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Intro to Islam
Monday, January 12, 2009

Refugees from Darfur in the Sudan pray in Djabal Refugee Camp outside of Goz Beida, Chad. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

Initiation Rituals and Membership

The word Islam is Arabic for submission. It connotes a submission to the will of Allah. The religion of Islam teaches that in order to achieve true peace of mind, one must submit to Allah and live according to His Divinely revealed will. The most important truth which has been revealed to humanity is that only one is worthy of worship, namely, Allah. The word Muslim means one who submits to the will of Allah, regardless of race, nationality or gender. Being a Muslim entails a conscious decision to submit to Allah and living in accordance with the tenets of Islam.

Anyone who agrees to the above is considered a Muslim. Anyone who professes the Shahadah enters the fold of Islam and entitles himself or herself to the same rights as those of other Muslims.

Currently, the total membership of Islam stands at 1.3 billion people. It is the fastest growing religion in the world today. In the United States there are six million Muslims.


In part, the rise of Islam can be understood by looking at the conditions which existed in Arabia during the sixth century CE. Much of the peninsula was desert and the Bedouin tribes lived harsh lives in the wilderness. No one tribe dominated the peninsula. In Western Arabia, three towns in a mountainous region were dominated by a powerful tribe called the Quraysh. Two of the three towns, Mecca and Yethrib (later called Medina) became the centers of a new religion in Arabia, Islam. The religions of early Arabia can best be described as animistic polytheism.

Muhammad was born into the Quraysh tribe in the year 570 CE. His early life was surrounded by tragedy. His father died a few days before he was born, his mother when he was six, and his grandfather, who took care of him after his mother’s death, when he was nine. He was raised by his uncle who warmly accepted him into his home.

At age twenty-five Muhammad married Khadijah, a widow who owned a flourishing caravan business. Marriage to Khadijah afforded him the opportunity to meditate and seek answers to the questions on the meaning of life. He began to frequent a particular cave on Mount Hira. It was there that he received the first revelation from Allah through the angel Gabriel. This is what he heard,

“Proclaim! In the name of thy Lord and Cherisher Who
Created, created man, out of a clot of Congealed
Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful-
He who taught (the use of) the Pen-
Taught man that which he knew not.” 
Surah 96:1-5

The night on which he heard these words is now called the Night of Power. According to tradition, the Night of Power came during the last ten days of the month of Ramadan, and could be the 21st 23rd, 25th, or 27th, day of the month. Over the next twenty-two years, the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad through the angel Jibril (Gabriel). The complete text was compiled after his death.

The initial response in Mecca to his message was decidedly hostile. The uncompromising monotheism of Islam threatened the considerable revenue which came to Mecca from the Bedouin tribes making pilgrimages to the 360 shrines in the city, its moral teaching spoke directly against the immorality present in that society and its social content spoke directly against the unjust economic order of the day. Much persecution was experienced by Muhammad until he was forced to flee to Medina in 622 CE, known as the Hijrah. This is regarded by Muslims as the turning point in world history and is the year from which they date their calendar.

A period of civil war ensued. Muhammad was victorious eight years after his flight from Mecca to Medina. Two years later, in 632, he died. Upon his death, two distinct groups began to emerge. His companions were on one side and members of his family were on the other. His companions named a successor, a new leader in Medina, and then confronted members of his family with an accomplished fact. Later, followers of his family became known as Shi’i and followers of his companions and friends became known as Sunni.

By the ninth century, the Muslim empire was the largest state on earth. It had matched, if not exceeded, the Roman Empire at its zenith. Soon after, internal strife began to show up. Several states broke away and set up their own dynasties. Baghdad, which had become the capital, was destroyed in the Mongolian invasion. The Ottoman Turks restored part of the empire when the Mongols withdrew. In some form, the Ottoman Empire lasted until World War I when it finally collapsed.

During all of this political turmoil, the Islamic world survived and even flourished. The view that the world of Islam had a vitality of its own which made it independent of political or military support was due to the religion of Islam itself, and the civilization which had developed around it.

Islam is currently the second largest religion in the world with 1.3 billion members and is also the fastest growing religion in the world. This is quite an achievement since it is also the youngest of the world religions, although Islam itself does trace its historical roots to the creation of the world.

NOTE: Muslims write the following phrase behind the name of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and behind the other prophets mentioned in the Qur’an as well. The letters mean, Peace be unto him, or Allah’s peace and salutations upon him. This phrase shows the respect accorded Muhammad and all the prophets because of their special relationship with Allah and the special office they held. Although this tradition is not followed in this history of Islam, its omission is not intended to show disrespect for the prophet. Rather, common usage is followed in describing the tenets of Islam and its people.



