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What is Islam?

History, Beliefs, and Practices


General information:

  • “Islam” means “submission.” Muslim means one who submits to God. Contrary to what you sometimes read, Islam does not mean “peace,” which is the word salaam.
  • There are over one billion Muslims today, second in size to Christianity in world religions.
  • The largest Muslim countries are not in the middle east: Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh. India with only 10% Muslim population still has more than any other Middle Eastern country.
  • Turkey is the only truly successful example of an Islamic democracy.
  • Persian (Iran) is now the third most popular language on the internet, after English and Chinese.
  • Islam is one of three major monotheistic religions along with Judaism and Christianity.
  • Allah is their word for God, whom they identify as the God of Abraham. Some pre-Islamic cultures in the middle east referred to their deities with this name as well, such as the moon-god, but this does not discredit Islam’s use of the term, any more than the fact that El, the Hebrew word for God in the Old Testament, was also used by the Canaanites to refer to their god.
  • Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan, the time when Muhammad received his first revelation. Because they follow a lunar calendar, the dates change every year.
  • Muslims abstain from alcohol and pork.
  • Arabs adopted the decimal system (we still call them Arabic numerals) and the concept of “zero” from India, on which all Western mathematics is based.
  • The first university in the world was Islamic, founded in Cairo, 971 AD.
  • In their trade interactions with Byzantium (the eastern Roman empire) during the early middle ages, Arab scholars preserved major works of Aristotle and other Greeks which were reintroduced into Europe in the 12th The West owes much of our classical heritage to these scholars. They excelled in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and architecture.
  • The star and crescent symbol seen on some Islamic mosques dates to the early Sumerian civilization (2nd millennium BC), where it was associated with the sky deities. In the 19th century the symbol was adopted as the battle-standard of the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey), who are mainly responsible for its association with Islam. It is not accepted by all Muslims, however, and is not equivalent to the symbol of the cross for Christians.
  • Author Mahbubani (Beyond the Age of Innocence 87-9) calls Islam the most successful religion in the modern world because it “plays a far greater role in the life of its adherents than any other religion.” In the so-called “Christian” West, only America has a moderately high rate of religious zeal, with 59% saying religion places a very important role in their lives. In England, Italy, and Germany fewer than 35% agreed; in France, Russia, and Japan, less than 15% claim religion is important. In contrast, in Pakistan and Indonesia over 90% said religion was very important. In Islamic Africa it was 80% . Of course, what people report on a survey does not always translate into real life. Under the influence of the West many Muslims live more secularized lifestyles today than in previous generations.



