By Claire Rydell

Islam is an Arabic word that means "submission", "acceptance" or "commitment" to God whose name is Allah. The root of the word Islam means peace. Muslims, (incorrectly called Moslems which is a vulgarism), endeavor to live in peace and harmony with Allah, oneself and the world.

According to tradition, the prophet Muhammad was chosen by God to deliver the message of the peace of Islam through revelations contained in the Qur'an. Like Jesus and Buddha, Muhammad was a historical person, but Muhammad is not the object of worship. Islam is submission to Allah alone. Muhammad is considered the Seal of the Prophets, or the final Messenger of God in a line of prophets that include Abraham, Moses, David, Jacob, Isaac, and Jesus.

Islam is the last of the major religions of the world to appear and it is related historically to both Judaism and Christianity (photos: Mosque of Ibn Tulun, 879 CE and Hagia Sophia, 532 CE which was a Christian church, mosque, and now a museum). Within 300 years after the death of Muhammad, Islam's influential culture stretched across much of the world near the equator. Presently, about one fifth of the world's population is Muslim.

At the time of Muhammad's prophethood, a large share of the spice trade traveling along caravan routes from Yemen to India passed through the peninsula of Arabia and its difficult desert climate. The Arabs of the desert regions were mainly animists whose gods inhabited stones, rocks, trees and water wells. The people believed in demons or sprites called jinn„ who personified the terrors of the desert.

In contrast, the urban culture of Arabia, of which Muhammad was a product, was very sophisticated. Both Jewish and Christian ideas were well known and many Arabian tribes had converted to those religions. Thus, the stage for acceptance of the new monotheistic religion was prepared.

In the space of about twenty years, Muhammad succeeded in conveying his message of belief in one God, Allah, to the pagans of Arabia.

Abraham is considered the father of the Semitic people, which includes the Jews, Muslims and Christians. According to tradition (the Bible: Genesis 21), the Arabian people consider themselves the direct descendants of Ishmael, Abraham's first born son, who would "found a great nation." Ishmael was the son of Abraham and the Egyptian woman, Hagar. The Ishmailites include the Quraish tribe to which Muhammad belonged.

Abraham fathered a son, Isaac, late in his life, with his wife Sarah. The Jews and Christians are the sons and daughters of Isaac or descendants of Jacob (whose other name was Israel).

Those who follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad believe that the Jews have rejected their heritage by dismissing the messages of Islam. Muslims believe in the prophet Jesus, but take issue with the Christians who have deified this messenger of Allah.

According to Qur'anic tradition, after settling Hagar and her son Ishmael in the Arabian desert, Abraham and Ishmael built the Ka'aba of the Great Mosque in Makkah. The Ka'aba became the religious center of the Islamic world. (Makkah, the city in Saudi Arabia, is more commonly known in the west as Mecca. However, describing Las Vegas, for example, and the money that can be made there through gambling as "mecca" is insulting to the Muslims for whom Makkah is the most holy place on earth).

Because the Ka'aba is considered the first House of God, having been a sanctuary and pilgrimage center for centuries, it is possibly the oldest continuously used religious site in the world. There is a sacred black stone (it may have been a piece of a meteorite) in an outside corner of a cube shaped structure that is the center of worship. Even today, at the Muslim pilgrimage time or Hajj„ over 1 1/2 million people gather from all over the world to perform many rites.

Muhammad was born in Makkah in 570 CE. His clan, the Bani Hashim of the powerful Quraish tribe, controlled important shrines and wells. Muhammad's young life was marked by tragedy: his father died before he was born and he lost his mother at the age of six. Raised by his grandfather until the age of eight, Muhammad then was taken into the home of his uncle Abu Talib where hard work was necessary due to declining fortunes. Muhammad was a shepherd who tended the flocks.

When he reached manhood, Muhammad found employment in the caravan business and began to work for a wealthy widow 15 years older than himself named Khadija. Their relationship deepened so they married and lived together, monogamously, until her death twenty-five years later. Khadija bore Muhammad two sons who died in infancy and several daughters, one of whom, Fatima, is revered in the Islamic world.

Troubled by paganism, Muhammad sought solace at Cave Hira (Jabal Al-Noor), the "Mountain of Light" near Makkah. At the age of 40, during the month of Ramadan in 610 CE, tradition recounts the first visitation of an angel (Muslims believe to be Gabriel) who declared Muhammad to be the Messenger of God and commanded him to "recite" from the word of God. Muhammad replied that he could not read but the angel ordered him to recite the text that now consists of the first five verses of the Qur'an (Surah XCVI):

Recite in the Name of your Lord who created,
Created man from a clinging droplet.
Recite! your Lord is the Most Bountiful One,
Who by the pen taught man what he did not know.