Allah is the eternal, all-powerful Creator, who has no sons or daughters, or anyone else with whom he shares power. He has absolute unity, and is all-seeing, all-hearing, and all-knowing. Allah is unchanging, invisible and present everywhere at all times. Each of the surah (chapter) in the Qur’an begins with the words, “In the Name of Allah, the most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”  This indicates that these two characteristics of Allah are emphasized. Surah 112, states it this way (the quotes are taken from the Yusuf Ali translation of the Qur’an),

“In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful
Say: He is Allah, The One and Only;
Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;
He begetteth not, nor is He begotten;
And there is none like unto Him.”

By quoting the one other passage of the Qur’an, a sense of awe for Allah, the one eternal God, is provided. Surah 2:255 states,

“Allah! There is no God but He - the Living, the Self-Subsisting Eternal. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there can intercede in His presence except as He permitteth? He knoweth what (appeareth to His as) before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He willeth. His throne doth extend over the heavens, and the earth, and he feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them. For He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory).                    

The awesomeness and power of Allah can inspire fear and it is fair to say that Muslims fear Allah. It is not fair to say, however, that Allah is only a vengeful God, because this is an incorrect understanding of the self-revelation of Allah. Allah is also merciful and compassionate. Allah’s compassion and mercy are cited 192 times in the Qur’an versus 17 references to his wrath and vengeance.

By tradition, ninety-nine names exist for Allah, each one of them describing an eternal attribute. In a sound tradition recorded in Sahih Bukhari, Allah’s messenger stated, “Allah has Ninety-nine names, one hundred less one; and he who memorizes them all by heart will enter paradise.”


The Qur’an is the compilation of the revelation of Allah to Muhammad which was completed after his death. The Qur’an is divided into 114 surahs, generally with the largest surahs first and then in descending order of length. Muhammad considers this to be the only major miracle Allah worked through him. He called it Allah’s “standing miracle.” That Muhammad was able to produce a book which provides the basis for all knowledge, is grammatically perfect, and poetically in a class of its own, while he himself was barely literate, proves to the Muslim beyond doubt that the Qur’an was divinely inspired.

The Qur’an is a continuation of the Old and New Testament. Surah 5:68 and 70 states,

“Say, O People of the Book!
Ye have no ground to stand upon
Unless ye stand fast by the Law, the Gospel, and all
the revelation
That has come to you from your Lord...
We took the Covenant of the Children of Israel
and sent them Messengers.”

This entitles Jews and Christians to be included with Muslims as the People of the Book.

A significant, underlying theme of the Qur’an is found in the language itself. Arabic is a language which, when written and spoken, can invoke a powerful image in the reader or listener, which is lost upon translation. The power and effect of the Qur’an is found not only in the literal meaning of the text, but also in the language in which this meaning is incorporated including its sound. Muslims the world over learn Arabic in order to understand more fully the meaning and impact of the Qur’an.

First and foremost in the Qur’an are the words of Allah himself. Any history which is identifiable in the Qur’an becomes more of a series of reference points rather than the historical context in which the writing takes place. In the Qur’an, Allah speaks in the first person; that is how Allah reveals himself and makes known his divine decrees. For the Muslim, the Qur’an is first and foremost a self-revelation of Allah and the purpose of the Qur’an is to proclaim the unity, power, knowledge, and mercy of Allah, as well as human dependence on Allah.

The Prophets

The final revelation from Allah came through the prophet Muhammad. Muhammad, however, is not the only prophet recognized by Muslims or mentioned in the Qur’an. Twenty-five prophets are mentioned by name in the Qur’an. The five who are singled out as the greatest, and most important are: Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Surah 2:136 states,

“Say ye: ‘We believe in Allah, and the revelation
given to us,
And to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the
Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that
given to (all) Prophets from their Lord:
We make no difference between one and another of
them: And we bow to Allah (in Islam).’”

Three features of all the prophets stand out: they are the best morally and intellectually in their community; they are supported by miracles to prove their authenticity; and they state clearly that their message is not their own, but comes from Allah for the well-being of humanity. The Qur’an teaches that the message of Allah came through them. Each prophet also confirmed what was prophesied before him as well as what may be revealed after him. Surah 61:6 states,

“And remember, Jesus, the son of Mary, said: ‘O
children of Israel! I am the messenger of Allah
(sent) to you, confirming the Law (which came)
Before me, and giving glad Tidings of a Messenger to
come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad.’”


