With 1.3 billion people claiming to worship Allah, Islam is the world’s second largest religion. It traces its heritage to the patriarch Abraham. Before Islam developed, first Judaism then Christianity claimed Abraham as patriarch of their faiths. Abraham had two children: the younger Isaac, whom Jews and Christians denote as “the son of promise,” and the older Ishmael, Abraham’s son with his servant girl Hagar. Muslims deny Ishmael was illegitimate and allege that he deserved all the rights and blessings God bestows on the firstborn.
Muslims assert that the main written record of God’s revelation to humanity is the Qur’an. It includes God’s direct words to the Prophet Muhammad and to earlier prophets such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muslims argue that parts of the Christian Gospels, Jewish Torah, and Jewish prophetic books have been forgotten, misinterpreted, incorrectly edited, or purposefully distorted. With that perspective, Muslims view the Qur’an as the flawless and immutable correction of Jewish and Christian scriptures and its author as the last and most exalted of prophets. Muhammad’s teachings will last until Qiyamah, The Day of the Resurrection.
Many people believe that Islam has a similar idea of God as Judaism and Christianity—that God is a single creator, revealer, and redeemer of the world. Some Christian and Jewish critics counter that the God of both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, and prosperity, and they hold that the Muslim depiction of God does not do so. Some Muslims in the Middle East, Europe, and the US would contend that there is a large gap separating them from militant Islamists regarding their perspective on the nature of God.
Regardless, Muslims call God “Allah,” abbreviating the Arabic term al-ilea, which means “the God” and is the same kind of theological word that Jews and Christians use to describe one of the Hebrew titles of their God, el shaddai. In Islam, visual images of Allah are forbidden because artistic depictions of God may lead to idolatry. Most Muslims believe that God is incorporeal, making any two or three-dimensional depictions impossible anyway. Muslims describe God by the many divine attributes mentioned in the Qur’an.
There is no official authority that decides whether a person is accepted into or dismissed from a community of believers known as the Ummah. There is one formality of acceptance, the recitation of the Shahada, the statement of belief in Islam that should be said with sincerity of heart, with the intention of behaving in a manner befitting the community of Islam.
The shari’ah, Arabic for “well-trodden path,” is Islamic law as elaborated by traditional Islamic scholarship. The Qur’an is the foremost source of Islamic jurisprudence.
The second source is the Sunnah of Muhammad and the early Muslim community. The Sunnah is not itself a text like the Qur’an but is extracted by analysis of the recorded oral traditions (hadith, meaning “report” in Arabic). The Sunnah contains narrations of Muhammad’s sayings, deeds, and actions.
Ijma, the consensus of the community of Muslims, and qiyas, analogical reasoning, are the third and fourth sources of shari’ah.
Islamic law covers all aspects of life, from the broad topics of governance and foreign relations to issues of daily living. Islamic laws covered expressly in the Qur’an are referred to as hudud laws and include the five crimes of theft, highway robbery, intoxication, adultery, and falsely accusing another of adultery, each of which has a prescribed hadd or punishment that cannot be 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 and varied in their applications. Islamic scholars, the ulema, have elaborated systems of law based on these broad rules, supplemented by the hadith reports of how Muhammad and his companions interpreted them.
Not all Muslims understand the Qur’an in its original Arabic. Thus, when Muslims are divided over how to handle situations, they seek the assistance of a mufti, an Islamic judge, who can advise them based on Islamic shari’ah and hadith.
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam sees humanity’s sin as the world’s main problem and offers a path to salvation from sin. The Islamic way to salvation is to surrender to the will of Allah as taught by his prophet Muhammad. If this is done before the Last Day of Judgment, believers cross the bridge that leads to the gardens of paradise.
In Arabic, Islam means literally to surrender or to obey. The history of that practice of obedience centers on the person of Muhammad, who was born outside Mecca around 570 AD. He was raised by an uncle, entered the caravan trade, and married a wealthy widow. His prosperous life included ownership of slaves, a second marriage to a widow when his first wife died, and a third marriage to a pre-teen.
