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Gaining an Overview of Islamic Origins

In about 610 A.D., the angel Gabriel appeared to a man named Muhammad in the city of Mecca in present day Saudi Arabia. Gabriel told Muhammad that God had commissioned Muhammad as His last prophet. The revelations Muhammad received until his death in 632 constitute the Qur'an, Islam's holy book. Muhammad believed that he was restoring and completing the original religion of humanity, and that he stood in the line of the Biblical prophets who had also been sent by God to call people to submit to God.

Muhammad's contemporaries in Mecca worshipped many gods and rejected Muhammad's call to worship only one God. In 622, Muhammad and his small band of believers emigrated from Mecca north to the town of Yathrib, which the Muslims renamed Medina. That year would eventually be set as the first year of the Muslim calendar. At Medina, Muhammad established the first Muslim community.

In 630, Muhammad led the army of the growing Muslim community against Mecca, which submitted peacefully. By the time of Muhammad's death, two years later, most of Arabia had accepted Islam and become part of the Islamic community. Muhammad was succeeded by a series of rulers (caliphs) under whom Islam burst forth as a new power on the world scene. In less than 100 years, Muslim armies had incorporated most of the lands from the western border regions of northwest India in the East to Spain in the West into a single, great empire usually called a caliphate.

Gradually, the original unity of Islam was lost, never to be regained. The caliphate fell before the Mongol onslaught in 1258. Islam continued to spread in the following centuries, but new Muslim kingdoms rose and fell. By the end of the seventeenth century, the military power of Islam ebbed away and by the end of the nineteenth and on into the first part of the twentieth century, most Muslim countries came under direct or indirect control of European nations. In the second half of the twentieth century, Muslim nations gained their independence. Despite political and economic decline, the number of Muslims in the world increased rapidly in the twentieth century, and Islam became for the first time a truly global religion.

Summarizing Islamic Beliefs

Muslims share many of the same basic beliefs as Christians and Jews, while differing fundamentally from Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism:

  • God created the world and all that is in it.
  • God established in His revealed word the principles by which to live, including concern for the poor.
  • One shouldn't worship other gods, or money, or power, or oneself.
  • At the end of time, God will judge all people.
  • If a person had fulfilled the divine command, he or she will go to heaven.

God calls upon all people to submit to His will, as embodied in His revealed law. In fact, the word islam means submission; Islam comes from the same root as the word for peace. Islam is often thought of as the religion of submission to God.

Islam is the name of the religion. A Muslim is the name of a member of the Islamic religion. The word "Muslim" means "one who submits to God." A Muslim isn't a Mohammedan, and Muslims don't belong to a Mohammedan religion, because Muhammad is only a man. Muslims worship God and not Muhammad.

Basic Islamic practice is summed up in the Five Pillars of Worship. Muslims must confess that only God is God and that Muhammad is His messenger. They stop whatever they're doing five times a day to pray to God. Once a year, in the month of Ramadan, they fast from dawn to dusk. Each year, they give a defined portion of their wealth to serve God's purposes. And once in a lifetime, each Muslim who is able must make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Branching out from the Islamic base

Islam has two main branches: the Sunnis and the Shi´ites.

  • Sunnis constitute from 84 to 90 percent of the world's Muslims. The term "Sunni" refers to the traditions followed by Muhammad and the early Muslims.
  • After Muhammad's death, some Muslims believed that his nephew and son-in-law, ´Ali, should have succeeded him (as opposed to the first three caliphs who came after Muhammad). The term Shi´a refers to the party of ´Ali, those who believed that religious and political leadership of the Muslim community should always remain in the line of ´Ali and his wife Fatima. Because of disputes that arose about the line of succession, Shi´ites divided into a number of different groups, such as Ithna´-Ashari (or Twelvers), Isma´ilis, and Zaydis.

Sufis are another large group of Muslims. Sufism is Islamic mysticism, rather than a sect, like Sunnis or Shi´ites. So, a Sufi is normally also a Sunni (or more rarely, a Shi´ite) Muslim. Many Sufi orders exist just like many monastic orders exist in Roman Catholicism.

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