Islam Arabic for “submission,” specifi cally, submission to the will of God; a religion that took fi nal form in Arabia after revelations to the prophet MUHAMMAD (570–632 C.E.). People who practice the religion are called Muslims (earlier spelled Moslems).


Muslims call the time before the prophet Muhammad al-Jahiliya, “the times of ignorance.” At that time seminomadic herders, caravaners, and townspeople lived in Arabia. Their primary loyalty was to their clans, and their religions were polytheistic and local. The revelations to Muhammad proclaimed that human beings owed primary loyalty to the one true God, whom alone they should obey (see ALLAH). As a result a new community, the Ummah of Islam, was created, based not on blood relationship but on shared FAITH. Muslims date its existence from the hijra (also spelled hegira), the fl ight of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622. After the prophet’s death, the revelations he had received were collected and compiled into a book known as the QUR’AN. Over the next 300 years, scholars collected stories of the prophet’s deeds and sayings, the HADITH. At the same time, several schools of thought arose. The most important disagreement divided a minority of Muslims, known as Shi’ites, from most other Muslims, known as Sunnis (see SHI’ITE ISLAM and SUNNI ISLAM). Sunnis accepted the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled in Damascus, while Shi’ites claimed that the prophet’s male descendants should lead the community of Islam.

Islam expanded rapidly. Within a century of the prophet’s death, it extended from Spain and Morocco in the west through the Near East and Iran to central Asia in the east. In 750 the Abbasid dynasty succeeded the Umayyads and, ruling from Baghdad, presided over a magnifi cent civilization. During this period Islam developed sophisticated traditions of philosophy and profound schools of MYSTICISM, known as SUFISM. After the fall of the Abbasids in 1258, the Islamic world was divided among regional powers. The powerful Turks overthrew Constantinople in 1453 and lay siege to Vienna, Austria, in the 1520s and again in 1683. The Mughals produced great monuments of South Asian civilization, including the famed Taj Mahal, a mausoleum in Agra, India. From South Asia, Islam spread east to Indonesia, the most populous Islamic country today. In Africa south of the Sahara, Muslims also developed several long-lasting societies. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European colonizers overran much of the Islamic world and ruled it until after World War II (1939–45). Some Muslims, including Turkish reformers, reacted by rejecting Islamic traditions as outmoded. They adopted a secular worldview informed by modern science. Others, like the South Asian poet Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), maintained that Islam provided a spiritual grounding for science. From the 1930s on in North America some African Americans found meaning in the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, who led an organization known as the Nation of Islam (see ISLAM, NATION OF); many Muslims in other parts of the world question whether Elijah Muhammad was actually teaching Islam.

Islam in the World Today

At the beginning of the 21st century, Islam fi nds itself second only to CHRISTIANITY in its number of active adherents among the religions of the world. The sharp decline in the practice of BUDDHISM and the other traditional religions of China after the communist triumph in 1949 contributed to Islam’s status as the world’s second-largest religion.

Moreover, seldom in the history of the religions of the world has the outer status of a religion changed as dramatically as has Islam since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1900, most Muslims lived under the humiliating colonial rule of professedly Christian overlords—British, French, Dutch, or Russian—or in weak and backward Muslim empires, the Ottoman and Persian. Most of the Muslim world was sunk in poverty and underdeveloped. Many, among both Muslims and non-Muslims, had a sense that Islamic culture was stagnant, its day perhaps past. In 2000, the situation was radically different. Virtually all Muslim societies were independent nations by then, and some had become wealthy and technologically advanced, mostly from oil revenue. Vibrant new Islamic cultural and political movements insisted that, far from dead, Islam was a contemporary way of life that had much to offer the world in the various moral and economic crises it now faced. But Islam’s new confi dence and assertiveness sometimes led to harsh confrontations with the non-Muslim world around it. Many of these confl icts stemmed from Muslim unease. Islamic economic and political gains were far from evenly distributed. Some nations, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were rich, while others, like Bangladesh and some of the Muslim African states, remained among the poorest on earth. Some Muslim governments, while independent, were corrupt and undemocratic. Some Muslims felt that, despite independence, the West still exercised far too much infl uence, both economic and cultural, in their societies. They saw Muslim offi cials as too easily swayed by Western alliances and money. Some devout Muslims believed that their young people were being seduced by false Western fashions, values, and loose sexual mores. Recent Islamic history has been largely shaped by the underlying problem of what an authentic Muslim society in the modern world would be like and how it could be actualized. The first responses tended to say that to be relevant, Islamic societies must modernize, westernize, and to a great extent secularize. By the 1970s, however, a powerful reaction against such policies had set in.
Many modernized Muslims did not fi nd the fruits of such progress as gratifying as they had been promised, and instead they only felt spiritually lost and alienated from their own culture. Some had studied in Western countries and came back feeling that the West was itself far from ideal. Indeed, much about it offended them. Their idea instead was to create a society that, in a way they contended Islam itself had not been for many centuries, was thoroughly and consistently Islamic. It should follow the SHARIAH, or code of Islamic law; give Islamic teachers and scholars an important role in government; distribute wealth fairly in accordance with Islamic ideals of justice and brotherhood; and resist all non-Muslim infl uence in such matters as dress, family life, education, and the role of women. This was the program of the revolution in Iran in 1979, which overthrew the monarchy of the pro-Western Shah to create such an Islamic state. Similar movements, though not as successful politically except for a while in Afghanistan and Libya, have become important and infl uential elsewhere. Some have resorted to violence (see AL-QAEDA and HAMAS). Others, in relatively stable nations such as Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, have been content to function as normal political parties. In still other lands, such as Algeria, Egypt, and Iraq, the situation remained complex, volatile, and uncertain. Early in the 21st century, there were scattered signs of growing moderation on both sides, as “Islamic revolution” countries like Iran began to liberalize somewhat and secularists recognized the stature of Islam as a civilization. But the future shape and role of the Islamic one-fi fth of the world remains open. A further important factor has been the largescale immigration of Muslims to other places, especially Europe, North America, and Australia. Despite some tensions in the host countries, these immigrants are discovering basic Islamic values in settings where they have to be clearly defi ned over against what is merely cultural, and in the process they are exploring new ways to be Muslim. Many others are also meeting Muslims as neighbors and friends for the first time, rather than a people talked about in the news. But tensions remain high, especially in the wake of the Iraq War and acts of terrorism attributed to Islamic extremists.


