In the name of Allah, most benevolent, ever-merciful.

ALL PRAISE BE to Allah, Lord of all the worlds,

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Most beneficent, ever-merciful, King of the Day of Judgment.

You alone we worship, and to You

Alone turn for help.

Guide us to the path that is straight, The path of those You have blessed,

Not of those who have earned Your anger, Nor those who have gone astray.

So  begins  the  Qur’an,  the  holy  book  of  Islam. Islam is one of the three great monotheistic religions in the world, Judaism and Christianity being the other two, all of which, ironically, focus on the same deity, the God of the prophet Abraham. Indeed, for Islam’s prophet Muhammad there is but one true faith, and his teachings and transmission of the word of Allah (one of the ninety and nine names for God) are the latest and definitive message. For its followers, Muslims, Islam is the true religion of the prophet Abraham. The word refers to a peaceful submission to God’s will. Islam takes for granted that one day all of the peoples of the world will see the wisdom of God’s message and will embrace Islam in peace, creating a single community of the faithful, an ummah. Today, Islam is the second largest religion in the world, second only to Christianity by numbers, and comprises about one fifth of the world’s population. Islam stresses that there are only two realms on earth, the dar al-salam and the dar al-harb. The former, the abode or house of peace, and the latter, the house of war, refer to the Islamic world, that part of humanity that has embraced Islam, and the rest of the world, which has not and is therefore in constant turmoil or conflict with the forces of disbelief.

The  beginning  of  Islam  is  popularly  associated with the prophet Muhammad. However, Muhammad stressed that his message simply completed the true religion of the God of Abraham. Still, the importance of Muhammad is such that some came to refer to the followers  of  Islam  erroneously  as  Mohammedans, a phrase that is unacceptable to Muslims because it unduly focuses on the prophet rather than God.

The Sirah: The Coming Of Muhammad

Muhammad was born into the banu Hashim, or Hashimite, clan of the Quaraysh tribe in the city of Mecca in 570. The Quaraysh were the dominate economic and political power along the Red Sea coast, the Hijaz, an area that had become important because of its central location along a number of vital trade routes. In general, the peoples of the Arabian peninsula were all organized by hereditary tribes. The tribes of the interior and the Hijaz were nomadic, bedouin (bedou in the singular); they made their living by raising animals (goats, sheep, horses, and camels), trade, and by raiding each other. It was a society that was proud of a warrior tradition. The tribes in the south, the Yemen, were largely sedentary and agriculturally based. Blood relationship was the basis of this society. Religiously, each tribe varied according to its particular history. Some were Christian, some Jewish (by faith), but most recognized tribal religions that often made reference to a common ancestor. Most of the tribes recognized the importance of a structure in Mecca that housed a black stone (possibly a meteorite) constructed by the prophet Abraham and known as the Ka’ba. The Ka’ba also formed the center of an annual festival, or fair, in Mecca, the Ukaz. The Ukaz provided the opportunity for trade, worship, and peaceful tribal competitions and proved very lucrative to the Quaraysh. This was the time and culture that Islam describes as the Period of Ignorance, or jahhiliya. Ignorant because Muhammad had yet to bring the word of God, and also because of numerous practices that he would condemn including blood feuds, tribal raiding, the poor status of women, and on occasion the infanticide of female children.

Orphaned at an early age, Muhammad was raised by paternal relatives, his grandfather Abdul Muttalib and later his uncle Abu Talib. With the exception of one story, there is little about the youth of Muhammad that yielded great religious significance. But while on a trading expedition with Abu Talib, Muhammad encountered a Christian monk by the name of Bahira who noticed what he claimed to be the seal of the prophets between Muhammad’s shoulder blades and proclaimed him as a promised apostle. Muhammad’s marriage to the wealthy widow Khadija in 595 proved to be more important. Khadija was something of an exception in early Arabian society. She had inherited her husband’s commercial business and was considered a woman of substance and status. Islam allows up to four wives but Khadija was Muhammad’s only wife until her death. The marriage allowed Muhammad free time to meditate, usually in a cave in Mount Hira outside Mecca. It is related that while in that cave in 610, Muhammad was confronted by the angel Gabriel who commanded  him  to  read.  Muhammad  replied  that he was no reader; he could do the simple arithmetic required as a merchant but was otherwise illiterate. Gabriel again commanded him to read. Muhammad realized at that point that indeed he could read and write. This began the process by which Muhammad became the messenger, rasul, of God through Gabriel. Following his experiences with Gabriel, which were the only miracles claimed in his life, Muhammad began preaching God’s message in Mecca,


the one the most unique,

God the immanently indispensable. He has begotten no one,

And is begotten of none.

