What is Islam?
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Islam (Arabic: الإسلام al-’islām, pronounced [ʔislæːm] ( listen)[note 1]) is the Abrahamic religion articulated by the Qur’an, a text considered by its adherents to be the verbatim word of the one, incomparable God (Arabic: الله, Allāh), and by the Prophet of Islam Muhammad‘s demonstrations and real-life examples (called the Sunnah, collected through narration of his companions in collections of Hadith). Islam literally means “submission (to God).” Muslim, the word for an adherent of Islam, is the active participle of the same verb of which Islām is the infinitive (see Islam (term)).
Muslims regard their religion as the completed and universal version of a primordial, monotheistic faith revealed at many times and places before, including, notably, to the prophets Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Islamic tradition holds that previous messages and revelations have been changed and distorted over time. Religious practices include the Five Pillars of Islam, which are five obligatory acts of worship. Islamic law (Arabic: شريعة Šarīʿah) touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, encompassing everything from banking and warfare to welfare and the environment.
The majority of Muslims belong to one of two major denominations, the Sunni and Shi’a. Islam is the predominant religion in the Middle East, North Africa, and large parts of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Sizable communities are also found in China and Russia, and parts of the Balkans. About 13% of Muslims live in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, 31% in the Indian Subcontinent, and 20% in Arab countries. Converts and immigrant communities are found in almost every part of the world. With approximately 1.57 billion Muslims (see Islam by country), Islam is the second-largest religion in the world and arguably the fastest growing religion in the world.
Etymology and meaning
The word Islam is a verbal noun originating from the triliteral root s-l-m, and is derived from the Arabic verb Aslama, which means “to accept, surrender or submit.” Thus, Islam means acceptance of and submission to God, and believers must demonstrate this by worshiping him, following his commands, and avoiding polytheism. The word is given a number of meanings in the Qur’an. In some verses (ayat), the quality of Islam as an internal conviction is stressed: “Whomsoever God desires to guide, He expands his breast to Islam.”[improper synthesis?]
Other verses connect islām and dīn (usually translated as “religion”): “Today, I have perfected your religion (dīn) for you; I have completed My blessing upon you; I have approved Islam for your religion.” Still others[who?] describe Islam as an action of returning to God—more than just a verbal affirmation of faith. Another technical meaning in Islamic thought is as one part of a triad of islam, imān (faith), and ihsān (excellence) where it represents acts of worship (`ibādah) and Islamic law (sharia).
Articles of faith
The Qur’an states that all Muslims must believe in God, his revelations, his angels, his messengers, and in the “Day of Judgment“.[improper synthesis?] Also, there are other beliefs that differ between particular sects. The Sunni concept of predestination is called divine decree, while the Shi’a version is called divine justice.[improper synthesis?] Unique to the Shi’a is the doctrine of Imamah, or the political and spiritual leadership of the Imams.
Muslims believe that God revealed his final message to humanity through the Islamic prophet Muhammad via the archangel Gabriel (Jibrīl). For them, Muhammad was God’s final prophet and the Qur’an is the holy book of revelations he received over more than two decades. In Islam, prophets are men selected by God to be his messengers. Muslims believe that prophets are human and not divine, though some are able to perform miracles to prove their claim. Islamic prophets are considered to be the closest to perfection of all humans, and are uniquely the recipients of divine revelation—either directly from God or through angels. The Qur’an mentions the names of numerous figures considered prophets in Islam, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, among others. Islamic theology says that all of God’s messengers since Adam preached the message of Islam—submission to the will of God. According to the Qur’an  the will of God is brought to the nations by the descendants of Abraham and Imran. Islam is described in the Qur’an as “the primordial nature upon which God created mankind”, and the Qur’an states that the proper name Muslim was given by Abraham.
As a historical phenomenon, Islam originated in Arabia in the early 7th century. Islamic texts depict Judaism and Christianity as prophetic successor traditions to the teachings of Abraham. The Qur’an calls Jews and Christians “People of the Book” (ahl al-kitāb), and distinguishes them from polytheists. Muslims believe that parts of the previously revealed scriptures, the Tawrat (Torah) and the Injil (Gospels), had become distorted—either in interpretation, in text, or both.
Islam’s fundamental theological concept is tawhīd—the belief that there is only one god. The Arabic term for God is Allāh; most scholars believe it was derived from a contraction of the words al- (the) and ʾilāh (deity, masculine form), meaning “the god” (al-ilāh), but others trace its origin to the Aramaic Alāhā. The first of the Five Pillars of Islam, tawhīd is expressed in the shahadah (testification), which declares that there is no god but God, and that Muhammad is God’s messenger. In traditional Islamic theology, God is beyond all comprehension; Muslims are not expected to visualize God but to worship and adore him as a protector. Although Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, they reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and divinity of Jesus, comparing it to polytheism. In Islamic theology, Jesus was just a man and not the son of God; God is described in a chapter (sura) of the Qur’an as “…God, the One and Only; God, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him.”