The Sunnah is the practice regularly performed by Muhammad. The Qur’an states, “verily in the Messenger of Allah you have a good example” (Surah 33:21) and the instructions he gave concerning how to put the words of the Qur’an into practice are written in the Sunnah. The Hadith is the account by his family and close companions of those practices and sayings of the prophet when he instructed people in the tenets, practices, and the way for Muslims to live their lives in accordance with the will of Allah as revealed in the Qur’an. For example, two of the most important practices described in the Qur’an are prayer and charity (zakat). No specific details were provided. The actions of Muhammad himself provided the details necessary to properly observe both practices. The Hadith collection is classified in several categories of soundness and is the second source used by Muslims in establishing Islamic law. In addition, the Sunnah is inspired. The Qur’an states in Surah 59:7, “So take what the messenger assigns to you, and deny yourself that which he withholds from you.”


Hadith are writings of practices and sayings which are elaborated, explained, and historically traced back to the Prophet, often traced through one of the companions of the Prophet. There are six famous collections: Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Muwatta of Imam Malik, Sunan Tirmithy, Sunan Abu Daud, and Sunan lbn Majah. The Hadith may be comprised of many volumes.


The angels of Allah are viewed as pure, spiritual, unseen beings that constantly devote their existence to Allah and execute all the commands of Allah. They are created in such a way that they can always obey and never go against the Divine commands. The angel Jibril (Gabriel) conveyed the words of Allah to Muhammad. Other angels perform such tasks as guarding the gates of heaven and hell, and recording the thoughts and actions of human beings for reference on the Day of Judgment. To them is also assigned the task of helping believers even to the extent of fighting on their side in times of war.


The world was created by a deliberate act of Allah’s will. This fact makes two important points. On the one hand, matter is both real and important. It is dependent on Allah as its creator, to be sure, but because of the fact that creation is real, science flourished under Islam. On the other hand, since the world was created by Allah who is both great and good, the world of matter must also be basically good. The Qur’an states, “No want of proportion wilt thou see in the Creation of (Allah) Most Gracious. So turn thy vision again: seest thou any flaw?” (Surah 67:4) Thanks to the mercy of Allah, Muslims view the world as a world of joy.


The crowning aspect of Allah’s creation was man. The Qur’an teachings about man’s creation is the same as that of creation, namely, that human beings are created as being good. People do forget their divine origin and as such are not ready then to relate to the Creator as they ought. This Creator-creature relationship involves two obligations: one is a sense of gratitude and the other is a total surrender to Allah. Human beings are unique individuals and their individuality is significant in Islam along with the responsibility that is associated with this uniqueness. The individuality of the human soul lasts forever; once created it never dies. Human beings also have the freedom to make the choices in life they need to make in order to fulfill the requirements which have been placed on them. In Islam, this human freedom is in tension with the omnipotence of Allah, which leads to the predetermination (Qadar) of all of life. Islamic theology has wrestled with this issue, without being able to come to a final resolution. Although the Divine decrees of Allah are always present, human being nevertheless still have enough freedom to make real, moral and spiritual decisions which do affect them in life.

Judgment and Life After Death

The Qur’an stresses the importance of faith in the future life to such a degree that it is considered next only to faith in Allah. The opening chapter of the Qur’an describes Allah as the “Master of the Day of Judgment.” Muslims are responsible for every deed they perform and will be called to an accounting of the life they lived. The phrase “Master of the Day of Judgment” is recited over thirty times in the five required daily prayers which places before Muslims the idea that every act will be judged and imposes on them the reality of a future life at which time every deed shall receive its full reward.

Depending on what happens on the Day of Judgment, the soul will either go to the heavens or the hells. The Qur’an describes both in vivid, concrete imagery. The sharpness of the contrast between heaven and hell is intended to shock the Muslim out of that forgetfulness of the relationship between human beings and Allah and turn their lives towards a submission of Allah. Although some Muslims may interpret the description of heaven and hell figuratively rather than literally, every Muslim believes that each soul will be held accountable for its action on earth. Surah 17:5 states, “Every man’s fate we have fastened on his own neck: on the Day of Judgment we shall bring out a scroll, which he will see spread open.”

The Five Pillars

To reach Heaven, Muslims believe that faith and the observances of rituals are not enough. Islam is a religion of action. A Muslim must walk the straight path, which means accept the tenets of Islam, perform the required duties, and live according to the moral precepts defined in the Qur’an and the Hadith. In Arabic, Islam means surrender to Allah and Muslim means one who surrenders. The greatest goal of a Muslim is, therefore, to submit to the will and authority of Allah. The phrase straight path comes from the opening Surah, 1:1-7, of the Qur’an, which reads,

“In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful, Master of the Day of Judgment
Thee do we worship, and Thine Aid we seek
Show us the straight way,
The way of those on whom Thou has bestowed Thy Grace,
Those whose portion is not wrath,
And who go not astray.”

