Islam For Dummies book cover

Islam For Dummies

By: Malcolm Clark Published: 09-11-2019

From the Qur’an to Ramadan, this friendly guide introduces you to the origins, practices and beliefs of Islam

Many non-Muslims have no idea that Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews, and that Islam preaches compassion, charity, humility, and the brotherhood of man. And the similarities don’t end there. According to Islamic teaching, Muhammad founded Islam in 610 CE after the angel Gabriel appeared to him at Mecca and told him that God had entered him among the ranks of such great biblical prophets as Abraham, Moses, and Christ. 

Whether you live or work alongside Muslims and want to relate to them better, or you simply want to gain a better understanding of the world’s second largest religion, Islam For Dummies can help you make sense of this religion and its appeal, including:

  • Muhammad, the man and the legend
  • The Five Pillars of Wisdom
  • The Five Essentials beliefs of Islam
  • The different branches of Islam and Islamic sects
  • The Qur’an and Islamic law
  • Islam throughout history and its impact around the world

Professor Malcolm Clark explores the roots of Islam, how it has developed over the centuries, and it’s long and complex relationship with Christianity. He helps puts Islam in perspective as a major cultural and geopolitical force. And he provided helpful insights into, among other things:

  • Muhammad, the Qur’an and the ethical teachings of Islam
  • Muslim worship, customs, and rituals surrounding birth, marriage, and death
  • Shi’ites, Sunnis, Sufis, Druze, and other important Muslim groups
  • Islam in relation to Judaism and Christianity

In these troubled times, it is important that we try to understand the belief systems of others, for through understanding comes peace. Islam For Dummies helps you build bridges of understanding between you and your neighbors in the global village.



P.S. If you think this book seems familiar, you’re probably right. The Dummies team updated the cover and design to give the book a fresh feel, but the content is the same as the previous release of Islam For Dummies (9780764555039). The book you see here shouldn’t be considered a new or updated product. But if you’re in the mood to learn something new, check out some of our other books. We’re always writing about new topics! .

Articles From Islam For Dummies

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Islam For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 02-16-2022

Understanding Islam begins with looking at the basic beliefs (Five Pillars of Faith) and required rituals (Five Pillars of Worship) of Muslims as well as the different Islamic sects that Muslims may belong to. Islam's Five Pillars of Worship and Five Pillars of Faith provide the supports of a Muslim's daily spiritual life. Although all true Muslims share these beliefs and rituals, Islam is divided into a number of different sects that emphasize different aspects and leaders of the religion.

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Muslims Adhere to Different Islamic Sects

Article / Updated 04-14-2017

Although Sunnis make up the majority of Muslims, not every Muslim belongs to the same Islamic sect. A Muslim's Islamic beliefs may take one of these forms: Sunni Muslims include 84%–90% of all Muslims. Sunni means “tradition,” and Sunnis regard themselves as those who emphasize following the traditions of Muhammad and of the first two generations of the community of Muslims that followed Muhammad. A number of movements to reform Islam have originated mainly in the 20th century. Some are limited to one country and others have a broader influence. Most are Sunni movements, such as the Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Jama`at-i-Islami. Shi`ite Muslims comprise 10%–16% of all Muslims. Shi`ites are the “party of `Ali,” who believe that Muhammad’s son-in-law `Ali was his designated successor (imam) and that the Muslim community should be headed by a designated descendent of Muhammad. Three main subgroups of Shi`ites are Twelvers (Ithna-`Asharis), Seveners (Isma`ilis), and Fivers (Zaydis). Sufis are Islamic mystics. Sufis go beyond external requirements of the religion to seek a personal experience of God through forms of meditation and spiritual growth. A number of Sufi orders, comparable to Christian monastic orders, exist. Most Sufis are also Sunni Muslims, although some are Shi`ite Muslims. Many conservative Sunni Muslims regard Sufism as a corruption of Islam, although most still regard Sufis as Muslims. Baha’is and Ahmadiyyas are 19th-century offshoots of Shi`ite and Sunni Islam, respectively. Bahai’s consider themselves the newest of the major world’s religions but recognize that historically they originated from Shi`ite Islam in the same way that Christianity originated from Judaism. Ahmadiyyas do regard themselves as Muslims. Most other Muslims, however, deny that either group is a legitimate form of Islam and regard members of both groups as heretics — people who have corrupted and abandoned Islamic belief and practice. Druze, Alevis, and `Alawis are small, sectarian groups with unorthodox beliefs and practices that split off from Islam. Druze and Alevis do not regard themselves as Muslims and are not considered Muslims by other Muslims. `Alawis have various non-Islamic practices, but debate continues as to whether they should still be considered Muslims.

