The most recently revealed of the three great monotheistic religions, Islam spread quickly from its roots in the Middle East and has been hugely influential in both scholarship and politics all over the world. Although this influence has been complex, the essence of the faith is simple: a belief in one God and that Muhammad is his principal prophet.
Muslims (followers of Islam) believe that the Islamic sacred text, the Qur’an, contains the words of God himself. These words were revealed to the prophet Muhammad over a period of years, beginning in 610ce. Although this was when the message of Islam was first made manifest on Earth, Muslims believe that their faith, based on the words of the eternal God, has always existed, and that earlier prophets of the monotheistic religions, such as Moses in Judaism and the Christian Jesus, are precursors of Muhammad himself. Muhammad has a special significance, as he was chosen to receive the Qur’an.
The importance of reading God’s actual words in Arabic—the language in which they were revealed—has meant that literacy and education have always been paramount in Islam. Muslim scholars not only learned how to read the Qur’an, but also became leading scientists and writers. They used their learning to preserve the work of their predecessors. For example, many of the discoveries of the Ancient Greeks, which had been lost to the West, were preserved by Islamic scholars. Islamic scientists made many discoveries of their own, too, in fields ranging from chemistry to astronomy.
In the centuries after Muhammad received the faith, news of Islam spread. Arab merchants carried their religion along trade routes across Asia, to areas such as India and Indonesia. They also traveled through Africa, taking Islam across North Africa and southward to the west of the continent. There were also Arab conquests, which brought the faith to Central Asia and Spain. Today, most people in North and West Africa, the Middle East, and Indonesia are Muslim. With many converts in the West, too, the voice of Islam has never been more widely heard.
ORIGINS AND HISTORY
The early prophets, including Musa (Moses), tried to show people the truth about the one everlasting God. However, it was not until the 7th century CE that the Muslim faith was revealed, when an Arab merchant named Muhammad received God’s teaching.
THE REVELATION OF ISLAM
Muhammad (570–632CE) is so revered among Muslims that many make the blessing “may peace be upon him” when they mention his name. He was a member of the Quraysh, the most powerful Arab tribe of the period, and lived in the city of Mecca, but his work took him on travels around the Arabian Peninsula. As a young man, he became known as a person of integrity and high moral standards. It was his habit during the month of Ramadan (see p.139 ) to go to Mount Hira near Mecca to meditate, and, according to tradition, it was here in 610CE that Muhammad felt the presence of the divine. God’s messenger Jibra’il (the archangel Gabriel) commanded him, “Recite,” and presently the Prophet found himself
speaking the words of God. Muhammad was illiterate, but these words were later collected in the Qur’an, the sacred book of Islam. Muhammad understood that there was one God, who should be known as Allah, meaning “the one who is God.”
FROM MECCA TO MEDINA
Muhammad shared his vision with people in Mecca, attracting a small group of followers. However, threatened by Muhammad’s attack on immorality and believing that their power was being undermined, the Quraysh leaders began to persecute Muhammad’s people. In 620 CE, Muhammad advised his followers to fee to the city of Medina, about 200 miles (320km) north of Mecca. Muhammad himself remained in Mecca for another two years. His
Ayat al-Kursi, the Throne Verse, is part of the second sura (chapter) of the Qur’an. It expresses the almighty power of God, whose “throne extends over the heavens and the Earth,” saying that: “All that is in the heavens and the Earth belongs to him.” Because the Throne Verse deals with the greatness of God, Muslims hold it in especially high esteem. They memorize it and often quote and reproduce it in posters and prints, and inscribe it on amulets to ward off evil.
eventual fight to Medina in 622CE, called the Hijrah, is a major event in Islamic history and marks the start of the Islamic calendar.
When Muhammad arrived in Medina, he found the local tribes at war and faced opposition from the region’s Jews, who would not accept him as a prophet. Nevertheless, Muhammad’s leadership established unity for many people, and in 624ce the Prophet was able to fight off a challenge for power by a large army from Mecca, whose forces he defeated decisively in 630CE. He banished polytheism and idol worship from Mecca before dying after a short illness in 632CE.
