Part of a series of articles on



History of Islam

Beliefs and practices

Oneness of God
Profession of Faith
Prayer • Fasting
Charity • Pilgrimage

Major figures

Household of Muhammad
Companions of Muhammad
Prophets of Islam

Texts & Laws

Qur'an • Sunnah • Hadith
Fiqh • Sharia • Theology

Major branches

Sunni • Shi'a • Sufi

Societal aspects

Academics • History
Philosophy • Science
Art • Architecture • Cities
Calendar • Holidays • Women
Leaders • Politics • Islamism

See also

Vocabulary of Islam

Islam (Arabic: الإسلام; al-'islām) is a monotheistic religion based upon the teachings of Muhammad, a 7th century Arab religious and political figure. It is the second-largest religion in the world today, with an estimated 1.4 billion adherents, spread across the globe, known as Muslims.[1] Linguistically, Islam means submission, referring to the total surrender of one's self to God (Arabic: الله, Allāh), and a Muslim is "one who submits to God".[2]

Muslims believe that God revealed the Qur'an to Muhammad and that Muhammad is God's final prophet. The Qur'an and the traditions of Muhammad in the Sunnah are regarded as the fundamental sources of Islam.[3][4] Muslims do not regard Muhammad as the founder of a new religion but as the restorer of the original monotheistic faith of Adam, Ibrahim and other prophets whose messages had become corrupted over time (or according to some authorities only misinterpreted).[5][6][7] Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is an Abrahamic religion.[8]

Today, Muslims may be found throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Central Asia. Only about 20 percent of Muslims originate from Arab countries.[9] Islam is the second largest religion in many European countries, such as France, which has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, and the United Kingdom.[10][11]



Etymology and meaning

The word "’islām" derives from the Arabic triconsonantal root sīn-lām-mīm, which carries the basic meaning of safety and peace. The verbal noun "’islām" is formed from the verb ’aslama, a derivation of this root which means to accept, surrender, or submit; thus, Islam effectively means submission to and acceptance of God. The legislative meaning is to submit to God by singling him out in all acts of worship, to yield obediently to him and to disassociate oneself from polytheism.[2]

The word ’islām takes a number of different meanings in the Qur'an. In some verses (ayat), the quality of Islam as an internal conviction is stressed, for example: "Whomsoever God desires to guide, He expands his breast to Islam".[12][2] Other verses establish the connection between islām and dīn (usually translated as "religion"), and assert that only the surrender of one's self to God can render unto Him the worship which is His due: "Today, I have perfected your religion (dīn) for you; I have completed My blessing upon you; I have approved Islam for your religion."[13] The final category of verses describe Islam as an action (of returning to God), more than simply a verbal affirmation.[14][2]



Muslims believe that God revealed his final message to humanity through Muhammad ibn Abdullah (c. 570 - July 6, 632) via the angel Gabriel.[15] Muhammad is considered to have been God's final prophet, the "Seal of the Prophets". The revelations Muhammad preached form the holy book of Islam, the Qur'an. The Qur'an is believed to be the flawless final revelation of God to humanity, valid until the day of the Resurrection.

Muslims hold that the message of Islam - submission to the will of the one God - is the same as the message preached by all the messengers sent by God to humanity since Adam. From an Islamic point of view, Islam is the oldest of the monotheistic religions because it represents both the original and the final revelation of God to Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad.[16][17] Members of all sects of Islam believe that the Qur'an codifies the direct words of God.

Islamic texts depict Judaism and Christianity as prophetic successor traditions to the teachings of Abraham. The Qur'an calls Jews and Christians "People of the Book," and distinguishes them from polytheists. In order to reconcile discrepancies between the earlier prophets and the Qur'an, Muslims claim that Jews and Christians forgot or distorted the word of God after it was revealed to them. The majority of early Muslim scholars, and some modern ones, believe it was just distortion in interpretation of the Bible. However, others believe that there was also textual distortion, that Jews changed the Tawrat (Torah), and Christians the Injil (Gospels) by altering the meaning, form and placement of words in their respective holy texts.[18][19]



Allah in Arabic using Arabic script and calligraphy
Allah in Arabic using Arabic script and calligraphy

The fundamental concept in Islam is the Oneness of God or tawhīd: monotheism which is absolute, not relative or pluralistic. The Oneness of God is the first of Islam's five pillars, expressed by the Shahadah (testification). By declaring the Shahadah, a Muslim attests to the belief that there are no gods but God, and that Muhammad is God's messenger.

In Arabic, God is called Allāh. The word is etymologically connected to ʾilāh "deity".[20] Muslims consider Allāh to be the same deity as that worshipped by Christians and Jews, the God of Abraham. Allāh is also used by Arab speaking Christian and Jewish people to refer to God as they worship him. The usage of the definite article in Allah linguistically indicates the divine unity. Muslims reject the Christian doctrine concerning the trinity of God, seeing it as akin to polytheism.

God is described in a sura of the Qu'ran as: "...God, the One and Only; God, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him."[21]

No Islamic visual images or depictions of God are meant to exist because such artistic depictions may lead to idolatry. Moreover, Muslims believe that God is incorporeal, making any two- or three- dimensional depictions impossible. Such aniconism can also be found in Jewish and some Christian theology. Instead, Muslims describe God by the names and attributes that he revealed to his creation. All but one sura of the Qur'an begins with the phrase "In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful".



The first sura in a Qur'anic manuscript by Hattat Aziz Efendi.
The first sura in a Qur'anic manuscript by Hattat Aziz Efendi.

The Qur'an is generally considered by Muslims to be the literal, undistorted word of God, and is the central religious text of Islam. It has also been called, in English, the Koran and, archaically, the Alcoran. The word Qur'an means “recitation”. Although the Qur'an is referred to as a "book", when Muslims refer in the abstract to "the Qur'an", they are usually referring to the scripture as recited in Arabic - the words themselves - rather than to the printed work or any translation of it.

Muslims believe that the verses of the Qur'an were revealed to Muhammad by God through the Angel Gabriel on numerous occasions between the years 610 and his death on July 6 632. W. Montgomery Watt believes that Muhammad must have been sincere in his claims "for this alone makes credible the development of a great religion",[22] and Annemarie Schimmel states that the most recent studies of Muhammad indicate that Muhammad devoutly believed that he was God's instrument.[23] Modern Western academics generally hold that the Qur'an of today is not very different from the words Muhammad claimed to have been revealed to him as the search for other variants has not yielded any differences of great significance. In fact, the source of ambiguity in the quest for historical Muhammad is more the lack of knowledge about pre-Islamic Arabia.[24] There is however a considerable debate in academia over the real chronology of the chapters of the Qur'an.[25]

To interpret the Qu'ran, Muslims use a form of exegesis known as tafsir.

Most Muslims regard paper copies of the Qur'an with veneration, washing as for prayers before reading the Qur'an. Worn out Qur'ans are not discarded as wastepaper, but are typically sunk in the sea. Many Muslims memorize at least some portion of the Qur'an in the original Arabic, usually at least the verses needed to recite prayers. Those who have memorized the entire Qur'an are known as a hafiz. Muslims believe that the Qur'an is perfect only as revealed in the original Arabic. Translations, they maintain, are the result of human effort, and are deficient because of differences in human languages, because of the human fallibility of translators, and (not least) because any translation lacks the inspired content found in the original. Translations are therefore regarded only as commentaries on the Qur'an, or "interpretations of its meaning", not as the Qur'an itself. Almost all modern, printed versions of the Qur'an are parallel text ones, with a vernacular translation facing the orignal Arabic text.