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Reviewing the Starting Points for Islamic Ethics

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Humans are made in the image of God, and that image includes moral and intellectual capability. According to Sura 33:72 (common term for the basic 114 units of the Qur'an, the basic scripture of Islam), God offered the "trust" to the heavens, the earth, and the mountains. They were afraid and refused it. Only humans were willing to accept it. In other words, morality is a uniquely human attribute and thus morality is central to Islam. In contrast, angels can't sin and thus don't make moral choices. Moral action does not always come easily, as Satan and evil spirits (jinn) are always tempting people to do evil.According to Islam, people do have the ability to choose good and to avoid evil. The principles of Islamic ethics The Qur'an has a strong ethical thrust. For example, it contains condemnation of the people of Mecca for their oppression of the poor (Sura 107:3) and the orphans (Sura 17:34; 93:9), and for cheating in commerce (Sura 17:35). The following list offers six basic principles of Islamic ethics: Every action has moral significance. Perhaps the phrase most often cited by Muslim ethicists comes from Sura 3:104, where Muslims are told that they're a people who should call all to do what is good and right and forbid what is wrong or dishonorable. This principle of calling to "do good and forbid evil" is a guiding light. Specific "rules" are important, but insight is required to apply the rules (or the general principal of "doing good" in specific cases). Moral actions are those which result in justice (´adl, Sura 4:58). In concrete circumstances, an action may involve both good and evil consequences and then one must choose that action which will maximize the good and minimize the evil, resulting in the greatest degree of justice, according to the prominent fourteenth century legal scholar, Ibn Taymiyya. Faith and works are both required. Sura 2:25 says, "To those who believe and do acts of righteousness give the good news that they will go to paradise." The moral choices one makes are serious as they play a role in determining one's ultimate fate — to heaven or to hell. Intentions are as important as deeds (as is true also in acts of worship) Sincerity is crucial. The trio of "heart, tongue, and deed" is frequently mentioned. Everyone agrees that it's not enough to advocate moral actions (the action of the tongue) but then act differently. An action done just for external compliance, says Islam, isn't nearly as good as one that comes from the heart. Something that comes from the heart will be accompanied by words and actions. If circumstances prevent accomplishment of the action, then commitment of the heart is still regarded as good. When it comes to doing what is morally right, having the proper character (consisting of virtues such as wisdom, concern for justice, modesty, and the avoidance of vices such as lust, greed, and anger) is as important as following a set of rules. In most situations people act instinctively, in accord with their basic character, rather than by consulting a set of rules. The great twelfth-century theologian al-Ghazali wrote extensively on the importance of cultivating virtue and avoiding inclination to vice. Sura 5:105 says, "Believers, guard your own souls. The person who has gone astray cannot hurt you if you are rightly guided." Extremes should be avoided; follow the middle path, the way of balance. One shouldn't be arrogant or exalt oneself in the eyes of others. Sura 31:18–19 says, "Do not be disdainful of other people, nor walk in arrogance in the earth. God does not love any person who boasts arrogantly. Be moderate in your pace and lower your voice. The most unpleasant of voices is the ass's." Tapping texts for illustration According to tradition, Muhammad said, "None among you is a believer until he wishes for his brothers and sisters what he wishes for himself." This is similar to the Golden Rule, versions of which occur in Judaism, Christianity, Confucianism, and most other faiths. On the other hand, Islam has no Ten Commandments, although several Qur'anic texts do summarize basic moral requirements. Sura 23, 3–11 says, "Believers are those . . . who avoid vain talk; who are active in deeds of charity; who abstain from sex except with their wives, or whom their right hands possess. Thus they're free from blame, but those whose desires exceed those limits are transgressors. Believers faithfully observe their trusts and covenants and keep their prayers. They will be the heirs, who will inherit Paradise, where they will dwell." Sura 70:22–35 has a similar list of good and bad deeds. Muhammad gave a summary of some of the moral duties of a Muslim in his farewell sermon on the pilgrimage to Mecca in 632. Along with worship and other obligations, he included the following moral instructions: Return any property belonging to others. Don't hurt anyone. Don't charge interest on money loaned to others. Husbands should treat their wives well, as they are partners together. Don't make friends with people of bad character. Don't commit adultery.

