An Overview of Islam
Islam, major world religion. The Arabic word islam literally means
“surrender” or “submission”. As the name of
the religion it is understood to mean “surrender or submission
to God”. One who has thus surrendered is a Muslim. In theory,
all that is necessary for one to become a Muslim is to recite sincerely
the short statement of faith known as the shahadah: I witness that
there is no god but God [Allah] and that Muhammad is the Messenger
Although in an historical sense Muslims regard their religion as
dating from the time of Muhammad in the early 7th century ad, in
a religious sense they see it as identical with the true monotheism
which prophets before Muhammad, such as Abraham (Ibrahim), Moses
(Musa), and Jesus (Isa), had taught. In the Koran, Abraham is referred
to as a Muslim. The followers of these and other prophets are held
to have corrupted their teachings, but God in His mercy sent Muhammad
to call mankind yet again to the truth.
Traditionally, Islam has been regarded by its followers as extending
over all areas of life, not merely those (such as faith and worship)
which are commonly viewed as the sphere of religion today. Thus
many Muslims prefer to call Islam a way of life rather than a religion.
It is for this reason too that the word Islam, especially when referring
to the past, is often used to refer to a society, culture or civilization,
as well as to a religion. While a history of Christianity will usually
cover only matters relating to religion in a narrow sense, a history
of Islam may discuss, for example, political developments, literary
and artistic life, taxation and landholding, tribal and ethnic migrations,
etc. In this wider sense Islam is the equivalent not only of Christianity
but also of what is often called Christendom.
Adherents of a religion may differ among themselves regarding what
constitutes the essence of the religion, what is more important
or less important, what is right belief and what heresy, etc. Modern
students of religions, when attempting to describe a particular
religion, may attempt to get around this problem by accepting the
definitions given by some authoritative body or individual such
as a Church council or the pope in Roman Catholicism. Such an expedient
is not really possible for someone wishing to discuss Islam, however,
since, at least before the modern period, there has been no body
claiming to be the central authority for all Muslims. Instead, religious
authority and power has been diffused at a local level among countless
scholars and religious officials who lack a clearly defined hierarchy
or organization. An individual obtains religious authority as a
result of a consensus regarding his learning and piety. In theory,
at least, most positions of such authority are open to all.
In modern times there have been attempts to promote the idea that
particular bodies or individuals have a special authority in Islam.
In Sunni Islam, for example, the council of the Azhar university
in Cairo is sometimes regarded as having a special authority while
among the Shiites of Iran a hierarchy of religious scholars has
developed and been recognized by the state. Even so, no body or
individual has managed to establish itself as authoritative for
all Muslims, and claims to be so are always contested.
It is not possible, therefore, to make many general statements
about what Islam is or is not, without their being open to contest
by groups or individuals with a different view of the religion.
Certain ideas and especially practices have become so widely accepted
among Muslims in general that they might be viewed as distinguishing
features of Islam but even then there will be groups or individuals
who reject them but still regard themselves as Muslims. In general,
one should avoid terms like “orthodoxy” and “heresy”
when discussing Islam.
and Early Expansion of Islam [TOP]
Traditional accounts of the emergence of Islam stress the role of
Muhammad, who lived in western Arabia (Al ?ijaz) at the beginning
of the 7th century ad. Muhammad experienced a series of verbal revelations
from God. Among other things, these revelations stressed the oneness
of God, called mankind to worship Him, and promised that God would
reward or punish men according to their behaviour in this world.
Muhammad was to proclaim God's message to the people among whom
he lived, most of whom practised polytheism.
After an initial period in which he was rejected in his home town
of Mecca, Muhammad was able to found a community and a state with
himself as its head in the town which soon came to be called Medina.
By the time of his death in 632, several of the Arab tribes and
a number of towns, including Mecca, had submitted to Muhammad and
accepted Islam. Following his death the caliphate was established
to provide for succession to Muhammad in his role as the head of
the community, although prophecy, in the form of immediate verbal
revelations from God, ceased with Muhammad.
Shortly after his death the process of collecting together all
the revelations which he had received in his lifetime began. The
tradition is not unanimous, but it is widely accepted that this
work was completed under Uthman (caliph 644-656) and that it was
in his time that the revelations were put together to form the text
of the Koran as we know it.