There is no one comparable to Him.”

The first to embrace his message were his wife, Khadija, his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, and his cousin, Ali. His preaching was viewed as threatening to the leaders of the Quaraysh, who did not object overtly to his religious message, but feared that Muhammad might disrupt the importance of the Ukaz, the Ka’ba, and accordingly the position of the Quaraysh. The anxieties of Muhammad’s own tribe soon deepened. He was nearly stoned to death and finally confined to the city of Mecca.

In 620, the inhabitants of the city of Yathrib invited Muhammad to mediate problems in that community. The reputation of Muhammad as honest and wise served him well in this instance, but the Quaraysh determined that he might be an even greater problem in a new setting and refused him permission to leave Mecca. In 622 Muhammad sent many of his followers ahead to Yathrib while he planned his own escape. On September 24, 622, Muhammad arrived in Yathrib. The flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Yathrib is known as the hijra, an event so important that it marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Muhammad mediated the problems of Yathrib and was soon accepted as the city’s leader. In his new role, Muhammad changed the name of the city to Medina and began to form a new community according to a series of edicts later known as the Constitution of Medina. The essence of this community was common faith in God, not blood relationship or tribal lineage, or established territory, thus the reference to the ummah, the community of the faithful. Possibly as a matter of political practicality, Muhammad announced that Jews (a significant part of the population of Medina) were to be considered part of the ummah, and Christians, as people of the book, were to be under its protection.

Conflict with the Quaraysh ensued. Following a peace treaty, the Treaty of Hudaibiya, Muhammad arranged for a peaceful return to Mecca in January of 630. The Quaraysh accepted Muhammad and the umma expanded to include first this tribe and then most of the other tribes of the Arabian peninsula, according to personal treaties or conversion to Islam. In this context alone, Muhammad secured a place in history as the only man to unify the tribes of Arabia. Muhammad was a prophet, hero, statesman, author, conqueror, and a social reformer. He created the Arab nation, and dramatically reformed an ancient tribal system. He replaced blood relationship with common faith, and tribal custom with a singular law, God’s law, the shari’a.

Islamic Belief (Iman) And Practice (Ibadat)

The body of Islamic belief and practice can be summarized in Islam’s Articles of Belief and Articles of Practice. Adherence to these articles, along with acceptance of God, is generally considered a personal obligation based on a personal relationship with God. There is no church, no church hierarchy or administration, no formal clergy. There are, however, clerics that gained recognition based on the respect of their local communities and their knowledge of the Qur’an and the shari’a. The terms mullah and ulem (ulema pl.) apply in this instance. A more honored title is applied among Shia Muslims, ayat Allah (reflection of God), or ayatollah in the Western translations.

The particular tenets of Islamic belief are found in the Iman or Articles of Belief, also known as the Doctrines of Belief. The first article is The Doctrine of the Unity of God. The fundamental element of Islam is that there is no God but God. Islam recognizes no deity save the God of Abraham, Allah. Islam describes God as a purely spiritual and universal being. References to God the father are rejected in that they suggest an anthropomorphic figure. The second article is The Doctrine of Prophethood. Muhammad related that, in his wisdom, God has provided mankind with a prophet for each era in history. The first prophet was Adam, but the final prophet, the Seal of the Prophets, was Muhammad, thus denoting the final era and the pending final judgment. Islam accepts all of the prophets of the Old Testament including Abraham and Moses. Jesus of Nazareth is also recognized, but as a prophet, not the Son of God. Often a distinction is made between the reference to prophet and messenger. The latter designation is sometimes used to refer to Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad because their messages were recorded in writing. Thus they are both prophet and messenger. The third article is The Doctrine of the Book. The reference here is literally to the word of God as recorded in the Old and New Testaments, but of course also the Qur’an (the reading or recitation). The earlier testaments are not rejected out of hand, but it is believed that through mistranslation and corruption much of the true meaning of each work has been lost. Only the Qur’an has remained as the definitive word of God. The Qur’an is divided into 114 chapters, known as surahs, organized according to length from longest to shortest with the exception of the very brief prologue. The Qur’an also provides the essence of traditional Muslim education, learning reading and writing from the Qur’an, in the madrasa. Purists still hold that the only way to truly understand the Qur’an is in the original Arabic because that is Allah’s favored language. It was also generally believed that the only acceptable means of copying the Qur’an was by hand. The fourth article is The Doctrine of the Final Judgment. As the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad was the last of God’s agents before the final judgment of mankind, which is at hand. All people will be judged personally by Allah. Those who led good lives will go to paradise, a resplendent and well-watered garden. Those who did not are doomed to the fires of hell. The judgment will be preceded by a physical resurrection, but not by the arrival of a messiah or even the second coming of Muhammad. It is emphasized that those who die in the service of God are martyrs who go straight to paradise. Martyrdom is not generally encouraged, however. Suicide is a sin without exception. Sunni Islam focuses much less on martyrdom than Shi’i Islam which is due to the vital significance of the death of Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn, at Kerbala. The suffering and final death of Husayn have become part of the fundamental body of belief among the Shia Muslims often portrayed in Shia versions of passion plays. The final article is The Doctrine of Angels and Jinns. Angels are those creatures created by God from fire to serve both God and man. Jinns are creatures that are generally associated with the fallen angel Iblis or Shaytan.