See also: Criticism of the Quran


"Muhammad" in Arabic calligraphy.
"Muhammad" in Arabic calligraphy.

Muhammad, also Mohammed, Mohamet, and other variants[26][27] was an Arab religious and political leader who came to spread the message of Islam. He is venerated and honoured as the greatest prophet of God and as the final messenger sent with revelation to humankind. Muslims do not regard him as the founder of a new religion, but rather believe him to be the last in a line of prophets of God and regard his mission as one of restoring the original monotheistic faith of Adam, Abraham and other prophets of Islam that had become corrupted or been misinterpreted.[28][7]

For the last 23 years of his life, beginning at age 40, Muhammad reported receiving revelations from God. The content of these revelations, known as the Qur'an, was memorized and recorded by his followers.[29] These memories and recordings were then compiled into a single volume shortly after his death.

Muslims generally believe that Muhammad transmitted the revelations he received perfectly, as attested to by this verse of the Qur'an:

"And if the apostle were to invent any sayings in Our name, We should certainly seize him by his right hand, And We should certainly then cut off the artery of his heart: Nor could any of you withhold him (from Our wrath)." Qur'an 69:44-47

However, Muslim scholars disagree about whether or not Muhammad made mistakes and committed sins during his lifetime. The mainstream opinion held by Sunni theologians is that Muhammad (and indeed Prophets in general) did not commit major sins, which would imply moral defects, and which would result in a diminuation of his faith, but it is possibile that he committed minor sins or made mistakes in his day to day affairs.[30] In contrast to this, Shi'a theolgians believe that all Prophets were immune from both major and minor sins, and that they were also endowed with complete knowledge and therefore they were protected from making mistakes as well.[31][32] A similar doctrine of infallibility exists amongst certain groups of Sunnis, but some scholars have theorized that this concept originated with the Shi'a, specifically in connection with the Imamate, and was later transmitted to the Sunnis via Sufi and Mu'tazilite thought.[33]

See also: Criticism of Muhammad


Sunnah literally means “trodden path” and it refers, in common usage, to the normative example of Muhammad, as recorded in traditions known as hadith about his speech, his actions, his acquiescence to the words and actions of others, and his personal characteristics.[34] According to some opinions of Islamic scholars, the sunnah is the tradition of Abraham’s religion which Muhammad revived and reformed, after making certain additions.[35][36]

The emulation of Muhammad's example and authentic hadith reports originating from the Companions of Muhammad started from the ninth century. Earlier sources, however, reflect a more flexible use of the term. Shortly after Muhammad's death, actions of the Rightly Guided Caliphs were also considered to be sunnah. This concept continued in Shi'a Islam in which Shi'ite imams are also a source of sunnah. Malik ibn Anas, author of Al-Muwatta, the earliest extant manual of Islamic law, used sunnah but treated the existing practice of the Muslims of Medina as a more reliable source of that sunnah than hadith.[37]

During Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi`i's time, these flexible concepts of Sunnah were challenged. Ash-Shafi`i challenged other groups in his times and insisted Sunnah can only be known from reliable hadith reports. He also championed the traditionalist argument that Sunnah is equivalent to revelation of God.[37] From the tenth century onward, the canonical collections of hadith, especially the collections of Bukhari and Muslim, became virtually synonymous with Sunnah, exerting a profound and pervasive impact on Islamic culture[38] Shatibi writes that Sunnah is either explanation of the Qur'an or addition to the Qur'an. If it is an explanation, then its status is secondary otherwise, it will only be considered addition if it is not discussed by the Qur'an.[39][citation needed]

Sunnah is the biggest point of contention among contemporary Muslims. A small group of Qur'an only Muslims reject Sunnah altogether, while almost all Muslims including revivalists like Mawdudi differentiate between Muhammad's action as a prophet and as a normal human.[38]



Hadith are traditions relating to the words and deeds of Muhammad. Hadith collections are regarded as important tools for determining the Sunnah, or Muslim way of life, by all traditional schools of jurisprudence. A hadith was originally an oral tradition relevant to the actions and customs of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Starting from the first Islamic civil war of the 7th century, those receiving the hadith began to question the sources of the saying.[citation needed] This resulted in a "chain of transmission", for example "A told me that B told him that Muhammad said". The hadith were eventually recorded in written form, with their chain of transmission recorded, and were collected into large collections mostly during the reign of Umar II during 8th century, something that solidified in the 9th century. These works are still today referred to in matters of Islamic law and history.

Western academics view the hadith collections with caution as historical sources. Bernard Lewis states that "the collection and scrutiny of Hadiths didn't take place until several generations" after Muhammad's death and that "during that period the opportunities and motives for falsification were almost unlimited."[40] In addition to the problem of oral transmission for over a hundred years, there existed motives for deliberate distortion. Early Muslim scholars were also concerned that hadiths may have been fabricated, and thus developed a whole science of criticism to distinguish between genuine sayings and those that were errors or frauds. Modern historians point out that a chain of authorities may be easily forged and that rejection of some relators implies the victory of one thought over the others.[41]

Hadith is considered an authoritative source of revelation, second only to the Qur'an.[42] In Islamic jurisprudence, the Qur'an contains many rules for the behavior expected of Muslims. However, there are many matters of concern, both religious and practical, on which there are no specific Qur'anic rules. Muslims believe that they can look at the example of Muhammad and his companions to discover what to imitate and what to avoid. Muslim scholars also find it useful to know how Muhammad or his companions explained the revelations, or upon what occasion Muhammad received them. Sometimes this will clarify a passage that otherwise seems obscure. Hadith are a source for Islamic history and biography. For the vast majority of devout Muslims, authentic hadith are also a source of religious inspiration.



A fundamental tenet of Islam is belief in the day of resurrection, Qiyamah. The trials and tribulations of Qiyamah are explained in both the Qur'an and the Hadith, as well as in the commentaries of Islamic scholars such as al-Ghazali, Ibn Kathir, and Muhammad al-Bukhari.

Muslims believe that God will hold every human, Muslim and non-Muslim, accountable for his or her deeds at a preordained time unknown to man.[43] The archangel Israfil, will sound a horn sending out a "blast of truth". Traditions say Muhammad will be the first to be brought back to life.[44]

Bodily resurrection is much insisted upon in the Qur'an, which challenges the Pre-Islamic Arabian concept of death.[45] Resurrection is followed by judgement of all souls. According to the Qur'an, sins that can consign someone to hell include lying, dishonesty, corruption, ignoring God or God's revelations, denying the resurrection, refusing to feed the poor, indulgence in opulence and ostentation, the economic exploitation of others, and social oppression.[46]

The punishments in hell includes adhab, "pain or torment inflicted by way of chastiment; punishment", a very painful punishment (see 29:55, 43:48); khizy, "shame, disgrace, ignominy" (16:27, 11:39).[47] The descriptions in the Qur'an of hell are very descriptive (see 4:56, 47:15 etc).