According to tradition, the Prophet left the mortal world after a magical trip to Jerusalem known as the Mir’aj or Night Journey. Jibra’il (Gabriel) woke Muhammad from his sleep one night and led him to a magical horselike creature, called the Buraq. Muhammad climbed on to the back of the Buraq, which bore him to Jerusalem, where he ascended to heaven.
When Muhammad died, leadership of the Islamic community passed through his close companions. These leaders were known as Caliphs (Khalifa). Muslims deeply revere the first four Caliphs—
For more than 400 years, since the Ottoman Turks conquered the city of Constantinople, naming it Istanbul in 1453, the Ottoman Empire was the linchpin of the Islamic world, led by the Sultan. One highly successful sultan was Suleiman I (ruled 1520–1566). Known in the West as “the Magnifcent” and in the Ottoman Empire as “the Lawgiver,” he extended the Empire, patronized artists and architects, and built the Suleimaniye mosque in the center of Istanbul.
Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and ‘Ali. They are known as the Rightly Guided Caliphs, because they followed Muhammad’s example closely.
However, there was a dispute among Muslims about the Caliphate. Some people felt that ‘Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin, should have been made Caliph earlier. Ali’s supporters became the shi’i Muslims, while those of Abu Bakr became the Sunni (see p.144 ). After the death of ‘Ali, the Caliphate passed to the leaders of two important dynasties of the Quraysh, the Umayyads (661–750CE) and the Abassids (750–1517), before passing to the Ottoman dynasty of Turkey, until the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924.
This history of overall leadership reinforced the idea of an umma, or overarching Islamic community, and stressed the unity of Muslims all over the world. During the period of the Caliphate, Islam began to expand its influence. For example, Muslim armies made conquests in central Asia and Spain, while Arab merchants carried news of their faith along trade routes in the Middle East and North Africa. Islam spread to lands whose rulers
made treaties with the Caliphs, too. From small beginnings in the Arabian Peninsula, the world of Islam had grown into a global presence.
Roughly one-quarter of the population of the modern world is Muslim. In most Middle Eastern countries, nearly everyone is a Muslim, and this is also true in North Africa, Indonesia, and some central Asian countries. Many western countries, including France, Germany, Great Britain, and the US, have large Muslim minorities.
Although united by their faith, the world’s Islamic communities vary widely in their outlook, and Muslim countries show varied approaches—from highly traditional nations, such as Saudi Arabia, to determinedly secular states, such as Turkey. Such differences have led Islamic communities to bitter divisions, as with disputes between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims. And differences, sometimes extreme, with
the West have blighted relations between some sections of Muslim society and the non-Muslim world during the recent decades. But Islam also has great capacity for respect for others, especially for the other “peoples of the book”—the Christians and Jews who, like Muslims, believe in one God.
“PRAISE THE NAME OF THE LORD MOST HIGH.”
Page 130 | Top of Article
Qur’an, Sura 87
At the heart of Islam is a single core belief: that there is One God, who is eternal, uncreated, and controls the entire cosmos. This belief directs and illuminates every aspect of Muslim life, from the mosque to the workplace and from birth to death.
THE ONE GOD
In the Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam (see pp.132–133 ), God is referred to as Allah. He is the only God in Islam and, for Muslims, the sole creator of the cosmos. His divinity is beyond human understanding. Muslims believe that all living things owe their breath to the life-giving power of Allah, and if at any time he withdraws this power, all living things will die.
Along with this omnipotence, Allah exhibits the qualities of goodness and compassion. Muslims commonly use the Arabic phrase, “bis millah hirahman nir rahim” (which means “in the name of God the merciful, the compassionate”) as a blessing before undertaking an important action; these words also precede every sura (chapter) except one of the Qur’an.
