Primer on Islam

Young Muslim girls pray at a mosque. (Yazeed Kamaldien)

The Many Faces of Islam

John L. Esposito

Founding Director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University

Islam, with its 1.5 billion Muslims globally is the second largest of the world’s religions.

Like Christianity, Islam has spread throughout much of the world and thus today is both an Eastern and Western religion. Islam is not only the second largest of the world’s religions, but also the second largest religion in Europe and the third largest U.S. religion. Thus, today, the major cities of Islam are not only Cairo, Damascus, Mecca and Medina, Lahore and Jakarta but also New York, Dearborn, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Manchester, Paris, Marseilles, Berlin and Copenhagen.

Islam is a global religion encompassing many countries, ethnic groups, tribes, cultures and languages from Africa to Southeast Asia, Europe to North America and thus substantial religious, cultural and political differences exist. The majority of the world’s Muslims are not Arab (only 23%) but Asian and African. The largest Muslim countries and communities are in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and Nigeria.

The Muslim community is also religiously and politically diverse. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam includes a number of communities or branches. The two major groups are Sunni Muslims, who comprise about 85 percent of Muslims, and Shii (or Shiite) Muslims with their three major branches-Ithna Ashari (Twelvers), Ismaili and Zaydi-who account for 15 percent of the world’s Muslim population. In addition, there are many interpretations of Islam, with diverse theological and legal schools of thought.

Politically, Muslim governments span a spectrum from secular to self-described Islamic states, democratic to authoritarian: Muammar Qaddafi’s populist state, the conservative monarchy of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s theocracy, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan which has alternated between democratically elected and military-led governments, the secular socialism of the Baathist regime of Syria, the official secular democracy of Turkey, and the “limited democracies” Pakistan, Afghanistan and Malaysia. Women’s status, educational and professional opportunities, and participation in mosques and societies are as varied as the countries and cultures in which they live.

Belief and Practice

The word Islam means “submission” to God and “peace”. A Muslim is one who submits to or follows God’s will. The term Islam really reflects not only a religion, but also a way of life and a global community (ummah) of believers bound together by a common faith in God and His prophets.

Despite their differences, all Muslims share a common faith in Allah (God) and follow the teachings of their prophet, Muhammad. In addition to their shared belief in God and his prophets, Muslims share the practice of daily prayer, concern and responsibility for the poor, and an emphasis on community and family.

God (Allah) and God’s Prophet, Muhammad

God

Just as Moses in Judaism and Jesus in Christianity hold a special place as prophets, primary messengers and models for their communities, Muslims believe that Muhammad is the final prophet of God. First and foremost, he received God’s final and complete message or revelation, the Quran, which is Islam’s sacred scripture. Second, Muhammad’s life is the “living Quran,” providing the example or model to be emulated by Muslims today as it has down through the ages.

There are many common beliefs and traditions, links between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Muslims, like Jews and Christians, believe that there is one God (Allah, the God), the Creator, Sustainer, and Judge of the universe. Although one can come to know God through the wonders of creation, Muslims believe that God’s will was revealed to a long series of prophets or messengers, first to Adam, Abraham, Noah, and Moses, then to Jesus, and then to Muhammad, the final prophet. Muhammad is of key importance to Muslims as a living example of the “ideal Muslim,” the model for all to learn from and copy. Many Muslims are named after the Prophet; in some countries all males have the name Muhammad as one of their names.

Muslims pray in a Mosque in Syria. (Antonio Melina/Agência Brasil)

Shariah: Islamic Law as a Moral Compass

Islam is considered a total way of life for the religious community.  Muslims, like Jews, responded to this challenge through the development of law as the moral compass of the community. If being a Muslim meant submission to God’s will, and if eternal reward in heaven or punishment in hell was dependent upon following God’s law (shariah), then it was important to know what that law required. This became even more of an issue as Islam spread across the world, absorbing peoples in different regions who had different laws and customs and encountering new situations, problems, and questions.

