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Religious Studies: Islam

Religion 101


"God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear.” (Qur'an 2:286)



Islam is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the word of Allah through the Qur'an. The etymology of the word "Islam" means submission in Arabic, and denotes a religious meaning of submitting to the will of God (Allah). The followers of Islam are called Muslims. Today, there are almost 2 billion Muslims globally, spanning all regions of the world, concentrated largely in Southeast Asia (Indonesia), South Asia, and the Middle East.

Atay, R. (2008). Islam. In O. Leaman (Ed.), The Qur`an: an encyclopedia. Routledge. Credo Reference.

In order to understand Islam, we have to understand the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca, in modern-day Saudi Arabia. around the 6th century CE. He is understood by Muslims to be "the last in the line of Judeo-Christian prophets", and he received his first revelation from God in 610. "Muslims believe that the word of God was revealed to him by the archangel Gabriel in Arabic.

"These revelations were subsequently collected and codified as the Qur’an (literally “recitation” in Arabic), the Muslim holy book. As the source of Muslim faith and practice, the Qur’an describes the relationship between an almighty and all-knowing God and his creations. The Qur’an also maintains that all individuals are responsible for their actions, for which they will be judged by God, and so it provides guidelines for proper behavior within the framework of a just and equitable society."

After his revelations began, the Prophet Muhammad spread his message throughout Mecca, " heralding a new socio-religious order based on allegiance to one god—Allah". This was deeply unpopular among local Meccan pagans who trended towards worshipping multiple gods, and the Prophet Muhammad and his followers were forced to emigrate to Medina. "This occurred in 622, the year of the hijra, or “emigration,” which marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. In Medina, Muhammad continued to attract followers and, within a few years, Mecca had also largely embraced Islam."

"Although Muhammad died in 632, his followers, led by a series of four caliphs (Arabic: khalifa, “successor”) known as the Rightly Guided, continued to spread the message of Islam. Under their command, the Arab armies carried the new faith and leadership from the Arabian Peninsula to the shores of the Mediterranean and to the eastern reaches of Iran. The Arabs conquered Syria, Palestine, and Egypt from the Byzantine empire, while Iraq and Iran, the heart of the Sasanian empire, succumbed to their forces. Here in these lands, Islam fostered the development of a religious, political, and cultural commonwealth and the creation of a global empire."

The Five Pillars of Islam

  1. Profession of Faith (shahada). The belief that "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God" is central to Islam. One becomes a Muslim by reciting this phrase with conviction.

  2. Prayer (salat). Muslims pray facing Mecca five times a day: at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and after dark.

  3. Alms (zakat). "In accordance with Islamic law, Muslims donate a fixed portion of their income to community members in need. Many rulers and wealthy Muslims build mosques, drinking fountains, hospitals, schools, and other institutions both as a religious duty and to secure the blessings associated with charity."

  4. Fasting (sawm). "During the daylight hours of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, all healthy adult Muslims are required to abstain from food and drink. Through this temporary deprivation, they renew their awareness of and gratitude for everything God has provided in their lives—including the Qur'an, which was first revealed during this month. During Ramadan they share the hunger and thirst of the needy as a reminder of the religious duty to help those less fortunate."

  5. Pilgrimage (hajj). Every Muslim whose health and finances permit it must make at least one visit to the holy city of Mecca, in present-day Saudi Arabia.

"Islam" by Sebastian Baryli is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

"agoo islam" by agoolapulapu is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

"Islam in Jimma" by Rod Waddington is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.



Sunni Muslims make up the larger of the two Islamic sects. Sunnis hold the belief that the first four caliphs appointed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali) were appointed correctly. This is the primary difference between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims: the question of succession. 

In addition to beliefs about the succession of Prophet Muhammad, Sunni Muslims typically place emphasis on "the views and customs of the majority of the community, as distinguished from the views of peripheral groups - aka, "the institution of consensus (ijmāʿ)."


Shi'a is the smaller of the two sects of Islam. Shi'ite Muslims differentiate themselves from Sunnis primarily by question of succession - who was meant to succeed the Prophet Muhammad? Shi'ite Muslims hold that ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, "should have been the Prophet’s immediate successor and, thereafter, members of ʿAlī’s family." "They believe that ʿAli and his followers were both temporal rulers and imams. Today about 89 per cent of Iranians and 60 per cent of Iraqis are Shiites. The most important group is the ‘Twelver’ Shiites, who believe that there were twelve imams – ʿAli and his descendants – after the Prophet Muhammad, and that the twelfth did not die but disappeared, and one day will return to bring justice to the world. Since the 16c, Twelver Shiism has been Iran's state religion."

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