Islam also incorporates a set of good acts to be practiced by Muslims. The Ibadat or Articles of Practice are also known as The Pillars of Islam. First and foremost among these pillars is the shadada, the witness or profession of faith. To become a Muslim, there is no formal ceremony, no baptism, but one must accept in one’s heart and mind the basic notion that there is no God but God, and that Muhammad is His messenger. The second pillar is salah, prayer. Muslims are to pray five times a day, before dawn, at dawn, noon, afternoon, and evening. If one prayer is missed it should be made up later in the day. Islamic prayer involves a certain amount of ritual. One must wash their hands and feet before prayer to symbolize the cleansing of the mind of worldly thoughts. Ritual bowing, standing, and sitting all demonstrate respect for God, as does covering one’s head (generally at all times, but especially during prayer). One should pray in a mosque (a house of prayer and study) though this is not always possible. Both men and women can pray in a mosque but, as with other activities, women must be separate from men. One should also face toward Mecca during prayer. The hour of prayer is announced by the song of the muezzin, usually from the towering minaret of a mosque. The third pillar is zakah, or alms-giving. Muslims should attempt to care for the unfortunate. But if the act does not come from the heart it should be avoided. The fourth pillar is sawm, or ritual fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar that marks the celebration of Muhammad’s revelations through Gabriel celebrated on the 27th as the Night of Power. During Ramadan, eating, drinking, and other activities (sexual conduct) are forbidden during daylight hours but allowed after sundown. In practical application, most Muslim communities close down during the day and most people sleep during that time, while at night the holy month is celebrated. The end of the fast of Ramadan is celebrated on the first day of Shawwal with the eid al-fitr. The fifth pillar is hajj, or pilgrimage. Muslims should make pilgrimage to Mecca and pray at the Ka’ba. Muhammad emphasized that the importance of the Ka’ba was in the simple fact that the inner structure had been built by the prophet Abraham, thus retaining the significance of both the Ka’ba and Mecca in Islamic tradition. Originally, Muslims were urged to make pilgrimage once a year, but when this became difficult, if not impossible, the obligation changed to as often as possible but at least once in a lifetime. Dhul Hijjah, the 12th month of the Muslim calendar, is the month of hajj. Those who make hajj are referred to as hajji and sometimes add this as a title to a name. Often a sixth pillar is included, jihad or holy war. The literal translation of jihad as a struggle or as striving comes from the Arabic phrase jihad fi sabil Allah, or striving in the path of God. There are two definitions of jihad and both can be traced to Muhammad. One, greater jihad, refers to the constant threat of disbelief in every individual, which requires spiritual battle and vigilance for the believer to remain faithful. The other, lesser jihad, involves the possible necessity of defense of the umma or its people from outside attacks, invasion, or threat. As a form of defensive war, jihad is comparable to the concept of jus bellum or just war in the West. It was limited exclusively to self-defense and was required to adhere to the strict limitations of part of the shari’a, Islamic law, known as siyar. Jihad also became somewhat problematical because only the legitimate leader of the Islamic community could declare it. But once declared it became the religious obligation of all Muslims to defend the community. Shia Islam does include jihad as a sixth pillar along with a seventh  pillar,  the  invocation  to  do  good  acts  and avoid evil thoughts. Islam considers a number of things as haram, or strictly forbidden. The eating of pork and the consumption of wine or any alcoholic beverage are forbidden.