Muslims consider the Qur’an to be the literal word of God; it is the central religious text of Islam revealed in Arabic. Muslims believe that the verses of the Qur’an were revealed to Muhammad by God through the angel Gabriel on many occasions between 610 and his death on June 8, 632. The Qur’an was reportedly written down by Muhammad’s companions (sahabah) while he was alive, although the prime method of transmission was orally. It was compiled in the time of Abu Bakr, the first caliph, and was standardized under the administration of Uthman, the third caliph. From textual evidence Islamic studies scholars find that the Qur’an of today has not changed significantly since it was standardized
The Qur’an is divided into 114 suras, or chapters, which combined, contain 6,236 āyāt, or verses. The chronologically earlier suras, revealed at Mecca, are primarily concerned with ethical and spiritual topics. The later Medinan suras mostly discuss social and moral issues relevant to the Muslim community. The Qur’an is more concerned with moral guidance than legal instruction, and is considered the “sourcebook of Islamic principles and values”. Muslim jurists consult the hadith, or the written record of Muhammad’s life, to both supplement the Qur’an and assist with its interpretation. The science of Qur’anic commentary and exegesis is known as tafsir.
The word Qur’an means “recitation”. When Muslims speak in the abstract about “the Qur’an”, they usually mean the scripture as recited in Arabic rather than the printed work or any translation of it. To Muslims, the Qur’an is perfect only as revealed in the original Arabic; translations are necessarily deficient because of language differences, the fallibility of translators, and the impossibility of preserving the original’s inspired style. Translations are therefore regarded only as commentaries on the Qur’an, or “interpretations of its meaning”, not as the Qur’an itself.
Hadith are narrations originating from the words and deeds of the Islamic prophet Mohammad. Hadith are regarded by traditional schools of jurisprudence as important tools for understanding the Qur’an and in matters of jurisprudence. Hadith were evaluated and gathered into large collections mostly during the reign of Umar bin Abdul Aziz during the 8th and 9th centuries. These works are referred to in matters of Islamic law and history to this day. The two main denominations of Islam, Shi`ism and Sunnism, have different sets of Hadith collections.
The Hadith enables Muslims to acquire the Sunnah (habits) or usual practices of Muhammad. The Muslim usage of this term refers to the sayings and living habits of Muhammad, the last prophet of Islam. Recording sunnah was an Arabic tradition, and once people converted to Islam, they brought the tradition to the religion. Among Sunni Muslims, Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim collections are considered authentic.
Belief in angels is crucial to the faith of Islam. The Arabic word for angel (malak) means “messenger”, like its counterparts in Hebrew (malakh) and Greek (angelos). According to the Qur’an, angels do not possess free will, and worship God in perfect obedience.[improper synthesis?] Angels’ duties include communicating revelations from God, glorifying God, recording every person’s actions, and taking a person’s soul at the time of death. They are also thought to intercede on man’s behalf. The Qur’an describes angels as “messengers with wings—two, or three, or four (pairs): He [God] adds to Creation as He pleases…”
Muhammad (c. 570 – June 8, 632) was a trader later becoming a religious, political, and military leader. Muslims view him not as the creator of a new religion, but as the restorer of the original, uncorrupted monotheistic faith of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and others. In Muslim tradition, Muhammad is viewed as the last and the greatest in a series of prophets—as the man closest to perfection, the possessor of all virtues. For the last 22 years of his life, in 610, beginning at age 40, Muhammad reported receiving revelations from God. The content of these revelations, known as the Qur’an, was memorized and recorded by his companions.
During this time, Muhammad preached to the people of Mecca, imploring them to abandon polytheism. Although some converted to Islam, Muhammad and his followers were persecuted by the leading Meccan authorities. After 12 years of preaching, Muhammad and the Muslims performed the Hijra (“emigration”) to the city of Medina (formerly known as Yathrib) in 622. There, with the Medinan converts (Ansar) and the Meccan migrants (Muhajirun), Muhammad established his political and religious authority. Within years, two battles had been fought against Meccan forces: the Battle of Badr in 624, which was a Muslim victory, and the Battle of Uhud in 625, which ended inconclusively. Conflict with Medinan Jewish clans who opposed the Muslims led to their exile, enslavement or death, and the Jewish enclave of Khaybar was subdued. At the same time, Meccan trade routes were cut off as Muhammad brought surrounding desert tribes under his control. By 629 Muhammad was victorious in the nearly bloodless Conquest of Mecca, and by the time of his death in 632 (at the age of 62) he ruled over the Arabian peninsula.
In Islam, the “normative” example of Muhammad’s life is called the Sunnah (literally “trodden path”). This example is preserved in traditions known as hadith (“reports”), which recount his words, his actions, and his personal characteristics. The classical Muslim jurist ash-Shafi’i (d. 820) emphasized the importance of the Sunnah in Islamic law, and Muslims are encouraged to emulate Muhammad’s actions in their daily lives. The Sunnah is seen as crucial to guiding interpretation of the Qur’an.
Resurrection and judgment
Belief in the “Day of Resurrection”, yawm al-Qiyāmah (also known as yawm ad-dīn, “Day of Judgment” and as-sā`a, “the Last Hour”) is also crucial for Muslims. They believe that the time of Qiyāmah is preordained by God but unknown to man. The trials and tribulations preceding and during the Qiyāmah are described in the Qur’an and the hadith, and also in the commentaries of Islamic scholars. The Qur’an emphasizes bodily resurrection, a break from the pre-Islamic Arabian understanding of death. It states that resurrection will be followed by the gathering of mankind, culminating in their judgment by God.
