Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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An Arabic word (islam *) meaning "submission" (to God). One who submits is a muslim , from the same root as Islam . A closely related word, also using that root, is salam *, "peace," a Semitic cognate of the Hebrew shalom *. Islam is the youngest of the three major world religions that trace their spiritual lineages back to the biblical patriarchs. Muslims consider Islam to be a fulfillment of Judaism and Christianity and the restoration of a primordial Abrahamic ethical monotheism. The prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632 C.E.) proclaimed Islam to the polytheistic Arabs of Mecca between 610 and 632 C.E. His mission was inspired throughout by the oral revelations he received, cumulatively, in the Qur'an * ("recitation") from God through the archangel Gabriel. Because of increasing persecution of the Muslims in the commercial and pagan cultic capital of Mecca, with the Ka'aba temple as its center, Muhammad led his followers to the oasis community of Medina in 622, where he had been called to serve as an outside, impartial arbitrator in that conflict-filled city of warring factions. This hijra , or emigration (from Mecca to Medina), marks the beginning of the Islamic lunar calendar. (The Muslim year has 354 days and, because intercalation is not permitted, it recedes approximately 11 days behind each solar year. This permits the Islamic canonical feasts, as well as the fasting and pilgrimage months, to occur—providentially, according to Muslim opinion—in each season over a 33-year period.) In Medina, the Muslim umma ("community") was founded as a theocratic state, eventually extending its authority during the Prophet's lifetime to most of the Arabian peninsula. Mecca was conquered peacefully in 628, its idols destroyed, and the Ka'aba rededicated as the ritual center of Islam. Whereas the Arabs of old had lived in a politically fragmented way according to tribal and clan customs and social patterns, Islam transcended kinship ties by establishing a common faith as the bonding agent of society. Muhammad was both prophet and statesman in Medina. He resembled more than anything else a combination of biblical judge and prophet, charismatic offices that combined political and religious leadership. And, like Judaism, Islam has since its origins emphasized legal orthopraxy far more than theological orthodoxy.

Basic Beliefs and Practices of Islam

The Qur'an* , Islam's revealed scripture, contains the essential teachings of Islam, known as iman *, "faith." Although there is no canonical creed in Islam in the form of a required statement of beliefs, there are universally agreed upon doctrines. First and most important is the Divine Unity, tawhid *. God is one and his umma should also be unified in belief and practice. The umma is in fact defined by a common pattern of worship that is far more uniform than Christian, or even Jewish, liturgy. The second major doctrine is the belief that God has spoken to prophets for the guidance and correction of human communities. Muhammad is the last in a series of many prophets that includes Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Third is belief in angels, who are God's messengers. Fourth is belief in holy scriptures that God has revealed through some of His prophets. The Qur'an is the final, definitive scripture, correcting errors that crept into the previous monotheistic scriptures while confirming their enduring truths. The fifth belief is in a Last Judgment ushered in by a trumpet blast, an upsetting of the natural order of things, and a general resurrection of the dead. Each person will stand alone before God's judgment seat; the righteous will be rewarded with a heavenly afterlife, whereas the reprobates will be consigned to hell. The final element of Islamic doctrine is the Divine Decree and Predestination (predetermination). Although this difficult teaching may appear fatalistic, Muslims do not regard it as inconsistent with human responsibility. Rather, it is viewed as an essential dimension of God's power, wisdom, and mercy.

The basic beliefs of Islam are discussed and clarified in numerous advanced theological treatises in the field of dogmatic theology known as kalam * (literally, "dialectical discourse"). Some Islamic philosophical theologians (e.g., Ibn Rushd/AverroŽs) influenced medieval Christian scholasticism through their Aristotelian method of relating reason to revelation. Classical Islamic civilization in the Nile-to-Oxus regions, North Africa, and South Asia reached the most advanced levels in the human and natural sciences, including philosophy, mathematics, optics, astronomy, pharmacology, surgery, and geography. The fourteenth- to fifteenth-century scholar Ibn Khaldun* , for example, is sometimes called father of both historiography and sociology. His grand theory of the rise of empires depends on an analysis of the tensions between urban, agricultural folk and pastoral nomads. The latter, among which camel herders are the most excellent, provide the energy, ideals, courage, organization, and endurance needed to conquer and rule. But, over time, the conquerors are themselves overwhelmed, first by their own ease and progressive corruption in cities, then by a new wave of pastoralists that rises to replace them as rulers, only to begin the inevitable cycle anew. Ibn Khaldun thoroughly and lucidly explicates his—for his times—frankly historicist theory in his The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History (English translation, three volumes, Bollingen 1958).

