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Major Religions & Spiritual Beliefs, Islam


An example of Allah written in simple calligraphic Arabic

Origin of Islam as a World Religion

Historical origin of Islam

The growth of Islam today.
Islam is the largest religion after Christianity. According to the World Network of Religious Futurists (http://www.wnrf.org/news/trends.html), the U.S. Center for World Mission (http://www.religioustolerance.org/growth_isl_chr.htm), and the controversial Samuel Huntington, Islam is growing faster numerically than any other religion; this growth is attributed to a higher birth rate, and, disputed, higher rate of conversion than other religions. In the U.S., more people convert to Islam than any other faith, especially amongst African Americans.

The religion of Islam brought by Muhammad began in the Hejaz region of present-day Saudi Arabia in about 610, and according to adherents.com it now comprises 1.3 billion believers, 23% of the world's population. However, only 18% of Muslims live in the Arab world; a fifth is found in Sub-Saharan Africa, about 30% in the Indian subcontinental region of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and the world's largest single Muslim community (within the bounds of one nation) is in Indonesia. There are also significant Islamic populations in China, Europe (especially in the Mediterranean countries), the former Soviet Union, and South America. There are approximately 7 million believers in the USA and Canada. If the current growth rate of 1.76% per year (as of 2004) is simply extrapolated, Islam may reach 2 billion adherents shortly before 2030; it will not overtake Christianity before the 2070s, however, but since world population is projected to curb before that time, this estimate is unreliable.

The Suleiman Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii) in Istanbul was built on the order of sultan Suleiman the Magnificent by the great Ottoman architect Sinan in 1557

Denominations of Islam

There are a number of Islamic religious denominations, each of which has significant theological and legal differences from each other. The major branches are Sunni, Shi'a and Sufi Islam, although Sufism is often considered an extension of either Sunni or Shi'a thought. All denominations, however, follow the five pillars of Islam and believe in the six pillars of faith (mentioned earlier).

The Sunni sect of Islam comprises the majority of all Muslims (about 90%). It is broken into four similar schools of thought (madhhabs) which interpret specific pieces of Islam, such as which foods are halal (permissible), differently. They are named after their founders Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanafi, and Hanbali. Each school of thought differs on minor issues, although they agree on major points.

Shia Islam comprises most of the Muslims that are not counted among the Sunni. The Shia consist of one major school of thought known as the Jafaryia or the "Twelvers", and a few minor schools of thought, as the "Seveners" or the "Fivers" referring to the number of infallible leaders they recognise after the death of Muhammad. The term Shia is usually taken to be synonymous with the Jafaryia/Twelvers.

While some consider the Islamic mysticism called Sufism to constitute a separate branch, most Sufis can easily be considered Sunni or Shia. Sufism is the hardest to understand by non-practitioners because on first sight it seems that sufis are either of Shiah or Sunni denomination, but it is true that some sects of Sufism can be categorised as both Sunni and Shiah whilst others are not from either denomination. The distinction here is because the schools of thought (madhhabs) are regarding "legal" aspects of Islam, the "dos" and "don'ts", whereas Sufism deals more with perfecting the aspect of sincerity of faith, and fighting one's own ego. Other people may call themselves Sufis who may be perceived as having left Islam (or never followed Islam). There are also some very large groups or sects of Sufism that are not easily categorised as either Sunni or Shiah, such as the Bektashi or those that can be categorised as both at the same time, eg the Brelvi. Sufism is found more or less across the Islamic world, though bearing distinctive regional variations, from Senegal to Indonesia.

According to Shaikh al-Akbar Mahmood Shaltoot, Head of the al-Azhar University, the Ja'fari school of thought, which is also known as "al-Shia al- Imamiyyah al-Ithna Ashariyyah" (i.e., The Twelver Imami Shi'ites) is a school of thought that is religiously correct to follow in worship as are other Sunni schools of thought. This means that some regard there as being five schools of thought, while others say only four, counting the Shia as a different group.

Another denomination which dates back to the early days of Islam are the Kharijites. Members of this group in the present day are more commonly known as Ibadhi Muslims. A large number of Ibadhi Muslims today live in Oman.

Another more recent group are the "Wahhabis", though some classify them as the conservative branch of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam. "Wahhabism" is a movement founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab in the 18th century in what is present-day Saudi Arabia.

