610 - Islam

By Melissa Mazuranic

The Beginning of Islam

With about 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, Islam is the second largest religion in the world after Christianity. It is typically dated back to the 7th century, making it the youngest of the major world religions found today. Islam started in Mecca, in modern-day Saudi Arabia, during the time of the prophet Muhammad’s life. Today, the faith is continually spreading rapidly throughout the world. According to Islamic texts and tradition, an angel named Gabriel visited Muhammad in 610 A.D. while he was meditating in a cave. The angel ordered Muhammad to recite the words of Allah. Muslims believe that Muhammad continued to receive revelations from Allah throughout the rest of his life. Starting in about 613 A.D., Muhammad began preaching throughout Mecca the messages he received from Gabriel. He taught that there was no other God but Allah, and that Muslims should devote their lives to this God. This created the religion of Islam. The word “Islam” means “submission to the will of God” and followers of Islam are called Muslims. Muslims believe several prophets were sent to teach Allah’s law and they respect some of the same prophets as Jews and Christians, including Abraham, Moses, Noah and Jesus, but Muslims contend that Muhammad was the final prophet.


Sunni and Shiite

Sunni and Shiite Muslims are the two main branches of Islam. The divide is traced to 632 A.D., when the Islamic Prophet Muhammad died, and a debate emerged about who should be his successor. Although both sides agreed that Allah is the one true God and that Muhammad was his messenger, one group, the Shiites, felt Muhammad’s successor should be someone in his bloodline, while the other, the Sunnis, felt a good leader who would follow the Prophet’s customs was acceptable to rule. Both Sunnis and Shiites read the Quran, believe Prophet Muhammad was the messenger of Allah, and both follow the five pillars. Their prayer rituals are nearly identical, with only slight variations. For example, Shiites will stand with their hands at their sides, while Sunnis will put their hands on their stomachs, but this is only a small difference. The great majority, around 85 to 90 percent, of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunnis. Shia constitute about 10 to 15 percent of all Muslims, and globally their population is estimated at less than 200 million. Whereas Sunnis dominate the Muslim world, from West Africa to Indonesia, the Shiites are centrally located, with a vast majority in Iran, predominance in Iraq and sizable populations in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.


Five Pillars

Shahadah: sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith

Salat: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day

Zakat: paying alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy

Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan

Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca

Carrying out these obligations provides the framework of someone who follows Islam and weaves their everyday activities and their beliefs into a single cloth of religious devotion. No matter how sincerely a person may believe, Islam regards it as pointless to live life without putting that faith into action and practice. Carrying out the Five Pillars demonstrates that the Muslim is putting their faith first, and not just trying to fit it in around their secular lives.



The Quran (or Koran) is the major holy text of Islam. Followers worship Allah by praying and reciting the Quran. They believe there will be a day of judgment, and life after death. Most Muslims believe that Muhammad’s scribes wrote down his words, which became the Quran. (Muhammad himself was never taught to read or write.)The book is written with Allah as the first person, speaking through Gabriel to Muhammad. It contains 114 chapters, which are called surahs. Scholars believe the Quran was compiled shortly after Muhammad’s death, under the guidance of Caliph Abu Bakr. Allah is described in the Qur’an as the Forgiving and the Merciful. Everything is forgivable by Allah except Shirk (the negation of the existence of the Singularity, Uniqueness and Oneness of the Creator.) It also talks about the equality of all Muslims throughout the Qur’an. It is because of that concept that Islam under the Sunni tradition does not have an ordained clergy. There is a direct relationship between every man and his Creator, and there can be no intermediary. This particular closeness between the individual and God is paramount in belief as well as in practice.



Mosques are places where Muslims worship. During prayer, Muslims briefly kneel and touch their foreheads to the ground as a sign of submission (literally, Islam) to the will of God. A minaret is a tall tower attached or adjacent to a mosque. It is designed so the call to prayer, issued from mosques five times a day, can be heard loud and clear throughout a town or city. Alternatively, the call may be made from the roof or entrance and is now often projected with the aid of microphones and speakers. The minaret is also a visual symbol of the presence of Islam. (See the six minarets of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, fig. 6.). Most mosque courtyards (sahn) contain a public fountain, where believers can perform ablutions, the ritual washing of the hands, feet, and face required before prayer. In the arid lands of Arabia, water is revered as a gift from God, and fountains also have symbolic meaning, alluding to the four rivers of Paradise mentioned in the Qur’an.


Women and Men in Muslim Society

The same holds true of traditional rules of dress and behavior. Women are enjoined to cover their bodies (except for the face and hands) and lower their gaze in the presence of men not related to them. Moreover, although women and men are subject to the same religious obligations—such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca—women pray separately from men. Nonetheless, these rules of dress and behavior—however restrictive they may appear to Western eyes—serve a social function. In societies which by tradition provide few protections outside the family, they ensure a woman’s integrity and dignity. For that reason, too, men are enjoined to lower their eyes before women and to be appropriately covered from above the chest to the knees. Nothing in Islam prevents a woman from accomplishing herself or attaining her goals. Societies may erect barriers, but nothing in the spirit of the Qur’an subjugates women to men. In time, of course, social barriers will disappear—as they are disappearing now—because Muslim women will expect and demand it. As a result, it can only be expected that women will play an increasingly larger role in Islamic society and surpass the contributions of early Muslim women.


Muslims Today

In recent years, Islam’s supposed association with terrorism and mass murder has sparked a political debate in many countries. The controversial term “radical Islam” has become a well-known label to describe the religion’s connection to acts of violence. While some Muslims use their faith to justify terrorism, the vast majority do not. In fact, Muslims are frequently victims of violence themselves. Recent surveys have found that in countries with high Muslim populations, the majority of Muslims have overwhelmingly negative views of terrorist groups like ISIS. While Muslims aim to clear up misconceptions about their faith, the religion continues to spread rapidly. Today, Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion. Experts predict Islam will surpass Christianity as the largest religion by the end of the century. Bad views on Muslims can be seen where we live as well. Half of U.S. adults say Islam is not part of mainstream American society. And the U.S. public is split over whether there is a “natural conflict” between Islam and democracy. In the U.S., about one-half of nationally representative samples of Mormons, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews agree that in general, most Americans are prejudiced toward Muslim Americans. Specifically, 66% of Jewish Americans and 60% of Muslim Americans say that Americans in general are prejudiced toward Muslim Americans.