The "Pillars" of Islam

The basic devotional duties of Islam are conventionally classified under five "pillars": (1) Shahada * is "witnessing" to the unity of God and the messengerhood of the Prophet Muhammad by declaring, "There is no god but God (Allah); Muhammad is the Messenger of God (Allah)." It is necessary only to declare the shahada sincerely to become a Muslim. The shahada* is the closest Islam comes to a formal creed. (2) Salat * is formal prayer five times daily (at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and night) either in congregation or alone, while facing the holy Ka'aba shrine, Islam's axis mundi , in Mecca. On Friday is an obligatory noonday congregational salat* with a sermon. There are also salats* for funerals, feasts, and the two eclipses. Worshippers must be in a state of ritual purity before the salat is performed. This is accomplished by either a minor or a major ablution, depending on the degree of impurity experienced. (3) Zakat * is annual almsgiving amounting to a set percentage of one's wealth (provided it reaches a minimum level) for the benefit of the poor, new converts in need of assistance, defenders of Islam, debtors, alms administrators, and certain other classes of recipients. The paying of zakat* purifies one's remaining wealth. The profound social-ethical dimension of almsgiving may be discerned, for example, in the regulation that money used to pay for the pilgrimage to Mecca must have been purified first by the paying of zakat. (4) Saum * is fasting during the holy month of Ramadan between sunrise and sunset, when no food or drink may be consumed or smoking or sexual relations engaged in. Evenings are spent enjoying a meal, meeting for special litanies in mosques, visiting friends, and resting. Before dawn, a meal is taken to sustain people through the day, when work, school, homemaking, and other occupations con- tinue, usually at a slower pace than normal. (5) Hajj * is the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca once in a Muslim's life, if circumstances and resources permit. The hajj* is the high point in most Muslims' lives, after which the pilgrim is permitted to add the title hajji* before his or her name. During the hajj, pilgrims circumambulate the holy Ka'aba shrine in Mecca and ritually reenact experiences of the holy ancestors Abraham, Ishmael, and Hagar.

Sometimes a sixth pillar is included in the list of required Islamic practices. This is jihad* , "exertion" in the way of God. Although in the West jihad is usually thought to mean holy war, that is only one of the meanings accorded to it by Muslims. A "Greater Jihad* ," as Muhammad called it, is the struggle each Muslim sustains to overcome evil and to do good.

Sectarian Divisions and Legal Schools

The umma does not have denominations in the Christian and Jewish senses. However, there is a basic division in the community between Sunnis* and Shiis* . The former constitute a majority of about 85% of all Muslims. The division is based on different political philosophies, and not essential theological disagreement or diverse worship practices. Shiis hold that Muhammad designated his son-in-law Ali as his successor, with the intention that succeeding leaders of the Muslims would be in that line. The subcommunity of Muslims that eventually called themselves Sunnis (after the Sunna, or "customary way" of the Prophet Muhammad) hold that any good Muslim with requisite leadership ability, legal knowledge, and membership in the Arabian tribe of Quraysh—Muhammad's own—can be selected as khalifa * (caliph), "deputy" of Muhammad. Shiism* has several subsects, among which the Ismailis* may be mentioned for their esoteric doctrines and very close community loyalty. The largest Shi'ite* community is the Imami* sect, also known as the "Twelvers" because they recognize that number of perfect leaders who lived before the line was interrupted with the disappearance and "occultation" of the Twelfth Imam* , who continues to rule through earthly representatives (e.g., Ayatollahs), until he returns again to advent the Last Judgment. Shi'ite rule is charismatic, with the imams* ("leaders") believed to be endowed with supernatural authority and infallible wisdom.

