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Introduction to Islam
Semitic people, who were various ancient and modern peoples originating in
southwestern Asia, came from Mesopotamia to the Arabian peninsula at about 2000 B.C.
Mesopotamia, an ancient region in western Asia located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers,
is believed by some to be the site of the birth of mankind. It is now part of Iraq.
A Semite prophet named Muhammad was born in the year 570 in the city of Mecca in
Saudi Arabia. When he was 40 years old, he heard the angel Gabriel speak to him and tell him
that he was a prophet like Abraham, Moses and Jesus. The Islamic God, or Allah, spoke to
Muhammad while he was meditating in a cave near Mecca. For the next 23 years, Muhammad
memorized what he heard and wrote it into a book called the Qur’an (or Koran), which became
the holy book of the Muslim people. Muslims regard it as the “unaltered word of God.” Over the
next 100 years, many Arabic tribes converted to Islam either through the teachings or as the
result of wars. By 711, most of western Asia (except Turkey, which was held by the Romans),
plus Egypt, Spain, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, were all under control of the caliphs,
who were spiritual heads of Islam. For the next several hundred years, there were many changes
in governmental leadership but the religion of Islam continued to be a prime force in the area.
The religious faith of Islam, as it was practiced between the years 650 to 1500, was
closely related to Judaism and Christianity. Like Jews and Christians, Muslims, who are people
of the Islam faith, believed that there was only one God, called “Allah.” Muslims believed that
Moses and Jesus had both existed, that they were important messengers of God and that
Muhammad was another in the same line. Many of the stories in the Koran are the same as the
stories in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Muslims’ duties are summed up in five simple rules, the socalled Five Pillars of Islam:
1. Belief (Iman): There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger.
2. Worship (Salat): Worship God five times a day — at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon,
sunset and nightfall.
3. Fasting (Sawm): Abstain from food and drink, as well as smoking and sex, between
sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Muslim calendar.
4. Almsgiving (Zakat): Give alms to the poor.
5. Pilgrimage (Hajj): Undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime, if
one is able, during the first days of Dhu’l-Hijja, the twelfth month of the Muslim calendar.
Mecca, located in Saudi Arabia, is the most holy city in Islam. The most important
Islamic principle, though, is that a good Muslim should worship only Allah, and no other gods.
The Crusades
The Holy Land is where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born and lived his life. It
includes Palestine, Israel and bits of Lebanon and Jordan. Christians believed that they should
hold this land, not Muslims, so the Christians initiated a series of wars, called the Crusades, to
get the land from the Muslims. The Christians won some battles to reclaim their holy lands but
could not keep the cities they took. They did, however, gain something very valuable from the
Crusades. For the first time, they left their homes in Western Europe and looked beyond their
own villages. They saw a world that was very different from their own and brought these ideas
back with them.
Muslims Today
Many people believe that Muslims today live exclusively in the Middle East and that it is
a religion for Arabs. This, however, is not the case. About 80 percent of the world’s Muslims are
not Arabs. Muslims represent many different races, ethnic groups and nationalities. By 650,
Islam had already divided into two main groups: Sunnis and Shiites. The Shiites believe that
their religious leaders were going to come save them as the Messiah had. According to the
Shiites’ theology, after the death of Muhammad, the rightful teachers of Islam and guides of
Muslim society were those who have been called Imams. They believe that such people are the
divinely appointed rulers of Muslims, and should be deferred to in matters of religion. Sunnis are
the largest group of Muslims. They regard the first four caliphs, or Islamic leaders, as legitimate
successors of Muhammad. They also stress the importance of Sunna (the way of life lived as
prescribed by Muhammad) as a basis for law, the Sharia. Another important part of early Islam
was Sufism, which was a belief in a direct relationship between people and God shared by many
Sunnis and Shiites.
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