The punishment is in Qur'an contrasted not with release but with mercy (29:21, 2:284, 3:129, etc).[47] Islam views paradise as a place of joy and bliss.[48] Islamic descriptions of heaven are described as physical pleasures, sometimes interpreted literally, sometimes allegorically. Heaven is most often described as a cool garden with running streams of unlimited food and drink. This influenced the design of Paradise Gardens. Some interpretations also promise enormous palaces staffed with multitudes of servants, and perfect, perpetually-virgin spouses. Despite the graphical descriptions of the physical pleasures, there are clear references to a greater joy that exceeds the pleasures of flesh: The acceptance from God, or good pleasure of God (ridwan) (see 9:72).[49] Islam also has a strong mystical tradition which places these heavenly delights in the context of the ecstatic awareness of God.[50]



According to all the traditional schools of jurisprudence, faith (Iman) ensures salvation. There are however differing views concerning the formal constituents of the act of faith. "For the Asharis it is centred on internal taṣdīḳ[internal judgment of veracity], for the Māturīdī-Ḥanafīs on the expressed profession of faith and the adherence of the heart, for the Muʿtazilīs on the performance of the 'prescribed duties', for the Ḥanbalīs and the Wahhābīs on the profession of faith and the performance of the basic duties."[51] The common denominator of these various opinions is summed up in bearing witness that God is the Lord, L. Gardet states.[51]

There are traditions in which Muhammad stated that "No one shall enter hell who has an atom of faith in his heart" or that "Hell will not welcome anyone who has in his heart an atom of faith" however these passages are interpreted in different ways. Those who consider performance as an integral part of faith such as Ḵh̲ārid̲j̲īs, consider anyone who does a grave sin to be out of faith, while the majority of Sunnis who view works as merely the perfecting the faith, hold that a believing sinner will be punished with a temporary stay in hell. Still there are disagreement over the possibility of a believing sinner being forgiven immediately (e.g As̲h̲ʿarīs) and in full rather than undergoing temporary punishment. (e.g. Māturīdīs)[51]

Some, but not all, Muslims also believe that those who have heard the messages of a prophet of God (Moses, Jesus or Muhammad) but have chosen not to follow will receive eternal damnation in hell.


Five Pillars of Islam

The Five Pillars of Islam is the term given to what are understood among many Muslims to be the five core aspects of Islam. Shi'a Muslims accept the Five Pillars, but also add several other practices to form the Practices of Religion.



The basic creed or tenet of Islam is found in the shahādatān ("twin testimonies"): 'ašhadu 'al-lā ilāha illā-llāhu wa 'ašhadu 'anna muħammadan rasūlu-llāh; "I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God."[52] As the most important pillar, this testament can be considered a foundation for all other beliefs and practices in Islam. Ideally, it is the first words a new-born will hear, and children are taught to recite and understand the shahadah as soon as they are able to. Muslims must repeat the shahadah in prayer, and non-Muslims must use the creed to formally convert to Islam.[53]



The second pillar of Islam is salat, the requirement to pray five times a day at fixed times.[54] Each salat is performed facing towards the Kaaba in Mecca. However, in the early days of Islam, when it was based primarily in Mecca, Muslims offered salat facing towards Jerusalem.[55]

Salat is intended to focus the mind on God; it is a personal communication with God, expressing gratitude and worship.[citation needed] According to the Qur'an (29:40) the benefit of prayer "restrains [one] from shameful and evil deeds"[54]. Salat is compulsory but there are flexibilities under certain circumstances.[56] For example in the case of sickness or lack of space, a worshipper can offer salat while sitting, or even lying, and the prayer can be shortened when travelling.[56]

The salat must be performed in the Arabic language to the best of each worshipper's ability (although any du'a, or extra prayers said afterwards need not be in Arabic), and the lines are to be recited by heart, although beginners may use written aids. The worshipper's body and clothing, as well as the place of prayer, must be cleansed.[56] All salat should be conducted within the prescribed time period or waqt and with the appropriate number of raka'ah. While prayers may be made at any point within the waqt, it is considered best to begin them as soon as possible after the call to prayer is heard.



Zakat, or alms-giving, is giving charity to the poor and needy by able Muslims, based on the wealth that one has accumulated. It is a personal responsibility intended to ease economic hardship for others and eliminate inequality.[57] It consists spending a fixed portion of one's wealth for the poor or needy, including people whose hearts need to be reconciled, slaves, those in debt, and travelers. A Muslim may also donate an additional amount as an act of voluntary charity, known as sadaqah, in order to achieve additional divine reward.

There are two main types of zakat: zakat on traffic, which is a per head payment equivalent to cost of around 2.25 kilograms of the main food of the region paid during the month of Ramadan by the head of a family for himself and his dependents, and zakât on wealth, which covers money made in business, savings, income, crops, livestock, gold, minerals, hidden treasures unearthed, and so on.

The payment of zakât is obligatory on all Muslims. In current usage it is interpreted as a 2.5% levy on most valuables and savings held for a full lunar year, if the total value is more than a basic minimum known as nisab (3 ounces or 87.48g of gold). At present (as of 16 October 2006), nisab is approximately US $1,750 or an equivalent amount in any other currency.[58]



Sawm, or fasting, is made obligatory act during the month of Ramadan in Quran 2:183:[59]

O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint

Muslims must abstain from food, drink, and sexual intercourse from dawn to dusk during this month,[59] and are to be especially mindful of other sins. The fast is meant to allow Muslims to seek nearness to God as well as remind them of the needy. During Ramadan, Muslims are also expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam by refraining from violence, anger, envy, greed, lust, harsh language, gossip, and to try to get along with each other better than normal. All obscene and irreligious sights and sounds are to be avoided. The fast is an exacting act of deeply personal worship in which Muslims seek a raised level of closeness to God. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities and its purpose being to cleanse your inner soul, and free it of harm.

Fasting during Ramadan is not obligatory for several groups for whom it would be excessively problematic. Children before the onset of puberty are not required to fast, though some do. Also some small children fast for half a day instead of a whole day so they get used to fasting. However, if puberty is delayed, fasting becomes obligatory for males and females after a certain age. According to Qur'an, if fasting would be dangerous to people's health, such as to people with an illness or medical condition, or elderly people, they are excused. Diabetics and nursing or pregnant women are usually not expected to fast. According to hadith, observing the Ramadan fast is not allowed for menstruating women. Other individuals for whom it is usually considered acceptable not to fast are those in battle, and travelers who intended to spend fewer than five days away from home. If one's condition preventing fasting is only temporary, one is required to make up for the days missed after the month of Ramadan is over and before the next Ramadan arrives. If one's condition is permanent or present for an extended amount of time, one may make up for the fast by feeding a needy person for every day missed.[60]



The hajj to the Kaaba in Mecca is an important practice for Muslims to perform
The hajj to the Kaaba in Mecca is an important practice for Muslims to perform

The Hajj is a pilgrimage that occurs during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah in the city of Mecca. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so is obliged to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime.[61] When the pilgrim is around ten kilometers from Mecca he wears ihram consisting of two white sheets.[62] Some of the ritual of Hajj are walking seven times around the Kaaba, touching Black stone, running seven times between Mount Safa and Mount Marwah, visiting holy places and sacrifing an animal in commemoration of Ibrahim's sacrifice. Furthermore, it includes throwing seven stones at each of the three pillars symbolizing devil at Mina and cutting (some or all) head's hairs.[62]

The pilgrim, or the hajji, is honoured in his or her community. For some, this is an incentive to perform the Hajj. Islamic teachers say that the Hajj should be an expression of devotion to God, not a means to gain social standing. The believer should be self-aware and examine his or her intentions in performing the pilgrimage. This should lead to constant striving for self-improvement.[63]


Islamic law

Masjid al-Nabawi (Mosque of the Prophet)
Masjid al-Nabawi (Mosque of the Prophet)

The sharia (Arabic for "well-trodden path") is Islamic law, determined by traditional Islamic scholarship. The Qur'an is the foremost source of Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh. The second source is the sunnah of Muhammad and the early Muslim community, which clarifies points that are vague in the Qu'ran. The role of hadith is a disputed one in Islamic law. According to a few scholars, such as Imam Shafi'i, it is secondary to the Qur'an, whereas others, such as Imam Malik and the Hanafi scholars, hold it second to sunnah and often reject a hadith if it goes against established practices. Ijma (consensus of the community of Muslims) and qiyas (analogical reasoning) are generally regarded as the third and fourth sources of Sharia, but have been contested by some scholars.