Muhammad’s community were Bedouins, some nomadic, some settled agriculturalists. They were broken into clans and tribes that spoke Arabic dialects. The community was apt to feuding, leading to webs of sometimes-contradictory alliances. The majority followed polytheistic religions. Muhammad was familiar with these and with what was taught by the religious minorities—Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians—in his context.
At the age of 40, while meditating in a cave, Muhammad began to receive messages from Allah. They were accompanied by convulsions, and initially Muhammad was afraid that he was demon possessed. His wife, others, and finally Muhammad himself believed that his symptoms were due to the powerful presence of the angel Gabriel. At first Muhammad conveyed what he was receiving from Allah only to kinfolk, but his teachings of strict monotheism spread rapidly to non-related followers. Visitations and revelations continued until Muhammad’s death at the age of 63. They were compiled in the Qur’an.
The most divisive message from Allah was that Muhammad was God’s last and truest prophet in a line that extended from Abraham and Moses to Jesus. This revelation was not easily accepted in Muhammad’s hometown. He and his followers were persecuted and forced to move from Mecca. This move, known as the hijra (“the flight”), marks the first date of the Islamic calendar.
Muhammad and company took refuge under the Christian king of Ethiopia. For a time, like his host, Muhammad looked to Jerusalem as his spiritual home. Then he was called to Medina to settle a dispute, which he accomplished by absorbing the disputing factions into his own religious community. He made Medina his headquarters, and from there he launched an eight-year war to subdue Mecca. During that war, his followers changed the direction they faced when they prayed from Jerusalem to Mecca.
Jews and Christians, whom Muhammad called “people of the book,” rejected him as their prophet as the citizens of Mecca originally had. This hurt him deeply. Muhammad, who initially preached tolerance, switched to a policy of uneasy co-existence. He began to preach an Islam that demanded ascendancy and eventually foresaw a glorious end of the world heralded by the Muslim slaughter of all Jews.
Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca led to the spread of his ideas to neighboring cities and tribes. He had not appointed a successor before he died, which extended faction-fighting even further. Some followers championed one of the original converts to Islam as Muhammad’s successor, while others wanted a member of a powerful political family. Still others insisted that the leader should come from Muhammad’s own family.
This debate was the source of divisions among Sunni, Shi’a, and Sufi Islam. The Sunni, the largest branch of modern Islam, are “followers of the prophet’s way” and do not believe that a blood descendant of the prophet necessarily knows the way. The Shi’a believe that leadership should be based on heredity. The Sufis contend that orthodox Islam is too mechanical, so Sufi mystics seek direct personal experiences with Allah.
Leaders who came after the Prophet attempted to unify the religious community by either violence or persuasion. As Arabic Muslims were settling down to enjoy their expanding empire, Mongols invaded from the East. For nearly a century, the Mongol Empire spread from India to the Sinai Desert, but the Mongols quickly adopted the religion of the conquered Arabs. Successions of Asian, Aryan, and other ethnic groups took Islam with them as they conquered the Byzantine Empire and eventually spread east to the Pacific.
Constantinople, the overrun eastern capitol of Orthodox Christianity, became the center of the Turkish-dominated Ottoman Empire. From the middle of the fifteenth century AD to the seventeenth century, the Ottomans dominated much of the Arab world and much of eastern Europe. Simultaneously, Christian countries in western Europe were generally expanding and colonizing, mounting crusades to wrest the Holy Land, Spain, and the Balkans from Muslim control.
The Ottoman Empire was in steep decline at the outbreak of World War I when it sided with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Arabs joined the Allied Powers, only to be betrayed when the victorious Allies carved up Arabic lands into French and English colonies, and promised Jews a sovereign homeland in Palestine.
