Islam: Introduction, Basics, Origin

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Hajj Pilgrims on the roof of the Grand Mosque in Mecca
Islam is a monotheistic religion. A believer is a Muslim, literally, "one who submits to God." Muslims believe that Allah (Arabic for God) gave revelations through the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad (Mohammed, A.D. 570-632 ), a native of the Arabian Peninsula city of Mecca. [Source: Library of Congress]

With around 2 billion followers, Islam is the world's second largest religion after Christianity. Islam was once called Mohammedism by Europeans, because it formally began during the lifetime of Muhammad. Calling it this is misleading at best in that Muhammad saw himself as only a messenger of God and the worship of Muhammad as a religious figure is frowned upon in Islam. Musllims find the term Mohammedism offensive because if suggests that Muhammad was divine and the object of worship.

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.The world "Islam" is derived from the same root word “salam” which means both "peace" and "submission” or more exactly “a state of peace and security formed by making an allegiance with and surrendering to God."

Mecca and Medina are Islam's holy cities. They are in Saudi Arabia, which considers itself as the guardian of these cities, Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islam: the first Muslims didn't pray towards Mecca, but to Jerusalem. Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo is regarded by many Muslims (especially Sunni Muslims) as the highest Islamic institution. Islamic bodies in Saudi Arabia also hold great respect and authority among Muslims.

Websites and Resources: Islam IslamOnline ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; ; Islamic City ; BBC article ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline

Islam — the World’s Second Largest Religion

20120509-salat Sajdah_in_Marashi_library.jpg
Salat Sajdah in Marashi library
With about 2 billion followers, Islam is the world's second largest religion after Christianity. As of 2020, according to Wikipedia, there were 1.8 billion to 1.9 billion or more Muslim, and they made up 25 percent of the world population are Muslims. Pew Research estimated Muslim number would be around 2.2 billion in 2030 and 2.8 billion in 2050 or 30 percent of world population.

In 2012, a Washington-based Pew Forum study estimated there were 2.2 billion Christian adherents or 31.5 percent of the world’s population, and about 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, or 24 percent of the global population. The overwhelming majority of Muslims (87-90 percent) are Sunnis, about 10-13 percent are Shia (Shiite) Muslims,” the study said. [Source: Tom Heneghan, Reuters, December 18, 2012 |*|]

According to a Pew report issued in October 2009 the global Muslim population had reached 1.57 billion while Christianity, had approximately 2.1 billion to 2.2 billion followers (about one third of humanity). Primarily because of high birth rates in Muslim countries, Islam is the world fast growing religion in terms of total numbers.

World religions: 1) Christianity (32 percent); 2) Islam (24 percent); 3) non-religious and atheist (13 percent); 4) Hinduism (13 percent); 5) Chinese folk religions (6 percent); 6) Buddhist (6 percent); and 7) Other (6 percent). Only about 20 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arabs (who live in the Middle East and North Africa). The largest populations of Muslims are in Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria. There are also large numbers in the Philippines, China, Malaysia and Central Asia.

Origins of Islam

Islam is the newest of the three great monotheisms to have arisen in the Middle East (Judaism and Christianity are the other two) and the last major universal religion to have appeared in history. Islam was founded in the early seventh century in Mecca, a trading town in modern-day Saudi Arabia. According to Islamic belief, in 610 Islam's prophet, Muhammad (c. 570–632), began receiving revelations and prophecies from the archangel Gabriel (Jabraʾil). These revelations, which continued until his death, were recorded by Muhammad's followers and preserved as sacred scripture in the Qurʾan, ), the Muslim holy book. [Source:]

