What is Islam? Who is a Muslim?

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A non-Muslim’s Guide to Islam and Muslims


What you will find on these pages is a brief overview of Islam and Muslim practices and rites. It provides only a cursory introduction and readers seeking a more in-depth treatment of Islam as a religion, as well as Muslim cultures and civilizations, can refer to the resources listed in the bibliography.

What is Islam? Who is a Muslim?

Today, Islam is numerically the second largest religion in the world, claiming, according to a range of estimates, somewhere between one and 1.5 billion adherents. The word Islam means ‘submission’ or ‘surrender’ and a Muslim is ‘one who surrenders’ (to the will of God).

Muslims believe that Islam is the basic monotheistic faith proclaimed by prophets throughout history. The Qur'an is not seen as presenting a new revelation but rather as providing a complete, accurate, and therefore final record of the message that had already been given to Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other earlier prophets. As the basis for a historical community and tradition of faith, however, Islam begins in Mecca with the life and work of the Prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century.

To most Muslims, Islam is not simply a religion but ‘a way of life’. Muslims believe that Islam is a system that encompasses all spheres of life, social and personal. Islam provides a social and legal system and governs issues such as family life, law and order, ethics, dress and cleanliness, as well as religious ritual and observance. Muslims base their laws on their holy book the Qur'an, and the Sunnah, the practical example of Prophet Muhammad.

It is important to understand, however, that various levels of observance exist amongst Muslims. Some Muslims prefer their religion to be a private matter while others may want it to be the basis of all of their social interaction.

The Beginning

In or about the year 570 the child who would be named Muhammad was born into a family belonging to a clan of Quraysh, the ruling tribe of Mecca, a city in the Hijaz region of north-western Arabia.

Originally the site of the Ka'bah, a shrine of ancient origins, Mecca had become an important center of sixth-century trade with such powers as the Persian Empire, the Byzantines and the Ethiopians. As a result the city was dominated by powerful merchant families among whom the men of Quraysh were preeminent.

Muhammad's father, Abdullah, died before the boy was born; his mother, Aminah, died when he was six. The orphan was consigned to the care of his grandfather. After the death of his grandfather, Muhammad was raised by his uncle, Abu Talib. About the year 590, Muhammad, then in his twenties, entered the service of a widow named Khadijah as a merchant actively engaged with trading caravans to the north. Sometime later Muhammad married Khadijah, by whom he had two sons - who did not survive - and four daughters.

During this period of his life Muhammad traveled widely. Discontented with life in Mecca, he often retreated to a cave in the surrounding mountains for meditation and reflection. According to Islamic beliefs, it was here that Muhammad, at age 40, received his first revelation from God. Three years later, he started preaching these revelations publicly, proclaiming as a prophet and messenger of God.

Muhammad's life as a preacher and leader of a community of believers has two major phases. The majority of the Meccans did not accept his teachings. Mecca was a major pilgrimage center and sanctuary in the existing polytheism of Arabia, and the proclamation of monotheism threatened this whole system. The message presented in the Meccan period emphasizes the general themes of affirmation of monotheism and warnings of the Day of Judgment. Muhammad did not set out to establish a separate political organization, but the nature of the message represented a major challenge to the basic power structures of Mecca.

The second phase of Muhammad's career and the early life of the Muslim community began when Muhammad accepted an invitation from the people in Yathrib, an oasis north of Mecca, to serve as their arbiter and judge. In 622 Muhammad and his followers moved to Yathrib, and this emigration, or hijrah, is of such significance that Muslims use this date as the beginning of the Islamic calendar. The oasis became known as the City of the Prophet, or simply al-Medina (the city).

In Muslim tradition the sociopolitical community that was created in Medina provides the model for what a truly Islamic state and society should be. In contrast to tribal groups, the new community, or ummah, was open to anyone who made the basic affirmation of faith, and loyalty to the ummah was to supersede any other loyalty, whether to clan, family, or commercial partnership. The political structure of the new community was informal. Although Muhammad had great authority as the messenger of God, he could not assume a position as a sovereign monarch because he was only human and only a messenger. The emphasis on the sole sovereignty of God provides an important foundation for Islamic political thinking throughout the centuries, challenging both theories of monarchy and absolutism, as well as later theories of popular sovereignty.

In this early era the characteristically Islamic sense of the ummah or the community of believers, rather than a concept of church or state, was firmly established as the central institutional identification for Muslims. In this way Islam is frequently described as a way of life rather than as a religion separate from politics or other dimensions of society. In Medina Muhammad provided leadership in all matters of life, but Muslims carefully distinguish the teachings that are the record of revelation and recorded in the Qur'an from the guidance Muhammad provided as a person. Because of his role as the messenger of God, Muhammad's own personal actions and words have special prestige. In addition to the Qur'an, the accounts of these, called hadith, provide the basis for a second source of guidance for believers, the Sunnah (customary practice) of the Prophet.

By the time of Muhammad's death in 632, the new Muslim community was successfully established. Mecca had been defeated and incorporated into the ummah in important ways. The Ka'ba, a shrine in Mecca that had been the center of the polytheistic pilgrimage, was recognized as an altar built by Abraham, and Mecca became both the center of pilgrimage for the new community and the place toward which Muslims faced when they performed their prayers.

Muslims believe that Islam is a universal religion. They believe it to have started with the first human and continued through time under various names, the constant element being the message that God is one.

Muslims are of many races and include almost all nationalities. Although there are elements that unite all Muslims, there are important differences between Muslims due to their national and cultural backgrounds.