The third, great Abrahamic religion The name Islam, comes from an Arabic root word meaning "peace" and "submission." Some who describe Islam therefore emphsize that this is a religion of peace, whereas others place the emphasis upon submission or obedience to the will of God. In either case most Muslims believe that one can find peace only by submitting to God (Allah). The same Arabic root word is used in the greeting "Salaam alaykum," ("Peace be with you").
Islam is a major world religion, with over 1.2 billion followers worldwide (1/5 of the world population); it ranks second only to Christianity. Islam is considered one of the "Abrahamic" religions, being derived from the tradition of Abraham, the Hebrew Bible patriarch. Although usually associated with the Arabs of the Middle East, less than 10% of Muslims are Arab. Muslim majorities are found throughout the Middle East, North Africa, East Asia and the Pacific Islands. There are more Muslims in Indonesia than any other country, while Pakistan and India rank second and third in the number of Muslim citizens, with well over 100,000,000 in each. It is difficult to determine how many Muslims there are in the US; some put the figure as high as six million, others place the figure closer to two million. Still, given demographic trends, it is probable that Islam will soon be, if it is not already, the second largest religion in the US.
"Allah" is the proper name for God But Allah is also referred to as: the Creator, the Sustainer, the Merciful, the Compassionate, the Judge, the Governor, the Eternal, etc. Like Jews and Christians, Muslims believe that God is without beginning, without end, and alone sees and knows all things. Allah is transcendent, yet close to humanity. "...He knows what enters within the earth and what comes forth out of it, what comes down from heaven and what mounts up to it. And He is with you wheresoever you may be. And Allah sees well all that you do" (Qur'an 57:4). Also, like Christians and Jews, Muslims believe that God is all powerful and is alone worthy of worship and adoration. "There is no god but He, the Creator of all things; then worship Him, and He has power to dispose of all affairs. No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision; He is the Sublime, Well-Aware" (Qur'an 6:102-103).
Muslims have difficulty with the Christian notion of the Trinity and especially the notion that Christ is "the only begotten Son of God." In this sense Islam may be closer to Judaism in its affirmation of the unity and singularity of God. "Say: He is Allah, the One; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute. He begets not, nor is He begotten, and there is none like unto Him" (Qur'an 112:1-4). For Muslims, any worship or prayer directed at saints, prophets, other human beings is considered idolatry. Likewise, Muslims take the Hebrew Bible's prohibition of idols literally. This extends even to art. In most Muslim cultures, artists are prohibited from painting images of God or of Mohammed.
Now let's consider some definitions of Islam found in leading reference texts:
Islam (ĭsläm', ĭs'läm) , [Arab.,=submission to God], world religion founded by the Prophet Muhammad. Founded in the 7th cent., Islam is the youngest of the three monotheistic world religions (with Judaism and Christianity). An adherent to Islam is a Muslim [Arab.,=one who submits].
At the core of Islam is the Qur'an, believed to be the final revelation by a transcendent Allah [Arab.,=the God] to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam; since the Divine Word was revealed in Arabic, this language is used in Islamic religious practice worldwide. Muslims believe in final reward and punishment, and the unity of the umma, the “nation” of Islam. Muslims submit to Allah through arkan ad-din, the five basic requirements or “pillars”: shahadah, the affirmation that “there is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”; salah, the five daily ritual prayers (see liturgy, Islamic); zakat, the giving of alms, also known as a religious tax; Sawm, the dawn-to-sunset fast during the lunar month of Ramadan; and hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The importance of the hajj can hardly be overestimated: this great annual pilgrimage unites Islam and its believers from around the world.
The ethos of Islam is in its attitude toward Allah: to His will Muslims submit; Him they praise and glorify; and in Him alone they hope. ... Islam views the Message of Muhammad as the continuation and the fulfillment of a lineage of Prophecy that includes figures from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, notably Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Islamic law reserves a communal entity status for the ahl al-kitab, People of the Book, i.e., those with revealed religions, including Jews and Christians.
Other Islamic obligations include the duty to “commend good and reprimand evil,” injunctions against usury and gambling, and prohibitions of alcohol and pork. Meat is permitted if the animal was ritually slaughtered; it is then called halal.Jihad, the exertion of efforts for the cause of God, is a duty satisfied at the communal and the individual level. At the individual level, it denotes the personal struggle to be righteous and follow the path ordained by God. Communally, it involves both encouraging what is good and correcting what is not and waging war against enemies of Islam
The religion of allegiance to God and to his prophet Muhammad, the religion (din) which God always intended for his creation, but which is derived in its present form from the prophetic ministry of Muhammad (c.570-632 CE) and from the revelation mediated through him, the Qur'an. The verbal noun islam appears eight times in the Qur'an: derived from the same Semitic root as Heb. shalom (peace), it means 'entering into a condition of peace and security with God through allegiance or surrender to him'.
When Muhammad died, no exact provision had been made for any successor to lead the new community. Those who looked for the most effective leader chose Abu Bakr, known as caliph. Those who looked for the closest relative of Muhammad support 'Ali. The party (shi'a) of 'Ali broke away from those who claimed to be following the custom (sunna) of the prophet, thereby creating the divide between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims which persists to this day.
Muslim life and belief are derived directly from the Qur'an, but since the Qur'an does not deal with every issue or question which a Muslim might wish to ask, authoritative guidance is derive also from the traditions (hadith) concerning the words, deeds and silences of Muhammad and his companions.
The spread of Islam was extremely rapid. Within a hundred years of the death of Muhammad, it had reached the Atlantic in one direction and the borders of China in the other. At one stage (fom the 9th to the 13th centuries CE) the Muslim delight in creation led it into a passionate commitment to knowledge ('ilm), which in turn led Muslims into spectacular achievements in philosophy (falsafa) and the natural sciences.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.