The basic beliefs of Islam are expressed in a statement that all Muslims profess: “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger (Rasul).” Islam maintains that God is absolutely one, without a second, neither begetting nor begotten. Thus, it strongly rejects the Christian notion of the TRINITY. Islam also maintains an absolute distinction between the creator and creation. To confuse creation and creator is to commit the fundamental SIN of idolatry, that is, the association of other things with God (see IMAGES, ICONS, IDOLS IN RELIGION). Muslims believe that Christians commit this sin when they claim that Jesus was God incarnate (see INCARNATION). So do people who place any goal above following the will of God, such as the pursuit of wealth. Muslims believe that God has everywhere revealed himself to his creation in some form. They also believe that prophets in a line beginning with ADAM and including such fi figures as ABRAHAM, MOSES, and Jesus have disclosed special revelations from God. Muslims call the communities that follow these revelations “People of the Book.” But through the activity of Shaytan (more commonly known in North America as Satan), these revelations were misunderstood. With Muhammad, the line of God’s prophets comes to a climax, and God’s revelation to human beings is complete. This implies that the Qur’an is the complete and final manner in which God addresses human beings. And because God would not give his most sacred truth to just anyone, it also implies that Muhammad provides the model of how human beings should respond to God’s revelation and implement justice in the world. In addition, Muslims believe in Angels, one of whom, Shaytan or Iblis, rebelled against God. They also believe that there will be a fi final judgment at the end of time (see JUDGMENT OF THE DEAD and RESURRECTION) and that the faithful will enjoy an eternal existence in Paradise (see HEAVEN).


In discussing how Muslims practice their religion, it is customary to identify fi ve “pillars” of Islam. All Muslims practice these pillars, although they differ over details. The first pillar is profession of the faith (shahadah). A Muslim cannot truly submit oneself to God’s will without professing the divinity of God and the special place of the prophet Muhammad. The second pillar is obligatory PRAYER (SALAT). Muslims may pray at any time, but they are also enjoined to pray more formally five times a day. (Many Shi’ites incorporate these prayers into three daily prayers.) They face the town of Mecca (the compass direction varies depending on where in the world they happen to be), adopt several postures, and recite a series of prayers. Noon prayer on Fridays is, when possible, done as part of a congregation at a MOSQUE. There an imam also preaches a SERMON to the assembled congregation. The third pillar of Islam is almsgiving (zakat), for the Prophet urged his followers to care for the poor and the needy. In Islamic countries almsgiving has generally been administered by the government. Private charity is also widely practiced. The fourth pillar is fasting during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the month of RAMADAN (sawm). From sunup to sundown during that month Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and sexual activity. The fast recognizes signifi cant events in the early history of Islam, such as the first revelations to the prophet Muhammad.

It also teaches compassion for those for whom fasting must be a way of life. Those who are pregnant, sick, old, or traveling are not expected to fast. The month of fasting ends with a feast, the Id al-fi tr. The last pillar of Islam is PILGRIMAGE to Mecca (hajj) (see MECCA, PILGRIMAGE TO). This is a formal ritual that takes place during the fi nal month of the Islamic year. Ideally, all Muslims should make pilgrimage once in their lives, but they may not do so if they are too sick to travel, if their absence would mean hardship at home, or if they incur economic hardship to do so. On the tenth day of the month, Muslims throughout the entire world SACRIFICE a goat, sheep, or cow. Known as Id alAdha, this feast commemorates the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifi ce Ishmael (for Jews and Christians, ISAAC). The Islamic calendar is based on the cycles of the moon rather than on the solar year. As a result, over an extended period the Ramadan fast and pilgrimage to Mecca will have occurred in every season of the year. This also applies to Ashura, which Shi’ites observe on the tenth day of the first month, Muharram. It commemorates the death of Husayn, son of Ali and grandson of Muhammad, the third Shi’ite imam, who lost his life in battle at Karbala (in Iraq) in 680 C.E. The fi ve pillars do not appear as such in the Qur’an. They come from the Hadith. Some Muslims occasionally speak about six pillars, adding JIHAD to the fi ve above. Although jihad has come to be associated in North America with “holy war,” it technically refers to the struggle against temptation. This struggle can involve warfare if one is called on to defend the faith in response to military aggression.


Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims differ over how the community should be organized. For Sunnis, political and religious leadership may be exercised by different persons. Traditionally, caliphs and sultans oversaw matters of internal order and external defense. Today different officers, namely, presidents and prime ministers, fulfill these functions.

Religious authority resides with the ulema, scholars of Islam. For Shi’ites, political and religious leadership are ideally exercised by the same person, the male descendant of Muhammad known as the imam. A Shi’ite community known as the twelvers believes that the imam, last seen in 873 C.E., is exercising authority while in hiding. Their religious leaders, headed by the AYATOLLAHS (“refl ections of God”), are considerably more independent than their Sunni counterparts. Another Shi’ite community, known as the Nizari Ismailis, believe that the imam is still present in the world. Known as the AGA KHAN, he exercises authority over a worldwide community. Like some schools of Christianity, Islam has not traditionally recognized the ideals of separation of religion and government and of religious pluralism that have now become common in Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. Like other societies, contemporary Muslim societies are addressing the issues posed by the modern ideal of the secular state.


The most frequent images of Islam that readers in the United States are likely to encounter today connect it with FUNDAMENTALISM and terrorism (see FUNDAMENTALISM, ISLAMIC). It is important to keep these images in perspective. Europeans and North Americans have a tradition of “Demonizing” Muslims—of unfairly thinking of them as less than fully civilized or even fully human—that goes back all the way to the Middle Ages. In the late 20th century some Muslim communities, like some Christian and Hindu communities, became more religiously conservative. Examples include Islamic states such as Turkey, which for much of the 20th century had been adamantly secular, and immigrant Muslim communities, such as Muslims born to immigrant parents in Great Britain. Some Muslims, especially in the Middle East, have taken up arms against what they perceive as threats to their religion and freedom (see AL-QAEDA and HAMAS). Many non-Muslim groups have performed similar acts of violence, but their targets have not always been the United States. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. President George Bush rightly stated that these acts were not representative of Islam. It is sometimes hard for people to remember that. At the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, Muslims, like people of other religions, have been wrestling with the impact of globalization and technological change on their lives. In many respects Muslims have embraced these developments. Computers and the Internet provide good examples (see COMPUTERS AND RELIGION). Resources for learning about and practicing Islam are widely available on the Internet. Moreover, e-mail allows Muslims in Alberta, Canada, for example, to remain in much closer contact with people in areas where Islam is more prevalent. At the same time, contemporary changes present challenges. Many Christians in the United States worry about the morals their children encounter in movies and on television. Muslims do, too. Muslims are also particularly sensitive, as other previously colonized people are, to ideas and practices imposed on them from the outside. As a result they sometimes favour alternatives to ideals that Westerners cherish. For example, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights recognizes as a basic human right the right to proselytize (to try to convince other people of the truth of one’s own beliefs). This right is particularly important for traditions of CHRISTIANITY with strong missionary traditions. Many Muslims, however, prefer not to encounter people trying to convert them, especially when they are living in Muslim states. For that reason, the Islamic Declaration of Universal Human Rights does not recognize the right to proselytize. One movement that deserves more attention than it has received in North America is Islamic FEMINISM. Muslim feminists are sometimes puzzled by the issues that interest Westerners. For example, many Muslim feminists do no think issues of dress are that important. At times, some have even chosen to wear the veil, as Iranian feminists did before the 1979 Revolution. They wanted to show their solidarity with other Muslims. Muslim feminists have tended to focus more on other issues, such as education for girls and women, equal access to health care, adequate nutrition, and equal treatment before the law.


Since the time of the prophet Muhammad Islam has been one of the world’s major religions. At the beginning of the 21st century roughly one-fifth of the world’s population practiced it, including more than four and a half million North Americans. In addition, Islam has given the world rich cultural traditions, including art and architecture, literature, and philosophy.


  • Ahmed Ali, trans., Al-Qur’an: A Contemporary Translation, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988);
  • Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History (New York: Modern Library, 2002);
  • Lawrence Davidson, Islamic Fundamentalism (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998);
  • John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992);
  • John Esposito, ed., The Iranian Revolution (Miami: Florida International University Press, 1990);
  • John L. Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003);
  • Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002).


The Encyclopedia of World Religions – Revised Edition – written by DWJ BOOKS LLC.
General Editor: Robert S. Ellwood – Associate Editor: Gregory D. Alles – Copyright © 2007, 1998 by DWJ BOOKS LLC