it is mankind's connection to Allah through which one gathers strength, guidance and peace of mind. Islam prescribes five formal prayers daily, through which Muslims repeat and refresh their beliefs, taking time out of their busy day to remember Allah and renew the effort to follow His guidance. Five times each day (before dawn, noon, afternoon, after sunset, and evening) Muslims rise, cleanse with water, and present themselves directly before Allah for prayer.
Far from being a ritualistic and mindless activity, prayer constantly reminds us of the purpose of life itself, refreshes our faith, and keeps our belief in Allah alive and ever-present. We go back to our wordly affairs conscious of our duties and strengthened against sin. Prayers said in congregation bond Muslims together in love and brotherhood. Prayer also symbolizes the equality of believers; there is no hierarchy, and all stand side-by-side in rows and bow only to Allah.
Aside from the five formal prayers each day, Muslims begin and complete every activity with Allah ever-present in their minds. The words "Bismillah" (In the name of Allah) precede every action, and "Alhamdilillah" (Thanks be to Allah) completes it. Muslims also make private supplications, and words in praise of Allah fall constantly off one's lips.
"O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may learn self-restraint. Fast for a fixed number of days....Ramadan is the month in which was sent down the Qur'an, as a guide to mankind, and clear signs for guidance and judgment between right and wrong. So every one of you who is present at home during that month should spend it in fasting....Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties. He wants you to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance you shall be grateful" (Qur'an 2:183-185).
What the prayers seek to do five times a day, fasting in the month of Ramadan (9th month of the lunar year) does once a year. During this month, Muslims do not eat anything nor drink even a drop of water during the daylight hours. Each and every moment during the fast, we suppress our desires and remember Allah alone. This places in us a consciousness of duty and a spirit of patience that helps strengthen faith in Allah. Discipline and hardship during this month bring us face to face with the realities of life and the suffering of so many throughout the year. The whole month is filled with increased devotion, piety, and purity of mind, soul and body.
Every Muslim whose financial conditions are above a certain specified minimum, must pay annually at least 2.5% of his savings to a deserving needy person, a new convert to Islam, a traveler, or one overwhelmed by debts. This fosters in a Muslim the quality of sacrifice and rids one of selfishness, greed and vanity. As all wealth is a gift from Allah, one has the duty to help his needy brethren when he is able.
Once in a lifetime, a Muslim who is financially and physically able must go on the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during the month of Hajj (12th month of the lunar year). Mecca is the spiritual center of the Muslim world. It was here that Abraham built the first house of worship (the Kaaba), towards which all Muslims stand in unity in their daily prayers. "The first House of worship appointed for men was that at Bakka (Mecca), full of blessing and of guidance for all the worlds. It it are Signs manifest - the Station of Abraham - whoever enters it attains security. Pilgrimage thereto is a duty men owe to Allah, for those who can afford the journey..." (Qur'an 3:96-97). When this house was desecrated into a center of pagan worship, it was the prophet Muhammad that cleansed it of its 300+ idols and rededicated it to the worship of Allah alone.
All pilgrims dress in pure white cloth, and are required to suppress passion, refrain from any bloodshed, and be pure in word and deed. "For Hajj are the months well-known. If any one undertakes the journey therein, let there be no obscenity, nor wickedness, nor wrangling in the Hajj. And whatever good you do, be sure Allah knows it. And take a provision with you for the journey, but the best of provisions is right conduct..." (Qur'an 2:197).
The pilgrimage is a great international conference, wherein all people, kings or peasants, black or white, stand before Allah as equals. During the ten days of the annual pilgrimage, several million Muslims from all over the world, of all nations, languages, and colors come together in the largest spiritual gathering of the world.
The Daily Life of a Muslim
The teachings of Islam indicate a balance between the life of this world and the life of the next. While often seen as a radical or extreme religion, Muslims consider it the middle road. "Thus have We made of you a community justly balanced..." (Qur'an 2:143). Muslims do not live this life selfishly, with complete disregard for God. Nor do they neglect the world to devote themselves solely to worship. Muslims strike a balance by fulfilling the obligations of and enjoying this life, always mindful of their duties to Allah and to others. Extremity in either direction is frowned upon.