Answering the question, “What should a good Muslim be doing?” became the job of the ulama, scholars who devoted their lives to study, debate, and spelling out God’s law (known as the Shariah) as the blueprint or moral compass for society. The ulama were like the great theologians of Christianity and rabbis of Judaism in this regard, and became the scholars, teachers and guardians of Islam. Islamic law covers all aspects of religious life (worship including prayer, fasting, and pilgrimages) and social life (ranging from marriage, divorce, and inheritance to laws governing contracts, criminal punishments, and warfare).

Of course, the starting point for developing Islamic law was to look at the teachings of scripture, the Quran, and the life or example of the Prophet. Since these sources did not offer specific answers for every situation, Muslim scholars relied upon their personal interpretation and opinion and prevailing customs to determine God’s will in a given situation. For example, the ulama have prohibited the use of drugs by pointing out their similarity to alcohol, which the Quran explicitly bans. Thus there is an inherent diversity in Islam. Depending on where a Muslim is born, he or she follows the regulations or guidelines of a specific Sunni or Shii school of law.

Sufism: Islamic Mysticism

While Islamic law offered a moral compass for Muslim life and society, this external spiritual was supplemented by an interior mystical path, Sufism (Islamic mysticism) developed in the eighth century.

The term Sufi derives from the Arabic word for “wool,” because the first Sufis wore coarse woolen garments. Reacting to the excesses of imperial lifestyles and luxuries, Sufis emphasized an “interior” path of asceticism and meditation with devotional love of God in their quest for a more personal and direct experience of the presence of God. The reformers did not reject the world so much as dependence on the things of this world.

By the twelfth century, Sufism swept across much of the Islamic world. Sufi Orders or Brotherhoods were among the great missionaries of Islam and Sufism became integral to everyday popular religious practice and spirituality. Its ability to adapt to and absorb local non-Muslim customs and practices and its strong devotional character, helped them to become a popular mass movement.

The Five Pillars of Islam

Profession of Faith (Shahada)

Despite differences, all Muslims share a core of basic beliefs and practices the five pillars of Islam.  The profession or declaration of faith (shahada, to bear witness): “There is no God but God and Muhammad is the Prophet (or messenger) of God” is the gateway to membership in the Muslim community.

Prayer or Worship (Salat)

The second pillar of Islam is prayer or worship (salat). Five times each day, wherever they are, Muslims stop Mecca and worship God. When performing the salat and reciting God’s revelation, Muslims believe that they are in the presence of their Lord.

Prayer consists of the recitation of verses from the Quran with a series of prostrations before God.

On Friday, Muslims perform the noon prayer, which includes a sermon (khutba), in a congregation (juma) at their local mosque. In America, Muslims, who are not able to get away from their jobs to pray at their mosque on Friday, gather on Sunday to worship and socialize as a community.

Almsgiving (Zakat)

Just as the obligation to pray has an individual and a community dimension, so too almsgiving (zakat), the third pillar of Islam, is an individual obligation that instills and reinforces a sense of community identity and responsibility.

Islam teaches that because God is the creator of the world, all wealth ultimately belongs to God. Human beings are caretakers who are given an opportunity to share in and use that wealth. The pursuit and accumulation of wealth by Muslims has always been recognized as an acceptable and indeed noble endeavor. After all, Muhammad was himself a businessperson, as was his wife, Khadija, who owned the caravan business for which he worked. Throughout history, merchants and traders have been a respected class among the leaders in the Muslim community, providing support for religious institutions and activities.

Wealth also brings responsibility. Tithing is a duty for all who are financially capable to pay; in Sunni Islam it is an annual 2.5% percent wealth tax to distributed to address the needs of less fortunate members of the community.

Payment of the zakat is an act of worship; it is a way that Muslims thank God for their material success and well-being. The Quran and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad emphasize socioeconomic justice and denounce exploitation of the poor, weak, women, widows, orphans, and slaves and the hoarding of wealth are condemned: “Who denies religion? It is the person who repulses the orphan and does not promote feeding the poor. Woe to those who worship but who are neglectful, those who want to be noticed but who withhold assistance from those in need” (Quran 107:1 ‑7).

