(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)



Islam is a major world religion, the second largest (after Christianity). Its more than 1.28 billion adherents (2004 est.), called Muslims (or Moslems), make up just over one-fifth of the Earth's population. The Muslim world extends from the Philippines in the east to Morocco in the west, and from Central Asia in the north to sub-Saharan Africa in the south. Significant Muslim minorities also exist in China, Russia, South Africa, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. Islam was first proclaimed by the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia in the 7th century. The Arabic word islam literally means both "surrender" and "peace"—surrender to the will of God (Allah) and the peace that is entailed in that surrender. Islam is a monotheistic religion (see monotheism); like Judaism and Christianity, it traces its origins to the biblical patriarch Abraham.

Islam has found expression in diverse cultures. The most important Islamic cultural zones are the Arab, Persian (Iranian), Turkic, South Asian, Malay, and African. Other smaller or more recent culture areas such as the African American and Chinese are also significant. The Arabs are associated with the rise of Islam, Arabic is Islam's sacred language, and the Arab countries of the Middle East have had a strong influence on the development of Islamic civilization. The majority of Muslims, however, are not Arabs. The country with the largest Muslim population today is Indonesia, and the most populous Islamic cultural zone is South Asia, comprising India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Muslims are divided into different schools of thought, some of which are distinctive enough to be called sects. The most fundamental division is between the Sunnites and the Shiites. The Sunnites (or Sunnis) are by far the largest group, constituting about 83% of all Muslims. Shiites (16%), however, have played an important role in Islamic history. Most Shiites live in the heartland of the Middle East: in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf states. Sizable Shiite minorities also live in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Tajikistan. Shiite Islam is itself divided into different sects, the most important of which are the Twelvers (or Imamis) and the Ismailis. These divisions were the results of disputes over the sources of religious and political authority in the Islamic community. The Sunnites are divided not along sectarian lines but into different legal traditions.

The Foundations of Islam

The sources of the Islamic faith are the Koran, or Qur'an (Arabic for "the reading"), which is the holy book of Islam, and the Prophetic Traditions (the sunna). According to Muslim belief, the Koran is the word of God that was revealed to Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel and was recorded by the companions of the Prophet. In later years these renditions were canonized. Muhammad was illiterate, incapable of achieving the Koran's sophisticated prose and literary style. The Koran is therefore the miracle of Muhammad, whose illiteracy serves the same function in Islam as the virginity of Mary does in Christianity—that of the untainted vessel for the revelation of divine truth. The Koran consists of 114 chapters (suras), which were revealed to the Prophet over a period of time. They cover a variety of issues, including ethics, history, theology, and religious obligations. The Koran contains the fundamental teachings of the faith and is the foundation of all other expressions of Islam in both the temporal and spiritual realms. Muslims hold it in the highest esteem. Not only are its contents of central concern to their piety, but reading the Koran is itself an act of religious significance. It is generally read in the original Arabic, to preserve the sacredness that is interwoven with its literary style and to remain true to the nuances and levels of meaning that would be lost in a translation. Over the centuries, commentaries on the Koran became an important aspect of Islamic religious scholarship. Varying methods of interpreting its texts formed the basis for different schools of Islamic thought. The text itself, however, has remained inviolate.

After the Koran, the Prophetic Traditions are the most important foundation of Islam. For Muslims, Muhammad is the messenger of God. He is also the most perfect of God's creatures, best suited to carry his message to humankind. Love for the Prophet lies at the heart of the Islamic faith, inseparable from the word of God that constitutes the essence of Islam. The example of the Prophet has thus conditioned the practice of the faith. Muslims emulate the example of the Prophet in every facet of their religious, social, and personal lives. His public and private conduct serves as a model for every Muslim. For this reason, great care has been taken to preserve the memory of his words (ahadith; sing., hadith) and deeds.