Shi'a jurisprudence holds that hadith is secondary to the Qur'an, disregarding without further inquiries those hadith that contradict or abrogate Qur'anic verdicts. Also, qiyas and Ijma are not used as tools, while logic is. In contrast to Sunni's, Shi'a only follow the Ahl al-Bayt, or family of Muhammad with regards to fiqh, outright rejecting the views of those Muslims who fought with the Ahl al-Bayt.

Islamic law covers all aspects of life, from broad topics of governance and foreign relations all the way down to issues of daily living. Islamic laws that were covered expressly in the Qur’an were referred to as hudud laws and include specifically the five crimes of theft, highway robbery, intoxication, adultery and falsely accusing another of adultery, each of which has a prescribed "hadd" punishment that cannot be forgone or mitigated. The Qur'an also details laws of inheritance, marriage, restitution for injuries and murder, as well as rules for fasting, charity, and prayer. However, the prescriptions and prohibitions may be broad, so how they are applied in practice varies. Islamic scholars, the ulema, have elaborated systems of law on the basis of these broad rules, supplemented by the hadith reports of how Muhammad and his companions interpreted them.

Most countries that have a majority Muslim population declare that their constitutions and laws are founded upon sharia. An exception is Turkey. Countries incorporate provisions from sharia into their constitutions and laws to varying extents and there are also differences arising from the existence of different Islamic denominations and schools of law. As Islam has spread to non Arabic speaking countries such as Iran, Indonesia, Great Britain, and the United States, not all Muslims understand the Qur'an in its original Arabic. Thus, when Muslims are divided in how to handle situations, they seek the assistance of a mufti, an Islamic judge who can offer them advice based on the sharia.





The Masjid al-Haram in Mecca as it exists today
The Masjid al-Haram in Mecca as it exists today

A mosque is a place of worship for Muslims. Muslims often refer to the mosque by its Arabic name, masjid. The word "mosque" in English refers to all types of buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, although there is a distinction in Arabic between the smaller, privately owned mosque and the larger, "collective" mosque (masjid jami), which has more community and social amenities. The primary purpose of the mosque is to serve as a place of prayer. Nevertheless, mosques are also for their importance to the Muslim community as meeting place and a place of study.[64] They have developed significantly from the open-air spaces that were the Quba Mosque and Masjid al-Nabawi in the seventh century. Today, most mosques have elaborate domes, minarets, and prayer halls, demonstrating Islamic architecture.

According to Islamic beliefs, the first mosque in the world was the Kaaba, which was built by Abraham on an order from God. When Muhammad lived in Mecca, he viewed Kaaba as his first and principal mosque and performed prayers there together with his followers. Even when the pagan Arabs performed their rituals inside the Kaaba, Muhammad held the Kaaba in very high esteem.[64] When Muhammad conquered Mecca in 630, he converted the Kaaba into a mosque, which has since become known as the Masjid al-Haram, or Sacred Mosque and destroyed all idols that were worshipped by the Pagan Arabs. The Masjid al-Haram was significantly expanded and improved in the early centuries of Islam in order to accommodate the increasing number of Muslims who either lived in the area or made the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, before it acquired its present shape in 1577 in the reign of the Ottoman sultan Selim II.[65]

The first thing Muhammad did upon arriving with his followers near Medina after the emigration from Mecca in 622 was build the Quba Mosque in a village outside Medina.[66] Today, for the majority of Muslims Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina and Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem are considered the three holiest sites in Islam.[67]



Islamic ethics, historically, took shape only gradually and was finally established in 5th/11th century. [68] It was eventually shaped as a successful amalgamation of pre-Islamic Arabian tradition, the Qur'anic teaching and non-Arabic elements (mainly of Persian and Greek origins) embedded in or integrated with a general-Islamic structure.[68] Although Muhammad's preaching produced a "radical change in moral values based on the sanctions of the new religion, and fear of God and of the Last Judgment", however the tribal practice of Arabs didn't die out. Later Muslim scholars expanded the religious ethic of the Qur'an and Hadith in immense details.[68]


Customs and behavioral laws

Practitioners of Islam are generally taught to follow some specific customs in their daily lives. Most of these customs can be traced back to Abrahamic traditions in Pre-Islamic Arabian society.[69] Due to Muhammad's sanction or tacit approval of such practices, these customs are considered to be Sunnah (practices of Muhammad as part of the religion) by the Ummah(Muslim nation). They include customs such as saying Bismillah (in the name of God) before eating and drinking and then using the right hand for the purpose, saying As-Salamu Alaykum (peace be to you) when meeting someone and answering with Wa alaykumus-Salam (and peace be to you), saying Alhamdulillah (praise be to God) when sneezing and responding with Yarhamukallah (may God have mercy on you), and similarly saying the Adhan (prayer call) in the right ear of a newborn and the Iqama in his/her left.[70]

In the sphere of hygiene, it includes clipping the moustache, shaving the pubic hair, removing underarm hair, cutting nails, and circumcising the male offspring; cleaning the nostrils, the mouth, and the teeth; cleaning the body after urination and defecation, abstention from sexual relations during menstruation and the puerperal discharge, and a ceremonial bath after menstruation, childbirth, or sexual intercourse.[71][72][73] Burial rituals include the funeral prayer of the bathed and enshrouded dead body in coffin cloth and burying it in a grave.[74][75] Festivals sanctioned by Sunnah are Eid ul-Fitr and Eid ul-Adha, which are celebrated on the 1st of Shawwal and the 10th of Dhu al-Hijjah respectively.[76][77]

Muslims, like Jews, are restricted in their diet. Food prohibitions include swine, blood, carrion,[78] all intoxicants including alcohol, and animals slaughtered in the name of someone other than God.[79] All meat must come from a herbivorous animal slaughtered in the name of God by a Muslim, Jew, or Christian.


Islamic calendar

Islam dates from the Hijra, or migration from Mecca to Medina of Muhammad and his followers. Year 1, AH (Anno Hegira) Islami.[80] It corresponds to AD 622 or 622 CE, depending on the notation preferred (see Common Era, Anno Domini). It is a lunar calendar, but differs from other such calendars (e.g. the Celtic calendar) in that it omits intercalary months, being synchronized only with lunations, but not with the solar year, resulting in years of either 354 or 355 days. Therefore, Islamic dates cannot be converted to the usual CE/AD dates simply by adding 622 years. Islamic holy days fall on fixed dates of the lunar calendar, which means that they occur in different seasons in different years in the Gregorian calendar.