  • According to Islam there have been many prophets including Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (some include Plato or Buddha). Muhammad is the final prophet who brought the final revelation from God. Muhammad believed that he was following the spiritual path laid by the previous prophets of Judaism and Christianity, but he corrected the mistakes of these religions as people had wandered from the truth. “Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry … and those Christians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day, and does righteousness, no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow” (Quran 5:69). He called Jews and Christians the People of the Book. He claimed to invent no new teachings (Q 46:8), and was surprised that Jews and Christians did not accept him as a true prophet.
  • Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570 AD. Orphaned by the age of six, he was raised under the protection of his uncle. Muhammad began working as a merchant and became known for his trustworthiness.
  • When he was twenty-five, he married his employer, Khadija, a wealthy widow whose status elevated Muhammad’s position in Meccan society. Muhammad and Khadija had four daughters and two sons, both of whom died in infancy. About fifteen years after his marriage, he began to have visions and hear mysterious voices. He sought solitude in a cave on Mount Hira on the outskirts of Mecca. One night during Ramadan, the traditional month of spiritual retreat, when Muhammad was about 40, an angel appeared to him in the form of a man. Muhammad, fearing that he was being attacked by an evil spirit, fled down the mountain in terror. The voice called after him, “O Muhammad, you are the messenger of God, and I am the angel Jibril [Gabriel].” This revelation was soon followed by others about the one true God.
  • Muhammad slowly began to attract some followers, most of them young and of modest social standing, including his cousin Ali. When Muhammad began to preach against the traditional polytheism of his native town, the rich and powerful merchants of Mecca realized that the religious revolution taking place under their noses might be disastrous for business, which was protected by the Meccan pantheon of gods and goddesses. The ruling elite ganged up against Muhammad and his followers, and began to persecute them.
  • Muhammad’s position in Mecca became hopeless when his wife and uncle died. In 622 Muhammad and his small band of followers escaped to settle in the oasis of Yathrib, birthplace of his mother, located some eleven days north by camel (280 miles). Yathrib came to be called Medina, “the city (of the Prophet).”
  • Muhammad’s hegira (journey) from Mecca to Medina marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. For the first time in Arabia members of a community were bound together not by the traditional ties of clan and tribe but by their shared belief in the one true God.
  • Muhammad, surrounded by his followers, lived in Medina for ten years, slowly winning over converts. Muhammad made repeated attempts to attract the Jews to his cause; he taught that believers worship like the Jews in the direction of Jerusalem. Ultimately these attempts failed, and henceforth Muslims prayed in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. Muhammad’s native town, which had long been a center of paganism, thereby became the center of the true religion, the focal point of the believers’ daily prayer, and eventually the object of their annual pilgrimage.
  • Raiding and warfare were the primary economic activities of the new community in Medina, and the rich caravans organized by Mecca were particularly attractive targets. At the Battle of Badr (for which Muslim boys are still named), Muhammad captured the major caravan coming from Syria; his armies, although outnumbered, defeated the Meccans guarding the caravan. Around 630 he overtook Mecca with little resistance. Muhammad’s prestige grew after the surrender of Mecca. Embassies from all Arabia came to submit to him.
  • Muhammad died on June 8, 632, aged about sixty.
  • In about a decade the entire area of the Middle East was under Muslim control, from Persia, Damascus and Jerusalem in the east, to Egypt and North Africa in the west.
  • Muhammad is not worshipped by Muslims (although Sufis, Muslim mystics, consider him a being of light created before the world). No images of Muhammad are allowed, following the prohibitions against idols.

Holy cities: Mecca and Medina

  • Both major holy sites of Muhammad’s time, Mecca (his birthplace) and Medina (where Islam began), are in Saudi Arabia.
  • The hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca is required of all Muslims once in a lifetime. The official hajj occurs only in the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar (roughly Dec – Jan). Women must be accompanied by a male family member.
  • Muslims believe that Abraham abandoned Hagar and Ishmael in Mecca rather than in Canaan (Gen. 21:19). God caused a well (zamzam) to spring up to sustain them, which is still in Mecca
  • The Kaaba in Mecca, a large cube-shaped structure, holds the black stone from heaven (probably a meteorite). Before Muhammad’s time, the stone was worshipped along with hundreds of idols. Mecca had been a pagan religious site for centuries before Muhammad made it special to Islam. Muslims believe that God told Adam, after exiling him from Eden, to build this shrine, fashioned after one in heaven. The angel Jibril (Gabriel) brought the stone from heaven and placed it in the eastern corner of the Kaaba. Later Abraham returned with Ishmael and rebuilt the Kaaba, which had been destroyed in the flood (Quran 2:125).
  • On the hajj male pilgrims run around the Kaaba seven times, and many kiss the stone. They also run seven times the path from Mecca to Marwa to commemorate Hagar’s search for water, and they throw stones at three pillars that symbolize temptation.
  • In the massive crowds of the hajj, some people every year are trampled to death; in 1990 over 1400 died.

Five Pillars of Islam:

  • Saying the shahadah: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.”
  • prayer five times a day facing Mecca
  • almsgiving
  • fasting during Ramadan (during daylight hours); very old and young, sick, expectant mothers are excused
  • pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj)

Islamic civil law (sharia, “the way”)