Deeply troubled by the vision, Muhammad returned home where Khadija encouraged him to believe what he had seen and heard. After a period of time, the visions became more numerous and Muhammad accepted his commission from Allah as a Prophet and began his public career as a preacher and reformer.

The first converts to Islam were Khadija, Muhammad's wife, and members of his household. In the year 619, Muhammad lost both his wife and his uncle Abu Talib, whose family loyalty had protected Muhammad allowing for the growth of the new faith.

In the year 619, according to tradition, Muhammad was awakened one night by the Angel who brought a winged horse called Buraq which Muhammad mounted. (In some references the horse has a human face and a peacock's tail). In a flash, the winged horse rode into the heavens toward Jerusalem where Muhammad offered prayers at the Temple with Abraham, Moses, Jesus and many other prophets. On the winged horse, he rose to all seven heavens, where he was given a future vision of paradise and hell.

Muslims believe that Muhammad rose to the heavens from the Rock in Jerusalem (over which the Dome of the Rock would be built a century later), likening his Night Ride to a spiritual journey providing faith in Islam.

Up until 622, the content of Muhammad's revelation's consisted mostly of the call to God with promises of paradise for the worthy. However, just after the Hijrah„ or migration from Makkah to Medina, Muhammad received a revelation, contained in Surah 22, which allowed the Muslims to fight and shed blood, if necessary, for the protection of the faith.

Having suffered many bitter experiences, the concept of a Jihad„ or struggles against the infidels may have been to preserve the messages from Allah. Clearly, Muhammad believed that war was a blessed necessity in the defense of Islam.

Seeking a secure situation, members of the Muslim community emigrated in 622 to Yathrib, which would be known as Medina, or City of the Prophet. This turning point marks the start of the Islamic calendar and is year one of the Islamic era, being known as the Hijrah„ or migration from Makkah to Medina.

At Medina, the building of the first mosque, the Islamic place of worship, began. The Prophet Muhammad became a respected statesman, mediating with justice and mercy between people.

At the Battle of Badr in 624, successful defense against aggression by the enemies of Islam brought respect to the Islamic community under Muhammad. Trouble with the Jewish tribes in Medina arose because of their refusal to honor a treaty that had been made. Until then, the prayers of the Muslims were directed toward Jerusalem. Muhammad received a revelation about sixteen months after the migration to Medina which reoriented this qiblah or "pivot of Islam."

For six years, battles known as Jihad„ (struggle) were fought around Medina. But Muhammad's ultimate goal was the conquest of Makkah, where pilgrims could once again make their devotions at the Ka'aba. Through diplomacy, and without having to resort to a fight, Muhammad managed to secure control of the holy city, Makkah.

Returning in triumph to Makkah, Muhammad was then the most powerful man in Arabia. By the time of his death in 632, and within the scant 23 years of his Prophethood, he had convinced the majority of people living in the peninsula to accept Islam.

Muhammad's unexpected death in 632 created a crisis: who would succeed the prophet and lead the Islamic community? The first Caliph was Muhammad's friend and closest companion, Abu Bakr. ( In the Arabic language, certain words recur in names: abu, ibn, um and bint. Abu means "father of", ibn means "son of", um means "mother of" and bint means "daughter of"). Abu Bakr, who was the first adult to accept Islam and later became Muhammad's father-in-law, would rule for only two and a half years in Medina. He was succeeded in 634 by one of the earliest converts; Muhammad's adviser, Umar ibn al-Khattab. Umar managed to conquer Syria and Egypt in the Holy War.

By 637, the Muslims had conquered Jerusalem without war and finished building the Dome of the Rock by 691 CE. By 641, Umar had broken down the Persian empire (modern day Iran), established Muslim rule and began the gradual replacement of the ancient religion of Zoroaster (Zarathustra) with Islam.

Umar was succeeded in 644 by Uthman ibn Affan, who was Muhammad's son-in-law twice, and who had been an ambassador negotiating Muhammad's return to Makkah. The Caliphate of Uthman lasted from 644 until 656 when Ali ibn Abi Talib became Caliph for five years.

About a year after Muhammad's death, the messages from God, that had been revealed to Muhammad, carefully memorized by his companions and recorded on parchments, were brought together in written book form.
Abu Bakr gave the job of creating the book to a scribe named Zaid ibn Thabit. The fragments formed a single book: the Qur'an.