The most important beliefs, institutions, and ritual practices
of Islam are traditionally seen as originating in the time of Muhammad,
and frequently they are understood to be the result of divine revelation.
Sometimes a Koranic passage is seen as the source or justification
of a practice or belief. Not all of them, however, can be associated
with a relevant Koranic text and often they are seen to have originated
in the practice of the prophet Muhammad himself. Since he was a
prophet, much of what he said and did is understood not as merely
the result of personal and arbitrary decisions but as a result of
divine guidance. Thus the practice of Muhammad, which came to be
known as the Sunna, serves as an example and a source of guidance
for Muslims alongside the Koran, especially for Sunnis.
Under the caliphs who governed the community and state following
Muhammad, a period of territorial expansion began, first in Arabia
and then beyond its borders. By about 650 Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and
the western parts of Persia had been conquered by Arab forces which
acknowledged the leadership of the caliphs in Medina. In about 660
the caliphate passed into the control of the Umayyad dynasty which
was based in Syria. Under the Umayyads a second wave of expansion
took place. By the time that dynasty was overthrown in 750 it controlled
territories extending from Spain and Morocco in the west to Afghanistan
and central Asia in the east.
Modern scholarship has tended to show the emergence and expansion
of Islam as a more gradual and complex process than is apparent
from the traditional accounts. By emphasizing the relative lateness
of the Muslim accounts of the early history of Islam (there is little
which can be dated in the form in which we have it to before about
800), it has raised the possibility that the traditional accounts
should be understood as reflecting rather late views. It has suggested
that the period when Islam was developing outside Arabia following
the Arab conquest of the Middle East is of crucial importance. It
has emphasized, as is clear from the traditional sources themselves,
that the Arab conquests may have expanded the area under the control
of the caliphs but that the spread of Islam at a personal level
was much slower. The conquerors did not force the people they conquered
to become Muslims and probably did not even intend that they should
do so. The acceptance of Islam as a religion by the non-Arab peoples
under the rule of the caliphs was a slow, uneven, and never-completed
process, motivated by many things, some of which are not properly
understood. It is also now better understood that these non-Arab
peoples, gradually accepting Islam (and identifying themselves as
Arabs at the same time), had much to do with the emergence of Islam
as we know it.
Muslims believe that there is one God, Allah; that Muhammad was
a prophet sent by God to mankind; and that the Koran is the collection
of the revelations which God made to Muhammad. The Koran thus contains
the words of God in a literal sense and is often referred to as
the Speech of God (kalam Allah).
The vast majority of Muslims accept that Muhammad was the last
in a series of prophets sent by God and that there can be no other
after him. The Koranic phrase “the seal of the prophets”
is understood by them in this sense. Some groups have regarded themselves
as Muslims while recognizing prophets, or something like prophets,
after Muhammad, but their status as Muslims has been contested by
the majority of the community.
The concept of “prophet” in Islam shares much with
the idea as it had developed in Judaism and Christianity by the
early centuries of the Christian era. The Arabic word nabi, which
is one of the two most frequent words for “prophet”
in Islam, is related to the Hebrew nebi, the most usual word for
“prophet” in the Old Testament. The basic idea is of
someone who is given a message by God to deliver either to mankind
as a whole or to a specific group. Muslim tradition recognizes numerous
prophets sent by God before Muhammad, and most of them are known
in Jewish and Christian tradition from the Bible and other writings.
In Muslim belief, it came to be commonly held that some of the
earlier prophets had been entrusted with a revelation just as Muhammad
had been sent with the Koran, and in essence these revelations were
identical with one another. The revelation of Moses was the Torah
and that of Jesus the Gospel (injil in Arabic, ultimately from Greek
evaggelion). According to this concept, there is only one Gospel
and it is the book of revelation entrusted to Jesus. It is not the
same as any one of the four gospels preserved in the New Testament,
which are different accounts of the life of Jesus. In the Koran
and other writings Jesus is referred to as the Messiah (Masih) and
as the Word of God. He was miraculously born of the Virgin Mary
and his life was asociated with many miracles. Nevertheless he was
not the “Son of God”, a concept which Islam rejects
as a physical and logical impossibility. He did not die on the Cross,
even though it seemed so to those who were present. Instead someone
else died in his place and God raised Jesus up to Himself.