The most important feasts in Islam are Eid Al-Fitr(عيد الفطر), marking the end of the fasting month Ramadan, and Eid Al-Adha(عيد الأضحى), coinciding with the pilgrimage to Mecca. Other Islamic holidays include: Muhammad's birthday (Al-Mawlid Al-Nabawwi), and the anniversary of the day Muslim believe Muhamamd had a miraculous journey to Jerusalem and ascended to Heaven (Al-isra wa-l-miraj). Shia Muslims also celebrate the anniversary of the day they believe Muhammad declared Ali as his successor (Eid Al-ghadir).[81]



Jihad is literally struggle in the way of God and is sometimes referred to as the sixth pillar of Islam, although it occupies no official status as such.[82] Within the realms of Islamic jurisprudence, jihad usually refers to military exertion against non-Muslim combatants.[83][84] In broader usage and interpretation, the term has accrued both violent and non-violent meanings. It can refer to striving to live a moral and virtuous life, to spreading and defending Islam, and to fighting injustice and oppression, among other usages.[85]

The word "jihad" is often wrongly translated as "Holy War". The primary aim of jihad is not the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam by force, but rather the expansion and defense of the Islamic state. In the classical manuals of Islamic jurisprudence, the rules associated with armed warfare are covered at great length.[84] Such rules include not killing women, children and non-combatants, as well as not damaging cultivated or residential areas.[86] More recently, modern Muslims have tried to re-interpret the Islamic sources, stressing that Jihad is essentially defensive warfare aimed at protecting Muslims and Islam.[84] Although some Islamic scholars have differered on the implementation of Jihad, there is consensus amongst them that the concept of jihad will always include armed struggle against persecution and oppression.[87] Some Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad regarded the inner struggle for faith a greater Jihad than even fighting [by force] in the way of God.[88]



Further information: Caliph and Islamic Golden Age

Early years and the establishment of the Rashidun caliphate

Islam began in Arabia in the 7th century under the leadership of Muhammad, who united the tribes of Arabia under Islamic law. With Muhammad's death in 632, there was a moment of confusion about who would succeed to leadership of the Muslim community. With a dispute flaring between the Medinese Ansar and the Meccan Muhajirun as to who would undertake this task, Umar ibn al-Khattab, a prominent companion of Muhammad, nominated Abu Bakr: Muhammad's intimate friend and collaborator.[89][90] Others added their support and Abu Bakr was made the first caliph, literally "successor", leader of the community of Islam.

Abu Bakr's immediate task was to avenge the recent defeat by Byzantine (also known as Eastern Roman Empire) forces, although a more potent threat soon surfaced in the form of a number of Arab tribes who were in revolt after having learnt of the death of Muhammad. Some of these tribes refused to pay the Zakat tax to the new caliph, whilst other tribes touted individuals claiming to be prophets. Abu Bakr swiftly declared war upon, and subdued these tribes, in the episode known as the Ridda wars, or "Wars of Apostasy".[89]

Expansion of Islam under the "Khulafa rashidun"
Expansion of Islam under the "Khulafa rashidun"

Abu Bakr's death in 634 resulted in the succession of Umar as the caliph, and after him, Uthman ibn al-Affan, and then Ali ibn Abi Talib. These four are known as the "khulafa rashidūn" ("Rightly Guided Caliphs").[91] Under them, the territory under Muslim rule expanded greatly. The decades of warring between the neighboring Persian and Byzantine empires had rendered both sides weakened and exhausted.[2] Not only that, it had also caused them to underestimate the strength of the growing new power. This, coupled with the precipitation of internal strife within Byzantium and its exposure to a string of barbarian invasions, made conditions extremely favorable for the Muslims. Exploitation of these weaknesses enabled the Muslims to conquer the lands of Syria and Palestine (634—640), Egypt (639—642); and, towards the east, the lands of Iraq (641), Armenia and Iran (642), and even as far as Transoxiana and Chinese Turkestan.[2]


Emergence of hereditary caliphates

Despite the military successes of the Muslims at this time, the political atmosphere was not without controversy. With Umar assassinated in 644, the election of Uthman as successor was met with gradually increasing opposition.[92] He was subsequently accused of nepotism, favoritism and of introducing reprehensible religious innovations, though in reality the motivations for such charges were economic.[92] Like Umar, Uthman too was then assassinated, in 656. Ali then assumed the position of caliph, although tensions soon escalated into what became the first civil war (the "First Fitna") when numerous companions of Muhammad, including Uthman's relative Muawiyah (who was assigned by Uthman as governor of Syria) and Muhammad's wife Aisha, sought to avenge the slaying of Uthman. Ali's forces defeated the latter at the Battle of the Camel, but the encounter with Muawiyah proved indecisive, with both sides agreeing to arbitration. Ali retained his position as caliph but had been unable to bring Mu'awiyah's territory under his command.[93] When Ali was fatally stabbed by a Kharijite dissenter in 661, Mu'awiyah was ordained as the caliph, marking the start of the hereditary Ummayad caliphate.[94] Under his rule, Mu'awiyah was able to conquer much of North Africa, mainly through the efforts of Muslim general Uqba ibn Nafi.[95]

There was much contention surrounding Mu'awiyah's assignment of his son Yazid as successor upon the eve of his death in 680,[96] drawing protest from Husayn bin Ali, grandson of Muhammad, and Ibn az-Zubayr, a companion of Muhammad. Both led separate and ultimately unsuccessful revolts, and Ummayad attempts to pacify them became known as the "Second Fitna". Thereafter, the Ummayad dynasty continued rulership for a further seventy years (with caliph Umar II's tenure especially notable[97]), and were able to conquer the Maghrib (699—705), as well as Spain and the Narbonnese Gaul at a similar date.[2]

The gains of the Ummayad empire were consolidated upon when the Abbasid dynasty rose to power in 750, with the conquest of the Mediterranean islands including the Balearics and Sicily.[2] The new ruling party had been instated on the wave of dissatisfaction propagated against the Ummayads, cultured mainly by the Abbasid revolutionary, Abu Muslim.[98][99]

Under the Abbasids, Islamic civilization flourished. Most notable was the development of Arabic prose and poetry, termed by The Cambridge History of Islam as its "golden age."[100] This was also the case for commerce, industry, the arts and sciences, which prospered especially under the rule of Abbasid caliphs al-Mansur (712—775), Harun al-Rashid (ruled 786—809), and al-Ma'mun (ruled 809—813).[101]



Baghdad was made the new capital of the caliphate (moved from the previous capital, Damascus) due to the importance placed by the Abbasids upon eastern affairs in Persia and Transoxania.[101] It was at this time, however, that the caliphate showed signs of fracture and the uprising of regional dynasties. Although the Ummayad family had been killed by the revolting Abbasids, one family member, Abd ar-Rahman I, was able to flee to Spain and establish an independent caliphate there, in 756. In the Maghreb region, Harun al-Rashid appointed the Arab Aghlabids as virtually autonomous rulers, although they continued to recognise the authority of the central caliphate. Aghlabid rule was short lived, as they were deposed by the Shiite Fatimid dynasty in 909. By around 960, the Fatimids had conquered Abbasid Egypt, building a new capital there in 973 called "al-Qahirah" (meaning "the planet of victory", known today as Cairo). Similar was the case in Persia, where the Turkic Ghaznavids managed to snatch power from the Abbasids.[102][103] Whatever temporal power of the Abbasids remained had eventually been consumed by the Seljuq Turks (a Muslim Turkish clan which had migrated into mainland Persia), in 1055.[101]