The other key characteristics of Allah—his Oneness, his uniqueness, and the fact that he has always existed—are expressed in Sura 112, known as the Sura of Unity. An English translation of this sura reads: “Say: ‘He is God, One, the ever self-sufficing, God, the Eternal. He does not beget and he was not begotten, and there is not any one like him.’ ” The Arabic term for this assertion of God’s Oneness is Tawhid. In Islam it is important not only to believe in Tawhid, but to affirm it—and in making that affirmation to reject any notion of idolatry or polytheism (the worship of many gods). When Muslims repeat the Sura of Unity with conviction, it is said that their sin falls away
THE PROSCRIPTION OF IMAGES
The Qur’an forbids the worship of idols and in the Hadith (the account of the life and teachings of Muhammad) there is a specifc ban on figurative representation of humans and animals. There is also a strict ban on portrayals of God and, in most cultures, of the Prophet. This meant that Islam developed a style of art that draws heavily on abstract patterns and repeated plant motifs. In some Muslim countries, figurative art has been permitted outside the mosque, while artistic traditions that portray the Prophet show him without any facial features.
from them in the same way that the leaves fall away from a tree in autumn; whereas to deny Tawhid is to commit the sin shirk (see p.137 ).
SUBMISSION TO GOD
The name “Islam” is commonly interpreted as “submission to the will of God,” but actually comes from the Arabic word slm, which means “to be in peace.” So, a more precise translation of the name Islam is “peace through submission to God.”
The first man and woman, Adam and Eve, originally submitted to God’s will and lived in peace in the Garden of Eden. But when they disobeyed God and abandoned their submission, they were no longer at peace. The Muslim submission to God directs a devotee’s entire life. Muslims aim to dedicate all their actions to God—not just their prayers and their reading of the Qur’an but everything they do, from their financial affairs to their work, from caring for other members of their community to their political beliefs. For this reason, Muslims often introduce God when they are talking about anything of importance. For example, before making a promise, it is common to say “inshallah,” which means “God willing.” So in Islam it is impossible to separate the church from the state or religious from secular life—Islam covers both.
Because of their submission to God’s will, Muslims sometimes refer to themselves as abd-Allah, “slave of God.” But they balance this by also seeing themselves in another way. They are khalifa, vice-regents, people whose status is high compared to the rest of the living world. This position brings with it responsibilities. Muslims should do their best to make the world a better place, to ensure that, in as many ways as possible, it too conforms to the will of God.
The Muslim sacred book, the Qur’an, stands in a tradition of revelations to prophets stretching back to figures such as Moses. But the Qur’an is on a higher level than these other revelations, because its words are believed to be the words of God himself. This is why Muslims read the text of the Qur’an in the original Arabic, the language in which it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
THE WORDS OF GOD
The name Qur’an means recitation, but the text is also known as al-Furqan, which means discrimination (between truth and falsehood), and Umm al-kitab, meaning the mother of all books. The revelation of the Qur’an began one night in 610CE, an occasion now known as the Lailat ul Qadr (“Night of Power”). The angel Jibra’il (Gabriel) appeared to Muhammad and told him that he was going to be a prophet and that he should bring himself closer to God. When Jibra’il commanded Muhammad to “Recite” and began to reveal God’s words to him, the Prophet started to speak and memorize them.
Jibra’il’s revelations continued over a period of 22 years and Muhammad, who could not read or write, committed them all to memory. His followers memorized them, and they also wrote them down. At first their accounts were fragmented, written on pieces of skin, bark, and other materials, but eventually, during the reign of the third Caliph, ‘Uthman, in the 7th century CE,
the complete Qur’an was written down in the form that Muslims use to this day.
Because it is made up of God’s words, Muslims always reproduce the text of the Qur’an with the greatest accuracy, and in the original Arabic. The Qur’an is often written in calligraphic form: Muslims admire the art of calligraphy both for its ingenuity—because calligraphers form patterns and shapes with their letters—and for the combination of beauty and clarity with which the words of God can be written on a page.
A BOOK TO LIVE BY
The central message of the Qur’an is that Muslims must believe in One God and put him first, giving him precedence over even one’s family. The Qur’an’s text is divided into 114 suras, or chapters (themselves divided into many ayat, or verses), making up a total of around 78,000 words. These include appeals to people to believe in God and to live just lives; stories of the punishments meted out
to earlier peoples who disobeyed God; signs of God in nature; sermons; stories; and juridical instructions. The text provides a source book for Islamic law on such matters as divorce, inheritance, and warfare, as well as on more obviously religious matters, such as fasting and worship. Because it provides the framework for every aspect of life, Muslims greatly revere the Qur’an. Many of its suras are admired for their clarity of language, while Muslim scholars have explained the more difficult passages in the writings known as the Hadith (see p.134 ). There is, however, a resistance to interpreting the words
of God where this is not necessary, and many Muslims feel uncomfortable with translations of the text, which are also held to be acts of interpretation.