1. Shahadah

The first of the five pillars is the creed of Islam, which was described at the opening of this chapter. “There is no God, but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” The first half announces the cardinal principle of monotheism. The word used, Allah, denotes a proper name reflecting a unique being and him alone. The second half states the validity of Muhammad as the prophet and the authenticity of the Qur’an which he received as result of the direct revelation to him. For a Muslim this phrase is the ultimate answer to every question of life.

2. Prayer

The second pillar is prayer. Prayer is the most important of all duties. The basic purpose of prayer is to express gratitude, love, and admiration to Allah. At the same time prayer is a reminder that human beings are finite and thus teaches the Muslim humility. The Qur’an considers this the most difficult lesson human beings have to learn. The emphasis on prayers is reverence, not petitions or seeking answers to specific prayer requests.

Salat, the formal ritual prayer, must be prayed five times daily: upon arising (Salat al Fajr), when the sun passes its zenith (Salat al Dhur), mid-afternoon (Salat al Asr), sunset (Salat al Maghrib), and before retiring for the night (Salat al Isha). The Friday noon prayer, called Jumu’ah, is an obligatory congregational prayer. All prayers are said facing the direction of the Kaa’ba in Mecca, the holiest place of Islam. Ablutions must be made before the prayer is to take place and Muslims remove their shoes when they pray and use a prayer rug. The prayer must be performed in Arabic.

3. Charity

The third pillar is charity or zakat. Although material things are important in life, some have more than others. Charity addresses this disparity. Those who have much should assist those who have little or nothing. Muhammad prescribed 2 ½ percent on the holding of those who have enough to meet their own basic needs. The percentage is based not on annual income, but on everything owned. One-fortieth of a Muslim’s total worth should be distributed annually to assist the poor.

4. Fasting

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, is the month where Muslims begin their period of fasting. This month is a holy month for Islam because during it Muhammad received his initial revelation, made his historic Hijrah from Mecca to Medina, and the battle of Badr was won. A small army from Medina, outnumbered three to one, won a decisive victory over the army from Mecca. Surah 2:185 states,

“Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the
Qur’an as a guide to mankind, also clear (signs) for
guidance and judgment (between right and wrong).
So everyone of you who is present (at his home)
during that month should spend it in fasting, But
if anyone is ill, or on a journey,
The prescribed period (should be made up) by days later.
Allah intends every facility for you: He does not
want to put you to difficulties. (He wants you) to
complete the prescribed period.
And to glorify Him in that. He has guided you;
And perchance you shall be grateful.”

The fast begins with dawn and ends with sunset. Depending on the sighting of the moon, the fast may be 29 or 30 days 1ong. Eating and drinking stops at dawn. During the day, no eating, drinking, or sexual activity can take place. A Muslim must also adhere strictly to the moral code, as failure there is considered to be a violation of the requirements of fasting. At sunset, the fast is broken by eating dates and drinking water or juice, although any lawful food or drink may be used to break the fast. The evening prayer is made, followed by eating a complete meal. During Ramadan, the Qur’an is either recited or read.

The sacrifices associated with fasting are designed to instill discipline, heighten awareness of religious duty and dependence upon Allah, and be reminded of the hunger associated with being poor. During this month, those who have been materially blessed are able to be generous to those who have little or nothing.

The Night of Power, when the words of Allah first came to Muhammad in the cave on Mount Hira, occurred during the last ten days of the month of Ramadan. It is not clear on which night the revelation occurred, but the evidence seems to point to any of the odd-dated nights during the last third of the month. The Qur’an states in Surah 97: 1-5,

“We have indeed revealed this (message) in the Night of Power;
And what will explain to thee what, the Night of Power is?
The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.
Therein come down the angels and the Spirit
By Allah’s permission on every errand:
Peace! This until the rise of Morn!”

5. Pilgrimage

The fifth pillar is pilgrimage or Hajj. All Muslims who are able should make at least one journey to Mecca during their lifetime. Additional journeys can be made at any time, but the required pilgrimage should be made during the twelfth month, Dhu’l Hijja, of the lunar calendar. This pilgrimage fosters a sense of oneness among the Muslims. Before entering Mecca, all pilgrims wear a simple white robe which makes them appear the same to each other as they are before Allah. No rank or privilege stands out during the pilgrimage; it reminds the pilgrims of their equal status before Allah, namely that they are humble servants of their Creator and that human rank and privileges do not carry over into the realm of the spiritual. During the Hajj, national boundaries are transcended as well for obedience to Allah supersedes obedience and loyalty to national ideals.