World War II saw the literal Nazification of Arab leaders. After distancing themselves from the defeated Third Reich, these Arab leaders formed nationalist movements for self-determination. Revolutionary bloodshed and rhetoric overcame the exhausted reticence of European nations to give up their colonies. Independent nations were created that commingled warring branches of Islam and feuding ethnic groups.
Muslims believe that the prophet Muhammad received the Qur’an over a period of 23 years. The Qur’an is approximately the same length as the Christian New Testament and provides the guidelines for living a life pleasing to Allah that prepares the believer for the Day of Judgment. As the perfect earthly representation of God’s words, the Qur’an cannot be adequately translated and so should be read, or preferably heard, in Arabic.
By the time it was complete, the Qur’an contained 114 suras, or chapter-length books. The suras are not arranged in the order in which Muhammad received them. With the exception of the first sura, The Opening, the others are arranged from longest to shortest. This arrangement is believed to be deliberate and divinely directed.
Each sura contains verses, or ayat, meaning signs. Each sura deals with a particular topic, revealed through the sura’s title. All but one sura, the ninth, begin with the words “In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful,” a phrase called the Bismillah.
The opening of the first sura, called the al-Fatiha, typifies Islam thought and is used in daily prayers and on many religious occasions.
Surah 1 (The Exordium)
In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.
Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds, the Beneficent, the Merciful,
Master of the Day of Requital.
Thee do we serve, and Thee do we beseech for help.
Guide us on the right path, The path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favors, Not those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favors, Not upon whom wrath is brought down nor those who go astray.
Surah 4 (Women)
...And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger and goes beyond His limits, He will cause him to enter fire to abide in it, and he shall have an abasing chastisement.
If any of your women are guilty of lewdness, Take the evidence of four (reliable) witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or Allah ordain for them some (other) way. As for those of your women who are guilty of lewdness, call to witness four of you against them. And if they testify (to the truth of the allegation) then confine them to the houses until death take them or (until) Allah appoint for them a way (through new legislation). And as for those who are guilty of an indecency from among your women, call to witnesses against them four (witnesses) from among you; then if they bear witness confine them to the houses until death takes them away or Allah opens some way for them.
If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, leave them alone; for Allah is Oft-returning, Most Merciful. And as for the two of you who are guilty thereof, punish them both. And if they repent and improve, then let them be. Lo! Allah is ever relenting, Merciful...
...Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).
Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great.
Surah 8 (The Spoils of War)
And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere; but if they cease, verily Allah doth see all that they do. And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is all for Allah. But if they cease, then lo! Allah is Seer of what they do. And fight with them until there is no more persecution and religion should be only for Allah; but if they desist, then surely Allah sees what they do.
Surah 47 (Muhammad)
...those who believe and work deeds of righteousness, and believe in the (Revelation) sent down to Muhammad – for it is the Truth from their Lord,-He will remove from them their ills and improve their condition. And those who believe and do good works and believe in that which is revealed unto Muhammad – and it is the truth from their Lord – He riddeth them of their ill-deeds and improveth their state.
And (as for) those who believe and do good, and believe in what has been revealed to Muhammad, and it is the very truth from their Lord, He will remove their evil from them and improve their condition.
This because those who reject Allah follow vanities, while those who believe follow the Truth from their Lord: Thus does Allah set forth for men their lessons by similitudes...
...Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks; At length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them): thereafter (is the time for) either generosity or ransom: Until the war lays down its burdens. Thus (are ye commanded): but if it had been Allah's Will, He could certainly have exacted retribution from them (Himself); but (He lets you fight) in order to test you, some with others. But those who are slain in the Way of Allah – He will never let their deeds be lost
Now when ye meet in battle those who disbelieve, then it is smiting of the necks until, when ye have routed them, then making fast of bonds; and afterward either grace or ransom till the war lay down its burdens. That (is the ordinance). And if Allah willed He could have punished them (without you) but (thus it is ordained) that He may try some of you by means of others. And those who are slain in the way of Allah, He rendereth not their actions vain. So when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then smite the necks until when you have overcome them, then make (them) prisoners, and afterwards either set them free as a favor or let them ransom (themselves) until the war terminates. That (shall be so); and if Allah had pleased He would certainly have exacted what is due from them, but that He may try some of you by means of others; and (as for) those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will by no means allow their deeds to perish.