Muhammad was a member of the powerful Quraysh tribe of Mecca at a time when the city was the center of trade in the Arabian peninsula and of the idolatrous religion of the Arabian tribes. He lost both of his parents while very young and was raised by an uncle. In his youth he worked as a trader, traveling with caravans to Syria. At the age of 25 he married a wealthy widow, Kadijah, who was 15 years older than he was. This marriage produced the Prophet's only child, his daughter, Fatima. Muhammad was held in great respect by his compatriots; known as al-Amin (the trustworthy), he often arbitrated quarrels between individuals and tribes.

When he was 40 the archangel Gabriel appeared to him in a cave outside Mecca, beginning the revelation of the Koran. Muhammad's prophetic mission initially attracted only a small group of dedicated followers. The Meccan elite were alarmed by his monotheism and his call for the destruction of all idols. They opposed him, harassed his followers, and plotted to kill him. In 622 he was invited by the people of Yathrib (later renamed Medina) to move to that city and settle the disputes that had paralyzed it. With this move, called the Hegira, the Muslim calendar begins.

In Yathrib the Muslim community was formed and grew in strength. Islam became the religion of Yathrib, and the city's religious, social, economic, and political life was organized according to Islamic teachings. At the same time, Muhammad continued to receive revelation, much of it now concerning the social life of the community. From Yathrib, Islam began to spread and soon came into conflict with Mecca. The Meccans were defeated in a series of battles, and the city surrendered to Muhammad in 630. From then on Islam spread rapidly throughout Arabia. Tribes were converted, and military campaigns and marriage pacts forged a united Islamic society. Muhammad died in 632 and was buried in Medina.

From the time of Muhammad's arrival in Yathrib he was both a prophet and the religious and political leader of his community. Their mediator with God, he was also a temporal ruler, the executor of the law, and a military commander. As a result, the spiritual function of prophecy in Islam is closely linked to its sociopolitical dimension. Muhammad has been a model not only for Muslim piety but also for social and political action. His example therefore informs every aspect of Muslim life, and conversely, every aspect of human life must live up to the standards set by him.

Islamic Beliefs

The most basic Islamic doctrine is that of the Oneness of God (al-tawhid). In Islam, God (Allah) is the supreme reality—both the absolute and the infinite. Islam has 99 names for God, names such as the Most Merciful, the Most Just, and the Most Patient—each capturing his absolute and infinite essence. God is also the beginning and the end: every aspect of existence is present in him. He is the creator and the lawgiver. He is a supernatural reality and does not possess an earthly manifestation. Muslims believe that God cannot be represented in any worldly form. This has discouraged the representational arts in Islam.

Another key doctrine is that of prophecy (nubuwwah). Muslims believe that prophecy lies at the heart of human history, beginning with Adam as the first prophet and ending with Muhammad as the last. Over the course of history, prophets have been sent to every people. All of these have spoken of God; a few have been Messengers of God, bearing divine revelation (wahy).

Al-tawhid and nubuwwah are complemented by the Islamic view of man. In Islam, man is the servant of God (al-abd). By surrendering (islam) to the will of God he finds salvation and worldly peace. Man is also the most important of God's creatures, his vice-regent (kalifah) on Earth. As such man's actions possess broader dimensions than his own concerns. As God's vice-regent man has great responsibilities to fulfill. Men and women stand above the other creatures of God in that they alone can choose to surrender to God's will. The choice is a facet of man's fall from heaven. Vice-regency means that human beings possess the primordial nature that predated their expulsion from paradise, but their salvation lies in following the path set before them by God.

The Sharia and Islamic Law

The Sharia is the divine law in Islam. It encompasses every aspect of Muslim private life, social transactions, piety, and rituals. Muslims view the Sharia as a guide by which to live and, more important, as the will of God. A Muslim is a Muslim by virtue of following the Sharia, which informs every area of Muslim life from birth to death with Islamic values. As such, it integrates mundane activities with concern for the sacred and creates a temporal order conducive to the pursuit of spiritual concerns and salvation. The Sharia provides guidance for Muslim conduct in every situation. In so doing it divides all acts into five categories: obligatory, recommended, reprehensible, forbidden, and neutral or permitted.