Fasting (Sawm) in Ramadan

Once a year, all adult Muslims, who are physically able, fast during the month of Ramadan. It is a time to thank God for his blessings, repent and atone for sins, discipline the body to  strengthen moral character, remember one’s ultimate dependence upon God, and respond to the needs of the poor and hungry. For one month, each day from dawn to dusk Muslims abstain from eating or drinking anything, even water.

Near the end of Ramadan (on the twenty‑seventh day), Muslims commemorate the “Night of Power and Excellence,” the night when Muhammad first received God’s revelation. Finally, the month of Ramadan comes to a close with a grand celebration, the Feast of Breaking of the Fast (id al‑Fitr). This joyful celebration is similar to Christmas or Hanukkah, as families come from near and far to celebrate together, wear their finest clothing, feast, and exchange gifts in a three‑day affair that sometimes stretches into a week or more.

Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj)

The last pillar of Islam is the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca. Every Muslim who has the health and financial ability is obliged to make the pilgrimage once in his or her lifetime. Each year more than two million Muslims from all over the world congregate in Mecca, Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj. As pilgrims from all over the world near Mecca their excitement erupts into joyous shouts of “I am here, 0 Lord, I am here!” Whatever their backgrounds and social class, all are equal before God. Fine clothes, jewelry, and perfume are set aside. All don the simple garments of the pilgrim as a symbol of the unity and equality of the Muslim community. During the pilgrimage, participants visit sacred sites associated with Abraham, Ishmael, and Muhammad and ritually reenact and commemorate sacred events.

The pilgrimage ends with  the Feast of Sacrifice (Id al-Adha), also known as the Great Feast which commemorates God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Ishmael in contrast to  the Bible where Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac. Just as God ultimately permitted Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead of his son, so too Muslims at the conclusion of the hajj sacrifice animals (sheep, goats, camels) in memory of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command, a symbolic reminder and declaration by pilgrims that they too are willing to sacrifice what is important and precious to them. Whatever meat is not consumed is distributed to the poor.

The worldwide community of Muslims

Wherever Muslims may live, however devout or nonobservant they may be, most are acutely aware, especially in today’s world of global communications, of their common bond with other Muslims throughout the world. They share a common faith and a common sense of a rich and vibrant early religious history: the spread of Islam in its first centuries and the creation of Islamic empires that extended from North Africa, across the Middle East, to Southeast Asia. Islamic empires brought with them the development of a rich Islamic civilization that made major contributions to the arts and sciences. Muslim scholars contributed to the development of algebra (which comes from the Arabic at-jabr), as well as to medicine, astronomy, philosophy, and literature. This brilliant legacy is part of the history and identity of all Muslims wherever they may live and however diverse their national origins.

Because Muslims belong to the ummah, a worldwide faith community, they are concerned about what is happening to Muslims in other parts of the world. Thus, events as widespread as the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979, the Iranian Revolution of 1978 ‑1979, the plight of Muslims in Palestine and Kashmir, post 9/11 invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the condition of Muslims in Europe and America are followed closely  by many Muslims worldwide.

The Resurgence of Islam in Muslim Politics and Society

In many parts of the world in recent years, many Muslims have become more conscious of their Islamic faith and identity, and this religious reawakening has expressed itself in a variety of ways in Muslim life. The contemporary revival of Islam may be seen both in personal and in public life. Many Muslims have become more religiously observant, expressing their faith through prayer, fasting, and Islamic dress and values. This is reflected in an increase in the number of mosques, religious schools, and organizations. Not only has mosque attendance increased, but also a growing number of Muslim women, both overseas and in the United States, choose to wear Islamic dress, in particular a headscarf, or hijab, as a sign of modesty.