God-fearing people should be the best in morals and manners. Islam forbids any action which infringes on the rights of others or harms oneself. Forbidden to Muslims are: dishonesty, theft, murder, suicide, bribery, forgery, interest and usury, gambling, lottery, consumption of alcohol or pork, backbiting, gossiping, slandering, hoarding, destruction of property, cruelty to animals, adultery, fornication, etc.
While forbidding these things, Islam enjoins upon mankind the use of all clean, healthy and useful things, and asks us not to deprive our bodies of clean food and healthy recreation. Islam also encourages marriage and stable family life, modesty, generosity, hospitality, respect for parents, honorable treatment of women, helping those in need, etc.
The law of Islam forbids public nudity and orders Muslims to use decent and dignified dress. Muslims are called upon to practice moderation in this area as well. One of Muhammad's companions once said, "Eat what you wish and wear what you wish if you can avoid two things: extravagance and conceit." In dress and behavior, Muslims are to be modest. "Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them; and Allah is Well-Acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should no display their beauty and ornaments..." (Qur'an 24:30-31).
According to the Prophet's tradition, no man should expose his body from the navel to the knees, nor should a woman expose any part of her body except her face and hands while in public. This is called "covering" and to keep these parts covered is the religious duty of every man and woman. Through this directive, Islam cultivates in its followers a deep sense of modesty, purity and respect.
Islam enjoins mankind to control and regulate sexual desires and seek its fulfillment only within the bonds of marriage. Marriage is a solemn contract, and the basis of a stable family and society. The Qur'an describes husband and wife as comforts for and protectors of one another. Divorce, while frowned upon, is permitted in cases where the marriage is irrevocably damaged.
Throughout our lives, we must always be respectful of our parents. They suffer and make sacrifices for us throughout our lives. Muhammad (peace be upon him) once said that "Heaven lies under the feet of mothers," so high are they in respect and admiration. Our duties to our parents come second only to our duties to Allah, and the majority of Muslim families have close extended family ties. "Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, and that you be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honor. And, out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say, 'My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy, even as they cherished me in childhood'" (Qur'an 17:23-24).
There is no place in a Muslim's heart for racial, national, gender, or other prejudices. There is One Creator, and we are all His creation. The diversity of human life is one of the Signs of Allah, part of the beauty of His creation, and something to be admired and respected. "And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colors; verily in that are Signs for those who know" (Qur'an 30:22). Righteousness is the only distinguishing factor among people. "O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another. Verily, the most honored among you in the sight of Allah is the one who is the most righteous. Indeed, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware" (Qur'an 49:13).
In dealing with non-Muslims, the believers are instructed not to be intolerant or narrow-minded. We must not abuse or speak ill of other religious leaders, nor say anything insulting. "Invite all to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. For thy Lord knows best who have strayed from His path, and who receive guidance" (Qur'an 16:125). We must not seek dissention unnecessarily, but live in peace and amity. Nor can a Muslim pass judgment on whether someone will be to Heaven or Hell - only Allah is the Judge. "Those who believe in the Qur'an, and those who follow the Jewish scripture, and the Christians and the Sabians - any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness - shall have their reward with their Lord. One them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve" (Qur'an 2:62).
There is a special place in a Muslim's heart for Christians and Jews, whom the Qur'an calls "People of the Book," meaning people who have received previous scriptures. Muslims are encouraged to seek good relations especially with them, as they have more in common than with the pagans or atheists. "...nearest among them in live to the believers will you find those who say, 'We are Christians,' because among them are men devoted to learning, and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant" (Qur'an 5:82). When arguments or debates arise, Muslims are to treat them with kindness, try to find common ground, and if differences persist, to simply say, "Well, to you be your way, and to me mine."
Muslims are absolutely forbidden from forcing their faith on others; this negates the very idea of free will and choice. The Qur'an says, "There is no compulsion in religion..." (Qur'an 2:256). It is up to each individual to investigate religion, and personally make a decision as to its validity and their faith in it. Muslims are not in a position to force anything on anyone - the job of guidance belongs to Allah alone. "If it had been your Lord's Will, they would all have believed, all who are on earth! Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe?! No soul can believe, except by the Will of Allah" (Qur'an 10:99).