The Sharia is rooted in the Koran—the Prophet's sayings (ahadith)—and traditions (sunna)—argument from the consensus of the Muslim community (ijma) and argument from analogy (qiyas). All Muslims agree that these constitute the sources of Islamic law, but they differ on their application. These differences have led to the emergence of four schools of Islamic law within the Sunnite community: the Shafiite (Egypt, Malaysia, and Indonesia), the Hanafite (South Asia), the Malikite (North Africa), and the Hanbalite (Saudi Arabia). Each is named for a legal scholar associated with its origins. In earlier times Muslim jurists used a principle called ijtihad, which means independent reasoning based on the above sources of law in order to deal with a novel situation. Among Sunnites ijtihad is no longer recognized, but Shiites still practice it. Over the centuries the legal skills required for interpreting and applying the law have led to the development of a class of experts known as fuqaha (jurists), and more generally as ulama (scholars).

The Pillars of the Faith

The basic duties of Muslims—the "pillars of Islam"—were revealed in the Koran, and the exact manner of their execution was laid down by the Prophet. They are the following: prescribed prayers (salat) performed five times each day; fasting (sawm) during the month of Ramadan between dawn and dusk; the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), to be performed at least once in a lifetime for those who have the means to do it; and the payment of a religious tax (zakat) intended for the poor or works of piety. Some also include "striving in the path of God" (jihad), which is of two kinds: the greater jihad, which is striving against one's soul in attaining spirituality; and the lesser jihad, defending Muslims against outside aggression.

These duties have both personal and public dimensions. Prayers, for example, may be performed at home or in a mosque (a place of public worship). Among Sunnites congregational prayers have an important religious and communal role. Each of these duties, moreover, entails many more practices. The hajj involves elaborate rituals, and the Ramadan fast is accompanied by special prayers. Shiites have additional religious taxes and other practices that are peculiar to them; they also perform the basic pillars of the faith according to their own laws.


Islam also has an esoteric or mystical dimension generally known as Sufism. The mystical path in Islam is rooted in the fundamental teachings of the faith, but it aims at attaining the Divine Reality in this life. Sufism goes beyond performing the duties prescribed by the Islamic faith to seek direct knowledge of God through Islamic teachings. The Sufi path (tariqa) is concerned with the nature of the Divine Reality, how it can be attained, and how to purify the human soul from all imperfections so that it can reflect the Divine Reality.

The life of a Sufi is modeled after the life of the Prophet, and the virtues for which Sufis strive are manifested in the life of the Prophet. Moreover, Sufis believe that the esoteric doctrines of Islam were revealed to the Prophet, who then passed them on to a select group of Muslims. All schools of Sufism trace their teachings directly back to the Prophet, whose esoteric teachings and life are the fountainhead of Sufism.

Sufi doctrines have evolved over the centuries into a rich corpus of mystical texts, among them those of the philosopher Muhy al-Din ibn Arabi (1165-1240) and the poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi. Islamic mysticism undergirds Islamic art and architecture, poetry, and philosophy.

The relationship between the esoteric and exoteric dimensions of Islam has been a complex one. In certain instances Muslim legal experts have viewed Sufism as latitudinarian; at other times Sufism has been incorporated into the education of religious divines. Sufism has to varying degrees become a central feature of Islamic life from Morocco to Indonesia. It has defined the shape of folk religion, as in North Africa and South Asia, and has also emerged as a formal doctrine and a path for those bent on realizing the Divine Truth in the here and now.