A few months before his death in the month of Ramadan, Muhammad was shown the order of verses and chapters in the Qur'an by the Angel Gabriel. The Qur'an is an unimpeachable source of authority for all questions relating to doctrine, law and practice.

The name "Qur'an" means something to be recited and it implies that the prophecies and scriptures were recited or read by the angel to Muhammad from a book containing the words of God known as the Mother of the Book‚. Similarly, inspirations such as the Gospel of Jesus, the Psalms of David and the Torah of Moses also spring from the same heavenly origin to guide mankind towards sources of wisdom, according to Muslims.

The Qur'an is divided into 114 surahs„ or chapters which are roughly the same length as the New Testament‚.‚ The chapters are ordered according to length, with the longest chapter first. (A short surah„ called Fatihah„ or opening is the most recited part of the Qur'an for it is used for daily prayers). Each surah„ is given a name from a word taken from the surah.

The Qur'an was not translated for centuries because in diverging from the original Arabic words of God, the Qur'an is changed. As a result, translations are not called "The ‚Qur'an", but are titled, for example in Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall's presentation, the Meaning of the Glorious Koran‚. Oftentimes the original Arabic text is included so that the real Qur'an is a partner to the translation.

Since the Qur'an was hand copied and illuminated with calligraphy in earliest days, a style of writing called k„u„f„i„c„ developed that decorates mosques, tombs and public buildings. Islam forbids artistic depictions of men or animals (although there are Persian paintings of both).

The legal sources of Islam are the Qur'an and the Hadith, or Traditions, which are reports of the sayings, deeds and approvals (sunnah) of the Prophet Muhammad. There are also four schools of thought that grew in later centuries that interpret Islamic law.

Muslims believe in one God and the oneness of the people God created (without racial superiority of any one over another). Required to respect all those who are faithful to God, Muslims have protected holy places of the Christians and Jews throughout the ages.

Muslims also believe that different messengers, including the prophets of Judaism and Christianity, have been sent by God to teach mankind. Muslims believe that angels appear in the universe for special missions, and that on the Day of Judgment, all mankind will be rewarded or punished when brought to account for their lives. On that day, Allah's mercy, grace and compassion will prevail.

On the Judgment Day (photo: Valley of Kidron which Muslims believe to be the location of Judgment Day), Muslims believe that God will raise all the worthy to paradise, according to the quality of their beliefs and good works in life, leaving the evil ones to suffer in the fires of hell. Muslims believe that Jesus didn't die, but was raised up to heaven and will come back to earth to rule for a period of time. After his death, Jesus will be buried.

The five Pillars of Islam are instructions for the religious practice of the Muslims along the straight path: the first pillar is to pronounce the Shahada or the Creed that there is no other deity but only one God and his messenger is Muhammad. Salat„ or Prayers comprise the second pillar with prayers required five times daily. Prayer rugs, although not required, are spread wherever believers find themselves at the appointed hour (the whole earth is a place of worship).

Saum or Fasting from dawn to sunset for the month of Ramadan is the third pillar (fasting includes abstention from food, liquid and intimate relations. Traditionally, Muslims abstain from the eating of pork, gambling and drinking of intoxicating liquids at all times). Ramadan was the month in which Muhammad first received his revelations and also the month of the Hijrah„ from Makkah to Medina.

Zakat„ or a Purifying Tax, the fourth pillar, is the annual payment of a percentage of a Muslim's property which must be distributed amongst the poor. Finally, the fifth Pillar of Islam is the Hajj„ or Pilgrimage to Makkah which must be made once in a lifetime, if it is possible. This pilgrimage is made in part to remember the trials of the Prophet Abraham who is considered the grandfather of the religions of the Middle East and West and a great messenger.

Friday is the holy day of the Muslims and it is believed that the Day of Judgment will be on Friday. On Friday, Muslims join together in prayer at the mosque, with the women physically separated from the men. There are no priests: a respected elder leads the prayers and gives a sermon.

The three holiest places in the world for Muslims to worship are the Ka'aba in Makkah, the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina and the Masjid Aqsa, which is near the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (and shares some connection to the walls of the destroyed Temple of Solomon and the Wailing Wall of the Jews).

There are two major holy days in the Islamic world: first, the Eid al-Fitr, in which joyous celebrations follow public prayers commemorating the end of the thirty day fast of Ramadan. On that day, people dress in new clothing and children receive presents. The second holy day is the Eid al-Adha which marks the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Animal sacrifices are performed at Mina, near Makkah in this "great festival."