  • Sharia consists of four foundations:
    • The Quran as revealed to Muhammad and written down by his followers after his death.
    • Sunna (traditions): the words and deeds of Muhammad which became precedents for living, recorded about 200 years after his death. Individual laws are called hadith.
    • General consensus as basis for laws. Muhammad said, “My community with never agree on any error.”
    • Analogy: some behavior may not be specifically mentioned in the Quran but similar to one that is.
  • Some Christians are afraid that Muslims want to impose sharia law in America. They cite examples of harsh and inhumane punishments, such as a man who suspects his new wife to not be a virgin may accuse her in public, and if the family cannot prove her virginity, they will stone her to death. But this example comes from the Bible (Deut. 22:13-21). Just as Christians do not today apply some of the laws written specifically for Israel in the OT (such as circumcision and sacrificing animals), most Muslims do not want to enforce the extreme aspects of some of their own teachings, recognizing that times and circumstances have changed. Unfortunately, unscrupulous political and religious leaders use the imagined threat of sharia law as a fear tactic to influence the general public.

The Quran (various teachings):

  • The Quran consists of 114 chapters or suras, organized by length, with the longest (and latest) placed first. The earliest brief revelation is the 96th
  • The Quran is about 80% as long as the NT.
  • Muhammad did not write down any of the Quran (which means “recitation”). It was written down by disciples in separate sections, then compiled about 20 years after his death. There were various versions until about 700, when the “definitive” version was decided on, and others destroyed.
  • Muslims consider the Quran to be totally miraculous, written in Arabic, the language of God himself, dictated to Muhammad word for word. Arabic is the official language of Islam, although 80% of Muslims do not speak it.
  • The Quran teaches ethics which resemble other religions in condemning murder, theft, usury, exploiting the poor, false contracts, adultery. It also forbids alcohol, gambling (5.90).
  • Oddly, the Quran gives no specific penalty for murder (except burning in hell), but adultery earns 100 lashes (24.2) and theft, cutting off the hands, “but if he repents and amends his ways, Allah is forgiving” (5.38-9).
  • Islam emphasizes giving to the poor: “Wealth should not circulate only among the rich” (Q 59:7).
  • The Quran creation story resembles Genesis (Q 7:54), but other verses admit that for God a day can be 1000 or 50,000 years (Q 22:47).
  • Islamic eschatology resembles Christian doctrine: resurrection of the dead, judgment, then a transformation of creation (Q 14:48; 29:20). Men are promised beautiful virgins to marry in heaven (Q 44:54), but no mention of martyrs receiving this reward as we often hear.

The Quran and Jesus

  • Q 3:45-7 supports the virgin birth of Jesus. Q 19 tells the story of Mary, much of it taken from Luke, and is the only chapter (sura) named for a woman (not even Hagar, mother of Ishmael, the patriarch of Islam, has such an honor).
  • Muhammad included stories about Jesus as a boy making clay birds come alive (Q 5:110), also found in the Gnostic Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Muhammad accepted Jesus’ miracles, but never claimed to perform any of his own.
  • The doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus are two major reasons why many converts to Islam say they left Christianity, as they believe these doctrines contradict the idea of monotheism. “It is not for God to take a son” (Q 19:36). “They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three; when there is no Allah save the One Allah” (Q 5:73). In one passage Muhammad seems to believe that the Christian Trinity included Mary (Q 5:116).
  • Muhammad denied that Jesus was crucified: “Yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them” (Q 4:157).

