Islam - an Introduction Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Islam - an Introduction

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Allah in Arabic against the green of Islam

One of the main monotheistic religions, Islam was founded approximately 14 centuries ago (610 AD) in the Arabian town of Mecca by the Prophet Mohammed. In contrast to the widespread polytheistic beliefs existent at the time, Mohammed preached belief in one God, a day of Judgement and an afterlife composed of both heaven and hell. The religion also teaches, among other principles, charity and kindness for the poor and needy, personal redemption, equal rights for men and women and the right of divorce for women.

The Beliefs of Islam

The central beliefs of Islam are expressed in the Five Pillars of Islam:

  • Creed (Shahadah) - 'La Ilaha Illallah Muhammadur Rasoolullah' - 'There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the Messenger of Allah'. Central to Islam, it is said that anyone who sincerely believes this is a Muslim.

  • Prayer (Salat) - Muslims pray five times a day - just after dawn (but before sunrise), just after noon, in the afternoon, just after sunset, and at night-time. Prayers are obligatory and serve to maintain a lasting connection to Allah and a person's consciousness of God, Taqwa.

  • Fasting (Ramadan) - This takes place in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, just before the first festival of Eid. Apart from being allowed to eat from dusk until dawn, nothing is taken into the body during the 30 days of the month - there is no smoking, medicine or sex. Every day, the fast is broken just after the Maghrib prayer, just after sunset. Ill people, children, the elderly, pregnant women or people who would suffer serious hardship due to fasting are exempt from the fast. The purpose of fasting is to remember the poor in society, to instil a sense of devotion and self-discipline and to remove distractions to allow one to focus more clearly on one's actions, and on God.

  • Charity (Zakat1) - A certain portion of the income of every Muslim is given to help the poor and needy. The money is given directly; through a mosque or charity or an equivalent amount of voluntary work is done. It usually benefits the homeless, the poorest families, the hospitals, or anyone else in great need. Although different schools of law provide differing definitions, there are common rules to which all Muslims adhere.

  • Pilgrimage (Hajj) - At least once in a Muslim's life, if possible, a Muslim goes on a sacred pilgrimage to Mecca - the Hajj. This lasts for several days and is thought to wash away all the sins in the person's life.

Further Information About Islam

The universal Islamic greeting is: As-salaamu alaikum - 'May peace be with you'. 'Islam' itself means 'peace' or 'submission', reflecting its ego-dissolving nature. Modesty is a characteristic of Islam, as each person realises that they are completely dependent upon Allah.

The religion is monotheistic and, as such, doesn't believe in multiple gods or the division of one God. People are born innocent and then make mistakes during their lives that might lead them to evil acts. A person is thus responsible for his or her own actions, but is capable of personal redemption - forgiveness for sins committed, if sincerely prayed for, is believed to be granted. Muslims believe in the prophets of Christianity and Judaism, angels and the devil (although he is known as Iblis). Muslims believe religion pervades and defines every aspect of life and, as such, see the goal of governments and social institutions as to provide a just society within which a person may find peace and fulfilment and experience the freedom to pursue a spiritual life.

The Holy Book of Islam is known as the Qur'an, and is seen as the sacred and eternal word of God. Allah, as God is called in Arabic, is believed to be the same God as in Judaism and Christianity. He is eternal, absolute, omnipotent, omniscient and the Creator and Destroyer of the universe and all the worlds.

Muslims believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and that He, like Moses, was sent to guide humanity and bring humanity closer to God. They do not, however, believe that either Jesus or Moses were God incarnate. Islam accepts that those outside of their faith may also go to heaven if they are good, kind and believe in God.

About 80% of Muslims are non-Arabs and live outside the Arabian world. Islam does not believe in races, or 'chosen people' - it is open to all. Indeed, most of the converts to Islam are from the West - mainly Europe and America - the majority being educated women aged 16 to 35.

Islam is the most widely-practised religion in the Middle East2, North Africa3 and the Near East4.

The word Jihad is often translated in the West as 'holy war' but in fact means only 'struggle': it is often applied to the study of mathematics, history and the Qur'an, not just to resisting invasions of one's homeland. Muslims have their own Islamic calendar which is based upon the Moon (like the Chinese and Jewish calendars) rather than the Sun. Its starting date is that of the Hijra (622 AD) and each year is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, meaning that Muslim dates move by 11 days each year. Ramadan, therefore, starts and ends on different days.

Islam has its own economic system, different to that of the rest of the world. With the notion of welfare, interest on loans is strictly forbidden. Investment, however, is both allowed and encouraged.

Intoxication is forbidden in Islam, and so drugs (including cigarettes) and alcohol are not allowed. The taking of poison and suicide are also forbidden. Like Jews, Muslims have dietary laws. Food must be Halal, which means 'pure' or 'allowed'. Most food is allowed, but there are special rules for animals and meat - animals must be free-range, have lived a good life (free from pain and disease), be killed quickly and painlessly and a prayer said before it is killed as a reminder that this has only been allowed by God's permission. Blood must be drained from the animal before it is fit to eat to prevent it becoming carrion (decomposing meat). Muslims don't eat carnivores or diseased animals, nor do they eat battery animals. Fish are allowed if they are caught in the open water; a prayer is said for them once they are caught. Muslims do not hunt for sport - this is Haram in Islam, and is utterly forbidden. Muslims regard Kosher food as Halal.

Muslim scholars were among the first to use and to spread the base ten number system, now commonly used in mathematics. With this system, it was possible to develop algebra, named after the Muslim book of maths, Al-Jibr, and new algorithms, named after the Muslim scholar Al-Khwarizmi who first defined them and set out their systematic use. Islam encourages enquiry into the workings of the world and there is no artificial distinction between 'science' and 'religion'.

In Islam, women and men are intended to be treated as equal and families are very important - old people, for example, are almost never put into homes, instead living with the family until they pass away.

One main contribution of Islam was umma - the concept of the true nation state with citizens having a balance of rights and responsibilities.

1Strictly speaking, Sadaqah is the Islamic term for charity; it has the important characteristic of being voluntary, covers a very wide range of good causes, and is greatly encouraged in Islam. Zakat, on the other hand, is an obligation, based on a pre-determined value of one's wealth, and payable only to certain recipients as detailed in the Qur'an. The word Zakat is therefore often translated more accurately as 'poor due' or 'welfare contribution'.2The Middle East consists mainly of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan.3Algeria, Morocco through to Egypt and Libya.4Mainly Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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