Old Map of Mecca

Born in Mecca, in western Arabia, Muhammad is regarded by Muslims as the last in the line of Judeo-Christian prophets. Muslims believe that it was the word of God that was revealed to him in Arabic. Gabriel said, "Recite in the name of thy Lord …" (Sura 96). The Qur’an, which contains these revelations, literally means "recitation" in Arabic.. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Islam began with the ministry of Muhammad , who belonged to a merchant family Mecca. Muhammad received his visions and revelations when he was middle aged. After 620 he publicly preached the message of these visions, stressing the oneness of God (Allah), denouncing the polytheism of his fellow Arabs, and calling for moral uplift of the population. He attracted a dedicated band of followers, but there was intense opposition from the leaders of the city, who profited from pilgrimage trade to the shrine called the Kaaba. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Muhammad's revelations lasted from 610 to his death in 632. In 622 Muhammad and his closest supporters migrated to the town of Yathrib (now renamed Medina) to the north and set up a new center of preaching and opposition to the leadership of Mecca. This move, the hijrah or hegira, marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar and the origin of the new religion of Islam. After a series of military engagements, Muhammad and his followers were able to defeat the authorities in Mecca and return to take control of the city. Before his death, Muhammad was able to bring most of the tribes of Arabia into the fold of Islam. Soon after his death, the united Arabs conquered present-day Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Iran, making Islam into a world religion by the end of the seventh century. *

According to the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: Although a good part of the Quran records the preaching of Muhammad in Mecca in the first two decades of the 7th century, the definitive outlines of Islam as a system of beliefs and as a political organization took shape in Medina after the emigration (hijrah) to that city of Muhammad and a band of his followers in 622.” In recognition of the importance of this event, the Muslim calendar reckons events from the first lunar month of that year—July 16, 622. [Source: Charles F. Gallagher,International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 1960s,]

Islam Basics

According to orthodox practice, Islam is a strictly monotheistic religion in which God (Allah) is both a pervasive presence and a somewhat distant figure. The Prophet Muhammad is not deified but rather is regarded as a human who was selected by God to spread the word to others through the Quran, Islam’s holy book, the revealed word of God. Islam is a religion based on high moral principles, and an important part of being a Muslim is commitment to these principles. Islamic law (sharia), is based on the Quran; the sunna, which includes the hadith, the actions and sayings of Muhammad; ijma, the consensus of local Islamic jurisprudence and, sometimes, the whole Muslim community; and qiyas, or reasoning through analogy. Islam is universalist, and in theory there are no national, racial, or ethnic criteria for conversion. [Source: Library of Congress]

tawaf of the Kaaba

According to the BBC: “Islam is based on the Qur’an (a revelation from God to the prophet Muhammad) supplemented by the sunnah (a set of traditions about Muhammad's words and deeds). Muslims recognise Judaism and Christianity as revelations from God (just as Christianity recognises Judaism), but hold that the revelation made to Muhammad completes and supersedes earlier revelations. Muslims reject the Christian doctrines that Jesus was God and that God is in three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit); they believe that Jesus was a prophet and that God is one. [Source: BBC |::|]

“The word Islam means 'submission to the will of God'. 1) Muslims believe that Islam was revealed over 1400 years ago in Mecca, Arabia. 2) Followers of Islam are called Muslims. 3) Muslims believe that there is only One God. 4) The Arabic word for God is Allah. 5) According to Muslims, God sent a number of prophets to mankind to teach them how to live according to His law. 6) Jesus, Moses and Abraham are respected as prophets of God. 7) They believe that the final Prophet was Muhammad. 8) Muslims believe that Islam has always existed, but for practical purposes, date their religion from the time of the migration of Muhammad. 9) Muslims base their laws on their holy book the Qur'an, and the Sunnah. 10) Muslims believe the Sunnah is the practical example of Prophet Muhammad and that there are five basic Pillars of Islam. 11) These pillars are the declaration of faith, praying five times a day, giving money to charity, fasting and a pilgrimage to Mecca (atleast once). |::|

Role of Muhammad in Islam

Muhammad (A.D. 570-632) is the most important human figure in Islam. Regarded as a Messenger of God and the last and most important Prophet, he experienced the word of god in a series of visions, which became the Qur’an, and led a group of followers from Medina to Mecca to expel the idols from the Kaaba, the defining moment of the founding of Islamic as a monotheistic religion.

