Islam is one of the three major Abrahamic religions that are popular in the world today. Practitioners of Islam are called Muslims, and they follow a holy text known as the Qu'ran. The religion is monotheistic and shares roots with Christianity and Judaism; although the Middle East is traditionally thought of as the seat of Islam in the world, there are large populations of practitioners in nearly every corner of the world. China, for instance, has a very large Muslim population, as does the United States, Indonesia, and various other locations around the globe. According to recent statistics, Islam is the second-largest religion in the world (Bbc.co.uk, 2010). Indonesia, similarly, has a very large population of Muslim people.
Muslims adhere to the teachings presented in the Qu'ran, a book they contend to be the unaltered word of God, or Allah (Ahmed, 1999). The Qu'ran was immortalized in text by Muhammad, an individual who Muslims believe to be a prophet, chosen by Allah to bring the true word of Allah to the people. At its heart, Islam is a religion of peace and cooperation; a Muslim's highest calling is said to be serving God, family, and his or her fellow human beings (Weston and Fowler, 2012).
Like Christianity, Islam has men who are experts in the religion and the different doctrine practiced by the religion. These men are called imams, and they are often well-educated in Islamic Law (Weston and Fowler, 2012). Certain imams are more highly respected than others, and some are extremely well-known; however, the title commands respect from individuals within the Islamic community, regardless of how well-known a particular imam is outside of his circle of followers.
Islam’s primary place of worship is called a mosque, but devout practitioners often pray multiple times a day, facing Mecca (Ahmed, 1999). Daily prayers are performed five times a day by devout practitioners, and are considered one of the five pillars of Islam. The five pillars that make up the Islamic religion are testimony, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and hajj, or pilgrimage (Bbc.co.uk, 2010).
Testimony is the recitation that Muslims must repeat, asserting that Allah is the one and only true God; this is often repeated in prayer, and anyone wishing to convert to the religion must take this oath (Weston and Fowler, 2012). This testimony is particularly important, because Muslims believe strongly in monotheism, and believing that Allah is the one true God is of paramount importance for believers.
Prayer, as said before, takes place facing Mecca, five times per day. During prayer in the mosque, many Muslims participate in almsgiving, which is a certain percentage of their income that goes to help the poor (Bbc.co.uk, 2010). Fasting, while not unique to Islam, is practiced heavily even by moderate Muslims, which is unusual for religions today. During certain times of the year, Muslims will eat only after nightfall; this fasting is used to become closer to God (Ahmed, 1999).
Finally, the hajj, or pilgrimage, is a trip that every Muslim is meant to take to Mecca (the Holy Land) at some point during his or her life (Weston and Fowler, 2012). This is only a requirement once in a Muslim’s life, and even then, only if he or she can afford it; however, many Muslims make the hajj a multitude of times over the course of their lives. It is considered a highly spiritual experience by many.
There are two major sects of Islam: Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. These two denominations are not fundamentally different, but frequently clash and disagree on the finer points of Islamic doctrine and practice.
The largest denomination of Islam, Sunni Islam, is often considered the more orthodox type of Islam, as it adheres closely to the writings of the Prophet Muhammad as they are recorded in the Hadiths (Bbc.co.uk, 2010). Sunni Muslims tend to have a stricter interpretation of Islamic Law than Shia Muslims. There are various, specific articles of faith that Sunni Muslims must follow that are unique.
Shia Islam is not as widespread as Sunni Islam, and it is a denomination that fractured from the mainstream many years ago (Ahmed, 2010). Shia Muslims, or Shi’ites, are followers of Muhammad’s cousin, Ali, whom they consider to be Muhammad’s spiritual successor (Weston and Fowler, 2012). The main difference between Shi’ites and Sunni Muslims is that Shi’ites believe that only God can choose an individual to be imam, or spiritual leader, and that Ali was divinely chosen (Weston and Fowler, 2012). Sunni Muslims do not adhere to this particular belief.
One of the most common things pictured by the uninitiated when they think of Islam is the hijab or the niqab. According to the BBC, “In one popular school of Islamic thought, hijab refers to the complete covering of everything except the hands, face and feet in long, loose and non see-through garments. A woman who wears hijab is called Muhaajaba” (Bbc.co.uk, 2010). The function of the hijab and niqab is to ensure that a woman is acting in a modest manner.