Legal schools : Another set of subcommunities in Islam centers upon which of several legal rites are followed. The Sunnis recognize four orthodox law schools, all of which emerged in the early centuries. The Hanafi* rite is rather flexible and predominates in Turkey and India. The Maliki* rite is conservative and found principally in North and West Africa. The Shafii* rite, which features analogical reasoning as a major source of jurisprudence, is preeminent in Egypt and Southeast Asia. The final school is the Hanbali* rite, a conservative school that distrusts rational dialectic in reaching legal decisions. Hanbalism* is dominant in Saudi Arabia. The major Shii* legal rite is the Ja'fari* school. Shiis are most numerous in Iran, southern Lebanon, and Iraq.

No more than the Sunni* and Shii divisions do the different legal schools of Islam constitute denominationlike entities. Although most Muslims follow only one of the allowable schools, it is permissible to seek a legal opinion from any of them. Islamic jurisprudence is known as fiqh (literally, "understanding"), and the legal specialists constitute a professional class known as 'ulama '* (singular, 'alim *), the "learned" in theological and legal matters. Most legal reasoning relies on four sources of authority: The most important is the Qur'an* ; the second is the Sunna—the teaching and example of Muhammad as preserved in the literary reports known as hadith *. Third is analogical reasoning, known as qiyas *. Finally, there is, among the Sunnis, consensus of the learned, called ijma '* . Shi'ites depend heavily on their enlightened teachers, whereas Sunni Islam views the community itself as having charismatic authority. A renowned hadith* of Muhammad states that "My umma shall never agree together on an error." Although dissenting views are tolerated, consensus is nevertheless a powerful legitimizing force. Strictly considered, ijma ' means broad consensus of the 'ulama'.

The Contemporary Islamic Revival

Although for many centuries Islamic law has been conservative and cautious, modern times have seen a renewal of ijtihad *, "independent legal decision making," which characterized fiqh's early development. Islam's traditional unification of religion and state is severely challenged by modernity. There are increasing numbers of Muslims now living in Western countries. In North America, for example, where as many as 5 million Muslims now reside, there is a fiqh council that addresses new issues and challenges faced by Muslims living as minorities in a secular, pluralistic society. One of the greatest concerns of Muslims in North America is assimilation/nonassimilation into the larger society.

Recent decades have witnessed a global revival of Islam, accompanied by a great migration of Muslims to Western countries as well as substantial conversions to Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The oil crisis of the early 1970s, followed by the Iranian Islamic revolution later in that decade, greatly increased the visibility of Islam and Muslims in the West. Although the media continue to focus on violence and terrorism associated with so-called fundamentalist Islam, the Muslim world is in no way a hostile monolithic entity pitted against the West and modernity. Islamist (a term preferred by Muslims to fundamentalist ) movements vary from place to place, but they tend to agree that the Qur'an* and Muhammad's Sunna should be the ultimate authorities in the challenge of living life Islamically. Modern science and technology are not considered by Islamists to be adverse to Islamization, although Westernization and secularism are rejected as thoroughly un-Islamic.

Among the leading Islamic revivalist movements of the present are the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna'* . That strongly revivalist brotherhood sees itself not so much as an organization but as a community based on Qur'anic* principles. It has had a turbulent career because of its opposition to governments in Egypt, but it is at present unofficially tolerated in its home country with some of its members even serving as elected representatives in the National Assembly. Associated organizations have been formed in neighboring countries. Another movement is the Jamaat-i-Islami, founded in Pakistan by Abu Ala Mawdudi* in the 1940s. That vigorously assertive organization strives to counter Western influences on Islam and pushes a strong program of Islamization of society. A final revivalist organization, and by far the largest in the world, is the Jama'at al-Tabligh* ("Society for the Propagation [of Islam]"), founded in India in 1927. The Tabligh* is nonideological and nonmilitant, sending missionaries throughout the world with a message centering on scrupulous imitation of the Prophet Muhammad, viewing all other ways as sinful and corrupt.

Frederick M. Denny


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