Facts about Islam

Source: American Arab Anti discrimination Committee at

Islam is an Arabic word meaning submission to God. As a religion Islam calls for complete acceptance of and submission to the teachings and guidance of God. The word has connotations of peace and wholeness. It has the same root as "salam" - peace.

A Muslim is one who freely and willingly accepts the supreme power of God and strives to live his or her life in accord with the teachings of God.

Allah is the Arabic language word for God. Allah is also used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews in prayer or speaking about God. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three great monotheistic world religions.

Muslims believe that the Qur'an (or Koran) is God's word as revealed to the prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. The Qur'an is the basis for Muslim beliefs regarding God, worship, morality, knowledge, wisdom, the human relationship to God, and relationships among human beings. Just as Christian believe that the person of Jesus was the Word or manifestation of God, Muslims believe that it is the Qur'an itself which is that Word and manifestation. The original text of the Quran is in Arabic and translations are available in major libraries and bookstores everywhere.

Muhammad is respected as a prophet. He is not regarded as the "founder" of Islam, but rather as one in a long line of prophets from Adam to Abraham, Moses, Solomon, and Jesus. Islam therefore did not begin with Muhammad, whose role was that of a "messenger" who received and passed on a revelation from God. He made it clear that Muslims should "call me the servant of God and His messenger." He is regarded as a human being and in no way divine. He is seen as the final prophet who completed the revelation began by the earlier prophets.

The Hadith - the teachings, sayings and actions of Muhammad - were reported and collected by his devoted companions. They explain and elaborate the Qur'anic verses and provide a model for the conduct of Muslims.

Every action done with the awareness that it fulfills the will of God is considered an act of worship, but the specific acts termed the Five Pillars of Islam provide the framework of Muslim spiritual life.

1) The Declaration of Faith: "I bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is his messenger."

2) Prayer is prescribed five times a day as a duty towards God. Prayer strengthens and enlivens belief in God and inspires one to a higher morality.

3) Fasting is called for during the month of Ramadan. This involves abstention from food, beverages, and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset and it means curbing evil intentions and desires. Allowances are made for health, age and circumstances. After sunset, there are family and community meals and celebration.

4) Zakat is a proportionately fixed contribution from the surplus earnings and wealth of the Muslims. It is spent on the poor and needy and for the welfare of society as a whole.

5) The Hajj is the pilgrimage to the Ka'bah in Makkah (Mecca), at least once in a lifetime, provided one has the means to undertake the journey.

Muslims, Christians and Jews all worship the same God. The Qur'an has many stories about Biblical characters which are very similar to those in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus is very highly honored as a prophet, although Muslims believe that Christians erred in regarding him as divine. Muslims greatly respect Mary as the mother of Jesus. They believe in the virginal birth of Jesus through the power of the Spirit of God. However, they believe that errors have crept into the Jewish and Christian traditions and into the text of the Bible. The mission of Muhammad was to correct those errors.

Nonetheless, the Qur'an teaches that Jews, Christians and Muslims are all "People of the Book." As believers, Jews and Christians have juridical rights under Islamic law to live as "protected peoples." Historically, Islam has been a relatively tolerant religion. Islam clearly teaches that "There is to be no compulsion in matters of religion." In the 7th century Muslim armies brought vast territories under Muslim political control, but conversion to Islam was voluntary and was not imposed "by the sword." This is a Western myth.

Yazd - Jomeh Mosque, photo by G. Ross

Some Misconceptions about Islam

"Muslim," "Arab," and "Islam" are not interchangeable terms. Islam refers to the religion itself. Muslims are the followers of Islam. Arabs are a linguistic and cultural community with a common history. Most but not all Arabs are Muslims. Most Muslims are not Arabs. About 85% of the world's Muslims are not Arabs. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. About 12 million Arabs are Christian and thousands are Jewish.

"Mohammadanism" is a misnomer for Islam and offends its very spirit, since Muhammad was a merely a messenger of God.