ETHICS, MORALITY, AND LAW
Islam is a practical religion. It offers its followers a body of instruction about how to live their lives, and has established a system, called shari’ah, of coming to moral and legal decisions. Rooted in the Qur’an, this moral instruction also embraces the opinion of religious leaders.
THE NATURE OF SHARI’AH
Islam affects every aspect of the Muslim’s life. The faithful are expected to follow the instructions of the Qur’an and the system of law and morality called shari’ah. Although often referred to in the West as “ shari’ah law,” and although it contains many precise instructions as to how a person should live, this system is not a legal code in the Western sense of the term. Its true nature is revealed by its name, which means “path to water:” shari’ah is the path that the Muslim must follow in order to live a good life. Although it can be strict and exacting, shari’ah is also highly practical. For example, it prohibits a woman revealing certain parts of her body to a man other than her husband, but these prohibitions may be lifted if the woman is ill and the only doctor who can treat her is a man.
QUR’AN AND HADITH
Shari’ah is made up of four elements. The first and foremost element is the Qur’an itself. As the word of God, this
In the Qur’an the waxing and waning of the moon is seen as an indication that God’s purpose is eternal and unchanging. The Prophet recognized this by declaring his faith in God whenever he saw the new moon. But the use of the crescent as a symbol of Islam did not begin in the Prophet’s time. The symbol was at first adopted by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century, before being adopted by the whole Islamic world. Crescents are often placed on the domes of mosques, where they point toward Mecca.
text is paramount and the legal instructions it contains are the first place to which Muslims look for guidance. The second element is the sunnah, which concerns the way in which the Prophet Muhammad and his followers lived, and what they said and did. The sunnah forms a kind of living commentary on the Qur’an, showing Muslims the “example of the Prophet,” and it is collected in the scholarly writings of the Hadith. So, if a Muslim faces an ethical question that is not covered in the words of the Qur’an, they look to the Hadith for an answer. For example, whereas the Qur’an tells Muslims simply to give alms, in the Hadith, Muslims learn that Muhammad laid down the details of what
a Muslim should pay and how payment should be collected. The Hadith is, therefore, an aid to virtuous conduct.
IJMA’ AND IJTIHAD
Even the Hadith does not cover every issue, however. To resolve questions outside the scope of the Qur’an and Hadith, Muslims turn to the two other elements of shari’ah, ijma’ (consensus) and ijtihad (reason). To come to a consensus or to apply reason, Muslims (in the early days, the whole Islamic community; nowadays, the community of scholars) come together to discuss the issue, always with reference to the instructions in the Qur’an and Hadith, eventually arriving at agreement. As an extension of this system of reason and consensus, local imams offer ethical advice and instruction to members of the congregation of their mosque.
The stress laid on the views of scholars and religious leaders is different in Sunni and Shi’i Islam (see pp.144–5 ), with Shi’i Islam placing more emphasis on the opinions of the scholars. In both branches of Islam, however, the most important thing is for individual Muslims to think for themselves and to take responsibility for their own actions. Muslims believe that their capacity for reason is God-given, and that it is their duty to use this gift that comes from God.
Sunni Islam has four main schools of law: the Malaki (dominant in western Asia and West Africa), the Hanaf (in the countries that were part of the Ottoman Empire and in India), the Hanbali (in Saudi Arabia and Qatar), and the Shaf’i (in Indonesia, Malaya, and the Philippines). From the 8th century, these four schools have interpreted the laws of Islam in various ways. Shi’i Islam interprets Islamic law differently again, and itself has several schools. The schools of both Sunni and Shi’i Islam vary in the extent to which they draw on consensus and reason in making judgments, with the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam being the one that restricts itself most scrupulously to the Qur’an and Hadith.