Some of the Muslim ideas about prophets and prophethood, and about
Jesus, are similar to those associated with Judaeo-Christian groups
whose existence is attested in the early centuries of the Christian
era. Some scholars have suggested that descendants of those groups
had an influence on the emergence of Islam.
In addition to the physical world, God has also created angels
and spirits. The angels have various roles, among them the conveyance
of God's revelation to the prophets. The spirits are usually known
as the jinni. They inhabit this world and may affect human beings
in various ways. Some are good and capable of obtaining salvation,
others are evil and sometimes known as satans. The chief satan,
the Devil, known as Satan or Iblis, is sometimes thought of as a
disobedient angel, sometimes as a jinni. He has been allowed by
God to roam the world and do evil deeds.
The world will end, and Islam has a rich body of eschatological
and apocalyptic tradition. Before the world ends the Mahdi, a sort
of Messiah figure, will appear to inaugurate a short period in which
the world will be filled with justice and righteousness. The idea
of the Mahdi is more prominent in Shiite Islam (see below) but is
not limited to the Shiite tradition. After death, each human being
will be judged and will either achieve salvation or be consigned
to damnation according to his or her beliefs and deeds while alive.
Islamic Law [TOP]
Although the essence of Islam is acceptance of the one God and of
the prophethood of Muhammad, in practice adherence to Islam has
traditionally been manifested by living a life according to Islamic
law within an Islamic community. The law is regarded as of divine
origin: although it is administered and interpreted by human beings
(and, as in most religions, that means men rather than women), it
is understood as the law of God. The law is known as the Shari'ah.
To obey the law is to obey God. One should not underestimate the
importance of questions of belief and dogma in Islam, but generally
speaking for Muslims, Islam has been more a matter of right behaviour
than of concern with the niceties of belief.
Traditionally, Muslims have held that the law was revealed by God
in the Koran and in the Sunna. In addition to those two theoretical
sources, different groups within Sunni and Shiite Islam accept that
law may be derived from certain subsidiary sources such as the consensus
of the Muslims (usually called ijmaa), the informed reasoning of
individual scholars (often called ijtihad), and various more specific
and limited forms of these.
Many modern scholars have accepted the views of Joseph Schacht,
who argued that the idea of the Sunna and the theory of the sources
of Islamic law did not really develop until the 9th century and
that Islamic law is not really derived from the Koran and the Sunna.
Rather, according to this view, it has evolved gradually from a
variety of sources (such as earlier legal systems and ad hoc decisions
made by early Arab rulers), and the classical Muslim theory of the
sources of Islamic law was developed by the early Muslim scholars
(culminating in the work of al-Shafii) in order to put the positive
law which had evolved in the first centuries of Islam on a proper
Islamic basis. These scholars, it is argued, looked at the law as
it existed in their own day; reformed, rejected or accepted it;
and then sought to portray it as deriving from the Koran, the Sunna
or one of the other classical sources. Since there was a limit to
what could be attributed to the Koran (which is relatively short
and only partly concerned with establishing legal rules on a few
questions), it was the Sunna (as reported in the hadiths) which
was in practice most important. Since there was virtually no limit
to the way in which hadiths could be interpreted or reworded, and
new ones put into circulation, it was usually easier to find a hadith
to support a particular legal rule than it was a Koranic text.
After the classical theory of the sources of law had come to be
accepted, many and voluminous law books and hadith collections were
produced, and law became the predominant expression of Islam. Islamic
law concerns itself with far wider areas of public and private life
than does a modern secular legal system. Economics, politics, matters
of diet and dress, penal and civil law, warfare, and many other
aspects of social and private life are, in theory at least, regulated
by Islamic law. To live a life according to the law has probably
been the main religious ideal for most Muslims, although one should
not conclude that Islam is merely a legalistic religion.
