John L Esposito. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
The religion of Islam was revealed to Muhammad ibn Abdullah, who became known as the Prophet Muhammad, in central Arabia between 610 and 632 C.E. Muhammad did not think that he was founding a new religion with a new scripture but, rather, bringing belief in the one God, a belief already held by Christians and Jews, to the Arabs. The Koran’s revelations were seen as a return in the midst of a polytheistic society to the forgotten past, to the faith of the first monotheist, Abraham. Muslims believe that God sent revelations first to Moses, as found in the Hebrew scriptures (the Torah), then to Jesus (the Gospels), and finally to Muhammad (the Koran).
The revelations Muhammad received led him to believe that, over time, Jews and Christians had distorted God’s original messages to Moses and, later, to Jesus. Thus, Muslims see the Torah and the Gospels as a combination of the original revelations and later human additions, or interpolations. For example, Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus (his elevation from prophet to Son of God) are seen as changes to the divine revelation from outside or foreign influences.
The Koran contains many references to stories and figures in the Old and New Testaments, including Adam and Eve, Abraham and Moses, David and Solomon, and Mary and Jesus. Indeed, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is mentioned more times in the Koran than in the Gospels. Muslims view Jews and Christians as People of the Book, who received revelations through prophets in the form of revealed books from God.
In addition to belief in a single, all-powerful God, Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity belief in the importance of community-building, social justice, and individual moral decision-making, as well as in revelation, angels, Satan, a final judgment, and eternal reward and punishment. Therefore, Islam was not a totally new monotheistic religion and community that sprang up in isolation. Muslims believe that Islam was, in fact, the original religion of Abraham. The revelations Muhammad received were calls to religious and social reform. They emphasized social justice (concern for the rights of women, widows, and orphans) and warned that many had strayed from the message of God and his prophets. They called upon all to return to what the Koran refers to as the straight path of Islam or the path of God, revealed one final time to Muhammad, the last, or “seal,” of the prophets.
The diversity of Islam, the world’s second largest religion, is reflected by the geographic expanse of the 56 countries that have Muslim majorities. The world’s approximately 1.2 billion Muslims are found not only from Africa to Southeast Asia but also in Europe and North America. Only 20 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arab, with the majority of Muslims living in Asian and African countries. The largest Muslim populations are found in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and Nigeria. Islam is also a significant presence in the West, as the second largest religion in Europe and projected to become the second largest in the United States. While Muslims share certain core beliefs, there are many interpretations and cultural practices of Islam. Beyond the two major branches of Islam—Sunni (approximately 85 percent of the Muslim community) and Shiite (15 percent)—there are many theological and legal schools, as well as the diversity of thought and practice illustrated by Sufism (Islamic mysticism).
Islam’s many faces across the world are seen in diverse cultures. They are seen in Muslim women’s dress and in their varied educational and professional opportunities, as well as in their participation in mosques and societies that differ widely from country to country. They are also seen in politics and society when Islamic activists peacefully press for the implementation of religion in the state, when members of Islamic organizations are elected to parliaments (as in Turkey, Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Yemen, Pakistan, Thailand, and Malaysia), and when Islamic associations provide inexpensive and efficient educational, legal, and medical services in the slums and lower middle-class neighborhoods of Cairo and Algiers, Beirut and Mindanao, the West Bank and Gaza. At the same time, on 11 September 2001 violent extremists and terrorists headed by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, acting in the name of Islam, hijacked commercial airliners and flew them into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., resulting in the loss of almost 3,000 lives. The hijackers who committed this act reflect a religious radicalism that, for several decades, has threatened governments and societies in the Muslim world and in the West. The challenge, however, is not only to be aware of the threat from Muslim extremist groups but also to know and understand the faith of the vast majority of mainstream Muslims across the globe.
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam originated in the Middle East, in Mecca and Medina in Arabia. The origins of Islam, like those of Judaism and Christianity, would have seemed improbable as forecasters of a great world religion. Just as few would have anticipated the extent to which Moses and Jesus, a slave and a carpenter’s son, would become major religious figures, so one would not have predicted that the followers of an orphaned, illiterate caravan manager, Muhammad ibn Abdullah, would become the world’s second largest religion, a global religious, political, and cultural presence and power.
Muslims see themselves, as well as Jews and Christians, as children of Abraham, belonging to different branches of the same religious family. The Koran and the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, both tell the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian servant. While Jews and Christians are held to be descended from Abraham and his wife, Sarah, through their son, Isaac, Muslims trace their religious roots to Abraham through Ismail (Ishmael), his firstborn son by Hagar. This connection to Abraham, Hagar, and Ismail is commemorated each year in the rituals of the pilgrimage to Mecca.
According to both Hebrew and Muslim scripture, when, after many years, Sarah did not conceive a child, she urged Abraham to sleep with her maidservant Hagar so that he might have an heir. As a result of the union between Abraham and Hagar, a son, Ismail, was born. After Ismail’s birth Sarah also became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac. Sarah then became jealous of Ismail, who as firstborn would be the prime inheritor and overshadow her own son, and she pressured Abraham to send Hagar and Ismail away. Abraham reluctantly let Hagar and his son go, because God promised that he would make Ismail the father of a great nation. Islamic sources say that Hagar and Ismail ended up in the vicinity of Mecca in Arabia, and both the Bible and the Koran say that they nearly died but were saved by a spring that miraculously gushed from the desert.
In seventh-century Arabia, where Muhammad ibn Abdullah was born, war was the natural state. Arabia was located in the broader Near East, which was divided between two warring superpowers, the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) and the Sasanian (Persian) empires, that were competing for world dominion. Located along the profitable trade routes of the Orient, Arabia was affected by the rivalry and interventions of its powerful imperial neighbors.
Pre-Islamic Arabia was tribal in its religious, social, and political ideas, practices, and institutions. Tribal and family honor were central virtues. Manliness (chivalry, upholding tribal and family honor, and courage in battle) was a major virtue celebrated by the poets of the time. There was no belief in an afterlife or a cosmic moral purpose or in individual or communal moral responsibility. Thus, justice was obtained and carried out through group vengeance or retaliation. Arabia and the city of Mecca, in which Muhammad was born and lived and received God’s revelation, were beset by tribal raids and cycles of vendettas. Raiding was an integral part of tribal life and society and had established regulations and customs. Raids were undertaken to increase property and such goods as slaves, jewelry, camels, and live-stock. Bloodshed was avoided, if at all possible, because it could lead to retaliation.
Religion in Arabia at the time was predominantly polytheistic. Various gods and goddesses who were feared, not loved, served as protectors of the many tribes. These gods were the objects of cultic rituals and supplication at local shrines, reflecting the tribal nature and social structure of society. Mecca was a rising commercial and religious center that housed the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure that contained representations of approximately 360 different tribal gods and goddesses. At the head of the shrine’s pantheon was the supreme god, Allah, who was seen as the creator and sustainer of life and the universe but who was remote from everyday concerns. Mecca was also the site of a great annual fair and pilgrimage to the Kaaba, a highly profitable event. It brought worshipers of the different gods from far and wide, along with their money and their business interests. In addition to the prevailing tribal polytheism, Arabia was also home to a variety of monotheistic communities, in particular Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, which Muhammad encountered in his travels as a businessman.
The traditional sources for information about Muhammad’s life are the Koran, as well as biographies of the Prophet and hadith (tradition) literature. Muhammad ibn Abdullah (Muhammad, the son of Abdullah) was born in 570 C.E. in Mecca. Although born into the ruling tribe, the Quraysh, Muhammad was among the “poorer cousins.” Orphaned at an early age (his father died before he was born, and his mother died when he was six years old), Muhammad was raised by his uncle, Abu Talib, a well-respected and powerful member of the Quraysh, who provided Muhammad and, later, his community with protection. As a young man Muhammad earned his living as a business manager for the caravans of a wealthy widow named Khadijah. At the age of 25, Muhammad married Khadijah, who was 15 years older. Tradition records that they were married for 24 years and had two sons who died in infancy and four surviving daughters, the most famous of whom was Fatimah, who married Ali, the fourth caliph. Khadijah was the first person to believe in the revelation Muhammad had received, making her the first Muslim convert. She was Muhammad’s strongest supporter and adviser, particularly during the early, difficult years after his call as a prophet.
By the age of 30, Muhammad had become a respected member of Meccan society, known for his business skills and trustworthiness (he was nicknamed al-Amin, “the trustworthy”). Reflective by temperament, Muhammad often retreated to the quiet and solitude of Mount Hira to contemplate life and society. It was there, during the month of Ramadan in 610, on a night remembered in Muslim tradition as the Night of Power, that Muhammad, the Meccan businessman, was called to be a prophet of God. Muhammad heard a voice commanding him to “recite.” He was frightened and replied that he had nothing to recite. After the angel, identified as Gabriel, repeated the command, the words finally came: “Recite in the name of your Lord who has created, created man out of a germ cell. Recite for your Lord is the Most Generous One, who has taught by the pen, Taught man what he did not know.”
This was the first of what would be many revelations from Allah, “the God” in Arabic, communicated through the angel Gabriel. Muhammad continued to receive revelations over the next 22 years, until his death in 632. The revelations were preserved verbatim orally and written down by scribes, and they were later collected and compiled into the Koran, the Muslim scripture. The reformist message Muhammad received, like that of Amos and other prophets before him, represented a powerful but unwelcome challenge to religious and tribal leaders and to businessmen, who comprised the religious and political establishment. Muhammad denounced corrupt business practices and called for social justice for the poor and women, and for children and orphans, the most vulnerable in society. He emphasized the religious equality of men and women and expanded the marriage and inheritance rights of women. Muhammad’s prophetic message summoned the people to strive and struggle (jihad) to live a good life based on religious belief rather than loyalty to their tribe and to reform their communities. Most importantly, Muhammad’s revelation in the Koran rejected the common practice of worshiping many gods, insisting that there was only one true God. He therefore threatened the livelihood of those who profited enormously from the annual pilgrimage honoring many different gods, the equivalent of a giant tribal convention.
During the first 10 years of Muhammad’s preaching, his community of believers remained small and under constant pressure and persecution. In an increasingly hostile environment they were compelled to struggle to stay alive. The life and livelihood of the community were eventually threatened by sanctions that prevented them from doing business and that were literally starving them out. This hardship may have contributed to the death of Khadijah, and after his fortunes were destroyed, Abu Talib, Muhammad’s protector, also died. Muhammad was now a likely and proximate target for assassination.
It was at this low point in his life that Muhammad had a mystical experience: the Night Journey, or Ascension. One night, sleeping near the Kaaba, Muhammad was awakened by the angel Gabriel. Muhammad was mounted on a mystical steed called Buruq, who flew him from Mecca to Jerusalem, which is referred to in the Koran as al-masjid al-aqsa (Further Mosque) and which is the site of the Temple Mount, where the ancient Temple of Solomon once stood. There, according to tradition, Muhammad climbed a ladder leading to the throne of God. Along the way to the throne, Muhammad met Abraham, Moses, Joseph, John the Baptist, and Jesus, as well as other prophets. During his meeting with God, Muhammad received guidance for the final number of daily prayers that Muslims should perform, set at five. The Night Journey, which is understood by many Muslims as a mystical experience, made Jerusalem the third holiest city in Islam and affirmed the continuity of Islam with Judaism and Christianity.
Faced with increasing hardships, Muhammad was invited in 622 by a delegation from Yathrib, a city in the north that was caught in a bitter feud between its Arab tribes, to be their binding arbitrator. That his decisions were to be accepted by all the tribes was testimony to Muhammad’s wide reputation as a trustworthy and just man. Muhammad began sending his followers to Yathrib, and he followed a short time afterward, thus escaping those plotting to kill him. Yathrib would later be renamed Medina, or Medinat al-Nabi (City of the Prophet). This migration (hijra, or hegira) of the Muslim community from the traditional safety of tribe and kinsmen in warring Arabia to form alliances with alien tribes based upon a broader Islamic ideal was a concept introduced by Muhammad, one that would have remarkable success.