There is a great diversity of opinion and activity among the world’s Muslims. While some leaders and movements such as Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda have turned to violence and terrorism to achieve their goals, the majority of Islamic activists wish to live peacefully in societies that are more firmly grounded in their faith and that are socially just. Their organizations call upon those who were born Muslim to become better or more observant Muslims and to work to transform their societies. They emphasize education in order to produce a sector of society that is well‑ educated but oriented toward Islamic, rather than secular, values. Many are graduates of the best universities in their countries or in the West, professionals in law, medicine, teaching, business, or engineering. The social dimension of this movement can be seen in the growth of Islamic schools, banks, student groups, publishing and media, and social welfare agencies (hospitals, clinics, legal aid societies).

  1. Islamic activists
  • Islamic activists in Turkey, Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Yemen, Pakistan, and Malaysia have peacefully pressed for the implementation of religion in state and society and members of Islamic organizations have been elected to parliaments.
  • Extremist groups have engaged in acts of violence and terror.
  1. Social action, Islamic associations provide social services, inexpensive and efficient educational, legal and medical services in the slums and many lower middle class neighborhoods of Cairo and Algiers, Beirut and Mindanao, the West Bank and Gaza.
  1. Terrorists, in the name of Islam, hijacked commercial airlines and flew into New York’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., resulting in the loss of some 3,000 lives.

Hijackers who committed this act reflected a religious radicalism that has threatened many regimes in the Muslim world and Western governments.

Islamic Reform in the 21st Century

The struggle for the soul of Islam, for Islamic reform, has taken two broad directions:

  • A conservative return to and reappropriation of an often romanticized and in some cases “reimagined” past,
  • A more modernist or liberal return to the past for inspiration in order to the reinterpret and reform Islam in the 21st Century

Muslim understanding and interpretations of Islam, attitudes towards change and modernization, reveal a broad religious diversity of perspective. Secularists reemphasize that the future development of Muslim societies is contingent upon the separation of religion and politics. Conservatives and traditionalists reaffirm the continued relevance of Islamic faith and traditions amidst rapid, predominantly western-oriented change whose secularism and material excesses they reject. Modernist reformers, advocate an Islamic reformation, a fresh reinterpretation or reconstruction of religious thought and the transformation of Muslim societies, based upon a selective synthesis of aspects of Islamic and Western as well as other cultures. Islamic political activists, sometimes referred to as Islamists, maintain that reform is possible by returning to the sources of Islam, the Quran and Sunnah of the Prophet to revitalize and reform Muslim societies. The voices of change are not restricted to the ulama. Many reformers are modern educated and Islamically oriented laymen and women who assert their competence to address issues as diverse as bioethics and medical ethics (birth control, abortion, cloning), gender, violence and religious extremism, democratization and pluralism.  Some are popular tele-preachers, clerical and lay, who, like Christian televangelists, preach their messages of reform employing the latest technologies of the internet, Facebook and Twitter.

However different, many Muslim countries face the same long-term issues of authoritarianism, legitimacy, security and terrorism. Secularists argue for the separation of religion and the state; Islamic reformers call for greater democratization in the name of Islam; rejectionists believe that Islam is incompatible with democracy. At the same time, terrorist attacks in America, Europe and across the Muslim world have demonstrated religious extremist organizations and movements remain a threat in many societies. Like Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, they “hijack” their religion using it to justify their “unholy” wars of violence and terrorism, calling for a jihad against their own societies, America and Europe. While jihad, to “struggle or exert” oneself in the path of God has multiple meanings: to lead a good life, to defend Islam or the Muslim community from oppression and injustice, extremists manipulate its meaning. They argue that they are fighting oppression and injustice, that they are waging a holy war against the enemies God and regard all who disagree with them, whether Jews, Christians or other Muslims, as enemies who are to be fought and killed. They ignore other clear teachings of the Quran and Islamic law that forbid killing non-combatants.

John L. Esposito is University Professor and Founding Director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University. A former president of the Middle East Studies and Association and current Vice President (2012) and President Elect (2013) of the American Academy of religion, his most recent books are “The Future of Islam” and “What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam.”