The accurate translation of the Arabic word jihad should be "exertion of effort or struggle" in accord with the will of God. It is any strenuous effort - physical, intellectual, spiritual - for the good. The "higher jihad" is the personal struggle to become a better Muslim. Jihad can mean standing up to speak the word of truth to tyrants and to call for justice. It can also be a religiously guided military struggle, but it does not mean "holy war." The Arabic word for war is "harb," which does not appear in the Qur'an. Islam is not a pacifist religion. It teaches that a war in self-defense is permissible and a duty, but the conduct of war is to be in accord with rules forbidding the harming of women, children and old men or the destruction of property. This is the "lesser jihad." Not every "jihad" called by political leaders is in accord with the requirements of Islam. Such a call can often be regarded as an appeal to emotionally-laden traditional symbols without real religious standing.

"Islamic fundamentalism": There are widespread movements of spiritual and cultural revivalism in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Many of them are critical of Western influence and seek a return to the authentic roots of their own traditions. A small number of these movements use violent means to achieve political goals. These are what is usually referred to in the West as fundamentalists. More mainstream Muslims consider such movements as deviations from authentic Islam.

Five Common Myths About Islam

By Global Exchange at http://www.globalexchang...


Muslims around the world and in the US have long been subject to negative stereotyping where they are presented as terrorists, as uncivilized, barbaric, exotic peoples who are oppressive to women. This portrayal of Islam and Muslims is perpetuated by many sectors of the US mainstream media as well as public edcuational institutions. The following are five of the most widely held misconceptions about Islam and Muslims.

Islam Degrades Women

One of the most generally held misconceptions about Islam is that it is a mysogynistic religion: it requires Muslim women to cover their entire bodies except for parts of their faces, it sanctions different divorce rights based on gender, and it allows Muslim men to limit the freedom of movement of Muslim women.

Indeed, a brief look at the countries in which Islam is the predominant religion would support these views: in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive unless they are ast least 35 and married; until recently in Afghanistan, women were forced to remain at home, and were required to be entirely covered when they did emerge; in Nigeria, there have been accounts of rape victims being stoned to death for engaging in extramarital sex.

Yet many Muslim scholars today are emphasizing the distinction between what Islam as a religion advocates, and what Muslims (who often live in impoverished societies with little access to education) do. They draw attention to the fact that the laws sanctioning such misogynistic behavior are not advocated in the Quran (the holy text in Islam), but that this traditional Islamic jurisprudence (known in Arabic as shari'ah) was written primarily by Muslim men in the 10th-12th centuries who were interpreting the Quran to fit their own socio-cultural circumstances. Today many progressive Muslims are emphasizing the importance of re-interpreting the Quran for the present day, allowing Islam's ideals of social and gender justice to be highlighted. They point out the many sections in the Quran regarding the equality of men and women. According to these individuals, there is little basis in Islam for these violations of the rights of women. Rather, these practices are the products of laws written by Muslim jurists hundreds of years ago, combined with local customs... practices that don't reflect the egalitarian and humanitarian nature of Islam.

Just as Christian, Jewish, and other societies have evolved over the centuries gradually to allow greater rights to women, Muslim intellectuals insist that Muslim societies will also do so, if given the opportunity. Iran, a country in which there is a large reform movement among the younger generation, is one such example. However, US and Western intervention over the past century has kept the Muslim world in a state of political and economic unrest, making social change virtually impossible.

Islam is Intolerant of Non-Muslims

Recent announcements on television and radio by Osama Bin Laden and others who claim to speak in the name of Islam espouse a view that Muslims are a racist people with little tolerance, and even a desire to destroy, non-Muslim societies, and especially Jews. While these extremists and the Western xenophobes who oppose them attribute these opinions to Islam, an observer needs to separate politics from religion to understand the situation more clearly.

The Quran and other Muslim texts preach tolerance of non-Muslims and especially emphasize the value of human life, the ban on killing non-combatants, and respect for people of other religions. The fact that many acts of terror in recent years have been perpetrated by Muslims should not lead us to lay the blame on the religion of these individuals, since Christian, Jewish, and other histories - even in present times - are similarly filled with instances of violence waged in the name of their faiths. Rather, we should investigate the underlying motives of these individuals, most of whom come from nations in which the United States government has long been supporting puppet governments and providing funding for military actions against the people of these countries. We could point to the United States' support of the Saudi regime, in which the royal family is allowed by the US to rule in an undemocratic fashion in exchange for providing cheap oil resources; or the US' annual financial aid of about $9 billion to the government of Israel which uses these funds in its continued illegal occupation of Palestinian lands; or the US' financial backing of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

Such circumstances provoke the oppressed people of these nations to feel great animosity towards the United States. And just as others have unjustifiably pointed to religion as the inspiration for their actions, these individuals similarly claim Islam as their motivation, despite the numerous instances in the Quran which discourage them from doing so. Thus, in order to understand the root of the violence, it is important to recognize the significance of the role of US foreign policy in world politics as well.

