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Introduction to Islam

Semitic people, who were various ancient and modern peoples originating in southwestern Asia, came from Mesopotamia to the Arabian peninsula at about 2000 B.C. Mesopotamia, an ancient region in western Asia located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is believed by some to be the site of the birth of mankind. It is now part of Iraq.

This is the way the Middle East looks today.

A Semite prophet named Muhammad was born in the year 570 in the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. When he was 40 years old, he heard the angel Gabriel speak to him and tell him that he was a prophet like Abraham, Moses and Jesus. The Islamic God, or Allah, spoke to Muhammad while he was meditating in a cave near Mecca. For the next 23 years, Muhammad memorized what he heard and wrote it into a book called the Qur’an (or Koran), which became the holy book of the Muslim people. Muslims regard it as the “unaltered word of God.”

Over the next 100 years, many Arabic tribes converted to Islam either through the teachings or as the result of wars. By 711, most of western Asia (except Turkey, which was held by the Romans), plus Egypt, Spain, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, were all under control of the caliphs, who were spiritual heads of Islam. For the next several hundred years, there were many changes in governmental leadership but the religion of Islam continued to be a prime force in the area.


The religious faith of Islam, as it was practiced between the years 650 to 1500, was closely related to Judaism and Christianity. Like Jews and Christians, Muslims, who are people of the Islam faith, believed that there was only one God, called “Allah.” Muslims believed that Moses and Jesus had both existed, that they were important messengers of God and that Muhammad was another in the same line. Many of the stories in the Koran are the same as the stories in the Judeo-Christian Bible.

Muslims’ duties are summed up in five simple rules, the so-called Five Pillars of Islam:

  • Belief (Iman): There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger

  • Worship (Salat): Worship God five times a day — at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and nightfall

  • Fasting (Sawm): Abstain from food and drink, as well as smoking and sex, between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Muslim calendar

  • Almsgiving (Zakat): Give alms to the poor

  • Pilgrimage (Hajj): Undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime, if one is able, during the first days of Dhu’l-Hijja, the twelfth month of the Muslim calendar.

Mecca, located in Saudi Arabia, is the most holy city in Islam. The most important Islamic principle, though, is that a good Muslim should worship only Allah, and no other gods.


The Crusades
The Holy Land is where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born and lived his life. It includes Palestine, Israel and bits of Lebanon and Jordan. Christians believed that they should hold this land, not Muslims, so the Christians initiated a series of wars, called the Crusades, to get the land from the Muslims. The Christians won some battles to reclaim their holy lands but could not keep the cities they took. They did, however, gain something very valuable from the Crusades. For the first time, they left their homes in western Europe and looked beyond their own villages. They saw a world that was very different from their own and brought these ideas back with them.


Muslims Today
Many people believe that Muslims today live exclusively in the Middle East and that it is a religion for Arabs. This, however, is not the case. About 80 percent of the world’s Muslims are not Arabs. Muslims represent many different races, ethnic groups and nationalities.

By 650, Islam had already divided into two main groups: Sunnis and Shiites. The Shiites believe that their religious leaders were going to come save them as the Messiah had. According to the Shiites’ theology, after the death of Muhammad, the rightful teachers of Islam and guides of Muslim society were those who have been called Imams. They believe that such people are the divinely appointed rulers of Muslims, and should be deferred to in matters of religion.

Sunnis are the largest group of Muslims. They regard the first four caliphs, or Islamic leaders, as legitimate successors of Muhammad. They also stress the importance of Sunna (the way of life lived as prescribed by Muhammad) as a basis for law, the Sharia.

Another important part of early Islam was Sufism, which was a belief in a direct relationship between people and God shared by many Sunnis and Shiites. (For more information about Sunnis and Shiites, visit www.pbs.org/empires/islam/faithtoday.html and www.historyforkids.org/learn/islam/religion/shiite.htm.)


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