The migration to Medina and the creation of the first Islamic community (ummah) underscores the primary importance of community in Islam. It is so significant that when Muslims devised their own calendar they dated it, not from the year in which Muhammad was born or from the first revelation of the Koran, but from the creation of the Islamic community at Medina. Thus, 622 C.E. became 1 A.H. (year [anno] of the hijra). This act reinforced the meaning of Islam as the realization of God’s will on earth and the centrality of the Islamic community. It became the basis for Muslim belief in Islam as a world religion, a global community of believers with a universal message and mission.
The experience and example of Muhammad’s new community would provide the model for later generations. In times of danger the twin ideals of hijra (to emigrate from a hostile anti-Islamic environment) and jihad (to resist and fight against oppression and injustice) were established. These concepts became guiding principles for responding to persecution and rejection, to threats to the faith, and to the security and survival of the community. Today both mainstream and extremist movements and self-proclaimed “holy warriors,” such as Osama bin Laden, who emigrated from Saudi Arabia to establish his movement and training bases in Afghanistan, have selectively used the pattern of migration and struggle, armed resistance, and warfare for their own purposes.
In Medina the Muslim community thrived, resulting in the establishment of the first Islamic communitystate. Muhammad was not only a prophet but also a head of state, political ruler, military commander, chief judge, and lawgiver of a multireligious community consisting of Muslims, Arab polytheists, Jews, and Christians. The Constitution, or Charter, of Medina, as established by Muhammad, set out the rights and duties of the citizens and the relationship of the Muslim community to other communities, thus reflecting the diversity of this society. The charter recognized the People of the Book (Jews and Christians who had received God’s revelation through the prophets Moses and Jesus) as an allied community. These People of the Book were entitled to live in coexistence with Muslims and to retain and practice their religion in return for loyalty and the payment of a poll tax, or jizya.
With establishment of the community at Medina, the bitter conflict between Mecca and Muhammad and his followers continued. Muhammad threatened the economic power and political authority of the Meccan leaders with a series of raids against their caravans. In addition, several key battles occurred that are remembered in Muslim tradition as sources of inspiration and guidance. In 624 Muslim forces, although greatly out-numbered, defeated the Meccan army in the Battle of Badr, in which they believed they were aided by divine guidance. The Koran (3:120) declares that thousands of angels assisted the Muslims in battle. This battle has special significance for Muslims because it represents the victory of monotheism over polytheism, of good over evil, of the army of God over the army of ignorance and unbelief. Badr remains an important sacred symbol for contemporary Muslims. For example, Egypt’s President Anwar as-Sadat launched the 1973 Arab-Israeli war as a jihad with the code name Operation Badr.
The Battle of Uhud, in 625, represented a major setback for the Muslims when the Meccans bounced back and soundly defeated them, wounding Muhammad. The Battle of the Ditch, or Battle of the Trench, took place in 627, when the Meccans mounted a siege against the Muslims, seeking to crush them permanently. The Battle of the Ditch proved to be a major turning point, however. The Muslims dug a trench to protect themselves from the Meccan cavalry and doggedly resisted the Meccan siege. In the end the Meccans were forced to withdraw, and a truce was struck at Hudaybiyah, a pact of nonaggression that proved a face-saving device for both parties. The truce granted the Muslims the right to make the pilgrimage to Mecca the following year but required that Muhammad end his raids and the attempt at an economic blockade. At the same time, the truce signaled recognition of the political legitimacy of Muhammad.
In 629 Muhammad extended Muslim governance over the Hejaz, in central Arabia, and led the pilgrimage to Mecca. In 630 the feud between Mecca and Medina came to an end. After client tribes of Mecca and Medina clashed, Muhammad declared the truce broken and moved against Mecca with an army of 10,000, and the Quraysh surrendered without a fight. After 20 years Muhammad had successfully returned to Mecca and brought it within the Pax Islamica. In victory Muhammad proved magnanimous and strategic, preferring diplomacy to force. Rather than engaging in vengeance and plunder, he offered amnesty to his former enemies, rewarding a number of its leaders with prominent positions and gifts. Regarding the Kaaba shrine in Mecca as the original house of God built by Abraham and Ismail, Muhammad destroyed its pagan idols and rededicated it to the one true God. The majority of Meccans converted to Islam, accepted Muhammad’s leadership, and became part of the Islamic community.
The conquest of Mecca established Muhammad’s paramount political leadership. He continued to employ his religious message, diplomatic skills, and, when necessary, force to establish Muslim rule in Arabia. In 632 the 62-year-old Muhammad led a pilgrimage to Mecca and delivered his farewell sermon, a moment remembered and commemorated each year during the annual pilgrimage: “Know ye that every Muslim is a brother unto every other Muslim, and that ye are now one brotherhood. It is not legitimate for any one of you, therefore, to appropriate unto himself anything that belongs to his brother unless it is willingly given him by that brother.” When Muhammad died in June 632, all of Arabia was united under the banner of Islam.
Few observers of seventh-century Arabia would have predicted that, within a hundred years of Muhammad’s death, a religious community established by a local businessman, orphaned and illiterate, would unite Arabia’s warring tribes, overwhelm the eastern Byzantine and Sasanid empires, and create its own vast empire stretching from North Africa to India. Within a brief period of time, Muhammad had initiated a major historical transformation that began in Arabia but that would become a global religious and political movement. In subsequent years Muslim armies, traders, and mystics spread the faith and power of Islam globally. The religion of Islam became intertwined with empires and sultanates from North Africa to Southeast Asia.
After the death of Muhammad, his four immediate successors, remembered in Sunni Islam as the Rightly Guided Caliphs (reigned 632-61), oversaw the consolidation of Muslim rule in Arabia and the broader Middle East (Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and Syria), overrunning the Byzantine and Sasanid empires. A period of great central empires was followed with the establishment of the Umayyad (661-750) and then the Abbasid (750-1258) empires. Within a hundred years of the death of Muhammad, Muslim rule extended from North Africa to South Asia, an empire greater than Rome at its zenith.
Under the Abbasids trade and industry, a strong central bureaucracy, law, theology, literature, science, and culture developed. The Abbasid conquest of the central Umayyad empire did not affect the existence of the Spanish Umayyad empire in Andalusia (modern-day Spain and Portugal). There, where Muslims were called Moors, Muslim rule ushered in a period of coexistence and culture developed by Muslims, Christians, and Jews in major urban centers. The Spanish Umayyad empire was less a threat to the Abbasids than was the Fatimid (Shiite) empire in the tenth century, carved out in North Africa and with its capital in Cairo. From the tenth to the twelfth centuries, the Fatimids challenged a weakened and fragmented Abbasid empire, spreading their influence and rule across North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Persia, and Sicily. The Fatimids were not brought under Abbasid rule until 1171, when the great general Salah ad-Din (Saladin) conquered Cairo. Despite this success, however, by the thirteenth century the Abbasid empire had become a sprawling, fragmented group of semiautonomous states governed by military commanders. In 1258 the Mongols captured Baghdad, burned and pillaged the city, slaughtered its Muslim inhabitants, and executed the caliph and his family.
Although the fall of Baghdad seemed to be a fatal blow to Muslim power, by the fifteenth century Muslim fortunes had been reversed. The central caliphate was replaced by a chain of dynamic states, each ruled by a sultan, stretching from Africa to Southeast Asia, from Timbuktu to Mindanao. They included three imperial sultanates: the Turkish Ottoman Empire (1322-1924), which encompassed major portions of North Africa, the Arab world, and eastern Europe; the Persian Safavid Empire (1501-1722); and the Mughal Empire (1520-1857), which included much of the Indian subcontinent (modern-day Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh).
Like many parts of the world, Muslim societies fell victim to European imperialism. When Christian Europe overpowered North Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century, reducing most Muslim societies to colonies, many Muslims experienced these defeats as a religious, as well as a political and cultural, crisis. It was a symbol not only of the decline of Muslim power but also of the apparent loss of divine favor and guidance. Colonialism brought European armies and Christian missionaries, who accompanied the bureaucrats, traders, and teachers, to spread the message of Western (Christian) religious and cultural superiority and dominance. Europe legitimated its colonization of large areas of the underdeveloped Muslim world in cultural terms. The French spoke of a “mission to civilize” and the British of “the white man’s burden.”
Muslim responses to Europe’s political and religious penetration and dominance varied significantly, ranging from resistance or warfare (jihad) in “defense of Islam” to accommodation with, if not outright assimilation of, Western values. The result of Western imperialism for Muslims was a period of self-criticism and reflection on the causes of their decline. Responses spanned the spectrum from liberal secularism to Islamic modernism. Islamic modernists sought to respond to, rather than react against, the challenge of Western imperialism. They proclaimed the need for Islamic reform through a process of reinterpretation and selective adaptation (Islamization) of Western ideas and technology. Islamic modernism sought to reinterpret Islam to demonstrate its compatibility with Western science and thought and to resist European colonialism and meet the changing circumstances of Muslim life through religious, legal, political, educational, and social reforms.
Some Muslims, however, rejected both conservative and modernist positions in favor of religious activism. The Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin) of Egypt and the Jamaat-i Islami (Islamic Society) of the Indian subcontinent are prominent examples of modern neorevivalist Islamic organizations that linked religion to activism. Their leaders, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hasan al-Banna and Jamaat’s Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, were pious Muslims whose upbringing and education exposed them to modernist Islamic thought and Western learning. In contrast to Islamic modernists, who justified adopting Western ideas and institutions because they were compatible with Islam, al-Banna and Mawdudi sought to produce a new interpretation, or synthesis. Rather than leaving their societies, they organized their followers into an Islamically oriented community with a dynamic nucleus of leaders capable of transforming society from within. Joining thought to action, these leaders provided Islamic responses, both ideological and organizational, and inspired political as well as social activism.
Though anti-Western, the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat were not against modernization. They engaged in building modern organizations and institutions, provided modern educational and social welfare services, and used modern technology and mass communications to spread their message and to mobilize popular support. They addressed the problems of modernity, analyzing the relationship of Islam to nationalism, democracy, capitalism, Marxism, work, modern banking, education, law, women, Zionism, and international relations. The organizations established by al-Banna and Mawdudi remain vibrant today and have served as an example to others throughout much of the Muslim world.
Like Jews and Christians, Muslims are monotheists. They believe in one God, Allah, who is the creator, sustainer, ruler, and judge of the universe. The word “Allah” appears in the Koran more than 2,500 times.
The word “Islam” means “submission” to the will of God and “peace,” the interior peace that results from following God’s will and creating a just society. Muslims must strive or struggle (jihad) in the path (Shariah) of God in order to implement his will on earth by working to establish a just society or to expand or defend the Muslim community.
Muslims believe that the Koran is the final, complete, literal, eternal, uncreated word of God, sent from heaven to the Prophet Muhammad as a guide for humankind (Koran 2:185). Thus, the Koran does not reveal God per se but, rather, God’s will, or law, for all of creation. Although God is transcendent and thus unknowable, his nature is revealed in creation and his will in revelation, and his acts in history. God in the Koran is all-powerful and is the ultimate judge of humankind, but he is also merciful and compassionate.
The proclamation of God’s mercy and compassion is made in the opening verse of the Koran, which begins, “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” In the Muslim world this phrase is used by pious believers at the beginning of letters, speeches, books, and articles. Many people recite the phrase as they begin to drive a car, eat a meal, or begin any task. God’s mercy exists in dialectical tension with his role as the ultimate judge. Although it can be tempered by mercy for the repentant, justice requires punishment for those who disobey God’s will. On Judgment Day all human beings are to be judged according to their deeds and either punished or rewarded on the basis of their obedience or disobedience.
Muslims believe that sacred scriptures exist because throughout history God has sent his guidance to prophets so that his will might be known and followed by humankind. Thus, Muslims believe not only in the Prophet Muhammad but also in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, including Abraham and Moses, and of the New Testament, John the Baptist and Jesus. Those prophets who have also brought God’s revelation in the form of a sacred scripture or book—for example, Moses and the Torah and Jesus and the Gospels—are also called “messengers” of God. Thus, not all prophets are messengers, but messengers are also prophets. Jews and Christians are regarded as the People of the Book, a community of believers who received revelations, through prophets, in the form of scriptures, or revealed books, from God.