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Gaining an Overview of Islamic Origins

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

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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Moving toward Religious Dialogue

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

The history of religious dialogue involving Muslims began when some early caliphs sponsored theological debates at court between Muslims and non-Muslims. Later, for limited periods of time, much fruitful interaction occurred among Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Spain. Still later (sixteenth century), the Mughal emperor of India, Akbar, sponsored religious dialogue in his court and encouraged seeking religious truth wherever it could be found. In modern times, an organized movement for religious dialogue first arose in the 1960s. A key event was the "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to non-Christian Religions" produced by the Second Vatican (Roman Catholic) Council in 1965. According to the document, salvation was possible not only for Christians but also for Jews and Muslims. Beginning in the 1960s, a number of high-level international inter-religious dialogue conferences were held, some sponsored by Muslims and others by Christians. Occasionally, Jews and members of other religion participated. Modern institutes promoting religious dialogue include the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (at Georgetown University in Washington, DC), the Duncan Black McDonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (at Hartford Seminary, Connecticut), the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Religions (at the University of Birmingham in England), the Islamic Foundation (in Leicester, England), and the Henry Martyn Institute (Hyderabad, India). In the United States, active interfaith movements exist at both the local and national level. National organizations, such as the Interfaith Alliance, mainly involved Christians, Jews, and Muslims but welcome members of other religions, too. Such organizations try to promote religious tolerance both domestically and internationally. At the local level, most large cities have a local organization to promote dialogue among members of all religions. Local organizations nearly always involve some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations. When the town has a Baha'i community, it will nearly always play a leading role in such organizations. Buddhist and Hindu participation depends in part upon the nature of specific Buddhist and Hindu groups in the communities but is welcomed and sought after by the local interfaith organization. Such organizations sponsor small group dialogues in members' homes, offer educational programs, hold open houses on major religious holidays at the places of worship of the constituent organizations, and in other ways promote constructive religious dialogue. Principles of dialogue Participation in a local interfaith organization is one of the better ways to get to know people of other religions, because you not only find out more about other religions, you also get to know people of differing faiths at the personal level. In this time of dialogue, keep in mind the following guidelines: Practicing fairness: Each side must represent the beliefs of the other side in a way that members of the other religion can affirm as accurate. Expressing empathy: Each side must make an honest effort to appreciate the appeal of the other religion to those who are attracted to it and to understand how the religion functions for its believers and makes sense to them. Avoiding misuse of scripture: In dialogue, you can't apply your own scripture to determine what's valid or invalid about beliefs of other side. If you do this, no dialogue takes place and each side quotes its own proof texts. Staying open to change and challenge: Participants don't want to simply repeat the party line of their religions without grappling with what the other side says. Otherwise, no dialogue occurs and two monologues that pass each other in the night. Steering clear of denunciations or debates: No dialogue takes place when one side wants only to denounce the positions of the other side. Dialogue isn't a debate in which one side tries to get the upper hand. Showing reciprocity: Apply the same standards to yourself, your own religion, and the scriptures that you apply to the religion of others. Avoiding preconditions: Preconditions declare the most crucial issues as settled or out of bounds before the discussion begins. Being cautious of sweeping generalizations (positive or negative): These obscure ambiguities and differences within either religion. Facing frankly areas of disagreement: Have a thick skin and don't get insulted too easily. Avoiding selective use of scripture, tradition, and history when discussing issues: An example is citing only those passages in the Qur'an that talk about violence and comparing them to only those passages in the Bible that talk about love and peace — or vice versa. The future of inter-religious relations To some extent, future dialogue is always affected by political events at the regional and international level. Prospects differ in each country; for example, current conflict between Palestinians and Israelis doesn't create a healthy climate for dialogue. Small groups of people on both sides strive for peace, justice, and tolerance, but such actions are often opposed by the mass of citizens on both sides. In India today, the continuing tensions due to the dispute over Kashmir and growing Hindu nationalism in India contrast with the early twentieth century, when many Muslims and Hindus participated together in the movement for independence from the British. Fortunately, at present, contacts between members of various faiths continue to grow in the United States, and national political leaders publicly advocate religious tolerance.

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Using the Qur'an in Daily Life