Another recent group is the Ijtihadists, which represents a wide variety of views alternatively known as progressive, liberal or secular Muslims. They may be either Sunni or Shiite, and generally favour the development of personal interpretations of Qur'an and Hadith.

Religions based on Islam

The following groups call themselves Muslims, but are not considered Islamic by Muslims and Muslim authorities:
  • The Ahmaddiya
  • The Druze
  • The Nation of Islam
  • The Zikris
The following religions might be said to have evolved or borrowed from Islam, but consider themselves independent religions with distinct laws and institutions:
  • Babism
  • Bahá'í Faith
  • Yazidi
Some see Sikhism as a syncretic mix of Hinduism and Islam. However, its history lies in the wars between local Indian peoples and invading Muslim armies. The philosophical basis of the Sikhs is deeply-rooted in Hindu metaphysics and certain philosophical practices. Sikhism also rejects image-worship and believes in one God, just like the Bhakti reform movement in Hinduism and also like Islam does. However, Sikhs are forbidden from practices such as eating ritually prepared meat (halal) that are central in Islam.

The following religions might have been said to have evolved from Islam, but are not considered part of Islam, and no longer exist:

  • The religion of the medieval Berghouata
  • The religion of Ha-Mim

The History of Islam

The History of Islam is the history of the Islamic faith and the world it shaped as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon. Its history begins in Arabia in the 7th century with the emergence of the prophet Muhammad. Within a century of his death, an Islamic state spread from the Atlantic ocean in the west to central Asia in the east. The later empires of the Abbasids, Mughals, and Ottomans were among the largest and most powerful in the world, while Islamic scientists and philosophers had a tremendous impact on world history as well. This is the history of Islam from 570 to the present.


By his death in 632, Muhammad had managed to unite the entire Arabian peninsula.Main Article: Muhammad

Before the time of Muhammad, Arabia was inhabited by Arabs, most of whom were Bedouin. At that time the majority of Arabs followed various polytheistic religions, based on ancestral gods and idol worship, although a few tribes followed Judaism, Christianity (including the followers of Nestorius) or Zoroastrianism. The city of Mecca was the primary religious and commercial center of the area due to the presence of the Ka'aba, a shrine thought to have been built by Abraham.

Muhammad was born on the outskirts of Mecca in the Year of the Elephant, which most Muslims equate with the Western year 570 but a few equate with 571. His father died before his birth, and his mother died at a very early age, so he was raised by his uncle Abu Talib. When he was about 25 years old, Muhammad married a wealthy widow, Khadija, who was 40, and began his career as a trader. Fifteen years later, according to Islamic tradition, he experienced his initial prophetic call, while meditating alone inside a cave in the hills above Mecca. Thus the origin of Islam as a religion can be dated from about 610.

Muslims believe that Muhammad was chosen by God, like prophets before him, to teach a sacred message. Though marginalized and opposed initially, Muhammad began to gain followers, most of whom came from lower classes and marginalized peasantry. The first wealthy men accepting the prophet-hood of Muhammad were Abu Bakr and Umar ibn al-Khattab.

As Islam attracted more believers, Muhammad encountered severe opposition by residents of Mecca who felt threatened because Islam undermined the pagan idols around the Ka'aba. The pagan idols around the Ka'aba were important to the residents of Mecca not only for religious reasons, but also for economic reasons. As pilgrims visited the idols in Mecca, they brought economic prosperity to the city, and many feared that a monotheistic religion would remove this source of prosperity and trade.

As Muhammad's opponents in Mecca began to organize to bring about an end to his prophecy, Muhammad withdrew with many of his followers to Medina in September of 622. This migration is called the Hijra, and its year is used to establish the Muslim calendar; thus the year 1 AH (Anno Hegirae) begins during 622. The AH system dates from the beginning of the lunar year in which the Hijra took place and lunar years are shorter than solar years, so it does not neatly coincide with the Julian or Gregorian year numbers. After three major battles against the Meccans, Muhammad returned to the city victorious and unopposed. Through conversion of allies and suppression of a few rebellions Muhammad had managed to unite the entire Arabian peninsula by his death on June 8, 632.

