Islam: a look at its history and tenets

A glance at Muslim and Arab issues:


Islam means “submission” to God, or Allah, and Muslims are those who submit to his will as revealed in the seventh century to the Prophet Muhammad, a merchant from Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia.

A dispute over succession after Mohammed’s death in A.D. 632 continues to split the Muslim world into Shiites, who make up about 10 percent of Muslims, and majority Sunnis. Shiites believe Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law, was Muhammad’s rightful heir; Sunnis believe it was Abu Bakr, the prophet’s close associate. Most of the Arab world is Sunni, as is most of Afghanistan, while Iran is mostly Shiite.

Despite the split, Islam flourished and spread into Africa, Asia and Europe within two centuries of Muhammad’s death. Today, although most Arabs are Muslims, most Muslims are not Arab. The most populous Muslim nation is Indonesia, where about 90 percent of the population of 210 million is Muslim. There are an estimated 4 million to 6 million people in the United States who identify themselves as Muslims, about 2 million of them involved with mosques. Worldwide, Muslims number more than a billion.


Arabic is spoken across the Mideast. Dialect and pronunciation vary from country to country. As the language of the Quran, it is often the language of prayer and religious study for non-Arab Muslims. Many non-Arab Muslims have Arabic names.


Islam is the newest of the three great monotheistic religions. The others are Judaism and Christianity. Muslims recognize aspects of the two earlier religions but believe Muhammad provided the final revelation. Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians; “Allah” means God in Arabic.

The revelations compiled in the Quran, Islam’s holy book, are seen as the only correct continuation of the ideas as originated by revered figures familiar to Jews and Christians, including Adam, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus. While Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet, they abhor the Christian belief that he is God.

Despite the differences, Muslims believe that Jews and Christians, whose religions, like Islam, are based on scripture and sprang up in the Mideast, are part of their broad community.

There are five basic tenets, or pillars, of Islam: affirming there is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet; praying five times a day; giving alms; fasting from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, the lunar month during which the Quran was revealed to Muhammad; and performing the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Jihad, variously translated as “holy war” or “holy struggle,’ is not one of the five pillars of Islam. But many Muslims believe it is their religious duty to fight to defend their faith or even to extend it into non-Muslim lands.

Pre-Islamic cultures influence Islamic societies, just as pre-Christian cultures influence the Western world. Scholars trace many of the restrictions on women, for instance, to conservative tribal traditions. Muslim women in the most conservative societies, such as Saudi Arabia, only appear in public veiled head-to-toe.

Elsewhere, they cover only their hair, or choose to wear no special clothing at all.


Muhammad governed a theocracy in Medina, located in modern-day Saudi Arabia, and some Muslims look to him as a model of a spiritual leader with temporal powers. Others, though, argue that Islam alone is no solution for the complex problems of the modern world.

Politicians in countries with large Muslim populations, recognizing Islam’s power to inspire and comfort in troubling times, have at times promoted fundamentalists whose ultimate goal is the overthrow of states they see as dangerously secular. When the fundamentalists begin to threaten their power, political leaders crack down, creating societal tension.

Two non-Arab countries, Iran and Afghanistan, have seen modern attempts to rule by Muhammad’s example.
Ruhollah Khomeini, who bore the religious title ayatollah, led a 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran and made Khomeini the first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Today, moderate and hard-line Iranian clerics are struggling over the role of Islam in politics.
Since 1996, the Taliban have ruled Afghanistan according to a strict interpretation of Islam rejected by most other Muslims. The Taliban ended schooling for girls older than 8, prohibit women from working outside the home or even venturing out unless accompanied by a close male relative, and punish thieves by chopping off their hands or feet in front of crowds. The Taliban provoked international outcry this year by demolishing two ancient and monumental mountain carvings of the Buddha on the grounds that they violated Islam’s ban on idol worship.

Taliban means “students.” The movement sprang up in conservative Muslim schools in Pakistan among refugees of the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.


Medieval Europe launched the Crusades to seize control of the Holy Land from Muslims, and Muslim armies later conquered Byzantium and parts of Europe _ the Iberian peninsula and the Balkans. Today, some Muslims say they are again under Western siege. The global economy driven by the West has created new desires and new pressures. Liberal ideas associated with the West are spread through television, movies and popular music _ an emphasis on individual choice that weakens traditional male authority, the mixing of men and women at school and at work, frank discussion of sex.

Also fomenting tensions is a sense that in the United States and Europe secularism is promoted and God’s will ignored.

Another sensitive issue is American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest shrines. Osama bin Laden, the extremist the United States regards as its No. 1 terrorist threat, lost his Saudi citizenship over his criticism of his country’s close alliance with Washington.

The overriding concern, however, is the conflict that has been fought since the creation in 1948 of Israel as a haven for persecuted Jews on their biblical land. Israeli statehood made hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, most of them Muslim, homeless.


Like other world religions, Islam generally abhors violence unless it is morally justified, as in the defense of life, property, honor and rights. Muslim leaders have said that describes the Palestinian fight against Israel.

While some Muslims may have rejoiced over the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, very few would claim these were sanctioned by Islam.