The Koran confirms the Torah and the Gospels as revelations from God, but Muslims believe that, after the deaths of the prophets, extraneous, nonbiblical beliefs infiltrated the Torah and the Gospels, altering the original, pure revelation. For example, the Koran declares an absolute monotheism, which means that associating anyone or anything with God is the one unforgivable sin of idolatry, or associationism. Muslims therefore do not believe in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (one God in three persons), and although Muslims recognize Jesus as a prophet, they do not recognize him as God’s son. Thus, Muslims believe that the Koran was sent as a correction, not as a nullification, or abrogation, of the Torah and the Gospels, and they see Islam as the oldest of the monotheistic faiths, since it represents both the original and the final revelation of God.
The Koranic universe consists of three realms—heaven, earth, and hell—in which there are two types of beings: humans and spirits. All beings are called to obedience to God. Spirits include angels, jinn, and devils. Angels are created from light, are immortal and sexless, and serve as the link between God and human beings. They serve as guardians, recorders, and messengers from God who transmit his message to human beings by communicating with prophets. Thus, the angel Gabriel is believed to have communicated the revelation of the Koran to Muhammad. Jinn, beings created by fire, are between angels and humans and can be either good or bad. Although invisible by nature, jinn can assume visible form. Like human beings, they are to be rewarded or punished in the afterlife. Jinn are often portrayed as magical beings, such as genies, as in the story of Aladdin and his lamp. Devils are fallen angels or jinn that tempt human beings torn between the forces of good and evil. Satan (shaytan, or Iblis), leader of the devils, represents evil, which is defined as disobedience to God. Satan’s fall was caused by his refusal to prostrate himself before Adam upon God’s command.
Because God breathed his spirit into Adam, the first human being, humans enjoy a special status as God’s representatives on earth. The Koran teaches that God gave the earth to human beings as a trust so that they can implement his will. Although Muslims believe in the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, in contrast to Christianity there is no doctrine of an inherited original sin and no belief in a vicarious suffering or atonement for humankind. The punishment of Adam and Eve is believed to result from their own personal act of disobedience to God. Each person is held responsible for his or her own actions. Human beings are mortal because of the human condition, not because of sin or the Fall of Adam and Eve. Sin is the result of an act of disobedience rather than a state of being. In Islam the Fall demonstrates human sin, God’s mercy, and human repentance. Islam emphasizes the need to repent by returning to the straight path of God. The Koran does not emphasize shame, disgrace, or guilt but, rather, the ongoing human struggle—jihad—to do what is right and just.
A Muslim’s obligation to be God’s servant and to spread his message is both an individual and a community obligation. The community is bound not by family or tribal ties but by a common faith, which must be acted out and implemented. The primary emphasis is upon obeying God as prescribed by Islamic law, which contains guidelines for both the individual and the community. In contrast to Christianity, in which theology is the queen of the sciences, for Islam, as for Judaism, the primary religious science is law. Christianity there-fore emphasizes orthodoxy (correct doctrine or belief), while Islam, as witnessed by the Five Pillars (fundamental observances), emphasizes orthopraxy (correct action).
Many Muslims describe Islam as “a total way of life.” They believe that religion cannot be separated from social and political life, since religion informs every action a person takes. The Koran provides many passages that emphasize the relationship of religion to the state and society. Muslims see themselves as God’s representatives, with a divine mandate to establish his rule on earth in order to create a moral and just society. The Muslim community is thus seen as a political entity, as proclaimed in the Koran 49:13, which teaches that God “made you into nations and tribes.” Like Jews and Christians before them, Muslims believe that they have been called into a covenant with God, making them a community of believers who must serve as an example to other nations (2:143): “You are the best community evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong” (3:110).
Social justice is a central teaching of the Koran, with all believers equal before God. The equality of believers forms the basis of a just society that is to counterbalance the oppression of the weak and economic exploitation. Muhammad, who was orphaned at an early age and who witnessed the exploitation of orphans, the poor, and women in Meccan society, was especially sensitive to their plight. Some of the strongest passages in the Koran condemn exploitation and champion social justice. Throughout history the mission to create a moral and just social order has provided a rationale for Islamic activist and revivalist movements, both mainstream and extremist.
In response to European colonialism and industrialization, issues of social justice came to the forefront of Muslim societies in the early twentieth century. The influx of large numbers of peasants from the countryside into urban areas in many developing countries created social and demographic tensions. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, emerged as a major social movement whose Islamic mission included a religious solution to poverty and assistance to the dispossessed and downtrodden. Its founder, Hasan al-Banna, taught a message of social and economic justice, preaching particularly to the poor and uneducated. In al-Banna’s vision Islam was not just a philosophy, religion, or cultural trend but also a social movement seeking to improve all areas of life, not only those that were inherently religious. That is, rather than being simply a belief system, Islam was a call to social action.
In the contemporary era emphasis on Islam’s message of social justice by Islamic movements, both moderate and militant, has been particularly powerful in gaining adherents from poorer and less advantaged groups in such countries as Algeria and Indonesia. In Israel and Palestine, and in Lebanon, groups like Hamas and Hezbollah devote substantial resources to social welfare activities and call for the empowerment of the poor and weak. They teach that social justice can be achieved only if the poor rise up against their oppressive conditions.
Moral Code of Conduct
The Shariah (Islamic law) provides a blueprint of principles and values for an ideal society. At its core are the Five Pillars of Islam, which unite all Muslims in their common belief. Following the pillars involves a Muslim’s mind, body, time, energy, and wealth. Meeting the obligations required by the pillars translates beliefs into actions, reinforces an everyday awareness of God’s existence and presence, and reminds Muslims of their membership in a worldwide community of believers.
The first pillar is the declaration of faith. A Muslim is one who bears witness, who testifies that “There is no god but God [Allah] and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” This statement, known as the shahadah, is pronounced and heard 14 times a day by those who meet the requirement of praying five times daily, and it is repeated at many other occasions in a Muslim’s life. To become a Muslim, one must make only this brief and simple declaration, or profession, of faith.
The first part of the declaration reflects absolute monotheism, Islam’s uncompromising belief in the oneness, or unity, of God (tawhid). Associating anything else with God is idolatry, considered the one unforgivable sin. To avoid any possible idolatry resulting from the depiction of figures, for example, Islamic religious art tends to use calligraphy, geometric forms, and arabesque designs and is thus abstract rather than representational.
The second part of the declaration emphasizes that Muhammad is not only a prophet but also a messenger of God, the one who received a book of revelation from him. For Muslims, Muhammad is the last and final prophet, who serves as a model for the community through his life. Unlike Jesus, however, Muhammad is held to have been only human, although he is believed to have been a perfect man, a follower of God. Muslim’s efforts to follow Muhammad’s example in their private and public conduct reflect the emphasis of Islam on religious observance, or practice, that is expressed in the remaining pillars.
The second pillar of Islam is prayer, or worship (salat). Throughout the world Muslims worship five times a day (daybreak, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening), sanctifying their entire day as they remember to find guidance in God. In many Muslim countries reminders to pray, or “calls to prayer,” echo across the rooftops. Aided by a megaphone from high atop a mosque’s minaret, a muezzin calls all Muslims to prayer. Modern technology has also provided novel audio and visual reminders to pray, including special wristwatches, mosque-shaped clocks, and a variety of computer programs.
Prayer is preceded by a series of ablutions, which symbolize the purity of mind and body required for worshiping God. Facing the holy city of Mecca, Islam’s spiritual homeland where the Prophet was born and received God’s revelation, Muslims recite passages from the Koran and glorify God as they stand, bow, kneel, touch the ground with their foreheads, and sit. Muslims can pray in any clean environment, in a mosque or at home or at work, alone or in a group, indoors or outside. Although not required, it is considered preferable and more meritorious to pray with others, thus demonstrating and reinforcing Muslim brotherhood, equality, and solidarity. Regardless of race or language, all Muslims pray in Arabic. After a formal ritual prayer, individuals may offer personal prayers (dua) of petition or thanksgiving. Each week on Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, the noon prayer is a congregational prayer (juma) at a mosque or Islamic center.
The third pillar of Islam is called the zakat, a tithe or almsgiving. Zakat, which means “purification,” and salat, or worship, are often mentioned in the same Koranic verse, reinforcing their significance. As an early Muslim observed, “Prayer carries us half-way to God; fasting brings us to the door of His praises; almsgiving procures for us admission.”
By caring for the poor, Muslims as individuals, and the Muslim community collectively, demonstrate their concern and care for their own. It is in this spirit that zakat can be viewed as a social responsibility, combating poverty and preventing the excessive accumulation of wealth. The redistribution of wealth also underscores the Muslim belief that everything ultimately belongs to God. Human beings are simply caretakers, or viceregents, for God’s property, which must be fairly allocated within the broader community.
Thus, zakat is not viewed as voluntary giving, as charity, but, rather, as an act of individual self-purification and as a social obligation, reflecting Islam’s emphasis upon social justice for the poor and vulnerable in society. Payment of the tithe purifies both the soul of the person and what is given. It reminds Muslims that their wealth is a trust from God. Zakat expresses worship of, and thanksgiving to, God by meeting the needs of the less fortunate members of the community. It functions as an informal type of social security in a Muslim society and resembles forms of tithing found in Judaism and Christianity.
Paid during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and the month of fasting, zakat requires an annual contribution of 2.5 percent of a person’s total wealth and assets, not merely a percentage of annual income. Original Islamic law stipulated clearly and specifically those areas subject to zakat—silver and gold, animals, and agricultural products. Today modern forms of wealth, such as bank accounts, stocks, and bonds, are included.
There are other religious taxes in Islam. In Shiite Islam the khums, meaning “one-fifth,” is an obligatory tax paid to religious leaders. Among the many forms of almsgiving common to all Muslims is the sadaqah, voluntary alms given to the poor, in thanksgiving to God, or to ward off danger. It is the zakat, however, that is the obligatory form of almsgiving for all Muslims.
The fourth pillar of Islam is the fast of Ramadan, which occurs during the month in which the first revelation of the Koran came to Muhammad. The primary emphasis of fasting is not simply on abstinence and self-mortification but, rather, on spiritual self-discipline, reflection on human frailty and dependence on God, and performance of good works in response to the less fortunate. During this month-long fast Muslims whose health permit abstain from dawn to sunset from food, drink, and sexual activity. Those who are sick, pregnant, or weakened by old age are exempted. Muslims on a journey may postpone fasting and make it up at another time. Ramadan is also a special time to recite or listen to the recitation of the Koran. This is popularly done by dividing the Koran into 30 portions to be recited throughout the days of the month. Near the end of Ramadan, on the 27th day, Muslims commemorate the Night of Power, on which Muhammad received the first of God’s revelations.
The fifth pillar, and probably the best known among non-Muslims, is the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which occurs about 60 days after the end of Ramadan. Every adult Muslim who is physically and financially able is required to make the pilgrimage, becoming a person totally at God’s service at least once in his or her lifetime. Many who are able to do so make the pilgrimage more often. Muslim tradition teaches that God forgives the sins of those who perform the hajj with devotion and sincerity. Thus, many elderly make the pilgrimage with the hope that they will die cleansed of their sins.
Every year more than 2 million believers, representing a tremendous diversity of cultures and languages, travel from all over the world to the Al-Haram Mosque in Mecca to form one community living their faith. Just as Muslims are united five times each day as they face Mecca in worship, so the pilgrimage to the spiritual center of Islam enables them to experience the unity, breadth, and diversity of the Islamic community. Muslims who have made the hajj are entitled to add the prefix “pilgrim,” al-hajj or hajji, to their names, which many proudly do. Like salat, the pilgrimage requires ritual purification, symbolized by the wearing of white garments, which represent purity as well as the unity and equality of all believers, an equality that transcends class, wealth, privilege, power, nationality, race, or color.