The Qur’an lists several sins that can condemn a person to hell, such as disbelief, usury and dishonesty. Muslims view paradise (jannah) as a place of joy and bliss, with Qur’anic references describing its features and the physical pleasures to come. There are also references to a greater joy—acceptance by God (ridwān). Mystical traditions in Islam place these heavenly delights in the context of an ecstatic awareness of God.
In accordance with the Islamic belief in predestination, or divine preordainment (al-qadā wa’l-qadar), God has full knowledge and control over all that occurs. This is explained in Qur’anic verses such as “Say: ‘Nothing will happen to us except what Allah has decreed for us: He is our protector’…” For Muslims, everything in the world that occurs, good or evil, has been preordained and nothing can happen unless permitted by God. According to Muslim theologians, although events are pre-ordained, man possesses free will in that he has the faculty to choose between right and wrong, and is thus responsible for his actions. According to Islamic tradition, all that has been decreed by God is written in al-Lawh al-Mahfūz, the “Preserved Tablet”.
The Shi’a understanding of free will is called “divine justice” (Adalah). This doctrine, originally developed by the Mu’tazila, stresses the importance of man’s responsibility for his own actions. In contrast, the Sunni deemphasize the role of individual free will in the context of God’s creation and foreknowledge of all things.
Duties and practices
The Five Pillars of Islam (Arabic: أركان الإسلام) are five practices essential to Sunni Islam. Shi’a Muslims subscribe to different sets of pillars which substantially overlap with the Five Pillars.
The Five Pillars of Islam are:
- The shahadah, which is the basic creed or tenet of Islam that must be recited under an oath with the following specific statement: “‘ašhadu ‘al-lā ilāha illā-llāhu wa ‘ašhadu ‘anna muħammadan rasūlu-llāh“, or “I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” This testament is a foundation for all other beliefs and practices in Islam. Muslims must repeat the shahadah in prayer, and non-Muslims wishing to convert to Islam are required to recite the creed.
- Salah, or ritual prayer, which must be performed five times a day. Each salah is done facing towards the Kaaba in Mecca. Salah is intended to focus the mind on God, and is seen as a personal communication with him that expresses gratitude and worship. Salah is compulsory but flexibility in the specifics is allowed depending on circumstances. In many Muslim countries, reminders called Adhan (call to prayer) are broadcast publicly from local mosques at the appropriate times. The prayers are recited in the Arabic language, and consist of verses from the Qur’an.
- Zakat, or alms-giving. This is the practice of giving based on accumulated wealth, and is obligatory for all Muslims who can afford it. A fixed portion is spent to help the poor or needy, and also to assist the spread of Islam. The zakat is considered a religious obligation (as opposed to voluntary charity) that the well-off owe to the needy because their wealth is seen as a “trust from God’s bounty”. The Qur’an and the hadith also suggest a Muslim give even more as an act of voluntary alms-giving (sadaqah).
- Sawm, or fasting during the month of Ramadan. Muslims must not eat or drink (among other things) from dawn to dusk during this month, and must be mindful of other sins. The fast is to encourage a feeling of nearness to God, and during it Muslims should express their gratitude for and dependence on him, atone for their past sins, and think of the needy. Sawm is not obligatory for several groups for whom it would constitute an undue burden. For others, flexibility is allowed depending on circumstances, but missed fasts usually must be made up quickly. Some Muslim groups do not fast during Ramadan, and instead have fasts at different times of the year.
- The Hajj, which is the pilgrimage during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah in the city of Mecca. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. When the pilgrim is about ten kilometers from Mecca, he must dress in Ihram clothing, which consists of two white seamless sheets. Rituals of the Hajj include walking seven times around the Kaaba, touching the black stone if possible, walking or running seven times between Mount Safa and Mount Marwah, and symbolically stoning the Devil in Mina. The pilgrim, or the hajji, is honored in his or her community, although Islamic teachers say that the Hajj should be an expression of devotion to God instead of a means to gain social standing.
The Sharia (literally: “the path leading to the watering place”) is Islamic law formed by traditional Islamic scholarship, which most Muslim groups adhere to. In Islam, Sharia is the expression of the divine will, and “constitutes a system of duties that are incumbent upon a Muslim by virtue of his religious belief”.
Islamic law covers all aspects of life, from matters of state, like governance and foreign relations, to issues of daily living. The Qur’an defines hudud as the punishments for five specific crimes: unlawful intercourse, false accusation of unlawful intercourse, consumption of alcohol, theft, and highway robbery. The Qur’an and Sunnah also contain laws of inheritance, marriage, and restitution for injuries and murder, as well as rules for fasting, charity, and prayer. However, these prescriptions and prohibitions may be broad, so their application in practice varies. Islamic scholars (known as ulema) have elaborated systems of law on the basis of these rules and their interpretations.
Fiqh, or “jurisprudence”, is defined as the knowledge of the practical rules of the religion. The method Islamic jurists use to derive rulings is known as usul al-fiqh (“legal theory”, or “principles of jurisprudence”). According to Islamic legal theory, law has four fundamental roots, which are given precedence in this order: the Qur’an, the Sunnah (actions and sayings of Muhammad), the consensus of the Muslim jurists (ijma), and analogical reasoning (qiyas). For early Islamic jurists, theory was less important than pragmatic application of the law. In the 9th century, the jurist ash-Shafi’i provided a theoretical basis for Islamic law by codifying the principles of jurisprudence (including the four fundamental roots) in his book ar-Risālah.
