What Is Islam?

What Is Islam?

Confused about Islam? This article, edited by a devout Muslim, gives a fair perspective.

Although Islam traces its historical roots back to Abraham over 3,500 years ago, Islam is a relatively recent arrival on the world religion scene.

Islam emerged around 610 CE, when Muhammad—the founder of the religion—said he received the first of many revelations from God. Muhammad was living in what is now Saudi Arabia, a region then deeply steeped in tribal divisions and belief in many gods. Muhammad reported that these divine revelations challenged him to reject polytheism and instead worship one god: Allah.

After Muhammad began to gain followers in Mecca, city leaders became threatened and forced the prophet to leave. He was welcomed in the city of Medina, where he became ruler and “Islam was to become for the first time a social and political order.”1

In the years that followed, Muhammad won many converts and his influence spread rapidly through several Arabian tribes. Returning to Mecca, he took control of the city, destroyed the idols, and established his rule and beliefs.

By the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, Islam dominated the Arabian Peninsula. Its influence quickly spread throughout the Middle East and much of Africa and Asia. Today, there are over 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.2

Muhammad, Allah, and the Qur’an

Muhammad believed he was God’s last and final prophet in the monotheistic tradition of Judaism and Christianity. Consequently, he maintained respect for “people of the book” (Jews and Christians).

In fact, Muhammad praised the teachings of Moses and Jesus and their roles as prophets of God. But regarding Christian claims about Jesus’ divinity, he firmly believed that no human could ever be God—this was blasphemy.

Ultimately, Muhammad portrayed Jews and Christians as groups that had received God’s revelations but failed to obey God and thus deviated from his will. Therefore, Allah—which is the Arabic word for God—elected Muhammad as his authoritative prophet to restore God’s true revelation.

The highest authority in Islam is the Qur’an. This sacred book is the collection of 114 divine recitations (called suras) given to the prophet Muhammad over the course of twenty years. Muslims assert that the Qur’an is only authoritative in Arabic, the language in which God revealed his truth. They point to its beauty and inimitability as evidence of its divine source.

Scholar Michael Sells explains the logic: “If anyone could produce anything like it, the Qur’an was a human creation and Muhammad a false prophet. If, however, no one else could produce anything like it, then the Qur’an was clearly beyond the capacity of a human being, and Muhammad was not its author, but simply its messenger.”3

This is why Muslims stress the importance of memorizing the Qur’an in Arabic, and its recitation is considered a worshipful art form. For beliefs and practices that are not directly addressed in the Qur’an, Muslims consult the hadith, later writings of traditions and informal sayings concerning Muhammad’s life.

Five Pillars

The central tenets of Islam are most evident in the practices that have become known as the Five Pillars of Islam. Though not exhaustive, these five obligations are essential to the Islamic faith. They describe how one should serve God.

  1. Confession: “There is no God but God [Allah], and Muhammad is the prophet of God.” Professing this statement is the starting point of all Islamic belief. Muslims assert that there is only one God to worship and Muhammad is his ultimate spokesperson.
  2. Prayer: Muslims are to pray to God five times a day as they face toward Mecca. The prayer ritual is intricate and includes sequences of postures and recitations.
  3. Almsgiving: Muslims practice charity by giving to the poor. This can be regarded as “tax” in some Islamic communities where the proceeds are used for relief of the needy.
  4. Fasting: During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during the daytime. This chiefly pertains to food, but it also includes sexual relations and entertainment.
  5. Pilgrimage: If possible, Muslims should make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during their lifetimes. While it is also important to visit other Islamic holy sites like Medina and Jerusalem, Mecca is the center of Islam. Each year Muslims from all over the world fulfill a lifelong dream by visiting what they believe to be the most holy place on earth.4


Other significant Islamic practices include dietary restrictions, modesty in dress, marriage, and jihad.5 This last concept is especially controversial.

Muslim scholar Reza Aslan explains that jihad means literally “a struggle” or “a striving,” and in its primary connotation refers to “the struggle of the soul to overcome the sinful obstacles that keep a person from God.”6 But after 9/11 and other publicized acts of terror connected to Islamic extremists, many Westerners think of its secondary connotation: any struggle—including violence—against perceived oppression and tyranny.

As Aslan notes, extremists have used this definition “to give religious sanction to what are in actuality social and political agendas.”7 But this is not in keeping with the way most Muslims understand the term today.

Global Islam

Like the diversity found in other religions, there are different kinds of Muslims. The two main streams of Islam are Sunni and Shi’a. About 90 percent of Muslims are Sunni; their primary differences from minority Shi’a Muslims relate to authority and legal traditions.8

Sufism is not so much a distinct group as it is a movement within both streams that is more focused on spiritual mysticism. Finally, there is a group in the United States known as the Nation of Islam, but their beliefs are much different than mainstream Islam and should be considered separately.

Western misperceptions have sometimes equated the terms “Muslim” and “Arab.” However, there are many Arabs who are not Muslim, such as Palestinian and Iraqi Christians. And the four countries with the largest Muslim populations—Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh—are neither Arab nor located in the Middle East.9

There are some countries, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, that are officially “Islamic.” In these cultures, Islam is more than merely a religion; it permeates everything from social interaction to politics and government. Naturally, this leads to tension with minority groups and Western democratic values.

However, in most parts of the world, Muslims flourish within liberal states and coexist with other religious adherents peacefully.

  1. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 2003), 50.
  2. See “The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, January 27, 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2011/01/27/the-future-of-the-global-muslim-population/.
  3. Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 1999), 2. Tradition records that Muhammad was illiterate, which Muslims believe makes the miracle of the Qur’an more astounding.
  4. For more on the Five Pillars, see Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill, Islam: The Religion and the People (Indianapolis, IN: Wharton Press, 2009).
  5. Ibid., 115. On Islamic marriage: “While the Koran says that a man may have up to four wives at any one time, modern reformers point out that the text also says that a man must treat them equally, and they argue that since this is impossible, the text is, in effect, a commandment for monogamy. To this, both traditionalists and radicals reply, ‘God does not speak in riddles. If God meant one wife, God would say one wife.’”
  6. Reza Aslan, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (New York, NY: Random House, 2006), 81.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Nasr, Islam, 10–15.
  9. “The Future of the Global Muslim Population,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
  10. Photo credit: Lichtmeister / Shutterstock.com.