Jihad is sometimes referred to as the sixth pillar of Islam, although it has no such official status. In its most general meaning jihad pertains to the difficulty and complexity of living a good life by struggling against the evil in oneself, by being virtuous and moral, by making a serious effort as individuals and as a community to do good works and help reform society, and by fulfilling the universal mission of Islam to spread its community through the preaching of Islam or the writing of religious tracts, these latter referred to as “jihad of the tongue” and “jihad of the pen.” Today jihad may also be used to describe the personal struggle to keep the fast of Ramadan, to fulfill family responsibilities, or to clean up a neighborhood, fight drugs, or work for social justice. In addition, jihad includes the sacred struggle for, or the defense of, Islam or the Muslim community, popularly referred to as “holy war.” The two broad meanings of jihad, nonviolent and violent, are contrasted in a well-known Prophetic tradition that reports Muhammad returning from battle to tell his followers, “We return from the lesser jihad [warfare] to the greater jihad.” The greater jihad is the more difficult and more important struggle against ego, selfishness, greed, and evil.
Despite the fact that jihad is not supposed to include aggressive (offensive as opposed to defensive) warfare, this has occurred throughout history. Muslim rulers have used jihad to legitimate their wars of imperial expansion, often with the approval of religious leaders or scholars (ulama). Religious extremist groups assassinated Egypt’s President Anwar as-Sadat in 1981, and they have slaughtered innocent civilians in suicide bombings in Israel and Palestine and murdered thousands in acts of global terrorism in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Indonesia, and other countries. At the same time, wars of resistance or liberation have been fought as jihads in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Kosovo, and, in the eyes of many Muslims, in Palestine and Israel, Jammu and Kashmir, and Chechnya.
In addition to the Five Pillars of Islam, the Koran provides Muslims with other rules of conduct. Consuming pork and alcohol is forbidden, and there are strict prohibitions against gambling, prostitution, adultery, murder, and other criminal offenses. A host of regulations about the just treatment of debtors, widows, the poor, and orphans emphasizes the key importance of social justice. Those who practice usury are strongly rebuked. In addition, both men and women are required to dress and to act modestly, and they are encouraged to marry and procreate. Thus, Islam provides a set of common beliefs, values, and practices that are to guide Muslim life.
The Koran—”recitation” in Arabic—is the Muslim scripture. It contains the revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad from God through the angel Gabriel over a period of 23 years, beginning when Muhammad was 40 years old and continuing until his death in 632. For Muslims, Muhammad, who was illiterate, was neither the author nor the editor of the Koran. Rather, he functioned as God’s intermediary, reciting the revelations he received. The Koran, therefore, is the eternal, literal word of God, preserved in the Arabic language and in the order in which it was revealed.
Muslims believe that the Koran’s 114 chapters (surahs) were initially preserved in oral and written form during the lifetime of Muhammad. The entire text was collected in an official standardized version some 15 or 20 years after his death. The Koran is approximately four-fifths the size of the New Testament. Its chapters were assembled and ordered from the longest to the shortest, not thematically. This format proves frustrating to some non-Muslims, who find the text disjointed. The organization of the Koran, however, enables a believer simply to open the text at random and to start reciting at the beginning of any paragraph, since each represents a lesson to be learned and reflected upon.
The recitation of the Koran is central to a Muslim’s life, and many Muslims memorize the Koran in its entirety. Recitation reinforces what Muslims see as the miracle of hearing the actual word of God expressed by the human voice. There are many examples throughout history of those who were drawn to, and converted to, Islam upon hearing the Koran recited.
Because of the sensitivity in Islam to representational sacred art, lest any human being or physical object become the subject of worship or idolatry, major symbols are more limited in scope than in many other religions, including Christianity and Hinduism. The Kaaba, Dome of the Rock, and calligraphy are among the more prominent religious symbols in Islam.
The Kaaba is considered the most sacred space in the Muslim world and the spiritual center of the earth, the point Muslims turn toward when they pray and the direction toward which their heads point in burial. It is thought to mark the location where the earth was created. The Kaaba symbolizes an earthly image of the divine throne in heaven, and it is therefore believed that actions that take place at the Kaaba, such as circumam-bulation, are duplicated in heaven at the throne of God.
Another major symbol is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, popularly referred to as the Mosque of Umar. Jerusalem first came under Muslim rule in 638, during Umar’s reign. The shrine itself, however, was built later, in around 692, by the caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. It was constructed over the rock on the Temple Mount, where Muslim tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad departed on his Night Journey to heaven. (The Temple Mount itself is also the site of the Temple of Solomon and of the Christian Dome of the Holy Sepulcher, and is thus sacred to all three great monotheistic traditions.) The octagonal shaped shrine, with its golden dome, dominates the skyline. It is majestically decorated inside and out with some 240 yards of calligraphic designs consisting of Koranic inscriptions. Among Muslims today pictures and representations of the Dome of the Rock are probably second in popularity only to those of the Kaaba, both because it symbolizes the Prophet’s Night Journey and is located in the third holiest city of Islam and because it has become a popular symbol for the liberation of Jerusalem and Palestine.
Arabic calligraphy originated from the desire for a script worthy of divine revelation in copying the Koran. Because of its association with the Koran, calligraphy assumed a sacred character and became the highest form of art. Since Islamic art does not represent human forms, calligraphy is used to capture and symbolize meaning and message. Thus, for example, Allah written in calligraphic form became a powerful symbol representing the divine. It is also common to see the names of Allah and Muhammad, or of Allah, Muhammad, and Ali, written in calligraphy as religious symbols, whether on paper, in plaster on walls, or on such ornamental objects as plates or medals. Other popular phrases, such as the shahadah (There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God), Allahu Akbar (God is great), or Ya Rabb (the Lord), are also depicted in calligraphic art that adorns walls and buildings throughout the Islamic world.
Early and Modern Leaders
Throughout history Islam has been integral to politics and civilization. Intellectuals and writers, religious rulers and activists have often exercised leadership and had a significant impact on government and society. The relationships of faith to power, reason, science, and society have been enduring and interconnected concerns and issues.
The period of Muhammad and his first four successors, the Rightly Guided Caliphs (reigned 632-61), has remained an ideal to which most Muslims look for inspiration and renewal. During the reign of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, Arab Muslim rule over the heartlands of the Middle East was established. Each of these caliphs had been a close companion to Muhammad, and all belonged to the Quraysh tribe. The period of their rule is considered the golden age of Islam, when rulers were closely guided by Muhammad’s practices. Abu Bakr, the first caliph (reigned 632-34), had been an early convert who was also Muhammad’s close advisor and father-in-law. A man respected for his piety and sagacity, Abu Bakr had been the one appointed to lead the Friday communal prayer in Muhammad’s absence. After Muhammad’s death Abu Bakr was selected as Muhammad’s successor by the majority of Muslims, called Sunnis, or followers of the sunnah (example) of the Prophet, based on their belief that leadership should pass to the most qualified person.
The second caliph, Umar (reigned 634-44), seen as the dominant personality among the four, was responsible for establishing many of the fundamental institutions of the classical Islamic state. During the reign of the personally pious third caliph, Uthman (reigned 644-56), the Koran was collected and put into its final form. Uthman’s lack of strength in handling unscrupulous relatives, however, led to his murder by malcontents and to a period of disorder and civil war. The fourth caliph, Ali (reigned 656-61), was the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad and the first male to convert to Islam. Ali, who was also a distinguished judge and brave warrior, was the first caliph recognized by Shiite Muslims, who believed that succession should be based on heredity and who thus considered the first three caliphs to be usurpers. Ali’s political discourse, sermons, letters, and sayings have served as the Shiite framework for Islamic government. His rule was marked by political strife, however, and he was assassinated while praying in a mosque. Shiite Muslims recognize only Ali, as well as the brief reign of Ali’s son Hussein (reigned 661). Following the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the dynasty of the Umayyads, who reigned from 661 to 750, was established to became a powerful Arab military aristocracy.
Throughout the following centuries, from the rise of Islam to the modern period, Islamic empires, sultanates, and movements flourished. They were led or influenced by rulers and military men like Saladin and Suleiman the Magnificent; theologians, historians, and legal scholars like Muhammad al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyya; and leaders of revivalist movements like Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the Arabian Peninsula, the Mahdi of the Sudan, and Uthman dan Fodio of Nigeria.
From the late nineteenth century Islamic movements, both mainstream and extremist, have sought to revitalize and reform Islam. They have been influenced by a core group of Islamic intellectual-activists. Two in particular, Islamic modernism and Islamic revivalism, or “fundamentalism,” have been particularly influential. Both have sought a modern reformation but with some-what differing visions and styles.
Among the more important modern reformers were Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) in the Middle East and Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98) and Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938) in South Asia. The Egyptian Abduh received a traditional religious education. He taught at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, renowned throughout the Islamic world as the principal center for Islamic education and orthodoxy. Abduh also taught at the newly created Dar al-Ulum College, which provided a modern education for Al-Azhar students who wanted to qualify for government positions. In the 1870s Abduh became an enthusiastic follower of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), born in Iran and educated in Iran and then India. Al-Afghani, an activist who is known as the father of Muslim nationalism, traveled from India to Egypt to promote Islamic intellectual reform as a prerequisite to overcoming European colonial influence and rule and achieving independence. In the 1880s Abduh and Al-Afghani were exiled to Paris for their participation in a nationalist uprising against British and French influence in Egypt. When he returned to Cairo in 1888, Abduh accepted the existing political situation and devoted his energies to religious, educational, and social reform.
A religious scholar, Abduh reinterpreted scripture and tradition to provide an Islamic rationale for modern reforms. When Abduh became mufti, head of Egypt’s religious court system, in 1899, he introduced changes in the Shariah courts. As a judge, he interpreted and applied Islam to modern conditions, using a methodology that combined a return to the fundamental sources of Islam with an acceptance of modern rational thought. Critical of many religious leaders’ inability to address modern problems, Abduh also modernized the curriculum at Al-Azhar University, whose graduates became religious leaders throughout the Muslim world, to change their training and intellectual outlook. Abduh called for educational and social reforms to improve and protect the status of women, supporting their access to education and arguing that the Koranic marriage ideal was monogamy, not polygamy.
On the Indian subcontinent, in what is today Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, Sayyid Ahmad Khan and, later, Muhammad Iqbal were prominent voices for Islamic reform. Khan responded to the fall of the Mughal Empire. The Sepoy Mutiny against British colonial influence and de facto rule became the pretext for the British to officially take charge, and it left the Muslim community, largely blamed by the British, in disarray. Initially overwhelmed by the chaos and devastation, Khan had considered leaving India. Instead, he chose to stay and rebuild the Muslim community. In contrast to Al-Afghani and others, he argued that Indian Muslims should accept British rule as a political reality and reform their community within these limits. He wished to respond both to Muslim reform and to the criticisms and attacks leveled at Islam by Christian missionaries.
In the tradition of past Islamic revivalists, Khan claimed the right to reinterpret Islam. He rejected the classical formulations of Islam fashioned by the ulama and sought to return to the original Islam of the Koran and Muhammad. Arguing that Islam and science were compatible, he advocated a new theological formulation, or reformulation, of Islam. To implement his ideas and produce a new generation of Muslim leaders, he established the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, India, in 1874. Renamed Aligarh University in 1920, it was modeled on Cambridge University, with a course of studies that combined the best of a European curriculum with a modernist interpretation of Islam. He and his disciples published journals that dealt with religious reform and women’s rights in Islam.
In the 1930s three trailblazers—Hasan al-Banna (1906-49) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-79) of the Jamaat-i-Islami (Islamic Society) in South Asia—had an incalculable impact on the development of Islamic movements throughout the Muslim world. Both organizations constructed a worldview based on an interpretation of Islam that informed social and political activism. These men were the architects of contemporary Islamic revivalism, their ideas and methods studied and emulated by scholars and activists from the Sudan to Indonesia. The two movements emerged at a time when the Muslim world remained weak and in decline, much of it occupied and ruled by foreign powers. Egypt was occupied by Britain from 1882 to 1952, and the Indian subcontinent was ruled by Britain from 1857 to 1947, when modern India and Pakistan achieved independence.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat have been called fundamentalist, they were quite modern, though not necessarily Western, in their ideological agenda, organization, and activities. Rather than fleeing the modern world, they sought to engage and control it, but on their own terms.