Modern Islamic states have frequently adopted legal codes based
on those of the West and have limited the sphere governed by Islamic
law to personal and family matters: inheritance, marriage and divorce,
etc. Even in these areas reforms have been made to traditional Islamic
law, but these reforms are usually justified by reference to the
traditional doctrine of the sources.
of Islam [TOP]
Five duties have traditionally been seen as obligatory for all Muslims,
although some mystics (Sufis) have allegorized them and many Muslims
observe them only partially. These duties are the so-called five
pillars of Islam: bearing witness to the unity and uniqueness of
God and to the prophethood of Muhammad (shahadah); prayer at the
prescribed times each day (salat); fasting during the month of Ramadan
(sawm); pilgrimage to Mecca, and the performance of certain prescribed
rituals in and around Mecca at a specified time of the year (hajj);
and paying a certain amount out of one's wealth as alms for the
poor and some other categories of Muslims (zakat). The first of
these pillars balances external action (the recitation of the shahadah)
with internal conviction (although different groups within Islam
have held different views about the relative importance of recitation
and belief in the shahadah); the other four, although they take
belief for granted, consist predominantly of external acts.
There are other duties and practices regarded as obligatory. As
in Judaism, the eating of pork is prohibited and male circumcision
is the norm (the latter is not mentioned in the Koran). Consumption
of alcohol is forbidden. Meat must be slaughtered according to an
approved ritual or else it is not halal.
In some Muslim communities practices which are essentially local
customs have come to be identified as Islamic: the wearing of a
sari, for example. There are variant practices concerning the covering
of the head or face of a woman in public. A Koranic text is interpreted
by some to mean that the entire head and face of a woman should
be covered, by others as indicating that some sort of veil or head
scarf should be worn. Others argue that the Koran does not require
any such covering.
The centre of Muslim life, apart from the home, is the mosque or
masjid (Arabic, “place of prostration in prayer”) where
the prescribed prayers are performed five times daily (in some Shiite
groups only three times daily). The prayers are performed while
facing Mecca, the site of the Kaaba and the birthplace of Muhammad,
and the mosque wall which is closest to Mecca has a niche known
as the mihrab built into it to show the direction of the holy city.
The Kaaba at Mecca, a simple and relatively small cubical building,
is often referred to as the “house of God”, although
without any implication that He is present there more than anywhere
else. It is explained as having been built by Abraham at the command
of God. At the time when he built it, Abraham called all peoples
at all times to come there and perform the ceremonies of the hajj.
In the south-east corner of the Kaaba on the outside wall is fixed
a black stone which receives special reverence and is often said
to have originated from Paradise. It was sent down to comfort Adam
in his grief when he was expelled from there. By the time of Muhammad
the pure monotheism which, according to Muslim belief, had been
instituted at Mecca by Abraham, had become corrupted by idolatry
and polytheism, and it was the task of Muhammad to restore the pure
religion and re-establish monotheistic worship at the Kaaba. Around
the Kaaba there has grown up a huge mosque known as al-Masjid al-Haram
(“the sacred mosque”).
In addition to Mecca various other places have a special status
in Islam. At Medina, the town to which Muhammad moved when his preaching
in Mecca had aroused opposition, the second holiest mosque in Islam
grew up around his tomb. Jerusalem is the third most revered sanctuary,
in part because of its association with prophets before Muhammad,
in part because of the tradition that Muhammad was miraculously
taken there from Mecca by night. From there he is said to have been
taken up to heaven before being returned on the same night to the
place where he had been sleeping in Mecca. Above the huge rock in
Jerusalem which is regarded as the very place from which Muhammad's
ascension began, the Dome of the Rock was built. This is one of
the earliest and most beautiful buildings of Islam, first constructed
around 690 on the orders of the caliph Abd al-Malik.
For Shiite Muslims other cities, often associated with their Imams,
achieved a special status: An Najaf and Karbala’ in Iraq,
and Mashhad and Qom in Iran, are the most important.
The Islamic Year
and Festivals [TOP]
The Islamic era is known as that of that of the hijra (sometimes
Latinized and Anglicized as Hegira) since its starting point is
the year in which Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina (ad 622),
an event known in Muslim tradition as the hijra (variously translated
as “flight”, “emigration” or “exodus”).