The differences between Sunni and Shi’i interpretations of the law have led to disputes between these two branches
of Islam. For example, in Sunni law, people are not expected to try to overthrow a bad ruler, provided that he upholds Islamic law and defends Islam if it is attacked. The theory goes that everyone aside from the Prophet is sinful, so we should expect even rulers to have their flaws. Shi’i law, however, says that Muslims are obliged to depose particular reasons, are prohibited. So Muslims distinguish between what is permitted, or halal, and what is prohibited, or haram. The best-known example of this is in the dietary rules that limit the things a Muslim may eat. Meat may be eaten, with the exception of pork, but in order for the meat to be halal, the creature must be killed in the
“ALLAH IS KNOWER OF ALL THINGS.”
unjust rulers. This division has led to disagreements and even wars between Islam’s two branches.
HALAL AND HARAM
According to the Qur’an, everything that God has created is for human use. But there are some things that, for correct way—by severing blood vessels with a sharp knife while the slaughterer pronounces the name of Allah over the animal. The rules, which are carefully observed, lay down that the animal must not see the knife, and that no other animal should be able to see the act of killing. Aside from pork and improperly slaughtered meat, Muslims may not eat meat if its method of slaughter is unknown.
Muslims believe that God has set down dietary prohibitions for their protection, so there is an important exception. If people find themselves faced with a choice between starving and eating banned foods, the Muslim should eat. The other main dietary prohibition covers intoxicants, such as alcohol. Muslims learn that God has provided all kinds of foods for human enjoyment, but that it is wrong to misuse these gifts. For example, the fruit of the vine is good to eat, but fermented fruit produces wine, an intoxicating drink that brings with it corruption and evil—and is therefore prohibited.
Islam defines a number of serious sins, which the faith condemns and which may be punished severely. Several of these, such as murder, theft, and adultery, are recognized as sins in most cultures, but others are specific to Islam. The most serious and fundamental sin of all is shirk, the sin of associating anything with God other than God himself or putting something else in place of God. Having false gods, exalting human hero-figures, such as pop stars or sports personalities, or being an atheist (replacing God with nothingness) are all examples of the sin of shirk. Other serious sins in Islam are riba, or money-lending for proft, which is wrong because those who can do so should freely help others in need; juba, or cowardice; qadhf, or slander, which includes gossip and bad language; and
the use of intoxicating drugs (including alcohol; see left), which make people lose control of their actions, something condemned in the Qur’an.
Some Islamic societies may punish these sins very harshly. For example, theft may be punished by the amputation of the criminal’s hands, and the traditional punishments for adultery and apostasy (renouncing belief) are, respectively, fogging and death. Some Muslim countries also give harsh corporal punishments for the production, sale, or consumption of alcohol. On the other hand, some Muslims argue that such punishments are unfitting in the majority of cases, so there are a number of exemptions. For example, a thief will not undergo amputation if he or she has stolen because of genuine economic need. Nevertheless, a strong belief among many Muslims is that these punishments, sanctioned in the Qur’an, have been laid down by God and should be used; that they keep the crime rate low in countries where they are enforced; and that there are cases in which fogging is preferable to depriving a person of his liberty with a long prison sentence.
PRACTICES AND FESTIVALS
The most important practices of Islam are known as the Five Pillars. In many ways these define and, as their name suggests, support the entire religion, covering the expression of faith, regular prayer, and three key activities—supporting the poor, fasting, and pilgrimage.
SHAHADAH: THE DECLARATION
The first Pillar of Islam is the shahadah, or declaration of faith: “I bear witness that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his Messenger.” This declaration is the central belief of Islam, and a person who makes the declaration sincerely, using the original Arabic words, is a Muslim. The first part expresses belief in the one creator, and submission to him. The second part, which recognizes Muhammad’s role as Prophet, signifies that the Muslim accepts God’s teaching, as revealed to the Prophet in the words of the Qur’an (see pp.132–133 ).
The Qur’an instructs Muslims to pray regularly, to praise God, and to keep God in their minds throughout the day.
CLERICS AND SCHOLARS
Muslim congregations are led by imams, who are not ordained in the way that Christian priests are, but are men known to be of good standing in the community and often learned in theology. This reflects Islam’s enormous respect for learning and scholarship. Imams act as Islamic teachers and community leaders, and give advice and guidance on all aspects of life to the members of their congregation. They also give the sermon at Friday prayers and often lead prayers in the mosque. In Shi’i Islam, they have higher authority and are seen as successors to the Caliphs (see p.129 ).