Religion and state
Mainstream Islamic law does not distinguish between “matters of church” and “matters of state”; the ulema function as both jurists and theologians. In practice, Islamic rulers frequently bypassed the Sharia courts with a parallel system of so-called “Grievance courts” over which they had sole control. As the Muslim world came into contact with Western secular ideals, Muslim societies responded in different ways. Turkey has been governed as a secular state ever since the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In contrast, the 1979 Iranian Revolution replaced a mostly secular regime with an Islamic republic led by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Etiquette and diet
Many practices fall in the category of adab, or Islamic etiquette. This includes greeting others with “as-salamu `alaykum” (“peace be unto you”), saying bismillah (“in the name of God“) before meals, and using only the right hand for eating and drinking. Islamic hygienic practices mainly fall into the category of personal cleanliness and health, such as the circumcision of male offspring. Islamic burial rituals include saying the Salat al-Janazah (“funeral prayer”) over the bathed and enshrouded dead body, and burying it in a grave. Muslims are restricted in their diet. Prohibited foods include pork products, blood, carrion, and alcohol. All meat must come from a herbivorous animal slaughtered in the name of God by a Muslim, Jew, or Christian, with the exception of game that one has hunted or fished for oneself. Food permissible for Muslims is known as halal food.
Jihad means “to strive or struggle” (in the way of God) and is considered the “Sixth Pillar of Islam” by a minority of Sunni Muslim authorities. Jihad, in its broadest sense, is classically defined as “exerting one’s utmost power, efforts, endeavors, or ability in contending with an object of disapprobation.” Depending on the object being a visible enemy, the devil, and aspects of one’s own self, different categories of Jihad are defined. Jihad, when used without any qualifier, is understood in its military aspect. Jihad also refers to one’s striving to attain religious and moral perfection. Some Muslim authorities, especially among the Shi’a and Sufis, distinguish between the “greater jihad”, which pertains to spiritual self-perfection, and the “lesser jihad”, defined as warfare.
Within Islamic jurisprudence, jihad is usually taken to mean military exertion against non-Muslim combatants in the defense or expansion of the Ummah. The ultimate purpose of military jihad is debated, both within the Islamic community and without, with some claiming that it only serves to protect the Ummah, with no aspiration of offensive conflict, whereas others have argued that the goal of Jihad is global conquest. Jihad is the only form of warfare permissible in Islamic law and may be declared against apostates, rebels, highway robbers, violent groups, and leaders or states, Islamic or otherwise, who oppress Muslims or hamper proselytizing efforts. Most Muslims today interpret Jihad as only a defensive form of warfare: the external Jihad includes a struggle to make the Islamic societies conform to the Islamic norms of justice.
Under most circumstances and for most Muslims, jihad is a collective duty (fard kifaya): its performance by some individuals exempts the others. Only for those vested with authority, especially the sovereign (imam), does jihad become an individual duty. For the rest of the populace, this happens only in the case of a general mobilization. For most Shias, offensive jihad can only be declared by a divinely appointed leader of the Muslim community, and as such is suspended since Muhammad al-Mahdi‘s occultation in 868 AD.
Islam’s historical development resulted in major political, economic, and military effects inside and outside the Islamic world. Within a century of Muhammad’s first recitations of the Qur’an, an Islamic empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Central Asia in the east ; one of the best preserved architectural examples of Islamic spread, is the Great Mosque of Kairouan (in Tunisia) considered as the ancestor of all the mosques in the western Islamic world . This new polity soon broke into civil war, and successor states fought each other and outside forces. However, Islam continued to spread into regions like Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia. The Islamic civilization was one of the most advanced in the world during the Middle Ages, but was surpassed by Europe with the economic and military growth of the West. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Islamic dynasties such as the Ottomans and Mughals fell under the sway of European imperial powers. In the 20th century new religious and political movements and newfound wealth in the Islamic world led to both rebirth and conflict.
Rise of the caliphate and civil war (632–750)
Muhammad began preaching Islam at Mecca before migrating to Medina, from where he united the tribes of Arabia into a singular Arab Muslim religious polity. He made his last farewell sermon at the age of 63 in the year 632 and died 72 days later. Right after his death disagreement broke out over who would succeed him as leader of the Muslim community. Umar ibn al-Khattab, a prominent companion of Muhammad, nominated Abu Bakr, who was Muhammad’s intimate friend and collaborator. Others added their support and Abu Bakr was made the first caliph. Abu Bakr’s immediate task was to avenge a recent defeat by Byzantine (or Eastern Roman Empire) forces, although he first had to put down a rebellion by Arab tribes in an episode known as the Ridda wars, or “Wars of Apostasy”.
His death in 634 resulted in the succession of Umar as the caliph, followed by Uthman ibn al-Affan and Ali ibn Abi Talib. These four are known as al-khulafā’ ar-rāshidūn (“Rightly Guided Caliphs“). Under them, the territory under Muslim rule expanded deeply into Persian and Byzantine territories.
When Umar was assassinated in 644, the election of Uthman as successor was met with increasing opposition. In 656, Uthman was also killed, and Ali assumed the position of caliph. After fighting off opposition in the first civil war (the “First Fitna”), Ali was assassinated by Kharijites in 661. Following this, Mu’awiyah, who was governor of the Levant, seized power and began the Umayyad dynasty. Although there was discord, the period until the death of Ali in 661 is remembered as a kind of golden age by some[who?] Muslims. It was the Age of the Rashidun or “rightly-guided ones,” when Muhammad’s close companions led the community of Muslims.
