Islam is the second largest religion in the world and is becoming increasingly prominent in the United States and parts of Europe. Even though Islam is similar in many ways to Judaism and Christianity and is one of the major world religions, many Europeans and Americans know little about Islam and view it as linked to extremism due to the rise of groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Islam is a monotheistic religion and accepts the same prophets as Christians and Jews, in addition to the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad received his revelations from God through the angel Gabriel to address any errors that had made their way into the beliefs and scriptures of Judaism and Christianity.
1. The Text – Qur’an
The main text in Islam is the Qur’an. The Qur’an is considered by Muslims to be the direct word of God because it was recited by Muhammad as it was communicated to him by the angels, and later written in Arabic. As such, all Muslims memorize and recite the Qur’an in Arabic, despite the fact that translations of the Qur’an exist in many different languages such as English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Farsi, etc.
2. The Rules – Five Pillars
The Five Pillars of Islam are the core beliefs of all Muslims. The first two pillars are the bearing of witness to God and daily prayer. The next two are the giving of alms (2.5% of one’s income) to help the poor and fasting during the month of Ramadan. The final pillar is the Hajj, which is the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim who is well enough must make at least once in their lifetime. In addition, Muslims are forbidden to use intoxicating beverages or to consume pork, blood, or harmful things. To be eaten, animals must be ritually slaughtered and drained of blood. In Islam, Halal means “permissible,” whereas Haraam means forbidden.”
3. The Split – Sunni vs. Shi’a
Islam is split into two sects, Sunni (~85% of all Muslims worldwide), and Shi’a (~15% of Muslims worldwide). Sunni Muslims make up the overwhelming majority of Muslims in many countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Jordan, Palestine, and the Gulf States. On the other hand, Shi’a Muslims make up the majority of the Muslim populations in Iran (~90%), Iraq (~51-55%), Bahrain (~70%), Yemen (~50%), Azerbaijan (~85%), and Lebanon (~75%) and have a sizable presence in Afghanistan (~7-15%), Pakistan (~20-30%), Kuwait (~20-25%) and parts of Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey.
Even though both Sunnis and Shi’as share the same fundamental religious beliefs and follow the message of Islam in the same ways, there are some notable differences between both sects. Sunnis believe that Muhammad did not select a successor to lead the Muslim community and that his successor must be selected by the Muslim community instead, whereas Shi’as believe that the leadership of the Muslim community should be heredity and that Muhammad’s successors were Ali and a series of Twelve Imams. Historically, the Shi’a community has been the target of much persecution by Sunni Muslims and extremist groups due to their status as the minority group in Islam. Additionally, extremist groups such as ISIS have committed ethnic cleansing against Shi’a Muslim communities in Iraq and Syria over the past 3 years.
4. Liberal Islam – Sufism
Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam, in which its followers, or Sufi, are striving to obtain a better relationship with God by leading a more disciplined and less materialistic life. Early founders of Sufism believed there were many mystical overtones in the things the Prophet Muhammad was preaching. Many Sufis reside in Iran, as Iran was home to one of the most influential figures in spreading the ideas of Sufism, the poet Jalal al-Din Rumi. It is often said that the literature and culture that have been influenced by Sufism is second to none, and the followers of Sufism are truly blessed with hundreds of years of traditions and literature. One of Sufism’s most generic and important teachings is the development of love and presence. According to many Sufis, only presence can awaken us from the enslavement to the materialistic world in which many of us live. It is the goal of every Sufi to reject the materialistic love of self, and to find a true balance where the soul and body are one with God.
5. Conservative Islam – Wahhabism
Wahhabi Islam is a conservative form of Islam originally developed by Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad Ibn Saud during the 18th Century. Wahhabism stresses a puritanical form of Islam that views the world as composed of either Muslims or non-Muslims and regards Muslims who disagree with their beliefs as heretics. Wahhabism is the state religion in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government and wealthy individuals in both Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States exported Wahhabi theology to Muslim communities worldwide through development projects and other forms of aid.
6. Religious Tolerance – “People of the Book”
Even though the issue of religious intolerance has emerged in several Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Afghanistan under the Taliban, Islam has historically been tolerant towards other religious faiths. The Qur’an states that “there is to be no compulsion in religion” and considers Christians and Jews to be “People of the Book” who have received a revelation and a scripture from God. Muslims also emphasize that tolerance towards others and cultural diversity is an essential component of Islam. The strong belief in religious tolerance found within Islam was contrary to the values of Christians, who tended to push out foreigners (including Jews and Muslims) from majority-Christian countries and slaughter them throughout the history of Christianity in events such as the Crusades.
7. Gender Equality – The Role of Women
In Islam, men and women are both equal before the eyes of God. Islam improved the status of women in the Arab world and gave them legal and social rights. In only a few instances are the rights of men and women noticeably different in the Qur’an, though these verses are being studied and reinterpreted by both legal and religious scholars.
8. Conflict and Context – Religion of Peace
Islam does not advocate violence and condemns all forms of violence wholeheartedly. Some passages of the Qur’an authorize Muslims to defend themselves from aggression, though they must be interpreted in the context in which they were initially revealed. The Qur’an also underscores that permission to fight an enemy is to be balanced by a mandate for making peace and condemns the killing of innocent civilians.
9. Moral Guidelines – Shari’a Law
The Qur’an provides moral directives describing what Muslims should aspire to do and achieve in life, which are known as Islamic (Shari’a) law. A wide array of differences exists between the Islamic schools of thought that reflects the diverse contexts in which the jurists were writing. Contemporary scholars also face the challenge of addressing the changing demands of modern society in relation to the scriptures of the Qur’an and Islamic law.
10. Legal Directives – Fatwas
A Fatwa is a formal Islamic legal opinion on the nature of things such as the wearing of the Hijab or not. Fatwas can be added over time through scholarship and changes within society. Legal reforms in Islam can be applied on the country basis rather than on the entire Islamic community as a whole.
11. The Struggle – Jihad
Jihad is a term that is misinterpreted in the West. Jihad is derived from the Arabic root, jhd, meaning to “strive,” “exert oneself to the utmost,” “endeavor,” “struggle in the way of God.” It is a way to have Muslims remain faithful to their religion in spite of the challenges they face, internally and externally and the term does not mean “holy war,” which is condemned in Islam.