Center for Faith and Vocation


History and Beliefs of Islam

Islam's origins can be traced back to the seventh century CE (AD) in an area of the Middle East which is now part of Saudi Arabia. It was during this period of history that Muhammad, the central founder of Islam, lived and taught his followers. In the earlier part of his life, Muhammad lived in the city of Mecca, now the holiest city in Islam. During one of his annual religious journeys to the nearby Mount Hira, Muhammad claimed to have been visited by the angel Gabriel, or Jibril. This began a series of trips to Mount Hira, and a series of revelations to Muhammad from God, or Allah.

The information imparted to Muhammad through these revelations was recorded by followers who had heard Muhammad recite it.1 The compilation of these recordings became the Qur'an, Islam's sacred text. The Qur'an is divided into 114 chapters, or suras; these are further divided into ayahs, or verses. The Qur'an recounts sacred history, some of which can also be found in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Christian New Testament. In fact, the Qur'an formally recognizes this connection between Jews, Christians and Muslims in referring to Jews and Christians as "people of the book." This term alludes to the fact that each of the groups received what Muslims considered a sacred book. Some of the central figures in the Bible also recognized as prophets in the Qur'an are Adam, Abraham and Jesus.

Another of the major themes of the Qur'an is the nature of God. The oneness and otherness of God are both highly emphasized. Sura 112:1-4 is an example of this: "Say: He is Allah, the One! Allah, the eternally Besought of all! He begets not nor was begotten. And there is none comparable unto Him."2 The nature of God is also expressed through the different names that refer to God throughout the Qur'an. The Qur'an uses 99 different names for God that serve to reveal a bit of what God is like. Some of the names used include The Beneficent, The Hearer, The Knower and The Merciful.

While the Qur'an is the most sacred text of Islam, Muslims also rely on the hadith for guidance and instruction. The hadith tradition includes sayings and teachings attributed to Muhammad. Included in the hadith3 are the so-called five pillars of Islam, which are among the better-known features of the religion. The first pillar, the shahadah, or confession, is the belief that "there is no God but God, and that Muhammad is his prophet." The second, salat, is the ritual of praying five times each day facing in the direction of Mecca. Muslims are also encouraged to attend prayer services at a mosque, especially on Friday around midday, as a means of fostering healthy communities. In some circumstances, however, it is not possible for Muslims to attend the mosque (because of travel or work schedules), so prayer outside a designated place of worship is also very common. The third pillar, zakat, is the payment of a charitable tax which goes towards the social good. The fourth pillar is sawm, which is the period of fasting between sunrise and sunset during the holy month of Ramadan. The fifth pillar is the hajj. This is a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, which every Muslim is expected to make in his or her lifetime if they are able and can afford it.

Although Islam's origins can be traced back to the Middle East, this should in no way suggest that the religion's adherents remain concentrated in that region of the world. While the Middle East is home to a good percentage of the world's Muslims, perhaps as many as 80% live elsewhere, especially in Asia and Northern Africa. It is a surprise to many that Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. And Islam is still spreading. While it is a difficult trend to measure, many sources claim that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.


1Molloy, Michael. Experiencing the World's Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change. 4th Ed. New York: McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2008
2Pickthall, Muhammad M. The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an. Beltsville, MD: amana publications, 2006.
3"Introduction to the Articles and Pillars of Islam" USC-MSA Compendium of Religion.

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