Muslims believe that there is one God, Allah, who has spoken to humanity through many prophets, of whom Muhammad is the most important and last. Allah is the supreme lawgiver, and his laws are for the whole of creation, not just for human beings.
Although Muslims believe that Allah is absolutely one and indivisible, they have 99 names for him. Each name represents an aspect of Allah and include appellations such as the Merciful One, the Wise, the Seer, the Witness, the Protector, the Benefactor, the Creator, the Judge, the Rewarder, and the Forgiver. These many names express the idea that Allah cannot be contained by one simple name, word, or thought.
In addition to the Qur’an, Muslims look to hadith, the sayings and deeds attributed to the prophet Muhammad, and find explicit instructions regarding how to live in a way pleasing to Allah. Every Muslim is directly responsible to Allah for acting in accordance with these rules and creating a “good” society as defined by Allah and the Qur’an.
Muslim identity is inextricably linked to the social and political order. Islam is not only a guide for each believer but also a guide for the societies they build.
The core beliefs or requirements of Islam are contained in the Five Pillars of Islam. These are:
The First Pillar, Shahada, is the Muslim profession of faith, is to be said on waking and before going to sleep: “I witness that there is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.”
The Second Pillar, Salat, is the rather precise prayer ritual to be performed 5 times a day by all Muslims over the age of 10. Prayers may be recited individually but preferably communally. They are said on hands and knees with heads bowed: (a) between first light and sunrise; (b) after the sun has passed the middle of the sky; (c) between mid-afternoon and sunset; (d) between sunset and the last light of the day; and (e) between darkness and dawn.
The Third Pillar, Sawm, is the abstaining from food during daylight each day during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. From dawn to sunset the adherent also fasts from bodily pleasures.
The Fourth Pillar, Zakat, is giving alms to the poor. The minimum contribution should be 2.5% of one’s savings each year.
The Fifth Pillar, Hajj, is the pilgrimage to Mecca that all physically able Muslims should make at least once in their lives. Mecca is the most holy place for Muslims.
The Concept of Creation
The story of creation is based on the belief that Allah brought the world and everything in it into existence with the simple command, “Be!” As Allah’s creation, the universe shows perfect design and order, and all things are possessed by and come from Allah.
Human beings are the most important of Allah’s creations. According to Qur’anic law, all individuals are born inherently good. Islam does not have a doctrine of Original Sin like Christianity and Judaism. Its closest approximation to Original Sin is humanity’s tendency towards arrogance, which leads people to forget their place in Allah’s world and to commit acts contrary to the spirit of Islam.
Muslims therefore surrender to the Five Pillars of Islam. The concept of struggling to become everything that Allah would want in a human being is termed jihad. Jihad is also the word used for a holy war that justifies killing apostates and non-Muslims.
The Day of Judgment
The Qur’an portrays life as a “fleeting gift.” For this reason, people must adhere to the Islamic code of existence or face the wrath of Allah at the time of reckoning. When they die, souls are judged on whether they should be sent to the heavens or to the hells as described in the Qur’an. Each soul, accountable for the use of time on earth, must stand alone, without the benefit of intercession or excuse, and be judged by Allah.
BRANCHES OF ISLAM
Each Islamic religious denomination has significant theological and legal differences from the others, but they possess essentially identical beliefs. The major branches are Sunni and Shi’a. Sufism is considered as mystical inflection of Islam and, although considered a separate branch, will not be described here.
Sunnis make up about 85% of present day Muslims. According to Sunni believers, when Muhammad died, he did not designate a successor. The community chose a successor, called a caliph, who became the political leader of the community.