Hasan al-Banna, a schoolteacher, was born in a small town outside Cairo. His early traditional religious education was supplemented by his father, who had studied at Al-Azhar University during the time of Muhammad Abduh. After studying at a local teachertraining college, al-Banna went to Cairo to study at Dar al-Ulum College, with its modern curriculum. There he came into contact with disciples of Abduh and with the reformist thought of Abduh and Al-Afghani. After completing his studies, al-Banna took a teaching position at a primary school in Ismailia. Convinced that only through a return to Islam could the Muslim community revitalize itself and its fortunes and throw off European colonial domination, he ran discussion groups and, in 1928, established the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin).
Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi was born in Aurangabad in central India. His father supervised his early education in religious disciplines. It was only later that Mawdudi learned English and studied modern subjects. He turned to a career in journalism and quickly became editor of the newspaper of India’s Association of Ulama. Mawdudi also became active in the Khilafat movement, which called for a restoration of the caliphate, and the All-India National Congress. He soon became convinced, however, that the identity, unity, and future of Indian Muslims were threatened not only by European imperialism but also by Hindu and Muslim nationalism. Mawdudi believed that a gradual social, rather than a violent political, Islamization of society from below was needed to create an Islamic state and society. He became editor of the journal Exegesis of the Quran, in which he published articles on his Islamic alternative. In 1938 he moved to Lahore (today in Pakistan) at the invitation of Muhammad Iqbal and, in 1941, organized the Jamaat-i-Islami (Islamic Society).
Both al-Banna and Mawdudi believed that their societies were dominated by, and dependent on, the West, both politically and culturally. Both men advocated an “Islamic alternative” to conservative religious leaders and modern Western secular-oriented elites. The ulama were generally regarded as passé, a religious class whose fossilized Islam and co-option by governments were major causes for the backwardness of the Islamic community. Modernists were seen as having traded away the very soul of Muslim society out of their blind admiration for the West.
For decades the symbol of revolutionary Islam was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-89), leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1978-79. Born in the village of Khomein, he studied in Qum, a major center of Islamic learning, and then taught Islamic law and theology. In the mid-1960s Khomeini spoke out against the policies of the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, delivering fiery sermons that denounced laws or imperial decrees that directly affected religious endowments, extended the vote to women, and granted diplomatic immunity to the American military. He condemned Iran’s increasingly authoritarian and repressive government, the growing secularization and Westernization of Iranian society, and the country’s relationship with the United States and Israel. He was forced to live in exile from 1964 to 1979, first in Turkey, then in Iraq, and finally in France. Increasingly during the 1970s, Khomeini moved from calling for reform to advocating the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty, which he denounced as un-Islamic and illegitimate, and its replacement with an Islamic republic. His calls from exile, distributed secretly through audiocassettes and pamphlets, might have remained marginal had it not been for the increasing broad-based opposition to the shah and his repressive response. Khomeini, who had early on been a voice of protest and opposition and was relatively free to speak out in exile, attracted a broad and diverse following: men and women, religious and secular intellectuals and students, journalists, politicians, liberal nationalists, socialists, and Marxists. However different, all were united in their opposition to the shah and by the desire for a new government.
After the revolution Khomeini surprised many when, in setting up an Islamic republic, he moved away from a constitutional government in which the clergy would advise on religious matters to advance the notion of clerical rule, a clergy-dominated government with himself at the apex as the supreme jurist. For a decade Khomeini, as supreme guardian of the republic, oversaw the implementation of his Islamically legitimated vision domestically and the export of Iran’s revolution internationally.
Major Theologians and Authors
Islamic religion and civilization have produced many great intellectuals and writers, including philosophers, theologians, legal scholars, and scientists, who have sought to understand their faith and its relationship to the world. From earliest times a key issue has been the relationship of reason to revelation.
Yaqub ibn Ishaq as-Sabah al-Kindi (795-866), known in Europe as “the philosopher of the Arabs,” was among the early great Islamic philosophers. A prolific, encyclopedic author, he made significant contributions to philosophy, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, and the theory of music. Al-Kindi drew heavily on the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle and was especially influenced by Neoplatonism. He championed inquiry into the source of all being and unity, which, he believed, reinforced the Muslim belief in the existence of God, the world’s creation, and the truth of prophetic revelation. In the more than 300 volumes attributed to him, al-Kindi addressed a wide range of classical learning that encompassed logic, metaphysics, ethics, and astronomy and developed a scientific and philosophical vocabulary that influenced his successors. Like many who followed him, he resolved apparent contradictions between reason and revelation by resorting to an allegorical, rather than a literal, interpretation of the Koran.
The Persian Abu Bakr ar-Razi (865-923) was also a great admirer of Greek philosophy but was diametrically opposed to al-Kindi on the relationship between philosophy and revelation. For ar-Razi revelation was superfluous, since only reason was needed to lead to truth and the development of morals. His concept of the five eternal principles (the creator, soul, matter, space, and time), some of which had a basis in Plato, led to his designation as Islam’s greatest Platonist. ArRazi incorporated Plato’s concepts of the soul, creation in time, and the transmigration of the soul into his own philosophical system.
Even more influential in shaping the direction of Islamic thought was Abu Nasr al-Farabi (878-950), from northern Persia, who was known as the founder of Islamic Neoplatonism and political philosophy. Drawing upon the Koran, al-Farabi also developed the terminology of Arab scholasticism, which was adapted into Latin and later used by the great Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas. Al-Farabi rejected the Sufi concept of a solitary life, believing, like Aristotle, that, because man was a political animal, happiness could be achieved only within society, within a “virtuous city” somewhat like Plato’s ideal state. But as a Muslim, al-Farabi saw such a state as embodied in the ideal of Muhammad and the early Muslim community.
Al-Farabi’s thought was further developed by the most famous Neoplatonist of Islam, Ibn Sina (Avicenna in Latin; 980-1037), the renowned physician and philosopher of the Middle Ages whose works became widely known in both the East and the West. Born in Bukhara, he worked as a physician, serving as court physician for a number of princes, and he traveled widely. Ibn Sina’s Canon on Medicine was translated into Latin and remained a major text in Europe until the seventeenth century. His influence and reputation earned him the title “prince of the physicians.” He wrote with authority on medicine, physics, logic, metaphysics, psychology, and astronomy.
Ibn Sina, who drew on the writings of both Plato and Aristotle, credited al-Farabi with giving him the first keys that led to his understanding Aristotle. He completed Aristotle’s idea of the prime mover, developed the philosophy of monotheism, and taught that creation was a timeless process of divine emanation. His rationalist thought was condemned by the religious establishment.
Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111), a philosopher, theologian, jurist, and mystic, was an extraordinary figure, remembered as the “renewer of Islam,” who deeply affected the religion’s later development. Born and raised in Iran, al-Ghazali received a first-class Islamic education. In Baghdad he became a renowned lawyer and wrote a series of books. Among the most influential was The Incoherence of the Philosophers, in which he refuted Avicenna, maintaining that, while reason was effective in mathematics and logic, applying it to theological and metaphysical truths led to confusion and threatened the fabric of faith. Al-Ghazali’s teachings brought him fame and fortune. After several years, how-ever, he experienced a crisis of faith and conscience, both spiritual and psychological, which rendered him unable to speak or function professionally. He withdrew from life and spent many years traveling, practicing Sufism, and reflecting. During this time he wrote what many consider his greatest work, The Revivication of the Religious Sciences,his great synthesis of law, theology, and mysticism.
Al-Ghazali lived in a turbulent time, when conflicting schools of thought emphasizing faith or reason or mysticism contended with one another, each claiming to be the only authentic view of Islam. “To refute,” he said, “one must understand.” His comprehensive knowledge of all of the schools and arguments, as well as of philosophy, theology, law, and mysticism, enabled him to establish a credible synthesis of the intellectual and spiritual currents of the time. He presented law and theology in terms that religious scholars could accept, while grounding the disciplines in direct religious experience and the interior devotion seen in Sufism, which he helped to place within the life of the Muslim community. He tempered rationalism by an emphasis on religious experience and love of God.
Because he criticized the blind acceptance of authority, and emphasized a thorough study of a discipline and objectivity of approach, al-Ghazali today receives considerable attention from both Muslim and Western scholars. His “modern” approach is seen in his focus on the essentials of religion, his willingness to entertain doubt and put it in perspective, and his concern for the ordinary believer.
Ibn Rushd (Averroës in Latin; 1126-98) was the greatest Aristotelian philosopher of the Muslim world. His prominence and commentaries, which provided many Europeans in the medieval world with their only source of knowledge about Aristotle, led to his title “the commentator.” His writings and ideas influenced Jewish and Christian thinkers such as Maimonides, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas.
Born in Córdoba, Spain, Ibn Rushd sought to harmonize the Koran and revelation with philosophy and logic. Like Ibn Sina, he believed that there was no contradiction between religion and philosophy, although, while religion was the way of the masses, philosophy was the province of an intellectual elite. Some have called this a “two-truths” theory and labeled Ibn Rushd a “freethinker.” But when he spoke of religion, Ibn Rushd, who recognized that the higher truth resided in revelation, was referring more specifically to the formulations of theology, the product of fallible human beings and theologians and thus subject to the limitations of language, and not to divine revelation itself.
Ibn Rushd’s contributions in philosophy, theology, medicine, and Islamic jurisprudence were voluminous, comparable in comprehensiveness to the works of al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. His extensive influence in the West led to his condemnation by Muslim religious scholars opposed to the view that religious law and philosophy have the same goal and that creation is an eternal process. His intellectual stature, influence, and significance are demonstrated by the fact that European philosophers and theologians during the thirteenth century participated in major pro- and anti-Averroist battles.
Ibn Taymiyya (1268-1328) lived during one of the most disruptive periods of Islamic history, which saw the fall of Baghdad and the conquest of the Abbasid empire in 1258 by the Mongols. He was forced to flee with his family to Damascus, an experience that affected his attitude toward the Mongols throughout his life and made an otherwise conservative religious scholar a militant political activist. As with many who followed him, his writing and preaching earned him persecution and imprisonment. He combined ideas and action to express belief in the interconnectedness of religion, state, and society, thus exerting an influence on modern revivalist movements.
A professor of Hanbali law (Hanbali is the most conservative of the four Sunni schools), Ibn Taymiyya relied on a rigorous, literal interpretation of the sacred sources (the Koran and the examples of the Prophet and of the early Muslim community) for Islamic renewal and the reform of society. Like many who came after him, he regarded the community at Medina as the model for an Islamic state. Ibn Taymiyya distinguished sharply between Islam and non-Islam (dar al-Islam and dar al-harb, respectively), the lands of belief and unbelief. In contrast to his vision of a close relationship between religion and the state, he made a sharp distinction between religion and culture. Although a pious Sufi, a practitioner of Islamic mysticism, he denounced as superstition such popular practices of his day as the worship of saints and the veneration of shrines and tombs.
Ibn Taymiyya’s revolutionary ire was especially directed at the Mongols, who were locked in a jihad with the Muslim Mamluk rulers of Egypt. Despite their conversion to Islam, the Mongols continued to follow the code of laws of Genghis Khan instead of the Islamic law, the Shariah, and Ibn Taymiyya regarded them as no better than the polytheists of pre-Islamic Arabia. He issued a fatwa (legal opinion or judgment) that denounced them as unbelievers (kafirs) who were thus excommunicated (takfir). His fatwa established a precedent that has been used by contemporary religious extremists. Despite their claim to be Muslims, the Mongol’s failure to implement Shariah rendered them, and by extension all Muslims who acted accordingly, apostates and hence the lawful object of jihad. Thus, “true” Muslims had the right, indeed duty, to revolt or wage jihad against such governments or individuals. Later generations—from the Wahhabi movement in Arabia to Sayyid Qutb in modern Egypt, from Islamic Jihad, the group that assassinated Egypt’s President Anwar as-Sadat, to Osama bin Laden—would use the logic of Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwa against the Mongols to call for a jihad against their “un-Islamic” Muslim rulers and elites and against the West.
