This page was written to provide general information about Islam. This is not a substitute for formal Islamic studies. Moreover, this site neither seeks nor claims to be a religious authority that can give real-world advice.
Islam is a monotheistic religion whose adherents are called “Muslims.” The word “Islam,” means “submission (to God)” or “resignation (to God).” To be a Muslim, one must simply believe and say (in Arabic), “There is no god but God and that Muhammad (ﷺ) is God’s messenger.” While classical theology books, such as “Aqida at Tahawiyyah” written by Abu Jafar al-Tahawi, provide more in-depth, technical details as to what a Muslim believes, some modern religious rulings (fatwaa) and declarations, such as the Amman Message or the rulings of Islamic scholars, define what a Muslim is more explicitly.
The holy book of Islam is the Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the literal word of God that was dictated to Muhammad ﷺ via Angel Gabriel (علیه السلام). In addition to the Qur’an, Muslims follow the traditions of the Prophet ﷺ. Most of the traditions are preserved in collections of historical accounts called Hadith. The two major Sunni books of Hadith are Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, which are frequently referred to and even memorized by dedicated scholars of Islam.
In Islam, God is called “Allah.” The Arabic word “Allah,” implies that there is only one god, so that the name can be understood as “the only God.” How the name “Allah,” ties into the Islamic conceptualization of monotheism, and Islamic theology in general, is perhaps best summarized in Surah Ikhlas:
“Say, God is one God;
the eternal God;
he begetteth not, neither is he begotten;
and there is not any one like unto him.”
(Wherry, 1896, p. 294-295)
PROPHETS OF ISLAM
The modern practice of Islam began with Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, but Muslims believe in other prophets who came before Muhammad ﷺ as well. For example, belief in prophets such as Jesus, Moses, Ishmael, and Abraham (peace be upon them all) are an integral aspect of Islamic faith. Though Muhammad ﷺ is classified as the final messenger, conveying the Qur’an as the final revelation from God for all of humanity and all of the Jinn, Muslims believe Islam is simply the continuation and perfection of the religion that Abraham (علیه السلام) preached years ago. Thus, Muslims share many prophets with adherents of Christianity and Judaism. Consider the twenty-five prophets listed in the Qur’an: Adam, Idris, Nuh (Noah), Hud, Salih, Lut (Lot), Ibrahim (Abraham), Ismail (Ishmael), Ishaq (Isaac), Yaqub (Jacob), Yusuf (Joseph), Shuaib, Ayyub, Dhulkifl, Musa (Moses), Harun (Aaron), Dawud (David), Sulaiman (Soloman), Ilias, Alyasa, Yunus, Zakariya, Yahya (John), Isa (Jesus), and of course Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon them all). As one can see, many named prophets in the Bible and Torah coincide with named prophets in the Qur’an, though Muslims normally refer to the prophets by their names in Arabic. As noted above, Isa (علیه السلام) is the name used for Jesus in the Qur’an. Muslims are taught the stories of the prophets’ lives and tribulations, and are obligated to say (or write) an honorific, “wishing them peace,” (علیه السلام) after saying any of their names.
As mentioned above, Muhammad ﷺ was final prophet in Islam, and brought the final revelation from God. Although his father died before he ﷺ was born and his mother died when he ﷺ was six, Muhammad ﷺ became known for his upstanding behavior throughout Arabia. After Muhammad ﷺ married his first wife, Khadijah ؓ, he ﷺ received his first revelation from Angel Gabriel (علیه السلام) in the cave of Hira. He ﷺ then began preaching Islam, and his wife Khadijah ؓ was the first to accept the new religion. He ﷺ only gained a few followers in Mecca before being forced to emigrate to Medina, where he ﷺ continued to preach. Years later, and after much hostilities from the Quraish tribe of Mecca, Muhammad ﷺ and the early Muslims returned to Mecca and conquered it without any bloodshed, destroying the idols in the Kaaba.