These disputes over religious and political leadership would give rise to schism in the Muslim community. The majority accepted the legitimacy of the three rulers prior to Ali, and became known as Sunnis. A minority disagreed, and believed that Ali was the only rightful successor; they became known as the Shi’a. After Mu’awiyah’s death in 680, conflict over succession broke out again in a civil war known as the “Second Fitna“. Afterward, the Umayyad dynasty prevailed for seventy years, and was able to conquer the Maghrib and Al-Andalus (the Iberian Peninsula, former Visigothic Hispania) and the Narbonnese Gaul in the west as well as expand Muslim territory into Sindh and the fringes of Central Asia. While the Muslim-Arab elite engaged in conquest, some devout Muslims began to question the piety of indulgence in a worldly life, emphasizing, rather, poverty, humility, and avoidance of sin based on renunciation of bodily desires. Devout Muslim ascetic exemplars such as Hasan al-Basri would inspire a movement that would evolve into Sufism.
For the Umayyad aristocracy, Islam was viewed as a religion for Arabs only; the economy of the Umayyad empire was based on the assumption that a majority of non-Muslims (Dhimmis) would pay taxes to the minority of Muslim Arabs. A non-Arab who wanted to convert to Islam was supposed to first become a client of an Arab tribe. Even after conversion, these new Muslims (mawali) did not achieve social and economic equality with the Arabs. The descendants of Muhammad’s uncle Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib rallied discontented mawali, poor Arabs, and some Shi’a against the Umayyads and overthrew them with the help of their propagandist and general Abu Muslim, inaugurating the Abbasid dynasty in 750. Under the Abbasids, Islamic civilization flourished in the “Islamic Golden Age“, with its capital at the cosmopolitan city of Baghdad.
Golden Age (750–1258)
The Golden Age saw new legal, philosophical, and religious developments. The major hadith collections were compiled and the four modern Sunni Madh’habs were established. Islamic law was advanced greatly by the efforts of the early 9th century jurist al-Shafi’i; he codified a method to establish the reliability of hadith, a topic which had been a locus of dispute among Islamic scholars. Philosophers Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Al-Farabi sought to incorporate Greek principles into Islamic theology, while others like the 11th century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali argued against them and ultimately prevailed. Finally, Sufism and Shi’ism both underwent major changes in the 9th century. Sufism became a full-fledged movement that had moved towards mysticism and away from its ascetic roots, while Shi’ism split due to disagreements over the succession of Imams.
The spread of the Islamic dominion induced hostility among medieval ecclesiastical Christian authors who saw Islam as an adversary in the light of the large numbers of new Muslim converts. This opposition resulted in polemical treatises which depicted Islam as the religion of the antichrist and of Muslims as libidinous and subhuman. In the medieval period, a few Arab philosophers like the poet Al-Ma’arri adopted a critical approach to Islam, and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides contrasted Islamic views of morality to Jewish views that he himself elaborated.
Fragmentation and Invasions
By the late 9th century, the Abbasid caliphate began to fracture as various regions gained increasing levels of autonomy. Across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, emirates formed as provinces broke away. The monolithic Arab empire gave way to a more religiously homogenized Muslim world where the Shia Fatimids contested even the religious authority of the caliphate. In the 10th century the powerful Ghaznavids conquered the Persian region and a large part of the Indian subcontinent in the name of Islam. They were replaced by the Ghurids in the 12th century. By 1055 the Seljuq Turks had eliminated the Abbasids as a military power, nevertheless they continued to respect the caliph’s titular authority. During this time expansion of the Muslim world continued, by both conquest and peaceful proselytism even as both Islam and Muslim trade networks were extending into sub-Saharan West Africa, Central Asia, Volga Bulgaria and the Malay archipelago.
Starting in the 9th century, Muslim conquests in the West began to be reversed. The Reconquista was launched against Muslim principalities in Iberia, and Muslim Italian possessions were lost to the Normans. From the 11th century onwards alliances of European Christian kingdoms mobilized to launch a series of wars known as the Crusades, aimed at reversing Muslim military conquests within the eastern part of the former Roman Empire, especially in the Holy Land. Initially successful in this aim, and establishing the Crusader states, these gains were later reversed by subsequent Muslim generals such as Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem in 1187.
In the east the Mongol Empire put an end to the Abbassid dynasty at the Battle of Baghdad in 1258, as they overran the Muslim lands in a series of invasions. Meanwhile in Egypt, the slave-soldier Mamluks took control in an uprising in 1250 and in alliance with the Golden Horde halted the Mongol armies at the Battle of Ain Jalut. Over the next century the Mongol Khanates converted to Islam and this religious and cultural absorption ushered in a new age of Mongol-Islamic synthesis that shaped the further spread of Islam in central Asia, eastern Europe and the Indian subcontinent. The Crimean Khanate was one of the strongest powers in Eastern Europe until the end of the 17th century.
The Black Death ravaged much of the Islamic world in the mid-14th century. It is probable that the Mongols and merchant caravans making use of the opportunities of free passage offered by the Pax Mongolica inadvertently brought the plague from Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe. Plague epidemics kept returning to the Islamic world up to the 19th century.