Jerusalem and Islam  (

  • Q 17:1 tells of Muhammad’s mystical Night Journey to “the farthest mosque,” not a physical experience but in a vision. By tradition this mosque became regarded as being in Jerusalem, although the city is not mentioned by name here or elsewhere in the Quran.
  • According to this tradition, one night Muhammad was conveyed miraculously from the Kaaba to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (the Jewish temple had long ago been destroyed by the Romans). There he was welcomed by all the great prophets of the past before ascending through the seven heavens.
  • Respect for other faiths was manifest in Islamic Jerusalem. When Caliph Umar, one of Muhammad’s successors, conquered Jerusalem from the Christian Byzantines in 638, he insisted that the three faiths of Abraham should coexist. The Jews found their new Muslim rulers far more congenial than the Byzantines. The Christians had never allowed the Jews to reside permanently in the city, whereas Umar invited 70 Jewish families back.
  • Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, built by Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691, was the first great building to be constructed in the Islamic world. It sits on the supposed site of the Jewish Temple built by Herod the Great and destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The dome covers an outcropping of rock where supposedly Muhammad ascended to heaven.
  • In 715, to build up the prestige of their dominions, the Umayyads built a second mosque in Jerusalem, again on the Temple Mount, and called this one the Farthest Mosque (Al-Aqsa Mosque). With this, the Umayyads retroactively gave the city a role in Muhammad’s life, and Jerusalem became the third holy site for Islam.
  • The Temple Mount continues to be the center of controversy today between Jews, Muslims, and premillennial Christians. Each side has a stake in the holy place. Some Orthodox Jews anticipate the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, rebuilding of the Temple and the coming of the Messiah through the sealed Eastern gate of the old city (which Muslims guard zealously). Premillennial Christians expect the Antichrist to rule as a false god in the rebuilt Temple, prior to the second coming of the Messiah (none of which is taught in the NT). Muslims teach that the Jewish messiah will actually be the dajjal (their antichrist), whom Jesus himself will return and defeat, proclaiming the validity of Islam over all. At this time the Kaaba will be transported from Mecca to Jerusalem (Gorenberg, End of Days 44-5). Whereas Premillennial Christians see the return of Jerusalem to Israel after the 1967 war as a positive sign of God’s prophetic fulfillment in the End-times, Muslims interpret it as an evil sign of the work of the dajjal.

Sunnis and Shi’ites: major sects of Islam

  • Sunnis account for 90% of Muslims around the world; Shi’ites are the majority only in Iran and Iraq.
  • The name “Shi’a” comes from Shi’at Ali (supporters of Ali). “Sunnis” are followers of the Sunna, the traditional laws.
  • Shi’ites believe that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, son-in-law, and first male convert, should have succeeded him as leader. After Muhammad’s death (632 AD) rivals fought and killed each other for leadership. Ali became the fourth caliph (but the first legitimate one according to Shi’ites) in 656 but was murdered five years later. He is buried in Najaf, a holy site for Shi’ites.
  • Shi’ites add a phrase to the shahadah: “There is no god but Alláh, Muhammad is the Messenger of Alláh, Alí is the Friend of Alláh, the Successor of the Messenger of Alláh and his first Caliph.”
  • Shi’ite leaders were martyred, in particular Muhammad’s grandsons (Ali’s sons), Hassan and Hussein (buried in Karbala, Iraq). Shi’ites still commemorate the day of Hussein’s martyrdom with ritual lamentations, beating themselves with whips. They pray with their heads resting on clay pillows taken from earth in Karbala. The holy day of Ashoura is the commemoration of Hussein’s martyrdom at Karbala.
  • For Shi’ites there were 12 Imams or spiritual leaders, descendants of Ali. The line of Muhammad through Ali and Hussein became extinct in 873 when the last Imam, Al-Askari, disappeared within days of inheriting the title at the age of four. The Shi’ites refused to accept that he had died, preferring to believe that he was merely “hidden” and would return someday as the Mahdi, the one guided by God, who will bring about final judgment.
  • Shi’ites presently follow an Imam or Ayatollah (meaning “sign of God”), who is seen as divinely inspired and is the ultimate authority on the will of Muhammad (although they don’t all agree on whom the current Ayatollah is). Sunnis, for whom imam simply means prayer leader, follow the Caliph (meaning “successor”), but do not see him as the highest centralized authority; instead, the community of scholars must agree on the interpretation of the Quran.
  • Shi’ites revere the tombs of their leaders, which Sunnis consider idolatrous. The radical Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia (from which Osama bin Ladin came) have tried many times to destroy the tombs of the imams. In 1925 the Saudi family demolished all the tombs in Medina under their control. Shi’ites mark the anniversary of the destruction with great sadness. The Golden Dome in Samarra that Sunnis destroyed (Feb 22, 2006) was the burial site of the 10th and 11th Shi’ite Imams, and the place where the 12th This event sparked greater civil unrest and violence in Iraq.
  • Shi’ites and Sunnis worship at different times and on different holy days. The Shi’ite-led government in Iraq executed Saddam Hussein on Dec. 30, 2006, a holy day for Sunnis; the Shi’ite festival didn’t begin until the next day. Sunnis considered this a deliberate insult.
  • Within Shi’ite Islam there are different sects.  Most Shi’ites are “Twelvers”, i.e. they recognize the 12 Imams. There are also Sevener and Fiver Shi’ites who don’t recognize the later Imams.