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Many Muslim children learn to read through the study of the Qur'an. When they grow up, they hear Qur'anic recitations over radio and television. Wherever they look, they see verses from the Qur'an written out in artistic style. Educating using the Qur'an Before the introduction of modern, state-run education systems that were based on a European model, formal education began with instruction in reading the Qur'an at about the age of 7. Today, this pattern of local Qur'anic schools for kids often continues alongside the state educational systems. And in Islamic countries, state schools incorporate religious education and Arabic into their curriculums. Remember that Arabic isn't the native language of most Muslim children. In a typical example reported from a West African village, a group of young students gathers around the teacher with writing tablets, pen, ink, and copies of the Qur'an. The teacher begins with the first two verses of the Qur'an, teaching the name and pronunciation of each new letter as it occurs until all 28 letters have been learned. Then the student begins to combine the letters with the different vowels, using passages from Suras 105–111 in addition to Sura 1. Next the students combine the syllables to make words so that they can repeat the first two verses of Sura 1. So far, this is all reading and reciting of the Qur'an. Now the student learns to write. First he traces an outline of individual letters following the example given by the teacher. At each stage the teacher corrects him. By the time he has learned to read, recite, and write, he has covered about one-fourth of the Qur'an. The minority of students who persevere to the end (four years or longer) are able to recite and write the entire Qur'an. Such a major accomplishment is marked with a graduation ceremony and gifts to the student and the teacher. Reciting the Qur'an Recitation of the Qur'an (taliwa) is a highly honored performance art in Muslim countries that confers a blessing (baraka) on both the reciter and the listener. A person who memorizes the whole Qur'an can use the honorary title of hafiz, one who preserves the Qur'an in her heart. In theory, any Muslim willing to invest the time and effort can memorize the Qur'an. To recite it in a beautiful manner, however, is an art form. In many Muslim countries, Qur'an recitation competitions are major events. Like a sports league or a spelling bee, winners at the local level move on to competition at a district level and then the national level. Such contests are especially well organized in Indonesia. Some people obtain a professional rank as Qur'an reciters, performing at public and private events. They make CDs, and their recitations are broadcast on radio and television. Egyptian Qur'an reciters in particular have a high reputation and provide a model for others to emulate. Reproducing the Qur'an: Calligraphy Reproduction of the written Qur'an is as important as oral recitation of the Qur'an. Calligraphy is one of the two greatest art forms (along with architecture) of Islamic culture. Like professional recitation, calligraphy is a highly honored professional skill that requires years of practice to master. Only in China does calligraphy achieve the same perfection as in the Muslim world. You can find two early calligraphic styles, although over time, many other scripts evolved: Kufic is the more boxy, angular, heavy, and formal script. Naskhi is the more elongated, rounded, cursive script. Written verses from the Qur'an are used in many contexts: They adorn the walls of mosques and other religious buildings. The cloth covering of the Ka´ba, the sacred shrine of Islam in Mecca, has a band of Qur'anic verses near the top. Short verses with appropriate content are posted at the entrance to schools, hospitals, and other buildings. Certain suras and verses are inscribed to be used as a sort of good-luck charm to ward off illness and evil. Although frowned upon by conservative scholars, the practice persists in some places of writing a passage down, and then dissolving the ink from the page in a liquid solution that is swallowed as a healing potion.

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Islam's Five Pillars of Faith

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

In Islam, the Five Pillars of Faith (not to be confused with the Five Pillars of Worship) provide a brief and convenient summary of basic Muslim beliefs: Belief in God (Allah) as the only god. Belief in the angels of God, such as Gabriel. Belief in the book of God and in the messengers and prophets who revealed this book. (These are sometimes listed as two separate Pillars, creating Six Pillars of Faith.) The book is an eternal heavenly book that was partly revealed in the Jewish and Christian Bibles and is fully revealed in the Qur’an. God sent his prophets and messengers to reveal his word and to warn people what would happen if they didn’t return to the path of God. Muhammad is the final prophet in a series that began with Adam and includes Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus, among others. Belief in the Day of Judgment and Resurrection at the end of time, when all will be raised from the dead, judged according to their faith and deeds, and sent to the gardens of paradise or to the fires of hell. Belief that God is responsible for everything that happens, both good and evil, because everything happens according to the will of God. The individual, however, is still responsible for his or her own moral and immoral actions.

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The Five Pillars of Worship in Islam

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

In the Islamic faith, Muslims are expected to fulfill five fundamental acts of worship. The Five Pillars of Worship (arkan al-`ibada) are the basic acts involved in being a believing and practicing Muslim, but each Pillar is also a gateway to deeper understanding and greater spirituality as one grows in the Islamic faith. Shahada: A person becomes a Muslim by making the basic statement of testimony or witness. “I testify that there is no God but God, and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” Variations of the shahada are used in many different situations. Salat: Salat is a formal, ritualized prayer performed at five specified times each day facing Mecca. Salat consists of a sequence of recitations and bodily positions, including prostration with one’s forehead touching the ground. Zakat: Zakat is an obligatory charitable contribution, theoretically due annually from every Muslim at the rate of 2.5 percent of liquid assets and income-producing property. Zakat supports charitable works and the promotion of Islam. Saum: Fast from dawn to dusk each day during the ninth month (Ramadan), Muslims are not supposed to eat, drink, or engage in sexual intercourse. This is a time of spiritual renewal. Hajj: At least once in his or her life, if physically and financially able, each Muslim makes the pilgrimage to Mecca during the twelfth Muslim month. During the five main days of the hajj, those on the pilgrimage duplicate the ritual first performed by Abraham, including circling the sacred shrine (Ka`ba), standing on the plain of `Arafat, and offering a sacrifice.

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