A somewhat more common way of ensuring modesty for women is the niqab. The niqab is the traditional veil; women who wear the niqab will often cover their face and hands only (Bbc.co.uk, 2010). Many women in Islam choose to wear the niqab or hijab without being forced; it is common for devoutly religious Muslim women, particularly in heavily Islamic societies, to feel uncomfortable with exposing their face in public (Bbc.co.uk, 2010).
There is extensive debate between Islamic jurists and Islamic scholars regarding whether or not Islamic women should be required to wear the niqab or the hijab. Scholars on both sides of the issue have cited certain verses within the Qu’ran that can be used to support the veil or deny it; certain societies, also, place much more importance on the issue than others (Bbc.co.uk, 2010).
According to the BBC, there are are legitimate reasons to wear the hijab and niqab. The BBC writes, “Niqab has a place in Islam, since the Prophet's wives were required to wear them. In today's context, many women attempt to emulate the best of women to bring themselves closer to God” (Bbc.co.uk, 2010). Because of the emphasis placed on being close to God, many women find this a very compelling reason to wear the hijab or the niqab.
However, there is no denying that in many predominantly Muslim countries, women are still in a lower social caste than men. This can translate into oppression; sometimes, women are forced to wear the hijab and niqab even when they do not wish to. This is common in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia and, in recent history, Afghanistan (Osborne, 2013). In some Middle Eastern societies, Islam is used as an excuse to keep women in the home, uneducated and unable to go out without a male chaperone.
Historically, Islam has been a forward-thinking religion; Muhammad’s wives, for example, were all well-educated and valued highly by Muhammad himself. There are many instances in recorded history where Muhammad spoke highly of his wives, and took their advice on matters concerning his followers and the burgeoning religion (Weston and Fowler, 2012).
As is common in religion, however, Islam went through a phase of conservatism in recent years, a backlash against the changing world and the changing place of women in the world. While this type of backlash is not unique to Islam, conservatism and oppression of women in certain Islamic countries is unparalleled elsewhere in the world.
In Islamic culture, the family is seen as the fundamental building block of society (Ahmed, 2010). Within the family, the man is the head of the household, with his wife or wives acting to support him, run the household, and bear children. In this way, Islamic families are not dissimilar to families that are adherents to other Abrahamic religions.
Divorce in devoutly Islamic nations or devoutly Islamic families is nearly unheard of, but in extremely conservative cultures and families, women cannot initiate a divorce. Instead, if a man wishes to divorce his wife, he must go in front of the imam and plead his case (Weston and Fowler, 2012). In most circumstances, a man is granted a divorce when he wishes to have one; conversely, when a woman wants a divorce in these societies, she is very infrequently granted one (Weston and Fowler, 2012). In the western world, however, Muslim women are granted more freedoms and are more autonomous, even within their homes and with their families.
In some Islamic nations around the world, men still practice honor killings when women are raped or otherwise sully the family name; most imams and other Islamic jurists, however, agree that this behavior is not supported by anything within the Qu’ran (Bbc.co.uk, 2010).
Another commonly-used term in American media is the term “jihad,” but it is often misused. Jihad literally means “holy war,” but it can be an internal or an external war (Akbar, 2012). According to the BBC, “Many modern writers claim that the main meaning of Jihad is the internal spiritual struggle, and this is accepted by many Muslims” (Bbc.co.uk, 2010). While extremely conservative splinter Islamic groups sometimes interpret the jihadist movement to mean violence against anyone who does not subscribe to the Muslim faith, most Muslims do not accept violence as a methodology for problem-solving. It is only in extreme cases where certain groups or societies are pushed to violence by situations they feel they cannot control where the religion turns violent (Akbar, 2012).
Islamic communities outside of the Arab world vary from extremely insular to extremely open. Like every religion, there is immense variation between different communities, and this has as much to with the individuals that make up the communities as it does the religion itself. Some Islamic communities, for example, strive to make partnerships with Jewish communities for the purpose of promoting peace in Israel; others, however, are extremely separatist in their political beliefs (Bbc.co.uk, 2010).
In the United States, after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, there was a backlash against Muslims living in the country. There were frequent complaints about racial profiling, particularly on airplanes and other public places. Racism is prevalent throughout the United States, particularly regarding Muslim individuals.
American Islamic communities are usually centered around a particular mosque, very often in large cities. Muslim-Americans have complained that Americans
Islam is a complex and many-faceted religion and culture. There are a variety of different denominations and sects, and every community has different standards of behavior and different practices. It is an incredibly complex and diverse culture, with many years of history behind it.
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Weston, M., & Fowler, W. (2011). Prophets and Princes: Saudi Arabia from Muhammad to the Present. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.