The calendar is based on the Moon rather than the Sun, a year consisting
of 12 months, each counted as the time between the appearance of
one new moon and that of the next. The year thus lasts for about
354 days, approximately 11 days less than the solar year used in
the common calendar. Since intercalation is forbidden in the law,
the Islamic year bears no fixed relationship to the seasons. Relative
to the solar year, each day in the Muslim year falls 11 days earlier
each year. Thus the festivals and major events of the Muslim year
eventually circulate through all the seasons.
The Hijri year begins with the month of Muharram, but no special
significance is attached to the new year's day. The ninth month
of the year, Ramadan, is the obligatory month of fasting, and every
Muslim who has the duty to fast (there are some who are relieved
of it because of illness or another reason) should abstain from
food, drink, and sexual pleasure during the hours of daylight. The
first day of the tenth month, Shawwal, marks the end of the fast
and is a day of great rejoicing. It is the major festival of the
year and is variously known as “the great festival”,
“the festival of the breaking of the fast” or simply
“the festival” (al-eed). The last month of the year
is Dhul-Hijjah, and the first half of it is the time for the annual
ceremonies connected with the hajj at Mecca. The core of the hajj,
when all the pilgrims take part together, occurs between the eighth
and tenth of the month. On the tenth the pilgrims sacrifice a great
number of animals at Mina, close to Mecca, and in many parts of
the Islamic world sacrifices are also performed on this day. This
is known as “the lesser festival” (al-eed al-sagheer)
or “the festival of the sacrifice” (eed al-qurban or
The tenth day of the first month, Muharram, is called Ashura (an
Aramaic word meaning “tenth”). This has a special importance
for Shiite Muslims. On it they commemorate what in their view was
the martyrdom of their third Imam, Husain, the son of Ali ibn Abi
Talib. He was killed on Ashura day in 680 at Karbala’ in Iraq,
fighting against a Muslim ruler whom the Shiites regard as a usurper
and tyrant. For Shiites the day is a sad one, marked in some places
by processions, public weeping, and even sometimes self-flagellation.
Other events and festivals occur at various times during the year
but do not have the official religious significance of those just
mentioned. For example, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (mawlid
al-nabee) is widely celebrated in the fifth month of the year and
in some places is marked by the recitation of poems in his honour.
This festival, however, seems to be quite late in origin. Since
the precise date of Muhammad's birth is not known, the month was
probably chosen because it is the most widely accepted date for
his death and a symmetry between birth and death was assumed. For
the Shiites the birthdays of Ali and his wife Fatima are also celebrated.
One of the odd-numbered days towards the end of Ramadan (the precise
day is disputed) is marked with reverence as the “night of
power” (lailat al-qadr) when, it is widely believed, God makes
His decrees concerning everything which is to occur in the following
Friday is sometimes referred to as the Muslim sabbath, like Saturday
for Jews and Sunday for Christians. It is not officially a day of
rest, but the midday prayer service on Friday is the most important
of the week, should be observed, if possible, in a large congregational
mosque, and has a more elaborate form than that of the normal prayer
service. The ritual contains a special sermon (khutba) delivered
by a preacher who stands on a minbar, a sort of pulpit which is
a prominent part of the furniture of a mosque.
The Main Groups
of Islam [TOP]
In the period of its early development Islam developed three main
divisions: Sunni, Shiite, and Kharijii. Historically, the division
between them is said to go back to a civil war between the Arabs
between ad 656 and 661, following their conquest of the heartlands
of the Middle East. As religious groups in the form in which we
know them, however, the three traditions took considerably longer
than that to emerge. The two most important of them, the Sunni and
the Shiite, did not really crystallize before the 3rd to 9th centuries.
The fundamental issue which divides the three groups is that of
authority—who should be the source of authority in Islam and
what sort of authority they should have.