This regular prayer (salati), five times a day at set times, is the second Pillar of Islam. The times for prayer are at dawn (fajr), just after noon (zuhr), at mid-afternoon (’asr), at sunset (maghrib), and in the evening (’isha). On most days of the week, prayer may take place at home or at work, but every Friday Muslims usually go to the mosque at midday for communal Friday prayers. Before prayer, Muslims wash themselves ritually using running water from a fountain at the mosque or a tap at home. While doing this they turn their thoughts toward God, so that they are prepared mentally as well as physically for prayer. When this preparation is complete, the devotee removes his or her shoes and, standing on clean ground or on a prayer mat, faces the direction of Mecca and begins to pray. The prayers themselves take place in a prescribed way, beginning with the, words “Allahu Akhbar” meaning “God is greater (than all else).” The words of prayer are accompanied by a number of movements that involve standing, bowing down, prostrating, and sitting. Collectively, these movements are known as a rak’ah.
The third Pillar of Islam is zakat, the payment of a tax, the money from which is then used to help the poor and needy. How much a person pays is based on their income—the amount
is calcuated as 2.5 percent of a person’s wealth, but the value of that person’s home and other essential possessions is not counted in the assessment. Through paying zakat, Muslims express their love of God by taking care of other people. They may also make additional donations to charities that will help the Muslim community, funding facilities such as hospitals and aiding the victims of natural disasters.
The fourth Pillar, sawm, is the practice of fasting and abstention during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Ramadan is important because the frst revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad occurred during this month. Throughout Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food, drink, and sexual relations in the hours from dawn to dusk. Several groups of people—the old, the sick, young children, and pregnant women—are excused from the fast. However, if possible, those who cannot fast during Ramadan are encouraged to practice the abstention the following year. During the last ten days of the month of Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to dedicate as much time as possible to coming closer to God. People go to the mosque more frequently and devote more time to reading the Qur’an. At the end of Ramadan, the festival of ‘Id al-Fitr (see p.141 ) marks the breaking of the fast.
Every Muslim who is physically able and who can afford the journey is required to go once on pilgrimage or hajj to
Mecca, in Saudi Arabia: this is the fifth Pillar of Islam. The Hajj takes place every year in the 12th month of the Islamic calendar. It involves a series of rituals and prayers that bring together the vast Muslim community: Muslims from all over the world and from all walks of life gather in Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, to foster a spirit of equality and unity and a perception of the greatness of who have undertaken the pilgrimage are accorded great respect among the entire Muslim community.
The spiritual heart of the Islamic community is the mosque, which is primarily a place for prayer. The largest
“HASTE UNTO REMEMBRANCE OF ALLAH.”
God. The rituals of the Hajj include wearing special white garments symbolizing the state of consecration or holiness, known as ihram, as well as walking around the Ka’aba—a cubic monument in the center of the mosque at Mecca—seven times, reciting certain prayers during the procession. To go on the Hajj is one of the greatest moments of a Muslim’s life and those space in a mosque is the prayer hall. This is a room with a niche called a mihrab at one end, which indicates the direction of Mecca, toward which Muslims must face while praying. Mosques traditionally have at least one tower, called a minaret. From here, five times a day, an official called a muezzin gives the call to prayer. There is also often a courtyard, which offers a quiet
area for reading or meditation, and at the entrance there are fountains where Muslims perform their ritual of washing before prayers. In addition, mosques may have rooms where teaching or religious discussions take place, or there may be other rooms, allowing the building to take on the functions of a community center.
THE CYCLE OF LIFE
When a baby is born in a Muslim family, it is customary to whisper the profession of faith or the call to prayer into the child’s ear. Seven days after the birth, there is traditionally a naming ceremony, a common part of which involves shaving the child’s hair and offering the weight of the shorn hair in silver to the poor.