The writings of Muhammad Iqbal (1873-1938) embodied the conflicting agendas of modernists. Educated at Government College in Lahore (now in Pakistan), he then studied in England and Germany, where he earned a law degree and a doctorate in philosophy. Iqbal’s modern synthesis and reinterpretation of Islam combined the best of his Islamic heritage with the Western philosophy of Fichte, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Bergson. He was both an admirer and a critic of the West. Acknowledgment of the West’s dynamic spirit, intellectual tradition, and technology was balanced by his sharp critique of European colonialism, the materialism and exploitation of capitalism, the atheism of Marxism, and the moral bankruptcy of secularism. Iqbal’s reformist impulse and vision, embodied in his extensive writings and poetry, were succinctly summarized in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.
Like other Islamic modernists, Iqbal rejected much of medieval Islam as static and stagnant, part of the problem and not the solution for a debilitated community. He saw Islam as emerging from 500 years of “dogmatic slumber” and compared the need for Islamic reform to the Reformation. Iqbal emphasized the need to reclaim the vitality and dynamism of early Islamic thought and practice, calling for a bold reinterpretation of Islam. Drawing on tradition, he sought to “rediscover” principles and values that would provide the basis for Islamic versions of such Western concepts and institutions as democracy and parliamentary government. He looked to the past to rediscover principles and values that could be reinterpreted to reconstruct an alternative Islamic model for modern Muslim society. Because of the centrality of such beliefs as the equality and brotherhood of believers, Iqbal concluded, democracy was the most important political ideal in Islam. He maintained that, although the seizure of power from Ali by Muawiyah, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, had ended the period of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, led to the creation of dynastic governments, and prevented the realization of an Islamic democratic ideal, it remained the duty of the Muslim community to realize this goal.
It would be difficult to overestimate the role played by Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) on both mainstream and militant Islam. His journey from educated intellectual, government official, and admirer of the West to militant activist who condemned both the Egyptian and the U.S. governments and who defended the legitimacy of militant jihad has influenced and inspired many militants, from the assassins of Anwar as-Sadat to the followers of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
Qutb’s interpretation of Islam grew out of the militant confrontation in the late 1950s and the 1960s between the repressive Egyptian state and the Muslim Brotherhood. Like Hasan al-Banna, Qutb had a modern education at Dar al-Ulum College. After graduation he became an official in the Ministry of Public Instruction as well as a poet and literary critic. A devout Muslim who had memorized the Koran as a child, he began to write on Islam and the Egyptian state. In 1948 he published Islam and Social Justice, in which he argued that Islam possessed its own social teachings and that Islamic socialism avoided both the pitfalls of Christianity’s separation of religion and society and those of communism’s atheism.
An admirer of Western literature, Qutb visited the United States in the late 1940s. It proved to be a turning point in his life, transforming an admirer into a severe critic of the West. His experiences in the United States produced a culture shock that convinced him of the moral decadence of the West and made him more religious. He was appalled by U.S. materialism, sexual permissiveness and promiscuity, the free use and abuse of alcohol, and racism, which he experienced personally because of his dark skin. Qutb felt betrayed when he saw what he considered to be anti-Arab and pro-Jewish coverage in U.S. newspapers and movies that fostered contempt for Muslims. Shortly after his return to Egypt, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood. He quickly emerged as a major voice in the organization and, amid a growing confrontation with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s repressive regime, its most influential ideologue. Imprisoned and tortured for alleged involvement in a failed attempt to assassinate Nasser, he became increasingly militant and radicalized, convinced that the Egyptian government was un-Islamic and must be overthrown.
A prolific author, Qutb published more than 40 books, many translated into Persian and English and still widely distributed. During 10 years of imprisonment, Qutb developed a revolutionary vision captured in his most influential tract, Milestones, which was used as evidence against him and led to his being sentenced to death. His ideas would reverberate loudly in the radical rhetoric of revolutionaries.
Like Ibn Taymiyya before him, Qutb sharply divided Muslim societies into two diametrically opposed camps: the forces of good and the forces of evil, those committed to the rule of God and those opposed, the party of God and the party of Satan. His teachings recast the world in black and white; there were no shades of gray. Since the creation of an Islamic government was a divine commandment, he argued, it was not simply an alternative but, rather, an imperative that Muslims must strive to implement or impose immediately. Qutb used the classical designation for pre-Islamic Arabian society, jahiliyyah (a period of ignorance), to paint and condemn all modern societies as un-Islamic and anti-Islamic. Given the authoritarian and repressive nature of the Egyptian government and many other governments in the Muslim world, Qutb concluded that change from within the system was futile and that Islam was on the brink of disaster. Jihad was the only way to implement the new Islamic order.
For Qutb jihad, as armed struggle in the defense of Islam against the injustice and oppression of anti-Islamic governments and the neocolonialism of the West and the East (Soviet Union), was incumbent upon all Muslims. There could be no middle ground. Qutb denounced Muslim governments and their Western, secular-oriented elites as atheists, against whom all true believers must wage holy war.
In general, Islam does not have an official organizational structure or hierarchy. It technically lacks an ordained clergy, and major religious rituals, such as prayers or marriage ceremonies, do not require a religious official. Over time, however, the early scholars of Islam, the ulama (the learned), became a clerical class, asserting their prerogative as the guardians and official interpreters of Islam and adopting a clerical form of dress. They became the primary scholars of law and theology, teachers in schools and universities or seminaries (madrasahs), judges, muftis, and lawyers, as well as the guardians and distributors of funds from religious endowments that provided support for such institutions as schools, hospitals, and hostels and for the poor. In time, in some Muslim countries, senior religious officials were appointed by governments with titles such as grand mufti. Some forms of Shiism, in particular the Twelvers (Ithna Ashari) of Iran and Iraq, developed a hierarchical system of religious officials and titles. Their senior leaders are called ayatollahs, and at the apex of the system are grand ayatollahs.
The Sufi orders, or brotherhoods of Islamic mystics, also developed an institutional structure and organization of disciples, followers, and helpers led by the master (pir or shaykh), who functions as the spiritual leader and head of the community. Some of the more prominent brotherhoods developed international networks. At times the heads of Sufi brotherhoods also became military leaders. When these religious and social organizations turned militant, as with such eighteenth- and nineteenth-century jihad movements as the Mahdi in the Sudan, the Fulani in Nigeria, and the Sanusi in Libya, they fought colonial powers and created Islamic states.
Houses of Worship and Holy Places
The word “mosque” comes from the Arabic masjid (place for ritual prostration). For many Muslims, Friday at a mosque is a day of congregational prayer, religious education (“Sunday school”), and socializing. The atmosphere is one of tranquility and reflection and also of relaxation. A visitor to a mosque may see people chatting quietly or napping on the carpets, as well as praying and reading the Koran.
The mosque’s main prayer area is a large open space adorned with Oriental carpets. When they pray, Muslims face the mihrab, an ornamental arched niche set into the wall, which indicates the direction of Mecca. Near the mihrab is the minbar, a raised wooden platform, like a pulpit, that is similar to the one the Prophet Muhammad used when giving sermons. Prayer leaders deliver sermons from the steps of the minbar. Most mosques also have a spot set aside, away from the main area, where Muslims can cleanse themselves before they pray.
Throughout history, wherever Muslims have settled in sufficient numbers, they have made erecting a mosque an important priority. In the United States, for example, the construction of mosques, which serve as community centers as well as places of worship, has increased greatly. More than 2,100 mosques and Islamic centers serve a diverse Muslim community in the United States, whose membership is often drawn along such ethnic or racial identities as Arab, South Asian, Turkish, and African-American. Mosques of various sizes are located in small towns and villages as well as major American cities.
In addition to individual worship and the Friday congregational prayer, mosques are often the sites for Koranic recitations and retreats, especially during the fast of Ramadan, and as centers for the collection and distribution of charitable contributions (zakat). Muslim pilgrims visit their mosques before they leave for, and when they return from, a pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), and the bodies of those who have died are placed before the mihrab for funerary prayers. Mosques are also sites where marriages and business agreements are contracted and where educational classes are often held. In contemporary times mosques have become centers for political mobilization in those countries that control or ban public meetings or opposition politics. Preachers deliver sermons that incorporate political messages, criticizing government leaders, corruption, and injustice.
In Shiism the family of Ali and the imams became objects of imitation and veneration. Sites associated with their lives or deaths became mosques and shrines, the objects of veneration and pilgrimage. Shrines and holy cities such as Najaf (the burial place of Ali) and Karbala (the site of the martyrdom of Hussein), both in Iraq, or Mashhad and Qum, in Iran, became centers for learning and pilgrimage where rituals of commemoration, prayer, and celebration were performed. In Sunni Islam places associated with the Prophet Muhammad, his family, and companions, as well as with later martyrs and Sufi saints, became shrines and centers of pilgrimage and places for prayer, petitions, blessings, and miracles.
What Is Sacred?
Islam emphasizes the oneness, or unity, of God and rejects the substitution of anything for God that could be considered idolatrous. Thus, while animals and plants are regarded as part of creation, they are not sacred, a category reserved only for God.
Historically, however, in popular practice, especially in Sufism, some masters came to be viewed as walis (friends of God, or saints), and their tombs became the focus of pilgrimages, where they were appealed to for blessings and assistance. The master’s spiritual power and intercession before God might be invoked to request a safe pregnancy, overcoming sickness, a prosperous business, or success in taking exams. Special rituals and celebrations were held to commemorate the dates of the master’s birth and death.
For many Muslims, though certainly not all, objects reportedly associated with the Prophet Muhammad—a tooth or strand of hair, for example—have come to be regarded as relics. Similarly, a mosque in Cairo to which Hussein’s head was transferred in the twelfth century has been a popular shrine for Sunni and Shiite alike.
Holidays and Festivals
Muslims celebrate two great holidays. One is Id al-Fitr, the feast celebrating the breaking of the Ramadan fast. The second, which occurs two and a half months later, is Id al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice. This latter holiday, the greater of the two, marks the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca and commemorates God’s testing of Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son Ismail (Isaac in Jewish and Christian traditions). The feast is a worldwide celebration that lasts for three days.
The two holidays, which are a time for rejoicing, prayer, and social visits, represent a religious obligation as well as a social celebration. Both are occasions for visiting relatives and friends, for giving gifts, and for enjoying special desserts and foods that are served only at these times of the year. Many Muslim children stay home from school to celebrate the festivals, and in some areas school authorities recognize them as holidays for Muslim youngsters.
Muslims also celebrate other religious holidays, including the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. In Shiism the birthdays of Ali and the imams are also celebrated. Shiites annually commemorate the “passion” of Hussein during a 10-day period (ashura) of remembering, during which they ritually reenact and mourn the last stand of Imam Hussein and his followers against the army of the caliph.
Mode of Dress
Islamic dress for men and women reflects a focus on modesty in public and private spaces as defined in the hadith (the reports of Muhammad’s sayings and deeds) and in popular tradition. Historically dress in the Muslim world was also strongly influenced by hot and arid climates with wind- and sandstorms, where long and flowing garments ensured comfort and head coverings served as protection. In the Muslim world today dress varies greatly, depending on geographic location, diverse customs and Koranic interpretations, marital status, and differing ages, tastes, identities, occupations, or political orientations.
Nonetheless, there is a particular style of Islamic dress for men and women that was adopted in the twentieth century by Muslim communities throughout the world. Female dress consists of an ankle-length skirt and long-sleeved top or a long robe, unfitted at the waist, along with a head covering, low on the forehead and draped over the neck and sometimes the shoulders. Austere colors (black, white, dark blue, beige, or gray) and opaque materials are the most common. This outfit, called the hijab and voluntarily chosen by many Muslim women, is distinctly modern, bought ready-made in shops or sewn by hand.
Male dress, less popular than the female version, includes a traditional long-sleeved tunic and baggy pants or a robe, along with a prayer cap or other traditional head wrap. A beard, either untrimmed or trimmed but covering areas of the cheek, is also sometimes worn. Islamic dress is less popular among men because it often leads officials to identify them as activists subject to identification and arrest.
This Islamic dress represents a new public morality. It strengthens Islamic identity and is a sign of protest and liberation that distances the believer from Western values and its emphasis on materialism and commercialism. Some women believe that Islamic dress makes them better able to function as active, self-directed subjects, commanding respect and valued for who they are rather than what they look like. This dress code has also developed political overtones, becoming a source of national pride, desire for participatory politics, and resistance to authoritarianism and Western cultural and political dominance.