At the time of the Hijrah or migration from Makkah to Medina, new regulations regarding women came down to Muhammad in which the wives of the Prophet observed complete hijab„ (veiling to cover the body and face). Although these rules only applied to the Prophet's wives, it became applicable, in some respects, to all Muslim women.

Hijab„ is a statement by a Muslim woman that she is a woman of impeccable morality and a believer in Islam. Although the controversy regarding hijab„ questions whether the custom suppresses or liberates women, it was clearly important to Muhammad. He believed that exposure of the female body would lead to sexual immorality. But in response to those who think hijab„ removes a woman's rights, Muhammad also assured a woman's right to her own property from inheritance, forbade the killing of female babies, and always advocated treating women with sympathy and kindness.

Polygamy was a common practice throughout much of the world and wars caused the numbers of women to exceed men. During the course of his lifetime, Muhammad took eleven wives although he never had more than nine at one time. Most of Muhammad's wives were middle aged widows. One wife, Safiya, was Jewish and another, Mary, was a Coptic Christian.

The Qur'an allows a man to marry "two or three or four" wives, but only if he can deal justly with them. Despite the legality of polygamy, monogamy is the rule and polygamy the exception in the Islamic world.

Islam split into two main groups, the Shi'ah and the Sunni, as a result of controversy over the leadership of the community. Following the death of Muhammad, the first three caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan) ruled from Medina and the fourth (Ali ibn Abi Talib) ruled from Kufa in modern day Iraq.

Sunni Islam accepted the rule of these first elected or nominated caliphs who had shared much of Muhammad's life and kept the religion focused and alive. Muhammad is the first example of a powerful leader who formed a society with a government based on religion. Today, the Sunni represent a 90 % majority of Muslims who were governed by community consensus led by the caliph until 1924.

But the Shi'ah thought leadership properly belonged to Muhammad's family line. (A majority of the Shi'ah, at that time, were not Arabs, and their Egyptian and Zoroastrian heritage included the rights and authority of blood lines). The partisans of Ali, the Shi'ah, were originally a political group who wanted to see Ali and his sons succeed in the caliphate. In later centuries, a religious connotation would develop. The Shi'ah's did not accept any of the caliphs until Ali, who became the fourth in succession (Ali ibn Abi Talib was Muhammad's closest male relative, being his first cousin and son-in-law). The Shi'ah believed the rule of the first three caliphs was illegitimate.

For the Shi'ah, Ali and his line of descendants known as imams„ or leaders became the source of Islamic devotions. Shiism has been the official religion of Iran since the 16th century but communities also exist in Iraq, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Shi'ah Muslims have split into groups known as the Twelvers, Seveners and others who represent about 10% of the Muslim population.

A final group emerged that preferred to keep aloof from these problems and focused upon the mystical aspects of Islam. They became known as the Sufi. Knowledge about the faith is transmitted from the Prophet through a succession of saints and ascetic traditions. Some of the Sufic writers were women, such as Rabe'ah al'Adawiya. In the 13th century in Turkey (photo: Green Mosque, 1421 CE Bursa, Turkey) the poet Jalal al'Din al'Rumi founded the Sufic Mevlevi order (known as the dervishes who use a whirling dance as a spiritual meditation).

It is amazing to note the vast amount of territory that would see the spread of Islam in the hundred years after Muhammad's message of unity. North Africa (photo: Mosque of Abul Haggag in Luxor Temple, Egypt), Spain, India, China and the Pyrenees were all sections of the Muslim empire (if Charles Martel had not defeated the Muslims at Tours, France in 732, all of Europe might have become Islamic instead of Christian).

The flowering of Islamic culture over the centuries with the Umayyad caliphs of Damascus, of the Abbassid caliphs of Baghdad and later Cairo, by the Moors in Spain, the Mogul emperors of India, and the Turkish Ottoman empire spread Islam even further. Sections of the world that have become Islamic have tended to remain so.

In modern times, Islam is enjoying a resurgence of strength. In the United States, following the leadership of the late Malcolm X, the Black Muslims help troubled citizens in disadvantages areas and supervise security systems in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Islam is expanding in many nations including those in Europe and Africa. It is estimated that there are currently about 900 million Muslims in the world and that Islam is the fastest growing religion on earth.

Dr. M. Amir Ali, Managing Director of the Institute of Islamic Information and Education, was a tremendous help in critiquing this article.