Shariah is the code of law for the Islamic way of life which Allah has revealed for humanity to follow. Literally, Shariah means the path leading to the watering place. The law which was developed constitutes a divinely ordained path of conduct which guides Muslims towards a practical expression of their religious conviction in the world today. The main basis of Islamic law is the Qur’an. The difference between human law and Shariah is that human laws can change when time and conditions change. Shariah is permanent and does not change with time or differing conditions. Allah has created Shariah for the wellbeing of all human beings.

The Shariah not only concerns itself with regulating relationships with neighbors and with the state, but also with the relationship of human beings with Allah and their own conscience. The five pillars explained above are part of the Shariah as are ethical standards and legal rules. Since Shariah has been handed down from Allah through the prophet, it was imposed on society. Once the whole process of interpretation and explanation was believed to be complete, Shariah law became the guiding force in shaping society, since it precedes and controls society.


The mystic movement in Islam is known as Sufism. This movement developed as a protest against corrupt rulers who did not embody Islam and against the legalism and formalism of worship which paid more attention to the form rather than content of the faith. Many of the sufis became ascetics, began to gather disciples around themselves and developed into religious orders, known as dervishes. Others forsook the orders and became mendicants, traveling around the country side, living off the charity of others. Many sufis were outstanding men of saintly stature. Not all sufis were accepted by the more conservative elements of Islam due to their unorthodox habits and beliefs. Sufi influence has grown over the centuries and today there are literally hundreds of mystic orders with millions of adherents. They are most prevalent in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

The Status of Women in Islam

Women are accorded equal status with men in Islam. The rights and responsibilities of women are equal to those of men but are not necessarily identical with them. This difference between equality and sameness is the key to understanding the role of women in Islam. She is recognized as a full and equal partner in the procreation of humanity. She is equal in bearing personal and common responsibilities and in receiving rewards for her deeds. She has freedom of expression, able to pursue educational opportunities. She is able to receive her share of the inheritance, which is something introduced in Islam and was not present before.

Standing behind men in prayer does not indicate inferiority. This deals with the discipline of prayer, not ranking of status before Allah. By separating men and women during prayer, each will be able to focus better on the discipline of prayer, rather than potential embarrassment. The wearing of the veil protects the integrity of the woman.


Marriage is viewed as one of the most important of all institutions in Muslim society. For a marriage to be valid, both parties must give their consent, have two witnesses present, the groom must provide a gift (dowry) to the bride, and the marriage cannot be kept secret. The actual service involves a short ceremony during which the Imam delivers a brief Khutba (message). The consummation of the marriage can be delayed by mutual agreement and is, therefore, no issue in the validity of the marriage.

The only person of the opposite gender who may be in physical contact with a Muslim is the spouse. This may create a potential problem, because detainees are routinely subject to pat searches by staff of the opposite gender. While religious beliefs are respected by staff, there is a compelling government interest, which requires staff to conduct routine pat searches. Staff is trained to conduct the searches in the least intrusive manner, and to use the backs of their hands in genital areas.

Staff should always be sensitive to religious prohibitions against touch by persons of the opposite gender, but this cannot interfere with necessary routine searches. If a staff member of the same gender is in the immediate proximity at the time of the search, reasonable accommodations may be granted in order to have a same-gender pat search, but an officer may not leave his/her post, or delay the pat search to accommodate the detainee request.

Sunni and Shi’i Muslims

Various factions exist in Islam. The largest one, comprising of approximately 85 to 90 percent of all Muslims world-wide, are the Sunni Muslims. Sunnis and Shi’i share three core doctrines, oneness of Allah, the belief in the revelations of Muhammad, and the belief in the resurrection on the Day of Judgment. As was mentioned in the brief history, the Sunnis represented the companions of Muhammad. They gained the upper hand and the Caliph, the ruler of the Muslim world, was seen as the religious leader as well. Sunni Islam received its name from identification with the importance of the sunnah. Islamic society established laws or shariah based on the Qur’an and Hadith earlier since it was the orientation of the rulers.

The Shi’i branch of Islam is the largest non-Sunni group and represent between 10 and 15 percent of all Muslims. The term refers to followers of the fourth Caliph who was Muhammad’s son-in-law. Some differences are, Shi’i Muslims pray three times a day and have additional destinations for the pilgrimage of Hajj. Shi’i Muslims also hold to a continuation of the tradition from Muhammad. Historically, the Shi’i movement was not solidified until it became the state religion in Persia in the sixteenth century.