New dynasties and colonialism (1030–1918)
The Seljuk Turks conquered Abbassid lands, adopted Islam and become the de facto rulers of the caliphate. They captured Anatolia by defeating the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert, thereby precipitating the call for Crusades. They fell apart in the second half of the 12th century giving rise to various semi-autonomous Islamic dynasties such as the powerful Ayyubids who conquered Egypt and a Jerusalem in the name of Islam. In the 13th and 14th centuries the Ottoman Empire (named after Osman I) emerged from among these “Ghazi emirates” and established itself after a string of conquests that included the Balkans, parts of Greece, and western Anatolia. In 1453 under Mehmed II the Ottomans laid siege to Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, which succumbed shortly thereafter, having been overwhelmed by a far greater number of Ottoman troops and to a lesser extent, cannonry.
Beginning in the 13th century, Sufism underwent a transformation, largely as a result of the efforts of al-Ghazzali to legitimize and reorganize the movement. He developed the model of the Sufi order—a community of spiritual teachers and students. Also of importance to Sufism was the creation of the Masnavi, a collection of mystical poetry by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. The Masnavi had a profound influence on the development of Sufi religious thought; to many Sufis it is second in importance only to the Qur’an. From the 14th century to the 16th century much of the eastern Islamic world was experiencing another golden age under the Timurid dynasty. In the early 16th century, the Safavid dynasty assumed control in Persia and established Shi’a Islam as an official religion there, and despite periodic setbacks, the Safavids remained in power for two centuries until being usurped by the Hotaki dynasty in the early-18th century. Meanwhile, Mamluk Egypt fell to the Ottomans in 1517, who then launched a European campaign which reached as far as the gates of Vienna in 1529.
After the invasion of Persia and sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in the mid 13th century, Delhi became the most important cultural centre of the Muslim east. Many Islamic dynasties ruled parts of the Indian subcontinent starting with the Ghaznavids in the 10th century. The prominent ones included the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526) and the Mughal Empire (1526–1857). These empires helped in the spread of Islam in South Asia, but by the early-18th century the Sikh Maratha Empire was becoming the pre-eminent power in northern India until they were weaken by the Durrani Empire in the mid-18th century.
Around the 18th century, despite attempts at modernization, the Ottoman empire had begun to feel threatened by European economic and military advantages. It was during the 18th century that the Wahhabi movement took hold in Saudi Arabia. Founded by the preacher Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Wahhabism is a fundamentalist ideology that condemns practices like Sufism and the veneration of saints as un-Islamic.
By the 19th century the British Empire had formally ended the last Mughal dynasty, and overthrew the Muslim-ruled Kingdom of Mysore. In the 19th century, the rise of nationalism resulted in Greece declaring and winning independence in 1829, with several Balkan states following suit after the Ottomans suffered defeat in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878. The Ottoman era came to a close at the end of World War I and the Caliphate was abolished in 1924.
Modern times (1918–present)
By the early years of the 20th century, most of the Muslim world outside the Ottoman empire had been absorbed into the empires of non-Islamic European powers. After World War I losses, nearly all of the Ottoman empire was also parceled out as European protectorates or spheres of influence. In the course of the 20th century, most of these European-ruled territories became independent, and new issues such as oil wealth and relations with the State of Israel have assumed prominence.
During this time, many Muslims migrated, as indentured servants, from mostly India and Indonesia to the Caribbean, forming the largest Muslim populations by percentage in the Americas. Additionally, the resulting urbanization and increase in trade in Africa brought Muslims to settle in new areas and spread their faith. As a result, Islam in sub-Saharan Africa likely doubled between 1869 and 1914. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), consisting of Muslim countries, was formally established in September 1969 after the burning of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Islamic revival and Islamist movements
The 20th century saw the Islamic world increasingly exposed to outside cultural influences, bringing potential changes to Muslim societies. In response, new Islamic “revivalist” movements were initiated as a counter movement to non-Islamic ideas. Groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt advocate a totalistic and theocratic alternative to secular political ideologies. Sometimes called Islamist, they see Western cultural values as a threat, and promote Islam as a comprehensive solution to every public and private question of importance.
In countries like Iran revolutionary movement replaced secular regime with an Islamic state, while transnational groups like Osama bin Laden‘s al-Qaeda engage in terrorism to further their goals. In contrast, Liberal Islam is a movement that attempts to reconcile religious tradition with modern norms of secular governance and human rights. Its supporters say that there are multiple ways to read Islam’s sacred texts, and stress the need to leave room for “independent thought on religious matters”.
Modern criticism of Islam includes accusations that Islam is intolerant of criticism and that Islamic law is too hard on apostates from Islam. Critics like Ibn Warraq question the morality of the Qu’ran, saying that its contents justify the mistreatment of women and encourage antisemitic remarks by Muslim theologians. Such claims have been challenged by many Muslim scholars and writers including Fazlur Rahman Malik, Syed Ameer Ali, Ahmed Deedat, Yusuf Estes, as well as Zakir Naik and others of Peace TV, which is a global Islamic satellite channel intended to correct the misconceptions about Islam.
Others like Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer focus more on criticizing the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, a danger they feel has been ignored. Montgomery Watt and Norman Daniel dismiss many of the criticisms as the product of old myths and polemics. The rise of Islamophobia, according to Carl Ernst, had contributed to the negative views about Islam and Muslims in the West. In contrast, Pascal Bruckner and Paul Berman have entered the “Islam in Europe” debate. Berman identifies a “reactionary turn in the intellectual world” represented by Western scholars who idealize Islam.