Muhammad, an uncompromising monotheist, made himself unpopular with his fellow Meccans, who benefitted from the town's thriving pilgrimage business and numerous polytheist religious sites. Censured by Mecca's leaders, in 622 Muhammad and a group of his followers were invited to the town of Yathrib (Medina) and made it the center of their activities. This move, or hijra, marked the beginning of the Islamic era and of Islam as a historical force. After Muhammad's death, his followers compiled his divinely inspired speeches in the Qur’an, the scripture of Islam. Other sayings and teachings of Muhammad and the examples of his personal behavior became the hadith. Together they form the Muslim's comprehensive guide to spiritual, ethical, and social living. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989]

Muhammad at the Kaaba

Muhammad viewed himself as a sort of religious guide. He never say himself as the leader of a religion and abhorred the idea of being an object or worship. Charles F. Gallagher wrote in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: Muhammad’s position as the sole communicant of God’s word to man is attested in the basic Muslim profession of faith: “There is no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet.” This credo, although it does not occur in a single phrase in the Qur’ān itself, has become the foundation of Muslim self-identification. It differentiates the believer from the nonbeliever and Islam from other religions by emphasizing that Muhammad is not one prophet among many but the seal of the prophets and that the revelation given to him was the ultimate and unchangeable exposition of divine will. [Source: Charles F. Gallagher, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 1960s,]

The function of the hadīth (a law or idea based on the words or actions of Muhammad) reinforced this position, as may well have been one of its main purposes, by preserving for later generations a portrait of the personality of Muhammad in warm and simple details which link the believer to him in an atmosphere of pious affection that has grown through the centuries. Through the device of the hadīth, which contrasts strongly with the formalism and transcendentalism of the Qur’ān, Muhammad is kept from becoming a dim historical figure; he emerges as a venerable, just, but understandable human leader of his flock. In this way Islam maintains the principle of the strictest monotheism, while tempering it with a human touch which, to judge by the historical experience, has fulfilled the needs of ordinary Muslims in all ages.

It is true that this devotion has sometimes seemed to approach adulation or even outright worship, particularly in the past century, when a new consciousness of Christianity led some Muslim biographers of Muhammad to present his life in ways that clearly reveal the influence of the story of Jesus. However, both orthodox Muslim thought and the practice of the masses have kept the fine distinction between ceremonial veneration and anthropolatry.


Muslims believe that all of Allah's revelations to the Prophet are contained in the Qur’an (Koran in Arabic, Quran or Qur’an), which is composed in rhymed prose. The Qur’an consists of 114 chapters, called suras , the first of which is a short "opening" chapter. The remaining 113 segments are arranged roughly in order of decreasing length. The short suras at the end of the book are early revelations, each consisting of material revealed on the same occasion. The longer suras toward the beginning of the book are compilations of verses revealed at different times in Muhammad's life. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The Qur'an is Islam's holiest book. Revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel, it is considered by Muslims to be the written record of the word of God. In the year 610 A.D., the Prophet frequently visited a mountain cave called Hira', located outside of Mecca, to meditate and pray. On one such visit, Gabriel asked him to recite the first five verses of the Qur'an. He commanded: "Read in the name of your Lord who created; Created man from an embryo; Read, for your Lord is most beneficent; Who taught by the pen; Taught man what he did not know" (Sura 96). [Source: Maryam Ekhtiar, Julia Cohen, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Qu'ran from the 9th century in the Reza Abbasi Museum

"The divine revelations continued over the course of the next twenty years, first in Mecca, and then in Medina following the migration (hijra) of Muhammad and his followers in 622 A.D. (equivalent to the first year of the hijri calendar). Toward the end of his life, Muhammad began to create a physical copy of the revelations, but he was unable to complete this project before his death in 632 A.D. In the following years, his most trusted companions undertook the task of collecting them from written and oral sources. The final codified consonantal form of the Qur'an is thought to have been produced during the reign of 'Uthman (r. 644–56 A.D.), the third of the four "rightly guided caliphs" (al-khulafa-yi al-rashidun). The text has remained almost unaltered to the present day. Because of its divine nature, the Qur'an has been considered by Muslims to be the "mother of all books," or the Umm al-Kitab, and its impact on the arts of the book in the Islamic world has thus been indelible.\^/

"The Qur'an is arranged in order of descending length excluding the first. Many manuscripts, however, are divided into thirty sections, or juz', of equal length (37.142). In this format, the entire Qur'an can be read over the course of a thirty-day month (usually during the month of Ramadan), with one volume being undertaken each day. Other less common units of division, the manzil and the hizb, divide the text into seven or sixty parts, respectively. The Qur’an is written in Arabic. Arabic has twenty-eight letters of only eighteen distinct forms; dotting above and below these primary forms distinguish between otherwise identical letters. Early Qur'ans often left out these markings (i'jam) as well as short vowels that appear as symbols above and below letters, assuming that the text would be used as a memory aide for recitation by readers who were already familiar with its content.\^/