During this time, expansion continued, sometimes by military warfare, sometimes by peaceful proselytism.[2] The first stage in the conquest of India began just before the year 1000. By some 200 (from 1193—1209) years later, the area up to the Ganges river had been conquered. In sub-Saharan West Africa, it was just after the year 1000 that Islam was established. Muslim rulers are known to have been in Kanem starting from some time between 1081 to 1097, with reports of a Muslim prince at the head of Gao as early as 1009. The Islamic kingdoms associated with Mali reached prominence later, in the 13th century.[2]


The Crusades and the Mongol invasions

Islamic conquest into Christian Europe spread as far as southern France. After the disastrous defeat of the Byzantines to the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, Christian Europe, at the behest of the Pope, launched a series of Crusades and captured Jerusalem. The Muslim general Saladin, however, regained Jerusalem at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, also having defeated the Shiite Fatimids earlier in 1171 upon which the Ayyubid dynasty had been conceived.[103][104]

The wave of Mongol invasions, which had initially commenced in the early 13th century under the leadership of Genghis Khan, marked a violent end to the Abbasid era. The Mongol Empire had spread rapidly throughout Central Asia and Persia: the Persian city of Isfahan had fallen to them by 1237. With the election of Khan Mongke in 1251, sights were set upon the Abbasid capital, Baghdad. Mongke's brother, Hulegu, was made the head of the Mongol army assigned with the task of subduing Baghdad. This was achieved at the Battle of Baghdad in 1258, which saw the Abbasids overrun by the superior Mongol army. The last Abbasid caliph, al-Musta'sim, was captured and killed; and Baghdad was ransacked and subsequently destroyed. The cities of Damascus and Aleppo fell shortly afterwards, in 1260. Any prospective conquest of Egypt was temporarily delayed due to the death of Mongke at around the same time.[103]

With Mongol conquest in the east, the Ayyubid dynasty ruling over Egypt had been surpassed by the slave-soldier Mamluks in 1250. This had been done through the marriage between Shajar al-Durr, the widow of Ayyubid caliph al-Salih Ayyub, with Mamluk general Aybak. Military prestige was at the centre of Mamluk society, and it played a key role in the confrontations with the Mongol forces. After the assassination of Aybak, and the succession of Qutuz in 1259, the Mamluks challenged and decisively routed the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in late 1260. This signalled an adverse shift in fortunes for the Mongols, who were again defeated by the Mamluks at the Battle of Homs a few months later, and then driven out of Syria altogether.[103] With this, the Mamluks were also able to conquer the last of the crusader territories.


Early modern period

Islam reached the islands of Southeast Asia through Indian Muslim traders near the end of the 13th century. By the mid-15th century, Islam had spread from Sumatra to the nearby island of Malacca as well as Brunei, and the conversion of the Malaccan ruler to Islam marked the start of the Malacca Sultanate. Although the sultanate managed to expand its territory somewhat, its rule remained brief. Portuguese forces captured Malacca in 1511 under the naval general Afonso de Albuquerque. With Malacca subdued, Brunei established itself as the centre of Islam in Southeast Asia, while its sultanate remains intact even to this day.[103]

In the 15th and 16th centuries three major Muslim empires were created: the Ottoman Empire in much of the Middle East, Balkans and Northern Africa; the Safavid Empire in Iran; and the Mughal Empire in India. These new imperial powers were made possible by the discovery and exploitation of gunpowder, and more efficient administration.[105] Throughout areas under its territorial dominance, Islam cemented itself within the cultures under the Muslim empire, resulting in the gradual conversion of the non-Muslim populations to Islam.[2] Such was not entirely the case in Spain, where a series of confrontations with the Christian kingdoms ended in the fall of Granada in 1492.[2]


Formation of modern nation-states

By the end of the 19th century, all three Islamic areas of influence had declined due to internal conflict and were later destroyed by Western cultural influence and military ambitions. Following World War I, the remnants of the Ottoman Empire were parceled out as European protectorates or spheres of influence. Many Islamic countries have been formed from these protectorates, such as Iraq and Lebanon. Islam and Islamic political power have become much more influential in the 21st century, particularly due to Islamic control of most of the world's oil.[citation needed]


Islamic civilization


Art and architecture

The term "Islamic art and architecture" denotes the works of art and architecture produced from the 7th century onwards by people (not necessarily Muslim) who lived within the territory that was inhabited by culturally Islamic populations.[106][107]

Islamic calligraphy on a plaque in the Great Mosque of Xi'an, China.
Islamic calligraphy on a plaque in the Great Mosque of Xi'an, China.

Islamic art frequently adopts the use of geometrical floral or vegetal designs in a repetition known as arabesque. Such designs are aggressively nonrepresentational, as Islam forbids representational depictions as found in pre-Islamic pagan religions. Despite this, there is a presence of depictional art in some Muslim societies, although this is not widespread. Another reason why Islamic art is usually abstract is to symbolize the transcendance, indivisible and infinite nature of God, an objective achieved by arabesque.[108] Arabic calligraphy is an omnipresent decoration in Islamic art, and is usually expressed in the form of Qur'anic verses. Two of the main scripts involved are the symbolic kufic and naskh scripts, which can be found adorning the walls and domes of mosques, the sides of minbars, and so on.[108]

From between the eighth and eighteenth centuries, the use of glazed ceramics was prevalent in Islamic art, usually assuming the form of elaborate pottery.[109] Tin-opacified glazing was one of the earliest new technologies developed by the Islamic potters. The first Islamic opaque glazes can be found as blue-painted ware in Basra, dating to around the 8th century. Another significant contribution was the development of stonepaste ceramics, originating from 9th century Iraq.[110] Other centers for innovative ceramic pottery in the Islamic world included Fustat (from 975 to 1075), Damascus (from 1100 to around 1600) and Tabriz (from 1470 to 1550).[111]

Interior view of the dome in the Selimiye Mosque, Edirne.
Interior view of the dome in the Selimiye Mosque, Edirne.

Perhaps the most important expression of Islamic art is architecture, particularly that of the mosque.[102] Through it the effect of varying cultures within Islamic civilisation can be illustrated. The North African and Spanish Islamic architecture, for example, has Roman-Byzantine elements, as seen in the Alhambra palace at Granada, or in the Great Mosque of Cordoba. Persian-style mosques are characterised by their tapered brick pillars, large arcades, and arches supported each by several pillars. In South Asia, elements of Hindu architecture were employed, but were later superseded by Persian designs. The most numerous and largest of mosques exist in Turkey, which obtained influence from Persian and Syrian designs, although Turkish architects managed to implement their own style of cupola domes.[102]

Distinguishing motifs of Islamic architecture have always been ordered repetition, radiating structures, and rhythmic, metric patterns. In this respect, fractal geometry has been a key utility, especially for mosques and palaces. Other significant features employed as motifs include columns, piers and arches, organized and interwoven with alternating sequences of niches and colonnettes.[112] The role of domes in Islamic architecture has been considerable. Its usage spans centuries, first appearing in 691 with the construction of the Dome of the Rock mosque, and recurring even up until the 17th century with the Taj Mahal. And as late as the 19th century, Islamic domes had been incorporated into Western architecture.[113][114]


Philosophy and literature

One of the common definitions for "Islamic philosophy" is "the style of philosophy produced within the framework of Islamic culture." [115] Islamic philosophy, in this definition is neither necessarily concerned with religious issues, nor is exclusively produced by Muslims.[115] The Persian scholar Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037) had more then 450 books attributed to him. His writings were concerned with many subjects, most notably philosophy and medicine. His medical textbook was used as the standard text in European universities for centuries. His work on Aristotle was a key step in the transmission of learning from ancient Greeks to the Islamic world and the West. He often corrected the philosopher, encouraging a lively debate in the spirit of ijtihad. His thinking and that of his follower ibn Rushd (Averroes) was incorporated into Christian philosophy during the Middle Ages, notably by Thomas Aquinas.