From an early period in the development of Islam some individuals
and groups began to feel that it was not enough simply to live according
to the law and hope to achieve salvation in that way. They desired
a stronger religious experience and sought to become closer to God
through a variety of devotional and meditational practices, and
sometimes through an austere ascetic way of life. Those who engaged
in such practices came to be called Sufis. The characteristic aim
of Sufism was to obtain a direct experience of God. This is a form
of spirituality which has similarities in religions other than Islam
and is usually referred to as mysticism. It has often been viewed
with suspicion by non-mystical religious authorities who see it
as a threat to institutional religion. The practices and beliefs
of the Sufis came to be feared as possible rivals to those followed
by the majority of ordinary Muslims.
In 922 a leading Muslim mystic, al-Hallaj, was executed by the
ruling authorities for claiming, so it was alleged, that his experience
of God had been so immediate that he had become completely united
with the divinity. This was described as a form of polytheism by
his opponents. Nevertheless, Sufi ideas remained attractive to many.
It is al-Ghazali, one of the pivotal figures in the history of Sunni
Islam, who is credited with bringing about the compromise which
made it possible henceforth for Sufism to be regarded as a legitimate
and important expression of Islam. Al-Ghazali argued that it is
important to understand the deeper meaning of the law and not just
to adhere to it blindly.
In the centuries following al-Ghazali the influence of Sufism in
Islam became more widespread as various orders or “paths”
(tariqas) came into existence. These are brotherhoods of Sufis which
are distinguished by the allegiance they owe to a particular Sufi
master. They involve a process of initiation and they appeal to
various social classes. Some of them have a local basis, others
cover large areas of the Islamic world. They provide not only an
important means for the expression of spirituality in Islam but
also a focus of loyalty within a universalist religion.
Islam in the
Modern World [TOP]
From the end of the 18th century onwards the Islamic world began
to experience the increasing pressure of the military and political
power and technological advances of the modern West. After centuries
of Islamic political and cultural strength and self-confidence,
it became clear that at the economic and technical level at least
the world of Islam had fallen behind. Part of the shock came from
the fact that the Western countries were at least nominally Christian,
and yet Muslims regarded Islam as the final revelation which had
In the 20th century the creation of the state of Israel in an area
which was regarded as one of the heartlands of Islam strengthened
the feeling of many Muslims that there was a crisis facing them
which involved their religion.
One response was to argue that Islam needed to be modernized and
reformed. This point of view has been held by a number of intellectuals,
and various proposals for reforming the religion in what is understood
as a modernist direction have been made.
The second half of the 20th century has seen the rise and domination
of what may be seen as the opposite approach to discovering a solution
to the perceived “crisis of Islam”. It has been argued
by many that the crisis facing the Muslims was a result of the willingness
of many Muslims to follow the false ideas and values of the modern
secular West. What is needed, it is argued, is a reassertion of
traditional values. From this point of view, the crisis of Islam
is seen as the result of the corruption of nominally Muslim governments
and the creeping growth of secularism and Western influence in the
Muslim world. Frequently, but not always, those who argue in this
way espouse the use of violence in the cause of overthrowing unjust
and corrupt governments. This approach is often referred to as Islamic
The validity of this expression is open to question and is frequently
rejected by Muslims themselves. The ideas of religious “fundamentalism”
seems to have originated in discussions of Christianity, where it
is usually used with reference to those groups of Christians who
insist that the Bible is literally the word of God and that it alone
should be regarded as authoritative by Christians. In this context
“tradition” is usually regarded negatively as something
which has corrupted the original true form of Christianity taught
Many Muslims do not like the use of the expression with regard
to Islam since, they say, all Muslims accept that the Koran is the
word of God in a very literal sense and so all Muslims are fundamentalist.
Furthermore, although some “fundamentalists” try to
argue that only the Koran is the true source of Islam, most accept
many parts of non-Koranic tradition even though they may reject
other parts. Muslim groups which are often lumped together under
the heading of “fundamentalist” in fact have many differences
Modern proponents of this style of Islam can find their precursors
in earlier centuries. Ibn Taymiyya is often cited by them since
he argued for a purification of Islam from what he considered to
be accretions and corruptions which had entered it by his own day.
Ibn Taymiyya influenced later figures such as Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab,
the father of Wahhabi, and it is perhaps ironic that the Saudi kingdom
which came to power as a result of the strength of Wahhabi in Arabia
is now one of the most prominent targets of the charge of corruption
and of serving as a vehicle for Western influence in the Islamic
Among the Sunni Muslims one of the oldest of the modern “fundamentalist”
movements is that of the Muslim Brothers, which was founded in 1929.