"As the source of Muslim faith and practice, the Qur’an describes the relationship between an almighty and all-knowing God and his creations. The Qur’an also maintains that all individuals are responsible for their actions, for which they will be judged by God, and so it provides guidelines for proper behavior within the framework of a just and equitable society. Because it is through writing that the Qur'an is transmitted, the Arabic script was first transformed and beautified in order that it might be worthy of divine revelation. [Source: Suzan Yalman Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Based on original work by Linda Komaroff \^/]

Basic Beliefs of Islam

Islam is a system of religious beliefs and an all-encompassing way of life. Muslims believe that God (Allah) revealed to the Prophet Muhammad the rules governing society and the proper conduct of society's members. It is incumbent on the individual therefore to live in a manner prescribed by the revealed law and on the community to build the perfect human society on earth according to holy injunctions. Islam recognizes no distinctions between church and state. The distinction between religious and secular law is a recent development that reflects the more pronounced role of the state in society, and Western economic and cultural penetration. The impact of religion on daily life in Muslim countries is far greater than that found in the West since the Middle Ages. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

According to the BBC: “Muslims believe that Islam is a faith that has always existed and that it was gradually revealed to humanity by a number of prophets, but the final and complete revelation of the faith was made through the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century CE. [Source: BBC, July 8, 2011|::|]

Muslims have six main beliefs. 1) Belief in Allah as the one and only God; 2) Belief in angels; 3) Belief in the holy books; 4) Belief in the Prophets...e.g. Adam, Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), Dawud (David), Isa (Jesus). Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the final prophet. 5) Belief in the Day of Judgement... The day when the life of every human being will be assessed to decide whether they go to heaven or hell. 6) Belief in Predestination...That Allah has the knowlege of all that will happen. Muslims believe that this doesn't stop human beings making free choices. [Source: BBC, July 19, 2011 |::|]

“There shall be no coercion in matters of faith,” Muslims are repeatedly told in the Qur’an. Believe what you want to believe. Another popular verse says, “Unto you your faith; unto me, mine,” which is another way of saying that you should respect my belief as I yours. There can be no clearer illustrations than these verses that pluralism defines Islam.” [Source:

Five Pillars of Islam

“The Five Pillars of Islam are the five obligations that every Muslim must satisfy in order to live a good and responsible life according to Islam. The Five Pillars consist of: 1) Shahadah: sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith; 2) Salat: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day; 3) Zakat: paying an alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy; 4) Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan; 5) Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca

The duties of Muslims form the five pillars of Islam, which set forth the acts necessary to demonstrate and reinforce the faith. These are the recitation of the shahada ("There is no God but God [Allah], and Muhammad is his prophet"), daily prayer (salat), almsgiving (zakat), fasting (sawm), and pilgrimage (hajj). The believer is to pray in a prescribed manner after purification through ritual ablutions each day at dawn, midday, midafternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Prescribed genuflections and prostrations accompany the prayers, which the worshiper recites facing toward Mecca. Whenever possible men pray in congregation at the mosque with an imam, and on Fridays make a special effort to do so. The Friday noon prayers provide the occasion for weekly sermons by religious leaders. Women may also attend public worship at the mosque, where they are segregated from the men, although most frequently women pray at home. A special functionary, the muezzin, intones a call to prayer to the entire community at the appropriate hour. Those out of earshot determine the time by the sun. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The ninth month of the Muslim calendar is Ramadan, a period of obligatory fasting in commemoration of Muhammad's receipt of God's revelation. Throughout the month all but the sick and weak, pregnant or lactating women, soldiers on duty, travelers on necessary journeys, and young children are enjoined from eating, drinking, smoking, or sexual intercourse during the daylight hours. Those adults excused are obliged to endure an equivalent fast at their earliest opportunity. A festive meal breaks the daily fast and inaugurates a night of feasting and celebration. The pious well-to-do usually do little or no work during this period, and some businesses close for all or part of the day. Since the months of the lunar year revolve through the solar year, Ramadan falls at various seasons in different years. A considerable test of discipline at any time of the year, a fast that falls in summertime imposes severe hardship on those who must do physical work.