When Muslims reach adulthood, they are encouraged to marry, for marriage is believed to be a state that was designated by God. In addition, the family is seen as a positive force for stability, and marriage marks the unification of two families, helping to bind the Muslim community together. The marriage ceremony itself may be held at the house of the man or woman, or at the mosque, and it is usual to ask the local imam (Muslim leader) to preside. The details of the ceremony and celebration vary from one place to another, but generally the
man gives a dowry or bride-gift to his new wife, the exact size and nature of which depends on his means, but which becomes his wife’s sole property, for her to do with as she wishes.
Burial customs also vary in Islam, but generally Muslims prefer to bury their deceased as soon as possible after death. Funerary prayers consist of a salah with the addition of extra prayers.
A number of Islamic festivals celebrate key dates in the life of Muhammad, notably Mawlid an-Nabi (the Birth of the Prophet). But the most important Muslim festivals are linked to the Five Pillars. The first, ‘Id al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice, marks the culmination of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and is celebrated with a communal prayer and the sacrifice of an animal. The other major festival is ‘Id al-Fitr, the festival that occurs at the end of the month of fasting, and marks the close of Ramadan. At ‘Id there is a special prayer, performed by the whole community together; alms are given, and celebrations go on for three days.
BRANCHES OF ISLAM
Islam has two main branches, Sunni and Shi’i. The division occurred soon after Muhammad’s death, when there was a dispute over his successor. In addition, several smaller Islamic sects, such as the Sufis, have had an influence beyond their size.
Shortly after Muhammad died, the Prophet’s close follower Abu Bakr was elected as Caliph, the leader of the Muslim community. However, some Muslims thought that the Prophet’s son-in-law, ‘Ali, should have become the first Caliph. Eventually, ‘Ali succeeded as the fourth Caliph, but there were still those who objected to him, and he was assassinated in 661CE. Those who agreed with the view that Abu Bakr was the Prophet’s own choice of successor became known as Sunni Muslims—that is, followers of the sunnah, or custom, of Muhammad (see p.134 ). Those who supported ‘Ali became known as the shi’at ‘Ali (“the party of ‘Ali”), or the Shi’i Muslims (see opposite).
FOLLOWING THE SUNNAH
Sunni Muslims recognize the first four Caliphs (up to and including ‘Ali), but do not see the descendants of ‘Ali as fulfilling any special religious or political
role. Because they follow the custom of the Prophet as laid out in the sunnah and show less regard for the advice of imams than do Shi’i Muslims, Sunni Muslims are often known as Orthodox Muslims. Every Sunni Muslim follows one of the four schools of law—Malaki, Hanafi, Hanbali, and Shaf’i—which vary in the way that they use consensus and reason to supplement the Qur’an (see p.135 ). Individuals are free to choose which of the schools of law they adhere to, although most Sunni Muslims tend to adopt the same school as their father.
A SUNNI MAJORITY
More than 85 percent of the Muslim population is Sunni. This means that in most Islamic countries, the majority of Muslims are Sunni, with the notable exceptions of the people of Iran, and the substantial Shi’i populations in Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Yemen, as well as some of the Gulf States.
The Shi’i Muslims began as the supporters of ‘Ali (Muhammad’s cousin, and the husband of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima), and opposed the Sunni choice of Abu Bakr (see opposite) for the Caliphate. Ali finally became Caliph in 656CE, but then the Sunni and Shi’i Muslims disagreed over how they should select future Caliphs. Shi’i Muslims held that Caliphs should be descendants of Ali and Fatima, while Sunnis wanted them elected.
THE DEATH OF HUSSAYN
The division between the two branches of Islam deepened in 680CE, when Hussayn, son of Ali and Fatima, led a revolt against a Sunni Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty (see p.128 ), Yazi ibn Mu’awiyah. Hussayn’s supporters failed to back him and Hussayn was killed at the Battle of Kerbala (in modern Iraq). Shi’i Muslims mark the anniversary of Hussayn’s death with a period of mourning, some even scourging themselves to atone for the supporters who abandoned Hussayn.