Sufism is organized in the form of numerous orders or brotherhoods, all of which trace their origins to the same source but which differ on various points of doctrine and on their method of reaching the Divine Reality. The most important orders are the Chishtiyya (South Asia), the Nakshbandiyya (Central Asia, Turkey, Syria, Iran), the Nimataliyya (Iran), the Qadiriyya (West Africa, Middle East, South Asia), and the Shadhiliyya (North Africa). A Sufi order governs the practice of Sufism and is often centered in a hospice (khanaqa). It organizes Sufi members into a hierarchy, at the head of which is the Sufi master (shaikh, pir, or murshid). The hierarchy is symbolic of the Sufi's spiritual journey from novice to master. The community's organization promotes concentration, learning, and character. To join the Sufi order, a novice must undergo initiation, declare his commitment to the spiritual path, and submit his soul to the guidance of the Sufi master, who leads the novice to the realization of Absolute Truth, which is God.

Shiites and Sunnites

Because the majority of Muslims are Sunnites, Islam is generally associated with Sunnism. Shiism, however, has a distinct, rich, and sophisticated tradition of theology, law, philosophy, and sociopolitical doctrine.

The origins of the Shiite-Sunnite split go back to the early centuries of Islam and involve questions of both authority and belief. When the Prophet died, the elders of the Muslim community chose his close companion Abu Bakr as his successor, the first caliph (see caliphate). His successors, Umar I and Uthman, were chosen in the same fashion. Uthman (r. 644-56) appointed many of his relatives as governors in newly acquired Muslim lands; the ensuing discontent led to revolts, ending with Uthman's murder. Uthman was succeeded by Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali. Believing that Ali did not properly avenge Uthman's death, the latter's relatives led a revolt against Ali, causing his assassination in 661. In the same year, one of Uthman's family, Muawiyah I, deposed Ali's son and successor, Hasan, and made himself caliph.

Thus within a short period after the Prophet's death, two caliphs had been murdered and the Islamic community had been divided by a bloody civil war. Some Muslims concluded that the problem lay in the manner in which the community had chosen its caliphs. God, they argued, would not reveal himself to man without also providing him with guides to lead him in the right path. The prophetic insight of Muhammad must have been passed on to successors whom God had willed to rule but who had been passed over. These Muslims gradually identified Ali, the fourth caliph, as the Prophet's rightful heir, believing that Muhammad had so designated him in the last year of his life. They maintained that Ali should have succeeded the Prophet and that after Ali's death the right to rule was passed on to his progeny through his sons by the Prophet's daughter, Fatima. These Muslims became known as Shiites (from shiat Ali, "the party of Ali").

The Shiite view gained greater strength when Ali's second son, Husayn ibn Ali, challenged the right of Muawiyah's son Yazid to the caliphate. Husayn was defeated, and he and his followers were massacred at the Battle of Karbala (680). A feeling of shame and grief among Shiites for not having risen in aid of the Prophet's favorite grandson consolidated Shiism into a distinct sect within Islam. They rejected the authority of the Umayyads (the successors of Muawiyah), believing that the rightful rulers of the Muslim community were a line of imams (leaders) beginning with Ali and extending through his descendants.

Over the centuries Shiism produced distinctive schools of law, theology, and philosophy. For a time the Shiites established a rival caliphate, the Fatimids, which ruled Egypt and North Africa from the 10th to the 12th century. In the 16th century they rose to power in Iran; since then Iran has been the only Shiite-dominated state, although Shiites are a majority in Iraq and Bahrain and are the largest community in Lebanon.

Although the break between the Shiites and Sunnites began with the question of succession, over time the two have developed markedly different expressions of the Islamic message. Each views itself as the genuine orthodoxy, not as a reform of the other. Shiism grew to be more mystical in orientation, to believe in intercession of saints on behalf of man before God, to practice elaborate rituals around commemoration of the deaths of imams and visitation of saints' shrines; it also emphasizes mercy over justice, and faith over good works. Shiism also developed more fully a class of religious scholars to interpret the law for the faithful. The most senior of these are popularly known as ayatollahs ("signs of God").