Lacking a church, formal clergy, and many of the formal rituals found in Christianity such as baptism, Islam  is  a  very  simple  religion. This  simplicity  is accentuated in the fact that all men, regardless, of nation,  class,  or  economic  status  are  equal  before God. Generally, this is true of women, as well, although the particular roles of women are prescribed by the Qur’an. The extreme subservience of women in some modern Muslim countries is not based on the shari’a. Indeed, in cases of marriage, inheritance, and a host of other instances, the rights of women are clearly established by the shari’a, but they are not always recognized by society.

Islam permeates the daily lives and activities of all Muslims. This is symbolized by the inclusion of a variety of phrases that are integrated into common conversation. Allah hu Akbar, God is most great. Bismillah, in the name of God. Inshah Allah, if God wills. Al-hamdulillah, praise be to God. The standard Muslim greeting is simply salam, the Arabic word for peace, which, in this case, is an invocation of God’s peace. Some  rare  individuals  are  believed  to  have God’s special blessing, the baraka.

There are numerous holy sites in Islam. The most important of these are the city of Mecca and the Ka’ba,  and  Medina,  the  first  place  of  worship  in Islam. Second to these places are Jerusalem, in general because of Islam’s inclusion of Old Testament and New Testament prophets and figures, but also because of two great mosques, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the Rock holds dual significance in that it is believed to be the place where Abraham offered sacrifice, and the place where Muhammad ascended to paradise, which is celebrated as the Night of miraj, lalat-ul miraj, on the 27th of Rajab. Shia Islam adds two cities to this list— Najaf, where Ali was buried, and Kerbala, the city where Husayn, Muhammad’s grandson and Ali’s son, was martyred according to Shia interpretation.

Questions usually arise involving comparisons of Islam with Christianity. As noted earlier, in Islam references to God, or Allah, as the father are considered abhorrent because it suggests a sense of physical generation. Accordingly, Jesus is described as being conceived of the breath of God as was Adam. He was one of a series of prophets with perhaps an additional sense of importance as a messenger of God. Islam rejects the death of Jesus by crucifixion suggesting that it was one who was made to resemble him. Ironically, beyond this point, Islam accepts a good deal of the Christian interpretation of Jesus. Miracles occurred, but were the work of Allah. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin. And Islam has no problem with the resurrection, which is, of course, fundamental to Islam’s fourth article of belief.

Islamic Law: The Shari’a

The cornerstone of Islam is the shari’a, the body of Islamic law, which is characterized as the straight path. The shari’a is God’s law. The three sources of Islamic law are the Qur’an, the hadith, and sunna. The hadith are traditions, sayings, and actions attributed to Muhammad through a variety of individuals that are not all accorded the same level of authenticity. Therefore, some hadith have a greater weight than others. The sunna includes more general traditions related to the prophet, but also may include certain pre-Islamic traditions or elements of customary law not in violation of the Qur’an. Legal questions are generally considered through a process of analogical deduction known as qiyas. The Qur’an is the first source considered. If it does not produce a specific answer, the hadith are examined. Sunna comes into play if the previous sources fail to produce an answer. Consensus or ijma is sought in all legal questions rather than a personal interpretation. Indeed, the personal interpretation of the law, ijtihad, became severely restricted in Sunni society after the 9th century. Shia Islam, with a much greater recognition of religious clerics, has traditionally made much greater use of ijtihad. One who is deemed capable of ijtihad based on knowledge of the shari’a is a mujtihad. There are no traditional judges in Islam, but the title of qadi is a rough equivalent. Again, all clerical titles are expressions of local recognition of an individual’s knowledge about the law and the Qur’an.

Local approaches to the shari’a are based on the views of four traditional legal schools of thought, which can be distinguished according to their particular  stance  on  interpretation.  The  Hanafite  school began with Abu Hanifa (d. 766) and can be considered liberal.  The  Malakite  school  started  by  Malik  ibn al-As (d. 795) is essentially conservative. The Shafi’ite school of Imam al-Shafi (d. 820) considered both of the previous schools as overly extreme and suggested a more methodological approach emphasizing qiyas known as fiqh, often referred to as Islam’s science of jurisprudence. The fourth school, the Hanbalite, began with Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), a reactionary who equated innovation or bida with sin. The impact of ibn Hanbal effectively stifled the general use of ijtihad in Sunni Islam and replaced it with the concept of taqlid, literally a legal decision based on the authority of an established predecessor, but in practical use came to be simply blind imitation. Islamic law was, for a long time, remarkably flexible, but in Sunni society it became more and more stultified.