Islam Advocates Conservatism

In various parts of the world, including the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, there exist countries which claim to base their governmental system on Islamic law, and which are also strongly associated with conservatism. Such countries have limited opportunities for freedom of speech, and are well known for their violations of human rights, especially those of women, homosexuals, and non-Muslims. For this reason, Islam as a religion has come to be associated with conservatism and fundamentalism.

What this view does not acknowledge, however, is that the laws that govern these nations were written by men, and are not directly stated anywhere in the Quran or hadith (i.e. the speech and actions of the prophet Muhammad). While the individuals who wrote them would state that they were inspired by Islamic ideals, it is important to note that Islamic jurisprudence was written by men living more than 1000 years ago who were interpreting the Islamic holy texts to fit the patriarchal society which was prevalent not just in the Arabian peninsula where they lived, but throughout the world.

Today, many progressive Muslims are calling for a re-interpretation of the Quran and hadith to produce a revitalized system of Islamic jurisprudence that reflects the tolerance of individuals of different genders, religions, and sexualities, within the Islamic framework. With this view, it would be incorrect to state that Islam as a religion promotes conservatism and fundamentalism, but rather that a more contemporary interpretation of holy texts is required, free of the socio-cultural constraints present hundreds of years ago.

All Muslims are Arabs, and All Arabs are Muslims

Another myth prevalent today is that all Muslims are Arabs, all Arabs are Muslims, or that these two groups are in fact one and the same. This misconception could not be further from the truth. While Muslims are those who subscribe to the religion of Islam, Arabs are a linguistic and cultural group found mainly in the Middle East.

Islam is the religion of over 1.2 billion people in the world today, and only 15-20% of these are Arabs. In fact, the nations with the largest Muslim populations are Indonesia and India, and Muslims today come from a tremendous range of ethnic groups, including Asians, Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics.

Arabs, meanwhile, represent a number of different religions, not just Islam. Throughout the Arab world, there are Christians, such as those in Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt, as well as Jews, such as those in Iraq, Yemen, and Morocco, and members of other religious groups.

Jihad Means Holy War, and it is Being Waged Against the West

In the past few years, the term jihad, literally "struggle" in Arabic, has become one of the most misunderstood terms surrounding Islam. Many have come to see the word as meaning a "holy war," one in which the entirety of the West and non-Muslims are being targeted.

The word jihad is used by Muslims to mean a struggle on three different levels to bring oneself closer to God. Firstly, it is an internal struggle against one's own selfish tendencies so that an individual becomes more spiritual and moral. Secondly, it is a struggle on the level of one's community, for goals such as social justice and human rights. Thirdly, jihad can be an armed struggle in the name of Islam, either for self-defense, to establish justice, or to deter an aggressor. As noted above, individuals who have been trampled by global politics have often turned to this final definition as justification for their violent actions against the United States, despite the presence of many sections in the Quran banning the killing of, and the violence against, innocents. Thus, while jihad sometimes - but not always - implies violence, many Muslims would object to its use in this context, stating that the actions of Bin Laden and others are primarily politically motivated, and not justifiable by Muslim texts.

Reference: Progressive Muslims. Ed. by Omid Safi. Oneworld Publications (UK), 2003.

Sunni and Shi'a

By David Kremer for BBC at


The words Sunni and Shia appear regularly in stories about the Muslim world but few people know what they really mean. Religion permeates every aspect of life in Muslim countries and understanding Sunni and Shia beliefs is important in understanding the modern Muslim world. The beginnings The division between the Sunnis and the Shia is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam. To understand it, it is good to know a little bit about the political legacy of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

When the Prophet died in the early 7th Century he not only left the religion of Islam but also an Islamic State in the Arabian Peninsula with around one hundred thousand Muslim inhabitants. It was the question of who should succeed the Prophet and lead the fledgling Islamic state that created the divide.