Islamic Theology and Philosophy

In addition to jurisprudence and mysticism, Islamic thought also found expression in theology (kalam) and philosophy (falsafah). Theology in Islam has evolved over the centuries through a number of schools of thought. The central questions that have divided these schools and influenced the development of Islamic theology are free will and determinism, and the nature of the sacred text as the word of God. The most important schools are the Mutazilites and the Asharites. The Mutazilites sought to explain God's transcendent reality through reason. They viewed God as an abstract unity separate from his attributes and denied the eternity of the Koran. The Mutazilites were successfully challenged by the Asharites, who curtailed the use of reason. They accepted the reality of divine attributes but distinguished them from attributes that could be formulated by humans. They also insisted on the reality of the Koran as an uncreated and eternal text. The Asharites have been the dominant school of Sunnite theology since the 10th century.

Islamic philosophy evolved from the Muslim encounter with Greek philosophy and is an integration of Islamic monotheism with Aristotelian and Neoplatonic thought. This fusion produced the Peripatetic school associated with al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averro‘s. Later schools of Islamic philosophy, such as that of Shihad al-Din Suhrawardi, bear the imprint of ancient Iranian wisdom and Islamic mysticism.

Islamic History

The history of Islam truly begins with the the Prophet Muhammad's migration from Mecca to Medina and the emergence of the first Islamic society. The Prophet's rule in Medina produced the earliest Islamic institutions, including those of religious-political authority, law, and economic organization. It was also in this period that Islam spread throughout Arabia and was consolidated as a society. The era of Prophetic rule was followed by the first four caliphs (632-61): Abu Bakr, Umar I, Uthman, and Ali, venerated by Sunnites as true religious and political leaders. Their period, known as the Rashidun (rightly guided) caliphate, is idealized in Sunnite Islam along with the Prophetic period as the era of genuine Islamic rule. In addition to embodying the values of Islamic rule and social organization, the Rashidun caliphate coincided with a remarkable territorial expansion of Islam. During the reign of Umar in particular, Muslim tribal armies spread out of Arabia to destroy the Sassanian empire and drive the Byzantine Empire out of the Levant, conquering Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran and establishing an Islamic empire.

The consolidation of power under Muawiyah I produced the Umayyad dynasty (661-750), which ruled from Damascus and pushed the boundaries of Muslim conquest west as far as Spain and east to the borders of India. Shiite dissent, combined with tensions resulting from the incorporation of non-Arabs (Persians and others) into the Islamic community, finally brought an end to Umayyad rule and brought the Abbasid dynasty to power.

The Abbasids (750-1258) moved the capital of the empire to Baghdad. Under their rule the caliphate reached the height of its power, and Islamic thought, the arts, and literature were at their apogee. At the same time, Islam spread among the Turks, who became active at the court in Baghdad. Tensions between Arabs and Persians on the one hand, and between growing urban centers and the agricultural economy on the other, led to an increase in the power of the Turkish generals and guards. The Turkish guards eventually became a power in their own right, ruling in the name of the caliph, whom they controlled.

From 945 on, the weakening of the caliphate led to the rise of regional rulers who governed in the caliph's name but were largely independent. The most notable of these were the Persian Buyids and the Turkic Seljuks of Iran; the Ayyubids and Mamelukes of Egypt; the Ghaznavids, who began the Islamic penetration of India; and the Almoravids and Almohads, who ruled North Africa and Spain. The Abbasid caliphate came to an end with the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258. The office of caliph, later claimed by the Ottoman sultans of Turkey, was officially abrogated by the Republic of Turkey in 1924.

Authority in the post-Abbasid Muslim world was eventually consolidated in three powerful states: the Ottoman Empire (c.1300-1922) in Anatolia, the Arab Middle East, North Africa, and eastern and central Europe; the Shiite Safavid empire (1502-1736) in Iran, Caucasia, and Central Asia; and the Mogul empire (1526-1858) in India. All three empires were established and ruled by Turkish dynasties. They represented a resurgence of Muslim power and oversaw new cultural formulations. The Ottomans incorporated the Byzantine culture of their predecessors at Constantinople; the Moguls were influenced by the civilization of their Indian subjects; and the Safavids founded the first real Shiite sociocultural order. The arts flourished in all three states. Some of the finest examples of Islamic art and architecture belong to this period—among them the mosques of Isfahan, the Taj Mahal, and the miniature painting of Mogul India. The Ottoman Empire lasted the longest of the three. Although it gradually relinquished its control over North Africa and the Balkans to the European powers in the 19th century, it ruled Anatolia and the Arab Middle East until the end of World War I.