Science and technology

Muslim scientists made significant advances in mathematics and astronomy. They spread the concept of zero, known in ancient Indian mathematics. The mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, from whose name the word algorithm derives, was the founder of algebra. The astrolabe was developed in the Islamic world and subsequently brought to Europe.

In technology, the Muslim world adopted paper-making from China many centuries before it was known in the West. The knowledge of gunpowder was also transmitted from China via Islamic countries. Knowledge of chemical processes (alchemy) and distilling spread to Europe from the Muslim world. Advances were made in irrigation and farming, using technology such as the windmill. Crops such as almonds and citrus fruit were brought to Europe through al-Andalus and sugar cultivation was gradually adopted by the Europeans.

Arab merchants dominated trade in the Indian Ocean until the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Hormuz was an important centre for this trade. There was also a dense network of trade routes in the Mediterranean through which the Muslim countries traded with each other and with European powers such as Venice, Genoa and Catalonia. The Silk Road crossing Central Asia passed through Muslim states.


Contemporary Islam

Distribution of Islam per country. Green represents a Sunni majority and blue represents a Shia majority.
Distribution of Islam per country. Green represents a Sunni majority and blue represents a Shia majority.
See also: Islam by country and Demographics of Islam

Although the most prominent movement in Islam in recent times has been fundamentalist Islamism, there are a number of liberal movements within Islam and reformists, which seek alternative ways to align the Islamic faith with contemporary questions.

Early Sharia had a much more flexible character than is currently associated with Islamic jurisprudence, and many modern Muslim scholars believe that it should be renewed, and the classical jurists lose their special status. This would require formulating a new fiqh suitable for the modern world, e.g. as proposed by advocates of the Islamization of knowledge, and would deal with the modern context. One vehicle proposed for such a change has been the revival of the principle of ijtihad, or independent reasoning by a qualified Islamic scholar. This movement does not aim to challenge the fundamentals of Islam; rather, it seeks to clear away misinterpretations and to free the way for the renewal of the previous status of the Islamic world as a centre of modern thought and freedom.[citation needed]

Many Muslims counter the claim that only "liberalization" of the Islamic Sharia law can lead to distinguishing between tradition and true Islam by saying that meaningful "fundamentalism", by definition, will eject non-Islamic cultural inventions — for instance, acknowledging and implementing Muhammad's insistence that women have God-given rights that no human being may legally infringe upon. Proponents of modern Islamic philosophy sometimes respond to this by arguing that, as a practical matter, "fundamentalism" in popular discourse about Islam may actually refer, not to core precepts of the faith, but to various systems of cultural traditionalism.

Commonly cited estimates of the Muslim population today range between 900 million and 1.5 billion people;[116] estimates of Islam by country based on U.S. State Department figures yield a total of 1.48 billion, while the Muslim delegation at the United Nations quoted 1.2 billion as the global Muslim population in September 2005.[citation needed]

Only 18% of Muslims live in the Arab world; 20% are found in Sub-Saharan Africa, about 30% in the South Asian region of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and the world's largest single Muslim community (within the bounds of one nation) is in Indonesia. There are also significant Muslim populations in China, Europe, Central Asia, and Russia.


Political and religious extremism

The term Islamism describes a set of political ideologies derived from Islamic fundamentalism.[117] Most Islamist ideologies hold that Islam is not only a religion, but also a political system that governs the legal, economic and social imperatives of the state according to interpretations of Islamic Law. Islamist terrorism refers to acts of terrorism claimed by its supporters and practitioners to be in furtherance of the goals of Islam. Its prevalence has heavily increased in recent years, and it has become a contentious political issue in many nations. The validity of an Islamic justification for these acts is contested by some Muslims.[118][119] Islamist violence is not synonymous with all terrorist activities committed by Muslims: nationalists, separatists, and others in the Muslim world often derive inspiration from secular ideologies.[120]



There are a number of Islamic religious denominations, each of which have significant theological and legal differences from each other but possess similar essential beliefs. The major schools of thought are Sunni and Shi'a; Sufism is generally considered to be a mystical inflection of Islam rather than a distinct school. According to most sources, present estimates indicate that approximately 85% of the world's Muslims are Sunni and approximately 15% are Shi'a.[121][122]



The Sunni are the largest group in Islam. In Arabic, as-Sunnah literally means "principle" or "path." The sunnah, or example of Muhammad is described as a main pillar of Sunni doctrine, with the place of hadith having been argued by scholars as part of the sunnah. Sunnis recognize four major legal traditions, or madhhabs: Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanafi, and Hanbali. All four accept the validity of the others and a Muslim might choose any one that he/she finds agreeable to his/her ideas. There are also several orthodox theological or philosophical traditions. The more recent Salafi movement among Sunnis, adherents of which often refuse to categorize themselves under any single legal tradition, sees itself as restorationist and claims to derive its teachings from the original sources of Islam.



Shi'a Muslims, the second-largest branch of Islam, differ from the Sunni in rejecting the authority of the first three caliphs. They honor different accounts of Muhammad (hadith) and have their own legal tradition which is called Ja'fari jurisprudence. The concept of Imamah, or leadership, plays a central role in Shi'a doctrine. Shi'a Muslims hold that leadership should not be passed down through a system such as the caliphate, but rather, descendants of Muhammad should be given this right as Imams. Furthermore, they believe that the first Imam, Ali ibn Abu Talib, was explicitly appointed by Muhammad.

See also: Historic background of the Sunni-Shi'a split


Sufism is a mystical form of Islam followed by some Muslims within both the Sunni and Shi'a sects. Sufis generally believe that following Islamic law is only the first step on the path to perfect submission; they focus on the internal or more spiritual aspects of Islam, such as perfecting one's faith and subduing one's own ego. Most Sufi orders, or tariqas, can be classified as either Sunni or Shi'a. However, there are some that are not easily categorized as either Sunni or Shi'a, such as the Bektashi. Sufis are found throughout the Islamic world, from Senegal to Indonesia. Their innovative beliefs and actions often come under criticism from Salafis, who consider certain practices to be against the letter of Islamic law.



A view of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a holy site in Islam
A view of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a holy site in Islam

Another sect which dates back to the early days of Islam is that of the Kharijites. The only surviving branch of the Kharijites are the Ibadi Muslims. Ibadism is distinguished from Shiism by its belief that the Imam (Leader) should be chosen solely on the basis of his faith, not on the basis of descent, and from Sunnism in its rejection of Uthman and Ali and strong emphasis on the need to depose unjust rulers. Ibadi Islam is noted for its strictness, but, unlike the Kharijites proper, Ibadis do not regard major sins as automatically making a Muslim an unbeliever. Most Ibadi Muslims live in Oman.