Its most influential theorist was Sayyid Qutb who was executed by
the Egyptian government in 1966. More recently groups such as Hamas
in Gaza and Palestine, Gamaat al-Islamiyya in Egypt, and the Fronte
Islamique de Salvation (FIS) in Algeria have emerged with individual
local aims but with the common objective of installing what they
see as a proper Islamic government, running a state based on Islamic
law, in the country where they are active. In Europe the Hizb ut-Tahrir
has attracted some following, and in Malaysia the Arqam movement.
Among Shiite Muslims this form of Islam achieved its greatest success
with the overthrow of the ruling dynasty in Iran (Persia) and the
establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. The Islamic
Republic governed by Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors then
offered support to groups such as Hizbollah in Lebanon as well as
to Sunni movements like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The ability of such groups to capture the headlines, and the difficulties
they have posed for governments, Muslim and non-Muslim, in many
parts of the world, has sometimes led to the claim that Islam is
of its very nature fundamentalist (which in this context usually
means aggressive and expansionist). This claim is sometimes supported
by reference to the importance of the doctrine of jihad (holy war)
in traditional Islam and the importance of the Arab conquests in
the earliest stages of the emergence of Islam.
In reality, however, Muslims, like followers of other religions,
have behaved in a variety of ways and presented various images of
their religion according to differing historical contexts. While
it would be wrong to underestimate the strength of movements such
as those named above, or their ability to attract the sympathy of
other Muslims, it would equally be wrong to overestimate the degree
of unity between the various manifestations of “Islamic fundamentalism”
or to fall into the trap of thinking that each religion is characterized
by a particular spirit or quality which is unchanging and always
Islam as a World
There are no exact figures for the number of Muslims in the world
today. It seems clear, however, that in terms of numbers Islam at
least matches those of Christianity, the other most widespread religion
From its heartlands in the Middle East and North Africa the religion
spread before the modern period to many parts of sub-Saharan Africa,
to central Asia, to the Indian subcontinent, and to East and South
East Asia. In Europe, Sicily and most of Spain were part of the
Islamic world during the Middle Ages, and most of the Balkans came
to be ruled by the Muslim Ottoman Empire, with its capital at Istanbul,
at various times between about 1300 and the end of World War I.
In modern times Islam has spread as a result of emigration so that
there are now large Muslim communities in parts of western Europe,
North America, South Africa, and Australia.
The Sunni form of the religion is dominant in most countries apart
from Iran, but there are large Shiite populations in Iraq and Lebanon,
in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, and, to a lesser extent, in
Central and South Asia.
It is a mistake to think that Islam has always been spread by warfare.
Although, as has been noted above, its birth was associated with
the Arab conquest of the Middle East and North Africa in the 7th
century, and although it entered the Balkans as a result of the
Ottoman expansion from 1300 onwards and spread in west Africa following
a jihad in the 18th century, the religion of Islam has not generally
been forced upon people by the sword. Periods of military conquest
have usually been aimed at expanding the territories under Muslim
rule rather than at forcing the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam.
Conversion to Islam has usually followed quite slowly, sometimes
against the wishes of the Muslim rulers, after a territory has come
under Muslim rule. The adoption of Islam as their religion has usually
resulted from the wishes and actions of people wanting to become
Muslim, not because it was forced upon them against their will.
Why some people have been attracted to Islam and others not is a
complex question involving many different religious, social, political,and
economic factors. In some parts of the world, trade and the cultural
attraction of Islamic civilization have been as important as preaching
in the spread of the religion. Sufi brotherhoods have also done
much to spread the religion in particular areas.
Like Christianity (and like Buddhism) Islam is a universal religion
open to all irrespective of nationality, gender or social status.
Of course, normal ethnic and social divisions exist among Muslims,
but one of the attractions of Islam is its insistence on the fundamental
equality of all Muslims before God. One of its greatest strengths
has been the way in which various peoples have been able to find
a sense of their own identity in Islam.
"Islam," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia
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