Meanwhile, Islam was spread through Southeast Asia and West Africa in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, mostly by peaceful contacts with Muslim traders.

In the 19th century many Muslim lands fell under the rule of European colonial regimes, emerging as independent nation-states in the mid-20th century. Muslims responded to internal fragmentation, the decline of their worldly power, and the intellectual challenges of the West by reexamining their history and traditions. Some argued for recapturing the essence of the Islamic message but saw that essence as reflected in the values of modern thought. These Islamic modernists, people such as Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) of Egypt, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98) of India, and more recently Ali Shariati (1933-77) of Iran, were of great intellectual significance but did not produce a lasting following among Muslims. Others have advocated a militant defense of the Islamic faith and a return to its pristine values. These militants are often referred to as Islamic revivalists or fundamentalists (see Al Qaeda; bin Laden, Osama; Hamas; Hezbollah; Islamic Jihad; Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah; Muslim Brotherhood). The majority of Muslims, however, have remained aloof from these intellectual and political debates. They continue to live according to their time-honored traditions, embodying the cultural, ethical, and spiritual ideals of Islam.

S. V. R. Nasr

Further Reading:

Ahmed, Akbar, Living Islam: From Samarkand to Stornoway (1994).

Armstrong, Karen, Islam: A Short History, rev. ed. (2002).

Aslan, Reza, No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (2005).

Barrett, Paul, American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion (2007).

Berman, Paul, Terror and Liberalism (2003).

Bloom, Jonathan, and Blair, Sheila S., Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power (2000).

Brooks, Geraldine, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (1996).

Brown, L. Carl, Religion and the State: The Muslim Approach to Politics (2000).

Dabashi, Hamid, et al., Shi'ism Doctrines, Thought, and Spirituality (1988).

Esposito, John L., Islam: The Straight Path, rev. ed. (1990), What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam (2002), as ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, 4 vols. (1995), and The Oxford History of Islam (2000).

Feldman, Noah, The Rise and Fall of the Islamic State (2008).

Gibb, H. A. R., Studies in the Civilization of Islam (1982).

Gottschalk, Peter, and Greenbert, Gabriel, Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy (2007).

Harris, Lee, The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam's Threat to the West (2007).

Hill, Fred James, and Awde, Nicholas, A History of the Islamic World (2003).

Hodgson, M. S., The Venture of Islam, 3 vols. (1974).

Hovannisian, Richard G., and Sabagh, Georges, eds., Religion and Culture in Medieval Islam (1999).

Kelsay, John, Arguing the Just War in Islam (2007).

Kepel, Gilles, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (2004).

Lawrence, Bruce B., Shattering the Myth: Islam beyond Violence (1998).

Lewis, Bernard, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (2003).

Lewis, David Levering, God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 (2008).

Lings, Martin, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (1988).

Naipaul, V. S., Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981), and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998).

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, The Heart of Islam (2002), and Traditional Islam in the Modern World (1987).

Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (2007).

Ramadan, Tariq, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (2003).

Rejwan, Nissim, ed., The Many Faces of Islam: Perspectives on a Resurgent Civilization (2000).

Roy, Olivier, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (2004).

Schimmel, Annemarie, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (1975).

Schulze, Reinhard, A Modern History of the Islamic World (2000).

Smith, Jane I., Islam in America (1999).

Tamimi, Azzam, and Esposito, John L., Islam and Secularism in the Middle East (2000).

Tayob, Abdulkader, Islam: A Short Introduction (1999).

Trofimov, Yaroslav, Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu (2005).

Watt, W. M., Islamic Philosophy and Theology (1962).