It is incumbent on all Muslims to follow the Five Pillars of Islam and believe in the Six Articles of Faith. The Five Pillars entail:
- The testimony of faith (Shahada)
- Fasting during Ramadan (Sawm)
- Donating two-point-five percent (2.5%) of your annual savings to charity (Zakat)
- The five daily prayers (Salah)
- The pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj)
The Six Articles of Faith consist of:
- Belief in Allah (Tawhid)
- Belief in angels (Maliakah)
- Belief in divine revelations (Kutub)
- Belief in the prophets from God (Nubuwwah)
- Belief in judgment day, heaven, and hell (Akhirah)
- Belief in predestination (Qadr)
Muslims make up about one quarter of the global population with 1.7 billion adherents. Although Islam and Muslims are stereotypically associated with the Arab Middle East, the majority of Muslims live in South Asia and South East Asia. There are also Muslim majority countries throughout Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa. The broad geographic, cultural, and racial spread of Islam across the world is supported by an equally diverse heritage of empires, theologians, poets, philosophers, calligraphers, artists, singers, story tellers, and scholars from various different backgrounds.
THEOLOGY & JURISPRUDENCE
Although much of what has been written prior to this can (very) generally be applied to all sects in Islam, this Wiki will only focus on the Sunni view about topics unless otherwise stated. Additionally, some other sects have their own reliable online resources, such as www.al-islam.org for Twelver Shiism, for both Muslims and Non-Muslims to read. Because of these reasons, this site will only seek to explain the Sunni views in Islam, and words such as, “Muslim,” and, “Islam,” will usually refer to Sunnis and Sunnism.
The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni, and they are often referred to as, “Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamma’ah,” or in English: “The People of the Prophetic Tradition and the Consensus (of the majority).” There are three schools of theology (or creed) in Sunnism:
Some schools of theology, like the Mutazil, are excluded from Sunnism. While Sunnis have many important, technical theological differences when contrasted to sects like Shias and Ibaadis, there are two core characteristics that help form the foundation of Sunnism. One of the characteristics of Sunnis is the acceptance of all of the first four Rashidun caliphs: Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, Umar ibn Al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib (رضي الله عنهم). The other defining characteristic is the adherence to the traditions of the Prophet ﷺ (defined as the Sunna) as described by his companions.
Muslims follow the Qur’an’s moral and practical guidance by both understanding the meaning of the Book’s verses and by adhering to the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. All Muslims are expected to learn the basics of their religion sufficiently, but only scholars, who devote much or all of their lives to studying Islamic sciences, are expected to obtain mastery in several fields such as, but certainly not limited to, Qur’anic Arabic, Qur’anic commentary, and the study of Hadith. Additionally, after the transition from the Rashidun Caliphate to the Umayyad Caliphate, there became an increasing need to explain exactly what a Muslim must believe, and exactly how a Muslim must perform various practices (prayer, fasting, marriage, etc.). This historical and theological background creates the basis for understanding Madhabs, Fiqh, and Sharia.
A Madhab is a school of jurisprudence, and each Madhab follows one conceptualization of Fiqh. Fiqh, which literally means “understanding,” is a field that explains the theory and practice of religious law. Sharia is then the real-world application of religious law. Each of these subjects is complex in its own rite, but the complexity is compounded when the relationships between them are examined since Madhabs, Fiqh, and Sharia are strongly interconnected. For example, it is just as possible to define a Madhab as a school of fiqh as it is to define it as a school of jurisprudence.
There are four major Sunni Madhabs that all trace their jurisprudential methodology to one of four exemplary Sunni scholars and their students. Each is named after the scholar they follow:
- Maliki Madhab, named after Imam Malik;
- Hanafi Madhab, after Imam Hanifa;
- Hanbali Madhab, after Imam Hanbal;
- Shafii Madhab, after Imam Shafi.
All the schools of jurisprudence agree on the majority of topics and religious rulings, and the disagreements they do have with one another are considered as legitimate differences of opinion within Sunnism.