Sunni Muslims also believe that the community must follow the examples of the Sunnah, the ethical and religious code derived from the sayings and deeds of Muhammad. In the Sunni branch, the religious and political authority in Islam rests with the community, guided by Islamic law and a consensus about the Qur’an by Islamic scholars and political leaders.
The Shi’ites believe that, before he died, Muhammad designated his cousin and son-in-law Ali to be the religious leader of Islam.
For Shi’ites, all authority is vested with the imams or mullahs and, ultimately, the ayatollah. The charisma and authority of these leaders guides the teachings of Islam.
A sect within Shi’ites, the Twelver, believes that The Twelfth Imam is soon to come. He will be known as Muhammad ibn Hasan ibn Ali. More importantly, he will be the Mahdi or the ultimate savior of humanity. The Twelver believe that they can usher in the Mahdi’s ascension by causing the end of the world. Other Shi’ite sects, as well as Sunnis, do not agree with the Twelver chronology for the Twelfth Imam and have diverse opinions about who the Mahdi is and what he or she will do.
The Muslim faith is becoming an increasingly volatile international catalyst. As Islam grows and spreads throughout the world, Muslim extremists have sought to shift the balance of power in many regions and have seized power in parts of Africa and Asia.
Muslim populations in Russia and the European Union continue to grow rapidly. Russia’s Muslim population has increased by 40 percent since 1989, to about 25 million. Experts say that if current trends continue, nearly one third of Russia’s population will be Muslim by the mid-twenty-first century.
Growing ethnic tensions in Russia have begun to mirror those of its European neighbors. There are between 9 and 15 million Muslims living in Europe today, and Islam has become Europe’s largest religious minority. Considering current population trends, it is likely that the number of Muslims in Europe will continue to grow.
The major terrorist group aligned with Sunni Muslims is Al-Qaeda. Hezbollah, which is generally considered the most effective terrorist organization in the word, is composed of Shi’ite Muslims. There is debate whether these and other groups can set aside sectarian differences and fully unite against the West.
ISLAM IN THE MARKETPLACE
Like most religions, the Qur’an teaches honesty, patience, and charity. Like most followers of other religions, Muslims practice these virtues inconsistently, particularly when dealing with non-believers.
In Chapter 16 of the Qur’an, honesty and honoring promises made in Allah’s name is important: “fulfill the covenant of God once you have pledged it, and do not break any oaths once they have been sworn to. You have set up God as a guarantee for yourself; God knows everything you are doing.”
Chapter 40 teaches patience and trust in Allah: “So be patient; surely the promise of Allah is true.” The hadith reinforces long-suffering with a quote from Abu Da’ud (817 - 889 AD), one of the six chief compilers of Islamic tradition: “Muslims who live in the midst of society and bear with patience the afflictions that come to them are better than those who shun society and cannot bear any wrong done to them.”
Islam’s version of the Golden Rule, “Not one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself,” is found in 40 Hadith of an-Nawawi 13.
Charity, particularly giving alms to the poor, is central in Islam, as represented by its inclusion in the Five Pillars. An economically self-sufficient Muslim is expected to give alms. Giving to charity demonstrates true faith in Allah and that the individual is not controlled by material possessions. The prophet Muhammad often cited charity as a central virtue of Islam as recalled by the Hadith of Bukhari: “A man once asked the Prophet what the best thing was in Islam, and he replied, ‘It is to feed the hungry and to give the greeting of peace both to those one knows and to those one does not know.’”
The standard used for determining what is right or wrong in business is guided by the shari’ah and the collection of previous fiqh judgments. The latter includes (1) Islamic legal interpretations; (2) organizational factors; and (3) various notes on stages of moral development, personal values and personality, family influences, peer influences, life experiences, and other situational factors.
What is ethical for one person under Islamic law may not be ethical for another, and what was unethical today maybe ethical tomorrow. This creates ambiguity about what appropriate moral conduct is.