One group of Muslims (the larger group) elected Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet as the next caliph (leader) of the Muslims and he was duly appointed. However a smaller group believed that the Prophet's son-in-law, Ali, should become the caliph.

Both Shi'as and Sunni have good evidence to support their theories. For example, the Prophet chose Abu Bakr to lead the congregational prayers as he lay on his deathbed, suggesting to Sunni's that the Prophet was hinting at the next leader. Shi'as take the evidence that Muhammad stood up in front of hundreds of his companions on his way back from Hajj, and proclaimed that his family would never be led astray. Reports say he took Ali's hand and said that anyone who followed Muhammad should follow Ali.

Muslims who believe that Abu Bakr should be the Prophet's successor have come to be known as Sunni. Muslims who believe Ali should have been the Prophet's successor are now known as Shia. The use of the word successor should not be confused to mean that that those that followed the Prophet Muhammad were also prophets - both Shia and Sunni agree that Muhammad was the final prophet.

What is the basis for leadership claims?

Both Sunni and Shia legitimise their views using Islam's sacred scriptures. Both groups say that the Qur'an (which Muslims believe to be the revealed word of Allah) and the Hadith (the narrations of the Prophet) show their choice of leader to be the right one.

What happened next?

Ali delayed pledging his oath of loyalty to Abu Bakr. A few months later he changed his mind. He sought reconciliation with Abu Bakr and pledged allegiance to him.

Over the next two decades Umar ibn al-Khattab and Uthman ibn 'Affan succeeded as the second and third caliphs before Ali was elected as the fourth caliph. Ali became caliph following the murder of Uthman but he was opposed by Aisha, wife of the Prophet, who accused him of being lax in bringing Uthman's killers to justice. The dispute led to the Battle of the Camel in 656 where Aisha was defeated. Later Aisha apologised to Ali but the clash had already strengthened any opposition to Ali's rule.

Considering the religious climate, the appointment of a caliph with a heretical theology seems inconceivable and demonstrates the political, and not theological, nature of the dispute at the time. In fact it was only later that the terms Sunni and Shia came into use. Sunni means 'one who follows the Sunna' (what the Prophet said, did, agreed to or condemned). Shia is a contraction of the phrase 'Shiat Ali', meaning the 'partisans of Ali'. Both groups, who embrace the Prophet and Ali, naturally dispute whether each others' group can be correct in claiming to be either 'Sunni' or 'Shia'.

Islam's dominion had already spread to Syria by the time of Ali's caliphate. The governor of Damascus, Mu'awiya, fought Ali to claim the caliphate for himself. In the famous Battle of Siffin in 657 that demonstrated the religious fervour of the time, Mu'awiya's soldiers flagged the ends of their spears with verses from the Qur'an. Ali's supporters felt morally unable to fight their Muslim brothers. The Battle of Siffin proved indecisive. Ali and Mu'awiya agreed to settle the dispute with outside arbitrators. However this solution of human arbitration was unacceptable to a group of Ali's followers who pointed to the Qur'anic verse:

The decision is for Allah only. He telleth the truth and He is the Best of Deciders.

This group, the Kharijites, formed their own sect and opposed all contenders to the caliphate. In 661 the Kharijites killed Ali while he was praying in a mosque in Kufa, Iraq. In the years that followed, the Kharijites were defeated in a series of uprisings. Around 500,000 descendents of the Kharijites survive to this day in North Africa, Oman and Zanzibar in a sub sect known as the Ibadiyah.

The community of early Muslims lost its unity. Unlike their predecessors their leadership was unelected and their claim to leadership was hereditary.

Remarkably, this turn of events was in keeping with the prophecy of Muhammad in which he said:

the caliphate will remain in my nation after me for thirty years. Then, it will be a monarchy after that.