Muslims agree on the vast majority of points laid out in “Aqidah at Tahawiyyah”, but they disagree on some nuanced details. The Ashari and Maturidi schools of theology, or creeds, developed largely in opposition to heretical schools of theology like the Mutazil and Jahmi. While the Asharis and Maturidis both sought to harmonize Greek rational thought and divine revelation, the Atharis (often referred to as “Salafi” today) avoided the use of rational thought in theology and maintained stricter textual literalism. Asharis and Maturidis are very similar but differ on details, such as, whether God’s speech can be heard, and whether it is mandatory for a prophet to be male. Despite disagreements like these, both Maturidis and Asharis normally consider each other, and Salafis/Atharis, as Sunni. However, some Salafis/Atharis have ruled that Maturidis and/or Asharis, despite being Muslim, are not part of Sunnism, because they have espoused heretical religious innovations, and had been influenced by the heretical Jahmi. Some Maturidis and Asharis have likewise ruled that Salafis/Atharis, despite being Muslim, are not part of Sunnism. Salafis/Atharis also take the Islamic concept of monotheism, Tawheed, and categorize it into three parts: Unity of Lordship (Tawheed ar Rububiyyah), Unity of Worship (Tawheed al Ibaadah), and Unity of God’s Names (Tawheed al Asma wa Sifaat). However, all Muslims agree that there is no necessity to categorize Tawheed into three parts.
THE FIVE PILLARS
All Muslims believe the testimony of faith, or Shahada, and say it during every prayer. The Shahada is: Ashadu an La Ilaha Illa Allah wa Ashadu anna Muhammadan Abduhu wa Rasooluhu. This means, “I testify that there is no god but God and I testify that Muhammad is your (referring to God) servant and messenger.” Outside of the five daily prayers, this is sometimes simplified to, “La Ilaha Ilaa Allah Muhammad Rasool Allah,” (لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله ) which means, “There is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Saying this, and believing its meaning completely, makes an individual a Muslim. This also means the Fard, or obligatory actions, such as prayer and fasting, are now incumbent on the individual.
Muslims practice Islam by following the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet ﷺ. In a Muslim’s day to day life this means praying five times a day, paying Zakat, fastening during Ramadan, and making Hajj. Before praying a Muslim must make sure they are ritually clean for prayer. The process of cleaning yourself is called “Wudu” or “Ablution.” This involves washing the hands, arms, face, nose, head/hair, ears, and feet with water three times each. A person’s Wudu is invalidated by things such as, but not limited to, going to the bathroom or by sleeping, in which case the individual will need to redo Wudu before praying again. The first of the five daily prayers, Fajr, is at sunrise. Fajr is followed by Zuhr at noon, Asr at midday, Maghrib at sunset, and then Isha a few hours before midnight. Although all Muslims pray generally the same way, there are minor differences between Madhabs. Also, according to the four Sunni madhabs, there are slight differences between how men and women pray. Women, for example, may lift their hands to their shoulders at the beginning of prayer instead of raising them to their ears. In contrast, Salafis/Atharis rule that women pray identically to men.
The third pillar of Islam is Zakat, which is when 2.5% of an individual’s savings is given to the poor as an obligatory form of charity. While this is a command in the Qur’an, Zakat also serves the purpose of helping to purify an individual’s wealth and soul. This is both to help the community and the individual in this life and the next. Muslims must also observe a month of fasting during Ramadan. Muslims fast from sunrise (Fajr prayer) to sunset (Maghrib prayer). During the day Muslims abstain from food and water, then, at sunset, the fast is broken with dates and water. Muslims are also encouraged to improve their practice of Islam throughout the month. Also if they are able, Muslims must make Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. A Muslim is only expected to make the pilgrimage once in his or her life, and the Qur’an specifies that the pilgrimage can only happen during certain months of the year. The pilgrimage itself not only serves to fulfill a religious obligation that removes sins, but also reminds Muslims to be mindful to avoid sins throughout their life; to remember the afterlife; and to create a sense of unity with their religious community around the world.
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