Special dress is worn on a pilgrimage. For women this includes an outer covering and a headscarf. Men on pilgrimage wear two seamless pieces of white cloth and a waistband, an outfit that symbolizes the equality of all believers.
Muslims are required to eat meat that has been slaughtered in a religiously appropriate way (halal). A dietary prohibition against pork comes from the Koran (5:3). The widespread use of pork products and by-products by U.S. food manufacturers creates difficulties for American Muslims. Lard, commonly used in the United States as shortening, is sometimes an ingredient in cookies, for example, and potato chips may be fried in it.
The sale, purchase, and consumption of alcohol by Muslims is strictly prohibited by Islamic law, although in rare cases it is permitted for medicinal purposes. This prohibition is based upon the Koran (5:90-91), which specifically forbids the consumption of date wine. Most jurists, however, apply the injunction to all substances that produce an altered state of mind, including alcohol and narcotics.
Some mosques and Islamic centers circulate lists of specific products known to contain either pork or alcohol, so that they can be avoided. This includes mustard, some of which is made with white wine.
In a well-known hadith Muhammad is reported to have said, “Purity is half of faith.” This saying dramatically emphasizes the importance of purity and purification in the Islamic tradition, especially as a preparation for worship and an encounter with God. Thus, physical purification culminates in a spiritual purity that results from worship. The two major purification rituals are the bath (ghusl) and the ablution (wudu), the latter consisting of washing the face, both arms up to the elbows, the head, and the feet. A bath is a precondition for all forms of worship in Islam, but to over-come any impurities encountered during the day, an ablution should also be performed before praying (salat) and circumambulating the Kaaba.
The salat is a ritual performed five times daily. Individually or in groups, Muslims face the holy city of Mecca to pray in Arabic. Believers stand, bow, kneel, and touch the ground with their foreheads—an expression of ultimate submission to God—as they recite verses from the Koran, glorify God, declare their faith, and then privately and informally offer personal prayers of request or thanksgiving.
The most intricate of Islamic rituals is the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca, which every Muslim who is financially and physically able must make once in his or her lifetime. During the pilgrimage Muslims perform a series of symbolic and emotional rituals—reenactments of faith-testing events in the lives of Abraham, Hagar, and Ismail—as determined by Muhammad shortly before his death. Muslims pray at the spot where Abraham, the patriarch and father of monotheism, stood. But the focus of the pilgrimage is the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure that Muslim tradition teaches was originally built by Abraham and his son Ismail to honor God. The black stone the Kaaba contains is believed to have been given to Abraham by the angel Gabriel. Thus, it is a symbol of God’s covenant with Ismail and, by extension, with the Muslim community. Pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba seven times, symbolizing the believer’s entry into the divine presence. They try to touch or kiss the black stone as they pass by in their procession around the Kaaba.
Pilgrims also walk or run between the nearby hills of Safa and Marwa to commemorate Hagar’s frantic search in the desert for water for her son Ismail. In the midst of her running back and forth, water sprang from the earth, from the well of Zamzam. According to Islamic tradition, both Hagar and Ismail are buried in an enclosed area next to the Kaaba. Pilgrims cast small pebbles, a symbolic stoning, toward the three pillars where Abraham was tempted by the devil to disobey God and refuse to sacrifice his son. Finally, they visit the Plain of Arafat, near the Mount of Mercy, the site where Muhammad delivered his last sermon, to seek God’s for-giveness for themselves and for all Muslims throughout the world. At the culmination of the hajj, the important ritual of Id al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) celebrates the ram substituted by God when Abraham, in a test of his faith, offered to sacrifice his son Ismail.
Collectively the hajj celebrates renewal and reunion across cultures and the continuity over time of the worldwide Islamic community (ummah). Individually it often coincides with major events in the believer’s life cycle—adulthood, marriage, retirement, illness, a personal crisis or loss—and thus is also viewed as a key rite of passage. The simple garments pilgrims wear, which symbolize the equality and humility of all Muslims regardless of their class, gender, nationality, or race, is often used years later as their burial shroud.
Rites of Passage
Life cycle rituals in Islam serve to provide meaning and reinforce an individual and communal worldview. In addition to the Five Pillars of Islam, rites of passage for birth, puberty, marriage, and death symbolize the theme that a Muslim’s purpose is to serve God by submission and thanksgiving.
At birth the call of prayer is recited in the infant’s right ear. Names for babies are often derived from those of the prophets or their wives or companions, or a name is formed from the prefix abd (servant) and an attribute of God, such as “servant of the Almighty” (Abd al-Aziz). In addition, a goat or sheep is sacrificed to express gratitude to God and joy at the birth, as well as to form an association with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God. Although circumcision of males is sometimes practiced, it has no doctrinal basis in Islam and is viewed as an act of hygiene. Puberty, the entrance into adulthood, represents the beginning of religious and social responsibility, the obligation to perform purification rituals to ensure physical cleanliness and daily prayers, and participation in the fast during Ramadan.
In Islam marriage (nikah) is encouraged as an integral part of humanity, and celibacy is discouraged. Marriage is considered a contract, however, not a sacrament. As with other rites of passage, marriage customs in the Muslim world reflect local customs. Because Islam views sexuality as a part of life requiring rules that preserve social morality, the Koran and sunnah (example of the Prophet) provide guidelines for prayer before, as well as a ritual bath (ghusl) after, conjugal relations.
Death in Islam is seen as the transition from life in this world to life in the next. Burial normally occurs on the day of death, after funerary rituals, based on practices of Muhammad, that include bathing and wrapping the body. The salat al-janazah, a funeral prayer led by a relative or an imam, is said in the mosque after any of the daily prayers, and theshahadah (declaration of faith) is recited by the family and friends at the burial. The deceased is placed in the grave with his or her face turned toward Mecca. To reinforce humility and the mindfulness of death, each funeral participant contributes three handfuls of earth toward filling the grave.
Islam is a world religion in geographic scope and mission. All followers have an obligation to be an example to others and to invite them to Islam. Muslims believe that Islam is the religion of God, possessing his final and complete word, the Koran, and his final prophet, Muhammad. Thus, while God’s revelation had been revealed previously and covenants had been made with other communities, such as Jews and Christians, Muslims believe that Islam possesses the fullness of truth and that they have a divine mandate to be an example to others and to preach and spread their faith.
The “call” (dawa) to Islam, or propagation of the faith, has been central from the origins of the Muslim community. It has a twofold meaning: the call to non-Muslims to become Muslim, and the call to Muslims to return to Islam or to be more religiously observant. From earliest times commercial and military ventures were accompanied by the spread of Islam, with traders, merchants, and soldiers its missionaries. Caliphs also used the spread of Islam as a means to legitimate their authority over Muslims and to justify imperial expansion and conquest.
Modern interpretations of dawa have taken many forms—political, socioeconomic, and cultural—as governments, organizations, and individuals have sought to promote Islam’s message and impact. Governments and modern Islamic movements and organizations have supported diverse activities, including the distribution of the Koran; the building of mosques, libraries, hospitals, and Islamic schools in poor Muslim countries; and greater Islamization of law and society in Muslim countries. As part of their foreign policies, some governments, including Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran, have created Dawa, or Call, organizations to promote Islam and their influence in the Muslim world and in the West. At the same time, nongovernmental Islamic organizations throughout the world have created strong networks of educational institutions and medical and social services. While the majority of these activities have been supported by mainstream groups, extremist organizations have also used social services to enhance their credibility, recruit supporters, and provide aid for the widows and families of their fighters.
The Koran stresses religious tolerance, teaching that God deliberately created a world of diversity: “O humankind, We have created you male and female and made you nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another” (49:13). In addition, the Koran stresses that “there is to be no compulsion in religion” (2:256).
Islam regards Jews and Christians as People of the Book, as people who have also received revelations and scriptures from God. It is recognized that followers of the three great Abrahamic religions, the children of Abraham, share a common belief in the one God, in such biblical prophets as Moses and Jesus, in human accountability, and in a final judgment followed by eternal reward or punishment. In later centuries Islam extended recognition to other faiths.
Historically, while the early expansion and conquests spread Islamic rule, Muslims in general did not try to impose their religion on others or force them to convert. As People of the Book, Jews and Christians were regarded as protected people (dhimmi), permitted to retain and practice their religions, be headed by their own religious leaders, and be guided by their own religious laws and customs. For this protection they paid a poll, or head, tax (jizya). While by modern standards this treatment amounted to second-class citizenship, in premodern times, compared with the practices of Christianity, for example, it was highly advanced.
The most frequently cited example of religious tolerance is that of Muslim rule in Spain (Andalusia, or Al-Andalus) from 756 to about 1000, which is usually idealized as a period of interfaith harmony, or convivencia (living together). Muslim rule offered the Christian and Jewish populations seeking refuge from the class system elsewhere in Europe the opportunity to become prosperous small landholders. Christians and Jews occupied prominent positions in the court of the caliph in the tenth century, serving as translators, engineers, physicians, and architects. The archbishop of Seville commissioned an annotated translation of the Bible for the Arabic-speaking Christian community.
In the contemporary era religious and political pluralism has been an issue in the Muslim world, threatened by political and socioeconomic tensions and conflicts. Discrimination and conflict between Muslims and Christians, for example, have occurred from Egypt, the Sudan, and Nigeria to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia. The situation has been exacerbated in many of those countries, such as the Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, that have attempted to implement self-described Islamic states or Islamic law. A major factor has been extremist religious groups that have targeted non-Muslims. Religious conflict and violence have also occurred within Islam, between Sunnis and Shiites in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan under the Taliban.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major example of religion and politics intimately intertwined. Both Jewish and Islamic activist organizations have brought a religious dimension to the conflict between Israeli and Palestinian nationalism. The use of suicide bombings, with their connection to martyrdom, by such Palestinian organizations as Hamas and Islamic Jihad has added a further religious element to the conflict. The struggle over the future of Jerusalem has come to symbolize the religious dimension of the conflict.
A key Islamic issue today regarding tolerance and pluralism is the relationship of past doctrine to current realities. Mainstream conservative Muslims call for a reinstatement of the gradations of citizenship that accompanied the dhimmi status, which, however progressive in the past, would deny equal rights to non-Muslims today. Others recognize that this approach is not compatible with the pluralistic realities of the contemporary world or with international standards of human rights. Muslim reformers, who do not approve of the application of the classical tradition in modern times, insist that non-Muslims be afforded full citizenship rights. Advocates of reform maintain that pluralism, rather than being a purely Western invention or ideology, is the essence of Islam as revealed in the Koran and practiced by Muhammad and the early caliphs. Thus, while militants and traditionalists advocate classical Islam’s dhimmi ormillet (protected religious community) system, reformers call for a reinterpretation of pluralism.
Muslims, like Christians and Jews before them, believe that they have been called to a special covenant with God, as stated in the Koran, constituting a community of believers intended to serve as an example to other nations (2:143) in establishing a just social order (3:110). The Koran envisions a society based upon the unity and equality of all believers, in which morality and social justice counterbalance economic exploitation and the oppression of the weak. The new moral and social order called for by the Koran reflects the fact that the purpose of all actions is obedience to God’s law and fulfillment of his will, not individual, tribal, ethnic, or national self-interest. Men and women are equally responsible for promoting a moral order and adhering to the Five Pillars of Islam.
The socioeconomic reforms of the Koran are among its most striking features. Muslims are held responsible for the care and protection of members of the community, in particular the poor, the weak, women, widows, orphans, and slaves (4:2, 4:12, 90:13-16, 24:33). Bribery, false contracts, the hoarding of wealth, the abuse of women, and usury are condemned. The practice of zakat, giving 2.5 percent of one’s total wealth annually to support the less fortunate, is a required social responsibility intended to break the cycle of poverty and to prevent the rich from holding on to their wealth while the poor remain poor: “The alms [zakat] are for the poor and needy, those who work to collect them, those whose hearts are to be reconciled, the ransoming of slaves and debtors, and for the causes of God, and for travelers” (9:60). The redistribution of wealth underscores the Muslim belief that human beings are care-takers, or vice-regents, for God’s property, that everything ultimately belongs to God.