Orthodoxy And Heterodoxy In Islam: Sunni And Shi’i Islam

The vast majority of Muslims in the world today are Sunni or, according to Western terminology, orthodox. The  largest  Muslim  populations  are  found  in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Egypt, and the predominant  sect  in  every  one  of  these  countries  is Sunni. The largest minority sect is Shia Islam, which accounts for some 90% of the population of Iran and about 60% of the population of Iraq. While Sunni and Shi’i Islam represent the majority and the most significant minority, it is important to note that historically there have been at least 72 sectarian offshoots of Islam. Most of these heterodox interpretations have themselves been variations of Shia Islam.

Curiously, most of the early divisions in Islam had little to do with religion and much to do with politics. Shia Islam began as a dispute over which of the Prophet’s  companions  should  succeed  Muhammad as the first caliph, commander of the faithful or lieutenant of the prophet. A very demonstrative group supported the claim of the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali, though it seems that Ali himself was never as committed to this issue. Known as the shia tu Ali, quite literally the party of Ali, these followers demanded that the successor be a male, blood descendant of Muhammad. The shia tu Ali only grudgingly accepted the first three caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman) and upon the murder of the third proclaimed Ali to be the rightful caliph. Ali seemed to be happy with his predecessors as caliph and with his followers’

support of himself as the fourth commander of the faithful. Other factions in the community, relatives of the third caliph, Uthman, were not, however. The Umayya clan of the Quaraysh tribe challenged Ali’s claim based on the accusation that Ali had been part of a conspiracy to murder Uthman, the scion of the Umayya. The Umayya claimant was the governor of Syria, Muawiya. In 660, Muawiya declared himself to be the rightful heir and Islam appeared to be on the road to sectarian disaster. The conflict came to an effective end the next year when Ali was murdered by a former supporter who, along with a group known as the Kharijites, had broken with Ali over a dispute involving Ali’s prerogative to negotiate with Muawiya during the Battle of Siffin in 657. The shia tu Ali led by Ali’s son Husayn attempted to renew the conflict, which was put to a final end near the city of Kerbala where Husayn and many of his Shia followers were killed. The Shia interpretation of the martyrdom of Husayn became one of the defining events of that sect. Accordingly, he and his followers were betrayed, tortured horribly, and then put to death. The event is still commemorated by the Shia as ashura on the tenth day of the month Muharram. It is at this point that religious elements began to form. Following Husayn’s death, the Shia proclaimed that he, his father, and his brother, Hasan, were all martyrs and were also acclaimed as Imams. The word imam had been in common usage before this but as something of a generic term for a leader in prayer.

The foundation of the religious separation between Sunni and Shi’i evolved from the nature of the Shia Imam and the attributes attached to the individuals who were given this title. Eventually, it would be believed that Imams were infallible, could communicate with God, were impervious to harm, and cast no shadow. This was totally unacceptable to the Sunni for whom only the Qur’an and God were infallible, and who perceived the whole notion of the Shia Imam as a clear violation of the Doctrine of Prophethood. The religious separation has been deep and at times quite violent.

Most of the variations within Shia Islam follow from which or how many of the Imams are venerated. The majority of Shi’i are Twelvers, that is, they accept a line of twelve Imams beginning with Ali as the first Imam, Hasan as the second, Husayn as the third, and Muhammad al-Muntazar as the twelfth. The Twelvers believe that al-Muntazar, also referred to as the Mahdi or expected one, went into occultation in 878, that is, he went into hiding, but will reveal himself at the moment of the final judgment. The Doctrine of the Return thus became a central element of belief for most Shi’i. Other Shia offshoots include the Zaydis who accepted only the first five Imams, a line that ended with the fifth Imam, Zayd; the Ismailis who embraced seven Imams and focused on a disputed member of the line, Ismail; an Ismaili offshoot, and the infamous Assassins, a sect that practiced ritual, political, and religious murder, often under the influence of certain drugs (hemp or hashish). Relatively few of the minor Shia sects have survived. Islam did, however, produce a mystic variation often in a monastic fashion, Sufi Islam, the darwish.


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