What is Islam?

Islamic mosqueIslam is the youngest of the major world religions, and as such, it is also the most well documented and historically verifiable. The story of Islam begins with the story of Muhammad ibn Abdullah, born in 570 ce in Mecca, which is located in the modern nation of Saudi Arabia. Muhammad was born into the Hashemite clan of this influential Quraysh tribe, but few details are known about his early life. When he got older, he earned his living as a trader, and by all accounts was widely considered to be wise and truthful: it is said that he was known by his people as al-Amin (the trustworthy one). In fact, it was this quality that led to Muhammad’s first marriage, with a wealthy trader, Khadijah. She employed Muhammad to manage her caravans, and after seeing both his professional and personal excellence, she proposed to him and they were married in 595 ce. At the time, Khadijah was forty, and Muhammad was twenty-five. By all accounts it was a happy marriage, and Muhammad did not marry anyone else while she was alive. Together they had four daughters, and two sons who died in infancy.

It is said that Muhammad was also a spiritual man, and he was in the practice of withdrawing periodically to a cave in the mountains to meditate and think in solitude. When he was forty (610 ce), while he was on one of these retreats on Mount Hira, the angel Gabriel visited Muhammad for the first time, and he received what would be the first of many revelations over the course of his lifetime. The date of this first revelation is still celebrated by Muslims today on the twenty-seventh night of Ramadan. It is called the “Night of Power,” and every year many Muslims stay awake the entire night, in prayer.

Muhammad did not receive any further revelations right away, but they then began coming again; and all of these prophecies contained basically the same message (these are the Meccan suras found in the Qur’an): The people had turned away from the right worship of the one true God, and they needed to stop worshiping idols and begin worshiping Allah alone. In addition, they needed to begin living more ethical and socially responsible lives. When Muhammad began to share this message publicly he was criticized and ridiculed, and this would get worse.

Around 619, another miraculous event occurred in the life of Muhammad. The angel Gabriel again visited Muhammad, but this time, he took him on what is called the “Night Journey.” First, Muhammad flew to Jerusalem on a winged steed known as a burqa. From there, from the place now marked by the Dome of the Rock, Muhammad was taken on a mystical ascent on through the heavens into the presence of God. There, God gave Muhammad the final form of the daily prayers. It is primarily this event that makes Jerusalem holy to Muslims; it, along with Mecca and Medina, are the three holiest cities of Islam.

As the persecution of Muhammad and his followers, called Muslims, intensified, he began to search for a safer place where they might live in peace. (The word Muslim means “one who submits to the will of God,” and both Muslim and Islam come from the same Arabic root s-l-m, which means “submission” or “peace.”) At this time, some of the leaders of the city Yathrib came to Mecca and invited Muhammad to come to their city and serve as their leader. They promised him that if he came, they would convert and establish an Islamic rule of life for the city. Muhammad agreed to leave Mecca, sneaking out and just narrowly avoiding an assassination attempt. He came to Yathrib in 622, which subsequently became known as Medina (medinat al-Nabi means “city of the Prophet”), and established a thriving theocracy. This migration is known in Islam as the hijra, and it is said to have inaugurated the birth of the Muslim faith; thus 622 ce is year 1 in the Islamic calendar.

While in Medina, Muhammad continued to receive revelations from God, but these revelations, recorded as the Medinan suras in the Qur’an, were of a more pragmatic nature, focused on solidifying Islamic society and establishing communal norms and rules of behavior. Muhammad is not worshiped in any way by Muslims, and in fact they would be horrified by the idea: worship is reserved for God alone. However, it should be obvious that Muhammad continues to have deep and powerful significance long after his death.

What Is the Qur’an?

The Qur’an is considered the definitive word of God for Muslims, the complete collection of all of the revelations Muhammad received from Gabriel. Since traditional Islamic teaching is that the words of the Qur’an are literally the words of God, Arabic has a privileged place among languages, and therefore while non-Arabic speakers may read a translation of the Qur’an in order to better understand its meaning, translations do not have the same weight and authority as the Arabic text. This is why it is important to pray in Arabic and recite verses from the Qur’an in Arabic, even if one doesn’t understand the language.

Since the Arabic words are literally the word of God, reciting those words is considered spiritually beneficial; it is for this reason that the practice of memorizing the Qur’an is considered a deeply holy act (such a person is called a hafiz—literally, a “guardian/caretaker” of the Qur’an); and also why there are professional reciters, who often will be hired by large mosques to come and recite during holy days. The recitation of the Qur’an is extremely important and is considered to be a sacred act in and of itself; it is an act that invites listeners into the presence of God.

Overall, one can detect one primary overarching theme in the Qur’an as a whole: the exhortation to repent and submit to the word and the will of God. To do this, the Qur’an emphasizes several key points that relate to God, humanity, and the relationship between them. First, God is the creator of the universe, and, as such, is its sovereign ruler. Only God is worthy of obedience, respect, and worship. Second, when creating humanity, God gave them reason, which includes the ability to know the difference between right and wrong, and to choose to follow God’s will—or not. Third, the life that one experiences now is transitory, and is, in some ways, a proving ground for life after death. Upon death, each individual will stand before God and be judged upon her actions and sentenced in the resurrection: right living and obedience to God will lead to eternal happiness with God in paradise; disobedience and unfaithfulness will lead to eternal punishment. To this end, there are repeated and extensive descriptions of both heaven and hell in a variety of suras in the Qur’an. Fourth and last, the Qur’an emphasizes that God repeatedly sent prophets to different people in different places all through time, each attempting to correct them when and where they had gone astray and call them back to right worship of the one true God. Finally, God sent Muhammad, the last and final prophet, and revealed to him the Qur’an—the peerless and complete revelation of God’s divine word and law that now stands in perpetuity as the perfect, timeless guide for religious life. In these ways, the Qur’an attests to the unsurpassable nature of the authority of both Muhammad and the Qur’an itself, and lays out clearly and emphatically a way of life that facilitates a rich and meaningful existence, both in this life and the next.

