Feature

The origins of Islam

The world has 1 billion Muslims, including about 5 million in the U.S. What do they believe? Does the Koran justify violence?

How big is Islam?

The Koran is the most memorized book on earth, and Islam is the world’s second-largest religion. Muslims account for one-sixth of the human race—or around 1 billion people—and are the dominant population in 36 countries, from the Indonesian islands to the African plains. They divide loosely into two branches: the Shias, who are mostly to be found in Iran and Iraq, and the Sunnis, who constitute 90 percent of the Muslim world.

What do Muslims believe?

Islam means “submission” in Arabic, and a Muslim is someone who submits to the will of Allah. The Koran is believed to be the word of God as recorded by the prophet Muhammad. There are five key practices, or “pillars,” that bind the Muslim community: Shahadah, the affirmation that there is only one God, and Muhammad is his prophet; Salah, the five daily ritual prayers; Zakat, the giving of alms through a poor tax; Sawm, the dawn-to-dusk fast during the month of Ramadan; and Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim should undertake at least once. Islam has much in common with the other monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Christianity. Muslims believe in a day of judgment and venerate Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as prophets. The Koran also tells the story of Christ’s birth to the Virgin Mary.

Where did Islam come from?

The founder of Islam, the prophet Muhammad, was born in A.D. 570 in Mecca, an important center of commerce on the Arabian Peninsula. Muhammad’s parents died young and he was raised by his uncle Abu Talib, who brought him up as a merchant. Highly regarded for his honesty, he became known as “Al-Ameen”—“the Trustworthy.” He was also spiritually curious, having learned a great deal about different religions on his travels, and he made frequent retreats to a cave above Mecca in search of enlightenment. It was there, at the age of 42, that he was visited by the archangel Gabriel, who told him that he was to be the definitive prophet of Allah, the one true God. Terrified, Muhammad fled back to his wife, Khadijah, who told him: “Allah will not let you down because you are kind to relatives, you only speak the truth, you help the poor, the orphaned, and the needy, and you are an honest man.” She became the first convert to Islam. After her death in 620, Muhammad married again eight times; all his wives were instrumental in spreading his teachings.

How did Islam become

an organized religion?

Over the course of 23 years, Muhammad received numerous revelations from Gabriel, which were recorded by his scribes. The resulting 114 surahs (or chapters) were collated into the Koran. The early years of Muhammad’s mission were fraught with difficulty. He was demonized by the ruling Quraish tribes of Mecca, who attacked his followers and offered him bribes to abandon his teachings. But the word of Islam spread steadily, helped by armed religious envoys whom he dispatched across the Arab countries. In 622 A.D., after hearing that the Quraish were plotting to kill him, Muhammad marched on Mecca with an army of 10,000 Muslims. The city was seized, and it became the spiritual hub of the Islamic world. In 632, with almost all of Arabia converted, Muhammad made his pilgrimage to Mecca, accompanied by more than 120,000 men and women. He died two months later, at the age of 62.

Is Islam an aggressive religion?

No. The Koran preaches tolerance toward other races and religions, especially Christians and Jews. “The true Muslim,” the prophet said, “is the one who hurts no one by word or deed.” War is permitted only in self-defense, and combatants are instructed to fight face-to-face, without harming civilians. But the Koran also contains passages urging believers to wage war against infidels, such as this one: “Kill those who join other gods with God wherever ye shall find them; and seize them, besiege them, and lay wait for them with every kind of ambush.” And Islam does have a strong military tradition. During the seventh century, Muslim armies swept through the Middle East, central Asia, India, Spain, and southern France. As conquerors, they were far more tolerant of religious minorities than any Christian ruler. During the Crusades, Muslims were horrified by the barbarity of the Christian armies, who slaughtered some 70,000 men, women, and children while sacking Jerusalem in 1099.

Why does Islam have such a reputation for intolerance?

The Koran is meant to be the literal word of God, which means that any attempt to interpret it is highly controversial. By the end of the ninth century, the behavioral rules laid down in the Koran had been codified in legal manuals known as the Shari’ah, and these have remained fairly static ever since. Rulings that would have been quite uncontroversial at the time—such as the inferior status accorded to women, or the harsh punishments doled out to criminals—seem unacceptable in the modern world. A few scholars have tried to reinterpret the Koran in a more contemporary light, but the rise of Wahhabi puritanism has made this almost impossible.

What is jihad?

Muhammad urged his early followers to “struggle in the path of God,” which they took as an order to expand the borders of Islam in a holy war, called a “jihad.” But after the Muslim empire was established, the doctrine of jihad acquired a more spiritual meaning—it became an internal moral struggle against temptation. Recently, however, extreme Muslim groups

have sought to return to a more violent definition.

Islam’s fundamentalists

The Wahhabi sect was founded in the 18th century by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who preached an extreme form of puritan Islam. Followers were banned from enjoying any music except the drum; drinking and sexual transgressions were punishable by death; mosques were stripped of decoration and tombstones were toppled (on the grounds that they inspired idolatry). Driven from Medina for his teachings, Wahhab went into the northeast Nejd region, where he converted the Saudi tribe. For more than a century, Saudi sheiks then waged a bloody religious and territorial war against their Muslim neighbors, until the establishment of Saudi Arabia, in 1932. Wahhabism remains the country’s official religion.

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