A comprehensive 2009 demographic study of 232 countries and territories reported that 23% of the global population or 1.57 billion people are Muslims. Of those, 87–90% are Sunni and 10–13% are Shi’a, with a small minority belonging to other sects. Approximately 50 countries are Muslim-majority, and Arabs account for around 20% of all Muslims worldwide.
The majority of Muslims live in Asia and Africa. Approximately 62% of the world’s Muslims live in Asia, with over 683 million adherents in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. In the Middle East, non-Arab countries such as Turkey and Iran are the largest Muslim-majority countries; in Africa, Egypt and Nigeria have the most populous Muslim communities. According to a recent study in the United States, the People’s Republic of China has the eighth highest Muslim population with up to 65.3 million individuals but other figures show only 20 million. Islam is the second largest religion after Christianity in many European countries, and is slowly catching up to that status in the Americas and Australia.
A mosque is a place of worship for Muslims, who often refer to it by its Arabic name, masjid. The word mosque in English refers to all types of buildings dedicated to Islamic worship, although there is a distinction in Arabic between the smaller, privately owned mosque and the larger, “collective” mosque (masjid jāmi`). Although the primary purpose of the mosque is to serve as a place of prayer, it is also important to the Muslim community as a place to meet and study. Modern mosques have evolved greatly from the early designs of the 7th century, and contain a variety of architectural elements such as minarets.
The basic unit of Islamic society is the family, and Islam defines the obligations and legal rights of family members. The father is seen as financially responsible for his family, and is obliged to cater for their well-being. The division of inheritance is specified in the Qur’an, which states that most of it is to pass to the immediate family, while a portion is set aside for the payment of debts and the making of bequests. The woman’s share of inheritance is generally half of that of a man with the same rights of succession. Marriage in Islam is a civil contract which consists of an offer and acceptance between two qualified parties in the presence of two witnesses. The groom is required to pay a bridal gift (mahr) to the bride, as stipulated in the contract.
A man may have up to four wives if he believes he can treat them equally, while a woman may have only one husband. In most Muslim countries, the process of divorce in Islam is known as talaq, which the husband initiates by pronouncing the word “divorce”. Scholars disagree whether Islamic holy texts justify traditional Islamic practices such as veiling and seclusion (purdah).
Starting in the 20th century, Muslim social reformers argued against these and other practices such as polygamy in Islam, with varying success. At the same time, many Muslim women have attempted to reconcile tradition with modernity by combining an active life with outward modesty. Certain Islamist groups like the Taliban have sought to continue traditional law as applied to women.
The formal beginning of the Muslim era was chosen to be the Hijra in 622 CE, which was an important turning point in Muhammad’s fortunes. The assignment of this year as the year 1 AH (Anno Hegirae) in the Islamic calendar was reportedly made by Caliph Umar. It is a lunar calendar, with nineteen ordinary years of 354 days and eleven leap years of 355 days in a thirty-year cycle. Islamic dates cannot be converted to CE/AD dates simply by adding 622 years: allowance must also be made for the fact that each Hijri century corresponds to only 97 years in the Christian calendar.
The year 1428 AH coincides almost completely with 2007 CE.
Islamic holy days fall on fixed dates of the lunar calendar, which means that they occur in different seasons in different years in the Gregorian calendar. The most important Islamic festivals are Eid al-Fitr (Arabic: عيد الفطر) on the 1st of Shawwal, marking the end of the fasting month Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha (Arabic: عيد الأضحى) on the 10th of Dhu al-Hijjah, coinciding with the pilgrimage to Mecca. Similar to the Jewish calendar, days in the Islamic calendar last from sunset to sunset.
According to Islamic doctrine, Islam was the primordial religion of mankind, professed by Adam. At some point, a religious split occurred, and God began sending prophets to bring his revelations to the people. In this view, Abraham, Moses, Hebrew prophets, and Jesus were all Prophets in Islam, but their message and the texts of the Torah and the Gospels were corrupted by Jews and Christians. Similarly, every child is born in the domain of Islam, but is converted to some other faith if the parents/guardians are not Muslims.
Islamic law divides non-Muslims into several categories, depending on their relation with the Islamic state. Christians and Jews who live under Islamic rule are known as dhimmis (“protected peoples”). According to this regulation, the personal safety and security of property of the dhimmis is guaranteed in return for paying tribute (jizya) to the Islamic state. The status was extended to other groups like Zoroastrians and Hindus, but not to atheists or agnostics.
Those who live in non-Muslim lands (dar al-harb) are known as harbis, and upon entering into an alliance with the Muslim state become known as ahl al-ahd. Those who receive a guarantee of safety while residing temporarily in Muslim lands are known as ahl al-amān. Their legal position is similar to that of the dhimmi except that they are not required to pay the jizya. The people of armistice (ahl al-hudna) are those who live outside of Muslim territory and agree to refrain from attacking the Muslims. Apostasy from Islam is prohibited, and is punishable by death.