The Five Pillars of Islam

The five foundational practices of Islam traditionally have been called “pillars,” which is an apt image for conveying their importance and their role in supporting one’s life as a Muslim. The five pillars of Islam, then, are the five practices that Muslims perform to express their religious identity and signal their participation in the larger community. They are important not only in the way they form religious habits and thinking, but also in the way they structure and organize one’s whole life. In this way, they are the center around which one’s whole life turns, and from which all other activities and beliefs flow.

First, the shahadah. The shahadah, which means “witness,” is the fundamental declaration of what constitutes the heart of the Islamic faith: the belief in the oneness of God, and the status of Muhammad as the definitive messenger of God. The second pillar is salat, the specific prayers Muslims are required to perform five times a day: at daybreak, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening. These prayers have a specific set of rituals governing their performance, including a series of ablutions, which, in addition to cleansing the body, also signify the purity necessary to come before God.

The third pillar is zakat, typically translated as “almsgiving.” Muslims believe that humans are only the “trustees” of wealth—God remains the true owner of all. Thus it is believed that one should yearly give back to God a percentage of one’s wealth, as a sign of God’s ultimate dominion over creation, and of respect and obedience to God. It should be stressed that zakat is not charity, which should be given throughout the year as the need arises. Instead, zakat is more formalized than that, with most Muslims agreeing that 2½ percent of one’s entire worth should be given for this purpose.

The fourth pillar is sawm, fasting from eating, drinking, and sexual activity during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. This month is the holiest month of the year in Islam, because it commemorates the first revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad, which occurred sometime toward the end of the month. All Muslims of a certain age who are healthy are expected to adhere to a strict fast from sunup to sundown; and because Islam follows a purely lunar calendar, Ramadan moves through all twelve months of the calendar over a period of years. This means that Ramadan is particularly challenging during the long, hot summer days of August; the fasting time is appreciably shorter during December. This is more or less true depending on one’s geographical location. There is a strong communal emphasis during Ramadan: it is a sign of unity and support that all Muslims fast together, and they often break each day’s fast (iftar) in community as well. In many Muslim countries, the entire pattern of the day is altered and brought in line with the Ramadan fast, including restaurants being closed during the day, but staying open later into the evening. Ramadan ends with a celebration, called Eid al-Fitr, the “feast of fast-breaking.” It lasts for several days, and includes communal meals, gifts of sweets for children, and prayer. It is preceded by a special almsgiving for the poor.

Finally, the last pillar is the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca all Muslims should perform at least once in their lifetime, if they have the financial resources and if they are healthy. Every year, roughly two million Muslims from all corners of the globe come to Mecca (located in Saudi Arabia) to share in this powerful experience. Everyone dresses alike in simple clothing, called ihram, symbolizing their equal status before God and the state of purity in which the hajj is to be performed. In particular, the men wear two unsewn pieces of white cloth, which many save and use as their burial shroud.

The hajj consists of a series of rituals that date back to the story of Ibrahim, Isma’il, and Hagar; and the centerpiece of the hajj—literally and figuratively—is the Ka’aba, a square structure believed to have been built by Ibrahim and Isma’il as a place to worship the one true God. It is this particular structure that is the physical center of Islam, and it is specifically toward the Ka’aba that daily prayers are directed. The rituals take roughly a week to perform, and most people use guides to help perform them correctly and in the right order.

The Concept of Jihad

No idea in Islam is more misunderstood or misinterpreted than the concept of jihad. First, to be clear, Muhammad did indeed talk about the importance of jihad, but his explanation in no way resembles the idea the word conveys today, particularly in an American context. The word itself comes from an Arabic root that means “to strive” or “to exert.” In both the Qur’an and Islamic tradition, it is used in two different ways, to describe two different “struggles”: the struggle within oneself to be faithful and obedient to God, and the military struggle against enemies of God. Certainly Muhammad did refer to this latter type of jihad, and the Qur’an does provide encouragement to those who “fight in the way of God” (Qur’an 2:218; 9:20), and “struggled in the cause of God” (8:74). However, the vast majority of Muslims today see these verses as relating to a specific time in the development and spread of Islam; and while there is still a legitimate tradition of “holy war” in Islam, the conditions under which one might be fought are strictly regulated, carefully formulated, and only warranted in rare situations. It should go without saying that the type of terrorist activities carried out under the false banner of jihad have been resoundingly and unequivocally rejected by the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims, precisely because those above-mentioned conditions were blatantly violated.

Instead, most Muslims interpret jihad to refer to the first type of struggle, the struggle within oneself, often using the well-known tradition that tells of the time when Muhammad returned from a battle and told his followers: “We return from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.”[1] Here, we see Muhammad subordinating the idea of jihad as a military struggle in favor of what is much harder and actually more important: one’s own internal struggle to resist temptation, obey God, and follow God’s will. The Qur’an also speaks of this type of struggle, exhorting believers to “strive in the way of God with a service worthy of Him” (Qur’an 22:78), and promising “We shall guide those who strive in our cause to the paths leading straight to Us” (Qur’an 29:69).

For Further Reading:

Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr
Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith & Power, by Jonathan Bloom & Sheila Blair
Islam: Belief & Observances, by Caesar E. Farah
Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, by Karen Armstrong
The Oxford History of Islam, edited by John L. Esposito
Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World, by John O. Voll


[1] One finds this quote in almost every book discussing the concept of jihad. See, for example, Esposito et al., World Religions Today, 243.