Tenets of Islam

Lebanon Table of Contents

In A.D. 610 Muhammad (later known as the Prophet), a merchant belonging to the Hashimite branch of the ruling Quraysh tribe in the Arabian town of Mecca, began to preach the first of a series of revelations granted him by God through the angel Gabriel. A fervent monotheist, Muhammad denounced the polytheism of his fellow Meccans. Because, the town's economy was based largely on the thriving pilgrimage business to the Kaabah shrine and numerous polytheist religious sites located there, this vigorous censure eventually earned him the bitter enmity of the town's leaders. In 622 he and a group of followers were invited to the town of Yathrib, which came to be known as Medina (from Madinat an Nabi--The Prophet's City). The move, or hijra (known in the West as the Hegira) marks the beginning of the Islamic era and of Islam as a force in history. The Muslim calendar, based on the lunar year, begins in 622. In Medina, Muhammad continued to preach, eventually defeated his detractors in battle, and consolidated both the temporal and the spiritual leadership of all Arabia in his person. He entered Mecca in triumph in 630.

After Muhammad's death in 632, his followers compiled those of his words regarded as coming directly and literally from God as the Quran, the holy scripture of Islam. His other sayings and teachings and precedents of his personal behavior, recalled by those who had known him during his lifetime, became the hadith. Together they form the sunna, a comprehensive guide to the spiritual, ethical, and social life of the orthodox Muslim. The shahada (literally, testimony or creed) succinctly states the central belief of Islam: "There is no god but God (Allah), and Muhammad is the Prophet of God." This simple profession of faith is repeated on many ritual occasions, and its recital in full and unquestioning sincerity designates one a Muslim.

Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is a monotheistic religion that acknowledges the absolute sovereignty of God. Islam means submission (to God), and one who submits is a Muslim. Muhammad is the "seal of the prophets;" his revelation is said to complete for all time the series of revelations received by Jews and Christians.

The duties of the Muslim form the five pillars of the faith. These are the recitation of the creed (shahada), daily prayer (salat), almsgiving (zakat), fasting (sawm), and pilgrimage (haj). These religious obligations apply to all Muslims, although there are slight variants in the beliefs of Shias as opposed to Sunnis. The believer is to pray in a prescribed manner after purification through ritual ablutions each day at dawn, midday, midafternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Prescribed body movements accompany the prayers, which the worshiper recites while facing toward Mecca. Whenever possible, men pray in congregation at the mosque under a prayer leader or imam and on Friday, the holy day, are obliged to do so. In the early days of Islam, the authorities imposed zakat as a tax on personal property proportionate to one's wealth; this was distributed to the mosques and to the needy. The fourth pillar occurs in the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, Ramadan, a period of obligatory fasting throughout the daylight hours in commemoration of Muhammad's receipt of God's revelation, the Quran. Finally, all Muslims at least once in their lifetime should if possible make the haj to the holy city of Mecca to participate in special rites held there during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar.

A Muslim stands in a personal relationship to God; there is no clergy in orthodox Islam. Those who lead prayers, preach sermons, and interpret the law do so by virtue of their superior knowledge and scholarship rather than because of any special prerogative conferred by ordination.

Sunni and Shia Muslims differ over the fundamental issue of succession. The Prophet neither designated his successor nor decreed how a successor should be chosen. Some members of the Muslim community (umma) believed Muhammad's successor should be a close blood relative of the Prophet, i.e., Ali, who was a member of the Hashimite line, the Prophet's cousin, and the husband of Fatima, Muhammad's sole surviving daughter. Other Muslims believed such kinship was not a necessary prerequisite and held that the caliph (from khalifa--successor) should be chosen by the community. A split in the ideally egalitarian and harmonious umma developed over this issue. The rift subsequently generated the two major divisions of Islam: Shia, from Shiat Ali (the party of Ali), and Sunni, from men of the Sunna and Jamaa (i.e., those who favored a leader chosen by the community).

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress