Though it professes to be the authoritative revelation of the one true God, the Qur’an includes a number of historically and theologically inaccurate accounts of biblical figures. For instance, the Qur’an teaches that Abraham offered up Ishmael rather than Isaac. The Qur’an also teaches that Isa ibn Maryam (Jesus, the son of Mary) was merely a miracle-working prophet of Allah. Additionally, the Qur’an denies the deity and atoning death of Jesus.
What is Islam?
Islam is the second-largest religion in the world. Today, an estimated 1.3 billion people profess to be Muslims—that is, followers of the religion of Islam. Of these, nearly 1 billion reside in the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia. Islam is a monotheistic religion, requiring submission to the one God, Allah, and to everything Allah revealed through the prophet Muhammad. The two major authoritative texts in Islam are the Qur’an and the hadith. The Qur’an is claimed to be the revelation of Allah to Muhammad. The hadith are the oral traditions of Muhammad’s teaching and practice as passed down in the Muslim community and set to writing a few centuries later. The Five Pillars of Islam structure the essence of Islamic belief and practice. There are two major branches of Islam: the Sunnis and the Shiites, and there is also a large mystical tradition, the Sufis. The Nation of Islam, an African American political and religious movement, has brought an awareness of Islam to many Americans. However, this movement is a modern Western ethnocentric religion that is not recognized by orthodox Muslims as an authentic Islamic tradition.
When did it begin?
Muhammad is the founder of Islam. He was born in AD 570 in Mecca (a city in the western Arabian Peninsula).1 His father died before his birth. His mother died when he was six. Muhammad went to live with his grandfather Abd al-Muttalib. When he was eight, Muhammad’s grandfather died. Muhammad then went to live with his uncle Abu Talib, a caravan tradesman. Abu Talib took Muhammad on many of his travels.
At age twenty-five, Muhammad married Khadija, a wealthy traveling merchant. Khadija had been raised by Ebionite Christians. The Ebionites were a mystical Jewish sect of Christianity that denied the deity of Christ. Scholars believe that Muhammad learned his inaccurate versions of biblical accounts on his travels with Abu Talib and Khadija.
Muhammad said the angel Gabriel visited him in Mecca in 610, which began a twenty-three-year period during which Muhammad claimed to receive the revelation of the Qur’an. Traditionally, eighty-six suras (chapters) of the Qur’an are said to have been revealed while Muhammad lived in Mecca, while the remaining twenty-eight were revealed in the city of Medina.
The first two people to accept Muhammad’s message were his wife, Khadija, and his cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib. The first convert outside of Muhammad’s family was Abu Bakr, a traveling merchant. During his stay in Mecca, Muhammad began calling the polytheistic citizens to repent and submit to Allah, the one true God. After years of rejection, persecution, and warfare, Muhammad journeyed to Medina (then known as Yathrib) in 622. This event, called the Hijrah, marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. The message of Islam found greater acceptance in Medina; the Muslim community there grew, and Muhammad became the leader of the city. Eventually, Muhammad was able to amass an army large enough to capture Mecca, which he purged of polytheism. Mecca is today one of the holiest cities in Islam. Upon Muhammad’s death in 632, Abu Bakr became the first caliph (the religious and political leader of the Islamic state), although many Muslims believed the caliph should have been a relative of Muhammad, specifically his cousin Ali. Abu Bakr carried on the Islamic religion until his death. Caliphs Umar Ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Muhammad’s cousin Ali succeeded Abu Bakr, in that order. After Ali’s death, disagreements within the Muslim community over who could be caliph continued to grow, with the Shiites eventually breaking with the majority of Muslims—the Sunnis—over the Shiite belief that the caliph had to be from Muhammad’s family.
Who are the key figures?
Over its long history, Islam has produced a multitude of influential rulers, scholars, philosophers, authors, athletes, businessmen, scientists, and teachers. Muslim mathematicians and philosophers have played important roles in the development of disciplines such as algebra and in the recovery of Aristotle’s thought in the West during the late medieval period. Islamic empires conquered much of the Christian East.
Today, the most well-known Islamic political figures are King Abdullah of Jordan; King Salman of Saudi Arabia; Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran; and Mohammed VI, king of Morocco.
Before becoming a Sunni Muslim, Malcom X helped raise awareness of the Nation of Islam in American culture. Louis Farrakhan is currently the leader of the Nation of Islam, a ethnocentric sect viewed as heretical by orthodox Muslims.
Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are among the famous Muslim athletes of recent decades.
What are the main beliefs?
- Revelation and interpretation. Although all Muslims profess belief in the Qur’an, considerable diversity of belief and practice exists among the various branches of Islam. Sunni Muslims, who make up the vast majority of the worldwide Muslim community, rely heavily on legal scholars to settle disputes over the teaching of the Qur’an. These lawyers, in the development of Islamic law or sharia, seek to reconcile the differences between the teaching of the Qur’an and the hadith by means of consensus and analogy. Shiite Muslims, who make up the second-largest group of Muslims worldwide, believe that the true successor to Muhammad as leader of all Muslims comes from the family of Ali. (Sunnis believe that Muhammad’s successor can come from the broader Islamic community.) The Shiites also have their own collections of hadith, consisting only of traditions that they trace back to Ali. Disputes within Shiite Islam are settled by appointed imams whose decisions are considered binding. The Sufis believe in a spiritual, nonliteral interpretation of the Qur’an and engage in mystical practices.