THE SUCCESSORS OF ‘ALI
Most Shi’i Muslims identify Ali and eleven of his successors as the spiritual leaders of the faith. These Muslims are known as the “Twelve-Imam Shi’is.” Another group of Shi’i Muslims, the Seven-Imam Shi’is, do not recognize the last five Imams in this lineage. Precise Islamic dogma and practice varies between these groups and Sunni Islam. Practices of the Twelve-Imam group that distinguish them from other Muslims include adding extra lines to the call of prayer and variations in the funeral prayer. Both groups of Shi’i Islam have doctrinal differences with Sunni. For example, Shi’i Muslims recognize temporary marriage, believe that God changes his decisions, and, most crucially, believe in a succession of imams beginning with Ali.
Devotees of Sufi Islam seek a direct and personal experience of God and follow a spiritual teacher. It is not certain when Sufism began, but it seems to have been in the early period of Islam.
In order to maintain some of the simplicity of the way of life of the first followers of Islam, an early Sufi named Hatim al-Asamm established four key principles of Sufi life: to remember that no other person eats your bread for you; that no one but you performs your actions; that death is coming, so you should address your life in readiness for it; and that you are under the eye of God.
DEVOTION TO GOD
Sufi devotion to God is often characterized by intense, ecstatic experiences, such as trancelike states. Such states can come about through the achievement of dhikr, or remembrance, a way to experience the intense presence of God. Different Sufi orders achieve dhikr in
The poet Jelaluddin Balkhi (1207–1273) was born in Afghanistan, but grew up in Anatolian Turkey. He became known as “Rumi,” meaning “from Roman Anatolia,” and befriended a dervish (an ascetic) called Shams. When Shams disappeared, Rumi began to write poetry as if his friend were speaking through him, offering profound religious insight. Rumi also created the dramatic “whirling” dance that was adopted by his followers, the Mevlevi order of dervishes.
different ways—some through chanting, others through dancing. Sufi devotion has also produced beautiful poetry (see box, above) and music. Because Sufism involves practices that sometimes lead to the union of the individual with God, Sufis have been accused of turning their backs on Islam. But Sufis insist that their experience of the love of God is the anchor of their Islamic faith and that adherence to shari’ah (see p.134 ) is as vital to them as it is to other Muslims.
NATION OF ISLAM
In the 20th century, many African-Americans in the US were attracted to Islam, especially because of its egalitarian philosophy. In Islam, it is considered a virtuous and pious deed to give slaves their freedom, whereas in the eyes of many African-Americans, Christianity had become associated with white oppression in the first half of the 20th century were still Suffering from discrimination, in spite of the fact that slavery had been abolished.
One product of the movement toward Islam was the Nation of Islam, a religious movement founded by Wallace Dodd Ford, who took the name Fard (“Righteousness”) Muhammad. Although Fard Muhammad adopted many Islamic ideas, his belief system diverged in many ways from orthodox Islam. For example, he presented himself as a Messiah figure. Fard Muhammad’s successor, Elijah Poole, known as Elijah Muhammad, introduced further new and unorthodox doctrines, including the notion that black people were the first humans, created by Allah, whereas white people were later creations who would be destroyed at the imminent “end of times.”
Elijah attracted numerous followers, including Malcolm little, a civil rights campaigner, who took the name Malcolm X. By replacing his surname with a letter, he was rejecting, as did many members of the movement, a name derived from that of his family’s former white owners, which he saw as a sign of oppression. However, Malcolm X later broke from the Nation of Islam and became an orthodox Muslim.
This change of heart by a high-profile member of the organization led to divisions within the group and, in 1965, to the assassination of Malcolm X. In the 1970s, after this crisis, Elijah died and his son, Warith Deen Muhammad, became leader. Warith Deen Muhammad gave his part of the movement a new name, the American Muslim Mission, and directed it toward orthodox Islam. The new group looked to Sunni Muslim beliefs (see p.144 ), and was opened up to believers of all races. Most of the movement’s members followed Warith Deen Muhammad and the American Muslim Mission in its more orthodox religious beliefs, though some formed the Original Nation of Islam and continued to promote the ideas of Elijah. Gradually, however, the two groups began to move together as the Original Nation of Islam became more orthodox, and in 2000 their respective leaders announced an end to rivalry between the two bodies.
The Nation of Islam and its related groups have been influential in spreading ideas about both faith and equality, especially in the US, and also in Canada and Great Britain, but the exact number of members is not known.