Sunnis and Shia expansion

What happened next gave Shia Islam its strong theme of martyrdom. Ali's youngest son, Hussein, ruled Kufa in Iraq. When Yazid, Mu'awiya's son, seized the caliphate in 680 Hussein led a rebellion but was met by Yazid's forces in Karbala, Iraq. Despite knowing he was hopelessly outnumbered, Hussein fought heroically and was killed on the battlefield. It is one of the most significant events in Shia history, where Hussein is considered to have sacrificed his life for the survival of Shia Islam. It is still commemorated today as Ashura where millions of pilgrims still visit the Imam Hussein mosque in Karbala.

The leadership continued with imams, in lieu of caliphs, believed to be divinely appointed from the Prophet's family until the late 9th Century. According to the Twelvers, the largest Shia sect, Muhammad al-Muntazar al-Mahdi was the twelfth imam in the Prophet's family in the line of Ali and Hussein. The Shia believe that as a young boy Muhammad al-Muntazar al-Mahdi was hidden in a cave below a mosque in Samarra. He disappeared, and not accepting that he had died, the Shia await his return. This is a sacred place for the Shia and they still pray here for the return of the twelfth Imam. This event marks the end of leadership of the Shia in the family of the prophet.

After several centuries a council or Ulema was appointed to elect an Ayatollah: the supreme spiritual leader. Ayatollah translates literally from Arabic as 'Sign of Allah' and as the name suggests is bestowed with great religious authority.

As Sunni Islam expanded into the complex and urban societies of the once Roman and Persian empires, new ethical questions were encountered that demanded the authority of religious answers. In the first two centuries Sunni Islam responded with the emergence of four popular schools of thought - the Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki and Shaafii - which to this day continue to seek to find Islamic solutions in any society, regardless of time or place.

Shia Muslims have always maintained that the Prophet's family were the rightful leaders of the Islamic world. Although the Shia never ruled the majority of Muslims they did have their successes. The empire of the Safavid dynasties in the 16th Century was a great political triumph for Shia Islam, encompassing parts of modern Iran, Azerbaijan and Iraq. Today, Iran is the political face of Shia Islam.

Politically, Sunni Islam continued through the Umayyads (started by Mu'awiya) and other dynasties that led to the powerful Ottoman and Mughal empires of the 15th to 20th Centuries. In the wake of these empires the Sunnis emerge as an over-arching identity grouping close to 90% of the now one billion Muslims. Sunnis have a large populations stretching geographically from the Indonesian archipelago through the Indian subcontinent, central Asia, the Arab world and Africa to the periphery of Europe.

How do Sunni and Shia differ theologically?

Initially the difference between Sunni and Shia was merely a difference concerning who should lead the Muslim community. The Shia, however, not only preferred the family of the Prophet in their choice of leadership but also with regard to the Hadith literature.

What was the result? The interpretation of Hadith is an Islamic science for Shia and Sunnis. The Shia give preference to the Hadith as narrated by Ali and Fatima and their close associates. The Sunnis consider the Hadith narrated by any of twelve thousand companions equally. This ultimately led to a different understanding of Islam.

Sunni Muslims tend to follow the opinion of the 1st and 2nd Century (7th and 8th century Gregorian calendar) scholars Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki and Shaafii. The Shia believe only a living scholar must be followed.

Practical differences

Sunni Muslims pray five times a day, whereas Shia Muslims can combine prayers to pray three times a day. Shia prayers can often be identified by a small tablet of clay, from a holy place (often Karbala), on which they place their forehead whilst prostrating in prayer.

The practice of Muttah marriage, a temporary marriage, is also permitted in Shia Islam but Sunnis considered it forbidden as they believe the Prophet abolished it.

The relationship between Sunni and Shia Muslims through the ages has shaped their contemporary political landscape. The persecution of the family of the Prophet particularly and the early Shia followers has been a paradigm of martyrdom throughout Shia Islam's history.

How do Sunni and Shia view each other?

The majority of Sunni and Shia do not let their differences allow them to cast each other out of Islam. At the institutional level Shaikh Mahmood Shaltoot of Al-Azhar, Cairo, the oldest institution of Islamic learning, considers Shia Islam to be an equally valid school of thought, along with the four Sunni schools.


A History of the Arab Peoples, Hourani, Albert, pub. 1991, Faber and Faber Ltd

Submitted by goudarz on Wed, 03/26/2008 - 10:10am.