Islam and other religions

The Qur'an contains both injunctions to respect other religions, and to fight and subdue unbelievers during war. The Qur'an respects Jews and Christians as fellow monotheists following Abrahamic religions. The Qur'an however claimed that "it was restoring the pure monotheism of Abraham which had been corrupted in various, not clearly specified, ways by Jews and Christians."[123] (The charge of altering the scripture may mean no more than giving false interpretations to some passages, though in later Islam it was taken to mean that parts of the Bible are corrupt.)[124]

Until modern times, tolerance in the treatment of non-believers was not valued by either Muslims or Christians.[125] The usual definition of tolerance in pre-modern times was that: "I am in charge. I will allow you some though not all of the rights and privileges that I enjoy, provided that you behave yourself according to rules that I will lay down and enforce." [126] Traditionally Jews and Christians living in Muslim lands, known as dhimmis were allowed to "practice their religion, subject to certain conditions, and to enjoy a measure of communal autonomy" and guaranteed their personal safety and security of property, in return for paying the jizya (a per capita tax imposed on free adult males) to Muslims.[127] They had several social and legal disabilities. Many of the disabilities were highly symbolic. The most degrading one was the requirement of distinctive clothing, not found in the Qur'an or hadith but invented in early medieval Baghdad; its enforcement was highly erratic.[128] Persecution in the form of violent and active repression was rare and atypical.[129] While recognizing the inferior status of dhimmis under Islamic rule, Bernard Lewis compares it favourably to that of non-Christians or even of heretical Christians in medieval Europe.[130] Dhimmis rarely faced martyrdom or exile, or forced compulsion to change their religion, and they were mostly free in their choice of residence and profession.[131] Most conversions were voluntary and happened for various reasons. However there were forced conversions in the 12th century under the Almohad dynasty of North Africa and al-Andalus as well as in Persia.[132]


Related faiths

The Yazidi, Druze, Bábí, Bahá'í, Berghouata and Ha-Mim religions either emerged out of an Islamic milieu or have certain beliefs in common with Islam. Nearly always those religions were also influenced by traditional beliefs in the regions where they emerged, but consider themselves independent religions with distinct laws and institutions. The last two religions no longer have any followers. Sikhism's holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, contains some writings by Muslim figures, as well as by Sikh and Hindu saints.[133]


Criticism of Islam

The earliest surviving written criticisms of Islam are to be found in the writings of Christians who came under the early dominion of the Islamic empire. One such Christian was John of Damascus (born c. 676), who was familiar with both Islam and Arabic. John claimed an Arian monk influenced Muhammad, and lays forth a number of arguments against Islam on scriptural and other grounds.[134]

Some medieval ecclesiastical writers portrayed Muhammad as possessed by Satan, a "precursor of the Antichrist" or the Antichrist himself.[135] Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical arbiters and philosophers in Jewish history, saw the relation of Islam to Judaism as primarily theoretical. Maimonides has no quarrel with the strict monotheism of Islam, but finds fault with the practical politics of Muslim regimes. Maimonides criticised what he perceived as the lack of virtue in the way Muslims rule their societies and relate to one another.[136]

In recent years, Islam has been the subject of criticism and controversy, and is often viewed with considerable negativity in the West.[137] Islam, the Qur'an, and Muhammad, have all been subject to both criticism and vilification. Carl Ernst has dismissed some of this as a product of Islamophobia.[138] Notable modern critics include Robert Spencer, who has published many best-selling books critical of the religion (such The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades[139]), and Daniel Pipes, Orianna Fallaci, and Bat Ye'or. American Evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson have also spoken out against Islam.[140][141] Some critics argue that in Islam women have fewer rights than men and that non-Muslims under the dhimmi system have fewer rights than Muslims.[142] Both of these groups may also find their most basic human rights denied due to severe interpretations of Islamic law.[143] According to Freedom House, Saudi Arabia relegates women to second-class citizenship. "Women are not treated as equal members of society. They may not legally drive cars, and their use of public facilities is restricted when men are present. ...Laws discriminate against women in a range of matters including family law, and a woman's testimony is treated as inferior to a man's in court."[144]

There is a body of modern Western scholarship about the origins of the Qur'an which uses different methods from traditional Islamic exegesis and which is perceived by some to be critical of Islam. This includes the work of such scholars as John Wansbrough, Dan Thoelting, Patricia Crone and Christoph Luxenberg. Luxenberg's conclusions have been cited by Ibn Warraq who is prominent as a general critic of Islam.[145]


Muslim Response to Criticism

Muhammad Mohar Ali says that the Qur'an records the earliest criticisms (and responses), examples of which are Muhammad being called a madman (e.g. 15:6), a poet (21:5), a kahin soothsayer (69:42), and so on. He writes that nothing of importance has been added by later critics.[146]


See also

Further information: List of Islamic and Muslim-related topics
  • Islamic architecture
  • Islamic economics
  • Islamic law
  • Islamic literature
  • Islamic studies
  • Islam and modernity
  • List of converts to Islam
  • List of Muslims
  • Muslim World
  • Islamism
  • Muslim history
  • Religion
  • Timeline of Islamic history
  • Islamization
  • Caliph
  • Criticism of Islam
  • Animal Rights in Islam
  • The Rights of Children in Islam
  • Prisoners rights in Islam


  1. Teece (2005), p.10
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 "Islam", Encyclopaedia of Islam Online
  3. Ghamidi (2001): Sources of Islam
  4. Esposito (1996), p.41
  5. "If…they [Christians] mean that the Qur’an confirms the textual veracity of the scriptural books which they now possess—that is, the Torah and the Gospels—this is something which some Muslims will grant them and which many Muslims will dispute. However, most Muslims will grant them most of that." Ibn Taymiyya cited in Accad (2003)
  6. Esposito (1998), p12 - Esposito (2002b), pp.4-5 - Peters (2003), p.9
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Muhammad", Encyclopaedia of Islam Online
  8. Gregorian (2003), p.ix
  9. Esposito (2002b), p.21
  10. Muslims in Europe: Country guide. BBC News (2005-12-23). Retrieved on 2006-09-28.
  11. Religion In Britain. Office for National Statistics (2003-02-13). Retrieved on 2006-08-27.
  12. Qur'an 6:125 as quoted from the Encyclopaedia of Islam Online, the other two instances being Qur'an 61:7 and Qur'an 39:22
  13. Qur'an 5:3 as quoted from the Encyclopaedia of Islam Online, the other two instances being Qur'an 3:19 and Qur'an 3:83
  14. i.e. In Qur'an 9:74 and Qur'an 49:14
  15. Watton (1993), "Introduction"
  16. Esposito (2002b), pp.4-5
  17. 42:13
  18. "Qur'an and Polemics", Encyclopedia of the Qur'an (2005)
  19. Accad (2003)
  20. The name "Allah" is a singular neuter noun.
  21. Qur'an 112:1-4
  22. The Cambridge History of Islam (1977), p.31
  23. Schimmel (1995) p.51-2
  24. Peters (1991): "Few have failed to be convinced that what is in our copy of the Quran is, in fact, what Muhammad taught, and is expressed in his own words... To sum this up: the Quran is convincingly the words of Muhammad, perhaps even dictated by him after their recitation."
  25. Carole Hillenbrand in Fouracre (2006), p.329
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