All Muslims, at least once in their lifetime, should make the hajj to Mecca to participate in special rites held there during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Muhammad instituted this requirement, modifying pre-Islamic custom, to emphasize sites associated with God and Abraham (Ibrahim), founder of monotheism and father of the Arabs through his son Ismail.

Lesser Pillars

medieval Persian manuscript showin Muhammad leading Abraham, Moses and Jesus

The lesser pillars of the faith, which all Muslims share, are jihad, or the permanent struggle for the triumph of the word of God on earth, and the requirement to do good works and to avoid all evil thoughts, words, and deeds. In addition, Muslims agree on certain basic principles of faith based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad: there is one God, who is a unitary divine being in contrast to the trinitarian belief of Christians; Muhammad, the last of a line of prophets beginning with Abraham and including Moses and Jesus, was chosen by God to present God's message to humanity; and there is a general resurrection on the last, or judgment, day. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Persian Gulf States: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1993]

During his lifetime, Muhammad held both spiritual and temporal leadership of the Muslim community. Religious and secular law merged, and all Muslims have traditionally been subject to sharia, or religious law. A comprehensive legal system, sharia developed gradually through the first four centuries of Islam, primarily through the accretion of precedent and interpretation by various judges and scholars. During the tenth century, legal opinion began to harden into authoritative rulings, and the figurative bab al ijtihad (gate of interpretation) closed. Thereafter, rather than encouraging flexibility, Islamic law emphasized maintenance of the status quo.

Crescent Moon and Muslim Symbols and Colors

The “bilal” , or crescent moon, is the primary symbol of Islam. It signifies the importance of the lunar calendar in organizing the religious life of Muslims. The moon has ancient connections with royalty in the Middle East. The crescent moon is seen on the flags of many Muslim flags and it used as a symbol for the Muslim version of the red cross: the red crescent. As early as the thirteenth century it was the religious and military symbol of the Ottoman Turks.

Many Muslims carry “misbaha” or “subha “ beads (sometimes called "worry beads"), which are used to like Christian rosaries and Buddhist perater beads to count the number or prayers that have been recited. They also give away the mood of the their owners. They way the beads are carried, fingered and moved around can convey nervousness, boredom and anger. Endangered black coral is prized for making prayer beads.

A hand symbolizes the five pillars of Islam. Women wear head scarves and on holy days they stain their fingernails red. Men wear red skull caps. If the broad band is white it means he is a teacher. If it is gold it means he has been to Mecca for the Haj.

Green is he sacred color of the Muslims and color of hope. The Muslim equivalent to the Red Cross is the Green Crescent. Green flags and green turbans often brought on the Hajj. It is on many Muslim country flags and on the Green crescent. Some brides even wear green dresses.

Similarities Between Islam and Christianity

John L. Esposito wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: 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. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

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 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.

Difference Between Islam and Christianity

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute wrote: Islam is not “like other monotheistic faiths. It isn’t, in part because it doesn’t lend itself as easily to modern liberalism. The more I’ve studied my own religion — its theology, history and culture — the more I’ve come to appreciate how complicated it is and how much more complicated it must be for people who are coming at it from scratch. [Source: Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institute, September 13, 2016. Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.”]

“Contrary to what many think, there is no Christian equivalent to Qur’anic “inerrancy,” even among far-right evangelicals. Muslims believe the Qur’an is not only God’s word, but God’s actual speech — in other words, every single letter and word in the Qur’an comes directly from God. This seemingly semantic difference has profound implications. If the Qur’an is God’s speech, and God is unchanging and perfect, then so is his speech. To question the divine origin of the Qur’an, then, is to question God himself, and God is not easily put in a box, well away from the public sphere.

Muslim painting of The Prophet Job

“Differences between Christianity and Islam also are evident in each faith’s central figure.