The spread of Islam

After Muhammad's death, Abu Bakr was accepted as caliph, or head of the Islamic state. The next three caliphs were all relatives of the prophet, but were succeeded by another household of the same Makkan tribe, a change not universally accepted, leading to the major division in Islam between the Sunnites (in the majority) and the Shiites (in the minority). The new household was the first major caliphate dynasty, the Umayyads, who conquered the Sassanian empire (Persia) and the southern Byzantine provinces as far as Spain. See also Ali Ben Abu Talib

Most Muslims believe that when Muhammad died in 632, he did not name a successor. The next four leaders of Islam are known as the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs. Abu Bakr was the first as he was the oldest and seen as the wisest; he was Muhammad's father-in-law, and he laid foundations for the years ahead uniting the tribes of Arabia under Islam. He began the great wave of Muslim conquests, initiating the advance into Syria, leading to the decisive victory against the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Yarmuk. Umar was next, and he conquered Persia, Syria, Egypt, and northern Africa. After him came Uthman, who conquered even more territory and developed a navy based in Alexandria, Egypt. Within three generations the Muslims had gone from being a group of wandering camel-herders to being in charge of one of the largest empires the world has ever known.

The zenith of Islamic power

When Uthman died, Ali Ben Abu Talib became Caliph. Ali was a cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. Ali was the husband of Fatima Zahra, Muhammad's daughter. There are people that believe that he should have been the first Caliph because he was named by the prophet. This was rejected by the majority of Muslims who said that the best person for the task of leader should be chosen. His supporters were known as Shi'a ul Ali, (of Party of Ali) or Shi'a for short. The Shi'a believe that the other three Caliphs were illegitimate because they were not named by the prophet. Over time, differences between Shi'a Muslims and Sunni Muslim rose, to the point that a few Sunni leaders hold that Shi'a is not truly a form of Islam (and vice-versa). These are, however, a small minority of the leaders.

The majority of this new empire was of course non-Muslim, and aside from a protection tax (jizya) the conquered people found their religions tolerated. Nonetheless the new religion penetrated deeply, to the point where conversions were discouraged since they might have been motivated by avoiding taxes, rather than true belief, and choosing a religion should override such economic concerns. At the same time the Umayyads had dedicated their prestige to conquering the Byzantine empire, and started running into real opposition from the Orthodox provinces. Thus there was a revolution in 750, and a new dynasty, the Abbasids, took the caliphate, marking the transition to a more settled empire and a, disputed, golden age.

The decline of political unity

The political unity of Islam began to disintegrate. The emirates, still recognizing the theoretical leadership of the caliphs, drifted into independence, and a brief revival of control was ended with the establishment of two rival caliphates: the Fatimids in north Africa, and the Umayyads in Spain (the emirs there being descended from an escaped member of that family). Eventually the Abbasids ruled as puppets for the Buwayhid emirs.

A series of new invasions swept over the Islamic world. First, the newly converted Seljuk Turks swept across and conquered most of Islamic Asia, hoping to restore orthodox rule and defeat the Fatimids but soon falling prey to political decentralization themselves. After the disastrous defeat of the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 the west launched a series of Crusades and for a time captured Jerusalem. Saladin however restored unity, defeated the Fatimids and recaptured the city, and later crusades accomplished little other than the looting of Constantinople, leaving the Byzantine empire open to conquest.

Meanwhile, though, a second and far more serious invasion had arrived: that of the Mongols, who conquered most territories up to the borders of Egypt, and permanently ended the Abbasid caliphate. Their wanton destruction left the Islamic world damaged and confused. However it reached a new peak under the Ottoman empire, a tiny state in Turkey that conquered the Byzantines and extended its influence over much of the Muslim peoples.

The Ottoman empire

The Ottoman empire even threatened to conquer Europe. However, in 1529 the Siege of Vienna failed, stopping the advance of the Ottoman Empire into Eastern Europe. The Battle of Vienna in 1683 began the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire from Eastern Europe and later the Balkans.

Three muslim empires

In the 18th century there were three great Muslim empires: the Ottoman in Turkey, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean; the Safavid in Iran; and the Mogul in India. By the end of the 19th century, all three had been destroyed or weakened by massive influence of Western civilizations.

Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (1703–1792) led a religious movement in the east of Arabia that saw itself as purifying Islam. His most important follower was the then leader of the family of ibn Saud, which came with massive funding and political support. This movement is controversial among Muslims, as its adherents claim to follow the Quran and Sunnah while rejecting traditional Islamic scholarship regarding Fiqh. But so, too, do other movements in more modern Islamic philosophy, some of which claim also to be purifying or restoring Islam, in particular, to be renewing ijtihad.

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