Christian responses to “Islamophobia”

  • Islamophobia, the fear and/or distrust of Muslims, has been part of Western culture for centuries, but it has significantly increased in the last fifty years with the rise of independent Islamic nations in the middle east and the increasing threats of terrorism. While fear of terrorism itself is a rational response, prejudice toward all Muslims is not.
  • “FBI data show that in 2015 there were 257 hate crimes against Muslims—the highest level since 2001 and a surge of 67 percent over the previous year. … This was the second-highest number of anti-Muslim hate crimes since FBI record-keeping began in 1992,” the highest year being right after 9/11 with 461 cases. Authorities admit that these numbers are deceptively low, based only on reported cases; many victims do not come forward, afraid of further reprisals (source).
  • Social media focuses attention on acts of terrorism by Muslim radicals around the world, but rarely depicts Muslims as good citizens involved in humanitarian efforts or working for human rights in their countries. On TV and in movies, Muslims are often portrayed as the villains, taking the place of Nazis and Communists from earlier decades.
  • Some people are quick to jump to the conclusion that terrorism = Islam. In 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing which killed 168 people, reporters at first assumed that it was Middle Eastern terrorism, whereas in reality it was perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh, a white American veteran who claimed to be a Christian.
  • Islamophobic attitudes are based on several misconceptions. (1) The idea that Islam is a monolithic religion in which all followers believe and act the same. We should not assume that because some Muslims resort to violence or oppress women, that all Muslim are like this, or that these behaviors are representative of central Islamic beliefs. (2) The idea that Islam shares none of the core values of other religions such as Christianity and Judaism or the values of Western civilization such as freedom and tolerance, another false assumption. Islam shares many of the same ethical teachings as found in the Bible such as loving family relationships and compassion toward the needy. (3) The idea that Islam is aggressive and bent on world conquest; this attitude may characterize radical sects such as ISIS but not the majority of Muslims (Todd Green, The Fear of Islam, 2015,  12-14).
  • Unfortunately, some prominent Christian leaders have helped to spread these unfair generalizations about Islam. Franklin Graham (son of the well-known Billy Graham) has described Islam as a religion of hatred and a religion of war (Green 26). Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, called Muhammad a demon-possessed pedophile (Nathan Lean, The Islamophobia Industry, 2012, 86). Pat Robertson of the 700 Club said, “And to say that these terrorists distort Islam? They’re carrying out Islam!” (link)
  • In 2012 some residents of Murfreesboro, TN, including local pastors and nearby churches, protested against the opening of a mosque. One political candidate argued (falsely), “Islam does not claim to be a religion but a social and political system that intends to dominate every facet of our lives,” and as such, Islam should not be protected by the First Amendment’s freedom of religion (Green 301). Some claimed that the mosque was only a front for terrorist training. Tennessee state senator Mae Beavers said (without any evidence) that Muslim terrorists were infiltrating churches and planning jihad (holy war) in the Bible Belt. After the Supreme Court upheld the right of the Muslim community to have their place of worship, it continues to suffer acts of vandalism and racial slurs.
  • In contrast, Christian writer Jim Wallis tells of one church in Memphis which responded in a positive way to the building of an Islamic Center next to them. Instead of protesting, the church put out a welcome sign for their new neighbors and began cooperating with them in benevolence programs for the poor in the area. Wallis applauds this unusual response: “I don’t advocate a bland interfaith pluralism that blurs the significant differences between religions, but I believe my religious tradition calls me to be a peacemaker and to love my neighbors, especially when I don’t agree with them.” He insists we must ask ourselves: as American Christians, do we truly believe in freedom of religion or just freedom for our religion? (Jim Wallis, On God’s Side, 2013, 142-3)
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