With 1.6 billion adherents, Islam is the second most-followed religion in the world, and is currently growing faster than any other. A report by the Pew Research Center shows that it will, in fact, overtake Christianity—the world’s most popular religion—by 2070, if current growth continues. It is also one of the most feared and maligned belief systems on the planet.
But that fear is misplaced, largely due to a lack of information. The Muslim world remains mysterious to many, a state which results in “Otherness,” which is the perception that a people group is somehow mysterious, alien, and fundamentally different, which often results in culturally engrained fear and exclusion of that group. To be “other” is to be the opposite of “us”—a dangerous position. But if knowledge is the first step along the road to empathy, then let us take that step with a brief look at the core tenants of Islam.
Islam is a monotheistic religion which calls mankind to serve the one omnipotent creator, known, in Islam, as Allah, a word which simply translates to “the God,” from Arabic. Islam is articulated through the Qur’an, the religion’s central text, which is composed of revelations given by God to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel.
Islam emphasizes the importance of belief and practice together—they are inseparable. Let’s first take a brief look at some of the core beliefs of Islam.
Six major beliefs can be construed from the teachings of Qur’an, beginning with Islam’s strictly monotheistic nature. Muslims believe in one, all-powerful, all-knowing God, who has no body, no gender, and no offspring, and who is the creator of all things. They do not believe Jesus to be the literal son of God, but rather a prophet, and one of the greatest of God’s messengers who was born without sin and was raised to heaven rather than being crucified. Within Islam, every individual is capable of their own independent relationship with God without intermediary.
The next major belief involves spiritual beings. In the Islamic narrative, the angel Gabriel revealed God’s word to Muhammad, who then transcribed that word into the Qur’an. Muslims believe in an unseen spiritual world, and acknowledge the existence of both angels and jinn—a separate race of being created by God from smokeless fire, some of which refused to bow to Adam, as God commanded, and thus were cast from paradise, becoming similar to Christianity’s demons.
All of this is recorded in the Qur’an, which is another core belief of Islam—the belief in the holy books of God. Muslims revere the Torah, the Gospel, the Abrahamic Scrolls, and the Psalms, but believe that only the Qur’an remains as it was first revealed by God. The Qur’an dictates many aspects of Muslim life. Prohibitions include everything that is harmful to the body, mind, soul, or society, while anything that is beneficial is permissible, or “halal”. Specific prohibitions include gambling, fortune-telling, killing, lying, abusing, and engaging in sex outside of marriage.
As for God’s revelations to mankind, Muslims believe that God has guided humans throughout history, beginning with Adam, who is considered to be the first prophet. Twenty-five prophets are named in the Qur’an, with Muhammad being the latest, sent to give mankind the ultimate message of Islam.
Muslims believe in a Day of Judgment, in which all mankind will be judged for their actions. Those who followed God’s commands will reside in paradise, while those who did not will be relegated to hell.
Finally, Muslims believe in predestination—that whatever happens to a person is preordained by God. This does not, however, negate the idea of free will in the minds of Muslims. Although God knows the fate of every man, woman, and child, humans are still capable of choice. This creates a religious atmosphere which encourages gratefulness for blessings and patience through trials, both of which are seen as a part of God’s ultimately good and divine plan.
Alongside these core beliefs, Muslims also marry action to their faith, and performing acts of worship are just as important as adhering to their intellectual beliefs. The level of adherence to these acts is dependent upon each individual—as in all religions, some are more strict than others. There are five pillars of worship in Islam.
The first pillar is the declaration of faith. The very first act of worship that a Muslim must make is the proclamation “There is no deity except God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” This is repeated many times a day during Islamic prayers, and is the entry-prayer spoken when someone initially becomes a Muslim. There is no established ceremony involved in conversion—one must simply believe in and recite the declaration of faith.
The next pillar is that of prayer. Islam advocates prayer five times a day—at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and at night. Muslims often perform a ritual washing of their hands, mouth, nose, face, arms and feet before prayer, which is performed in a clean location. Muslims face toward Mecca—the birthplace of Islam—when they pray.
Next is charity. Muslims are commanded to give to the needy. Zakat, an obligatory charity, is prescribed by Islam, and equals to about two and a half percent of income. Islam, in general, encourages giving to charity as much as a possible.
Fasting is required of Muslims from morning to night during the month of Ramadan—a holy time that occurs on the month in which the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad began, and is dedicated to the purification of the soul and coming closer to God. During this time, Muslims refrain from food, drink, and sexual activity, as well as any behaviors which carry negative connotations, such as lying, gossiping, arguing, and anger. The disabled or elderly are exempt from this requirement.
The pilgrimage to Mecca, known as Hajji, is a vital part of the Islamic faith. Every Muslim is required to make this pilgrimage to Mecca once in their life if they are physically and financially able. Located in Saudi Arabia, the city of Mecca is home to the Kaaba, the first house of worship of God, and is also the site of Muhammad’s birth and divine revelation. Within the city resides the Kaaba, considered to be the house of Allah, which holds a similar status to Judaism’s Tabernacle and Holy of Holies. Muslims, when praying, face in the direction of the Kaaba.
These tenants are the simplified core of the Islamic faith, and will hopefully shed some light upon the beliefs of your Muslim neighbors. The elephant in the room, however—religious extremism—should be addressed, as well.
The Qur’an, like other religious texts, is presented as the infallible word of God. It is, however, interpreted in varying ways by human minds. Sharia Law, the basic Islamic legal system derived from the religious texts of Islam, has been used as the framework for violence and the stripping away of basic human rights, and the conflict between Sharia and secular law remains a point of contention between the Muslim community and the rest of the world.
The truth, however, is that this violence is not inherent to Islam—it is the result of complex interactions between current society, the individual, and religious interpretation, just as it is in any other people group.
The key to rooting out this violence? Dialogue.
The Islamic world, at large, decries the violence we see constantly cropping up in the news—new which often emphasizes the Muslim nature of the attackers, rather than their violent nature. Terrorists should not be thought of Muslims first, and terrorists second when, in reality, their actions violate widely accepted Islamic law—their actions displease Allah. They are terrorists first, violent individuals who reshape Islam to suit their need to lash out at a society they do not try to understand.
Let us not sink to that level on the intellectual scale—if you find Islam to be frightening or mysterious, you now have a starting point upon which to find out more, and to engage with the Muslims in your community. Dialogue between the faiths—and non-faiths—is the only thing which can unite the peaceful world against the true threat of violence.