Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion, and if population estimates prove accurate, it will become the dominant belief system by the end of the twenty-first century.
Muslims contend their faith has been present since the beginning of time when Allah first created the world and commissioned Adam to tend it. The faith continued through Abraham, followed the line of his son Ishmael, and continued through the teachings of Christ until Allah sent his last prophet, Muhammad, to give his final revelation.
Muhammad spent much of his life in seventh-century Arabia. At age forty, he said he began receiving, via the angel Gabriel, God’s revelations. These revelations would be collected into the Qur’an and set a course for what has now become the second most practiced religion of all time. Traditions and practices within Islam vary, but a few benchmarks root most Muslims in a common faith.
Allah or God?
When referring to God, Muslims use the word “Allah,” which is the Arabic translation of the Hebrew word Elohim. They believe Allah is the holy creator and sustainer of all things. Muslims attribute to Allah most of the qualities Christians bestow on God. Muslims and Christians agree that God is the one and only God, but the God of the Bible is vastly different than the Allah of Islam. For instance, but Muslims deny the biblical teaching that God is one being in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“If population estimates prove accurate, Islam will become the dominant belief system by the end of the twenty-first century.”
Furthermore, Muslims believe Allah is to be esteemed in such a way that makes it inappropriate or impossible to call him “father.” He is merciful, just, and compassionate, but simply unknowable beyond facts related to his perfection.
Prophets, Jesus, and Muhammad
Muslims believe Allah sent prophets throughout history to call people away from idolatry and to share his revelation through books like the Torah, the Psalms, the Injeel, and the Qur’an. The life and proclamations of many of these prophets are recorded in the Qur’an. Many of Islam’s esteemed prophets, such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and John the Baptist, are also recognized by Christians.
The Qur’an also values Jesus and records his performance of miracles. Muslims say that Jesus was a Muslim because he worshiped the one true God. There is no uniform consensus among Muslims on how or if Jesus died. Some Muslims believe Jesus, having been nailed to the cross, was given a substitute to die on the cross and was taken up to heaven before death. Others believe Jesus died on the cross and was taken directly to heaven by Allah. The Qur’an does specify Jesus as the one who will come back to judge the nations and preserve true followers of Islam.
Muhammad is generally distinguished from other prophets because Allah chose him as the one to supply the Qur’an through revelations. He is recorded in the Qur’an as “the seal of the prophets,” meaning the last and greatest of Allah’s prophets (33:40). When Jesus comes back for the final judgment, Muhammad will, according to the Qur’an, be the first to be resurrected and enter into Paradise.
The Holy Book(s)
Muhammad received a series of revelations from Allah, spanning several years. Because he was illiterate, he recounted these revelations to close friends who could record them. The collection of these recordings became the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an. The Qur’an is believed to be the infallible word of Allah, perfectly preserved over time. Muslims highly revere the Qur’an and believe it should only be read in its original language, Arabic, so as to not risk changing its meaning through translation.
Although the Qur’an is venerated because it is the perfect word of Allah, hadith reports are also esteemed because they communicate the sayings and deeds of Muhammad himself. Large hadith collections were gathered over the span of several hundred years following Muhammad’s death, and they provide more detailed guidance than the Qur’an on how to practice Islam. For instance, Muslims observe the five ritual prayers as Muhammad outlined them in the hadith. Muslims also study the hadith in order to interpret the Qur’an. Beliefs vary on which hadith are legitimate.
A Muslim’s Purpose
Based on the Qur’an and the teachings of the hadith, Muslims believe their purpose on earth is to submit to and worship Allah. True submission is hampered by mistakes, idolatry, and forgetfulness toward Allah. Therefore, Muslims work hard to align their lives and actions toward focused devotion to Allah and emulation of his prophet Muhammad.
If at the end of their lives they have pleased Allah through their submission and faith, their souls will be granted an eternity in Paradise. If not, they will spend eternity in hell. However, many believe Allah has predetermined their destiny and their acts of submission have little effect on their placement in eternity.
Muslims believe true submission to Allah requires specific acts of worship and obedience. The most important acts are called The Five Pillars of Islam.
- The shahada, or the creed, is a confession of faith normally recited in Arabic. “I testify that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Reciting the shahada is the only requirement to become a Muslim.
- Salat, or ritual prayers, are commanded by the Qur’an, described in detail in the hadith, and performed five times a day in Arabic. No matter where these prayers are performed, Muslims pray facing the direction of Mecca, Islam’s holy city.
- Zakat is the giving of wealth to charitable causes and the downtrodden. It’s expected that Muslims will take a precise percentage of the wealth that Allah has given them to give to those in need.
- Saum, or fasting, takes place for thirty days every year during the month of Ramadan. During the month, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours so as to grow closer to Allah. Pregnant women and the infirm are not required to observe the fast.
- Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, should be made at least once in a Muslim’s life for those who can afford it and are well enough to travel. Muslims participate in a variety of traditions at Mecca to commemorate events in the life of Abraham. These include circling the Kaaba while reciting prescribed prayers to Allah and sacrificing an animal.
The Split into Today’s Sects
Upon Muhammad’s death, his followers wanted to appoint a successor to carry on his work in advancing Islam throughout the world. However, quarrels arose regarding who exactly was entitled to lead. Some believed his heir should be a blood relative of Muhammad, while others felt strongly the heir could be any male of strong, noble character from within Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe.
This disagreement split Islam into two sects, with each appointing their respective successor. While each sect encompasses a wide variety of subgroups and practices, the majority of Muslims today would identify themselves as either Sunni or Shiite.
When Muhammad died, some Muslims chose to appoint a companion of Muhammad of good character who faithfully followed the Qur’an and hadith. They called this man a caliph, and he became the spiritual and political leader of the community. This community of Muslims would become known as Sunni Muslims.
Sunnis uphold religious scholars as keepers and interpreters of the Qur’an. They look to such leaders to make decisions on how to practice the law outlined in the Qur’an and other holy texts, such as the hadith.
Sunni Muslims make up the greatest majority—nearly 90 percent—of Muslims around the world. They predominantly live in North Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia.
Shiite, or Shia, Muslims
Another faction of Muslims believed Muhammad’s successors should be from his bloodline. They thought Muhammad’s cousin, Ali, had been specially designated to be Muhammad’s successor and that the community of Muslims made a mistake by choosing other leaders. After the first caliph died of illness, and the second and third were assassinated, Ali finally became the leader of the Muslim community. Then, after Ali too was assassinated, Shiites continued to recognize Ali’s sons and their descendants as leaders, called imams, and they effectively split from Sunni Islam.
Shiites have often been a persecuted minority, and their beliefs about suffering and martyrdom set them apart from Sunnis. The most important Shiite rituals help believers relive the martyrdom of Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn, who is believed to be able to intercede for Shiites because of his death in the Iraqi city of Karbala.
Shiites also have distinctive beliefs about their religious leaders, the imams, who are believed to be especially chosen and guided by Allah, so their teachings are authoritative. The majority of Shiites believe that their Twelfth Imam was taken away by Allah in the ninth century, and they live in hope and expectation of the time when he will return to bring justice to the world.
Shiites comprise roughly 10 percent of the Muslim population and are the predominant sect in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan. Most Shiites—93 percent—live in Asia.
Rachel Cohen is a content editor for imb.org. She lives with her husband and daughter in South Asia.