Opposition to interest, seen as exploitation of the poor, originates in Koranic verses that prohibit usury, or riba, an ancient Arabian practice that doubled the debt of borrowers who defaulted on their loans and doubled it again if they defaulted a second time. Today opposition to interest comes from the Koranic prohibition against riba and the belief that interest gives an unfair gain to the lender, who receives money without working for it, and imposes an unfair burden on the borrower, who must repay the loan and a finance charge regardless of whether his money grows or he suffers a loss. Opponents also believe that interest transfers wealth from the poor to the rich, promotes selfishness, and weakens community bonds. Reformers argue that the condemnation of riba does not refer to the practices of modern banking but to usury, for, as the Koran warns, usurers face “war from God and His Prophet” (2:279).
Koranic reforms in marriage, divorce, and inheritance sought to protect and enhance the status and rights of women. While the Koran and Islam did not do away with slavery, which was common in pre-Islamic Arabia and thus presumed to be part of society, Islamic law set out guidelines to limit its negative impact and assure the just treatment of slaves. It forbade the enslavement of free members of Islamic society and, in particular, orphans and foundlings. Slaves could not be abused, mutilated, or killed. The freeing of slaves was regarded as an especially meritorious action. Similarly, in war clear regulations were given to protect the rights of noncombatants and the clergy.
The Koran and sunnah teach that Muslims should make every effort, or struggle (jihad), to promote justice. This includes the right, if necessary, to engage in armed defense (jihad) of the rights of the downtrodden, in particular women and children (4:74-76) and victims of oppression and injustice, such as those Muslims who were driven out of their homes unjustly by the Meccans (22:39-40).
Marriage and family life are the norm in Islam. In contrast to Christianity, marriage in Islam is not a sacrament but, rather, a contract between a man and a woman, or perhaps more accurately between their families. In the traditional practice of arranged marriages, the families or guardians, not the bride and groom, are the two primary actors. The preferred marriage, because of concerns regarding the faith of the children, is between two Muslims and within the extended family. In Islam, as in Judaism, marriage between first cousins has been quite common.
As in most societies, the early form of the family in Islam was patriarchal and patrilineal. (The term “patriarch,” referring to Jewish and Christian prophets, exemplifies this tendency.) Islam, however, brought significant changes to the seventh-century Arabian family, significantly enhancing the status of women and children. The Koran raised the status of women by prohibiting female infanticide, abolishing women’s status as property, establishing their legal capacity, granting women the right to receive their own dowry, changing marriage from a proprietary to a contractual relationship, and allowing women to retain control over their property and use their maiden name after marriage. In addition, the Koran granted women financial maintenance from their husbands and controlled the husband’s free ability to divorce. The hadith (Prophetic tradition) saying that “The best of you is he who is best to his wife” also reflects Muhammad’s respect for, and protection of, women.
Islamic law views the relationship of husband and wife as complementary, reflecting their differing capacities, characteristics, and dispositions, as well as the different traditional roles of men and women in the patriarchal family. In the public sphere, the primary arena for the man, the husband is responsible for the support and protection of the family. The woman’s primary role of wife and mother requires that she manage the household and supervise the upbringing and religious training of their children. Both men and women are seen as equal before God, having the same religious responsibilities and equally required to lead virtuous lives, but women are viewed as subordinate in family matters and society because of their more sheltered and protected lives and because of a man’s greater economic responsibilities in the extended family.
In Muslim countries, to a greater extent than in the West, the extended family, which includes grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, has traditionally provided its members with counseling, child care, financial assistance, insurance, and social security. Women in the family have always been seen as the bearers of culture, the center of the family unit that provides a force for moral and social order and the means of stability for the next generation. In the nineteenth century the family provided religious, cultural, and social protection from colonial and Western domination, as well as a site for political resistance. In a rapidly changing, unpredictable, and sometimes hostile twentieth century, the family in many Muslim countries came to face economic and political and personal pressures brought about by unemployment and economic need and by disruption from war and forced migration. Debates throughout the Muslim world center on better family support from the state, as well as the changing roles and rights of men, women, and children.
Islam has always recognized the right to divorce under certain circumstances. Both the Koran and Prophetic traditions, however, underscore its seriousness. Muhammad is reported to have said, “Of all the permitted things, divorce is the most abominable with God,” and an authoritative legal manual describes divorce as “a dangerous and disapproved procedure as it dissolves marriage … [It is] admitted, but on the ground of urgency of relief from an unsuitable relationship.”
In Islam procreation is considered an important result of marriage, and for this reason many Muslims oppose abortion. According to Muslim religious scholars, abortion after the fetus obtains a soul (views differ on whether this occurs at fertilization or after 120 days) is considered homicide. The Koran emphasizes the preservation of life (17:31), with neither poverty nor hunger justifying the killing of offspring, and stresses that punishment for unlawfully killing a human being is to be imposed both in this life and in the afterlife (4:93). Therapeutic abortions, performed as a result of severe medical problems, are justified by a general principle of Islamic law that chooses the lesser of two evils. Instead of losing two lives, the life of the mother, who has important duties and responsibilities, is given preference.
Muslim voices differ regarding birth control. Islam has traditionally emphasized the importance of large families that will ensure a strong Muslim community. Although family planning is not mentioned in the Koran, some traditions of the Prophet mention coitus interruptus. Some conservative ulama (religious scholars) object to the use of birth control because they believe it opposes God’s supreme will, can weaken the Muslim community by limiting its size, and contributes to premarital sex or adultery. Today, however, the majority of ulama permit contraception that is agreed to by both the husband and the wife, since this guarantees the rights of both parties. On the other hand, sterilization is opposed by most ulama on the grounds that it permanently alters what God has created.
The Koran declares men and women to be equal in God’s eyes, to be equal parts of a pair (51:49) or like each other’s garment (2:187). Their relationship should be of “love and mercy” (30:21). The Koran states, “The Believers, men and women, are protectors of one another; they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil; they observe regular prayers, payzakat and obey God and His Messenger. On them will God pour His mercy: for God is exalted in Power, Wise. God has promised to Believers, men and women, gardens under which rivers flow, to dwell therein” (9:71-72). This verse was the last to be revealed, and as a result some scholars believe that it defines the ideal, a relationship of equality and complementarity.
Nonetheless, one of the most controversial issues in Islam today is the status of women and their lack of legal rights in family law. Many of the problems, however, can be traced not to Islam but, rather, to the customs of the patriarchal societies in which Islamic laws were originally interpreted. Until the twentieth century women were not actively engaged in interpreting the Koran, hadith, or Islamic law. For example, in order to control a husband’s unbridled right to divorce, the Koran requires the man to pronounce his intention three times over a period of three months before the divorce becomes irrevocable (65:1). The delay allows time for a possible reconciliation and time to determine if the wife is pregnant and in need of child support. Despite these guidelines an abbreviated form of divorce, allowing the man to say “I divorce you” three times in succession, became a common phenomena. Although considered a sinful abuse, this kind of divorce was nevertheless declared to be legal, and it affected women’s rights in many Muslim countries.
Using the Koran and the courts, many Muslim countries have instituted reforms to control divorce and to improve women’s rights. In many countries today, Muslim women can obtain a divorce in court on a variety of grounds, although there are other patriarchal Muslim societies in which custom continues to allow extensive rights of divorce for men but only restricted rights for women. There also have been significant reforms in women’s rights in other spheres. In the overwhelming majority of Muslim countries, women have the right to a public education, including education at the college level. In many countries they also have the right to work outside the home, to vote, and to hold public office. Among the most important reforms have been the abolition of polygamy in some countries and its severe limitation in others; expanded rights for women to participate in contracting marriage, including the stipulation of conditions favorable to them in the marriage contract; expanded rights for financial compensation for a woman seeking a divorce; and the requirement that a husband provide housing for his divorced wife and children as long as she holds custody over the children. There also have been reforms prohibiting child marriages and expanding the rights of women to have custody over their older children.
Muslim views of music have been influenced by hadith (Prophetic traditions) that caution against music and musical instruments. Nothing in the Koran bans music, however, and historically music has been a popular and significant art form throughout the Muslim world. It has played an important role in religious festivals and in life cycle rituals, including those for birth, circumcision, and marriage. In addition, throughout Muslim cities the daily calls to prayer are traditionally sung or chanted by a muezzin and projected from on high from loudspeakers on minarets. The most important musical form in Islam, however, is recitation of the Koran, done as a chant, in which annual competitions are held throughout the Muslim world. Recordings of Koran recitation are widely sold, and some of Islam’s best-known singers have been reciters of the Koran. The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum and others have imitated Koran recitation in their music.
As part of their devotions, the Sufi orders typically use music, both vocal, through repetition of words or phrases and in chanting, and instrumental. For Sufis music is a vehicle for spiritual transcendence and a means of attaining the experience of divine ecstasy. Folk music has also been an important expression of culture throughout the Muslim world, used to express moral and devotional themes as well as heroism and love. The music produced by the Muslims of Andalusia, like their poetry, had an enormous impact on the development of classical music in Europe.
In Islamic visual art concerns about idolatry have led historically to bans on the representation of human beings. Thus, the Islamic art that is most cherished is based upon the use of Arabic script in calligraphy (the art of beautiful writing) or of arabesque (geometric and floral) designs. A hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad says that one who beautifully writes the phrase “In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate,” the first words in the opening chapter of the Koran, will enter paradise. The belief that God’s direct words in the Koran should be written in a manner worthy of divine revelation has led to the development of calligraphy in many styles and forms. Calligraphy sometimes uses the stylized lettering of Koranic quotations or religious formulas to reflect animal, flower, or even mosque figures. Today interest in calligraphy remains high, as is evidenced in its varied use as decorations for holiday cards, announcements of important events, and book covers. Computer programs have been developed that can create decorations from Arabic script.
Because figures are not used in Islamic art, a form of decoration that came to be known in the West as arabesque—the use of natural forms such as stems, leaves, vines, flowers, or fruits to create designs of infinite geometric patterns—developed as a major artistic technique. Arabesque designs are used to decorate such objects as interior and exterior walls, mosque furniture like the minbar (pulpit), and fine Koran manuscripts. Some designs combine calligraphy with colorful geometric and floral or vegetal ornamentation.
Designs in Islamic art are often enhanced by exuberant colors, for example, in the glittering golden or azure domes and multicolored tiles of buildings or in the colors of pottery, textiles, and manuscripts. Colors are used symbolically in Islamic literature, although their meanings and associations are determined by context. For example, black can be associated with the black stone in the Kaaba in Mecca or with vengeance, violence, or hell. White is less ambiguous, usually representing faithfulness (as in the cloths worn by pilgrims on hajj), lightness, royalty, or death (as in its use as a burial shroud). Blue is the color of magical qualities, which can be used to protect a person from evil spirits or, in contrast, to dispense evil. Green was the color of the Prophet and of turbans worn by descendants of the Prophet, and it was also the color of the cloak of Ali, for Shiites the first imam. As the color of living plants, green is also symbolic of youth and fertility.
The ambiguities of color in Islamic art are matched by the Arabic language itself, which facilitates plays on words and the varied interpretations that result. These multiple meanings contribute to the enjoyment of both unchanging and variable insights and thus represent part of the appeal of Islamic literature. As the direct word of God, the Koran is viewed as religious literature as well as a perfect literary document.
Although in pre-Islamic Bedouin society poetry was the dominant literary form, the first centuries of Islam were dominated by a fear that poetry might conflict with the Koran’s divinely inspired words. In the emotionally charged atmosphere generated by mysticism in the tenth and eleventh centuries, however, Sufi poems of longing for the divine beloved proliferated. By the twelfth century poetry emphasizing praise of the Prophet had developed in a number of forms, from short devotional verses to long, elaborate descriptions of Muhammad’s greatness to pious songs. These forms are found in almost all literatures of the Muslim world today. The development of such modern technology as audio- and videotapes has fostered the growth of Islamic religious poetry in regional languages and in remote areas of the world.
Islamic prose forms include Koranic verses, the hadith, and biographies and autobiographies. Along with poetry and plays, novels, short stories, and autobiographies are used to advocate a religious way of life. Modern autobiographies place emphasis on the individual, in contrast to classical texts, which focused primarily on collective Islamic norms.