The Alevi, Yazidi, Druze, Bábí, Bahá’í, Berghouata and Ha-Mim movements either emerged out of Islam or came to share certain beliefs with Islam. Some consider themselves separate while others still sects of Islam though controversial in certain beliefs with mainstream Muslims. Ahmadiyyat, a reformatory sect in Islam is considered to be non-Muslim by many mainstream Muslims. For this reason the government of Pakistan has declared them to be non-Muslim, although international organisations such as Amnesty International have viewed such a move is against international human rights. Sikhism, founded by Guru Nanak in late 15th century Punjab, incorporates aspects of both Islam and Hinduism.
Islam consists of a number of religious denominations that are essentially similar in belief but which have significant theological and legal differences. The primary division is between the Sunni and the Shi’a, with Sufism generally considered to be a mystical inflection of Islam rather than a distinct school. According to most sources, 70% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, 20% are Shi’a with the 10% being other various small minorities and Islamic sects.
Sunni Muslims are the largest group in Islam, comprising 70% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, hence the title ‘Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jamā‘ah’ (people of the principle and majority). In Arabic, as-Sunnah literally means “principle” or “path”. The Sunnah (the example of Muhammad’s life) as recorded in the Qur’an and the hadith is the main pillar of Sunni doctrine. Sunnis believe that the first four caliphs were the rightful successors to Muhammad; since God did not specify any particular leaders to succeed him, those leaders had to be elected. There are four recognised madh’habs (schools of thought): Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali. All four accept the validity of the others and a Muslim may choose any one that he or she finds agreeable.
There are other Islamic sects that may be considered as being Sunni yet are believed to have departed from the majority by introducing bidah (innovations) and extreme political views which are divorced from Islam.
The Shi’a constitute about 15% of Islam, coming as the second-largest branch. They believe in the political and religious leadership of Imams from the progeny of Ali ibn Abi Talib, who according to most Shi’a are in a state of ismah, meaning infallibility. They believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib, as the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was his rightful successor, and they call him the first Imam (leader), rejecting the legitimacy of the previous Muslim caliphs. To most Shi’a, an Imam rules by right of divine appointment and holds “absolute spiritual authority” among Muslims, having final say in matters of doctrine and revelation.
Approximately 40% of worldwide Shi’a adherents are concentrated in Iran, with other significant population in Iraq, Pakistan, and India. Shi’a make up the majority of the Muslim population in several countries, including Iran (90–95%), Iraq (65–70%), Azerbaijan, Bahrain, and Lebanon.
Shi’a Islam has several branches, the largest of which is the Twelvers (iṯnāʿašariyya) which the label Shi’a generally refers to. Although the Twelver Shi’a share many core practices with the Sunni, the two branches disagree over the proper importance and validity of specific collections of hadith. The Twelver Shi’a follow a legal tradition called Ja’fari jurisprudence. Other smaller groups include the Ismaili and Zaidi, who differ from Twelvers in both their line of successors and theological beliefs.
Sufism is a mystical-ascetic form of Islam. By focusing on the more spiritual aspects of religion, Sufis strive to obtain direct experience of God by making use of “intuitive and emotional faculties” that one must be trained to use. Sufism and Islamic law are usually considered to be complementary, although Sufism has been criticized by some Muslims for being an unjustified religious innovation. Many Sufi orders, or tariqas, can be classified as either Sunni or Shi’a, but others classify themselves simply as ‘Sufi’. Some Sufi groups can be described as non-Islamic when their teachings are very distinct from Islam.
Ahmadiyya (Urdu: احمدِیہ) is a religious movement founded towards the end of the 19th century and originating with the life and teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908). Ghulam Ahmad was an important religious figure who claimed to have fulfilled the prophecies about the world reformer of the end times, who was to herald the Eschaton as predicted in the traditions of various world religions and bring about the final triumph of Islam as per Islamic prophecy. He claimed that he was the Mujaddid (divine reformer) of the 14th Islamic century, the promised Messiah (“Second Coming of Christ”) and Mahdi awaited by Muslims. Ahmadi emphasis lay in the belief that Islam is the final law for humanity as revealed to Muhammad and the necessity of restoring to it its true essence and pristine form, which had been lost through the centuries. Thus, Ahmadis view themselves as leading the revival and peaceful propagation of Islam. The Ahmadis were among the earliest Muslim communities to arrive in Britain and other Western countries.. It is to be noted that Ahmadis are conisdered non-muslims by mainstream muslims. In fact they were declared non-Muslims in Pakistan in 1974.[]
The Kharijites are a sect that dates back to the early days of Islam. The only surviving branch of the Kharijites is Ibadism. Unlike most Kharijite groups, Ibadism does not regard sinful Muslims as unbelievers. The Imamate is an important topic in Ibadi legal literature, which stipulates that the leader should be chosen solely on the basis of his knowledge and piety, and is to be deposed if he acts unjustly. Most Ibadi Muslims live in Oman.. There are communities of Ibadis that took refuge in the Mzab oases in southern Algeria, the Nafusa Mountains in western Libya, and in Djerba Island (Tunisia), in order to avoid persecution in certain periods of history.
The recent Salafi movement, also known as Wahhabi, which sees itself as restorationist and claims to derive its teachings from the original sources of Islam by refuting the established schools of thought of Sunni Islam.
Generally, a Muslim is defined by faith in the religion of Islam; however, in the modern world there are religiously unobservant, agnostic or atheist individuals who still identify with the Muslim culture due to family background, personal experiences or fear of retribution for apostasy, an approach discussed by Malise Ruthven.