Unlike Jesus, who was a dissident, Muhammad was both prophet and politician. The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”Mt. 21:11Prophets are inspired by the Spirit, preach repentance and describe the consequences of action or inaction. Islam is a sickness, a blight upon humanity, whereby adherents do not believe in the law of cause and effect: ipso facto they do do not believe in God…And more than just any politician, he was a state-builder as well as a head of state. Not only were the religious and political functions intertwined in the person of Muhammad, they were meant to be intertwined. To argue for the separation of religion from politics, then, is to argue against the model of the very man Muslims most admire and seek to emulate.”

“Islam seems, at least by Western standards, unusually assertive and uncompromising. Critics might see it as full-blown aggressiveness. But Muslims often point to these qualities as evidence of Islam’s vitality and relevance in a supposedly secular age. To put it a bit differently, this is why many Muslims like being Muslim. Whether consciously done or not, to be unapologetically Muslim today is to, in a way, show that other futures are possible, that the end of history may in fact have more than one destination. If Islam has been—and will continue to be—resistant to secularism, then the very existence of practicing Muslims serves as a constant reminder of this historical and religious divergence.”

“Islam’s outsized role in public life leads, circuitously” often ends up in a discussion about women’s headwear and clothes. “If you’re a Muslim woman who wears the hijab — covering the hair and most of the body — you can’t wear just any swimsuit. Some women, of course, are pressured or even legally mandated to wear the hijab (as in Saudi Arabia and Iran), but most choose to do so; it’s about their personal relationship with God. Regardless of whether we like it, the predominant scholarly opinion today is that wearing hijab is fard, or obligatory. Although Western feminists may argue that covering up is sexist — it can encourage the idea that women are primarily sexual objects — asking Muslim women to take off the hijab is akin to asking them to violate their connection with the creator.

“There are dress codes in Judaism too, of course, but it is only a relatively small number of ultraorthodox women who observe them. The hijab, by contrast, is ubiquitous in Muslim communities, and in some Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, the majority of Muslim women cover their hair. Again, this is often a conscious choice: Many Muslims take their religion so seriously that they want to observe seemingly restrictive and pre-modern dress codes. This is the case even in Turkey, where millions of women cover their hair despite decades of secular government and forced unveiling in state institutions.

“This fact gets at something deeper, which often goes unsaid because it suggests there is — or at least there may be — a clash of cultures. Islam seems, at least by Western standards, unusually assertive and uncompromising. Critics might see it as full-blown aggressiveness. But Muslims often point to these qualities as evidence of Islam’s vitality and relevance in a supposedly secular age. To put it a bit differently, this is why many Muslims like being Muslim.

“Whether consciously done or not, to be unapologetically Muslim today is to, in a way, show that other futures are possible, that the end of history may in fact have more than one destination. If Islam has been — and will continue to be — resistant to secularism, then the very existence of practicing Muslims serves as a constant reminder of this historical and religious divergence.

Islam and History

Salman Rushdie wrote in the Times of London: “It should be a matter of intense interest to all Muslims that Islam is the only religion whose birth was recorded historically, its origins uniquely grounded not in legend but in fact. The Qur’an was revealed at a time of great change in the Arab world, the 7th-century shift from a matriarchal nomadic culture to an urban patriarchal system. Muhammad, as an orphan personally suffered the difficulties of this transformation, and it is possible to read the Qur’an as a plea for the old matriarchal values in the new patriarchal world, a conservative pleas that became revolutionary because of its appeal to all those whom he new system disenfranchised, the poor, the powerless, and, yes, the orphans.”

Rushdie wrote: “The insistence within Islam that the Qur’an is the infallible, uncreated word of God renders analytic scholarly discourse all but impossible. Why would God be influenced by the socio-economics of 7th-century Arabis after all? Why would the Messenger’s personal circumstances have anything to do with the Message?...The traditionalists refusal of history plays right into the hands of the literalist Islamofascists allowing them to imprison Islam in their iron certainty and unchanging absolutes. If, however, the Qur’an were seen as a historical document, then it would be legitimate to reinterpret it to suit the new conditions of successive new ages. Laws made in the 7th century could finally give way to the needs of the 21st. Great Muslim scholars and thinkers include al-Farabi (10th century), Avicenna (11th century), Averroes (12th century), al-Ghazali (12th century) and Ash-Shatibi (13th century).

Age of the Caliphs

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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