With over 1.6 billion followers spread across the world, Islam is one of the world’s largest religions, which is why its principles, values and rules are key to gaining a better understanding of important political, sociological and cultural phenomena. Similarly to Christianity, the concept of an “Islamic world” may vary depending on what historical period one is looking at. Islam originated in the 7th century A.D. in the Arabian Peninsula, where Mohammed received a number of revelations from Allah and began preaching the teachings of Islam thus gaining followers and popularity across Saudi Arabia (Andrae, 2013). However, as a monotheistic religion that emphasized responsibility, self-discipline and absolute submission to God’s will, Islam represented a great threat to pre-existing polytheistic cults. After fighting several battles and conquering Mecca, Mohammed died and Abu Bakr was chosen as his rightful successor (Lewis, 2013). However, the stability of the Islamic state was soon jeopardized by various parties’ desire to lead the caliphate. This resulted in a civil war known as Fitna (656 A.D.) which was followed by a Second Fitna twenty years later (Lewis, 2013).
Rival dynasties kept trying to gain control over the caliphate and the Muslim world, which led to the formation of several Islamic states whose obedience to the caliph was merely symbolic. Although the Islamic community was initially fragmented, several caliphs and the pre-ottoman rulers managed to become powerful and historically-significant rulers. In spite of the impact that various ideologies and historical events (i.e. the rise of Communism, Nazism and Fascism) have had on Islam, as well as other faiths, the prominence of Islam in political issues has increased significantly during the past few decades. Its rapid growth, combined with Western nations’ interests in Muslim countries, international affairs / tensions and globalization have contributed to highlighting the important role played by Islam in the configuration of contemporary and future societies.
Essential elements of Islam
The Qur’an, also known as Qur’an al Karim within the Muslim world, is the holy book of Islam, which according to Muslims contains the word of God (Allah). Following the death of the Prophet in 632 A.D., his followers began collecting these revelations in a book, i.e. the Qur’an. Muslims refer to this book for both material and spiritual guidance and believe that it addresses every single human being on the planet. Every Muslim should follow the teachings of the Qur’an and use it as a source of knowledge and wisdom in order to find peace in life and death.
Islam is based on five pillars or basic tenets, which are compulsory for all followers according to Sunnis’ beliefs (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009, pp.34-36). The five pillars are:
1) Shadada (Faith): This Pillar embodies the main tenets of the Islamic doctrine – i.e. Allah is the only God in which followers can believe and Mohammed is his Messenger.
2) Salat (Prayer): Every follower must pray five times a day towards Mecca. Before praying, they should wash their face, hands, head and feet.
3) Zekat (alms-giving): Muslims should give % 2, 5 of their annual income to charity.
4) Fasting: During the month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic lunar year) Muslims must stay away from any kind of food and drink from dawn to evening. The main goal of this practice is to help Muslims appreciate the pain and difficulties that poor people around the world experience on a daily basis. During Ramadan, Muslims are required to fast, avoid mood swings and sexual intercourse until sunset, so as to achieve a peaceful state of mind that can bring them closer to God (Budak, 2005).
5) Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca): Muslims who are healthy and wealthy enough to travel should visit Mecca at least once before they die. This ritual was already common among Arabs before the arrival of Islam and still exists today. The hajj is different from other pilgrimages. It must take place during the 12th of lunar month of the year, and entails a specific sequence of rituals to be performed over several days (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009, pp.34-36).
- Andrae, T. (2013). Mohammed: The Man and his Faith. Oxon, U.K.: Routledge.
- Budak, A. (2005). Fasting in Islam & the Month of Ramadan: A Comprehensive Guide. New Jersey, NJ: The Light.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica (2009). Britannica Guide to the Islamic World. Edinburgh, UK: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
- Lewis, B. (2013). Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East. Chicago, IL: Open Court